Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Happy Barn Burning

What was left of the barn

October second. My birthday. A time of reflection and renewal. Time to reminisce.
It was exactly 53 years ago that I made my way into the world.
Feet first.
Fourth of six children and second daughter for Mark and Enes Stringam. A pretty exciting time for everyone. Well, for me at any rate.
I grew, healthy and strong in a loving, ordered world. My birthdays approached, were celebrated with varying degrees of success, and then left behind. First. Second. Third. For my fourth, something special was planned. Very special. And very secret. No one knew what was coming.
No one.
Early on the morning of my fourth birthday, a frantic phone call jolted my Dad out of his bed.
“There is a rather major emergency at the ranch. Would you possibly be able to come out?”
“Erm, yes. The barn is on fire.”
“On my way.”
Or at lest that is how I picture the conversation. It was probably something more in the way of . . . “EEEEEEE (high pitched screaming)!”
And Dad, “AAAAAAAAAH (Not quite so high pitched)!”
And that was the total exchange. But I digress . . .
So dad jumped into his truck and drove the twenty miles to the ranch in record time. Really record time. The only other occasion that would warrant such reckless driving and high speeds was the imminent arrival of yet another small Stringam . . . but that event was months away. He arrived just after the fire department.
By then, the barn was well on it’s way to being a memory. Flames had consumed most of it and the remainder was burning purposefully . . . and cheerfully . . . in the early morning light. Acrid smoke coiled across the barnyard, obscuring the crowd gathered to watch. Tears filled most eyes. Some because of said smoke. Others due to the fact that their most precious possessions had – literally – gone up in it.
One hired man stood there, in his longhandles, shaking his head helplessly. It took some time, and the appearance of the attractive ranch cook, for him to realize that his attire was . . . less than conventional. He beat a hasty retreat to find something a little more . . . conservative . . . to wear.
And not just the humans were concerned. The smaller denizens of the barn had been rudely awakened and forced to – quickly – find new lodgings. One mouse, intent on that very errand, scampered from the mass of smoking debris that had been his home, and into the pale morning light. He stopped. Something was very wrong. There were two humans standing directly in his path. He worked it through his little mouse brain, then darted back into the smouldering pile. Better the evil you know . . .
There was great loss. Two litters of pigs - with sows, several horses, calves. Not to mention saddles, tack and equipment. None irreplaceable, but all valuable. Oh, and my birthday. Somehow, in all the melee, that was lost as well. Not that I cared. I was happily perched on the fence, just within toasting distance of the glowing fire, watching the spectacle. Not really understanding what was going on. Knowing only that, in four years of mischief, I’d never been able to come close to this excitement. Never.
The barn was rebuilt. Bigger. Better. More modern. And my . . . birthday was never forgotten again. Every year, Dad calls on this date to wish me a . . . Happy Barn Burning.
With music.
And the dance.
There is a codicil. Twelve years ago, my barn burned down. Our losses were not as enormous as the ‘original’ barn fire. We lost two little pigs and some equipment. But the most important fact was the date. April first. My father’s seventieth birthday. I had to phone to wish him . . . Happy Barn Burning.
Payback is so sweet.


