Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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



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Daughter of Ishmael by Diane Stringam Tolley

Daughter of Ishmael

by Diane Stringam Tolley

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Between a Rock and a Cool Place

Quick - pick out the cool kids . . .

At the bottom of the hill, at the edge of the playground, halfway between the elementary and junior/senior high schools was a rock.
A big rock.
Huge.
It didn't belong to anyone.
It was just there.
Doing rock stuff.
It had 'sit' down pretty well.
And 'stay'.
It was the gathering place for the 'cool' kids in grade five.
I was in grade five.
I wasn't cool.
Every recess, the group of boys and girls who were the most popular would scurry down and claim the rock. For the entire 15 minutes, they would clamber (real word) about, or sit and talk.
And look cool.
I wanted to be with them more than anything.
I wanted to be cool.
Sigh.
I, too, had a group of friends.
Like me, my friends were not considered the 'popular' group.
But they were good friends. Loyal. Fun.
Would let me boss them around all of the time.
Ahem . . .
Often I would catch them casting longing looks towards the rock.
And the cool kids thereon.
I knew what they were thinking.
Sometimes, our disappointment and frustration would boil over into something more proactive.
Gossip.
One occasion stands out . . .
We 'seconds' as we had begun to think of ourselves, were grouped around the monkey bars.
Talking.
Okay, we called it talking.
We were making great sport of tearing the distant cool kids apart.
Everything was fodder for our nasty little grist mill. Their looks, their clothes, their personalities, their classroom standing, even their pets.
Yep. We were grinding at a pretty feverish pace.
I said, in a loud voice, "Well, I wouldn't go with them, even if they begged me."
The others nodded in agreement.
Than another voice broke in. "Diane?"
We all turned. Two of the popular girls were standing there.
"Um . . . yeah?"
"We wanted to invite you to join us. Paul really likes you."
I'd like to tell you that I simply smiled and refused. Or that I turned a slightly disdainful shoulder and stuck with my friends.
I did neither.
Faster than you can blink, I was one of them. They put their arms around my waist and I did the same and the three of us headed off to the rock.
I didn't even look back.
For many weeks, I lived as a cool kid.
Hung out at Danny's like everyone else but, because I did it, it was cool. Wore the same clothes as everyone else, purchased at Robinson's, but because I did it . . . you get the picture.
And I loved it.
Every minute of it.
No longer did I have to worry about what I said.
Because I was cool, everyone laughed and forgave me.
I didn't have to worry about what I did.
Ditto.
I was in heaven.
Then . . .
Paul decided he liked someone else.
And, just like that, I wasn't cool anymore.
The rest of them dropped me like a hot . . . rock.
It was my very first lesson on relationships.
It wouldn't be the last.
But it was the most painful.
Because when I tried to go back to my old circle of friends, I found that they were afraid of me.
Afraid to trust me.
Now, I was truly alone.
Oh, my solitary state didn't last long.
Only the eternity of about a week.
Fifth graders have short memories.
Fortunately.
But I did a lot of growing in that week.
I realized that I had learned four things:
            1. True friends are important.
            2. Don't burn your bridges.
            3. The rock is really hard and uncomfortable to sit on.
            4. Even if you're a cool kid.

Don't Die With Your Book Still In You
Carving Angels: A delightful story. An old blind man regains his desire to carve.
http://bit.ly/nttqEj

