I was perhaps ten the first time my father took me to the rodeo in Morris, Manitoba. Before I got my invite he’d been crossing the border each July for a couple decades. I had preconceived notions of the place based off a photo of my father and his friends partying there. The picture depicts a mass of tan men camping in a dead ditch. My father is shirtless and sporting enough beard to top the heads of a few balding men. There’s also fifty or sixty beers floating in ditch water. I knew my dad stopped drinking but still this formed my first impression of the Morris rodeo — a party pad for North Dakota farmers who weren’t into shaving or bathing.
My first morning of departure we packed our tent, grill, clothes, and food into the back of a pickup. My dad probably wore his standard summer outfit: straw hat, cutoff jeans, and a plain white t-shirt. He’s a farmer and has been comically consistent in his attire over the decades, except now he does the old man thing of exposing his chest hair whenever possible.
His friend Clinton came with on that first trip to Morris. Clinton was a guy my father met in AA. He thought it’d do him some good to journey up north with us. I sat bored in the back of the pickup as they discussed the merits of flax and canola. Mercifully, we arrived at the Canadian border about an hour post departure.
“Son, ya excited for Canada, eh?” my dad joked as we pulled up to the border terminal. He always throws on a few “ehs” to the ends of his sentences when we’re up north. It’s part of the fun.
He told the border agent he was taking his son to his first rodeo. It was my first but this was tradition for my dad. Even though most of his friends no longer went the weekend was to be my initiation. The agent asked us the usual questions: are you bringing any alcohol, tobacco, or pernicious items such as fresh fruits and vegetables. After we passed the No Deadly Vegetable test, and were given the okay to head on through, my father told me he had a couple cigars but that it’d be our little secret. The agent didn’t need to know, nor did my mother.
My dad is not a smoker but there were times we’d be fishing off his pontoon on the Red River and he’d light a stogie. “Our little secret.” His refrain. Nowadays the only cigar boxes he keeps are full of wheat pennies or memorabilia from his travels around the states. Still, I loved watching him handle the things. He’d lick the cigar up and down, sometimes chewing it to a nub without ever striking a match. I envied the ritual. Though I’ve never smoked I still encounter delight from sitting in the haze of a lit cigar.
Every year after crossing we stop at the travel center to exchange our money and pick up brochures for events we’ll never attend like the garlic festival. My dad combs his hair in that bathroom after washing his hands. He often carries a comb in his back pocket and will scrape it over his curls before stepping into a restaurant or church.
When we got to Morris we found the Catholic church and set up tents in Jerry’s backyard. Jerry is an older dude who lives in a triangle house. He helps run the Morris Stampede or The Big M as my dad calls it in his booming announcer voice. The two met years before when my dad and his friends were camping out in that party ditch. Jerry was embarrassed that these young American drunkards were staying in such a muck hole so he invited them to camp his backyard. They never set up in the ditch again.
I might’ve met Jerry that first morning or maybe it was on the last day. He was a raspy voiced man, a solid decade older than my father. He never wore a shirt and always kept his cigarettes and booze nearby. White bandaging wrapped his hairy chest because he’d broken some ribs falling off his deck trying to save a bottle of wine from spilling.
After unloading, unpacking, and setting-up everything we went to the fairground which was just a ditch walk away from Jerry’s. We hopped the temporary orange plastic fence meant to keep drunks out of peoples’ yards and paid our admission. I was finally here. The Big M.
I remember the fairground as a backdrop to my sense of adventure and excitement. I can picture the Octopus ride which was a spinning contraption that shot you around on thirty foot mechanical tentacles, inking you in hydraulic grease. My hat blew off on Mr. Octopus but a carny caught it below. To ten year old me the fairground seemed immense and vast, a hot urban jungle meant for exploring and getting dirty.
We walked the dusty grounds and did a few more rides like the Ferris wheel. We shot up high and were able to scope the fair from its outer extremities to just below us. It gave me the ability to properly absorb all the action. From this vantage I could see that the fair wasn’t actually a neverending expanse. Instead I saw spilled popcorn and carnies dotting the corner of a small Canadian city for just a weekend. We went down and rose again. From the apex I looked on at the grandstands which held the actual rodeo. The stadium itself is a large set of wooden bleachers that rise high and face a dirt track. Horses and people streamed in and out through its gates.
Looking back down at the fair we saw a girl get off some other spinny ride and my dad told me to watch. Seconds later she was on her knees, puking into the dust beside a line of people waiting to twirl on the ride she’d just taken. I scanned the landscape more. From what I could gather the rest of the fairground was livestock, gut bomb stands, and wooden piss shacks.
