Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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



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.

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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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