Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Worst First Job

Not his favourite picture!

It was my husband's first job following our marriage.
He was . . . excited.
Foreman of a home-building company.
Sounded prestigious.
And it would be.
Once they got the plant built.
His new boss had a plan that would cut down on initial costs significantly.
They would remodel the boss' pig barn.
It was the right size.
It was in fantastic shape.
It just needed a few touches.
First, and most important, the removal of the pigs.
Then, and nearly as important, the cleaning of the sewer system, still full of . . . ummm . . . sewer stuff.
For those who don't know, a pig barn has little ditches running through it. Ditches that are covered by grates and which catch all of the 'icky' stuff.
When the system gets too full, a truck is brought in.
A special truck, with a large tank and hose.
This hose is inserted at the proper place and all sewage is quickly and cleanly removed.
The truck drives away and discharges its load onto the nearest farmer's field, providing nutrition to growing plants.
Not a pleasant job.
But a necessary one.
And it needed to be done before the building of the building factory could continue.
Grant's boss brought in the truck.
The two of them made quick work of draining the sewers.
Then, the next step.
The discharge.
Normally, this would be the easiest part.
You would simply remove the hose.
Reverse the switch.
And stay upwind.
Things started out well.
Sewage was being discharged at a normal rate.
Then, suddenly, it stopped.
Oh the motor was still running strongly.
It's just that nothing was coming out.
Cautiously, the two of them leaned over to peek into the discharge valve.
"Ah!" Grant's boss said. "I see the problem. Look. It's plugged right there." He pointed. He straightened and began to walk around, kicking at the dirt.
Finally, he spotted a large stick and brought it back to where Grant was still waiting.
"I can fix it," he said, cheerfully. He poked the stick into the valve.
"No, wait . . ." Grant started.
He got no further.
Kaaaablooooie! Or words to that effect.
Let me put it this way . . . neither of them had time to get out of the way.
I'm sure I don't need to describe the scene.

There is an addendum.
It was nearly time for Grant to get home from work.
I was just checking on our evening meal when his truck pulled into the yard and ground to a halt.
Ah! Early. Good. We could have a visit before we sat down to eat.
I glanced through the window.
Just in time to see my young husband, in his underwear, leap from the truck and scamper towards the house.
I admit it. My first thought was, 'Wow! Eager!'
He whipped open the door, tossed me a brief, 'Hi!' and headed directly for the bathroom.
There was the sound of the shower, then a loud, "Ahhhh!"
Now there's something that didn't happen every day.
I walked into the bathroom. "Hard day, Honey?"
"I'll tell you about it!" he said over the sound of the water.
And he did.
I thought it was hilarious.
He didn't.
Extra note: Grant's hastily shed clothes remained in the box of the truck until weeks of weather made it possible for them to be removed to the trash.
But the memories remained.
Some things you just can't wash out.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Our Family Vehicles

Ralph, who started it all
With, from the left, Flint, Iggle and Muffy

I love cars.
Especially old ones.
We have owned many vehicles which have taken our family, in it various incarnations, to many places.
Most of the cars worked.
Some didn't.
All were old.
And all had a personality of their own.
In the early days of our marriage, my husband and I had a Dodge Colt.
On which my Dad had made the down-payment before turning the monthly payments over to me.
My husband used to tell people that he married me for my car - and got the payments.
Moving on . . .
And we had an old beater of a truck.
For which my husband paid $200.00.
The Colt, we called The Pumpkin.
Because it was orange.
The truck we named Ralph.
Both were dependable.
One had character.
I know you're wondering, so I'll tell you.
It was the truck.
Ralph would start completely without a key, which was notable.
And under any conditions.
In Alberta, Canada, that could mean anything.
Ralph's horn honked when you pulled out the ash tray.
I have to admit, here, that the horn renovation was my husband's handiwork.
He liked character.
After Ralph and The Pumpkin, we went through a steady stream of vehicles.
An Impala that looked really, really good, and was only missing one part.
A transmission.
Let's just say that transmissions are really, really important and move on.
An old Chevy van (with a home-made bench seat bolted to the floor), that we got by trading in a rusted set of harrows.
A station wagon that we got by trading in the van.
Actually, that station wagon, an old brown Chevy, was interesting to start.
Oh, it would.
Start, I mean.
It just took a little 'coaxing'.
And by coaxing, I mean that Grant would have to crawl under it with a hammer and give the solenoid a little tap.
For those who do not know, a solenoid is a little wire coil that theoretically acts as a switch or relay between the car battery and the motor.
In reality, it is designed to act as aggravation for the car owner.
Especially when it is pouring rain or is -40.
As often happens in Alberta.
On consecutive days.
Continuing on . . .
We traded that old brown wagon for a newer blue one.
Then we traded that one for a 12-passenger Beauville.
Trust me, we needed the space.
Then, as our family began to move out, we traded the big van for a nice car.
A really nice car.
Root beer brown. My husby's favourite colour.
For a few wonderful years we knew what comfort was.
But, like us, it aged.
And finally, pooped out in our front drive.
We could never replace it, so we did the next best thing.
Replaced it with an almost new Olds van from some good friends.
Which is still running today.
Oh, and my Dad's old Sonoma truck.
Which isn't.
Some days I wish we were back where we started.
So to speak.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The People Who Taught Me

Okay, a bit older than our car, but you get the picture.