We explored the grounds. Went through the animal barn that smelled like straw and feces. It had animals you could pet but I touched none. The bathrooms for humans had ten foot troughs that were meant to be urinals but looked like something you’d stack hog food in. There were plenty of hogs roaming with cotton candy and deep fried everything. It was all exciting but standard. And then I found The Pea Game.
The Pea Game was a little gambling kiosk made of lumber and rubber set up in the middle of the fairground, like a vitamin booth at the mall. Shitty yet beckoning. In the game everyone laid down the same bet, usually a buck or two. You received a number that came on a little ball called a pea. The dealer got one too. He spun a numbered wheel and if it landed on your number ya won the loot. If no one had what the dial landed on he’d count up until someone had the pea that’d win the pot. After twenty minutes of play neither my dad nor Clinton had won a round. Dad told me that if I wanted he’d put in some of my money for me. I gave him back one of the loonies he’d gifted at the border. I won.
I became a hooked-on-gambling motherfucker. The dealer found it funny that my dad won zip but his little son stepped in and cleaned up on the first swing. I think I won $8 that round. Even though it was illegal for me to play, the dealer let me stand at the table, place a bet, and hold the pea so long as my dad was playing too. In retrospect the dealer was probably a sleaze but he did me right. I played two more times, again after watching my dad and Clinton lose many rounds. I won both of those hands too.
That night we went to the pony chuckwagon races and made bets. Before each race started we’d pick a team. As long as that team beat the other person’s, whether they’d cheated in the heat or not, you won the money. It didn’t matter if the two teams we picked were competing for last and second to last. My dad of course supplied my betting money so it was only a matter of how much in the hole he was going to go. I stood to cheer each time my wagon won and I’d pocket another Canadian quarter, loonie, or toonie.
After the races we went to the top of the grandstand where I again had a god’s view of the grounds. Through the protective mesh you could no longer see the town. Instead there were crazy blinking fair rides whizzing ’round, thousands of people murmuring and milling through the dirt, a country western cover band playing in front of the packed beer garden, a line at the Pierogi Kitchen. This wasn’t standard. It was a world distinctly apart from rural North Dakota. I loved it. There was a feeling of fascination in encountering something so foreign from my life experience thus far.
Taking all this in, I knew why Dad loved coming here. He was always so busy farming. I never felt I saw him enough. He’d leave at seven in the morning and come back at ten to a sleeping house after a day of isolated work. Sometimes that’d make us kids upset. Our mom would drive us to the field to drop off his lunch, to hang with him as he ate spaghetti from a thermos and drank coffee. He’d take me for a pass in the tractor, let me push levers that sunk a plow into the ground. But here in Morris, for once, I had him all to myself.
That night after the stampede, and then again the next morning, I continued playing The Pea Game. The dealer used me as a gimmick to lure people in. He goaded them by saying “can you beat the kid with the hot hand?” All in all what I won came out to be approximately $50 American once it was exchanged back home. This was like pirate treasure Fuck You money to me. At the time my only source of income was helping my dad out around the farm or scraping rotten soybeans off the walls of hot grain bins. I’d made a half summer’s wage in one day. The Pea Game was there the next year but then I never saw it at Morris again. Maybe the dealer let one too many ten year olds gamble away his father’s bankroll.
This had been Clinton’s first time at The Big M too. I didn’t see much of him after that weekend and he eventually moved to Iowa to help take care of his mother and fix computers. I can only vaguely recall his presence. I remember my dad smoking a cigar and Clinton chewing tobacco as we sat on logs grilling burgers in Jerry’s backyard. It was gross to watch a man spit that brown venom. But Clinton was a nice guy without any kids of his own. He bought me garbage food like cotton candy and kielbasa. For that I am forever thankful.
Whenever I think of The Big M I tie it to my father. I’ve been to the stampede many times now. Other people like my mother and little sister have come along too. But I don’t specifically remember which times those were and the memories more or less blur together. What is distinct is thinking of Morris as a time for my dad and I to spend a weekend away together. We reaffirm our father son love and rapport no matter how much I change and get older.
Over the years the way we experience Morris has changed. We only go up for one day and don’t stay overnight. I don’t spend as much time with just Dad, taking the opportunities of age to explore on my own. But still we bet on pony chucks and walk around together, hoping to come across a Pea Game revival. I haven’t been there in years but am hoping to one day make a return to The Big M with my dad. Even if it’s a decade from now I think we’ll still value those times in the same way we always have. Our way. Just father and son.