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

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by Diane Stringam Tolley

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Parking Lessons

Okay, this is the back, but you get the idea . . .

The grocery store in Milk River in the 50's was on main street.
Parking was on the street.
Angle only.
I know this doesn't seem to have much to do with my story, but wait for it . . .

Mom usually came into town once a week to do the grocery shopping.
For me, it was a magical time. Mind you, I was born with unfettered enthusiasm.
For me, everything was magical. But I digress . . .
On this particular occasion, my brother George was with us.
The two of us had been separated because he was causing fights.
Not me.
Never me.
Ahem . . .
So George was in the back seat and I was in the front.
Mom parked the car in front of the AGT building, directly across from the grocery store, and got out.
When we made to follow her, she put out her hand and told us to stay where we were.
As punishment for being so disruptive on the trip into town, both of us were forbidden from going into the store.
Mom was only going in for a moment.
We could sit in the car quietly and think about what we had done.
We each thought about it in our own unique fashion.
George pouted. Arms crossed, face fixed in a frown of displeasure.
I did gymnastics.
I should probably point out here that the seats of our (then) late-model car were wide.
And long.
And bouncy.
I started out small. Bouncing up and down in a sitting position.
Then I discovered that I could get more height if I got up on my knees.
Finally, I was standing, hands on the back of the seat, jumping up and down. I think I hit my head numerous times on the roof, but no brain, no pain.
I continued to bounce.
I should point out here that, in the 50's, crime hadn't been invented yet. It wasn't unusual for people to leave their kids in a car. With the keys in the ignition.
And the car running.
Don't condemn my Mom. She was a product of her time.
I bounced closer and closer to the steering wheel and wondrous, automatic gearshift attached to it.
Closer. Closer.
And then . . . one bounce too many. I came down on the gearshift.
The car lurched into action, bouncing over the curb and across the sidewalk on fat, whitewall tires.
I think I screamed, but I can't be sure.
There was a distinct 'crunch' and the car came to a sudden stop.
I don't remember George's reaction. I think he remained stoically silent in the back seat.
I picked myself up off the floor and began to cry.
And suddenly, my Mom was there. Holding me in her arms and telling me that everything was all right.
Mom was really, really good at that.
After she had calmed me down, she set me back on the seat and put the car into reverse and edged back off the sidewalk. Then she put it into park and, this time, shut it off and we all got out to survey the damage.
The bumper had pierced the stucco, leaving a half-moon crescent in the wall of the building, just below the front windows.
Where the entire AGT staff had assembled.
They waved, cheerfully.
Mom sighed and towed us into the office to explain.
The office workers were remarkably forgiving of the whole incident. Even laughing about it.
Red-faced, Mom was soon able to drag George and I back to the car.
I think I received a lecture on using the inside of the car as a playground, but it wasn't very forceful.
Probably because Mom realized that the whole thing wouldn't have happened if she hadn't left the car running.
The mark I had made in the wall remained there for many, many years. Until the building was renovated and re-faced, in fact.
Some time after my escapade, a second crescent appeared in that same wall, just a few feet from mine, obviously from a similar source.
I examined it carefully. It was a good attempt.
But mine was better.
 
2011 AD (After Diane) Note the damage . . . or not


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pray and Stay Awake


I went away to school.
Far away.
It was the most difficult four months of my life.
But I learned a lot.
Most importantly, I learned that I really don’t like to be away from family.
All I could think about was being home.
I learned a lot about prayer in those days.
It got me through.
My five roommates were great. Supportive, fun, encouraging, sympathetic.
And they taught me something about prayer as well.
Maybe I should explain . . .
I lived in an apartment with three bedrooms.
Each shared by two girls.
My roommate, Bev, was a sweetheart.
Kind. Sweet. Patient. Soft-spoken.
And very strong in her faith.
It was not unusual for her to kneel in prayer for a long time.
A Very. Long. Time.
At some point, shortly after we became roommates, I realized that she wasn’t praying.
She was asleep.
There. On her knees on the hard old floor.
It couldn’t have been comfortable.
After that, when she had been praying for what seemed a sufficient amount of time, I would make some noise.
Not a lot.
Just enough so that if she really had dozed off, it would stir her.
And save those knees.
Now Bev was nothing if not proactive.
She saw that she had a problem and did what she could to fix it.
She bought a book, ‘How to Pray and Stay Awake’.
I applauded her positive, pre-emptive spirit.
That evening, she sat down happily on her bed and opened her new purchase.
A few minutes later, I glanced over at her.
She had nodded off over her book.
And was snoring softly.
Some things you just can’t fix.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Getting Older

Watch me as I melt . . .

Have you noticed words you say
Mean something different today?
Then what they meant so long ago
When you were young and days went slow.

There are a few that fit, I think,
Like ‘gay’ and ‘pot’ and ‘spam’ and ‘shrink’.
But one I’ve kept throughout my life
As daughter, sister, mother, wife.

The word is ‘hot’, I’m here to say
And has been used most every day.
When I was four, it simply meant
I was too warm, my vigour spent.

