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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Saturday, May 7, 2011

An Unscheduled Trip

Big Daddy - where everything started

Early summer. 
The grass is green. 
The birds are singing. 
The earth smells sweet. 
And the irrigation canal is empty.

It was time to bring the heifers, and their attendant ‘boyfriend’, home.
This was a relatively painless job considering that the youngest of the breeding stock were always wintered in the fields closest to the ranch buildings.
One simply had to walk out, circle the small field once, and start the herd moving.
They would find the corrals, and feed, without being directed. A fool-proof plan.
Unfortunately, we weren’t fools.
Between their pasture and our destination was . . . THE IRRIGATION CANAL.
A vast expanse which snaked across the countryside and our ranch.
It was some forty feet wide and twenty feet deep and, below the corrals, spanned by a sturdy little bridge.
A sturdy little . . . sideless bridge.
At high summer, the canal was full - sparkling clear water nearly reaching to the supports of the bridge. At this time of year, the floodgates had not yet been opened and it wasn't.
Full, that is.
Except for the large rocks at the bottom.
That was a problem. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .
To head from the pasture to the corral, one had to make a slight right turn immediately after crossing the bridge.
A left turn took one to the house and its attendant outbuildings and, eventually, the main road.
Right was what we wanted.
Left was what we got.
In an effort to turn our mis-directed herd, I started threading myself between large, warm hairy bodies, working my way slowly towards the front.
By this time, we were on the bridge.
I had worked my way almost to the front of the herd.
I noticed a vacant spot at the extreme left of the bridge. I made for it.
At the same time as the 2000 pound bull.
We collided.
He won.
Suddenly, I was teetering at the extreme edge of the bridge, staring down at the large . . . hungry . . . rocks. They beckoned to me.
And they had a willing partner – gravity.
Oh, this is going to hurt! I told myself.
Then, the author of my misfortune stalked past me.
2000 pounds of perfect, red-blooded, oblivious muscle.
With a tail.
A tail.
Before he could take the fatal step that moved him forever out of my reach, my hand shot out and nabbed that . . . appendage. That glorious, wonderful, life-preserving . . . really smelly tail.
Then I turned to stare down at those rocks.
Which slowly lost their hypnotic grip as each step my rescuer took pulled me further . . . and further.
Away.
I clung to that tail until I was safely across the bridge.
By this time, the cattle had organized themselves and were heading in the correct direction.
Success was within our sight.
There was only one other problem to be solved.
Someone had to peel Dad off the ground.
He had laughed himself unconscious.
Again.

Friday, May 6, 2011

175

I never used a saddle. I had seen a movie, ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’ and the sister in that movie only used a riding pad. I though that was cool and copied her. Tacking up was amazingly easier. Riding much more natural. And no stirrups to get in the way.

But it afforded other . . . complications. For one thing you could never use a rope. Nothing to dally to. Chasing down and securing a calf presented . . . certain challenges. But nothing I couldn’t handle. I simply rode up beside them and leaned off to one side, catching said calf by the tail, or whatever protruded, and sliding off on top of him. Or her. It was fool proof. Until I met Cow 175. Head on. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The day started out much as any other. I was riding the herd. Checking to see if anyone had calved, or needed help in doing so. I came across a small, obviously newborn calf hidden in the tall grass. I straddled it and proceeded to make ‘distressed calf’ noises. A process I had discovered was sure to bring Mama on the run.

It worked. She came. She saw.

She attacked.

Now I should mention here that my Dad raised Polled Herefords. The breed known for their gentle dispositions. Oh, and also a breed that has no horns.

They don’t need them.

175 hit me with the pointy part of her head. The part made entirely of bone. Really hard bone. I saw stars and quite a bit of the prairie as I left the calf. In a summersault. Backwards. The culprit and her offspring wasted no time in vacating the area. I got to my feet and stared after them, fuzzily. I had lost my glasses in the encounter. But that didn’t even slow me down.

I piled back onto my horse and started after the two, quickly nabbing the calf once more. This time, I took the precaution of dragging it beneath my horse.

