Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Chicken Head

Not me. (Daddy, Chris, Jerry and George)
Harvest. A mellow time. A time to catch one’s breath and simply appreciate the bounty and euphoria of the season. When the tireless efforts of every farmer in Alberta culminates finally in the production of golden streams of wheat, barley, canola and corn. Truckloads of peas, potatoes and sugar beets. When sheds and storage buildings are full of the warm, sweet smell of new-mown hay and grasses, carefully dried.
And on the Stringam Ranch, we, too had our harvest. There was the bounty of endless (and I do mean endless, but that is another story) rows of garden produce to be brought in. Carrots, peas, beans, corn, turnips, potatoes, parsnips, beets, cucumbers. And many other things that a four-year-old simply couldn’t name, though they did taste good. Oh, and chickens.
Because the chicken coop was situated near the garden, to me, the chickens were part and parcel of the fall harvest. Didn’t we eat them? Didn’t we ‘produce’ chicken at the same time as all of the other food? It just made sense.
The slaughtering of the chickens on the Ranch was a huge production. I can picture even now the great tubs of scalding hot water to loosen the feathers. The teams of choppers, pickers, and . . . innards removers. Everyone with a sharp knife or axe. Or with rubber-gloved hands working in the scalding water. It was every parent’s dream for their small child. Not. But there I was. Bouncing from group to group. Being forcibly removed from the more dangerous situations. Slowly getting covered in feathers.
Most probably looking like a large chicken myself.
When some of the more stringent voices hollering at me to keep away had finally effected obedience, and my initial fascination with viewing the death throes of the chickens had worn off, I was at a loose end. Not a good thing for a four-year-old. Mischief happens. Not my fault.
The bodies of the chickens were systematically hauled away, so a closer study of them had proven impossible, but the heads . . .! Those were still there, lying forgotten near the chopping stump. They were piling up, obviously needing to be disposed of.
Please remember – I was a child of the Country. Capital ‘C’.
One by one, I began picking them up and throwing them, unceremoniously, into the river, only a few feet away. Hmmm. This was fun! They would bob for a few seconds, then sink into the milky depths, perhaps to be eaten by some unseen fish, or maybe one of the monsters that our dog, Mike, was sure lived there.
I found a paint can lid. Great! Now I could throw the heads out four at a time. Much more efficient. Once I had figured out that I must hold on to the lid when I threw. My first attempt was . . . embarrassing.
For some time, this obviously essential errand kept me occupied – to the vast relief of those who mistakenly thought they had more important jobs. I would collect the heads on my little ‘plate’, walk over to the river and . . . give them the Alberta version of a sea burial. It was genius. To a four-year-old.
Then the fateful, life altering event. I picked up a head, deposited it on my plate, AND. THE. BEAK. OPENED! No word of a lie. It opened! It was possessed! It was going to get me!
Straight into the air, the plate went. By the time it and it’s contents had hit the ground, I was already halfway to the house screaming, and I quote, “THE CHICKEN HEAD! THE CHICKEN HEAD!” Not very inventive, true, but effective. It stopped the entire production line for several seconds. Mostly, I admit, so the people could laugh, but why haggle over details? Mom consoled me, between chuckles, and all was smoothed over.
Except for one thing. From then on, I was afraid of chickens. I learned to wrestle 2000 pound bulls without turning a hair, but tell me to collect eggs from under a 3 pound pile of feathers and I was a quivering mass of . . . something soggy and cowardly. My family still laughs.
There is an addendum to all of this. When my husband and I were on our honeymoon, we decided to make a day trip to the Calgary Zoo. Fun! There was a display of emus. And a machine that dispensed grain to feed them. Put in a quarter, get a handful of feed. All went well to that point. I approached the emu with my little handful of grain. It moved closer. I moved closer. It looked over the fence. I looked at it. It’s beak opened. And my new husband was suddenly staring at the handful of grain that magically appeared in his hand.
I was halfway to the car screaming . . . You get the picture.

The Panty Plant

Mom, Chris and Jerry

Mom was a gardener. One of those . . . mmmajor gardeners. I’m almost certain that her garden produced enough to feed the entire country of England . . . or Russia . . . or the entire southern hemisphere . . . or . . . someone stop me! And because Mom was a gardener, her kids were gardeners, albeit reluctant ones. On any given day, you could find one bonneted head and several blonde towheads bent over the various plants, being more or less productive. We all had our assignments.

