Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

From the 50s and 60s to today . . .



Monday, August 30, 2010

Topper

My Dad and . . . not Topper

Topper.
My eldest brother’s horse.
The ultimate in challenges.
My world was small. I admit it.
By the age of seven, I had moved through the ‘pony’ stage was ready for something a bit . . . bigger. Certainly more challenging.
My brother’s sorrel gelding was the answer.
If I could ride him, I would have achieved my greatest goal. By so doing, I would enter the world of the adults. I would finally be considered a grown-up.
Or so I thought.
We were selecting our mounts for yet another round-up. This one to include branding and all of the fun and highjinks that went with that.
My brother, Jerry, stepped into the corral ahead of me. He lifted the halter he held. He approached . . . Ranger.
Ranger?
My day had come.
Before anyone could think of stopping me, I moved to Topper’s side and slid my halter over his alert head. So far, so good.
Grooming and saddling took next to no time. A good thing as I was in a fever of impatience.
And then I was aboard.
Wow!
The ground was so far away!
This horse was a giant!
Okay, he would have had to stand on tip hooves to reach 14 hands, but I had been riding a Shetland pony. My measuring stick was slightly skewed.
Moving on . . .
And we were off.
All went well to that point. In fact, all continued to go well as we received our assignments and separated to begin collecting the herds. I was given one of the smaller fields. A measly little quarter section.
No problem.
Topper and I started off with a will. I was amazed at how much more quickly he moved than my little Pinto.
I have to admit here that Pinto had one speed.
Slow.
Actually two speeds. Slow and stopped.
This was living!
And then that sun.
In Southern Alberta, at least the corner where I was raised, the early summer days are . . . hot. There are no trees. The sun beats down on the hard-packed earth, turning it into a heat reflector of gigantic proportions. In no time, the heat waves are distorting every horizon you face.
And the favourite little blue jean jacket so necessary when you first hit the barnyard is suddenly superfluous. And distinctly uncomfortable.
And really needing to be removed.
With slow, staid Pinto, a simple task. No sooner thought of, then accomplished. He wouldn’t even have noticed.
With Topper, another story entirely.
I undid the buttons.
His ears flicked back. I’m almost sure his eyes narrowed. “What are you doing up there, Human?”
I slid one arm half-way out of the sleeve.
A jump. A little kick. “Whatever it is, I don’t like it!”
I stopped moving.
He settled.
I moved, he jumped.
This went on for some time.
Then that . . . inconvenient impatience. The same that usually got me into trouble.
Today was no different.
I finally decided to show him who was boss and shed my coat entirely.
He decided to show me who was boss and shed me.
Entirely.
He began to buck.
I’m not sure whether I bailed off, or he planted me.
It matters little because the results were the same.
My face took the brunt of the landing.
When I came to my senses a short time later, I struggled to my feet and discovered that Topper was actually waiting for me a little distance away.
I approached him slowly. The only speed I could muster.
He watched me, warily.
I drew closer.
He tensed.
Closer still.
He let fly.
With both back hoofs.
I really don’t know how I managed to survive life on the ranch.
I must have a particularly hard head.
The next thing I remember is one of our hired men, Bud.
He had followed the trail of my belongings until he finally discovered me, lying in a very small heap.
He plucked me from the prairie floor, like flotsam off a beach.
I noticed, with some degree of satisfaction, that he had already rescued my beloved jacket.
Reunited.
I must have smiled.
In your face, Topper!
He set me on the saddle in front of him and I looked down at the horse he was riding.
Eagle.
The delicious appaloosa.
The ultimate challenge.
Once I got my head back.




Jerry

Jerry. My Hero

I have two elder brothers, Jerry and George. The boys the entire world looked up to. The pinnacle that one can achieve. In teasing. The banes of my existence when I was four.

This story is about Jerry. George gets his own.

* * *

Jerry is my oldest brother. The one, chosen by the rest of us, most likely to be just like Dad. In my earliest memories of him, he is working. Hoeing the garden, mending fence, riding, milking cows. Always busy. Always cheerful.

Always teasing.

He could put just the right inflection on the most innocent of phrases and it was enough to send his middle sister into paroxysms of anger. His favourite? “Oh, Diane!” Pronounced more like, “Oh, Di-Ane!” With the buffer of many years, it doesn’t seem so bad. Rather cute, really. But at the time, it was enough to set me off like a miniature Mount Vesuvius.

Okay, so that particular volcano runs in our family. You should have seen George when Jerry used his favourite phrase on him! ‘Pimple pants’.

Pimple pants?

Now where would that have come from? And, more importantly, how does one get . . . never mind.

But the old phrase, “If we hated you, we’d ignore you,” certainly applied to Jerry. He must have truly loved us. He’d take us everywhere. Riding. Sledding. Swimming. Exploring. You’d just have to be prepared to put up with the teasing.

* * *

Jerry was the most amazing swimmer. He was the only one of us kids who could make headway against the current of the river. The rest of us were pretty proud when we could hold our own. That wasn’t good enough for Jerry. He would dive in and battle the current. And win. Races against him were moot. How could you even contemplate winning against the only ‘current defeater’ in the family?

The one good thing about the constant competition, however, was that when we were given swimming lessons, we could out swim all of the other kids. We weren’t weak swimmers.

Just weak against Jerry.

* * *

Dad had purchased a small ranch in the Coaldale area. Over an hour from the Milk River spread. A logistical nightmare for one man to run. But an adventure if said man put his four eldest kids on one of the ranches for the summer.

Which he did.

Soon after we took possession, however, we discovered an entirely unexpected crop which our new ranch produced in abundance. Rattlesnakes. Big ones.

Jerry and George were hauling in the hay. Jerry on top of the stack . . . ummm . . . stacking. George tossing bales up to him. Jerry sat down on a bale, waiting for George to bring in the next stook. Just as his butt touched the bale, he heard the unmistakable sound of a rattler. A ‘tell-tail’ sign.

Literally.

Sure enough, curled there at his feet was a small rattler, poised to strike.

Without conscious thought, Jerry pitched sideways off the stack, neatly avoiding being bitten. Then, boys being boys, the two of them closed in for the kill.

Sometime later, I was interrupted from my morning chore of . . . doing nothing . . . by the ring of the doorbell. Excited at the prospect of company, I raced for the door, only to discover – no one. I opened the door for a better view. Maybe someone was . . . you know . . . pressed up tightly against the wall so they couldn’t be seen from the doorway.

There, coiled neatly on the front step was a rattler. I never really noticed that it was rather . . . lifeless. Panic first, think after. That’s my motto. I screamed, and almost pitched backwards down the stairs.

Then laughter. And two brothers’ sunburned faces peeking around the door. “Did it scare you?”

No, this is my usual slap-dash method of going down stairs, but thanks for thinking of me.

* * *

My friends wanted to walk into town and visit Charley’s. The soda shop hang-out. But I needed money. And neither of my parents were anywhere around. In disgust, I kicked at the dusty road and resigned myself to sitting and watching everyone else consume floats or shakes. Maybe, out of pity, offer me a sip.

Ewwww.

Suddenly, Jerry emerged from the feed lot. The answer to my prayers. Maybe he would lend me a dime, or if I was really lucky, a quarter.

Okay, so my expectations weren’t very high.

I asked him. He grinned. One of two things was going to happen. Either he’d lend me money. Or tease me. And lend me money.

The day was mine.

“You can have all the money that’s in my pocket,” he said.

Uh-oh. A trick. He must be a broke as I.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out . . . a handful of change. Pennines, dimes, nickels, quarters. I felt as though I had hit the jackpot. And he poured the glittering contents – all of it – into my waiting hands. I had enough for . . . anything . . . everything.

