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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Saturday, July 2, 2011

My River

Our River - almost ready for swimming . . .
Our playground flowed right around the main Stringam Ranch buildings.

To the adult residents of the ranch, it was the South Fork of the Milk River.
To us, it was a muddy, murky paradise. Our entertainment. Our recreation. Our playmate.
It provided a solid skating surface in the winter and a wonderful swimming pool in summer.
In spring through fall, it was an endless source of educational fun as we hunted snakes and frogs. Tried to trap unwary fish. And generally made life miserable for any denizen so unfortunate as to capture our attention.
I learned to skate there. What is that little dictum that states that the hardest part about learning to skate is the ice?
That would apply to me.
Or at least to my backside.
But I digress . . .
I learned to swim there.
And I wish I could swim there, still.
On a hot summer afternoon, my siblings and I would invariably be found in the milky depths of our river.
I can remember exactly how the water looked - billions of grains of fine sand hanging suspended as the rays of sunlight shone through it.
I can remember how it smelled. Wet mud and fresh water and things growing.
And I can remember how it felt. Cool and soft as it slid across one's nearly naked little body.
The current was slow and sluggish, but still strong enough prove a challenge when swimming against it. In fact, only my eldest brother, Jerry could make any headway. The rest of us tried manfully, or girlfully (is that a word?) as the case may be, to keep up.
We couldn't.
But we did flail with purpose and, finally, I was able to at least hold my position.
It was a time of peace. When one's siblings were truly one's best friends. We watched over each other, fishing the smaller siblings out if they got in over their heads and keeping our St. Bernard, Mike from drowning anyone as he tried desperately to save them.
From time to time, the chief lifeguard, my Mom, would appear at the top of the cliff beside the house and survey the area, counting heads and noting the general state of her six offspring. Then she would wave and disappear.
And we would go back to whatever she had interrupted.
It was a blissful way to spend the summer.
Sure, there were chores that had to be done. Acres of garden to hoe. Cattle to drive. Calves to brand. Feeding. Milking. Haying. Fencing. Mowing. Harvesting.
But for those few hours every afternoon, we had no duties. No pressures.
Just Chris' radio blaring out whatever was considered the day's top hits. The soft sand. The sunlight on the milky water.
And each other.
We were right.
It was paradise.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Little Brother

My Blair

Little Brother
The words conjure up so many pictures . . .
A little boy, playing with his father's boots.
Riding King Prancer.
Sliding on his snow saucer.
Getting scraped off his horse.
Getting mad.
Singing on the tractor.
Doing chores.
Becoming my 'twin'.
The stories and memories are endless.
Let me see if I can pick out a few . . .

My sister, Chris and I were riding. And little Blair had come along for the first time.
I should explain, here, that the cliffs surrounding our ranch were heavily seamed, with giant crevasses (is that a word?) leading from the prairie up top to the river's edge. These openings were so steep and sandy that fencing just wasn't possible. Inevitably, the fence that ran along the top of the cliff only made a token gesture of following the radically sloping surfaces to the very bottom of each crevasse (that word, again).
Bottom line? If one wanted to use a crevasse to travel from the top to the river, one had to duck at the appropriate moment.
Chris and I did.
Blair didn't.
There was a gasp. Then the sound of something small hitting the ground. Then a 'whoof!"
We stopped and looked.
Blair was sitting on the ground directly behind his pony, Shammy, staring up at her in surprise.
She had stopped and was looking down at him, equally surprised.
Neither was hurt, more particularly Blair, but we sure thought it was funny.
I guess you had to be there . . .

Blair and I were painting a granary. I was up on the ladder and Blair was painting lower down, his feet happily planted on good old 'terra firma'.
For some reason, we had a long two-by-four leaning up against the granary beside me.
I can't remember what we had been using it for, but, whatever it was, we no longer needed it.
I told Blair I was going to push it down. He nodded and moved to one side.
I pushed the plank.
It followed Blair.
I screamed out at him to run.
He did, darting around the granary and out of my sight.
Unerringly, the plank tilted sideways and followed the curve of the little building.
And Blair.
Slowly, I watched it fall.
It tilted further. Further.
And then hit something.
My brother.
I thought I had killed him. I started down the ladder.
Then he came around the granary, rubbing his head and glaring at me.
"You did that on purpose!"
I really hadn't, but I should have.
Even the Three Stooges couldn't have done it better.

