Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Friday, June 3, 2011

First Night out - or - The Night We Cheated Death

Anita, Jerry, Me, Chris, Mom, Blair (in front of Mom), Graham (a visitor) and George
My sister, Chris had turned 16.
And gotten her driver's license.
For us kids on the ranch, the world had just gotten a whole lot smaller.

It was our first foray into town . . . without parental supervision. For the first time, ever, there were only siblings in the car.
It was a truly magical night.
Great company. (Jerry and George hadn't teased me, even once.)
Great entertainment planned. (The Friday night movie was always a first-run hit, thanks to the theatre politics of the time - something to do with our theatre owner having seniority over all of those in the nearby city of Lethbridge - but that is another story . . .)
Our own little Envoy station wagon. (With two-week veteran, Christine, at the wheel.)
An anticipated stop at the local drive-in after the movie. (Mmmm . . . burgers . . .)
The heart-stopping possibility of joining a queue of cars cruising main. (Our first chance to participate. Somehow, cruising main had never been considered when Mom or Dad were chauffeuring . . .)
Yes, magical was the right word.
And it all happened. The movie, the drive-in, the cruise.
We had hit the big times!
Then, as with any magical night, midnight came. Our little Envoy was pointed towards the far distant lights of home and ordered to return us there.
Obligingly, it started out.
Then, halfway home, it stopped.
My two mechanically-minded brothers scrambled happily out of the car.
Almost instantly, they spotted the problem. A disconnected fuel line. Easily repaired. I think, perhaps they were a bit disappointed the problem was eliminated so quickly. They would have loved to crawl over, under and through that little car.
We were again under way.
Only to stop once more a few miles further down the road. This time, out of gas.
Obviously, the fuel line had done more than just briefly stop the engine.
We four independent kids sat there in the moonlight, wondering what to do.
And realizing that independence wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Let me paint you the picture . . .
The year was 1966. Phones had just recently been installed in the ranching country of Milk River and ran on the 'crank' method. (Our ring was two longs, by the way.) Cell phones existed only in Star Trek. We were about 6 miles from town. The nearest neighbours were at '117', a ranching community about 5 miles away. Our home was a further 9 miles from there. Few people used this road during the day, and even fewer by night. The chance of rescue by someone heading home was slim to non-existent.
It was a fairly warm night with a full, bright moon. Still, we were hesitant to start walking. There was no possibility of getting lost, but wolves, though not common, weren't unheard of. Or cougars either, for that matter.
What to do.
And then we saw lights. Behind us, coming up from town.
Real lights. On a real vehicle.
Coming fast.
Now who on earth could that be at this time of night on these roads?
An elderly pickup slid to a halt beside us. The dust always followed directly after, settling belatedly down over the scene.
Two doors popped open.
And two bachelors who lived in the foothills west of our ranch leaned into the window.
The smell of their breath hit us before they had even opened their mouths.
And suddenly it became clear just why we weren't the only crazies out at this time of night.
Obviously, DUI hadn't been invented yet.
"Hello, Kids!" the first one said, slurring his words slightly. "What'sa matter?"
"We've run out of gas," Chris said, hesitantly.
"Oh that's no problem," the second said. "We've got a shain!"
The 'shain' turned out to be a chain, which they proceeded . . . with colourful language and various starts and stops . . . to hitch to the front bumper of our car.
"All set, kids?"
My sister gripped the steering wheel.
And we were off!
Let me just say this . . . elderly bachelors, driving an equally elderly truck, and having just come from their twice yearly trip to the bars in Sweetgrass, could sure cover the ground.
We approached speeds nearing 50 miles per hour. And that was on gravel roads, at night.
And hitched to the vehicle in front of us by a 10 foot chain.
I was right. My sister, though just a two-week veteran, was a veteran. Her driving that night would have inspired Mario Andretti.
At one point, the chain came off and the ancient truck drove on without us. We coasted to a stop and watched them go, wondering if they would even notice.
But half a mile further up, they slid to a stop in a cloud of dust, and then dutifully returned. After repeating the whole 'sorting out the shain' episode, we were off again.
The lights of the ranch never, ever, looked so good.
The men dropped us and our lifeless vehicle in the barnyard, waved cheerfully and wound their way back up the drive.
We marched happily to the house, full of the excitement of the evening and its hair-raising conclusion.

That was just the beginning of many, many trips to town for fun and entertainment. But somehow, no matter what was planned, nothing quite matched the adrenaline of that first night.

Perhaps 'brushes with death' hold an excitement all their own.

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