That Night In Fargo When I Changed The Letters On The Sign In Front Of My Hotel

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!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Vandals weren’t just a people in Europe back then.

    I think it’s safe to assume the statute of limitations for any mischief misdemeanors has long passed in Minnesota (and elsewhere) for that debate championship. Pulling off that kind of stuff nowadays is probably a lot tougher with all those security cameras even out around the Fargo-Moorhead area, and people are less forgiving toward kids doing pranks nowadays than used to be the case in these areas. And given how little serious work the local prosecutors and police used to have around there back then, there was a chance of such kids being subject to prosecutorial discretion.

  2. I was about 12 years old, we pulled at a stop sign until it became loose, pulled it out of the ground and carried it away. Heading back into our neighborhood we didn’t know what to do with the stop sign so we just propped it up at a random intersection. Next day it was installed right where we left it, the town workers must have thought it fell over at that spot and “reinstalled” it. The random stop sign is still there over 40 years later.

  3. Judging by the TV series ‘Fargo’, it is a seriously weird place, with a high national murder count. Your hi-jinks seem positively enchanting by comparison!

  4. @ guWonder

    I think you meant North Dakota? Anyway here we call it ” Small Town Fun”. Love it.

  5. I grew up 2 hours from Moorhead, and you guys did just the kind of thing we loved to do … in spades! Can’t believe it didn’t make the local paper back then.

  6. I spent many a summer up around there as going around the Bemidji area was a routine place for the family in the summer, and plenty of local kids would spend their time planning pranks and then doing a few of them. This was back when I used to even run into the still Norwegian-speaking grandparent types around Grand Forks and Fargo-Moorhead.

  7. Come back and visit someday. Fargo is a very different place now. Borderline cosmopolitan. And the flights are a lot cheaper than they once were. There’s even a small domestic first cabin on most regionals flying here.

  8. Post-mer,

    You mean all those Thai restaurants that weren’t around when he was in Fargo-Moorhead as a teenager?

    It’s been interesting with the spread of Mexican and Asian restaurants in places where international cuisine diversity really wasn’t a thing 30 years ago.

  9. We have relatives in Three Lakes, Wisconsin whom we visited during the summer over many years. A “Hodag” is a mythical Scandinavian dragon that is popular in Wisconsin’s north woods as a mascot. The Dairly Queen on Highway 45 through town had a large sign out front with changeable letters. One time it read “Special: Hot Dog Snack” We rearranged the letters to read “Special: Hodag Snot!” and turned over the unused letters. The sign was up for two whole days before anyone at Dairy Queen noticed and fixed it.

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