Blair and I were having an argument. Not a usual thing for us.
And at the top of the stairs.
Location is everything.
I don't even remember what the argument was about, only that, for my final statement, I gave him a shove.
And sent him down several steps.
From which he quickly recovered and shot back up the stairs towards me.
I stared at him. When Blair got really, really angry, the veins stood out on the sides of his neck. Huh. I'd never noticed that before. Maybe because he'd never before gotten really, really angry.
I panicked and darted into the nearby bathroom, slamming the door and pulling out all three drawers.
You should know that the bathroom drawers were right next to the door and provided excellent barriers when one wanted to be left alone.
Usually, they worked.
Today, however, Blair was angry enough that he got a butter knife from the kitchen and began working at the drawers through the crack of the door.
Inch by inch, he worked the first drawer shut.
I let him get it closed.
Then, as he started work on the second, I pulled the first one open again.
"Oh, man!" He gave up.
One thing about Blair, he isn't stupid . . .

We were stacking hay. I was on the big stack, Blair was on the tractor, bringing me the stooks.
And singing.
Now a tractor is noisy. Really noisy.
One can't even hear oneself when in close proximity.
But, somehow, the noise of the tractor seems to . . . boost . . . any sounds the driver is making.
To someone standing a bit away, the sound of the engine comes faintly, almost drowned out by the singing of the driver.
At least that is what happened to me.
I was treated to Blair's version of nearly every popular song of the period.
It was totally entertaining.
I guess you have to look for the fun out here . . .

We were getting the cattle ready for our annual production sale.
Blair and I were manning the grooming chute.
One of the prospective buyers walked in with our Dad.
For a few minutes, the two of them stood watching us.
Finally, the buyer turned to Dad, "I didn't know you and Enes had a set of twins."
Blair and I were both white-blonde. With our hair cut in the exact same style (Mom only knew how to cut boy's hair, which was just fine with me . . .) and the same height and virtually the same skinny figure.
I had five more years and a couple of extra curves, but whose going to point that out?
"Ummm . . . twins?"
The man nodded at us.
Dad laughed. "I can see what you mean!"
Within a month, Blair had passed me by on his way up.
But for a little while, I had a twin.

Blair was late for Seminary.
"Diane! Could you please milk the cow?!" as he dashed past.
I stared after him.
"AGAIN?!"
"Sorry!" faintly from the opened window as the car went down the drive.
I did milk his cow.
It really wasn't that much of a problem.
In fact . . . don't tell him . . . but I enjoyed it.
And I wish we were back there so I could do it again.

Okay, I have to admit, my little brother isn't so little any more.
I guess 50 years, marriage, fatherhood and a Doctorate in Engineering will change a person.
But I still remember the little boy who loved to play with his Dad's shoes . . .

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

And the Barbed Wire Wins. Again.

Barbed-wire. The Devil's Rope. It all looks so innocent . . .
By the early 1870's, smooth wire fences were fast being replaced by the new, and far more formidable and efficient - barbed-wire.
Now, domestic (and no few wild) animals could be effectively contained.
Wars were fought by stock owners and free-range enthusiasts over this new invention and its perceived advantages and disadvantages. And no few lives lost.
With the ending of the hostilities, barbed-wire became the accepted medium for fencing in the ranching and farming world.
Enough background . .