Throughout my years on the ranch, I was known for riding really . . . ummm . . . green horses. Usually quite unsuited to ranch life. GollyGee, my mount of the moment was totally in keeping with this reputation. She was an ex-racehorse. Tall, lean, fast, and really . . . not smart. Usually, a person walking anywhere near her would have sent her, by the most direct route, to the moon. And a person dragging something towards her? Jupiter.

Perhaps the anger radiating off me in waves had a stupefying effect on her. Perhaps she was merely trying something new. Self preservation.

Whichever.

She stood like a rock as I dragged the 50 pounds of protesting red and white calf beneath her.

Most cows are afraid of horses. Even horses with one lone brain cell, like GollyGee. Fortunately, this cow was only over-protective, not suicidal. She did laps while I injected and tagged her calf.

Then I stood up, releasing it, but before it could regain its feet and rejoin its Mama, I walked over and booted her. Twice. It felt good. Then I watched as the two of them headed for some human-less spot.

Riding back to the scene of the crime, I searched around until I finally discovered my glasses. Miraculously undamaged. Then I rode home and stabled my horse.

And here is where the story really gets interesting.

My Mom was the daughter of a rancher. Her years of ranching experience were many and varied. But she could still be shocked. Which I did. On a regular basis.

When I walked in the kitchen door, she screamed. And ran for a towel. It was only then that I realized that I could feel the tip of my tongue. Through my bottom lip. And that my shirt was completely covered in blood. You’d think I would have noticed something like that.

To Cookie is Human

Best Friends

Cookies. The ultimate in snack foods. That perfect balance of sugars, grains, fats, and deliciousness.
And the most unique and perfect forum for getting small, semi-disguised chunks of chocolate into your mouth. Chocolate that you can savor, but dismiss as insignificant when tallying your calorie count at day's end.
Or at least I can.
I love cookies. And I make the mistake of baking them on a regular basis.
Call me a glutton for punishment.
Or just a glutton - the shoe fits. (Or did, before I started making cookies.) But I digress . . .
My six children have been raised on my cookies. Mostly with some form of chocolate as a noteworthy ingredient. They love those small handfuls of pure perfection as much as I do.
Bliss.
But life, and reality, tend to sneak up on you and smack you soundly, just when you aren't paying attention. And so it was with my cookie consumption.
I was going merrily along, enjoying my cookie-filled life until, one day, I drug my favorite and freshly-washed jeans out of the drawer . . . and couldn't do them up.
Now I know this has happened to many of us, and certainly is nothing new, but it was a first time for me.
And it made me . . . unhappy.
To make matters worse, which we all try to do far too often, I decided to step on the scale.
I should note here, that the person who invented the scale, and non-stretchy clothes, was a nasty, evil individual. But again, I digress . . .
I had to make some changes.
Or buy a new wardrobe.
Finances won. Losing weight was in order. And the first thing to go was my mostly-cookie diet.
I baked one last batch . . . and started eating them as though they constituted my last meal on earth.
Finally, heroically, I put the lid on the still-half-full cookie jar and left the room.
But they . . . called to me.
Cookies do that.
Finally, I could stand it no longer. I answered that call.
I went back into the kitchen and discovered that my beloved cookie jar . . . was empty.
At first, dismay. Then, relief.
"Who ate all the cookies?"
My daughter, Tiana's voice, "Tristan."
My son Tristan's voice, "Sorry!"
Me. "Thank you Tristan! I just couldn't leave the silly things alone!"
A pause, then my daughter's voice, "Tiana."
The cookie doesn't fall far from the tree.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Proof Was in the Pudding