I was four. My job was to watch.
Oh, and eat peas.
Our family produce patch covered about 2 acres, give or take. The rows were probably about 40 feet long, but to a four-year-old, they stretched to Argentina. (I didn’t exactly know where that was, but it had a sort of far away-ish sound to it.) The patch was surrounded by pine trees. Tall, lush, they had been planted by my father in his youth – now that is a story – and now provided perfect shade for a small body who wanted to be out with the others but suffered from a short attention span.
So there I sat, whiling away the hours. Mostly, I lay on the cool grass and made life miserable for the ants and other small, harmless creatures. But deep beneath the overhanging branches of the towering pines were patches of dirt. And I discovered that it was fun to dig in that dirt and – don’t tell my mother – plant things.
But what would a four-year-old have to plant? All pea seeds had gone into the mouth. Hmmm. The pods were there. That was a no-brainer. But that only took a short while. What else? Shoes? Those had been kicked off when I had first hit the garden and were now lying abandoned in one of the rows, waiting to be discovered by the roto-tiller. Taking stock, I discovered that my feet were at least partially covered by . . . ahem . . . white socks. They slipped off easily. A little furrow in the dirt and voila! A perfect place for a future ‘sock tree’. What else. The gardening bug had hit. I just had to plant! I just had to plant!
My mother had tried to instil in me the need for modestly, so removing anything obvious, like blouse or skirt was not even considered. What else did I have that I really didn’t need? I had it! Panties. And cute, blue ones, with little darker blue flowers. They would produce something lovely, I was sure! Off they came, and into the little trench dug specifically for them. I patted the dirt into place. Perfect. Job completed, I crawled out from under the tree. Mom was down the row of beans just in front of me, sitting back on her heels and waving her bonnet in front of a flushed face. She turned and smiled at me. Obviously, she had noticed nothing.
Feeling giddy with a sense of accomplishment, I joined her, offering to help pick the beans. She nodded gratefully and I squatted in my abbreviated skirts to begin.
I don’t remember what was said. Only a gasp and then strong hands propelling me unceremoniously back to my ‘garden’ and ordered to dig up every article buried there. I stared up at her, aghast. The whole garden? Mentally. I tallied them up. Hats, tools, shoes, George’s new toy, my new toy, a couple of books, several spoons.
With an aggrieved air, I began to half-heartedly push at the dirt, only to uncover . . . nothing. No clothes, no toys, not even one spoon. I dug deeper. Still nothing. Where could they be? I crawled out from under the tree and stared up at it. Was I in the right place? I looked at the tree next to it. Surely. How could I be mistaken? Back into my ‘hidden garden’ which, incidentally, was becoming more hidden by the minute. We never did recover the things I had buried, though my mother turned up the dirt beneath every tree surrounding the garden. Where could they have gone? We’ll never know, now, but if being a successful gardener means planting things, I am an expert. If it also means that something is supposed to grow, I’m not.
Hmmm. Burying things. So they’ll never . . . NEVER be found. It sounds as though my mother was really training me for . . . piracy. Or mob work. Who knew?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Bed by Any Other Name

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 absolutely nothing 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 I could always be counted on to appear for meals.
The 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.
“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?


Straingam Ranch
We had a dog. Mike. He was a big dog. Saint Bernard. Very protective. He thought nothing of risking his very life defending us from such dangerous things as – the cat. Tumbleweeds. The occasional cardboard box, blowing in the wind. Laundry. In the history of the world, no one was safer. My parents could relax, knowing that Mike was on duty.
We decided to take our fearless guard dog swimming. We didn’t realize that Mike was a mountain dog. Swimming hadn’t been programmed into his non-rewritable brain. He knew only two things. Snow. And saving people. Swimming couldn’t possibly fit in there anywhere. But he good-naturedly followed us because we asked him. Or because Jerry was holding the rope that doubled as a leash. Whichever.
At first everything went well. We swam. Mike ran up and down the bank, barking frantically. If anyone ventured near enough to grab, he did so. By whatever protruded enough for him to get a grip on. But to his horror, the ‘saved’ person would inevitably extricate themselves and, without even a thank you, nullify all his best efforts by charging back into the milky waters.
Finally, Mike’s lack of success in the saving department became too much for him. His frustration boiled over into something more proactive. He started venturing further and further into the uber-dangerous, monster filled water, seeking someone – anyone - to save. A limb passed near. Or someone’s backside. He grabbed it, and whoever it was attached to, and dragged them to the shore. Kicking and screaming. How happy they must be that he was on hand to save them! Listen to the sound of their relief! He would bark happily and charge in for the next heroic act.
He never managed to drown anyone. Wisdom. Or a miracle. After that, when we went swimming, our hero guarded the garage. From the inside.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pudding on a String

Daddy, George and I
My Dad had made me a new toy.
It was a large - very large button on a string.
You would thread a long, heavy string through the holes of the button and knot it. Then you would push the button to the centre and grip one of the two loops of the string in each hand.
Now you held something that resembled . . . a button on a string.
But then came the exciting part. If you wound up the button, you could pull the string out away from the button on each side and it would unwind and rewind the opposite way.
If you handled it just right, you could keep it going.
All day.
Which I did.
And it created a bit of a breeze if you got it going very fast.
Which I also did.
Enough background.
Mom had just made a large pot of pudding and set it on the cupboard to cool.
I was waiting, rather impatiently for it to be cool enough for me to eat.
That was when I got my, to date, greatest idea.
My button could generate a breeze. It would cool the pudding and I could eat it that much faster!
I pushed a stool over to the cupboard and climbed up.
Carefully, I manoeuvred my button over the pudding and pulled the strings.
It worked!
For a moment.
Until I relaxed my hands on the ‘rewind’ or maybe the ‘unwind’ stroke.
Then, it dipped and skimmed the top of the scalding hot pudding straight into my face.
And my hair.
And the ceiling.
The covering properties of a button on a string have never been fully explored. I think they should.
I believe Mom was cleaning up pudding from the most impossible places for months.
Long after I had healed.
P.S. I still like pudding. I just prefer it inside me

