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 24, 2014

Sleep Carpentry

Happiness

Shortly after we were married, Husby took a job as foreman at a housing plant.
Building pre-fabricated homes.
He was good at it.
And it was two minutes from where we lived.
He was home for lunch every day.
As well as for breakfast and dinner.
For his new bride, life was perfect.
For the man actually going out to work . . .
The job was very stressful.
Many bosses - several without any knowledge of building.
Any knowledge.
He carried on.
For two years.
He had a family to feed.
But the stress started to tell.
He developed health issues.
And stopped sleeping.
That's when he started making noises about going to school.
Husby had been in school when we started dating, but had quit to take a job after we were married.
Now, he realized that he had made a mistake and wanted to correct it.
I was unconvinced.
How would we provide for ourselves if we had no income?
So he continued working.
Growing more and more unhappy.
And sleeping less and less.
One time, he suddenly snorted, sat up on the edge of the bed and started getting dressed.
“Honey, where are you going?” I asked. “It's 4 AM.”
He jumped and looked around. “Oh,” he said. “Oh.”
He pulled off his shirt, lay back down, and was instantly snoring.
Is there a term for sleep-dressing?
Probably . . . sleep-dressing.
Moving on . . .
One night, around 3 AM, I was sleeping quietly.
Suddenly, Husby shot up in bed, grabbed me by the collar of my pyjamas, pulled me to a sitting position in the bed and shouted, “You hold the ladder! I'll nail the soffit!”
My sleep-fogged brain vaguely discerned that these were 'house-building' terms.
“Honey, you're dreaming,” I said, rather shakily. “Go back to sleep.”
He wasn't to be deterred.
He shook me slightly. “Okay?!”
“Okay!” I said.
“Good.” He dropped me and flopped back onto the bed.
Seconds later, I could hear his soft snore.
He had been asleep the whole time.
I, however, would probably never sleep again.
I was finally convinced. Stark, heart-racing trauma will do that to you.
Husby went back to school.
He studied History, Arts and Anthropology.
Finally achieving a doctorate.
His health instantly improved.
As did his sleeping habits.
Going back to school was a good decision.
Though with two tiny babies and a wife to feed, it had seemed anything but.
He no longer sleep-dressed.
Or roughed up his wife.
And you can bet that the installation of any soffit was in broad daylight.
With a much more willing assistant.
Oh, and real soffit.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Getting Badgered

Yes.
No.











The Stringam ranch sprawled out over many, many miles.
And took many hands to cover.
My Dad was twelve and had happily, and of necessity, joined the ranks of the ranch-employed aboard the first horse he could truly call his own.
The recently-broke and still fairly green, Queenie.
His pride and joy.
His first assignment was to keep an eye on the bulls.
I should point out, here, that the bulls were kept in the South pasture.
A vast, open field which went on forever.
With an outer fence that also went on forever.
Back to my story . . .
This fence had to be constantly patrolled.
On the other side of it were the Community Pastures.
Filled with . . . community cattle.
All female.
And none pregnant.
A state which their owners wished to preserve.
So someone had to explain to the bulls that any form of interaction was distinctly discouraged.
Hourly.
This was Dad's job. Make sure that the fence was doing its job.
Keeping the heifers on the one side . . .
And the bulls on the other.
But bulls are, after all, bulls.
And when the siren song goes off in their vicinity, they must answer.
With voice and/or action.
Usually action.
What's a paltry five lines of tightly-stretched barbed wire when love is calling to you from the other side?
They would ignore it as if it wasn't there.
And that's where Dad came in.
At a gallop.
Chase the bulls back.
Fix the fence.
He got pretty good at his job.
One day, he was riding along the fence.
Everything was unusually calm.
Then, something moved.
A brown head poked up out of the great sea of grass.
A brown head with darker brown stripes.
Badger.
Dad had never seen a badger close up.
He turned Queenie towards it.
It turned away from them and started off across the prairie.
They followed.
It ran faster.
They pursued faster.
After a few minutes of this, the badger had had enough . . . umm . . . badgering.
He turned and attacked.
Well. Hissed.
At this point, Queenie decided she was finished with this adventure.
Dad could go it alone.
She piled him, forceably, into the prairie dust.
And left him there.
Dad screamed and jumped to his feet, certain that his beloved horse had landed him on the badger.
Or near enough that the badger would soon be on him.
He pictured teeth and claws.
And ravening. He wasn't sure what that was, but it sounded nasty.
He looked frantically around.
Nothing.
The badger had disappeared completely.
He took a deep breath of relief, then recovered his horse and continued with his job.
Dad decided, then and there, that the only four-footed animals he and Queenie would chase would be the big ones with hoofs.
And horns.
They were safer.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