My Mom

   Milk. That commodity touted as one of the world’s most perfect foods. So important to growing bones and teeth. Or so it was described in the 50’s.
   Like other ranching families, the Stringams had their own milk production system.
   Bossy.
   Not an original name, but at least it gave her a slight distinctive edge over 53. And 175. And 92. And . . . you get the picture.
   Bossy was gentle. Quiet. Dependable. Everything a milk cow should be. Her milk production was high. Higher than most dairy cows. For that reason, she had been a family fixture for many years.
   She also had a problem. But I am getting ahead of myself.
   Every morning Dad, or one of the hired men, would carry home a galvanized steel pail filled with warm, rich, frothy milk, compliments of Bossy. This milk was then poured through a straining cloth into another pail and ‘purified’, then poured into sterilized jars.
   The jars of still-warm milk were distributed to the various households on the ranch. Bossy was truly a remarkable cow to fill the needs of so many.
   In the evening, the same procedure was repeated, only the captured milk was poured through the separator and the resultant thick, rich cream used for such remarkable things as ice cream, cream puffs, pastries, and many other treats aptly designed to satisfy the sweet tooth of every child . . . and most of the adults . . . living there.
   The milk from which the cream had been removed, or ‘blue’ milk was given to the pigs, who thought they were in heaven.
   It was a prefect system. Not a drop wasted.
   Then the milk . . . changed.
   At first, Dad thought the cow had gotten into a patch of weeds. Not an unknown thing on any ranch. The result of such a change in diet usually reflected, rather poorly, in the milk.
   Onions make for a really . . . interesting . . . milk flavour. But I digress . . .
   For some time, the milk continued to taste . . . strange. But the processes remained the same. The milk was distributed. Separated. Consumed.
   Then the rebellions started. Small at first.
   “Mom, this milk tastes strange!”
   “You’re imagining things, dear. Drink it.”
   “Mom, it stinks!”
   “Drink!”
   Then larger.
   “Mom if I have to drink one more glass of that milk, I’m going to be sick!”
   “You need the calcium! Now drink!”
   Mom was not unaware that the milk was distinctly . . . off. But she was very concerned about giving her growing family the nutrition they needed.
   Occasionally, she would bring home a container of milk from the store.
   Which disappeared as though it had evaporated.
   And also coined another phrase. “I’m going to stop buying this milk! You kids just drink it!”
   Ummmm . . .
   Finally, Mom got to the point where, if anyone complained about the milk, she would taste it, smack her lips appreciatively and say, “What’s wrong with that milk? There’s nothing wrong with that milk! It tastes just fine!”
   As time passed, she got more and more creative in trying to get the horrible stuff past our pre-adolescent taste buds. She put it into puddings. Soups. Desserts.
   And still we whined.
   Then that glorious day. When our prayers were finally answered. Dad went out to milk . . . and the cow had keeled over. Dead.
   Our celebrations could be heard in Lethbridge.
   An autopsy revealed what the rest of us had suspected for three long years. That the cow had something seriously wrong.
   She had ingested a piece of metal and it had become lodged in her system, affecting her milk production . . . ummm . . . badly. Eventually, it had worked its way through something important internally, and had been the cause of her death. Hardware disease. Poor Bossy.
   There was no grieving.
   Dad bought a new cow. A healthy, young one. And the ‘milk distribution system’ resumed as though it had never been interrupted.
   With one important change. Whenever any of us was given a glass of milk, we would sniff it suspiciously. Even forty-five years after the described events.
   Old habits die hard.
   Kind of like our cow.

   There is a codicil to this.
   Years later, when my family and I were attending my parents 40th wedding anniversary, my children and I performed a skit. They were seated around a picnic table and I poured each of them an imaginary glass of milk, which they then ‘drank’.
   Clutching their throats, each then succumbed to the terrible poison that had been ingested. Gasping out their last breaths, one by one, they collapsed onto the grass beneath the table, twitched a few times, then lay still. I picked up one of the imaginary glasses, pretended to take a drink, smacked my lips and said, “What’s wrong with that milk? There’s nothing wrong with that milk! It tastes just fine!”
   At which point my eldest brother leaped to his feet and shouted, “IT DID! IT TASTED THAT BAD!!!”
   Ummm . . . the proof was definitely in the pudding!


The Bus To . . .

