Calgarians love the Stampede. Not all of us, of course. But those are the outliers; those who escape to the mountains; those who think all this denim kitsch is so low on the market that they scoff at the idea.
What other city, regardless of economic climate, offers such city spirit? Few of us are cowboys, many of us have spent careers riding a desk, but no one is excluded if they want to be part of the Stampede.
This Calgarian belongs to the most populous group: those who embrace the whole concept of playing cowboy dress up. The Stampede also represents the longest love story of my life, clocking in at 73 years to the day. The Calgary Stampede is also responsible for whatever optimism I hold onto, including the deep-seated idea that I’m still the luckiest person in the room.
It all comes back to today: Children’s Day at Stampede.
I’ve written about this before, more than once, and I’ll probably keep writing about that magical day until I can’t anymore. Why? Because the memory is so clear; because it made me believe in good luck; because it gave me the freedom to roam the streets of Calgary, and eventually the world, unencumbered by precautions.
Basically, this is what I’ve written and it’s all still true: On an extremely hot July day in 1949, the life of a four-year-old blonde girl changed forever. That little girl in the green plaid two-piece jumpsuit with her hair in thick curls had the winning ticket on a bright blue CCM bike at Calgary Stampede Kids’ Day.
Dad checked the ticket numbers, scooped me up in his arms, and carried me up the seemingly endless steps from the grandstand to the stage. Ald. Don Mackay, who would become Mayor of Calgary after the November 1949 vote, gave me what would be the only bicycle I would own.
I can still feel the heat of the stage burning my sandals, I still remember the feeling that I must be the luckiest kid in the world. That feeling has stayed with me all my life. Irrational, but so what?
Once I wrapped my chubby little hands around the handlebars, a wave of glee washed over me. It took the combined efforts of the adults on stage, including my father, to push my fat hands away so that the boy’s bike could be swapped for a girl’s, without the crossbar.
I remember the worry that gripped my greedy little heart: if I let the bike I just won be taken from me, I would never see it again. Finally the certainty prevailed that the replacement would soon be delivered, but tense days passed before the promised version appeared.
Two wheels set me free. All attempts to keep me on the driveway were defeated by the simple fact that the open road and rolling hills of Mount Royal beckoned me. By fall and my fifth birthday, I had mastered the art of two-wheeling and proper hand signals. I left, my mother’s warnings and threats if she left the front of the house falling on purposely deaf ears.
Looking now at the same hills and roads, I marvel that fear and anxiety were foreign concepts. I had a bicycle; Trip.
What child today would have such glorious freedom as a city where no one seemed to be afraid of the dark, no child worried about being kidnapped, talking to strangers, or, frankly, caring much about anything, offered years ago?
In the years that followed, Stampede figured prominently in my work life: sent by an editor to join a middle-of-the-road “girls” show in the years before feminism became fact; riding in the parade in the chuckwagon sponsored by the Calgary Herald; working in the Herald press office on the grounds; interviewing comedian Bob Hope, who had phoned the newspaper to ask why they hadn’t sent a reporter to write about him; Such cheek I thought at the time. All this is part of a life in this city.
There are many reasons for love and loyalty, but few can be attributed to a single incident in a child’s life. That Children’s Day is mine.
Those memories make Stampede an integral part of my heart, just like the four-year-old that still lives inside of me.
Catherine Ford is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald.