Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tender Mercies

All I can fee l is gratitude . . . and love.

Twelve years ago, our youngest daughter was a Junior in High School.
She was a promising newbie on her rugby team.
An accomplished musician, playing both the trombone and accordion.
She loved to dance and was a superb and natural stage actress.
With a quick and wicked sense of humour.
Then, her life changed.
When she was 15, she went on a trail-riding camp with her class to the Rocky Mountains.
Something the school sponsored every year.
All had gone well.
Then, as the group made their careful way along the ridge of a high coulee, a rider in front of her lost his hat.
It landed on the ground directly at her horse’s feet.
The animal spooked and reared back.
And the two of them, horse and rider, went over the cliff, landing, with our daughter beneath, on the rocky streambed some thirty feet below.
The horse, shaken and confused, but relatively unhurt, immediately scrambled to its feet and took off.
Our daughter remained where she had fallen.
Her friends and schoolmates rushed to her side.
She was conscious and reassured everyone that she was fine.
Though in a great deal of pain.
They hauled her to her feet, set her on the back of an ATV and took her back to camp.
From there, she was piled into a vehicle and driven to the nearest town, Rocky Mountain House, and taken to the hospital.
By this time, she was confused and asking the same questions over and over.
The doctor there at the hospital gave her a cursory examination, ran a hand quickly down her back where her pain seemed the most intense, and sent her back to camp.
For three days, she slept on the hard ground and generally tried to move a little as possible.
Finally, the camp ended and everyone piled into the busses and vehicles to head home.
When I first saw my daughter, I could see she was still in intense pain.
I immediately took her in to our doctor, who ordered an x-ray.
And called us as soon as he had seen the pictures.
“Get her in to the hospital now,” he said. “Right now. Don’t stop for anything.”
Bewildered, we did as we had been told, arriving in the early evening.
She was immediately admitted.
A specialist appeared at her bedside. “Has she had anything to eat?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“She needs emergency surgery,” he said. “Her back is badly broken.”
The words went through both of us like a bolt.
“One of her vertebra is completely crushed,” the doctor said. “The two on either side of it are mostly gone and only have one side each. They are point-to-point holding the rest of her back intact.”
We stared at him.
“I have to operate as soon as possible. Because she has eaten we’ll have to postpone the surgery until morning.” He sighed. “Well try to make her as comfortable as possible for the night.”
It was an emotional and sleepless one.
Early the next morning, they took my little girl, my promising athlete, musician, dancer and actress in to surgery to try to save what was left of her back.
My Husby and I waited.
Finally, a team of medical people pushed her bed back into her room. She smiled at us groggily.
They snapped the brakes and turned to us. “Look,” one of them said. She folded the covers back at the foot of the bed.
“Wiggle your feet, dear,” she said.
Our daughter did so.
The tears that had never been very far away, began.
They had managed to insert two metal brackets, one on either side of her spine, and fastened them to healthy vertebrae above and below the affected three. Then they cinched the crushed bones apart.
The pain was unimaginable.
And my daughter never even whimpered.
Within a few days, she had been fitted for an external ‘clam shell’ that she could clasp around her to protect her fragile spine.
She was told it would be her best friend for the next six months.
And then she walked out of the hospital.
A few weeks later, we took her camping.
She wasn’t able to do much more than wade in the cool, clear water, but she splashed around in her swimsuit and clam shell and enjoyed the sun and the company of her siblings.
Nearby was a young woman, just older than my daughter, in a wheelchair.
I thought, then, ‘There but for the Grace of God goes my daughter.’
She had to give up her dream of playing rugby, but, other than that, was able to resume her normal activities.
And slowly grew new bones.
Her clam shell was discarded after two months.
She still dances and plays music.
Still acts.
She finished high school and college and now works as a carpenter, building stage sets.
She is a wife and a mother.
Today is her 27th birthday.
I see her dancing with her daughter or strapping on a tool belt or competing with her husband at a video game and I forget the grave mistakes that were made after her accident.
All I can feel is gratitude.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Through the Eyes of a Four-Year-Old

Turtle Mountain - After the tragedy

Not far from Calgary, Alberta, and just east of the Crowsnest Pass, lies the small, bustling town of Frank, Alberta, nestled on the floor of a deeply-glaciated valley.
Looming menacingly nearby is Turtle Mountain.
Also nearby is a scene of a destruction of such magnitude that it has never been equalled!
In the early morning hours of April 29, 1903, Turtle Mountain collapsed, resulting in the greatest landslide in North American history.
In 100 seconds: at least 76 people were buried alive under tons of massive limestone boulders; three-quarters of the homes in Frank were crushed like balsa wood; over a mile of the Canadian Pacific Railroad was completely destroyed; and a river became a lake.
Yet, few people have ever heard about it.    - Neil Simpson                                                                                                                                

