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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. You were never in Moorhead, MN., since everyone who has been there knows that it’s not spelled Morehead as you wrote in this article. There’s also no Madison Hotel. Never has been. Didn’t you think anyone in Moorhead world read this? Maybe do some basic research before making up a story again.

  2. @Mortimer: I lived in Fargo for almost 24 years and attended Moorhead State University (now Minnesota State University – Moorhead).

    I can confirm that there was a Madison hotel. It was near Safari cinema. And walking distance from the Speak Easy, which is infamous in Northwest Airlines history. I don’t believe the car wash was a Don’s.

    Fun fact: the Madison Hotel was where Hawkeye “hatched.”

    (You’re from Moorhead so you know all these references.)

  3. That’s hilarious, Gary. Every time I pass by a Home Depot, I’d like to buy an ‘s’ and make it say Home Despot. And then there are, of course, Halloween hijinx.

  4. Great story. That reminds me of one of my coworkers who used to work at Wendy’s. He told me how they used to change the marquis from Now Hiring Closers to Now Hiring Losers.

  5. The real mystery is the other missing person’s name, and I couldn’t resist the puzzle. It had to have the letters B,E,V, and S in it. Ring a bell?

  6. Using i site I found these are the possibilities.

  7. Loving these personal stories of bygone travel adventures. Please keep them coming. It’s clear you got your “happy feet” (as my gramps used to call wanderlust) at an early age.

  8. Gary was lucky…all I got was poor man’s Mogen David…lol


  9. I once changed one to say, “We sell cocaine.” Bonus points: my mom worked for the company (a different location though)

  10. Sometimes, you don’t even have to change the sign. Like when the steakhouse down by the municipal airport was part of the Black Angus chain, and had a separate light for each letter if its name. Of course, the g went out. Serve with a Cabernet Franc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.