When I was eight I was first introduced to team effectiveness. Our parish, Corpus Christi, in the New York suburb of Port Chester, held the feast of St. Anthony every summer which had a carnival every night. Music, games of chance, rides, even a spaghetti eating contest, were all part of the action. But one event stood out to a me then – the Grease Pole.
Probably the easiest and cheapest activity to present for the poor Italian community, the Grease Pole consisted of a telephone pole erected in the middle of the carnival. At its apex hung the prizes: a loaf of bread, bottle of chianti, a salami and a $20 bill (this was 1960, remember, adjusted for inflation that twenty would be worth $160 today!) Oh, yeah, and the pole was slathered with axle grease – an inch or two thick.
I’ve come to learn that feasts like this, with Grease Poles included, were quite common in the Italian immigrant communities throughout the east and mid-west. In fact, I found evidence of a greasy pole in Lazzaro, Calabria, not far from Reggio, the home of my grandfather and many Port Chester immigrants.
And as for historical reference, after Queen Victoria made him Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, alluding to his hard task of the social climb, said, “”I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.” It must have been a thing back then.
So there it stood, out in the ball field of Corpus Christi, for all to see and to gloat over all weekend. And the young bucks would all connive among their friends on how to win its treasure. Individuals and teams signed up and on the final night, the contest took place with the whole town in attendance. One after another, young men and teens started up only to slide right back down – greased to the gills. It became almost comical, like the coyote in “The Roadrunner”, each fella gave a rather forlorn look to the crowd as they slid slowly down. Failure almost became the entire night’s entertainment. That was until the Washington Park “kids from the corner” made their attempt.
These were a local band of nondescript teens that held court near the corner deli, just across from our family bakery. They weren’t bad kids, “just misguided,” my dad would say. However this one day they seemed to summon some higher guidance as they took to the center court when their turn came. After they huddled, the biggest took his place at the bottom of pole and, one by one they climbed upon each other’s backs, until the smallest of the bunch, Pee Wee, monkeyed all the way up. But wait, he was just short by about two feet. Then in a moment of pure theater, he looked back at the hushed crowd, with a certain cocksureness, and reached into his greased up dungarees. He pulled out – hand full of sand! After throwing several full hands of sand onto the pole, he easily made it to the top and retrieved the goods to a huge roar from the crowd.
When they all gathered at the infield after Pee Wee was down, they split the money and the produce. Even the chianti was opened but Father Rinaldi swooped down to take care of that indiscretion.
The take away? One eight year old saw failure after failure of individuals until a crew of savvy, wily teenagers figured out that they could accomplish it if they all worked together. Just look at what they exhibited (deliverables that my events are designed to produce, I might add):
Problem-solving – It all starts here and before they did anything, they saw that it was doable. I am sure that while they watched the failures of the individuals, someone must have said they could do it as one, and split the winnings.
Strategy – Putting all their heads together, they came up with a plan. There couldn’t have been any ego clash with such a slick production.
Communication – The seven of them were in constant contact, with little Pee Wee, the last and with the global view, barked status and commands.
Time Management – They had only five minutes, as memory serves, but what ever it was, they were on the clock and pressure mounted.
We can give you the same results, only with a lot less axle grease on your clothes.
Oh, and the 2009 St. Rocco’s winners pulled it off in much the same way.
Gloucester has its own version, more of a drinking day that has a “greasy” pole inserted into it. What ever floats your boat. Or drops you into one.