The national finals of high school debate my senior year were held in Fargo, North Dakota. If you can imagine high schools all around the country descending on North Dakota State University – all on the same day – you might think that getting airline seats at a decent price would be challenging. And you’d be right. My school waited too long to buy tickets, and we wound up flying into Grand Forks, North Dakota and driving 100 miles.
Now if you wanted to fly from pretty much anywhere to Grand Forks, North Dakota back then it was going to be on Northwest Airlines. Northwest executives used to say about the whole Upper Midwest “it’s cold, dark, and no one wants to go there but it’s all ours!”
This was 30 years ago. The Soviet Union had just fallen, Boris Yeltsin had just stood atop a tank. And here we were, breathing a sigh of relief, talking about how we’d otherwise be a primary nuclear target because there were probably nothing besides missile silos on either side of the freeway.
We weren’t actually staying in Fargo, but across the river in Moorhead, Minnesota at the Madison Hotel. That may seem backwater, and it did to a bunch of cocky high school kids, until we checked in and saw that J.J. Walker was performing in the lounge.
Now I just told my ‘drinking a beer in Tijuana’ as a 16 year old story. That was the first time I’d had any alcohol, that I can recall, besides the occasional glass of Manischewitz on holidays. I was a pretty straight-laced kid in high school, and I was in Fargo with the debate team.
So one night during the tournament we were up in someone’s room around 2 a.m., with an Andrew Dice Clay comedy special on, and someone gets the bright idea that we should replace the letters on the billboard out in front of the hotel. It was tall and could be seen for miles down the freeway. So we went out to see what it said, went back inside, and got out a legal pad to start sketching out things we could say with the letters.
There was a double wedding at the hotel, ‘congratulations Kim and Don, Barry and whomever’ I don’t actually remember the bridal parties anymore. But after about 10 minutes we had our master stroke, or at least what seemed like genius to a bunch of 17 year olds away from home, out of state, and full of themselves for being at ‘the national finals’.
We went back downstairs, stood on each others’ shoulders, and changed the sign to read ‘bend over and kiss my hairy bum.’
But we were only getting started. We noticed that across the street was a car wash and they too had a sign and it was at ground level. Much easier! So back to the yellow legal pad, we changed the sign to read “free donuts and coffee.”
Our job was done for the evening and we called it a night, since we’d have to be up by 7 a.m. The first thing we noticed when we got up? A long lineup of cars waiting for that car wash to open.
On the way out we asked what was going on, everyone in line was waiting for their free donuts and coffee!