Me Poppa and me

Though we lived at the back of beyond, the modern world did, at times, actually intrude.
Certainly, it was there in the tools we used and, increasingly, in our entertainment.
Sometimes, miraculously, in both at the same time.
It was that way when we got our first ever television.
I remember it well. A large unit which stood on its own legs and emitted a magical black and white picture. Mom would turn it on in the morning and I would sit and watch.
The Indian Test Pattern.
For hours.
That picture amazed me. It never occurred to me that it was unchanging. It was there. I stared at it.
Okay, I was really waiting for ‘The Friendly Giant’ to come on.
But Mom would craftily switch on the set long before the program aired and I was caught. Snared by the light that flickered from the magical box. Sort of like a deer in the headlights, except that I was a dear in the . . . never mind.
The first ever electronic baby-sitter.
What genius!
As time went by, we discovered that, with an enormous antennae perched at the very top of the tall tower on the hill which rose to the north of us, we could miraculously get . . . two channels. The variety was endless. The choices unlimited.
Remember, we were at the back of beyond!
Sundays were the best.
On Sunday evening, after dinner, there was a whole line up of goodies. First was Walt Disney Show, followed by Ed Sullivan, and finally, if I had been really good, Bonanza!
Surprisingly, I watched it often. It was amazing how a week’s worth of mischief could be erased by the advent of Sunday evening.
Peace filled the land, and flickering light filled our living room. We were glued to the set, as adventure after adventure unrolled before us.
But at some time during the week – I never really knew which day, after all, I was only four – was the best program of all. The one I waited breathlessly for. The show with the best and biggest of heroes. And the nicest horses.
I identified with Sheriff Dillon.
But I loved Chester, with his limp. I just knew that, when I got older, I would marry Chester. Then I could be on TV with Sherriff Dillon every week.
Okay, my knowledge was sadly lacking, but the spirit was there!
There was only one hitch to my love of this program.
My pronunciation.
I couldn’t say it.
If Mom made the mistake of telling me a wee bit too early in the day that it was a Gunsmoke night, I would walk around all day chanting, “Gunmoke! Gunmoke!”
And I do mean all day.
It probably got a little irritating.
My Mom would try her ‘Mommy’ best to help me. She would kneel in front of me and say, and I quote, “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
I would stare at her and move my mouth with hers.
She would repeat. “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
She would smile at me encouragingly. “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
Expectant silence.
I would open my mouth.
Mom would nod.
“SSSgunmoke! SSSgunmoke! Gunmoke! Gunmoke!” It sounded like a fading echo.
I never really noticed her disappointment.
Or irritation.
I was too happily watching my hero of heroes. He who rode the best horses.
Sheriff Dillon.
On Gunmoke.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Of Brothers and Horses

My elder siblings.
Before they were elder.

I was witnessing a miracle.
My brother, George, was on a horse.
The professed hater of horses was astride one.
I was so proud of him.
And excited.
A whole new world was opening up for me. I could picture long rides together, exploring the ranch, picnics in our saddlebags.
Okay, so neither of us actually had saddlebags, but we did know how to tie a bread bag of food behind our saddles.
That was almost as good.
I have to admit that we never had quite acquired the knack of packing said food so that it didn’t mix together.
Once we had chocolate cake and cheese, that . . . but that is (shudder) another story.
Moving on . . .
George was riding.
He was on his little pony, Star, doing circuits of the barnyard.
A slow start, but a start nonetheless.
I was on my way to the corral for my horse, Pinto. This amazing event simply had to be shared. I couldn’t pass up such an incredible opportunity.
Even as I approached the corral, however, I could see that destiny was working against us.
Destiny in the form of Ken, one of the hired men.
He was standing, motionless, next to the gate of said corral. In his posture I could detect . . . malevolence? Cunning? Creepy-ness?
No, just stupidity.
He reached out and . . . opened the gate.
Now the horses imprisoned there had been standing around for hours, heads hanging, trying their horsey best to look as unenergetic as possible. The hope being that, through their posture alone, they could discourage any potential slave drivers from inflicting them with our frivolous plans for . . . work.
Or anything work-y.
Dynamite couldn’t have moved them.
Only one thing could send the electric shock that would awaken them from their comatose state.
The promise of freedom.
Through that open gate, they could glimpse . . . far away-edness. And they made a straight line for it.
Right through my brother, George.
He was calm. He didn’t panic.
He had me for that.
I watched in horror as his little horse was scooped up by the rest and whisked off towards . . . wherever they were going.
With horses, you never know.
They don’t even know.
The entire group galloped as one, down the hill, along the river.
My brother’s blue coat was clearly visible in the melee as he clung desperately to the smallest horse.
Now one can only imagine the deadly possibilities.
The churning hoofs, flint hard and razor sharp.
Okay, I’m exaggerating.
But they still could cause some rather serious damage.
Even at four I knew that.
I spun around and headed for the house screaming at the top of my lungs, “My brother! My brother!”
Not really original, I’ll admit, but it achieved the desired effect.
My Mom came on the run, white faced and breathless.
I pointed at the cloud of dust rapidly moving towards the nearest far-away place and jumped around a bit. The two of us stared at it.
And at the little cloud that was rapidly losing ground against the larger horses.
Star was falling behind.
It was then that we saw pony and blue jacket part company.
Sensing a safer moment, still not too far from the ranch buildings, George had decided to cut his losses, discard dignity, and bail off.
As his tiny figure began the long trek home, the two of us raced to meet him.
It was a joyous reunion.
George was bruised, both physically and spiritually.
And mad.
And no one can get mad like George.
Picture Dad.
But smaller and more concentrated.
Fortunately, he wasn’t mad at us.
Just at Ken.
And every horse in the world.
A fact that remains to this day.

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