Mom and Me vs THE COW

Being the baby is hard work!
My very first memory occurred when I was two. To tell the truth, I’m not sure if it is a real memory, or if I simply heard my mother tell the story so often that I have pieced it together from that.
Whichever. It is very real to me now.
I had my new red cowboy boots on, and very little else. I was ready for anything. Dad was out in the blacksmith shop and I knew he would be happy to see me. Certainly, I would be happy to see him. I decided to make the journey. But there was a fence and a large barnyard between us.
Oh, and a milk cow.
It was the custom in those days to take the calf away from the milk cow and only put the two of them together morning and evening, after the cow had been milked. That way, the cow’s production stayed high, we were assured a constant supply of milk, and the calf received enough milk to ensure its proper growth. A good system all around, except that one usually ended up with a rather irate, over-protective full-grown mama cow wandering at will in the barnyard. No problem. If you were an adult, or very fast.
I was neither.
Having been raised to nearly three on a ranch, I was fully confident of my ability to speak cow. I walked over to the fence, put my face against the bars of the gate and proceeded to bellow impressively. I don’t know what I said, but it must have been something truly insulting because the cow wasn’t impressed. In fact, she began to make noises of her own. And then she started running feints at the gate. Being two, I thought she was merely trying to amaze me. I continued to ‘talk’. She continued to react.
It was a fair dialogue. We were communicating.
Finally, in a positive froth, she pounded over to the barn, to make sure that her baby was still in his pen, unharmed. The way was clear for me to climb the fence and cross the no-man’s land that was the barn yard. I proceeded to do so. I probably made it a few yards before she hit me. I don’t remember much about that part. My mother definitely takes over the story from there.
She had been working in the kitchen and keeping an eye on me through the window. Suddenly, as with any toddler, I disappeared. She didn’t waste time in searching. She knew instinctively where I had gone. She started out on the run, spotting me just as I dropped down from the fence in triumph.
On the cow side.
Mom’s sight was obscured for a few moments as she ran. Trees. Sweat. Whatever. By the time she again had me in her sights, I was down and the cow was turning for a return engagement.
Somehow she was able to put herself into ‘super-mom’ mode and leap the fence at a single bound. (Actually, I think she opened the gate and ran through, but this sounds better.) She reached me just ahead of the black and white frenzy, who was not pleased to place second. Mom scooped me up and screamed for my Dad, while the cow proceeded to try to knock me out of her arms. For a few seconds, Mom avoided the angry, gesticulating cow by spinning, pirouetting gracefully.
There was some real ‘bull-fighter’ potential in my mother.
But soon, the cow tired of the performance and changed tempos. She decided that the best way to the child was through the mother. Fortunately this new ‘barn dance’ with me at the centre was cut short by the arrival of my enraged father.
That’s the part I wish I could remember. When anyone, or anything, was threatening one of his children, my dad would . . . well let me put it this way. Two words. Mount Vesuvius. In work boots. Needless to say, in short order, the cow forgot all about her ongoing discussion with me and was headed for the nearest far-away place with her tail tucked – figuratively speaking – between her legs, and I was being closely examined by not one, but two anxious parents. My only injury was a red cowboy boot crushed flat. The foot inside miraculously survived.
Another day, another adventure.

Life on the Ranch

The new barn
I was privileged to grow up on one of the last of the large old ranches in Southern Alberta. Situated half way between the towns of Milk River and Del Bonita, it covered two-and-a-half townships, close to 92 square miles. Our closest neighbour was over nine miles away. A little far to drop by to borrow a cup of sugar, but close enough to help in the case of a real emergency, which was not uncommon on the large spread we ran, and with the number of people involved in the daily workings.
The ranch buildings themselves were nestled snugly in a bend of the South Fork of the Milk River. Towering cliffs surrounded us. Cliffs which were home, at times, to a pair of blue herons, and at all others, to marmots, badgers, porcupines, and a very prolific flock of mud swallows. We learned to swim in that river. We tobogganed down the gentler slopes of those cliffs. We built dams and caught frogs and snakes. I even trapped a full grown jack rabbit – almost.
It was an unusual life, as I have now come to know. At the time, it was normal. We thought everyone lived like we did. Far from any outside influences. Relying on each other. Immersed in the needs of the family and the ranch. For a child growing up, it was peace itself.

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