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Movies, Quotable Movies













We watch movies.
Old movies.
A lot.
Our family was raised on the crazy antics of Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon in The Great Race.
The hilarity of Danny Kaye in The Court Jester.
The magical song and dance of  Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon.
The comic timing of Red Skelton in The Fuller Brush Man.
And these are only four of the hundreds we sat through together as a family as they were growing up.
Inevitably, these movies had a great influence on our lives.
When the characters made mistakes and paid dearly for them, my family suffered alongside. When a story ended, inevitably, in triumph, we celebrated.
We lived their lives. Learned their lessons. Grieved and cheered with them.
The stories became very real to us.
We discussed them endlessly.
The lessons learned. The principles taught.
And our conversation became peppered with noteworthy lines.
I do mean peppered.
Our youngest son, three-year-old Tristan, was playing with a small, battery-powered railroad with a friend. "Push the button, Max!" (The Great Race)
Friend, "My name's not Max."
People visiting our household would often gape in confusion as quotes cropped up in the conversation.
We knew what was being said.
They didn't.
Oops.
Occasionally, someone would join us who knew that the answer to, "And there was much rejoicing" was a subdued, "Yay!" (with appropriate hand movements) from Search for the Holy Grail.
Or that, when asked to do something specific, would know to quip, "I'm smokin' a salmon!" from Oscar.
And that, with the end of a meal, the appropriate gratitude was voiced by the words, "The meal was good. The wine was excellent. I must send the Cardinal a note." (Again, with appropriate hand gesture, this time, hand kissing.) A noteworthy quote, though we weren't wine-drinkers, from The Three Musketeers.
We were the family who would break, unexpectedly, into song.
And everyone would know the words.
Occasionally, outside of our home, others would take note of our unique (note that I'm using the PC term) customs.
For good or bad . . .
Our daughter, Tiana, was in kindergarten.
Almost five.
Her teacher heard her singing, "Goin' Courtin'. Goin' Courtin'." (From Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.)
She pulled her aside and asked her to repeat it.
Tiana obliged.
The teacher frowned and asked her where she had heard that.
Tiana stared at her.
This was probably her first experience with someone who didn't eat, breathe and sleep movies.
So, not like her family at all.
"It's from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." she said finally. "Just before they learn how to dance."
Her teacher was puzzled. "Do you know what it means?"
"What?"
"Courting."
Tiana smiled at her. "Oh, yes, it means 'dating'."
"Ah." Still puzzled, her teacher let her go.
But brought up the subject at our next parent-teacher conference.
I have to point out that it wasn't the only time I had heard from confused elementary school teachers.
Moving on . . .
But as the kids grew into junior and senior high school, our family quirk became more acknowledged.
Even occasionally appreciated.
Especially when a teacher would pose a question or repeat a quote from an old movie or program and our child was the only one in the class who knew the answer.
Or who laughed.
They became the universally-acknowledged 'experts' on old movies.
And, more importantly, quotes from movies.
It was a fun way to raise a family.
It is a fun way to live.
I think its time for another one.
"Push the button, Max!"

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dune Buggy + Ditch = Pain


Add a dashboard, seat, steering wheel, and dust and this is our  steed!