My parents were driving out to the coast and travelling through Frank Slide was a necessity.
In the years after the tragedy, little of the rubble had been disturbed. The giant boulders and pieces of mountain lay where they had fallen, a silent testament to those trapped forever beneath.
The road had been cut through and the railway reconnected.
Little else had been disturbed.
Driving through, one's car dwarfed by the massive chunks of rock.
One could easily imagine the horror and heartbreak of that fateful morning.
Unless one was four.
Which I was.
I should mention here that, when our family travelled, the scenery or anything else flying past us outside the car never interested me. Because when I was in a car I was either:
  1. Sick
  2. Oblivious
  3. Sick and oblivious
  4. Asleep
The only thing that could rouse me were the words, “Look! Horses!”
I would leap up instantly, despite being heretofore (real word) comatose and press my nose against the nearest window. “Where!? Where!?”
One or the other of my parents would point out the eagerly anticipated animals.
I would stare at them for as long as time permitted, then collapse back onto the seat with a sigh and return to whatever I had been doing.
I was fairly easily entertained.
But I digress . . .
The road had been long. We had already been travelling for an hour.
I was drowsing on the back seat.
Suddenly, Dad spoke up, “Here we are kids! Frank Slide!”
At almost the same time, my Mom said, “Look at all the rock!”
The tone of voice was the same as what my parents used whenever they pointed out something interesting.
Like horses.
But because the word 'horse' had not actually been used, I was slow to respond.
I must admit that I never even heard my Mom's comment.
I sat up and pressed my face against the window.
I don't know what I was expecting. Dad had said something about a 'slide'.
To me that meant something 'playground-y'.
All I could see were huge rocks.
What kind of playground was this?
Finally, I turned to my parents and said, “Can't see it!”
They burst out laughing.
What was that all about?
Mom pointed out the window. “Can't you see all the rock?”
I glanced outside. “Yeah.”
“Well that's it!”
I looked again. “But I can't see it!”
I don't think they ever figured out that I was talking about the 'slide'.
The real slide. The one Dad had seen.
All they wanted was to look at the stupid rocks.
Parents are so weird.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Let Me Call You Sweeheart

Happily Ever After

Mom and Dad had been happily married for nearly 40 years when she was stricken with Parkinson’s disease. Slowly, her brilliant mind clouded, she slipped into her own world. 
Drawing further and further away from reality and from her eternal companion.
But, at times, and for very brief moments, she was able to demonstrate that she was very much aware of him and that their relationship was still alive and well . . . somewhere.
As Mom’s condition worsened, Dad had taken her to a wonderful nursing home just a block from his apartment. Then, each evening, he would arrive to feed her supper and visit with her.
The only days he missed were the times he was away, visiting one of us kids.
At those times, he would make sure that my brother, who also lived nearby, would be able to help Mom with her supper and her evening visit.
It was wonderful to be a witness to his patient and loving care.
Mom had an unusual name. Enes.
Pronounced: E-nes.
People didn’t quite know how to say it. They would make attempts, usually ending up with something that resembled ‘Eh-nes’.
One of the workers at the home was curious about Mom’s name. “Mrs. Stringam?” she asked one day. “Do you pronounce your first name E-nes or Eh-nes?”
Mom simply stared straight ahead uncomprehendingly.
“Mrs. Stringam? Are you E-nes or Eh-nes?””
Still no response.
Finally the woman decided to try a different route to, hopefully, the right answer. “Mrs. Stringam? What does your husband call you?”
Mom turned suddenly and looked at her. “Sweetheart,” she said clearly.
Even in her condition, the bonds and memories of love remained strong.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Yes, Virginia, There Really is an Outdoors

