Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, February 9, 2013


You'd better be thankful for that!
Just sayin . . .

Suppertime at the Stringam Ranch.
Wonderful food.
Great company.
The best part of everyone’s day.
Well . . . most everyone.
Mealtimes on a spread the size of ours inevitably meant the mixing of people of vastly different lives and lifestyles.
There was the family. Mom, Dad, children, babies.
Hired men. Ranging in age from the world-weary, leather-faced, taciturn individual who had spent a lifetime squinting into the sun, to the young, smooth-cheeked, ready-for-anything boy, away from home for the very first time.
And assorted people who simply found themselves in the vicinity when the dinner bell rang; and happily joined the queue heading into the dining room.
A fairly eclectic mix.
All knew they would be treated to the very best of good, ranch cooking.
And that the traditional meal would begin with another, more important tradition.
Thanking the Lord.
Regardless of race, creed or colour, the people gathered around my father’s table to eat my mother’s food, would patiently and solemnly bow their heads as Grace was said.
Further participation was optional.
Case in point:
My eldest sister had just turned four.
And had taken on all the heavy duties and responsibilities associated with that venerable age.
Seated happily among the people gathered around the table for the evening meal, she folded her hands tightly, bowed her curly red head, and squeezed her eyes shut when the prayer was said.
There was a chorus of ‘Amens’.
Chris’ head swivelled around and she pinned the hired man seated next to her with a blue-eyed glare.
“You didn’t say ‘Amen’!” she said loudly.
The man turned slightly red and squirmed in his chair as he reached for the stack of still-warm, freshly-sliced bread.
Chris turned to her father. “Daddy! He didn’t say ‘Amen’!” she said, even more loudly.
Dad paused in the passing of a large bowl of potatoes. “Ummm . . .” he said.
She turned to the other end of the table. “Mom . . .!”
“That’s okay, dear,” Mom soothed.
The now red-faced man managed to make it through the rest of a meal punctuated by the side-long glances from a tiny girl with strong convictions.
I’m sure he had had more uncomfortable meals in his lifetime.
I’m also sure he was wishing he was at one of them.

Friday, February 8, 2013

And Now For the News

My Dad loved to read the newspaper at the breakfast table, after we had finished eating.
Let me rephrase that.
My Dad loved to read the newspaper at the breakfast table . . . you get the picture.
Oh, he absorbed the important news stories.
And took note of local and international events and even sales.
But after he had digested the headlines, he would continue to read.
And . . . umm . . . put his own twist upon what he found there.
“Huh. Look at that. Jeffrey James died.”
There would be a pause as everyone in the room tried to decide if they had ever heard that name before.
Finally, some curious soul would ask the question, “Oh? Who was Jeffrey James?”
“Haven't got the slightest idea.”
There would be a general groan and much head shaking.
But that's my Dad.
Sometimes he would embroider a story, improving it for our benefit.
And it wasn't until the story got too outlandish that we would realize it.
“Well, it says here that they're planning a new bridge across the Old Man River near Fort Macleod.”
Again, someone would take the bait. “Really?”
“Yeah. Four lane. The works.”
“Well, it is the Alaska Highway. They probably need the improvement.”
“Well, that'll be nice.”
“Yep. It's just going to hang there. Suspended. Be hard to get on and off of.”
At which time, he would get a smack on the arm.
Or a platter of scrambled eggs upended over his head.
Sometimes, Dad would cut the story out of whole cloth.
“Our taxes are going up.”
“Oh, no!”
“Yep. They need the money for a new fund.”
“Yep, the Town Council Mexico fund.”
“What sort of fund is that?”
“It's the fund where all of the town council get to go to Mexico.”
“What for?”
“Well, to hold their meetings.”
Or . . .
“Well, look at that. The President of the United States is going up with the next Moon Mission.”
“Well, that sounds dangerous. Why?”
“I guess he wants to see for himself what all of the excitement is about.”
And, for some time we would think that the story was true.
In fact, we were even known to spread the rumour.
With embarrassing, but amusing, results.
You'd think we would learn.
But Dad wouldn't limit himself to making up stories.
Oh, no.
Sometimes, he would improve the staid old news in other ways.
By inserting his favourite poems.
Have I mentioned that he loves to recite?
Little Johnny took a drink,
But he shall drink no more.
'Cause what he thought was H2O,
Was H2SO4!”
We would nod and smile.
That part, we had gotten used to.
Anyone new to the family, however, would be understandably confused.
Once, my nearly sister-in-law was seated at the breakfast table with us.
Dad was hidden behind the newspaper, filling us in on the day's happenings.
Suddenly, his tone changed.
The boy stood on the burning deck.
His feet were in the fire.
The Captain said, You're burning up!”
The boy said, “You're a liar!”
She peered timidly around the paper, trying to see where he was reading.
Finally, “Where does it say that?”
Mom rolled her eyes. “No where, dear. It's in his head!”
And still she joined the family.
Go figure.