Marty had a dune buggy.
Actually, it had once been a car. But it had been stripped down to the basics. Wheels. Frames. Seats. Motor. And a steering wheel.
Now it was a dune buggy.
That baby could go.
Just not on any conventional roads.
Marty would take us flying across the prairie at speeds beyond . . . what we should have been travelling.
But we were safe.
Marty had firm hands on the wheel.
As long as there was ground beneath us, all was well.
And that's where my story gets interesting.
It was a beautiful spring day.
The sun was high and hot. The air shimmered.
The crickets and bugs were sending up a steady chorus.
There was a haze of dust hanging in the still, dry air.
Perfect 'low flying' weather.
Marty had piled Michelle and I into the buggy for a ride.
Okay, I have to admit that the use of the word 'into' is a bit of a misnomer.
'Onto' would probably be more accurate.
I was in the middle. Marty on my left, steering wheel firmly in hand. Michelle on my right, casually slumped back in the seat, one foot propped up on the dashboard.
Oh, right. We also had a dashboard.
Back to my story . . .
We were flying across the prairie just to the west and north of Marty's family farm.
Talking and laughing and generally enjoying the wind in our faces.
The field stretched out smooth and green in front of us.
Marty stepped on the gas and we all felt the exhilaration of speed.
Then, quite suddenly, a . . . ditch . . . opened up in front of us.
Oh, not just a little ditch.
An irrigation ditch. 30 feet across and a good 20 feet deep.
More of a canal than a ditch, really.
Huh. Where did that come from?
And, more importantly, how were we going to avoid it when it carved its way straight across the field before us from fence to fence.
And when we were travelling at upwards of 45 miles per hour.
You're right. We couldn't. We didn't.
We launched off the west bank in a graceful arc.
Now the Dukes of Hazzard would have made it.
Evel Kinevel would have made it.
Even Barney Oldfield would have made it.
But three farm kids in a souped-up, stripped-down 'dune buggy'?
Not a chance.
We hit the opposite bank just below the lip.
Still doing 45 miles per hour.
It's funny just how many thoughts can race through your head in the split seconds between launch and land. I remember thinking that Marty really was taking us flying.
Cool.
Then . . . crunch.
The buggy stopped instantly, of course, and slid down to the bottom of the canal.
We sat there, stunned for a moment.
And then the moaning started.
I was fine.
I just thought I should point that out. Something to note - when getting involved in an accident in a dune buggy, the middle position is the safest.
Moving on . . .
Marty and Michelle . . . weren't.
Fine, I mean.
Marty had broken his beloved steering wheel with his chin, splitting it open to the bone.
His chin, I mean.
Michelle was even worse off.
The foot that had been so casually propped up on the dashboard had been driven back by the force of our crash and dislocated her hip.
She was in . . . considerable . . . pain.
Marty put a hand over his chin and ran to the farmhouse a quarter of a mile away for help.
It was up to me to pull Michelle up out of the ditch.
Okay, it probably would have been easier . . . and wiser . . . to call an ambulance and wait for professional help, but we were kids of the country.
Raised to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.
We acted first.
And thought after.
Slowly and painstakingly, I turned Michelle onto her uninjured side. Then I pulled her up the steep bank. One step at a time.
Step, step. Pull.
Step, step. Pull.
She must have suffered agony throughout the entire ordeal, but she said little.
As we were nearing the top, Marty pulled up in his family's car.
Between the two of us, he and I managed to pull Michelle into the back seat.
Then, Marty drove us to the hospital.
Funny that it never occurred to any of us to feel alarm when we again saw Marty with a steering wheel in his hands.
Go figure.
He got us there safely.
This time, professionals maneuvered Michelle out of the car and onto a stretcher.
By this point, I'm quite sure she appreciated their expertise.
And their drugs.
Her hip was restored, though she had to suffer through traction and treatments for months afterwards.
Marty was sewn back together and sports a sexy scar on his chin to this day.
I emerged unscathed.
A few days later, I was driving around with Dennis in his dune buggy.
Some people never learn.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The World's Best Teacher




The greatest teacher who ever lived, worked in Milk River.
In the Junior High School.
I was terrified of her.
And I  loved her.