One Tiny Jab

Oh sure, they look healthy now . . . Little beggers.
It gets very cold in Southern Alberta.
Calves need to be vaccinated.
And ranching can be a dangerous business.
These statements actually go together.
To create one of the scariest experiences of my young life.
Let me explain . . .
Dad was at a neighbouring ranch, on a -40 spring day, vaccinating the new spring calf crop against Blackleg.
I should probably tell you that Blackleg is a particularly vicious and deadly disease, caused by a spore in the ground.
This tiny spore, inadvertently ingested by calves between six and twenty-four months of age can cause death within 12 to 48 hours.
Nasty.
And impossible to treat, once an animal has been infected.
But, happily, almost completely controlled by early vaccination.
Early.
As in 'before-it-gets-warm-in-Alberta'.
So, sometime before July.
That explains Dad, the calves and the cold.
Moving on . . .
The calves were being shuffled down a chute, one by one, to receive their vitally necessary little jab.
All was going well.
One group finished.
Another was being sorted into the catch pen for further shuffling.
Meanwhile, Dad had placed his favourite pistol syringe under his coat to keep it, and the vaccine it contained, from freezing.
Remember? Minus 40?
One of the animals in the pen bumped into him.
The syringe pricked the skin of his belly.
Those needles are sharp for a reason . . .
He could only have taken in a very minute amount of the Blackleg vaccine.
But it was enough.
By the time he finished with the herd, he knew he was in trouble.
He drove himself to the hospital.
And stayed there.
For three weeks.
He was a very, very sick man.
But his strong constitution and normally healthy lifestyle finally tipped the balance and he began to respond to treatment.
At the end of the third week, a thinner, whiter version of my father returned home.
My brave mother hadn't explained, at least to the younger half of the family, exactly what was wrong with Daddy.
We knew he was in hospital, but had no idea why.
Or how serious it was.
It was only years later that I found out the whole story.
Okay. Much too late to panic now.
But I did learn several things from this experience:
  1. Vaccine for calves should really only be given to calves.
  2. People don't respond well to it.
  3. Never hold one's syringe under one's coat.
  4. Don't vaccinate in the cold. And...
  5. If there's ever a blackleg outbreak, Daddy's had his shots.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dad Date