My Dad. My brother, George. And me

     Okay. I was six. Grade one is hard work! I was tired! And we lived a million miles from town!
     Enough background.
     Living 20 miles from the local schools might be a blessing during ‘snow days’ in the winter when the buses didn’t run, but the rest of the time, it merely meant a very long ride. A very long, boring ride. Homework completed while seated in a shockless bus travelling along rough gravelled roads (and I use the term ‘gravelled’ lightly) was never so much completed as . . . erm . . . attempted. Illegible would be another word to describe it. In fact, for the first years of my schooling, my teachers thought I had the worst writing ever. Not that it changed much in ensuing years, but . . . oh, never mind.
     If one didn’t have friends to visit with, the trip was interminable. Especially to a six year old.
     Which I was.
     Seating was a highly organized, painstakingly structured fact of bus life. The eldest kids got to sit in the back. The youngest directly behind the bus driver. Hijinks were restricted to the back two rows. Your progress through school and through life was largely measured by where you sat in the school bus.
     I had never sat behind the first seat.
     Until that fateful day.
     The Lindemans weren’t on the bus. One seat in the second last row was empty. Just waiting to be claimed.
     My day had come.
     Our bus driver, a wonderfully kind and loving man named Dick Sabey was responsible for delivering us safely into the waiting arms of our mother, Enes Stringam, at Nine Mile Corner. It was a corner situated, interestingly enough, exactly nine miles from our ranch buildings.
     Okay, so imaginative, we weren’t.
     Day after day, our faithful friend dropped us off at the corner. Waving to us cheerfully as we began the trek towards home.
     Usually, we managed only a few yards before our mother’s car, trailing a cloud of dust on the country road, appeared around the turn. She would skid to a halt and load us in, questions and news being tossed back and forth before the doors had even closed.
     Occasionally, when our amazingly busy Mom was late, we would manage to make it to the Sproade’s, an elderly couple who lived about ½ mile from the corner and whose house was always filled with the rich smell of wonderful German baking. Baking which needed to be eaten. By ravenously hungry school children.
     We prayed every day our Mom would be late.
     But I digress . . .
     It was chilly. I don’t remember if it was Spring or Fall, but the weather necessitated the wearing of fairly warm clothing. I had a golden faux fur parka. Purchased by my Dad specifically for a trip to cut our family’s Christmas tree. A coat that could easily have doubled as a bear disguise. But which was wonderfully warm . . . and cosy . . . and comfortable . . .
     When I awoke some time later, Dick and his dear wife, Scotty, were standing over me, shaking me gently. I sat up and looked around. It was dark. The lights of the Sabey home were shining dimly into the shadowy bus.
     Nine Mile Corner was nowhere to be seen. Or my brothers and sister. Or my Mom.
     That’s when the tears started.
     Dick picked me up and carried me into the house, where Scotty calmed me and cuddled me. And fed me. (Amazing how so many of my stories revolve around food.)
     Later, my relieved parents arrived to pick me up and the story was finally told.
     The Stringam kids usually left the bus in a group. Bundled as they were for the cold, and huddling together, their actual numbers were impossible to make out by the bus driver, though he was watching alertly to make sure they were safely on their way. Since I hadn’t been sitting in my usual spot, the kids had concluded that I was staying in town, for some function or other. After a short, very short, meeting to discuss my possible whereabouts, they had quickly covered the ½ mile to the Sproade’s and Mrs. Sproade’s snacks. By the time our Mom arrived and my absence was noted, the bus was long gone.
     The time for panic had truly arrived.
     Cell phones existed only in the imaginations of science fiction writers. The only phone connection available was a single party line, installed by my father (and enormously entertaining, but that is another story) for the use of the entire ‘117’ community.
     Mom wasted no time in calling the Sabey household and raising the alarm. Dick hadn’t yet returned from his route, so Scotty waited breathlessly at the front window for the bus. When he arrived, she met him and the two of them quickly searched the bus.
     They soon discovered that a bulky coat, discarded on one of the last seats, actually contained a person. Not a very big person, to be sure, but a person just the same.
      Me.
     Some time later, with my Mom’s arms around me, I could see the humour of the situation.
     Almost.
     Until I grew taller, about grade nine or so, I never again sat anywhere but directly behind the bus driver. It was safer there. And less forgetful.
     And, oddly enough, I find it impossible to fall asleep in a moving vehicle.
     Except when I’m driving.

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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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