But that's part of the Stringam legacy.
To this day, I can't simply read the paper.
I especially have great fun with the classifieds.
I guess I just had too good an example.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Between a Rock and a Cool Place

Quick - pick out the cool kids . . .

At the bottom of the hill, at the edge of the playground, halfway between the elementary and junior/senior high schools was a rock.
A big rock.
It didn't belong to anyone.
It was just there.
Doing rock stuff.
It had 'sit' down pretty well.
And 'stay'.
It was the gathering place for the 'cool' kids in grade five.
I was in grade five.
I wasn't cool.
Every recess, the group of boys and girls who were the most popular would scurry down and claim the rock. For the entire 15 minutes, they would clamber (real word) about, or sit and talk.
And look cool.
I wanted to be with them more than anything.
I wanted to be cool.
I, too, had a group of friends.
Like me, my friends were not considered the 'popular' group.
But they were good friends. Loyal. Fun.
Often I would catch them casting longing looks towards the rock.
And the cool kids thereon.
I knew what they were thinking.
Sometimes, our disappointment and frustration would boil over into something more proactive.
One occasion stands out . . .
We 'seconds' as we had begun to think of ourselves, were grouped around the monkey bars.
Okay, we called it talking.
We were making great sport of tearing the distant cool kids apart.
Everything was fodder for our nasty little grist mill. Their looks, their clothes, their personalities, their classroom standing, even their pets.
Yep. We were grinding at a pretty feverish pace.
I said, in a loud voice, "Well, I wouldn't go with them, even if they begged me."
The others nodded in agreement.
Than another voice broke in. "Diane?"
We all turned. Two of the popular girls were standing there.
"Um . . . yeah?"
"We wanted to invite you to join us. Paul really likes you."
I'd like to tell you that I simply smiled and refused. Or that I turned a slightly disdainful shoulder and stuck with my friends.
I did neither.
Faster than you can blink, I was one of them. They put their arms around my waist and I did the same and the three of us headed off to the rock.
I didn't even look back.
For many weeks, I lived as a cool kid.
Hung out at Danny's like everyone else but, because I did it, it was cool. Wore the same clothes as everyone else, purchased at Robinson's, but because I did it . . . you get the picture.
And I loved it.
Every minute of it.
No longer did I have to worry about what I said.
Because I was cool, everyone laughed and forgave me.
I didn't have to worry about what I did.
I was in heaven.
Then . . .
Paul decided he liked someone else.
And, just like that, I wasn't cool anymore.
The rest of them dropped me like a hot . . . rock.
It was my very first lesson on relationships.
It wouldn't be the last.
But it was the most painful.
Because when I tried to go back to my old circle of friends, I found that they were afraid of me.
Afraid to trust me.
Now, I was truly alone.
Oh, my solitary state didn't last long.
Only the eternity of about a week.
Fifth graders have short memories.
But I did a lot of growing in that week.
I realized that I had learned four things:
            1. True friends are important.
            2. Don't burn your bridges.
            3. The rock is really hard and uncomfortable to sit on.
            4. Even if you're a cool kid.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Another Stringam Car Trip

Ready to go.
Pictured L to R: Anita, Blair, Dad, George, Jerry,
Missing: Mom, Chris, Diane and the potty.