Mrs. Wollersheim TAUGHT Social and Math.
Notice the capitals for emphasis?
I meant to put them there.
My first experience with Mrs. W was in grade seven.
I'll never forget it.
I was one of the former grade six kings and queens of Milk River Elementary, now demoted to the lowest of the low.
Grade seven in the Junior/Senior high school.
I was a worm.
Already intimidated by my surroundings, I and my classmates were seated in our desks in Mrs. W's room, awaiting the next installment in terror that Junior High was turning out to be.
We didn't wait long.
From down the hall, outside the wide-open classroom door, we heard a sound. A steady 'Creak. Creak'.
I should mention, here, that our school was old. Methuselah old. And creaky. In fact, it would have made an excellent set for a horror movie, "The Killer Who Terrorized the Grade Sevens in the Old, Creaky School."
Okay. Movie-writing was never meant to be my forte (that's French).
Moving on . . .
Each member of the class stiffened into attention.
All eyes were trained on the doorway.
A trickle of sweat traced a path down the temple of the kid in front of me.
Okay, I'm exaggerating. But you have to admit that, for a moment, I had you.
Okay, you don't have to admit it.
Sigh.
A hollow voice rang down the hall.
"Ahem. Now class . . ."
I should point out that Mrs. W never, ever waited until she was visible to begin teaching.
She didn't have to.
" . . . and that's what we are going to do today."
She appeared in the doorway. A short, heavy-set woman in a print dress, with her hair pinned back into a bun. Sharp eyes covered by thick spectacles. And flat, black walking shoes, capable of carrying the wearer through an entire day of teaching.
Or stalking, menacingly through the halls.
The anticipation was over.
We were, at last face to face.
So to speak.
The class shivered. 
En masse. (I'm on fire today! That's another French term. I think it means all together.)
She looked us over.
Complete silence.
We sat, frozen in our desks.
Does a teacher's visual acuity depend upon movement?
She moved forward. "The first thing you will have to learn, class, is that when I walk into the room, your books and notebooks will be opened to the correct page and you will be ready to learn."
Frantic zipping of binders (zippers were the newest, coolest thing on binders) and shuffling of paper.
Finally, silence once more.
Mrs. W had reached the front of the room and was standing to one side of the desk, watching us.
We felt like proverbial mice in the gaze of the proverbial hawk.
Our reaction was anything but proverbial.
I'm not sure, but I think a couple of students wet themselves.
She nodded and began to teach.
And, despite our misgivings, we began to learn.
And the first thing we learned was that, though she appeared to be a tyrant in the classroom, she was anything but.
Oh, she demanded respect.
And got it.
Even the class clowns showed only exemplary (real word) behavior when seated under her watchful eyes.
But she would do almost anything to have us succeed.
Every one of us.
At anything we tried.
If we were having difficulty with a concept, even if it was a subject taught by another teacher, she would bundle us off to her home. Feed us with the rest of her family.
And teach.
If any of us were involved in extra-curricular activities, she was on the front row for concerts and athletics.
My brother had decided to serve a mission for our Church and though she was of a different denomination, she was there in the chapel, both for his farewell talk, and for his homecoming.
And she did this for approximately 100 students.
Every year.
For 35 + years.
The things she taught us could never be found within the covers of a school textbook.
Patience.
"You'll get it. Let's try again."
Respect and obedience.
"Mr. Russell. Would you mind putting that away and joining us?"
Humor.
"How many of you are there? Well, I'm sure you'll all fit in the front room. If not, we'll jam some into the kitchen. Come in, come in. Let's have some hot chocolate. Don't worry about your boots. Jake'll clean up later. Okay, now what Christmas carols are you going to sing for me?"
Any Social or math I learned, I got from her.
Any sense of discipline? 
Ditto.
Mrs. Wollersheim is gone now.
She spent her last few years in a nursing home in Milk River, her brilliant mind dimmed by disease and old age.
But she left a legacy.
Her love for us.

Carving Angels: My First Book Review



About Carving Angels

          Darling, precious, sweet were the first adjectives I considered 
using to describe Diane Tolley’s newest short story.  Those are the superficial impressions.  Ms. Tolley has managed to pen a piece that is filled with messages of compassion, tolerance, understanding, belief in God’s abiding love and the power of love in our lives. 
            She does this within the pages of her book using a timeless subject, the magic and mystery of the North Pole. While recommended for young readers, a mother would enjoy this while reading to children not yet reading on their own.

                                                 -Sharon King-Jeffers (author and poet)
  
                                               

Don't Die With Your Book Still In You
Carving Angels: A delightful story. An old blind man regains his desire to carve.
http://bit.ly/nttqEj

Monday, August 8, 2011

Irrigation 101 - An Introductory Course


Irrigation. So simple, a child could do it.

