Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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



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by Diane Stringam Tolley

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Rodeo. Minus the crowds. And drama

Some of the crew . . . and the all-important 'squeeze'.
Branding.
First a little lot of background . . .
Branding, at the Stringam ranch, invariably took place in high summer.
And lasted forever.
Okay, I was six. Everything seemed to last forever.
Except Christmas, but I digress . . .
For the entire day prior, every rider on the place would be involved in gathering the herds. With an operation the size of ours, this was no easy task. The fields were a section (640 acres) in size and, normally, two riders would have to work together, collecting the herd. Then those smaller herds would be gathered, one by one, into the main corrals.
The sun would be high and hot, baking the wonderful scent out of the sage.
There would be glorious vistas of open, wind-swept prairies where one could see, literally, for miles.
Heat and dust and sweat.
And an unbelievable din.
Picture this: Hundreds of cow and calf pairs, which, when herded together immediately become . . . unpaired.
They start bawling for each other. ('Where are you?' in cow, invariably sounds the same, 'Mooooah') They aren't smart enough to actually . . . look . . . for one another.
The cows merely sniff any calf that happens in their vicinity. 'Sniff', nope. 'Sniff', nope. 'Sniff', nope. 'Mooooah'.
And so it goes . . .
Slowly, each herd is driven to the corrals and penned. Hay is thrown into the mangers. The cows finally find their babies. Peace is restored, somewhat.
Then, another herd is brought in and everyone immediately becomes separated again.
More bawling. Then they get sorted out. Then another herd.
This goes on all day and into the evening.
Things are quiet for the night.
Then, the big day dawns. The most exciting, but noisiest day of the year.
Cows and calves are separated and the cows are moved into the largest pen.
The calves go into pens which connect to the chutes. One by one, these smaller, though not necessarily easier to work with, animals are pushed down the chute and into the squeeze (an apparatus which captures the calf and then converts into a table by tilting sideways).
And then, with the noise, come the smells.
Hot metal of irons in the fire.
Burning hair as those irons are briefly pressed to the tough hide.
KRS, a disinfectant.
Manure.
One by one, the calves are branded. Inoculated. Then released.
One by one, they find their Mamas.
And slowly, ever so slowly, order is restored.
Then the entire herd is released and driven back out into the pastures.
More noise and confusion.
Then all is quiet.
 Every year, on the ranch, this is a highlight.
For us humans, anyways. (I have to admit, it probably isn't quite as exciting for the cows, or their babies.)
Enough background . . .
This was the most exciting year of all. This was the first year I was able to participate. Well, as something more than just chief mischief-maker.
The excitement was palpable.
A crew had been assembled. (As branding is such a big job, invariably, neighbors come in to help.)
My oldest sister and I were given the smallest, and nearest field. We left the chatting, gesticulating crowd and headed towards our assignment.
The two of us gathered our herd and pushed them towards the corrals. At one point, just below the ranch buildings, it is necessary to cross the Milk River.
Twice.
But the crossing is shallow and, usually, the cows show little concern.
Our small herd marched across without a pause. We chased them up the hill and into the corrals. Then we sat back and watched as the others herds came in.
There were a few tense moments, but mostly, everything went off well.
The herd was tucked in for the evening.
The next morning, the real work began.
I was assigned to be the 'pusher'.
And no, it's not what it sounds like.
I was the person inside the chute with the calves, pushing each of them into the squeeze so they could be branded.
It was hot, heavy work, especially for a 6-year-old.
And I loved it.
Push. Push. Push. Gate closes. Squeeze . . . ummm . . . squeezes. Tilts sideways. Branding. Shots. Tilts back. Squeeze - unsqueezes. Front gate opens. Calf bolts.
Push. Push. Push . . .
And so it went throughout the day. At noon, Mom appeared with lunch for everyone and we abandoned our posts to gather in whatever bit of shade we could find, and gorge.
Have I mentioned that Mom is a great cook?
Two brothers, neighboring ranchers noted for their pranks and hijinks, were on hand to help us out.
They had found a comfortable spot for lunch on one side of the car Mom had driven up in.
Mom and Dad had relaxed on the other side.
Mom had made the mistake of supplying sliced watermelon for our dessert.
The two brothers, as they had finished each piece of watermelon, launched the rinds up into the air over the car, aiming for my hapless parents.
Two rinds had been met with silence. Obvious misses.
The third rind went up.
"Hey!" My Dad's voice.
Bingo.
Dad got up and stalked, playfully, around the car, but the brothers were already gone. He shook his head, turned towards the corrals and walked over to stand next to the chute.
It was the signal for the rest of us to get back to work.
I crawled up the side of the chute and prepared to drop down inside.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alfred, one of the brothers, sneaking up behind my Dad. I turned to watch.
Alfred was carrying a pitcher of ice-cold water, which he proceeded to empty into my Dad's back pocket.
"Hey!" Dad spun around. But by then, Alfred had, once more, disappeared.
Everyone, including Dad, got a real laugh out of that one. Fortunately, with the hot, dry air, his soaked pant leg soon dried.
By sunset, the work was finished and the herds sent back out to pasture. Everyone who had been involved assembled at the house for supper, feeling sunburnt, windblown, tired . . . and happy.
That year, as in previous years, we all sat around the table, talking and laughing.
And it was then I realized that branding was a time of gathering, not just of cattle, but of  family and friends. Because of the vast distances between settlements in this prairie country, people go months without seeing each other.
So branding, in addition to being the apex of the year, regarding the work, is also a time of visiting. Re-acquaintance and exchanging of news.
Perhaps that is the reason it is so important to all of us who live on the ranch.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Girl Who Cried, "Toad!"

