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.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Real Family Bird-Brains

Admit it. He's cute!

I have birds. 

Zebra finches, to be exact.
They are easy to take care of, make cute little-bird sounds and are infinitely entertaining to watch.
I love them. It is a love affair that has been going on for fourteen years, now.
It all started innocently enough. I was directing a play that required caged birds as part of the premise. A local bird shop supplied us with a canary, two doves and a finch.

A cute little finch with a smart polka-dot waistcoat, red cheeks and a black and white striped tail.
It was love at first sight.
During the days, not thinking it wise to leave our little rent-a-birds at the theatre, I brought them home with me.
One day, while I was in the other room, I could hear a cheerful little song. Rising and falling notes that sounded almost as though someone were swinging on a tiny, rusty gate. (A musical, tiny, rusty gate.)
I thought it was the canary, noted for their singing.
Entranced by the sound (and yes, I meant to use the word 'entranced'.), I hurried into the room, and stopped beside the canary cage.
The little yellow bird turned and looked at me.
And the little notes kept on.
Could canaries still sing if their beaks were closed?
My knowledge of birds was truly woeful.
I moved to the next cage. Two sweet doves blinked at me sleepily.
The third cage.
And my little maestro was revealed. Singing his little heart out.
My heart was captured.
He was my new - 2 ounce - Jose Carreras.
And my hero.
Later, onstage, when all the other birds were frozen with fear as the spotlights of the theatre shone on them, I heard that same little song.
Miraculously, with people spouting lines and charging back and forth across the stage, my little finch still found the courage to sing.
That was it. I couldn't part with him. He had to be mine.
Fortunately, my husband agreed and, at the end of the play, when the other birds were returned to their shop, Peter stayed with me. (Peter finch. Has a sort of ring, don't you think?)
Soon after that, I decided that my little Peter needed a little mate.
And so Polly, she of the beautiful white feathers and similarly striped tail, joined our household.
She and Peter immediately set up housekeeping and a few weeks later, Piggy hopped out of the nest. Followed shortly after that by Pepper, Poppy and . . . Percival? Pat? Plethora? Preamble? Pancreas? (I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten his name. I do know it started with a 'P'.)
They quickly outgrew the cage that had seemed so large only a short time ago.
My husband made them a new cage. A large cage in the shape of a grain elevator. (Yes, Virginia there is an elevator . . .)
And my birds became a permanent part of our lives.

They are constantly busy. Constantly doing 'birdy' things.
Constantly entertaining.
One can almost hear the conversations as they alternately groom each other, or chase one another madly around the cage.

"Yes. Right there! That's the itchy spot. Oh get it! Get it!"

Or . . .
"Stop that racket!"
"But it's the same song you were singing five minutes ago!"
"I don't care! I don't like you singing it!"

Or better yet . . .
"What are you doing in my cage?!"
"I live here!"
"Well, who said that could happen!"
"What are you talking about? I was born here! To you!"

Or the ever popular . . .
"I don't like the way you look!"
"But I'm your son, I look like you!"
"Don't change the subject!"

In all the years of raising them, I have only been able to touch them when they first leave the nest and haven't quite gotten the knack of flying. Even then, I can only touch them for an instant.
I quickly pick them up, band their legs and let them go.
For that second, with the tiny, frightened bird quivering in my hand, we are truly one.
Then they are released and become another cute, busy, easily-panicked member of my little finch society.
It's the only thing I wish I could change.
Well, that and the mess of torn newspaper and scattered feathers and seeds that constantly litter the floor beneath and around their cage.
I've tried taking them to task for this, using forceful, penetrating words similar to those I used in raising my own children . . . you little monkeys! You're acting like slobs! D'you hear me? Slobs!
They never listen.
Wait. Neither did my children!
Hmmm. Children. Birds.

Am I seeing similarities?

See the elevator?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Me, the Mower, and my Guardian Angel

Me and everyone on the ranch who was smarter than me . . .