Daddy and me.
Okay, picture us a few years older.
But just as cute . . .
I was on a date with my Dad.
The best of times.
I had been working at my 'first-official-job-wherein-Dad-was-not-my-boss' in Calgary, Alberta, and having the time of my life.
Have you noticed that saying 'having the time of your life' doesn't necessarily denote 'good' or 'bad'?
I mean, it could mean the worst time of one's life.
Or the best.
Just saying.
Moving on . . .
Dad had to come up to the big city on business and had stopped in to my work to ask the boss (whom he was good friends with and NO, that's not the reason I got the job. Not that I'm admitting anyway . . .) if he could take his best girl out on a date.
My boss smilingly agreed and I was free for the day.
There are perks to your father being good friends with your boss.
Dad took me to a football game.
It was a perfect day.
Crisp, cold air, but not too chilly.
Blue, blue sky.
Cloudless.
Okay, I'm remembering it how I want.
Dad and I had been sitting through the game.
Visiting.
Cheering on all of the guys in red, white and black.
I used to be a football cheerleader.
I had a vague idea of what the game entailed.
Get the ball across the opposing team's goal line.
By whatever means necessary.
Then hug the players if they won.
And especially if they lost.
But partway through the game, I had a blinding revelation.
“Dad, all of those players have spent all of this time fighting for control of the ball!”
Dad looked at me. “Yes,” he said, doubtfully.
“Well, I just had an idea!”
His eyes narrowed. Dad was used to my brilliant ideas.
“Go on,” he said.
“Well, if they're just going to fight over the ball,” I said, “why don't they just use two balls?”
Okay, we thought it was hilarious.
The guy in front of us? Not so much.
“Could you please shut up?” he demanded. “Some of us are trying to enjoy the game!”
We decided it was a good time for Dad to take me to dinner.
We went to my favourite restaurant.
The one I went to only when Dad was buying.
Old Spaghetti Factory.
Mmmm.
We were seated in the old trolley car that is central to every OSF restaurant.
Things were getting busy.
Soft music was playing.
Quiet talk and laughter around us.
Gentle chime of silverware on china.
Subdued, romantic lighting.
The server brought us our menus and fresh, warm bread with selections of butter, then withdrew while we sliced, ate and perused.
Dad was studying his menu.
“Can you read this?” he asked, finally.
I glanced down. “Ye-es,” I said, slowly.
“Well, I can't!”
Did I mention the 'subdued' lighting?
He pulled out a matchbook and proceeded to light a match.
Then used its light to read his menu.
The server sprinted towards our table.
“Problems, sir?” he asked.
Dad looked at him, lit match still in hand. “Nope.” Then turned back to his menu. “But I think my daughter and I are ready to order.”
There is nothing . . . nothing like a date with your dad.
Truly the time of my life.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dirt Wranglers

Ranching is always an adventure.
Sometimes a tad . . .  uncomfortable.
But always entertaining.
Orphaned calves are cared for in one of several ways on a ranch.
Bottle feeding is always an option.
But the best solution usually involves adopting the little baby onto another mother.
Okay, it sounds good.
But convincing the mother to take on another cow’s calf is tricky.
She is seldom . . . okay, never . . . willing to cooperate.
If she has lost her calf (and I know this sounds icky) the rancher can skin the dead calf and tie the hide onto the living one. The cow smells her calf and the adoption is complete.
But when she still has a calf living, the process is a bit more difficult.
The solution usually involves buckling the two calves together at the neck and turning them in with the cow.
The cow quickly discovers that she can’t kick the strange calf off without also losing her own.
A bovine conundrum.
Eventually solved by allowing both calves to suck.
The only concern thereafter is making sure one periodically loosens the collars as the calves grow.
And that’s where my story starts.
Finally . . .
Several of the cow hands on the Stringam ranch were checking the herd.
They noticed that a pair of coupled calves’ collars were getting a bit snug.
Someone needed to chase the intrepid pair down and perform the necessary loosening procedure.
One volunteered.
By spurring his horse.
Now, this was a man who was accustomed to working with cattle.
He had chased down calves before.
But he didn’t realize in this case that the yoked calves couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t-want-to run together.
Instead, they began to run in at least two different directions.
Forward progression was . . . limited.
The cowboy, used to gauging his movements by normal calf movements launched himself off of his running horse.
Flew straight over the heads of the struggling calves.
And chewed up about 10 feet of dirt.
His friends stared at him.
Then, sympathetic to the end, burst out laughing.
The would-be wrangler spit out a mouthful of dirt and, face scraped, bleeding and dirty, joined in the general laugh at himself.
The calves were duly caught. Their collars loosened. And everyone headed home.
Bruised.
But happy.
Yep. Ranching. An adventure.
You get the picture . . .