At some point during our junior year in high school, we were required to take Driver's Education.
We didn't have to be forced.
Though most of us were farm/ranch kids and had been driving since we could see over the dashboard, none of us had ever been allowed to drive on a real road.
Okay, well, I have to admit here that some of us had.
Driven on a real road, I mean.
It's just that our parents didn't know.
So it was to be our first experience driving on a real road . . . officially.
The anticipation mounted as we completed every session of pre-driving training.
The lectures and films grew longer and more boring.
More and more, we craned our necks to glance outside at the shiny new car that would soon become ours.
We were getting feverish to actually take the wheel and floor the accelerator.
Finally the day came.
In groups of three, names were drawn.
And then it was my turn.
My time slot allotted.
My waiting at an end.
All right, yes, I still had to wait, but at least I knew just how long the wait would be.
My group was scheduled to go out in a couple of days, after the end of the school day.
I counted the minutes.
And finally, it was our turn!
The other two students from my group slid into the back seat.
Our instructor, alias: my biology teacher, and I got into the front.
And that was when I discovered that this wasn't quite like any other car I had ever seen.
For one thing, it had two sets of foot pedals.
One on my side.
The other on his.
We started out.
Though every gram of me (and that was a lot of grams) was itching to stomp that gas pedal to the floor.
We made a circuit of the town.
So far so good.
I was instructed to head out of town along the highway.
Obediently, I followed my instructions.
All went well.
We made a safe (it can be done . . .) U-turn and headed back towards town.
As we were approaching the town limits sign with its stark and very pointed suggestion of speed, I turned to my instructor. "Does that mean we need to start slowing down when we get to the sign, or should we be going that speed when we reach . . .?"
I got no further.
My teacher decided, then and there, to teach me what the second set of floor pedals was for.
He stomped on the brake.
Whereupon (good word) I had a heart attack.
Fortunately, my varied experiences on the ranch had taught me that I could still function, even when my heart had left its usual parking spot and taken up residence somewhere in the vicinity of my throat.
Did I panic?
Well, yes. Although I also remained in control.
But the lesson was well and truly taught. One didn't begin to slow down when one reached the all-important sign. One must have already achieved the strongly suggested speed limit.
Point taken.
After a few tense seconds of hands-over-the-face whimpering, both I and my teacher, we were once more off.
The rest of my turn passed without further incident.
Which was probably a good thing for my heart.
And my passengers.
We stopped back at the school and one of my team members exchanged seats with me.
I could officially relax.
For some time, we drove around the town.
Then, as we were following the dirt road north, on the far east side of town, our Social Studies teacher approached and flagged us down.
He did this is a subtle, yet clever way.
He drove past, honking, then pulled over to the right directly in front of us.
Our young driver squeaked out, "What do I do?"
Whereupon (that word again) our instructor told her to pull over behind the other teacher's car and put our car into 'park'.
She sighed and leaned back against the seat.
The four of us watched our social teacher walk around to our instructor's window.
The window was rolled down and the two began to visit.
Meanwhile, our driver was looking forward.
Towards the other car.
Which appeared to be getting . . . closer.
She stomped on the brake and quickly discovered that it wasn't we who were moving.
Ah! The other car was rolling backwards.
Need I mention that we were pulled over directly behind it?
Our driver began to shriek, "Ooh! Ooh! What do I do?! Should I back up?!"
Both teachers looked up.
Just as the 'parked' car collided with us.
Shock warred with embarrassment on both faces.
It was quickly ascertained (another good word) that no damage had been done, either to property or personnel.
And everyone went back to what they were doing before our social teacher had entered the picture.
We completed our training.
Receiving full credit and accolades.
And all of us received our driver's licenses.
It really wasn't that difficult.
Look at the guys who taught us.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Best Mother

