I was ten the first time my father ushered me to the rodeo in Morris, Manitoba. Before my invite he crossed the border each July as a young man for years, those trips more sporadic once he became a dad. I had preconceived notions of the place based off a photo of my father and friends. It depicted a mass of men camped in a wet ditch at the edge of a small Canadian city. Dad shirtless and sporting an unkempt beard. Dozens of dead beers floating in ditch water. I knew Dad stopped drinking but still this formed my initial impression of the rodeo — a party pad for North Dakota farmers opposed to shaving and bathing. A place to let go of life for a weekend.
The morning of our departure we packed supplies into the box of my dad’s new pickup. He surely wore his standard summer outfit: beat straw hat, bleached cutoffs, and a plain white tee. His friend C came with on that first trip. I sat bored in the back of the pickup as they discussed the colorful fields of flax and canola, the golden seas of grain. Mercifully, we arrived at the country’s border an hour after stepping out our door.
“Son, ya excited for Canada, eh?” my dad joked as we rolled up to the terminal.
He told the border agent he was taking his son to his first rodeo. This man lobbed 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 my father told me he had a couple cigars but it’d be our secret. Neither the agent nor my mother needed to know.
We passed through open prairie, flat land punctuated by grey elevator skyscrapers. The crops that filled them. Then before long we spotted the outskirts of Morris, the location of the rodeo. There we found the Catholic church then set up tents in J’s backyard.
J’s a man who helped run the Morris Stampede or The Big M as my dad called it in a booming announcer voice every chance he got. The two met years before when Dad and his friends camped out in that wet party ditch. J felt embarrassed that these young Americans inhabited such a muck hole so invited them to make camp in his backyard. They never set up in the ditch again.
When I met J he wore no shirt. Kept cigs and booze nearby. White bandaging wrapped his hairy chest as he’d broken ribs falling off his deck trying to save a bottle of wine. At times he came by our tent to check in as we grilled sausage and Dad smoked cigars. I felt entertained by his stories. Happy that he let us inhabit a nook in his backyard. Connected my dad’s past and present.
After unloading, unpacking, and setting-up we traipsed to the fairground, a ditch walk away from J’s. We hopped the orange plastic fence meant to keep drunks out of residents’ yards then paid our admission in Canadian currency. I was finally here. The fabled Big M.
Dad and I split from C to walk the dusty grounds. To ten year old me the fairground felt endless, a jungle of junk food and noise, of stockyard stink cut with fresh cotton candy. Each element blended then worked to wow me. We bought tickets for the Ferris Wheel to take it all in.
We rolled up high then scoped the fair to its outer reach. From this vantage I took note that it wasn’t a never-ending world of lights and games and joy. Despite this distinct edge it still felt limitless. We dipped down and rose again. From this apex I looked to the back of a wooden grandstand that held the rodeo. This structure a set of permanent bleachers that rose high to face a dirt track. Stock and people streamed through its gates. I couldn’t wait to pass through too.
We explored other spots on foot. Went through the petting barn that smelled of straw and feces. Through bathrooms with ten foot tin troughs bolted to boards like hog feeders. We ate pierogis and kielbasa with cabbage, caught horse shows in an open arena. It was all exciting and new. And then it entered another level once I came across The Pea Game.
The Pea Game was a gambling kiosk composed of bright paint and lumber erected on a dusty lane of fairground. In the game all laid down the same bet, a loonie or newly minted toonie. You received a number on a wooden ball called a pea that poured from a leather-clad jug. The dealer got one too. He spun a numbered wheel and if it landed on yours ya won the loot. If none held the winner he counted up ’til someone possessed the pea that scooped the pot.
After twenty minutes of play neither Dad nor C won a round. Dad said that if I wanted he’d stick in a bet on my behalf. I handed him one of the loonies he’d gifted at the border. The wheel spun and my pea won. I was hooked. The dealer, a carny through and through, found it funny that my dad won zip but his kid stepped in and cleaned up on the first swing. I bet two more times, again after watching my dad and C lose multiple rounds. I hit on those hands too.
That night we attended the pony chuck race at the grandstand and made bets. Teams of four pulled a man in a miniature wagon around a dirt track. Before each race all picked a team. As long as your guy beat the other’s, whether they cheated in the heat or not, you nabbed the pot. It didn’t matter if they competed for last and second to last. Dad supplied my chips so it was only a matter of how deep in the hole he’d go. The crowd of thousands roared with each announcer’s calls, as teams entered the final turn then punched the jets by beating their reins. I stood to cheer each time my wagon won. Each time my stack of coins grew taller.
After the race we stepped to the top of the grandstand where I again had an expansive view of the grounds. Blinking rides colored sky. Thousands murmured and milled in dirt. A country western cover band played in front of the packed beer garden. A line of hungry customers sat at the Pierogi Kitchen. It was a world apart from rural North Dakota. Still on the prairie but so fresh and alive.
In taking it all in I knew why Dad loved coming up for this weekend getaway. He was always so busy farming. Had been for decades. I never felt I saw him enough. He’d leave at dawn then return past dusk. My mom drove us kids to the field to drop off lunch, to hang as he inhaled hot spaghetti from a thermos. He’d take me for a pass in the tractor, let me push levers that sunk a plow into ground. But here in Morris, for once, I had him all to myself for the purpose of fun.
That night after the races, and then again the next morning, I continued playing The Pea Game. The dealer used me as a gimmick to lure in suckers. He goaded them by saying “Can you beat the kid with the hot hand?” I lost a few but hit on most. All in all it came out to around $50 USD.
My only source of income was helping Dad with menial tasks on the farm. Handling tools. Moving equipment from one field to the next. Scraping rotten soybeans off the walls of hot grain bins. In Canada I made a half summer’s wage in a day. When we finished out our weekend and got back to America I showed off my bankroll every chance I had. I couldn’t wait to return to Canada with Dad. To score more of his money. The Pea Game was there the next year but then never again.
Whenever I think of The Big M I tie it to my father. I’ve been to the stampede many times now. Others, like my mom and little sis, have tagged along too. But those years blur together. What stays distinct is thinking of Morris as a time for Dad and I to spend a weekend away. To reaffirm our love and rapport no matter how much I grow and get older.
I’m no longer that little kid atop the world after snagging some coins at The Pea Game. Still, I’m forever my father’s son, one imprinted with memories afforded by him. Despite any change or new characters who come with we still value those times in the same way as always. Our way. Father and son.
Thanks for reading! Ways to support my work can be found here: Support my Writing!