I made it! I was nine! I could do anything! I was supergirl!
As you may have guessed, nine years old was an important time in my family. The time when one was moved up to the next level of responsibility.
Now I could do all of the cool things that my older brothers and sister could do. Things I'd been waiting years to do.
Wonderful 'adult' things like . . . mowing the lawn.
Odd, isn't it, how exciting and attractive something looks when someone else is doing it?
And how . . . not-exciting and not-attractive it is when suddenly, it is your responsibility?
By the second time, the thrill of mowing our acres and acres of lawn had begun to pall, somewhat.
In fact, I hated it.
Maybe if there were such a thing as a riding mower, I could have retained my enthusiasm . . .
But the fact was that we only had a small, electric mower. And you had to push that little cretin every square foot of the way.
Oh, and watch out for the cord, but I am getting ahead of myself.
My instructions were very specific. Always start at or near the plug-in. Then work away from it in rows.
And rows and rows and rows . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sorry! Got caught up in the memory . . .
Needless to say, my mind didn't stay focused on what I was doing. In fact, it rather wandered . . . a bit.
One bright, sunny summer afternoon, when my horse and I could have been a small dot on the horizon, I was, once more, pushing that wretched mower.
But it wasn't all bad. Part of me was off riding my horse across the open prairie . . .
Suddenly, I was rudely made aware of just why we are supposed to keep our minds at least in the vicinity of what we are doing.
The mower . . . quit.
Just like that.
There were some telltale sparks in the lawn, if one cared to look, but other than that, the stupid thing had just suddenly become lifeless.
I narrowed my eyes and began my investigation.
Aha! A cord. That just . . . ended. Snapped off as though it had been . . . cut. I searched around for the other end.
There it was! Lying in the grass!
Now how do you suppose . . .
The truth hit me like one of Dad's yearling bulls.
I had done the unspeakable. The unpardonable.
Soon, if Dad found out, I was going to be as dead as this mower.
I had to fix it.
I grabbed the two ends. Maybe if I just put them back together, they will magically join . . .
I sometimes wonder just how many guardian angels I wore out during my growing up years on the ranch. I think I went through them at an alarming rate.
But they were good at what they did.
There was an enormous explosion and a First-of-July amount of sparklers.
I dropped those two ends like they were hot . . .
Which they probably were.
. . . and headed for my dad.
He just shook his head and followed me to the scene of the crime. Then he unplugged the live end of the cord (funny that I didn't think of that) and with a few quick strokes and some electrician's tape, mended everything.
Good as new.
I sat there in the unmown grass and watched him work.
He got to his feet. "Okay, Diane, back to work. And watch the cord a bit more carefully."
I stared up at him.
After that traumatic experience he was going to make me get 'back on the horse'? (Something I would loved to have done, in reality.)
He smiled and turned away.
He was! He actually meant for me to start mowing again!
I looked at the couple of swaths I had completed.
Then at the millions of swaths left to do.
I reached out and tentatively flipped the switch. My trusty little cohort hummed into life.
I started pushing.
Okay. Careful of the cord. Always keep it between you and the plug-in. Be watchful. Be wary . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I know what I will do the next time I go riding! Topper and me will . . .
And yet another guardian angel sighs as he is called into service.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Unfair Fair

Me . . . don't talk about the hairdo

I was so excited.

My pal, Jody and I were going to have a fair.
During afternoon recess at school. A real fair, with games and prizes.
We had saved our allowances. We had . . . permission . . .
And now the real story . . .