The Stringam ranch was large.
Really large.
And, to keep its inmates (the cattle, I mean) controlled, it was fenced with miles (and miles) of strands of barbed-wire.
Wire that had to be strung, stretched, looped, stapled, fastened, weighted and maintained.
And maintained. And maint . . . never mind . . .
And all of this work had to be accomplished by weak, easily wounded human beings.
You can imagine the damage that two to four sharp points of wire, created to discourage even the most thick-skinned cow, could do so soft, very-not-tough skin.
I can count 13 scars on one finger alone.
Thank goodness for heavy, leather gloves and even heavier moosehide chaps.
Over the years, we thin-skinned humans had many differences of opinion with the barbed-wire which stretched across the ranch. Most trivial, requiring a Band-Aid or nothing at all.
But a few, fairly serious . . .
Once, while my Dad and brother, George were stringing wire (A complicated procedure which required the paying out of four strings of wire from an apparatus on the back of the truck), Dad hit a bump.
George was dumped into the tangle of wire, resulting in multiple deep cuts and scrapes to his hands and arms.
Not good.
Or pleasant.
Band-Aids wouldn't do for that mishap.
He had to be sewn back together. Like a quilt.
Only not as warm and cuddly.
But at least it was a mishap that could only be considered an accident.
My run-in with 'The Devil's Rope', could easily have been prevented.
If I'd been smarter.
Like most of my calamities . . .
I'd been out visiting the horses and was heading home.
There was a fence in the way.
Now a normal person would have employed the usual method for getting past a barbed-wire fence. Climb under or through. Climb up a post. Find a gate.
But not me. I was determined to simply climb over.
Now, I should mention here that climbing over a barbed-wire fence is possible.
Just not very smart. And certainly not simple.
You have to do it carefully. Step on the bottom wire and bend the top wire down. Then lift your leg gingerly over the top wire and step to the ground. Then swing the other leg after the first.
Easy peasy.
As long as nothing gets caught. (Pant legs or crotches come to mind.) And as long as you can keep your balance.
I was only wearing a pair of shorts, so getting a pant leg caught wasn't even a consideration.
It never occurred to me that I should watch out for my actual . . . leg.
The barbs entered my skin at mid thigh, and at the apex of my swing over the fence.
Ouch.
I lost my balance and fell over the fence.
Worse.
The barbs raked two grooves down the entire length of my leg.
Impressive.
The good news? I was over the fence.
The bad news? I now sported two 18 inch furrows from mid thigh to mid calf on the inside of my right leg.
Hmmm.
I got to my feet and looked around.
Good. Mom and Dad were away on a Hereford Tour. And no one had seen my folly.
I limped quickly to the house and made use of the first-aid kit that Mom always kept just inside the back door.
Smart woman, my Mom.
Then I stared at my injury. Visions of the rows and rows of stitches it had taken to sew my brother closed floated through my mind.
In Technicolor.
I definitely didn't want that.
But no Band-Aid could possibly cover this wound.
Finally, I twisted a clean cloth around my leg.
Then, belatedly, put on a pair of jeans.
Perfect.
A few days later, when my parents returned, Mom instantly noted my limp.
And made me show her my injury.
And then hauled me in to the doctor.
By that point, stitches couldn't have done any good. The doctor merely pasted my leg with goop. Applied some gi-normous bandages, and gave me a shot.
All better.
I still have the scars.
They remind me that, in a difference of opinion between me and barbed-wire, the wire is always going to win.
And that, if in doubt, always, always wear jeans.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tenting for Dummies

George and Me, before our architect days
Tenting was my favorite thing in the world.