He just smiled. And went to start chores.

* * *



Jerry was out in the feedlot, feeding the yearling bulls.

Now let me point out here that yearling bulls are just like little kids. They love to play. And chase each other. And play. The major difference is that they weigh in the neighbourhood of 1600 pounds. A bit larger than your average toddler.

I had decided that I wanted to be where Jerry was. Maybe I could help. Or get in the way. I was equally good at both.

I climbed the heavy board fence and sat on the top rail, watching. Jerry was pouring buckets of feed into the troughs and the bulls were delicately picking at it. Politely allowing everyone his own space.

Not.

When feeding cattle, pushing and shoving is the norm. Reaching over or under your neighbour to get that tasty morsel directly in front of him - equally common. Manners flee when a bucket of grain comes into sight. It’s every man for himself. And every man wants it all. Especially what is in front of the next guy.

For some time, this supper brawl fascinated me. I watched as these overly-muscled and underly-intelligent ‘adolescents’ bickered and fought over their evening meal. But as with anything, watching soon became boredom and I wanted to be in there. Ummm . . . helping. I scrambled down off the fence and started towards my brother.

One young ‘Four-Footed Apollo’ spotted me. Someone to play with! He bounced towards me in his finest ‘let’s play!’ mode.

The invitation on his part was misunderstood on mine.

All I saw was a mass of solid muscle, encased in a red hide, coming at me, death in his soft brown eyes. I screamed. And ran. Exactly what he was looking for. He followed. Still bouncing. This was fun!

I reached the fence just as my brother entered the fray. With a 5-gallon pail in one hand and an aluminum grain shovel in the other, he went for my attacker.

He swung the empty bucket at one side of the bull’s rump. That got his attention. Then, with the same accuracy and effectiveness, he bounced the shovel off the other side. The bull immediately forgot his erstwhile game with me and started back across the corral with Jerry in hot pursuit. Swinging the bucket, then the shovel, my brother chased the thoroughly frightened young bull, shouting with each blow, “Leave. My. Sister. Alone!”

My hero.

* * *

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Chris

Sweet, sweet Chris
From my earliest memories, Chris was there. The ideal big sister. Patient, kind, and endlessly watching over us younger brothers and sisters. Another mother. Something that was . . . mostly good!

Music played a large part in her life. We always had a radio going wherever we were working. I remember sitting together shelling peas – with some rock and roll blaring in the background. Once, when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, all of the girls were screaming in the audience, and Chris got so carried away, she let out a little . . . squeak? We stared at her. We all thought she was as crazy as those girls, though I must admit, she was a little more in control.

Once, when Mom and Dad were out for the evening, leaving Chris in charge, we thought we heard a noise upstairs. The upper floor was in darkness, and it didn’t occur to any of us to turn on the lights. (You remember the horror shows when the heroine never turns on a light, allowing the nasty guy to lurk in the shadows? Reality!) Chris grabbed a long knife and a flashlight and we were off on our little exploration trip to find . . . the noise.

We never did find it. Probably a good thing . . . for it and us. But it was a real workout for our imaginations. Who says that there is no educational value in Horror Shows? I can picture it now. The little group all glued to one central figure clutching a long knife. Moving as one. If anything had popped out of the shadows, trust me, there would have been serious injury. Just not to it.



Chris had red hair. But most of the time, it was merely her hair colour. The famed ‘red-haired temper’ seldom applied to her. Oddly enough, it is those times when the lid slipped that I remember most clearly . . . and fondly.

She and I were washing her 4-H calf in the milking stanchions in the barn. All was well. The water was running freely down the gutter and out the door, slowly filling the barnyard.

One hired man, Ken, kept coming around and offering all sorts of . . . negative comments. At first, it was just a word on his way past. Then two. Then whole paragraphs. Finally, tired and disgusted, we decided we’d had enough of his ‘advise’ and closed up shop. We put the calf in his pen and tidied up the area. The puddle, we couldn’t do anything about. But the always-thirsty Southern Alberta soil would make short work of that, so we left it and headed for the house.

Then Ken made the fatal mistake. He tried a parting shot out the front door of the barn when Chris was still within striking distance. And then, that red hair! She sprinted back to the barn, deadly purpose in every stride. I lost sight of her as she reached the doorway. All I heard was a thump, then she was kiting off towards the house. And Ken was . . . umm . . . swearing mad. Literally.

I really didn’t know what had happened until later that I got to the house. Chris was in the bathtub. A good place to be after an emotional upheaval. She had been, and was still, crying. I asked her what happened. She gave little self-satisfied smile through her tears, and said, and I quote, “I kicked him.”

I smiled with her. We all knew Ken. It was a fitting ‘end’ to the story.



She was working with yet another 4-H calf, trying to get it to lead. A . . . decidedly ornery 4-H calf. Imagine trying to put a rope on the business end of a steam roller and pulling it around the barn yard. You’re not even close. In fact, if we’d had a steam roller, it would have been entertaining to hook calf and machine together and see which came out . . . umm . . . in front. We would have taken bets. But I digress . . .

Chris had been fighting a losing battle for several hours. The calf show was growing closer and she was getting a bit desperate. Suddenly a bright idea blossomed. She had seen Kung Fu. She knew what to do. She put her hand into the proper, scientifically proven form (as seen on TV), and studied the hide-covered head of her opponent. Exactly where could she inflict the most damage? She chose a likely looking spot and swung. Hard. And heard the satisfying crunch of bones.

After a millisecond or two that she realized that something was wrong. If her technique was correct - and she had watched a lot of Kung Fu - then why was the calf still standing? Chewing his cud? Something had been damaged. She had heard the unmistakable sound. Then she looked down at her hand . . .

Needless to say, the calf was eventually ‘broke’ to lead in the usual ways. And Chris discovered that a hand really can inflict damage – when it is completely covered with a hard plaster cast.



Chris and I were riding. The end of a long day. Having successfully penned the last of a large herd, we were closing the gate, the anticipation of a quick ride back and a warm meal uppermost in our minds. Chris was doing the honours. As she put one foot in Gypsy’s stirrup, I turned my horse and headed out. Chris wasn’t quite on.

And didn’t manage to get on.

Gypsy, seeing her pen mate heading for home and supper, gave a wild leap, spilling her would-be rider to the hard ground. From there, she proceeded to drag and then trample my sister. I stopped and waited for Chris to get up. She didn’t. Then something penetrated my pea-sized intellect. Maybe she’s hurt?! Maybe I’d better go for help.

We did manage to get Chris back to the ranch buildings. Mostly in one piece. And again, she spent months in a cast. This one to support a badly-broken knee. But in true ‘Chris’ style, she never pinned the blame where it belonged. Never offered one word of reproach. Merely suffered silently. But that is my sister.

Have I mentioned that I love her?



P.S. The nail polish spilled on her carpet . . . ummm . . . not me!