The real denizens of the pasture
Photo by:  Ravedave

I was checking the herd in the north pasture.
My favorite assignment.
You pointed the horse in the right direction and sat back for the ride.
Occasionally you would be required to come out your reverie long enough to glance around and take stock (literally).
The cows would stare at you for a moment, glance towards their calves for reassurance, then drop their heads and continue grazing.
Then you could sink back into your own thoughts.
Tough job.
The most peaceful work on the planet.
Except that this time, there were more critters in the pasture than I had anticipated.
But I am getting ahead of myself . . .
It had been a wet year.
Almost unheard of in very arid Southern Alberta, but very much appreciated.
Things were green and growing.
There were even small ponds of water standing about. Something I had never seen.
I started up the east side of the pasture, heading north.
All was well.
I turned west at the northern fence and continued on.
Everything remained quiet.
Reaching the western boundary, I turned south.
Halfway along the western fence, my horse stopped.
Okay, this was different.
I emerged from my thoughts long enough to frown at her and give her a nudge.
She stayed where she was.
Huh. Weird.
Maybe my goofball ex-racehorse had seen something.
It would take a miracle, but I believed in miracles.
I decided to look around.
Just to my left was a small hill, and beneath it, a basin, hardly more than a dimple, which had, until today, been filled with fresh, clean water.
Water that had . . . too quickly . . . disappeared.
Now only mud remained.
And something more. Something that was . . . moving.
I nudged my horse again.
But she was staring at that mud and "had no intention of going any closer, thank you."
I slid off her and, looping the reins around my arm, proceeded forward on foot.
My horse let the reins play out as far as she could, then reluctantly followed.
I stopped a few feet from the water's edge.
Because that was as far as I could go without stepping on something.
A tiny toad.
Because there were dozens, maybe hundreds of them, crawling over each other and milling about.
Toads.
Here.
In a place that, in a normal year, was miles from any water.
And where, I should point out, we had never, ever seen them before.
Where could they have come from?
And, more importantly, how could I get one home?
I glanced at my still-nervous horse and my 'saddlebag-less' riding pad.
Nothing there that would hold them.
I had pockets.
Hmm. Worked for Dennis the Menace.
On TV.
I picked one up and studied his small, sturdily-built body.
No. I might squish him.
I set him down.
I watched them for some time, moving about, doing their little 'toady' things.
It was fascinating.
But finally, I had to move on.
Regretfully, I mounted up and let my horse make a wide detour around the writhing mass of little bodies.
By the time I was able to drag my father out to see them the next day, the mud had dried up.
And my little friends had disappeared as if they had never existed.
I glanced around.
Surely this was the spot?
But there wasn't a living thing to be seen.
Certainly nothing moved.
Where could they have gone?
Dad stared at the spot.
Then he looked at me.
And shook his head.
He believed me. I know he did.
I'm almost sure he did.
Okay, well, it wouldn't have been the first time I had told a 'big windy'.
But this time, I was telling the truth.
Sigh.
We never saw them again.
They disappeared as completely as if they had never existed.
Maybe they hadn't.
But if that's true, I had held, for a short time, a bit of my imagination in my hand.
It tickled.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

An Attitude of Gratitude

Admit it, you'd love for someone
to make this for you !