Traffic has slowed to a crawl.
Not a usual thing for a small, hard-topped, two lane, secondary road twisting through the foothills of Southern Alberta.
We join the end of a line of cars.
"Huh. Weird," Dad says.
"What on earth could be causing this?" Mom asks, spitting on a Kleenex and cleaning the face of her youngest son. "Careful with that chocolate bar, son, you're getting it on your father."
"Can't see, yet," Dad says. "But the line will be straightening out soon and . . . ah!"
The line has done so and disclosed the culprit.
A house.
White clapboard.
Two storey.
Not something you see in the middle of the road every day.
Usually that's reserved for bungalows . . .
The house creeps along.
We creep along behind it, more cars joining us every minute or so like the growing tail of some large, unwieldy monster.
"Mom! I have to go potty!" Little brother, Blair, stands up on the front seat and starts doing the dance.
"I wonder if he knows we're here," Mom says, pulling the potty out from under her seat. "You'll just have to go while we're moving, dear," she says. "We don't want to lose our place in line."
Right. Because we'll be left behind as the rest of the line of traffic moves off at 10 MPH?
"Mom! I hate going when the car is moving!"
"Well, try not to miss. How long till the turn?" she asks Dad.
"At this rate? About three days," Dad says.
We are heading to our relatives for dinner.
I'm beginning to hope that their food tastes 'just as good the second day'.
Mom opens her car door and dumps out the potty, then wipes it out with the spit Kleenex, stuffs it back under her seat and drops the used tissue into her handy-dandy paper bag trash receptacle.
She glances around at her brood.
Four are scattered across the wide back seat.
Important note: Seatbelts and safety measures haven't been invented yet.
Jerry and George are arguing over a car magazine.
Chris and Diane are reading. Diane is getting rather green around the gills.
Mom frowns. Might be a good time to distract Diane. She glances out the window, hoping to spot some horses the only thing known to pull Diane from a book.
Blair is now happily parked in the front seat between Mom and Dad, looking at the pictures in one of his brother's comic books.
And Anita is perched on Mom's knees, nose against the window and half-filled bottle of cream soda in her lap.
"Mom! I wanna drink!" George has given up trying to wrench the magazine from his older brother and is now sitting with his arms cross on the back of the front seat.
"Okay. I just get one here . . ." Mom mimes taking a glass and turning on a tap.
"There you go!"
"Mom! A real drink! Of Pop!"
"There'll be plenty of pop in the well when we get there!" Dad says.
"You can have some of mine!" Anita says, offering her bottle.
George looks at the pale-pink liquid that started out a brilliant red.
"That's okay," he says. "I can wait."
"Mom? I'm car sick!" Diane has emerged from her book on her own.
Not a good sign. Again the potty comes into play.
Diane now sits with it on her lap.
"How much further?" Chris has come up for air.
"A year or two," Dad says, leaning forward and peering through the front windshield.
"Let's play a game!" Mom says. "How about 20 questions?"
"Okay! I've got it," Jerry says.
"Animal, vegetable or mineral?"
"Alive or dead?"
The game is played to its usual conclusion.
And another round starts.
Blair and Anita have fallen asleep.
Mom rescues the offensive cream-soda bottle just before it tips over. She again opens her car door and discretely empties it out onto the road.
Diane imagines, for a moment what it must be like to follow the Stringam's car at 10 MPH. Heads bobbing about. Car door opening periodically to expel various fluids.
"Oh, look!" Dad says. "The house is pulling over!"
Mom laughs. "Now that's not something you hear often," she says.
Mom always manages to keep her sense of humour. It's a gift.
Slowly, the line of cars begins to pull out around the house like a stream finding its way around a large, recently-dropped stone.
Dad pulls up beside the house driver and gestures to Mom, who rolls down her window. "Why don't you get a travel trailer, like everyone else?" he says, with a grin. 
"I'm so sorry!" the driver says. "Were you following me long?"
About four years, three months, twenty-one days, and thirteen hours, Dad thinks. "Oh, no. Not long!" he says.
They wave to each other and we are off.
Just another family car trip.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Spring is in . . . the Air

Milk River. Looking west . . .
My home town of Milk River, Alberta is a small place just north of the Canada/US border.
Tucked into the very heart of farming and ranching country.
Generational farms and ranches surround it on all sides.
The Milk River, itself, meanders quietly through.
A peaceful little oasis, perfect for raising families and finding harmony.
In the sixties, homes built on the edges of the town looked out, quite literally on farm fields.
And, on the west side of town, one feed lot.
Okay, yes, I will admit that said feed lot was across the tracks and behind the seed-cleaning plant.
But, let’s face it. It was very, very close to the town.
And had been for a great number of years.
My dad raised bulls in that feed lot.
It was . . . handy.
I should maybe explain for any of you not familiar with cattle and feed lots, that a feed lot is simply a large series of corrals in which cattle are fattened.
Much like Hansel and Gretel.
To the same purpose.
But with much less candy.
Moving on . . .
Beef cattle are twice daily fed a mixture of grains and yummy nutritious stuff. (But no candy: see above.)
They happily slurp this up, then wander around the corrals and grow.
When they reach a certain size, they are sold either as breeding stock.
Or as dinner.
In a cow, as in any living being, sustenance goes in one end.
Something else comes out the other.
Let’s be classy and call it ‘effluent’.
A poorly-run feed lot will leave said effluent.
For years.
A well-run operation cleans it away.
Every spring.
Ours was a well-run operation.
And said cleaning was a dirty and vastly smelly proposition.
And now the feed lot’s proximity to the town comes into play . . .
Early one spring, just after thaw, Dad decided it was time to clean the ol’ corrals.
He hired a specialized team, who moved in with loaders and trucks.
In no time, the corrals were tidy and clean.
The evil-smelling  ‘gleanings’ were spread on a nearby field as fertilizer.
Job finished. Money paid. Hands shaken.
Dad went back to his regular day.
Now, the town of Milk River has one distinctive anomaly.
It has beauty.
It has peace and prosperity.
And it also has wind.
Mostly from the west.
That springs up . . . whenever.
Usually at the worst, possible time.
Within minutes of the field being spread, the west wind started to blow.
I don’t have to tell you where the accompanying smell went.
Fortunately, the pain was short-lived.
The hot, dry wind that was caused such agony also dried the effluent quickly.
The smell died. Within 12 hours, the people of Milk River could once more draw a decent breath of sweet, clean air.
But the damage had been done.
One woman, the town secretary, unused to the common smells of ranch life in the spring, decided to take matters into her own hands.
She wrote a letter.
On town stationary.
The letter advised my dad that “under no circumstances would he be allowed to operate a feed lot in close proximity to the town.”
Dad stared at the letter.
The feed lot had been there since time began.
Certainly since Milk River had been there.
Was he really expected to shut his business, and livelihood, down?
He went to the mayor.
Who went to the council.
Who went to the secretary.
Apparently the letter had been written without the authorization of any of them.
Well, except for the secretary who really had no authority.
Dad didn’t have to stop using the feed lot.
Something about it being an old established business.
But changes were made.
After that, he did try to be a bit more judicious about where he spread things.
To save the poor, urban noses.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Aptly Named