Another Fire

Hot times in the Old Town. Milk River


6:45 am.
When most of the world still sleeps, or is just beginning to stir, the ranching families of Southern Alberta are already up and out.
Stock to feed, cows to milk.
Diving into the day’s first chores with unfettered enthusiasm, a smile - brought by the pure joy of work most satisfying - firmly fixed on weather-beaten faces.
Not.
“Spring!” Dad’s first words of the day, spoken with that ‘unfettered enthusiasm’ previously mentioned. There he would be, the light from the hall behind him making him into the shadowy cut-out of some avenging God of mischief, dressed in a white terry-cloth bathrobe, sent to ruin the final minutes of a good night’s sleep.
“Spring!” he would say again, in case we didn’t hear it the first time.
Then, in a puff of smoke, he would disappear. Evil summons completed.
Actually, I just made up that ‘puff of smoke bit’.
The evil summons?
Truth.
This morning began like any other.
A new spring sun just peeping over the horizon filling the clear, blue sky with breathtaking slices of pink and orange.
We humans blissfully ignorant.
Dad’s unfailingly cheerful, completely irritating voice calling happily down the stairs.
The summoned moaning and complaining and beginning to twitch in their beds.
The call came again.
The summoned were throwing off the heavy bonds of sleep by degrees.
Some were actually finding their voices. “Yeah, yeah.”
And yet a third time.
The responses growing equally louder and more understandable, “Yeah, yeah!”
And then the final call.
The one sure to either freeze the faithful in their beds, or galvanize them into movement.
“The elevators are on fire!”
I should mention here that the town of Milk River’s elevators stood directly behind us, across our pasture. A short few hundred yards away.
Within toasting distance.
The mere thought of them engulfed in flames struck terror into the hearts of every member of the Stringam family.
Certainly it did that day.
“Yeah, Dad, good one!” A pause. Then, “Dad’ll say anything to get us up!” Laughter.
Perhaps I was a bit more trusting than my brothers.
Perhaps the idea of something exciting happening in our sleepy little town was enough to draw me from my bed.
Whichever.
I scurried into my parent’s room, bounded across their bed and joined my mother at the window.
The entire horizon was a blaze of light.
Two of the six elevators were already burning and, as we watched, a third began to smoke.
Dad was out on the deck, his face a mixture of disbelief, excitement and dismay.
It was an interesting face.
By this time, our cries of . . . disbelief, excitement and dismay . . . had finally drawn my brothers to their window.
“Holy Smoke!”
Truer words were never spoken.
For a moment, fear washed over me.
Were we in any danger from the flames? Those elevators were awfully close.
Dad was quick to reassure.
The wind was favourable for us, pushing the fire, and its attendant sparks to the South, away from the Stringams.
Towards the Garbers, actually. And their barn.
But that is another story.
Chores were given a lick and a promise.
School was . . . poorly attended.
The time was spent watching the fire.
And the fire-fighters.
The entire population of town stood across the street, eyes locked on the incredible sight.
I found my Mom there and went to stand beside her.
“Good thing it’s spring,” I told her. “Harvest hasn’t started.”
My ignorance of the whole ‘grain storage’ thing was woeful.
“They’re right full of grain!” my Mom exclaimed.
As though to prove her statement, a long split appeared in one corner of the elevator nearest us. Followed by a golden stream.
Pieces of flaming elevator began to rain down.
The crowd gasped and stepped backwards.
Our Sherriff tried his best to keep us away.
To keep us safe.
Even going so far as to order all of the kids back to school.
We scampered to obey.
Not.
He couldn’t have driven us away with a stick.
Maybe if he had pulled his gun . . . no not even then.
The elevators burned for days.
When the glow was finally out, the ruined grain was raked into piles and sold for a pittance, for cattle feed or whatever.
But to those of us who witnessed it, the fire would never be extinguished.
Even after the smell of roasting wood and grain finally washed away.
Even after new, modern elevators were built.
All one would have to say was, “Remember the elevator fire?” and a whole troop of memories would come crowding.
It was the most excitement our town has ever had. Before or since.
Okay, so Milk ‘Thrill Central’ River wasn't our town’s name.

And the Stringams were back to hearing, “Spring!” every morning.
Once in a while, Dad would try to inject a little excitement into the day by shouting, “The elevators are on fire!”
But he was never believed.
Kind of like that first time.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Speed-OOOOOO!

Stringam Family - not a speedo in the bunch!

In the Tolley household, Christmas . . . the actual ‘business portion’ which includes frantic tearing of colourful papers and scrabbling through mounds of discarded wrapping, was an event on hold until the father of the household finally succumbed to the pleadings of his numerous children and crawled out of bed. Once he hit the front room, it was every man for himself. Or every woman . . . or child . . . you get the picture.
To facilitate the introduction of said father to the ‘action room’, the children, over the years, graduated from begging, to more . . . proactive methods. As their size, and strength, increased, they finally achieved the impossible. Plucking their sire from his warm downy and carrying him, bodily, to his place of honour.
In an attempt to thwart their . . . growing . . . expertise, their father began to incorporate thought into the proceedings.
He resorted to sneakiness.
With various degrees of success.

Christmas, 2001, began like many others. Tiny noises in the bowels of the house which told us that the natives were stirring and that time for any needed preparation was short. Grant leaped from the bed and, under cover of darkness, began to shed his pyjamas. Not unusual. However, considering that our children would soon be pounding up the stairs . . . well . . . unusual. Sleepily, I noted the sound of fabric sliding over flesh. He was pulling something else on. Then, he crawled back into the bed and snuggled close.
Suspicious, I asked him what he was wearing and he chuckled. “Not much,” he said.
Then the pounding started. “Mom, Dad! Time to open presents!”
“Okay,” he called, cheerfully. Another sign that all was not as it should be. The door swung open.
Slowly.
Several suspicious noses poked into the room, the light from the hallway throwing their shadows across the bed. Remember, these children had been exposed to many different devices in an attempt to discourage them from their desired goal. Catapults, duct tape, air horns, chains with padlocks, duct tape, yards of medical gauze, duct tape.
Okay, he likes duct tape. I admit it.
The group stayed huddled for a moment, afraid to pierce the unknown blackness that pervaded our room. We remained still. Finally one brave soul reached for the switch, flooding the scene with light. We blinked sleepily at them.
Our kids aren’t the only actors in the family.
They moved slowly forward, still tightly packed. A group makes a harder target. Okay the reasoning needs a bit of work, but there is safety in numbers. They approached the bed. Still cautious. Still peering anxiously into the shadows and flinching at every sound. Finally, they reached their father. Silence. Grant’s eyes were now closed, a small, blissful smile creasing his face.
Not a good sign.
One of the older boys grabbed the covers, then paused, gaining courage. The silence stretched. He threw them back.
And disclosed his portly father clad in a ‘speedo’. A bright blue one.
Oh, and a bowtie. Red. With sequins.
Now I would like to take this opportunity to state that the ‘speedo’ swimsuit was created with speed in mind, hence the name. Comfort is secondary, and looks a far distant third. Certainly they look . . . ummm . . . delicious on the trim, incredibly fit men each of us women have drooled over at some point in our lives.
On a middle aged, fairly Santa-esque male. Not as good.
But certainly effective. The kids scattered. Screaming. We could hear one of them moaning in the hall. “I don’t want to open presents, do you want to open presents?”
Another answered, “Presents? What are those? I’m going back to bed!”
My husband chuckled again. “I should have thought of this years ago!” he said.
Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Our First Christmas

