Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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



Saturday, January 21, 2012

True Art

Art isn't always found on display.
And real artists don't necessarily work in a studio.

A true work of art . . .
On a ranch, fences are rather important.
They mean the difference between control and chaos. 
With a good fence, one can dictate which animals live where.
And which of the bulls certain cows are exposed to.
It probably isn't obvious, but with purebred animals, control means the difference between a progressive herd.
And one that is headed only for the meat market.
It is an exacting science of reading pedigrees and understanding genetics.
I rode the horses and put cows where Dad told me.
You can see where I was on the 'ranching is science' scale.
So back to the control thing . . .
A good fence means that things are ordered.
Predictable.
Profitable.
Poor fences spell trouble.
And diminishing returns.
Thus, the most important task on the Stringam Ranch outside of actually . . . associating with the cattle, was building fences.
Something Dad did rather well.
Let me tell you about it.
Building a four-wire barbed wire fence takes many stages.
First, the building of the corners, a sturdy framework of posts and neatly twisted wire, capable of sustaining enormous pull.
Then stringing the wire between the corners.
This is a tricky part. As my brother, George can attest.
Then, planting posts in a straight line along the wires.
Note: Hold post from the side 
Accomplished with a 'post pounder' mounted on a tractor.
A useful, but potentially dangerous gizmo.
Then tacking said wires to said posts.
This was my job.
All it took was a steady hand.
Or if you lacked that, stamina.
Which was what I had.
If the first whack or two didn't get the staple into the post, the next 14 whacks would.
Moving on.
And it was at that point most of the fence-builders would pack up their tools and call the job finished.
Or where the true artists shone.
Remember, we were talking about my Dad.
Once the fence was actually assembled, Dad would stand back and look at it.
I should point out here that the fields in Southern Alberta are seldom flat. They may not change much, but they do change.
And a fence has to run smoothly along them.
I emphasize the word 'smoothly'.
If a fence goes down into a dip, then up again, the tightly stretched wires can actually, over time, pull the lower posts up out of the ground.
True story.
And that is where Dad came in.
He would walk along the fence, find the places where the line would dip, and weight it.
Really.
He would find a large rock (not uncommon on the prairies), tote it over to the dip, fasten a wire around it firmly, then attach the rock to the fence, pulling the wires down so they followed the ground perfectly.
I had watched him do this so often that, to me, that's just how it was done.
I was wrong.
Once, an elderly rancher from west of us came looking for the county veterinarian.
Who happened to be out building fence.
The man drove up in his rusted old pick-up and stopped near where my Dad and brothers were working.
Climbing out of his truck, he greeted everyone, then stood and watched their activities.
Finally, Dad finished with his current wire and rock creation, and turned to speak to the old man.
Only to find him in tears.
Thinking the man had a real emergency, Dad quickly walked over.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Oh nothing," the old man said, blowing his nose. "It's just that I haven't seen that kind of fence-building in fifty years!"
True artists appreciate true art.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Right Side of Gates

Approach carefully. It's tricky!

On a ranch, there are gates.
Many gates.
In the corrals, big gates made of long, wooden boards.
That are fun to swing on.
As long as your Dad doesn't catch you.
Moving on . . .
Along the barbed-wire fences in the pastures, the gates are made of . . . barbed wire.
Go figure.
Barbed wire gates are fashioned by four or five long pieces of wire stretched between two end posts. Then three or four lighter 'dancers' (smaller poles) are nailed to these wires to keep them from tangling when the gate is being opened or closed.
Barbed wire gates are a bit tricky, but easily used, once you get the knack.
With practice, and a cooperative horse, one can even open and close these gates without ever having to get out of the saddle.
If one has an uncooperative horse, the mere thought of dragging a fence post and wires a few feet leads to Entertainment!
Notice the capital 'E'.
Okay, one doesn't have to look far for excitement on a ranch.
Soooo . . . gates.
And using them.
My Mom, raised on a ranch and married to a rancher, never quite got the knack of the barbed wire gates.
I should point out here that, when we were riding, we took turns opening and closing.
When we were driving, the person riding 'shotgun' was the designated gateman.
Because Mom was so entertaining, she was always stuck in that seat.
So the rest of us could watch.
Oh, Mom could open the gates, a trick in itself.
And close them.
An even better trick.
But that is where her difficulty started.
Because somehow, she always closed them with herself on the wrong side.
Whereupon (good word) she would have to either perform the entire operation again, or crawl through.
She always chose the latter.
And the rest of us had a good chuckle while she did so.
Okay, you're right, we did have to look for our entertainment.
But at least we didn't have to look far . . .