Daddy was just telling me about his favourite game as a child.
Run, Sheep. Run.
He explained that a group of kids would divide into two teams. The wolves. And the sheep.
The sheep would hide, then send one of their number back to the wolves. This messenger would quickly draw a map illustrating just where the sheep were hiding.
The wolves would then head out to find them.
In the meantime, the sheep could stay where they had last been seen. Or move somewhere else entirely.
Once the wolves got close to them however, their messenger, running along behind the wolves would yell, “Run, sheep! Run!”
The sheep would scatter and try to make their way back to the designated place of safety before the wolves ‘caught’ them.
Dad says he and his friends spent many, many happy hours playing this game.
It sounded like . . . heaven.
During my own childhood, we had many outdoor games that we played. Tag. Anti-Ei-Over, Frozen tag. Capture the Flag. Kick the can. How had I missed Run, sheep. Run?
Moving on . . .
A few months ago, my Husby and I were at Fort Edmonton Park.
Don’t worry. The two will connect . . .
For those not familiar with it, Fort Edmonton is a reconstruction of the original fort for which Edmonton is named. The fort itself is surrounded by several ‘streets’ of differing time periods, each telling of a moment in Edmonton’s past.
It is a fascinating place. Where people in period costumes re-enact social, political and economic situations.
I know. I sound like a brochure.
I love it there.
The reason for our visit was the fiftieth anniversary of my aunt and uncle.
We visited. Laughed. Ate. Visited. Laughed. Watched their grandkids perform vignettes from their grandparents’ history. Laughed. Visited.
And generally had a wonderful time.
Part way through the day, my Husby and I stepped out onto the boardwalk.
To find all of their grandkids, released from their acting responsibilities, happily engaged in a game of hide-and-seek.
Hide-and seek.
I hadn’t seen kids play that in forever.  Most of the kids I see now have their noses in an electronic device.
But here they were. Ranging in age from 3 to 15, all racing around to find places to hide.
And having a marvelous time.
Kids really can (and do) play outside.
Just like my Dad did.
And me.
It gave me hope.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Parking for Dummies

Ha! Parked.

Driving is important.
At least when you live on a ranch a million miles from anywhere.
And it happened early.
Driving, I mean.
As soon as I was able to reach the pedals on the tractor and still hold onto the steering wheel,  I was driving. Mowing. Baling. Stacking. There were lots of reasons to perch me up on 'the beast' and start the engine.
But on a tractor, I had the entire field to turn around in. And on the Stringam ranch, the fields were . . . large.
Just FYI.
At the age of twelve, I graduated to the pickup.
Again, I was limited to travelling in the fields and doing ranch work but I was still driving.
And in control . . . more or less, as I made wide turns about the fields.
On to my story . . .
One morning, bright and early, I decided to go for a ride.
I don't know why.
It was spring.
I'm an idiot.
Take your pick.
Anyways . . .
Because I was still a fairly new driver and driving was still a treat, and because I was basically  lazy, I decided to take the pickup to the far corral where my horse, Peanuts was currently residing.
All went well.
I drove there and parked, spent an hour or so riding in the early morning sunshine, and drove back to the ranch house.
And that's where everything went wrong.
I should probably mention that I had gone riding very early. By the time I returned, everyone was still in dreamland.
And remember where I said that I was only accustomed to maneuvering in large spaces?
Well, that would apply here.
I drove carefully up to the carport situated, by the by, directly beneath my parent's bedroom.
And very, very carefully drove into it.
And I do mean 'into'.
Frantically, I backed up.
And clipped the pillar again.
I tried to straighten out and hit it a third time.
The truck just kept getting more and more . . . crooked.
Stupid machine.
This was going nowhere fast.
And suddenly, standing there in a shaft of early morning light looking like the avenging God of Sleep, was my father.
Now I should explain to you that my Dad always wears pajamas. Nicely pressed, matching, button-up top with trousers (that Mom cuts off just below the knee and neatly hems).
They are quite a sight.
But I digress . . .
At this time, I only vaguely noted his light green PJ's.
Because Dad. Wasn't. Happy.
I let the engine die.
We stared at each other.
"What the hell is going on here?!" Okay, he's a rancher. Sometimes they say 'hell'.
But only when really perturbed. Oddly enough, it's usually when I'm around.
Moving on . . .
"It's okay. I can fix it!"
"Diane, get out of the truck!"
"I can fix it, Dad!"
He just looked at me. I knew that look. I'd seen it before.
A few times.
I climbed sheepishly out of the truck and moved towards him.
"What on earth are you doing? You almost shook me right out of my bed!"
"Umm . . . I went for a ride."
"In the truck?"
"Well, Peanuts is clear over . . ."
"I know where Peanuts is."
"Well, I drove over there and went for a ride."
"At five o'clock in the morning?"
"Well, yes."
"Get in the house."
One never moves faster than when avoiding fallout. I knew this from past experience.
I disappeared in a heartbeat.
Dad surveyed the damage.
There were a couple of 'bruises' on one of the carport supports.
And a dent in the truck door. (Which popped out later when Dad went to get the mail and slammed the door.)
So the damage was relatively minor if you don't count lost sleep.
Which Dad does.
I want you to know that I did learn to drive.
For real.
But I'll always remember that first time.
And my Dad in his PJ's.
Some things you just never forget. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Best Mud Pie Recipe