Grant and Diane
The very early days of marriage, of most marriages, in fact, are days of exploration and discovery. Of the combination of ideas and ideals. Of the solidifying of the ties binding the couple together.
So it was in our house. The happiness that goes with simply being together. Peace. Love. Joy. One imagines that it will last forever. And it does. Until . . . The First Conflict.
I use this term lightly, because it really wasn’t a conflict, but more of a steady pull in two different directions. He wanted us to spend Christmas with his family. I wanted to spend it with mine.
I won.
Mostly, I admit because I painted a rosier picture than he did. I snared him with magical words like . . . food, fresh baking, treats, candy, chocolate, sugar, sugar, sugar. Okay, I exaggerated. But my family really did have fun on Christmas Eve. And I wasn’t ready, yet, to miss it.
And my Mom was a really good cook.
He gave in. And so, Christmas Eve found us nestled snugly in the bosom of my family, preparing to enjoy. Unfortunately, the preparing part went on a little too long.
My eldest sister, Chris was home for the holiday and she and Mom, demon bakers both, were lost in their own fragrant world. Admittedly a pleasant place to be, albeit rather ‘calorific’. The rest of us floated by periodically, sniffing, staring hungrily at the stacks . . . and stacks . . . of pies, cookies, cakes, butterhorns, brownies, fudge, cookies, lemon squares, butter tarts, cookies.
There really were a lot of cookies.
Dinner was forgotten as more and more goodies emerged from the cavernous depths of the great ovens. Cries from hungry tummies grew more and more insistent. Also, the younger set was getting impatient. It was time for that games of games, anticipated for a whole year. The annual Stringam bloodbath. The Christmas game of Rummoli.
With real poker chips.
Okay, so it wasn’t a bloodbath. Not even particularly violent. But it was as close to gambling as the Stringam gang ever got. And we really did anticipate it feverishly. Well . . . some of us looked forward to it with excitement. Okay, I really liked it. Geeze.
By 10:30 pm, many had given up the thought of getting ‘Christmas Eve’ started. Baking was still being pulled from the ovens, dinner still hadn’t materialized and even the faint hope of a Rummoli game had long since vanished. My husband looked at me. He was too kind to put it into words, but I was getting fairly good at reading him, and his expression said, “For this, we gave up an eight-course meal with my family?” I shrugged my shoulders and tried to laugh.
It was a weak attempt.
He decided to take matters into his own hands. He got up and wandered nonchalantly past the stack of baking which completely covered the counter and nearly filled the space between the upper and lower cupboards.
Seriously, we’re talking an area eight feet long and somewhere between 18 and 24 inches deep. Covered. With. Fresh. Baking.
His hand snaked out, nabbing a butter tart. Quicker than the eye can blink, it was in his mouth. All of it. The heavenly combination of flavours poured through his soul like celestial honey. His knees grew weak. He brought his teeth together to begin chewing this small slice of perfection. Mom straightened from pulling yet another pan out of the oven, her face flushed with heat and effort.
He was caught. He suspended all chewing movements and tried to look innocent, but Mom could spot sneaky behaviour at 1000 paces. Certainly she could recognize it standing across the counter.
The counter filled with mouth-watering . . . but I digress.
She set the hot pan on the cupboard, placed both hands on her hips and levelled a glare at him. “Don’t eat that!” she said. “It’s for Christmas!”
He stared at her. Then at the mounds of baking that couldn’t possibly be eaten in the next 24 hours. In the next 24 days. He put up one hand to cover his mouth. And the precious contraband that now had a home there. No way was he removing it from his mouth. All sorts of places in his body would have rebelled if he had tried. “Sorry,” he mumbled, slowly backing away, his hands spread apologetically.
We never did get our Rummoli game.
Or supper.
After that, my husband and I saved Christmas Eve for his family. And Christmas morning for mine. It was easier on our relationship.
Oh, and the statement, “Don’t eat that, it’s for Christmas!”
Quoted every time someone pops something into their mouth. Year round.

Gramma Berg’s Crutches

Gramma and Grampa Berg
It was a magical time. Gramma Berg was staying over. For days and days. And she could always be counted on for a snuggle, or a story, or a song, or a treat.
In that order.
She moved slowly. The result of having a shattered kneecap. I only knew that she couldn’t get away from me.
Oh, and that she had crutches.
I loved those crutches. It didn’t occur to my four-year-old brain that they were a necessary part of Gramma’s mobility. I saw only that they were just right for me. I would put the little bar (intended as a hand hold) under my arms and, with the top half of each crutch weaving far over my head, hop from one end of the house to the other. Then back. Then back again.
All day.
Sometimes I would mix it up a little and hold up the left leg instead of the right. Either was exciting. And daring.

Okay, I was four. My life to date hadn’t been filled with momentous events. But I digress.
There was one problem with my fascination for Gramma’s crutches. She needed them. And I usually had them. Somewhere else.
Something had to be done.
My Dad, always excited at the prospect of a new engineering task, saw an opportunity. And took it. He would make new crutches. My size.
Happily, he spent many hours in the blacksmith shop, designing, measuring, cutting. Crafting. Finally, voila! Crutches. Perfect four-year-old size. He brought them to the house. It was nap time and I was blotto on the couch, having passed out during Friendly Giant.
Again.
Not one to let such a minor thing as a sleeping child thwart him, Dad stood me up and thrust the crutches under my arms.
I can picture it now. Small, skinny white-haired child – literally - asleep on her feet. Head lolling to one side. A tiny snore. (Okay, my imagination’s good. I admit it.) Dad holds her up with one hand while trying to brace the crutches under her arms with the other. For this story, a Dad with three hands would probably be advisable. She folds like cooked spaghetti. He tries again. Same result. Finally, defeated, he lays her back on the couch and braces the crutches against it for her to find when she is a bit more . . . conscious.
Which she does.
From then on, my crutches and me were inseparable. They were even tied behind when I went riding. I almost forgot how to walk. Strangers to the ranch would shake their heads sadly at the little crippled child making her way across the barnyard. Then nod and acknowledge that she sure had learned how to move quickly, poor little mite. I feel guilty for the deception. Well, a little. A real little.
Okay, not at all.
I certainly learned to manoeuvre those little crutches. The only thing I never mastered was walking while lifting both feet at the same time. And, believe me, I tried.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch house, Gramma was delighted to have her crutches back. She could get around once more. She could be portable, helpful, useful. All the qualities she found so satisfying. She could even challenge me to a race.
I won.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Hill, the Rabbit, and Me