Then teen-aged years crept up on me
And ‘hot’ meant something else, you see.
T’was what we all aspired to,
When hanging round the kids we knew.

But now I’m old, my hair is grey
And ‘hot’ is with me every day.
In seasons cold, and seasons warm,
Somehow the word has lost all charm.

‘Cause now it’s simply how I feel
When’er my world begins to reel.
The slightest stress, the merest strain
My temp is through the roof again.

So know, if you should hear me speak,
And perspiration starts to streak,
That being sexy’s mostly not
What’s meant when’er I say “I’m hot!”




Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Genuine Horsehair Mattress



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 very little 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 one thing on the ranch that could be counted on was my appearance at meals.
The huge ranch 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?

Monday, March 25, 2013

First Night Out

Okay, I'm not sure if this is what it looked like, but I know it had four wheels and seats for all of us . . .


My sister, Chris had turned 16.
And gotten her driver's license.
For us kids on the ranch, the world had just gotten a whole lot smaller.

It was our first foray into town without parental supervision.
For the first time, ever, there were only siblings in the car.
It was a truly magical night.
1. Great company. (Jerry and George hadn't teased me, even once.)
2. Great entertainment planned. (The Friday night movie was always a first-run hit, thanks to the theatre politics of the time - but that is another story . . .)
3. Our own little Envoy station wagon. (With two-week veteran, Christine, at the wheel.)
4. An anticipated stop at the local drive-in after the movie. (Mmmm . . . burgers . . .)
5. The heart-stopping possibility of joining a queue of cars cruising main. (Our first chance to participate. Somehow, cruising main had never been considered when Mom or Dad were chauffeuring . . .)
Yes, magical was the right word.
And it all happened. The movie, the drive-in, the cruise.
We had hit the big times!
Then, as with any magical night, midnight came. Our little Envoy was pointed towards the far distant lights of home and ordered to return us there.
Obligingly, it started out.
Then, halfway home, it stopped.
My two mechanically-minded brothers scrambled happily out of the car.
Almost instantly, they spotted the problem. A disconnected fuel line. Easily repaired.
I think they were a bit disappointed the problem was eliminated so quickly; they would have loved to crawl over, under and through  . . .
We were again under way.
Only to stop once more a few miles further down the road. This time, out of gas. Obviously, the fuel line had done more than just briefly stop the engine.
We four independent kids sat there in the moonlight, wondering what to do.
And suddenly realizing that independence wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Let me paint you the picture . . .
The year was 1966. Phones had just recently been installed in the ranching country of Milk River and ran on the 'crank' method. (Our ring was two longs, by the way.) Cell phones existed only in Star Trek. We were about 6 miles from town. The nearest neighbours were at '117', a ranching community about 5 miles away. Our home was a further 9 miles from there. Few people used this road during the day, and even fewer by night. The chance of rescue by someone heading home was slim to non-existent.
It was a fairly warm night with a full, bright moon. Still, we were hesitant to start walking. There was no possibility of getting lost, but wolves, though not common, weren't unheard of. Or cougars either, for that matter.
What to do.
And then we saw lights. Behind us, coming up from town.
Real lights. On a real vehicle.
Coming fast.
Now who on earth could that be at this time of night on these roads?
An elderly pickup slid to a halt beside us. The dust always followed directly after, settling belatedly down over the scene.
Two doors popped open.
And two bachelors who lived in the foothills west of our ranch leaned into the window. The smell of their breath hit us before they had even opened their mouths.
And suddenly it became clear just why we weren't the only crazies out at this time of night.
Obviously, DUI hadn't been invented yet.
"Hello, Kids!" the first one said, slurring his words slightly. "What'sa matter?"
"We've run out of gas," Chris said, hesitantly.
"Oh tha's no problem," the second said. "We've got a shain!"
The 'shain' turned out to be a chain, which they proceeded . . . with colourful language and various starts and stops . . . to hitch to the front bumper of our car.
"All set, kids?"
My sister gripped the steering wheel.
And we were off!
Let me just say this . . . elderly bachelors, driving an equally elderly truck, and having just come from their twice yearly trip to the bars in Sweetgrass, could sure cover the ground.
We approached speeds nearing 50 miles per hour. And that was on gravel roads, at night.
And hitched to the vehicle in front of us by a 10 foot shain . . . erm . . . chain.
I was right. My sister, though just a two-week veteran, was a veteran. Her driving that night would have inspired Mario Andretti. (Go ahead, google him. We'll wait . . .)
At one point, the chain came off and the ancient truck drove on without us. We coasted to a stop and watched them go, wondering if they would even notice.
But half a mile further up, they slid to a stop in a cloud of dust, and then dutifully returned. After repeating the whole 'sorting out the shain' episode, we were off again.
The lights of the ranch never, ever, looked so good.
The men dropped us and our lifeless vehicle in the barnyard, waved cheerfully and wound their way back up the drive.
We marched happily to the house, full of the excitement of the evening and its hair-raising conclusion.
That was just the beginning of many, many trips to town for fun and entertainment.
But somehow, no matter what was planned, nothing quite matched the adrenaline of that first night.
Perhaps 'brushes with death' hold an excitement all their own.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fairly Unfair Fair