The only surviving picture of Andrew

Ranching is wonderful.
Most of the time.
You get to spend your days outdoors, working in the pure, sage-stuffed air.
See the heat shimmer on the tops of hills.
Watch the prairie grass bend in the breeze.
You witness births and new life. See groups of calves, and sometimes their mothers, cavort and snort and play.
And see the milk cow try to run with the deer.
You can bury your face in your pony's thick, warm winter coat and just breathe in his 'horsey' smell.
You have long, wonderful talks with family members as you ride to or from.
And while you're working.
It's a peaceful and serene existence.
And the scenery breath-taking.
But occasionally, it gets pretty gritty.
There are disasters.
But even these can result in something beautiful.
Let me explain . . .
As occasionally happens, a young heifer (cow that hasn't yet produced a calf) got 'exposed' to a bull.
She caught. (Became pregnant)
But something went wrong.
Perhaps because she was so young. Perhaps because she had some physical and undetected abnormality.
Whatever the reason, she was dying and there was nothing that could be done to save her.
And her calf was just days away from being born.
My Dad had to make a quick decision.
He decided to take the calf early and then put the suffering mother out of her misery.
Fortunately, in times like these, a trained veterinarian can work very, very quickly.
One life saved.
Another let go.
And we had a new little bull calf.
An extremely healthy and active little bull calf.
I called him Andrew.
But Andrew didn't have a mama.
Normally, this doesn't present too much of a problem.
You simply adopt the calf onto another mama.
It isn't easy, but it's worth the effort.
Unfortunately, there were no 'mamas' available.
Bottle feeding was indicated.
Now any of you who have bottle fed a puppy or kitten or other young animal know that it's a time-consuming and constant thing.
Not so with calves.
They only need to be fed three or four times a day.
Fairly simple to work around.
And fun for the kids.
So we dug out our bottle and formula and gave our little man his first feeding.
He sucked strongly. A good sign.
On to the next hurdle.
Finding him a place to bunk.
Firmly rejecting our son's offer of his room, we decided on the corral.
There was only one problem.
The corral already had an occupant.
Old Bluey.
Bluey was an older appaloosa mare, gentle and slow.
Her mottled black and grey hair gave her a distinct 'blue' colour.
Thus the name.
Okay, so creative, we weren't.
Back to the problem . . .
We decided that Bluey probably didn't propose much of a threat to our little Andrew.
We carried the calf into the pen and set him down.
He stood there for a moment.
Then he spied Bluey.
Bawling loudly, he headed towards her.
She stared at this little apparition.
And moved away.
He kept on coming.
Again she moved.
This went on for some time.
Finally, deciding that Andrew would be all right, we left them together.
A few hours later, I took a new bottle of formula to our little orphan.
And received the surprise of my life.
There stood Bluey, with the calf beside her nursing loudly.
I should point out here that a horse is generally considerably taller than a cow.
Certainly, Bluey was taller than Andrew's mother had been.
In fact, to simply reach the mare's udder Andrew had to stretch as far as he possibly could.
But he was doing it.
And Bluey was letting him.
It was a miracle.
Another thing I should mention is that a calf is a lot rougher while nursing than a colt. Calves get very 'enthusiastic'. And if the milk slows down, they butt their head into the cow's udder.
Not so with colts. They are quite gentle. Even mannerly about their feeding.
I probably needn't point out that Andrew was a calf.
And an extremely enthusiastic one.
I watched as he butted his head into Bluey's udder. I could almost feel her wince.
She raised her leg and closed her eyes for a moment.
Then she lowered her leg and let him nurse again.
It truly was an amazing sight.
Throughout the summer, Bluey nursed Andrew.
Once, we left the calf in the corral and took Bluey out to bring in the herd, intending to capture them in that same corral.
As we drew close with the herd, someone opened the gate.
Little Andrew came running out, searching for his 'mother'.
And bawling loudly.
Bluey nickered back at him anxiously and he quickly found her and took up a position at her side, following along happily.
Eventually, in the fall, all the calves were weaned, taken from their mothers and put into the feedlot together.
For a day or two, there was a lot of bawling and angst.
Then they discovered the feed troughs.
And discovered, too that they had very short memories.
Peace was restored.
Bluey, too, resumed her peaceful life as though it had never been interrupted.

There is an addendum . . .
I checked Bluey's udder once while she was with her little adopted boy.
She had no milk.
She had done all of that 'Mothering' with an empty udder.
The pain must have been exquisite.
But she did it.
What a mother!
And what an example she is to me.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dough Snakes