Jody was staying with me at the ranch for a few days while her parents were away on holiday.
We had conceived this marvellous scheme while we were supposed to be sleeping. Just before my dad threatened to separate us for the night.
For the record, I don't know why they are called 'sleep overs'. Nothing resembling sleeping ever takes place. But I digress . . .
Jody and I had come up with this amazing idea. To hold a fair. With different contests and featuring real, bona-fide prizes of toys or candy. It was the best plan ever! Stupendous! The school would be talking about it for years!
Our plans grew and hatched more plans.
Barnum and Bailey would be put to shame! (I didn't know who they were, but whenever a circus was talked about, they were mentioned.)
There was only one hitch in our marvellous plan.
We were eight years old, in grade three, and needed permission to go downtown to purchase the necessary candy and prizes. And my mom refused to give us the necessary legal document.
We even provided the statement, already spelled out. All she had to do was sign.
She refused.
For sure, Barnum and Bailey didn't have such complications . . .
We were still puzzling over this difficulty when we got on the bus and sat in front of one of the grade 12 girls. We talked and talked, but no solutions were forthcoming.
The girl leaned over the seat and asked one of us to retrieve a pen she had dropped. I complied, still talking.
She reached out her hand to take the pen.
I paused, looking at her. At her . . . fully-grown hand.
That knew how to write in script.
That couldn't help but fool our teacher.
I smiled.
Later, we skipped happily off the bus, content in the knowledge that the two of us were smarter than our teacher. Than anyone. Than the whole world.
We duly presented the paper, properly signed, to Mrs. Hofer. She scanned it.
“Huh. I thought Jody's mom wasn't due home for a few more days.”
“Oh, she's back!” we assured her.
She nodded.
We bounced happily from the room. We had succeeded.
Our fair was underway.
We ran all the way downtown and had a marvellous time blowing our combined $.75 on penny candies and trinkets.
Then, clutching our paper bags of magic, we ran all the way back.
Our fair was a success. We conducted games and races and magnanimously handed out prizes.
Happily certain we were idolized by every child on the playground. That everyone wished they were us.
Then, just as the bell rang, Kathy ran up to tell us that we were wanted.
In the principal's office.
We looked at each other.
What could possibly have gone wrong?
Our plan had been so fool proof.
Slowly, we trudged towards our doom.
“Jody, is your mother home?” The principal was staring at us from under bushy, frowning brows.
I stared at my feet, frozen to the spot.
Jody, just slightly braver than me, managed to shake her head.
“So, where did this note come from?” He waved our masterpiece.
“Ummm . . . Mom signed it before she left?”
The principal shook his head. “I don't think so.”
Sigh. We were caught.
“A girl on Diane's bus signed it.”
I peeped up at him. Was that a good 'ah'? A 'very clever girls',ah?
He was still frowning.
Obviously not.
I looked at the closet door behind his chair.
Where I knew the strap was kept.
If he made one step towards that closet, I was going to head for the hills.
And I knew where those hills were . . .
He folded his hands together.
“Do you girls know what you did wrong?”
We nodded.
“Do you?”
We nodded again, with a little less certainty.
“This is what is called 'fraud'.”
Fraud? I'd never heard of the word.
“It's like lying.”
Ah. Lying. Now that I knew a lot about . . . from watching my siblings . . . not because I . . . oh, never mind.
“Deceiving someone.”
Another long word I'd never heard of.
Okay, back on familiar ground.
“You got someone else to sign your mom's name. That is lying. Fraud.”
But she was an adult! my mind screamed. She was big. She could write script. What difference did it make?
“You can't have someone else sign in place of your parent unless they are your guardian. Was this girl on the bus your guardian?”
Guardian? I was at sea again, and for someone who had never seen the sea, that was pretty lost. Ummm . . . I'm going to go with 'no'?
I was right!
“So what you did was wrong.”
Again, my eyes were drawn to that closet door. Not the strap! Not the strap!
He leaned back in his chair.
“I'm going to have to speak to your parents about this.”
I stared at him. Parents? Maybe the strap would be a good idea.
“They will have to take it up with you.”
I thought of my dad finding out.
The strap was looking better and better.
“Now I want you to go back to your class and think about this.”
We nodded.
“And never . . . ever . . . bring in a permission form signed by anyone but your parents. And never . . .” his eyes drilled through us . . . “lie to anyone again.”
Again we nodded. Wide-eyed.
Then we escaped.

We were right. The school talked about our fair for weeks afterwards.
They, and we, just didn't remember it for the right reasons.

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