I could happily sit for hours in my soft, quiet shelter. Immersed in my own little world. Miles away from the business and bustle of life.
Or at least inches away.
On the other side of my blanket.
And my chair.
Oh, and the all-important pillow.
Okay, so tent-making wasn't an art with me. In fact, you could probably say that it was . . . fairly inexpert, invariably consisting, as it did, of a blanket tossed over a chair and held in place by a pillow.
Frank Lloyd Wright, I wasn't.
But I still loved it. Hiding in a shelter erected solely by my own two little hands.
For a short while, I was the queen of my world.
Then, one day, I was introduced to a whole new world. My brother, George, deigned to join me.
Something, I might point out, that rarely happened . . .
And instructed me in the creation of a complex, blanket draped wonder.
George set up chairs and draped them with covers, connecting them to each other and holding each in place by different items, drawing heavily from the various 'objets d'art' that Mom had strewn about the room.
The blankets were pulled over to the couches, secured, and then drawn to the tables. There, they were again weighted into place.
Slowly, our little 'club house' grew until it covered the entire front room.
The two of us stood back and surveyed it proudly.
It had an entrance. And a back door. It had twisting tunnels and little rooms.
It was perfect.
I was quivering with excitement. I couldn't wait any longer. I dove in.
"Careful, Diane!" George said.
But he was too late.
My rash action pulled on one of the blankets.
In fact, the blanket that was being held in place by a large, ornate, plaster lamp.
Both slid from the table.
The blanket survived.
The lamp didn't.
George and I stared, aghast, at the mass of wreckage.
And then, like a figure of doom, Mom appeared in the doorway.
"What are you two . . . my lamp!"
There was no hiding it.
There was our intricate web of blankets, furniture and bric-a-brac.
To one side, a limply hanging corner.
And, beside it, the broken lamp.
Even a fool could have figured out what had happened. And Mom certainly wasn't a fool.
"Did you kids use my lamp for your fort?"
How did one answer that? I mean, couldn't she see it?
George was braver than me.
"It was Diane's idea."
I stared at him. "It was not!" I said, hotly.
"Was too."
"Was not!"
"Too."
"Not!"
Okay, so our arguments could never have been classified as intelligent.
"Too."
"Not!"
"Too."
"Not!"
"Okay, enough!" Mom had worked her way gingerly across the sea of blankets, plucking up breakables as she went.
Finally, she reached the lamp. That lamp which, with it's matching big brother, had been a gift from Dad.
She set down the other objects she was carrying and stared down at it.
Then she looked at us.
"Ummm. Sorry, Mom," I said. Not entirely original, but it was all I could think of.
Mom picked up the lamp. Then the pieces.
She looked . . . sad.
Mom never really had to discipline me. I could do it all by myself. I burst into tears. "Sssooorrry!"
She turned and looked at us once more. "I don't ever want you two playing with my things again."
"Oookaaay!" More tears.
I should have been on the stage.
Mom carried the pieces of her lamp out of the room without looking at us again.
And just like that, our fort was no long the wonder it had been. George and I folded the blankets and put things back.

Mom kept the lamp.
The back was smashed beyond repair, but the front was still fine. As long as she kept the broken part to the wall, it looked perfect.
To our 'waste not, want not' Mom, it was totally in character.
It haunted us for years.

I still like to tent.
But fortunately, my husband introduced me to such marvels as . . . tent poles. Pegs. Guy lines.
What it lacks in ingenuity, it certainly makes up for in convenience.
And unbreakable-ness.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fresh Bread - Part Crust, Part Yummy Stuff