The Hill

The Stringam ranch buildings were ringed on three sides by high cliffs, and dominated on the fourth by a high hill. As a result, there were only two entrances to the ranch, on either side of the hill.
As a fortress, it would have been ideal. Easily defended and defensible.
As a playground, it was perfect.
From the top of the hill, one could see, quite literally, for miles. The lack of any trees or large vegetation allowed for a completely unbroken view to any horizon.
And if one climbed up the tower perched firmly, but terrifyingly on top of said hill . . . well the possibilities were endless.
As I well knew.
After much experience.
On many occasions, my heroic mother did the sprint to the top of the hill, scampered up the tower, and plucked her small, but adventurous, daughter from the jaws of certain death.
Death being the sudden stop at the foot of the tower.
I just thought I'd point that out . . .
There was much of the Olympiad in my mother. I think of the numerous air and land speed records she broke, all without the witness of a single stop-watch or measuring stick.
But I digress . . .
The hill was also the resting place for the mouldering bodies of many, many derelict machines, both agricultural and civil.
Parked neatly in rows were such identifiable things as threshers, mowers, combines, tractors, rakes, cars and trucks, all having outlived their ‘best before’ date.
They had all been replaced by something new and improved, but had not been sent to that great ‘tribute to rust’ that is the local parts yard because of the possibility, however slim, of still being useful.
It was this collection of . . . old and intriguing, that drew my brothers and myself day after day.
They, to explore and dismantle.
I to . . . get in the way and fall on something sharp.
Or climb into derelict vehicles and create worlds.
Or finally get bored as they tinkered and start climbing . . . but we’ve been over that.
Our responsibilities were clearly laid out, and we did them with a will.
From my brothers’ point of view, imagine the potential.
Armed with nothing more than a screwdriver, wrench and pliers, you could attack and dismember any of the inmates of this glorious, magical place.
You could tap into engines and other secret places and uncover intricate systems hidden to the incurious and unaware.
You could emerge, covered in grease, but triumphantly holding aloft the flywheel of . . . the . . . the behemoth parked between the car and the truck.
I could really only identify the cars and trucks.
Four years old.
Remember?
Moving on . . .
The three of us spent many happy hours there.
They in their grease and machinery parts.
I in my exploring and imaginary worlds.
For three ranch kids growing up on the prairies, it was perfection. Truly the place where dreams come true.
And then, into our peaceful little world came . . . the rabbit.
It wasn’t anything unusual, as rabbits go. A large jack. Cream and dark brown fur. Long ears and . . . really jumpy legs.
I should mention here that I was - and am - crazy for animals. Any animals. This rabbit would be the perfect pet for me.
At least from my point of view.
It had other ideas.
At first I approached it slowly, hand out, friendly smile firmly affixed. Coaxing.
It sat up and eyed me, nose twitching.
Then when I was still several steps away, it hopped. In the wrong direction.
Stupid rabbit.
I moved closer once more.
It waited until I was, again, several steps away, then it . . . you get the picture.
This went on for some time.
Finally, running short of patience, I increased my pace.
It caught on to the change in strategy with astonishing speed, and also moved faster.
I ran.
It ran.
This was getting us nowhere. I finally flopped down on the ground and scowled at it.
It stopped and looked at me again.
I stood up hopefully.
It ducked into an irrigation pipe.
Ha! My . . . erm . . . strategy had worked! It was mine!
I carefully blocked both ends of the pipe and ran to get Mike’s cage.
A little background here.
Mike was our Saint Bernard.
He was huge.
But he hadn’t always been so.
When he had first come to live with us, he had been a puppy. For about two weeks.
Then he had outgrown his little wire mesh kennel and moved right into the only other place big enough to house him.
The garage.
That had left the kennel vacant.
And totally right for a pet rabbit.
I lugged it to the top of the hill.
Now the tricky part. How to coax the rabbit into his palatial new home.
I opened the door of the kennel and pulled one end of the pipe inside.
Then I went around to the other end of the pipe and began to lift.
Fortunately for my four-year-old muscles, aluminum irrigation pipes are fairly light. I lifted the pipe higher and higher, until I was stretched nearly to the limit of my height.
It wasn’t far.
But it worked!
I could hear the rabbit scrabble for purchase inside the pipe and finally give up and slide downwards.
I smiled broadly as his furry rump emerged from the end of the pipe.
He landed in the cage.
I was filled with triumph.
And elation.
And dismay.
The moment his feet touched the mesh of the kennel, he was off like a shot.
Through the bars of the cage.
Who knew that a four-inch wide rabbit could fit through a two inch wide space?
Not me.
But I was learning.
I watched, disappointed, as my pet headed for somewhere far away.
I kicked at the cage.
Stupid cage. It had let me down.
Then I noticed that some of the rabbit’s fur had caught in the mesh. I plucked it off and examined it. I rubbed it on my cheek.
Soft.
I stuck it in my pocket and patted it tenderly.
My rabbit.
A few days later, when Mom was doing the laundry, she discovered the little patch of rabbit fur in my pocket. But, being my mother, she just shook her head and smiled.
And later, when Dad was loading pipe to start irrigating and found one with an end stuck inside Mike’s old cage, he did the same thing.
After all, they were my parents.
They knew me.
I was back on the hill with my brothers.
On a new adventure.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Happy Barn Burning

What was left of the barn

October second. My birthday. A time of reflection and renewal. Time to reminisce.
It was exactly 53 years ago that I made my way into the world.
Feet first.
Fourth of six children and second daughter for Mark and Enes Stringam. A pretty exciting time for everyone. Well, for me at any rate.
I grew, healthy and strong in a loving, ordered world. My birthdays approached, were celebrated with varying degrees of success, and then left behind. First. Second. Third. For my fourth, something special was planned. Very special. And very secret. No one knew what was coming.
No one.
Early on the morning of my fourth birthday, a frantic phone call jolted my Dad out of his bed.
“There is a rather major emergency at the ranch. Would you possibly be able to come out?”
“Emergency?”
“Erm, yes. The barn is on fire.”
“On my way.”
Or at lest that is how I picture the conversation. It was probably something more in the way of . . . “EEEEEEE (high pitched screaming)!”
And Dad, “AAAAAAAAAH (Not quite so high pitched)!”
And that was the total exchange. But I digress . . .
So dad jumped into his truck and drove the twenty miles to the ranch in record time. Really record time. The only other occasion that would warrant such reckless driving and high speeds was the imminent arrival of yet another small Stringam . . . but that event was months away. He arrived just after the fire department.
By then, the barn was well on it’s way to being a memory. Flames had consumed most of it and the remainder was burning purposefully . . . and cheerfully . . . in the early morning light. Acrid smoke coiled across the barnyard, obscuring the crowd gathered to watch. Tears filled most eyes. Some because of said smoke. Others due to the fact that their most precious possessions had – literally – gone up in it.
One hired man stood there, in his longhandles, shaking his head helplessly. It took some time, and the appearance of the attractive ranch cook, for him to realize that his attire was . . . less than conventional. He beat a hasty retreat to find something a little more . . . conservative . . . to wear.
And not just the humans were concerned. The smaller denizens of the barn had been rudely awakened and forced to – quickly – find new lodgings. One mouse, intent on that very errand, scampered from the mass of smoking debris that had been his home, and into the pale morning light. He stopped. Something was very wrong. There were two humans standing directly in his path. He worked it through his little mouse brain, then darted back into the smouldering pile. Better the evil you know . . .
There was great loss. Two litters of pigs - with sows, several horses, calves. Not to mention saddles, tack and equipment. None irreplaceable, but all valuable. Oh, and my birthday. Somehow, in all the melee, that was lost as well. Not that I cared. I was happily perched on the fence, just within toasting distance of the glowing fire, watching the spectacle. Not really understanding what was going on. Knowing only that, in four years of mischief, I’d never been able to come close to this excitement. Never.
The barn was rebuilt. Bigger. Better. More modern. And my . . . birthday was never forgotten again. Every year, Dad calls on this date to wish me a . . . Happy Barn Burning.
With music.
And the dance.
There is a codicil. Twelve years ago, my barn burned down. Our losses were not as enormous as the ‘original’ barn fire. We lost two little pigs and some equipment. But the most important fact was the date. April first. My father’s seventieth birthday. I had to phone to wish him . . . Happy Barn Burning.
Payback is so sweet.