The Stringam Ranch sits in a bend of the south fork of the Milk River.
In the driest part of Southern Alberta.
The driest.
Now, I know that residents from Medicine Hat will try to argue the point but don't listen to them.
After all, they come from a place named 'Medicine Hat'.
Enough said.
Most of the land around the ranch is used as pasture.
Nothing else will grow there.
But the acres immediately beside the river, the 'hay flats', have much more potential.
They can be irrigated.
I'm sure you've seen the giant wheel-move irrigation systems capable of watering an entire quarter-section of land in one pivot. Enormous constructions that transport themselves in a wide arc from an end point and effectively bring the gift of life to whole crops at once.
All at the push of a button.
It's fascinating.
It's wondrous.
It wasn't what we Stringams had.
Our system was . . . erm . . . modest.
And connected, disconnected and moved by hand.
Twice a day.
Our favorite chore.
Not.
Morning and evening, the pump would be silenced. The 16 foot lengths of aluminum pipe disconnected and drained one-by-one. And then moved to the next position 40 feet away and reconnected.
It was Dad, Jerry and George's job, mainly.
But I helped.
Once.
And therein lies a tale.
So to speak.
Early one summer evening, because Dad and Jerry were busy doing other things, Dad asked me to go and help George move pipe.
I stared at him.
Me? Do you know what you're asking?
Dad turned away, so I shrugged and followed my brother into the lower hay flat.
He shut off the pump.
I watched.
He walked over to the line.
I followed.
He unhooked the first pipe.
Again I watched.
He unhooked the second pipe.
He was really good at this.
He unhooked the third pipe.
I noticed that my light-blue pants looked white in the fading light.
He unhooked the fourth pipe.
We were having a beautiful sunset. Wonderful shades of red and orange against the clear blue of the sky.
He unhooked the fifth pipe.
I stopped looking at the sky and noticed a gopher nearby. Cheeky little guy was just sitting there. Watching us.
He unhooked the sixth pipe.
I chased the gopher into its burrow.
He unhooked the seventh pipe.
I tripped over the sixth pipe on my way back.
He unhooked the eighth pipe.
"George, is this going to take much longer? I'm tired."
He unhooked the ninth pipe.
And beat me with it.
He didn't, really, but I'm sure he wanted to.
By the time 'we' were done moving pipe and had the pump going again, one of us was sweating profusely.
I'll give you a hint.
It wasn't me.
After that, George never allowed me to come with him to move pipe.
Something about me being worse than useless.
Go figure.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sew Long Ago

Magic happening

Life on the ranch demanded creativity and resourcefulness from every member of the community.
Except for me.
I was four.
Oh, I was resourceful.
Just not in a productive way.
Moving on . . .
In this spirit of inventiveness, my Mom had taught herself to sew.
And she was good at it.
From her hands and her trustly little machine would emerge fantastic and wondrous articles of clothing. Dresses, blouses, skirts, shirts, trousers, all were created quickly and effectiently, with only a bit of cloth.
I know. I watched her.
I also watched her peel potatoes with equal economy, but that is another story.
And a very different outcome.
Ahem . . .
Occasionally, Mom's sewing machine would give her grief, but my Dad instructed me not to say those words.
They must have been sewing words.
Years later, I would use them as cow herding words, but I digress . . .
Mom could also fix things with her electric marvel.
The most hopeless wardrobe disasters could be quickly and perfectly repaired with ease and just a couple of strokes of the needle.
A couple of words, here, about the needles she used.
They were sharp.
Enough said.
My Dad had a work shirt.
Green.
Sturdy.
He hated it.
Something about the fit. Or the material.
Who paid attention?
One day, while fencing, he caught a fold of this shirt on some barbed wire and tore it.
Quite badly.
Rather gleefully, he told Mom to just throw it into the rag bag.
But Mom was far too thrifty to do that.
This was a good, servicable shirt, with plenty of years of work left in it.
She repaired it.
Dad sighed and wore it again.
We were branding.
Dad caught the shirt on the squeeze handle and, again, it tore.
Again, the advice to scrap it.
Again, the repairs.
Another sigh.
Dad was working in the shop and caught the shirt on the work bench.
Another tear.
This was becoming a pattern.
But this time, he was determined to be rid of the hated, but indestructable shirt once and for all.
He extended the tear into something . . . longer.
Then proceeded to rip the rest of the shirt apart.
He came into the sewing room, and delivered the scraps to my astonished Mom.
“Rag bag,” he said.
Then he made the mistake of leaving the room.
Mom looked at the little pile of scraps and . . . smiled.
Have I mentioned that Mom has a very good sense of humor?
I probably should have.
She removed whatever project she was currently sewing and started to work.
And giggle.
In a short time, she had reassembled the dreaded shirt.
Oh, it didn't look quite the same.
Frankenstein's monster comes to mind for some reason.
But it was, once more, complete.
She folded it carefully and put it in Dad's drawer.
Then waited.
She didn't have to wait for long.
The next morning, Dad opened that drawer to get out a shirt and let out a little scream.
And no, it wasn't a girly scream. Although that would have been even funnier.
He emerged, pale-faced, clutching the shirt.
“It's back! It's haunting me!” he said.
Mom laughed and laughed.
We all did.
After that, the shirt finally made it to the rag bag.
It had served its purpose.
Twice.

Daughter of Ishmael

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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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