My Mom. World's Best Bread Maker

I love bread.
Freshly baked or cooled. Whole Wheat. White. Multi-grain. Potato. Sourdough. Soda. Banana. Rye. Leavened. Unleavened.
Have I mentioned that I love bread?
I could have lived on it.
Fortunately, my Mom made the best bread on the planet.
And I knew this how . . .?
Okay, the best bread in my four-year-old world.
Twice a week, Mom would drag out her large, white ceramic bowl and start adding the magical ingredients. She would add, then stir. Add, then stir. I especially loved it when she would make potato bread because it was so much fun watching her force the cooked, cooled potatoes through the colander.
Finally, the best part, when the mixture had turned into a ball of dough.
Then, Mom would punch and turn. Punch and turn.
And she would always give me a little piece to play with.
Dutifully, I would wash my hands, then reach, with eager fingers, for my piece.
I probably should mention that my little white ball of dough usually changed quite quickly to a little grey ball of dough. Obviously, four-year-old hand washing left much to be desired. And Mom must have noticed, because my tiny, little loaf never went into the oven . . .
In no time, six huge, beautifully golden-brown, perfectly shaped loaves emerged magically from the oven. And took their place of honour on the cupboard to cool.
And they smelled like Heaven.
And I knew that how . . .?
Alright. Alright. They smelled like my four-year-old version of Heaven.
Sigh.
And they were just asking to be sliced and eaten with some freshly-churned butter.
Impatiently, I would follow my Mom around the kitchen, begging for a piece.
Now. While it was still warm.
And always, she would say, patiently, “In a minute, Diane. They have to cool a bit so they don't make you sick.”
Mom had told me many times about the little boy who had eaten a whole loaf of hot bread and who had to go to the hospital because the bread turned to a hard lump in his stomach.
And I believed her.
I did.
My stomach didn't, though, and it had to be re-convinced every time.
“But Mom . . .”
Finally, she would sigh and relent, grabbing the big bread knife and carefully cutting through the crusty outside and into the wondrous middle.
Soon, I was sitting at the big kitchen table, happily munching my way through a large slice of fresh bread and butter.
This had to be done right.
I had tried on numerous occasions, to convince my Mom that crusts were simply to keep the yummy centre from drying out. But she had a thing about 'wasting food'. So, the crust was removed and quickly eaten, to get it out of the way. Then I could eagerly dive into the best part. The wonderfully soft centre.
It isn't possible to be happier.
I would lick my fingers carefully and then stab at any crumbs that might have fallen, collecting them on one fingertip. More licking.
When I had eaten everything possible, I would get to my feet and start following my Mom around the kitchen again.
“Mo-om . . .”
The most I ever conned her out of were two pieces.
Even if I didn't believe the 'little boy' story, Mom did.
Another sigh.
But I outsmarted her.
Sort of.
One afternoon, Mom had given my siblings and I our quota of fresh bread.
Then she, and they, all headed for the garden.
I was alone in the kitchen. With half a loaf of fresh bread. I can only imagine what my smile must have looked like.
It certainly felt good to me.
I should probably point out, here, that I had tried, on numerous occasions, to slice fresh bread properly.
Each attempt was a dismal failure.
I would start out all right, then the knife would turn one way or the other and I would end up, not with a slice, but a wedge.
Which still tasted fine, just looked funny.
And made my Mom mad . . .
So, slicing was out.
I glanced around. The coast was still clear.
How could I get that yummy bread from the cupboard into me?
I reached up and touched the soft, white centre. Pressed it, slightly.
It sprang back so invitingly.
I pinched at it and managed to pull off a small piece.
Hmmm.
I stuck it into my mouth.
Good.
I pinched off another piece. Bigger this time.
Better.
I dug at the loaf.
A really big piece.
Perfect.
And, quite suddenly, I realized that all I needed to get at the wonderful, soft, white interior, was two little hands.
And ten handy little fingers.
Which I just happened to bring along with me.
In the next few minutes, I scooped out every crumb of soft, white goodness, leaving just the outside, crusty shell.
Okay. Now. How to hide the evidence.
I stared at the shell of a loaf. Huh. Maybe if I just turn it.
I flipped it over on its face.
Perfect!
Mom will never know!
Have I mentioned that Mom always . . .
Okay, I'll move on . . .
The first thing Mom did when she came into the kitchen was tip the loaf back up.
Rats.
Moms do those things. What's with that?
“What happened here?”
I stared at her mutely. How could I get out of this one . . .?
“It looks like we have a little mouse.”
Genius! Why didn't I think of that? I smiled and nodded. Yep. Mouse. Moms are so smart.
“Diane. Don't eat all the bread.”
I stared at her. What about the mouse?
She put her hand on my head. “It's not good for you to eat so much bread, Honey.”
Oh, yeah. The hospital thing.
“Promise me you won't do it again.”
I nodded, my eyes on the bread-shell on the cupboard.
“Good girl.”
I didn't get sick, like the little boy. But I also didn't ever dig at a loaf of bread again. I learned to eat the whole thing a slice at a time. By cutting it with a knife.
Like civilized people.
But there is a codicil . . .
Years later, after I married, I discovered that my husband came from a family of bread-lovers, just like me. Except that his family had fought, not for the soft, yummy centre, but for the crusty outside of his Mother's delicious bread.
Often, if one end crust had been taken, the other was cut off. If both ends were gone, the next logical choice was the top. Then the bottom.. Then the sides.
It wasn't unusual for my Mother-in-law to find a bread centre, lying naked on the cutting board.
Why couldn't I have been raised in that family?
Everyone would have been happy.

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