S-S-S-S

Me Poppa and me

Though we lived at the back of beyond, the modern world did, at times, actually intrude.
Certainly, it was there in the tools we used and, increasingly, in our entertainment.
Sometimes, miraculously, in both at the same time.
It was that way when we got our first ever television.
I remember it well. A large unit which stood on its own legs and emitted a magical black and white picture. Mom would turn it on in the morning and I would sit and watch.
The Indian Test Pattern.
For hours.
That picture amazed me. It never occurred to me that it was unchanging. It was there. I stared at it.
Okay, I was really waiting for ‘The Friendly Giant’ to come on.
But Mom would craftily switch on the set long before the program aired and I was caught. Snared by the light that flickered from the magical box. Sort of like a deer in the headlights, except that I was a dear in the . . . never mind.
The first ever electronic baby-sitter.
What genius!
As time went by, we discovered that, with an enormous antennae perched at the very top of the tall tower on the hill which rose to the north of us, we could miraculously get . . . two channels. The variety was endless. The choices unlimited.
Remember, we were at the back of beyond!
Sundays were the best.
On Sunday evening, after dinner, there was a whole line up of goodies. First was Walt Disney Show, followed by Ed Sullivan, and finally, if I had been really good, Bonanza!
Surprisingly, I watched it often. It was amazing how a week’s worth of mischief could be erased by the advent of Sunday evening.
Peace filled the land, and flickering light filled our living room. We were glued to the set, as adventure after adventure unrolled before us.
But at some time during the week – I never really knew which day, after all, I was only four – was the best program of all. The one I waited breathlessly for. The show with the best and biggest of heroes. And the nicest horses.
Gunsmoke.
I identified with Sheriff Dillon.
But I loved Chester, with his limp. I just knew that, when I got older, I would marry Chester. Then I could be on TV with Sherriff Dillon every week.
Okay, my knowledge was sadly lacking, but the spirit was there!
There was only one hitch to my love of this program.
My pronunciation.
I couldn’t say it.
If Mom made the mistake of telling me a wee bit too early in the day that it was a Gunsmoke night, I would walk around all day chanting, “Gunmoke! Gunmoke!”
And I do mean all day.
It probably got a little irritating.
My Mom would try her ‘Mommy’ best to help me. She would kneel in front of me and say, and I quote, “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
I would stare at her and move my mouth with hers.
She would repeat. “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
She would smile at me encouragingly. “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
Expectant silence.
I would open my mouth.
Mom would nod.
“SSSgunmoke! SSSgunmoke! Gunmoke! Gunmoke!” It sounded like a fading echo.
I never really noticed her disappointment.
Or irritation.
I was too happily watching my hero of heroes. He who rode the best horses.
Sheriff Dillon.
On Gunmoke.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Of Brothers and Horses

My elder siblings.
Before they were elder.


I was witnessing a miracle.
My brother, George, was on a horse.
Voluntarily.
The professed hater of horses was astride one.
I was so proud of him.
And excited.
A whole new world was opening up for me. I could picture long rides together, exploring the ranch, picnics in our saddlebags.
Okay, so neither of us actually had saddlebags, but we did know how to tie a bread bag of food behind our saddles.
That was almost as good.
I have to admit that we never had quite acquired the knack of packing said food so that it didn’t mix together.
Once we had chocolate cake and cheese, that . . . but that is (shudder) another story.
Moving on . . .
George was riding.
He was on his little pony, Star, doing circuits of the barnyard.
A slow start, but a start nonetheless.
I was on my way to the corral for my horse, Pinto. This amazing event simply had to be shared. I couldn’t pass up such an incredible opportunity.
Even as I approached the corral, however, I could see that destiny was working against us.
Destiny in the form of Ken, one of the hired men.
He was standing, motionless, next to the gate of said corral. In his posture I could detect . . . malevolence? Cunning? Creepy-ness?
No, just stupidity.
He reached out and . . . opened the gate.
Now the horses imprisoned there had been standing around for hours, heads hanging, trying their horsey best to look as unenergetic as possible. The hope being that, through their posture alone, they could discourage any potential slave drivers from inflicting them with our frivolous plans for . . . work.
Or anything work-y.
Dynamite couldn’t have moved them.
Only one thing could send the electric shock that would awaken them from their comatose state.
The promise of freedom.
Through that open gate, they could glimpse . . . far away-edness. And they made a straight line for it.
Right through my brother, George.
He was calm. He didn’t panic.
He had me for that.
I watched in horror as his little horse was scooped up by the rest and whisked off towards . . . wherever they were going.
With horses, you never know.
They don’t even know.
The entire group galloped as one, down the hill, along the river.
My brother’s blue coat was clearly visible in the melee as he clung desperately to the smallest horse.
Now one can only imagine the deadly possibilities.
The churning hoofs, flint hard and razor sharp.
Okay, I’m exaggerating.
But they still could cause some rather serious damage.
Even at four I knew that.
I spun around and headed for the house screaming at the top of my lungs, “My brother! My brother!”
Not really original, I’ll admit, but it achieved the desired effect.
My Mom came on the run, white faced and breathless.
I pointed at the cloud of dust rapidly moving towards the nearest far-away place and jumped around a bit. The two of us stared at it.
And at the little cloud that was rapidly losing ground against the larger horses.
Star was falling behind.
It was then that we saw pony and blue jacket part company.
Sensing a safer moment, still not too far from the ranch buildings, George had decided to cut his losses, discard dignity, and bail off.
As his tiny figure began the long trek home, the two of us raced to meet him.
It was a joyous reunion.
Not.
George was bruised, both physically and spiritually.
And mad.
And no one can get mad like George.
Picture Dad.
But smaller and more concentrated.
Fortunately, he wasn’t mad at us.
Just at Ken.
And every horse in the world.
A fact that remains to this day.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Chicken Head

Not me. (Daddy, Chris, Jerry and George)
Harvest. A mellow time. A time to catch one’s breath and simply appreciate the bounty and euphoria of the season. When the tireless efforts of every farmer in Alberta culminates finally in the production of golden streams of wheat, barley, canola and corn. Truckloads of peas, potatoes and sugar beets. When sheds and storage buildings are full of the warm, sweet smell of new-mown hay and grasses, carefully dried.
And on the Stringam Ranch, we, too had our harvest. There was the bounty of endless (and I do mean endless, but that is another story) rows of garden produce to be brought in. Carrots, peas, beans, corn, turnips, potatoes, parsnips, beets, cucumbers. And many other things that a four-year-old simply couldn’t name, though they did taste good. Oh, and chickens.
Chickens?
Because the chicken coop was situated near the garden, to me, the chickens were part and parcel of the fall harvest. Didn’t we eat them? Didn’t we ‘produce’ chicken at the same time as all of the other food? It just made sense.
The slaughtering of the chickens on the Ranch was a huge production. I can picture even now the great tubs of scalding hot water to loosen the feathers. The teams of choppers, pickers, and . . . innards removers. Everyone with a sharp knife or axe. Or with rubber-gloved hands working in the scalding water. It was every parent’s dream for their small child. Not. But there I was. Bouncing from group to group. Being forcibly removed from the more dangerous situations. Slowly getting covered in feathers.
Most probably looking like a large chicken myself.
When some of the more stringent voices hollering at me to keep away had finally effected obedience, and my initial fascination with viewing the death throes of the chickens had worn off, I was at a loose end. Not a good thing for a four-year-old. Mischief happens. Not my fault.
The bodies of the chickens were systematically hauled away, so a closer study of them had proven impossible, but the heads . . .! Those were still there, lying forgotten near the chopping stump. They were piling up, obviously needing to be disposed of.
Please remember – I was a child of the Country. Capital ‘C’.
One by one, I began picking them up and throwing them, unceremoniously, into the river, only a few feet away. Hmmm. This was fun! They would bob for a few seconds, then sink into the milky depths, perhaps to be eaten by some unseen fish, or maybe one of the monsters that our dog, Mike, was sure lived there.
I found a paint can lid. Great! Now I could throw the heads out four at a time. Much more efficient. Once I had figured out that I must hold on to the lid when I threw. My first attempt was . . . embarrassing.
For some time, this obviously essential errand kept me occupied – to the vast relief of those who mistakenly thought they had more important jobs. I would collect the heads on my little ‘plate’, walk over to the river and . . . give them the Alberta version of a sea burial. It was genius. To a four-year-old.
Then the fateful, life altering event. I picked up a head, deposited it on my plate, AND. THE. BEAK. OPENED! No word of a lie. It opened! It was possessed! It was going to get me!
Straight into the air, the plate went. By the time it and it’s contents had hit the ground, I was already halfway to the house screaming, and I quote, “THE CHICKEN HEAD! THE CHICKEN HEAD!” Not very inventive, true, but effective. It stopped the entire production line for several seconds. Mostly, I admit, so the people could laugh, but why haggle over details? Mom consoled me, between chuckles, and all was smoothed over.
Except for one thing. From then on, I was afraid of chickens. I learned to wrestle 2000 pound bulls without turning a hair, but tell me to collect eggs from under a 3 pound pile of feathers and I was a quivering mass of . . . something soggy and cowardly. My family still laughs.
There is an addendum to all of this. When my husband and I were on our honeymoon, we decided to make a day trip to the Calgary Zoo. Fun! There was a display of emus. And a machine that dispensed grain to feed them. Put in a quarter, get a handful of feed. All went well to that point. I approached the emu with my little handful of grain. It moved closer. I moved closer. It looked over the fence. I looked at it. It’s beak opened. And my new husband was suddenly staring at the handful of grain that magically appeared in his hand.
I was halfway to the car screaming . . . You get the picture.