I like snakes.
And it's because of my Mom's cooking.
Maybe I'd better explain . . .
I loved to watch my Mom when she was in the kitchen.
I would sit on the cupboard, more or less out of the way.
And follow her movements closely.
She peeled potatoes so fast that I thought every potato had two skins.
I had watched.
Two skins.
Because there was always a skin where she had just peeled.
At other times, she could take her large ceramic bowl and dump in this and that and come out with something delicious.
Every time.
I once told her she was a 'dump cook'.
"I'm a good cook!" she protested.
I tried to explain that that was what I meant, but I don't know if I got through.
But I digress . . .
Sometimes, she would start her trusty Sunbeam mixer.
A sure Diane magnet.
Within seconds, I was standing beside her.
"Mom! Can I have a taste?"
"Honey, it's just butter and sugar."
"But it looks so good!"
"Well, if you want . . ."
Did you know that butter and sugar can actually taste really good?
Well, if dispensed by Mom on a large cake spoon.
But the best of all was when Mom would bake buns.
Or rolls, for anyone who doesn't feel comfortable calling them 'buns'.
She would dump in (see above) bits of this and that and make a large, sticky mass.
Then she would start punching with her hands, adding little bits of flour.
I should point out, here, that if you see a great tub of something powdery and white in Mom's kitchen, icing sugar tastes infinitely better on the end of a wet finger than flour. Just saying.
Moving on . . .
She would punch and punch until she had her dough to just the right consistency.
And yes, I did know what consistency meant.
For a four-year-old, I was a brainiac.
Mom would pinch off a portion of the larger mass and work it into a long roll, ready to cut into smaller pieces.
Then would come the exciting part.
She would chase me around the kitchen, wiggling this long roll of dough, and saying, "Sssssss!"
That was my cue to run around and shriek loudly.
I was good at it.
The dough snake was going to get me!
The dough snake was going to get me!
Finally, when Mom had had enough, she would set the 'snake' back on the counter and proceed to chop it into bits.
One of which she gave to me.
Snake really tastes delicious.
Remember the part when I said 'brainiac'?
I lied.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lethal Guardian

I had finished college.
I was now a college graduate.
This meant several things.
1. I was no longer a student.
2. I had to earn my own living
3. I had no idea how to do it
4. I was a bit frightened
My Dad knew the people who published 'The Canadian Hereford Digest'.
Yes, it's just as exciting as it sounds.
And yes, they would give me a job.
Their offices were in Calgary (population 450,000+ in 1975). This necessitated me moving there.
It was a bit larger city than I was used to.
A bit.
Okay, I admit it. Our family had been living outside of Fort MacLeod. Population 3500.
On a ranch.
Population 6.
I don't know what the percentage of difference is.
My estimate would be: large.
I packed up my little, orange Dodge colt and my six-month Old English Sheepdog puppy, Muffy, and headed out.
My best friend, Debbie was living in Calgary, in a comfortable one bedroom apartment.
I could move in with her.
In a matter of hours, it was done.
In a matter of days, I had gotten used to the change of pace that working and living in a large city entailed.
In a matter of weeks, I could fly across said city like a native, making use of the myriad (good word) back streets and little-known avenues.
I was officially a city girl.
I enjoyed my work and the people I worked with.
I got along famously with Debbie.
I was earning $300.00 a month. A fortune!
There really was only one thing that stopped me from being completely happy.
I was still a bit frightened.
Lets face it, Calgary just wasn't a ranch in the Porcupine Hills.
For one thing, there were . . . people . . . everywhere you looked. People I didn't know.
And a complete lack of cows.
I did have my dog.
And I found a place to board my horse.
But somehow, that didn't make all of the strangers in my new world any more familiar.
Or friendly.
One Sunday night, I was just returning to my apartment from a weekend at the ranch.
I really hadn't been excited about leaving, so I had put it off until very late.
Very late.
My Muffy and I pulled up in front of the building about 2:00 am.
Now this wouldn't have been a problem back on the ranch. In that safe little world, the most I would have had to worry about was my parents . . . worrying.
Here, there was the unknown.
Suddenly the dark street looked, you know, dark.
And rather scary.
I got out and started unloading my suitcase and boxes of food and donations from my Mom.
Then I proceeded to lock the car door.
Suddenly, Muffy growled.
A deep, forbidding sound.
Then she pressed back against my knees, pushing me against the side of the car.
I stared down at her in surprise.
I should probably mention, here, that Muffy was the gentlest dog ever born.
Her own bark startled her. And I had never heard her growl.
I didn't know she could.
But there, still pressing me back against the car, and still growling deeply, was my gentlest of dogs.
I stared down at her.
A sound intruded.
I looked up.
Just in time to see two men walk past on the sidewalk.
The far side of the sidewalk.
Both of them were looking at Muffy.
She was definitely looking at them.
Her head was lowered, her stance rigid and the hair on her neck and back, standing up threateningly.
She was almost unrecognizable.
For several moments, we stayed like that.
Muffy, me, and the car.
Which was beginning to dig into my back, by the way.
The men continued on their way, perhaps even quickening their pace a little.
They had disappeared before Muffy quit growling and looked up at me.
Her back end began to wiggle happily once more.
I let out my breath.
We made very quick work of gathering our stuff and getting inside the building.
After that, I made sure I returned, if not in the daylight, at least at a decent hour.
And, oddly enough, I discovered that I was no longer frightened.
Especially when there were lots of people about.
And as long as I was accompanied by my guardian.
Gentle Muffy.

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