Me . . . don't talk about the hairdo.
Or the glasses . . .
 I was so excited.
My pal, Jody and I were going to have a fair.
During afternoon recess at school. A real fair, with games and prizes.
We had saved our allowances. We had . . . ummm . . . permission . . .
Maybe I should tell you the whole story . . .
Jody was staying with me at the ranch for a few days while her parents were away on holiday.
We had conceived a marvelous scheme while we were supposed to be sleeping.
Just before my dad threatened to separate us for the night.
For the record, I don't know why they are called 'sleep overs'. Nothing resembling sleeping ever takes place. But I digress . . .
Jody and I had come up with this amazing idea. To hold a fair. With different contests and featuring real, bona-fide prizes of toys or candy. It was the best plan ever! Stupendous! The school would be talking about it for years!
Our plans grew and hatched more plans.
Barnum and Bailey would be put to shame! (I didn't know who they were, but whenever a circus was talked about, they were mentioned, so they must be important.)
There was only one hitch in our marvellous plan.
We were eight years old, in grade three, and needed permission to go downtown to purchase the necessary candy and prizes.
And my mom refused to give us the necessary legal document.
Pffff . . .
We even provided the statement, already spelled out. All she had to do was sign.
She refused.
Sigh.
For sure, Barnum and Bailey didn't have such complications . . .
We were still puzzling over this difficulty when we got on the bus and sat in front of one of the grade 12 girls. We talked and talked, but no solutions were forthcoming.
The girl leaned over the seat and asked one of us to retrieve a pen she had dropped. I complied, still talking.
She reached out her hand to take the pen.
I paused, looking at her. At her . . . fully-grown hand.
That knew how to write in script.
That couldn't help but fool our teacher.
I smiled.
Later, we skipped happily off the bus, content in the knowledge that the two of us were smarter than our teacher. Than anyone. Than the whole world.
We duly presented the paper, properly signed, to Mrs. Hofer. She scanned it.
“Huh. I thought Jody's mom wasn't due home for a few more days.”
“Oh, she's back!” we assured her.
She nodded.
We bounced happily from the room. We had succeeded.
Our fair was underway.
We ran all the way downtown and had a marvelous time blowing our combined $.75 on penny candies and trinkets.
Then, clutching our paper bags of magic, we ran all the way back.
Our fair was a success. We conducted games and races and magnanimously handed out prizes, happily certain we were idolized by every child on the playground.
That everyone wished they were us.
Then, just as the bell rang, Kathy ran up to tell us that we were wanted.
In the principal's office.
We looked at each other. What could possibly have gone wrong? Our plan had been so fool proof.
Slowly, we trudged towards our doom.
“Jody, is your mother home?” The principal was staring at us from under bushy, frowning brows.
I stared at my feet, frozen to the spot.
Jody, just slightly braver than me, managed to shake her head.
“So, where did this note come from?” He waved our masterpiece.
“Ummm . . . Mom signed it before she left?”
The principal shook his head. “I don't think so.”
Sigh. We were caught.
“A girl on Diane's bus signed it.”
“Ah.”
I peeped up at him. Was that a good 'ah'? A 'very clever girls' ah?
He was still frowning.
Obviously not.
I looked at the closet door behind his chair.
Where I knew the strap was kept.
If he made one step towards that closet, I was going to head for the hills.
And I knew where those hills were . . .
He folded his hands together.
“Do you girls know what you did wrong?”
We nodded.
“Do you?”
We nodded again, with a little less certainty.
“This is what is called 'fraud'.”
Fraud? I'd never heard of the word.
“It's like lying.”
Ah. Lying. Now that I knew a lot about . . . from watching my siblings . . . not because I . . . oh, never mind.
“Deceiving someone.”
Another long word I'd never heard of.
“Lying.”
Okay, back on familiar ground.
“You got someone else to sign your mom's name. That is lying. Fraud.”
But she was an adult! my mind screamed. She was big. She could write script. What difference did it make?
“You can't have someone else sign in place of your parent unless they are your guardian. Was this girl on the bus your guardian?”
Guardian? I was at sea again, and for someone who had never seen the sea, that was pretty lost. Ummm . . . I'm going to go with 'no'?
“No.”
I was right!
“So what you did was wrong.”
Rats!
Again, my eyes were drawn to that closet door. Not the strap! Not the strap!
He leaned back in his chair.
“I'm going to have to speak to your parents about this.”
I stared at him. Parents? Maybe the strap would be a good idea.
“They will have to take it up with you.”
I thought of my dad finding out. The strap was looking better and better.
“Now I want you to go back to your class and think about this.”
We nodded.
“And never . . . ever . . . bring in a permission form signed by anyone but your parents. And never . . .” his eyes drilled through us . . . “lie to anyone again.”
Again we nodded. Wide-eyed.
Then we escaped.
We were right. The school talked about our fair for weeks afterwards.
They, and we, just didn't remember it for the right reasons.

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