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Never Turn Your Back!

Little Brother. Afterwards.

Ranches are dangerous playgrounds.
My Dad was in the blacksmith shop.
And wherever Dad went, we kids trailed after.
Because.
Why is it that everything Dad does is interesting?
For the first couple of minutes . . .
After that, one's short attention span rather gets in the way.
But I digress.
Two-year-old Blair had followed Dad to the shop.
Mom was in hospital with new sister, Anita, and Dad was babysitting.
But that was okay because Dad did such interesting things . . .
For a short time, he had been fascinated with simply watching as Dad puttered.
Then, other interesting sights caught his attention.
Tools.
Horseshoes.
Old paint cans filled with . . . stuff.
He began to explore.
Dad kept an eye on him as he toddled about.
Then, Dad turned on the air compressor.
Its roar filled the old, log-built room.
And drew every kid in the vicinity.
Blair.
He watched, fascinated as the wheel spun.
"Now you stay back, Blair," Dad told him firmly.
And he did.
For a very, very long time.
He was two.
Thirty seconds is a very, very long time when you're two.
Dad turned his back for a moment.
Blair saw his chance.
He moved forward and reached out to touch the spinning wheel.
For a moment, he couldn't figure out what had happened.
Then the pain started.
He screamed.
Dad spun around to see Blair shaking his hand and spraying blood everywhere.
He grabbed him, pulled out his every-ready handkerchief to wrap around the wounded hand and headed for the house.
With his little boy screaming the whole way.
Dad made the trip to the hospital in record time.
And that is something when you are travelling on uncertain dirt roads.
Soon, Blair was home again, with a neat glove bandage around his pointer finger.
Which now was missing part of the first joint.
Dad figures that the spinning belt caught it and nipped it off against the flywheel.
A terrible wound.
Leaving a scar.
And a story to impress girls with twenty years later.
Ahem . . .
But a fixable wound.
And a solemn reminder that turning your back for a second is all it takes.
Ranches can be dangerous.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Cow Made Me Do It!

Busy, cold day.
So, for you, my loyal readers, a repost:

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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cows Can Predict the Weather. Really.

Ha! I KNEW it was going to snow!

“Look to the cows,” said Dad, the wise,
“And you will come to realize,
That by their actions, you can tell,
The weather patterns, fair or fell.”
And so I watched, and so I saw
That he was right, my smart ol' Pa.
And he knew what he talked about,
If you're predicting rain. Or drought.
The cows, they crowd together tight
And you know cold will be the night.
They seek the shed and shelter warm
If rain or snow will be the norm.
And stand out grazing peacefully,
If sun and warmth are meant to be.
But just today, I got a scare,
From cows around me everywhere,
For when I stepped outside my door
And glanced towards the purple moor . . .
(Oops, Alberta's where I live, you see,
And so I meant the wide prairie.)
My cows weren't where they're s'posed to be,
They sat on branches. In the trees.
So now I have to figure out,
Just what they're telling me about.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Moth: 1. Debbie: 0

Admit it. This is terrifying.