I’ve used many, many recipes in my life.
Starting with simple: crackers and cheese.
And, believe me, you have to get that one just right . . .
To more complicated: hot dogs.
And I’m sure you must realize the vital importance of the meat to bun ratio. And I won’t even go into the selection and/or serving size of condiments.
But my very first recipe was not nutritious.
Or even edible.
In fact, though it smelled rather good, I wouldn’t have fed it to the dog.
Well, actually I did try.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
I was staying with my friend/cousin, Jean.
It was summer.
Her mother had kicked us outside to play.
We had played.
 Now we were looking for something a little more . . . constructive.
“Let’s make mud pies!” Jean said.
Mmm. I like pie. “Okay.”
She found an old pot and we started adding ingredients.
I should mention here that, as we didn’t have all of the ingredients for pie, and really didn’t know what those ingredients were, we . . . erm . . . substituted.
Back to my story . . .
Dirt. (For flour)
Water. (For water) And I should tell you that you have to get this ingredient just right. Too much and your mud pies are sloppy. Not enough and you can’t do a thing with them.  Just FYI.
Rocks. (Those were the raisins)
Two eggs that she stole from the kitchen. (For eggs)
Grass. (For coconut)
We didn’t mix any awful things into it, though I did find some dog doo that I was tempted to add.
Jean stopped me. “Diane! If you put that in, no one could eat it!”
Important point.
Finally, we mixed our wondrous concoction and formed it carefully into little blobs on the wall of her mother’s flower garden.
Right in the sunlight.
Where our pies could cook and get nice and toasty.
Mmmm. They even smelled good.
I never got to taste our pies.
We were called in to dinner and my Mom picked me up just after that.
But I remember them. And how they would have tasted . . .
Last night, our good friend, Shirley was over visiting.
And told us about her ‘mud pie’ story.
She and her sister had found an old pail.
Added their ingredients.
Stirred well.
Now they were ready for the ‘cooking’ part.
But here, Shirley’s story takes a different turn from mine.
When she was young, her family had a chicken coop.
With a little wood stove inside to keep their feathered friends warm in the cooler months of the year.
Why bother to set their mud concoction into the sun, where the actual ‘baking’ would be iffy, at best.
They would set their creation on the little wood stove.
And boil it.
No sooner said than . . .
I probably don’t have to tell you that the flaws in their preparation technique were almost immediately apparent.
In Shirley’s words . . . “It really stank!”
So, a note to all mud-pie enthusiasts out there.
Don’t boil.
You heard it here first.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Phone Tag: The Original

Call me!

My Dad is the last surviving member of a family of thirteen, the youngest of eleven children.
This week, he has been reminiscing . . .

One of Dad’s elder brothers, Alonzo (hereinafter known as Uncle Lonnie), became a wealthy man by the simple practices of thrift, caution and wise investment.
Besides being brothers, he and Dad were good friends and often ranched together.
Which necessitated good communication.
Living fifty miles apart, this meant telephoning.
I should explain here that, in the late sixties, phone plans had not yet been invented.
You had two options.
You dialed a number directly. And paid.
Or, if you weren't certain that the person you wanted was home, you could dial ‘person-to-person’ and have an operator facilitate the call. This was more expensive if your party was there, but cost you nothing if they weren’t.
Moving on . . .
Uncle Lonnie, he of the sound mind and thrifty practices, needed to talk to Dad.
But it was the middle of the day, a time when phone calls were at their most expensive. Uncertain if he would find Dad at home, he opted to have an operator place the call.
Dad answered the phone.
The call went something like this . . .
Dad: “Hello?”
Operator: “I have a person-to-person call for Dr. Mark Stringam.”
Dad: “This is Dr. Stringam.”
Operator: “Go ahead, sir!”
Uncle Lonnie: “If I’d known you were actually there, I’d have dialed directly!”
Dad, grinning into the phone: “Well, I’m here!”
And he hung up the phone.

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