I'm weird.
I do weird things.
I've accepted it.
Moving on . . .
I had taken my three-year-old granddaughter to The Mall.
The big mall. The one that covers many city blocks and holds many, many stores and attractions.
And several hundreds of thousands of people.
It is bright. Entertaining. Noisy.
And, at times, crowded.
Kids love it there.
Parents tolerate it.
Older people ignore the enticement of 'modern shopping gone mad' and use it as an indoor track.
'People-dodging' has become an accepted, even sought for work-out.
With all these people and attractions vying (real word) for our attention, it is only understandable that some . . . gentility might get lost.
Let me explain . . .
My granddaughter and I were waiting for my son to finish an interview.
We were hungry.
The choices were, truly, endless.
She chose McDonald's.
Because.
We ordered from a smiling young man. Chicken pieces for her.
Salad for me.
We found a booth and started eating.
Now, I should point out here that, for the most part, I like McDonald's food.
Not gourmet, but tasty and satisfying.
Even with those expectations, my salad was a very pleasant surprise.
It was good.
Really good.
In fact, probably one of the best salads I had ever eaten.
Crisp where it should be crisp. Cheesy where it should be cheesy. Olive-y where it should . . . you get the picture.
I looked at the brightly illustrated billboard to recall what I had ordered.
Ah. Mediterranean salad.
Huh.
I finished.
And licked the bowl.
Okay, not quite, but I have to admit that I was certainly tempted.
My granddaughter finished her meal.
"Come with me, Sweetie." I took her hand and walked back to the counter.
A young woman was standing there, smiling brightly.
I went up to her. "Hello. May I please speak to the manager?"
Her smile . . . slipped . . . somewhat.
"Umm . . . yes?" She started to slide down the counter away from me.
I followed. Finally, "Are you the manager?"
She nodded hesitantly, by now, her smile all but gone.
"Oh, good. Well I have to tell you that I just ordered your Mediterranean salad," I pointed, "and it is probably the best salad I've tasted in my life. Thank you."
She stared at me. Finally, my words must have sunk in, because, suddenly, her face lit up.
Really. With the biggest smile I had ever seen.
"Oh, thank you!" she said, rather breathlessly.
The boy who had served us our meal suddenly appeared from the 'food' part of the establishment, where it would seem he had been hiding, and presented me with an equally large smile.
"Thank you!" he said.
I smiled at them and left.
I have to tell you that this isn't an unusual thing for me to do.
It started when I saw the movie, "Heaven Can Wait", with Warren Beatty.
In one scene, he gets up from the very formal meal, served by his army of servants, and pushing open the kitchen door, hollers, "Thanks for dinner!" or something like that.
Now I had been raised to always compliment and thank my mother, or whoever had prepared my food in ours or someone else's home. I had just never taken it to the next level.
Thanking and complimenting someone you haven't even met. 
Or seen.
I decided to try it.
With amazing results.
I've now been doing it for years.
Almost without fail, I receive surprised, but enthusiastic smiles.
And gratitude.
It's a simple thing.
A smile, a compliment, and a thank you.
It might put some much-needed sunshine into someone's day.
I know it did that day, in that crowded mall.
Into mine.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Naked-ing the Clothed

The cover of Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
 And I do mean Cover!

Bit of a departure today, because of a recent experience . . .

I have a swimsuit.
I made it.
Long. Old-fashioned. Neck to knees type.
Yes, popular at the turn of the century.
The Twentieth century.
I love it. It covers me.
It encases anything that might otherwise unexpectedly fall out.
And saves me the aggravation of having to shave my nether regions.
I hate shaving my nethers.
Moving on . . .
Swimming is the only exercise I can do that doesn't hurt something.
I swim a lot.
This necessitates my going to the pool.
Usually, I swim in the morning.
With the other octogenarians.
I fit right in. And no one can see well enough to notice that my swimsuit is different from those found at the local Zellers.
All is well.
But I missed my morning swim yesterday.
And was forced to go at a later time.
With the younger set.
Who can see.
Sigh.
I strode confidently from the dressing room towards the pool.
And that's when the trouble started.
A group of kids, probably in the 10 to 12 age range was sitting on a large, foam raft not too far from the entrance/exit to the change room.
I entered.
One young girl pointed.
And laughed.
I suddenly felt as though I was in junior high again.
It wasn't a pleasant feeling.
But that's not important.
What is important, was how this young girl was . . . dressed.
Her slender little pre-pubescent body was covered, barely (and I use this term deliberately) by two almost non-existent triangles of cloth on her upper half and only slightly larger triangles on her lower half.
She was as close to naked as one can get and still legally appear in public.
And she seemed completely heedless, sitting there amongst other boys and girls her own age, laughing at someone who was dressed in a far more modest, albeit fairly 'unique' swimsuit.
I remember when near-nudity was a source of embarrassment. When one's worst dreams were of appearing somewhere public . . . in a less than exemplary fashion.
Okay, I have to admit that, yesterday, one of us was embarrassed.
Me. For her.
My point is this: When has modestly become an opportunity to jeer?
When did society do a complete turn-around? When did the naked start laughing at the clothed? (Not that I'm promoting the idea of the clothed laughing at the naked . . .) But when?
I have to admit that I believe in modesty.
It promotes confidence and self-worth. It promotes respectful behavior, both to oneself and to others.
I still wear my bathing suit, and will continue to do so.
I'm comfortable.
And isn't that the point?