The Panty Plant

Mom, Chris and Jerry


Mom was a gardener. One of those . . . mmmajor gardeners. I’m almost certain that her garden produced enough to feed the entire country of England . . . or Russia . . . or the entire southern hemisphere . . . or . . . someone stop me! And because Mom was a gardener, her kids were gardeners, albeit reluctant ones. On any given day, you could find one bonneted head and several blonde towheads bent over the various plants, being more or less productive. We all had our assignments.

I was four. My job was to watch.
Oh, and eat peas.
Our family produce patch covered about 2 acres, give or take. The rows were probably about 40 feet long, but to a four-year-old, they stretched to Argentina. (I didn’t exactly know where that was, but it had a sort of far away-ish sound to it.) The patch was surrounded by pine trees. Tall, lush, they had been planted by my father in his youth – now that is a story – and now provided perfect shade for a small body who wanted to be out with the others but suffered from a short attention span.
So there I sat, whiling away the hours. Mostly, I lay on the cool grass and made life miserable for the ants and other small, harmless creatures. But deep beneath the overhanging branches of the towering pines were patches of dirt. And I discovered that it was fun to dig in that dirt and – don’t tell my mother – plant things.
But what would a four-year-old have to plant? All pea seeds had gone into the mouth. Hmmm. The pods were there. That was a no-brainer. But that only took a short while. What else? Shoes? Those had been kicked off when I had first hit the garden and were now lying abandoned in one of the rows, waiting to be discovered by the roto-tiller. Taking stock, I discovered that my feet were at least partially covered by . . . ahem . . . white socks. They slipped off easily. A little furrow in the dirt and voila! A perfect place for a future ‘sock tree’. What else. The gardening bug had hit. I just had to plant! I just had to plant!
My mother had tried to instil in me the need for modestly, so removing anything obvious, like blouse or skirt was not even considered. What else did I have that I really didn’t need? I had it! Panties. And cute, blue ones, with little darker blue flowers. They would produce something lovely, I was sure! Off they came, and into the little trench dug specifically for them. I patted the dirt into place. Perfect. Job completed, I crawled out from under the tree. Mom was down the row of beans just in front of me, sitting back on her heels and waving her bonnet in front of a flushed face. She turned and smiled at me. Obviously, she had noticed nothing.
Feeling giddy with a sense of accomplishment, I joined her, offering to help pick the beans. She nodded gratefully and I squatted in my abbreviated skirts to begin.
I don’t remember what was said. Only a gasp and then strong hands propelling me unceremoniously back to my ‘garden’ and ordered to dig up every article buried there. I stared up at her, aghast. The whole garden? Mentally. I tallied them up. Hats, tools, shoes, George’s new toy, my new toy, a couple of books, several spoons.
With an aggrieved air, I began to half-heartedly push at the dirt, only to uncover . . . nothing. No clothes, no toys, not even one spoon. I dug deeper. Still nothing. Where could they be? I crawled out from under the tree and stared up at it. Was I in the right place? I looked at the tree next to it. Surely. How could I be mistaken? Back into my ‘hidden garden’ which, incidentally, was becoming more hidden by the minute. We never did recover the things I had buried, though my mother turned up the dirt beneath every tree surrounding the garden. Where could they have gone? We’ll never know, now, but if being a successful gardener means planting things, I am an expert. If it also means that something is supposed to grow, I’m not.
Hmmm. Burying things. So they’ll never . . . NEVER be found. It sounds as though my mother was really training me for . . . piracy. Or mob work. Who knew?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Bed by Any Other Name

The Stringam Wagon Train
I love horses.
All horses.
So much that I ate, breathed and slept horses. Literally.
On the ranch, everything ran like clockwork. Cows were milked. Cattle, horses, chickens and pigs fed, eggs gathered, meals served. One never had to look at a clock to know what time it was. You could tell merely by observing the natural rhythm of the operations that were an integral part of ranch life.
But that has absolutely nothing to do with this story.
I loved horses. And I was a natural with them. I could climb on the back of the most dastardly villain the corral had to offer and handle him with ease.
I spent most of my waking hours with the horses.
And some of my sleeping ones, as I already mentioned.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
During the day, my four-year-old self was fairly useless. I wandered here and there, usually sticking close to the barn, but occasionally breaking with tradition and getting into trouble in some other area.
(Chickens and I also have a history, but that is another story.)
On this particular day, mealtime was fast approaching.
Now I could always be counted on to appear for meals.
The bell would ring and inform all and sundry – including total strangers living in Timbuktu – that it was time for everyone on the Stringam Ranch to head to the house because something truly wonderful was waiting there.
Mom was a terrific cook.
The bell rang.
People assembled.
No Diane.
How could this be? She was always underfoot. Particularly at mealtimes.
They began to eat. She’ll be here soon, they reasoned.
Dessert approached. Still no Diane.
Dad was beginning to worry. He began to question the men.
Had anyone seen her?
Bud had shooed her away from the cow he was milking by singing ‘Danny Boy’. A guaranteed ‘Diane repellent’.
Al thought he had seen her going into the shed behind the barn, where the horses were.
Dad got to his feet. This was serious.
He headed for the barn.
The horses could come and go at will on the Stringam ranch. Mostly they preferred go. But occasionally, when it was too hot or too cold, and because they were – basically - wussies, and lazy, they would hang around under the shed beside the barn and eat the hay that they didn’t have to stalk and kill themselves.
It was to this intrepid group that Dad went. He could see tails swishing as he approached. Usually, that meant that they were there.
He approached quietly, careful not to spook them.
A spooked horse is a stupid horse . . . well, actually most horses are st . . . oh, never mind.
He slipped carefully in under the shade. He patted one horse and slid between two others, and stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom.
Then he saw it. Back in the corner.
Something peculiar.
A horse with . . . something on its back.
He patted another rump and moved a little closer.
The horses started to shift a bit. They were beginning to sense something.
Mealtime? Pshaw, that’s all the time.
Maybe a slight breeze was coming up and it was time for everyone to spook and run around like idiots? That would take effort.
An intruder? Hmm . . . this needed considering . . .
Dad had finally moved far enough through the herd that he could see into the corner.
See the smallest pony, drooping in front of the manger, with a little girl turned backwards on his back, her head on the wide, soft rump.
The rest of her in dreamland.
He had found me, but now for the tricky part. How to wake me without spooking the herd, and my own personal pillow. If he spoke, the horses would surely work out the fact that it was a man standing among them and use that excuse to start running.
Or dancing.
Or playing chess.
You never know with horses.
He would have to take the chance. “Diane,” he whispered.
“Mmm?”
“Diane,” he said again, a little louder.
My eyes opened.
“Diane.” A third time.
I sat up and frowned at him. “What.”
“Time for dinner.”
Who knew a four-year-old could move that fast?