Debbie's family lived on a ranch not far from ours.
Her father had worked for my parents as a young man, before he had married.
They had remained good friends.
As had Debbie and I.
Once we had made our respective appearances (ie. born).
In our senior year, I stayed with them for a semester.
They were kind, wonderful people.
Very clever and full of fun.
Debbie fit right in.
Most of the time . . .
Debbie and I had a room in the basement.
Lovely twin beds and assorted other furniture.
With the lamp hanging over her bed.
This is an important point.
She was also terrified of moths.
Another important point.
And I liked to read at night after climbing into bed.
These all tie together.
Let me explain . . .
It was late.
Debbie had long been trying to sleep.
I was reading.
It never occurred to me that I was being inconsiderate, as the room's only light hung directly over her.
And attracted any moths that might be in the vicinity.
She tossed and turned and finally huffed and, throwing back the covers, got out of bed.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Bathroom,” she mumbled.
Just then, a moth that had been fluttering around in the light for the past half-hour, made the mistake of appearing where Debbie could see him.
“Screech!”
In a blur, she headed towards the door.
For some inexplicable reason, the moth followed her.
Out into the dark hall.
You never can tell with moths.
There was another horrendous screech and Debbie darted back into the room, jumped into her bed and pulled the covers over her head.
The moth fluttered in happily behind her and was soon once more dancing in the light.
Double weird.
“Shut off that stupid light!” Debbie said, through the covers.
I stared at the quivering lump that was my friend.
“How on earth did you know the moth followed you into the hall?”
“He touched my face! Shut off the light!”
I complied.
Imagine. Frightened of a silly moth.
Now if it had been a spider . . .

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Not Just Dumb. Really, Really . . .

Okay. This IS rocket science.

Have you ever done anything dumb?
I mean really, really dumb?
I'm not saying that I have but . . .
Okay, I'm saying that I have.
But, in my defence, our family always had a shower cubicle.
With a door.
Maybe I should explain . . .
It was my first time living away from home.
I was dizzy with joy.
And heavy with responsibility.
So many things that I suddenly needed to know.
And hadn't paid attention to, when my parents had tried to teach.
Sigh.
The learning curve wasn't just steep.
It was nearly vertical.
I muddled through.
With prayer.
And many phone calls home.
Bit by bit, I figured things out.
Our apartment had indoor plumbing.
I just thought I'd mention it.
And a shower nozzle.
I stared at it.
Huh. How could one use that and not spray water everywhere?
You would have to make sure that the nozzle was pointed directly at the wall and be very careful.
Weird.
Why didn't they just put in a cubicle, like the Stringams?
And there was something else I had never seen before.
Above the tub and reaching from wall to wall, was a long rod.
I stared at it, mystified.
What on earth could it be for?
I went to my roommate.
“Guess showering is out of the question.”
“Why,” she asked.
“How do you keep the water off the floor?”
She laughed. “You use a shower curtain.”
“A what?”
Okay, I should clarify here that I had seen shower curtains before.
It's just that I had always designated them decorative, rather than useful.
“I have one. I'll get it.”
My roommate was not only smart, having lived on her own before, but she was also handy.
In no time, we had a brand new plastic curtain strung from the rod over the tub.
Cool.
But did my education stop there?
Sadly, no.
I prepared for my first shower.
In my new apartment.
As an adult.
I added that last, because you might not have realized it.
Moving on . . .
I had a nice shower and pushed back the curtain.
Oh, man! Now there was water all over the floor!
I was going to have to lay down towels to catch the water that ran down the curtain and onto the floor.
What a pain.
I mopped up the water and dressed.
“Shower curtains are dumb!” I said as I passed my roommate, headed for my room.
“Why?”
“They let water get all over the floor!”
“Ummm . . . Diane, you're supposed to put the curtain inside the tub.”
I stopped and looked at her.
“Really?”
I'm sure she spent the next few moments regretting her decision to invite me to stay with her.
She hid it well.
“Yes,” she said patiently. “If you put the curtain inside the tub, the water runs down the curtain and down the drain.”
“Huh.”
I'd like to say that was the last time I did something silly.
I'd be lying.
It wasn't the curtain that was dumb.

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