For the first time in many years, my Better Half and one of the Rotten Kids stampeded down to the Calgary Stampede last week with tickets for both the rodeo and the grandstand show.
This turned out to be an awfully ambitious plan seeing that it was the final day of the Cowtown Fair — and that meant it was a very long day of Stampeding indeed.
The final day means that final finalists finally compete for the finals along with the other finalists in many cowboy and cowgirl categories, and that people who like to talk — people like beloved Red Deerian Ron McLean — were given microphones and a lengthy ceremony was held after each event so that the final finalist winners could be escorted on stage and given their trophies and $100,000 cheques and be interviewed and be photographed and be applauded, etc.
So the rodeo turned out to be about a day and a half long, sitting there in the grandstand seats on a very hot day, scarfing down all kinds of food definitely not recommended by any known healthy eating guides, including The Overweight Hungry Man’s Guide to Junkfood.
So, obviously, it was a great time.
Then after I staggered out of the four-hour rodeo with stiff limbs, a salad deficiency and an irresistible urge to take a nap somewhere, two of the No. 1 ladies in my life, wife and daughter, led me bravely into the seething throngs of Stampede crowds on the midway.
There, we were swept up in a sea of humanity, bumping into and bouncing off of strangers in cowboy hats, most of which had both hands full of more messy concoctions of sugar, deep-fried carbs and other unidentified seriously non-nutritional snack material.
I stumbled and staggered until my feet had blisters and I had severe chaffing in many unpleasant places. Even my two girls, who are trained veterans of endless manoeuvering through crowds and spending money by many, many years of being in the trenches of mall shopping, began to get a little shell-shocked and were beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress sensory overload by the time the grandstand opened for the evening show.
With glazed glassy eyes, ambulating unsteadily like dazed robots, we managed to find our seats wa-a-ay over at the side and wa-ay up somewhere near the cirrus cumulus cloud formations.
Still we were glad to be seated anywhere with a roof and a breeze and 20,000 other sensory overloaded robot stampeders. And of course, there were many young energetic cowboy-hatted hawkers with more fair food, and less-than-fair food, bringing trays of over-priced, completely irresistible comestibles.
As it dawned on me that we would be in these seats for another three or four hours of chuckwagons and the grandstand show, my mind wandered away, as it often does, especially when it’s all jacked up on funnel cake and corn dogs.
Suddenly, I was back at the Red Deer Fair, when it was held down at the old Arena grounds beside our house in Parkvale, and I was sneaking in, way around on the south side by Waskasoo Creek, over behind the rows of old barns where all the exhibition livestock were kept.
There was a place you could get under the fence if you were little guys and your friends were with you to act as lookouts for each other. We only got caught a couple of times over the years, which meant we had to go all the way around to the entrance and pay, and that meant one or two less rides and fewer tries at the diggers.
Ah, the diggers. For a nickel you would turn a crank and “control” a little crane inside a glass case so that its jaws would come down and occasionally pick up a cheap toy, or the best prize of all: a stack of five nickels wrapped in a slippery bundle of coloured cellophane. It was a rare and excellent day at the fair when you snagged one of those babies, let me tell you.
I thought about how we’d make our way under the fence and through wonderfully stinky barns and past the Creative Arts Building (which, along with the Arena is still there) and up to the massive wooden edifice called the Grandstand.
It truly was a grand building that seemed to be about 1,000 feet high and three blocks long. The huge white stadium loomed over a big stage area and a full-blown dirt track oval where not only chuckwagon races rolled, but stock car races and stunt driving like head-on crashes and cars flying up ramps and all kinds of similar mayhem took place.
“I miss our old Grandstand,” I was thinking as the chucks rocked and rolled around the big Calgary track. In fact I may have said it out loud.
Truth be told, I miss the old gravel Fair Grounds with the rows of rides and games of “chance,” and food booths and even the sideshows that were strange and creepy enough that we were drawn there like magnets, standing in front mesmerized.
Listening to the pitchman bark his spiel, knowing that we were always just a little too young to be allowed inside.
Kaboom! The incredible fireworks finale at the Stampede brought me jolting back to the present tense, and I vaguely remembered a show featuring jaw-dropping technology and talent and a completely incomprehensible, over-blown Cirque de Soleil type story line. It was almost midnight. We had been on the grounds since noon.
As we thronged out of the grandstand stumbling along with the rest of the throngees, you would think I wouldn’t want to go through another marathon of intense fair-going for at least a decade or so.
I thought so too, until Westerner Days started up here three days later.
Although my friends aren’t with me crawling under the fence at the barns anymore, and there isn’t a great big old wooden Grandstand anymore, it’s still the “Red Deer Fair” to me, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
And maybe now an awful lot of the magic of the fair doesn’t seem so magic anymore, but for a little while, I’m back in Parkvale again, at the Red Deer Fair, heading for the diggers and some cotton candy. And the grandstand show is about to start any minute now.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.