Mike

Straingam Ranch
We had a dog. Mike. He was a big dog. Saint Bernard. Very protective. He thought nothing of risking his very life defending us from such dangerous things as – the cat. Tumbleweeds. The occasional cardboard box, blowing in the wind. Laundry. In the history of the world, no one was safer. My parents could relax, knowing that Mike was on duty.
We decided to take our fearless guard dog swimming. We didn’t realize that Mike was a mountain dog. Swimming hadn’t been programmed into his non-rewritable brain. He knew only two things. Snow. And saving people. Swimming couldn’t possibly fit in there anywhere. But he good-naturedly followed us because we asked him. Or because Jerry was holding the rope that doubled as a leash. Whichever.
At first everything went well. We swam. Mike ran up and down the bank, barking frantically. If anyone ventured near enough to grab, he did so. By whatever protruded enough for him to get a grip on. But to his horror, the ‘saved’ person would inevitably extricate themselves and, without even a thank you, nullify all his best efforts by charging back into the milky waters.
Finally, Mike’s lack of success in the saving department became too much for him. His frustration boiled over into something more proactive. He started venturing further and further into the uber-dangerous, monster filled water, seeking someone – anyone - to save. A limb passed near. Or someone’s backside. He grabbed it, and whoever it was attached to, and dragged them to the shore. Kicking and screaming. How happy they must be that he was on hand to save them! Listen to the sound of their relief! He would bark happily and charge in for the next heroic act.
He never managed to drown anyone. Wisdom. Or a miracle. After that, when we went swimming, our hero guarded the garage. From the inside.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pudding on a String

Daddy, George and I
My Dad had made me a new toy.
It was a large - very large button on a string.
Intriguing.
You would thread a long, heavy string through the holes of the button and knot it. Then you would push the button to the centre and grip one of the two loops of the string in each hand.
Now you held something that resembled . . . a button on a string.
But then came the exciting part. If you wound up the button, you could pull the string out away from the button on each side and it would unwind and rewind the opposite way.
If you handled it just right, you could keep it going.
All day.
Which I did.
And it created a bit of a breeze if you got it going very fast.
Which I also did.
Enough background.
Mom had just made a large pot of pudding and set it on the cupboard to cool.
I was waiting, rather impatiently for it to be cool enough for me to eat.
That was when I got my, to date, greatest idea.
My button could generate a breeze. It would cool the pudding and I could eat it that much faster!
I pushed a stool over to the cupboard and climbed up.
Carefully, I manoeuvred my button over the pudding and pulled the strings.
It worked!
For a moment.
Until I relaxed my hands on the ‘rewind’ or maybe the ‘unwind’ stroke.
Then, it dipped and skimmed the top of the scalding hot pudding straight into my face.
And my hair.
And the ceiling.
The covering properties of a button on a string have never been fully explored. I think they should.
I believe Mom was cleaning up pudding from the most impossible places for months.
Long after I had healed.
P.S. I still like pudding. I just prefer it inside me

Mom and Me vs THE COW

Being the baby is hard work!
My very first memory occurred when I was two. To tell the truth, I’m not sure if it is a real memory, or if I simply heard my mother tell the story so often that I have pieced it together from that.
Whichever. It is very real to me now.
I had my new red cowboy boots on, and very little else. I was ready for anything. Dad was out in the blacksmith shop and I knew he would be happy to see me. Certainly, I would be happy to see him. I decided to make the journey. But there was a fence and a large barnyard between us.
Oh, and a milk cow.
It was the custom in those days to take the calf away from the milk cow and only put the two of them together morning and evening, after the cow had been milked. That way, the cow’s production stayed high, we were assured a constant supply of milk, and the calf received enough milk to ensure its proper growth. A good system all around, except that one usually ended up with a rather irate, over-protective full-grown mama cow wandering at will in the barnyard. No problem. If you were an adult, or very fast.
I was neither.
Having been raised to nearly three on a ranch, I was fully confident of my ability to speak cow. I walked over to the fence, put my face against the bars of the gate and proceeded to bellow impressively. I don’t know what I said, but it must have been something truly insulting because the cow wasn’t impressed. In fact, she began to make noises of her own. And then she started running feints at the gate. Being two, I thought she was merely trying to amaze me. I continued to ‘talk’. She continued to react.
It was a fair dialogue. We were communicating.
Finally, in a positive froth, she pounded over to the barn, to make sure that her baby was still in his pen, unharmed. The way was clear for me to climb the fence and cross the no-man’s land that was the barn yard. I proceeded to do so. I probably made it a few yards before she hit me. I don’t remember much about that part. My mother definitely takes over the story from there.
She had been working in the kitchen and keeping an eye on me through the window. Suddenly, as with any toddler, I disappeared. She didn’t waste time in searching. She knew instinctively where I had gone. She started out on the run, spotting me just as I dropped down from the fence in triumph.
On the cow side.
Mom’s sight was obscured for a few moments as she ran. Trees. Sweat. Whatever. By the time she again had me in her sights, I was down and the cow was turning for a return engagement.
Somehow she was able to put herself into ‘super-mom’ mode and leap the fence at a single bound. (Actually, I think she opened the gate and ran through, but this sounds better.) She reached me just ahead of the black and white frenzy, who was not pleased to place second. Mom scooped me up and screamed for my Dad, while the cow proceeded to try to knock me out of her arms. For a few seconds, Mom avoided the angry, gesticulating cow by spinning, pirouetting gracefully.
There was some real ‘bull-fighter’ potential in my mother.
But soon, the cow tired of the performance and changed tempos. She decided that the best way to the child was through the mother. Fortunately this new ‘barn dance’ with me at the centre was cut short by the arrival of my enraged father.
That’s the part I wish I could remember. When anyone, or anything, was threatening one of his children, my dad would . . . well let me put it this way. Two words. Mount Vesuvius. In work boots. Needless to say, in short order, the cow forgot all about her ongoing discussion with me and was headed for the nearest far-away place with her tail tucked – figuratively speaking – between her legs, and I was being closely examined by not one, but two anxious parents. My only injury was a red cowboy boot crushed flat. The foot inside miraculously survived.
Another day, another adventure.

Life on the Ranch

The new barn
I was privileged to grow up on one of the last of the large old ranches in Southern Alberta. Situated half way between the towns of Milk River and Del Bonita, it covered two-and-a-half townships, close to 92 square miles. Our closest neighbour was over nine miles away. A little far to drop by to borrow a cup of sugar, but close enough to help in the case of a real emergency, which was not uncommon on the large spread we ran, and with the number of people involved in the daily workings.
The ranch buildings themselves were nestled snugly in a bend of the South Fork of the Milk River. Towering cliffs surrounded us. Cliffs which were home, at times, to a pair of blue herons, and at all others, to marmots, badgers, porcupines, and a very prolific flock of mud swallows. We learned to swim in that river. We tobogganed down the gentler slopes of those cliffs. We built dams and caught frogs and snakes. I even trapped a full grown jack rabbit – almost.
It was an unusual life, as I have now come to know. At the time, it was normal. We thought everyone lived like we did. Far from any outside influences. Relying on each other. Immersed in the needs of the family and the ranch. For a child growing up, it was peace itself.

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Diane was born and raised on one of the last of the great old Southern Alberta ranches. A way of life that is fast disappearing now. Through her memories and stories, she keeps it alive. And even, at times, accurate . . .

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