Ready to ride!

The Stringam ranch raised cattle.
Polled Herefords.
At the time, there was only one piece of equipment suited to working with these animals.
A horse.
A wonderful, beautiful, perfect, exquisite, delightful, magnificent, superb, gorgeous, splendid, superlative, bravura, exceptional, dazzling and really, really nice horse.
Did I mention I like horses?
Probably not, but you get the picture.
The men and other grown-ups on the ranch had their own mounts.
Size appropriate.
The smaller residents on the ranch needed something . . . smaller.
Dad purchased a little, black Shetland pony.
A pretty little guy.
With the cute little name of ‘Nipper’.
Everyone came out to see him.
My oldest sister, four, was especially excited.
Here was a horse just her size.
“I want to ride him!” she said.
Mom lifted her small daughter and set her on the small, black back.
Suddenly, she felt a pinch.
A sharp pinch.
Somewhere in her nether regions.
She turned.
Huh. Weird.
She turned back to her daughter. “He’s a nice pony, isn’t he?” she asked.
Chris was voluble in her praise and adoration.
Mom reached out to pull her daughter off.
And suddenly, there was that pinch again.
She turned around.
Nothing. Again.
What on earth?
She helped Chris pet the pony’s head.
He was so perfect.
“I wanna ride again,” Chris said.
Obligingly, Mom reached out to set her small daughter on the pony’s back.
Another pinch.
This time, she turned, just in time to see the small, perfect pony turning his head to face front.
And then it hit her.
Whenever she reached out to help her daughter, the little monkey had been turning his head and biting her!
Suddenly the cute little name he had arrived with made a lot more sense.
Let’s face it, it suited.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Right Girl. Wrong Smile

Dad has been story-telling.
Surely the best of times . . .
Christmas, 1946.
Our newly-minted college boy was back from school in Guelph, Ontario for his first Christmas break.
His home town of Lethbridge, Alberta, was in a justifiably holiday mood.
A gathering had been organized at the new church hall.
College boy decided it would be fun to go.
Standing at the edge of the dance floor, he began to wonder if going had been a mistake.
None of the people he knew were there.
Oh, there were plenty of girls.
Beautiful girls.
Most of them, the younger sisters of his friends who had, surprisingly, sprouted during his absence.
He didn’t recognize any of them.
Standing there, uncertainly, he was approached by the mother of one of said friends.
“Mark!” she said. “Go and dance with my daughter!”
“All right,” he said, smiling. “Happy to!”
She moved off and Dad turned back to the large group in front of him.
Now I should point out here, that this girl was well-known to my dad.
He just hadn’t seen her for a while.
In his absence, she had grown up.
The nerve of her.
He studied the faces of the girls on the dance floor and milling the hall.
They smiled at him encouragingly.
Recognition was no closer.
Finally, not wanting to embarrass himself by approaching the girl’s mother, he wandered over to a group of boys and asked them.
The girl was immediately pointed out.
Dad dutifully walked over to her and asked her to dance.
Whew! Mission accomplished.
She was a pretty girl.
Dad enjoyed dancing with her.
Feeling just a bit proud of his success, he moved with her around the floor.
Then he spotted the girl’s mother in the crowd.
With a large, satisfied smile on her face as she watched the two of them.
A ‘hundred-watt’ smile.
Now, as a mother myself, I can understand that smile.
Her daughter was dancing with a nice, handsome young man from a solid family, who was studying to be a doctor.
A rosy future looked tantalizingly close.
And distinctly possible.
I’ve used it myself.
Most of the time, I’m sad to admit, it’s a relationship killer.
This particular relationship wasn’t meant to be.
Though they enjoyed the evening, the two of them never really hit it off.
Soon Dad was back at school and once more hard at work.
The young girl went back to her life.
Dad doesn’t remember much about her.
She was pretty. Fun. Sweet.
And her mother had a really big smile.
See what I mean?

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