Monday, May 19, 2014

Breakfast Show

Ever helpful and concerned.
Kids can make eating out such an . . . adventure.
It was the early fifties.
Mom and Dad were travelling in Montana with their three small children.
As they drove past the Deer Lodge prison, Dad tried to explain to four-year old Chris and two-year-old Jerry just what it was. He told them that when people were bad, the police would lock them up in the big building for punishment.
The original ‘time-out’.
He wasn’t sure just how much his two oldest children took in.
The next morning, he had his answer.
The family had stopped nearby for breakfast. While they were eating, a deputy sheriff came in for coffee, then proceeded to tell the waiter about his exciting evening. One very intoxicated individual had been disruptive at a local dance and the deputy had had to take the man to the local jail to sober up. There were no charges to be laid, so all that remained was to get the fellow up and send him home.
Throughout this story, Chris and Jerry were busily eating, not really paying attention to the tale.
Finally, the man stood up and said, “Well, I guess I’d better go down and get my boy out of jail!”
Chris looked at her parents wide-eyed and very concerned. “That man’s little boy is down there in the jail!” she said loudly.
See?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Call Me Babe

I love baseball.
Let me rephrase that.
I LOVE baseball.
I don’t know why.
Maybe it’s because you get to beat an inanimate something with a thick, wooden stick.
Outside.
In the summer sunshine.
Whatever . . .
I played a bit.
Grade school.
High school.
But I didn’t play regularly until long after I had married and had a family.
It was then that I spent three glorious years in a mixed league.
And it was fun.
Oh, I wasn’t one of their best players.
In fact, I spent most of my time out in right field.
Praying that the other team would hit the ball anywhere but to me.
In fact, the only place where I was competent was in the batter’s box.
And even there, only competent. Good for a base or two.
Until that night.
Let me tell you about it . . .
It was a clear summer evening.
The mosquitoes weren’t too bad.
The sun was setting, but the field was situated such that it wasn’t in anyone’s eyes.
The shadows were lengthening.
The sky was trying to decide if it wanted to be cerulean blue or glorious orange.
My team was at bat.
Well . . . I was at bat.
The other team eyed me curiously.
I hadn’t done too badly in the field, but really hadn’t distinguished myself.
A couple of the guys moved in a bit.
The pitcher glanced around at the two players we had on base, then looked at me.
He went into his wind-up, which, in slow pitch, isn’t.
And flipped the ball at me.
I swung.
And felt the sharp crack and the burst of exhilaration as bat met ball.
Solidly.
And that’s when the first surprise of the evening dropped every jaw on my team.
Including mine.
That ball sailed out over the heads of the outfielders.
Way out.
Way, way out.
A triple.
It would have been a home run, except I’m old.
I brought in both of our runners and settled myself firmly on third base.
Then grinned as my team cheered wildly.
The next hitter brought me in and I was met by many slapping hands.
The good kind.
An inning or so later, I was again facing the pitcher. I grinned as the fielders moved back slightly in a she-did-it-once-but-is-this-going-to-be-a-habit sort of way.
They didn’t move back far enough.
Another triple.
Sometime later, I again stood in the hot spot.
This time, the entire outfield moved back.
Way back.
It didn’t matter.
This time, it was a home run.
That ball went far enough that even my aged legs could toddle around all the bases.
We won the game.
But that didn’t matter.
Because for the first – and only – time in my life, I felt like a real ball player.
I had watched as the opposing team moved back to the far reaches of the field and knew they were doing it because, and I quote, ‘This girl can hit!’
I don’t know what happened that night.
Maybe there was some charmed quality in the clear air.
Maybe the spirit of Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Babe Ruth had wandered in for a visit.
Maybe I was channelling my Mom.
Maybe I just had a pitcher I could hit off of.
All I know is that it was magical.
It was my night.
My only night.
And I’ll never forget it.


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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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