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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

My first experience with the Canadian National Exhibition was on Sept. 6, 1954. My mother entered me in the baby contest. Pudgy of leg and chubby of cheek, I would bring home the blue ribbon for family bragging rights and justify what she had gone through to push out all nine pounds six ounces of me.

I must have somehow felt the impending pressure because I broke out in a rash. In telling the story to me many years later, my mother said the judges took one look at me and moved quickly by. Performance anxiety – and I wasn’t even a year old.

So began my long history with the CNE, a large fair held in Toronto the last couple of weeks of summer holidays before Labour Day. I haven’t missed a year since.

On the last day of elementary school, all students were given a free pass for the CNE. We also had a family connection that got us free admission on Warriors Day, a day where veterans got in free. So, I was always guaranteed at least two visits, and my mom and aunt would haul us around a couple more times.

To keep costs down, we mostly brought our own food and picnicked on the grass. On rare occasions, as a special treat, we’d get a hot dog or a drink from the Food Building. For weeks leading up to the Ex, we’d clip the daily coupon, called a Tely Fun Cheque, from the Toronto Telegram to get discounts on the rides.

Even with my aunt helping my mother corral us three kids, we still managed to lose my younger brother two and a half times. Twice we picked him up at the children’s lost and found, and the half time a burly cop found him and then found us shortly after. These episodes didn’t seem to faze my mother, although I have to believe they must have.

My dad never went with us – he was always working. For a few years, he timed his holidays so that he could work as a cook at Stoodleigh’s restaurant in the Automotive Building and make some extra money. We would stop in to see him. He’d come out on his break in his cook’s whites and have a smoke on the mezzanine with us. Now, I realize that some years, between his regular job and working at the Ex, he didn’t get a holiday at all. Work/life balance hadn’t been invented yet.

My aunt and uncle would visit the Ex six, seven, eight or more times during the fair. They were siblings, both single, and lived together. My aunt would play bingo by the hour and win most of our Christmas gifts – toy trucks that were so cheap they’d be broken by the end of Christmas Day. The bingo hall was our home base. If we got separated, we could always find my aunt there.

By around twelve, I was deemed old enough to go with friends. I had a paper route which meant disposable income to pay for my own rides and food. I also tried doing a few jobs at the Ex. One night, I sold soft drinks in the grandstand and hated it. In 1968, I sold the Toronto Telegram and was assigned what I thought would be a prime location: one of the ramps going into the Food Building. It turned out to be a terrible spot because people were laser focused on getting their food. I lasted three days at that, and my earnings barely covered my bus fare.

Through my teens, I went with groups of friends or the girlfriend du jour. The smells of burgers and onions, the screams of people enjoying the rides and the hordes of people were intoxicating.

One of those girlfriends became my wife. We kept going at least once per year. We’d meet up with my aunt or my mother at bingo and play a few games ourselves.

When we had kids, it was only natural that a visit or two or three was a part of our summer. My mom and aunt and uncle loved seeing the kids on the children’s rides. As the oldsters got older, we would rent a wheelchair for them.

As our kids grew, our daughter worked a couple of years at a doughnut booth in the Food Building. My son and his wife, both musicians, have a recurring gig playing soft rock in one of the beer gardens. Everyone in my family, including my kids, always take the time to play a memorial game of bingo.

The Ex is different now than it was then. It used to be the place to go see the latest in cars, or appliances and lifestyle, or to go on the best rides. Now there are auto shows and home shows elsewhere. Theme parks have permanent, high-tech rides providing thrills that the Ex has trouble competing with. But for the foreseeable future, I’ll keep enjoying watching our new grandchild going on her first rides and her parents performing on stage.

I’ll keep my streak alive.

Brad Furlott lives in Toronto.

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