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Cow Made Me Do It!

At least one of us was a lady . . .

It was hot!
I was tired!
Give me a minute, I'm sure I can think of better excuses . . .
The milk cow had been quartered in the east pasture, waiting for her to 'freshen'. (A cowboy term for 'give birth'.)
I know.
Cowboys are weird.
Moving on . . .
Her moment was getting close.
Time for her move into closer quarters.
And I was elected to do it.
On foot.
Sigh.
Dad dropped me off at the gate with specific instructions. "Just chase her along the ditch, past the ranch and into the near-west pasture."
I nodded. Instructions received and understood.
He drove off.
Things went well.
Except that Madame Cow (I use this term lightly) couldn't quite get into her head the part of our instructions that said, "PAST the ranch."
I should explain here that the entrance to the ranch was on the north side of the road. The ditch we were following was also on the north side of the road.
And, when the breach in the fence appeared, Madame Cow insisted on turning . . . north. Towards the buildings.
I had to sprint around her (remember I was on foot) and turn her back towards the road.
As which time she took the corner and headed east up the ditch we had just come down.
Another sigh. A little more forceful this time. And accompanied by a "Stupid cow!"
I got around her (feet, again) and turned her back west.
She followed the fence and again turned towards the ranch.
Way wrong!
"Stupid, dumb cow!"
Back towards the road.
Please head west. Please?!
Nope. East.
*#$! Cow!
Just a little swear.
This went on for some time, and my language, I'm ashamed to say . . . worsened.
Or got more colorful. That would be the 'PC' term.
Remember, I was raised around hired men.
Experts at the English language.
Or at least a colorful part of it.
Not an excuse, just a reason.
Again and again, I got round her and tried to head her in the correct direction.
Again and again, she . . . didn't.
And my language got more and more peppered with, shall we say, 'colorful metaphors'?
None of which explained to said cow exactly what I expected of her.
I have to admit that the poor animal was probably quite confused by this time.
There were the buildings. With hay and comfort.
Why were we going the other way?
Okay, strange human, I'll just go back where I came from.
No?
Except that it would have probably sounded more like this:
Food!
Home!
Food!
Home!
In 'cow' of course.
Finally, after what seemed hours of chasing back and forth, and turning the air blue with . . . ahem . . . profanities (me, not her), the cow skipped past the ranch entrance and, wonder of wonders, walked right over to the proper field.
Eureka! (real word)
I opened the gate and she stepped sedately through.
Then turned and looked at me.
Stupid human!
At least one of us had retained her gentility.
I closed the gate and started back towards the ranch, humming happily. All that had gone on before conveniently forgotten.
Dad's truck slid to a stop beside me. "Need a ride?"
I climbed in, still humming.
Dad drove for a moment. Then he said, not looking at me, "I got a real education this morning."
I looked at him, innocently, "Oh?"
"Yes. I discovered that my middle daughter knew words I didn't even think she had even heard of."
"Oh." Very tiny voice, "You heard me?"
"Heard you! They heard you in town!"
"Oh."
That was all that was said.
It was never brought up again.
But I knew that Dad knew.
And he knew . . . never mind.
I'd like to say that I never used 'foul' language again, but I'd be lying.
For some reason, working with cows brings out the lowest form of expression.
Probably a good thing I don't work with them any more.
And I should probably point out that swearing isn't an easy habit to get rid of.
Even now, years later, a very strange word will pop into my head.
I'm happy to report that it never makes it past my lips, but I feel some dismay in the fact that it appears at all.
Sigh.
I'm a work in progress.
I should have taken lessons from the cow.

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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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