Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, May 4, 2013

When Phones Were Phun

Stringam Ranch.
Everything . . . except a phone
“I want to talk to Jody.”
“Number, please.”
Electric ringing.
“May I talk to Jody?”
“Yes, one moment.”
“Jody! We got our phone!”
It was the most exciting day of my life.
The Stringams. That weird family who lived at the back of beyond, had joined the twentieth century. The modern world had finally found its way to our door.
But therein lies a story.
The Stringam ranch was twenty miles from the bustling metropolis of Milk River (pop. 499). The phone lines went as far as Nine Mile Corner, a bend in the road situated, astonishingly, just nine miles from the ranch buildings.
The phone company refused to take the phone lines any further. Why would people living that far from civilization need the convenience of modern communication?
Why indeed.
But Dad wanted a phone.
As the only veterinarian in the area, he needed a phone.
Dad was determined to have a phone.
Finally, he bought all of the poles and cable to run his own phone line.
He and the hired men spent several weeks installing said poles and cable.
The magical day dawned.
The phone company unbent enough to hook up our line to theirs. (And then proceeded to run many, many lines off of it, but that is another story.)
The family gathered around the large, wooden box.
It shrilled. Twice.
Two longs.
We stared at it.
Then looked at each other.
We had arrived.
From that moment on, the peace of the Stringam home was often shattered by the shrilling of the magical box in the hallway.
And the pounding of numerous feet as various denizens of the house sprinted to answer.
It was a whole new, and very exciting, experience.
Followed, soon after, by the discovery that, if one was careful, one could gently lift the receiver and . . . wonder of wonders . . . listen in on other conversations on the 'party' line that had nothing to do with you.
I'm sure I don't need to tell you why it was called a 'party' line.
My sister and I became the masters of it . . .
“Well, I'm sure she meant well. But I can tell you that Gloria wasn't very flattered.”
“Well, I can imagine. Poor Gloria!”
“Yes. I mean, I can only guess, but I would well imagine that being told that one was as big as a whale, albeit a pretty whale, wouldn't go over too well.”
“Well, I wish I'd been there. I would have given her a piece of my mind!”
“Well, Dorothy brought a yellow jellied salad with bananas in it that was just divine. I got her recipe!”
“That reminds me. I wanted to get Dorothy's recipe for her devil's food cake.”
“Oh, I have it, just wait a moment.”
“Umm, yes?”
“Sorry to interrupt, but I really need to use the 'phone.”
“Oh, sorry, Hank. Problems?”
“Yeah. I need to talk to Joe at the feed store.”
“Go right ahead. Grace? I'll get that recipe and get back to you.”
“Thanks, Mabel.”
This was fun!
Another conversation . . .
“Well, she was out half the night!”
“Yes! Until midnight! And when she got home, Papa could smell . . . liquor on her breath!”
A sucked in breath. “Oh! What did he do?”
“Well, he wasn't happy, I can tell you! She's grounded for a month!”
“A month!?”
“Yes! And that includes prom and everything.”
“She might as well die right now!”
And another . . .
“Well, Doc, my poop looks like . . .”
We ended that conversation before it was begun.
And . . .
“Okay, don't spread it around . . . yet . . . but the Larsons are going to be away next weekend.”
“Yes. Jeff says his folks should leave about 6.”
“So what time does the party start?”
“Well, he has to do chores and tidy up the dishes, so 8:00 should about do it. He will beep the phone line twice when he's ready.”
“We'll be waiting.”
Finally . . .
“You have to be careful what you say on this line. Uncle Bob may be listening in.”
“I am not!”
It was the most fun we had ever had.
Until we were introduced to . . .
“Is your 'fridge running?”
“Just a moment, I'll check.”
A pause.
Then, “Yes. Yes it is.”
“Well, you'd better go catch it!”
Ah. the memories.
I don't remember the last conversation I had on the old party line.
I should.
Because now, phone lines are private.
And boring.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Name Game

Mom and Dad, with Pimple Pants, Red, Jerry and Bert
Parents put a lot of thought and even prayer into the naming of their offspring.
Why, then, do they go to such lengths to never use those names?
My name is Diane. Mom loved that name, so, when I made my appearance, she was happy I was a girl. Now she could use it.
Let's face it, 'Diane' for a boy just doesn't fit quite as well. But that's another story.
As a second name, she chose Louise, after my Aunt Louise. A really, really sweet lady.
So, Diane Louise.
Works for me.
I called myself Tony. I'm not sure why.
My Mom's working name for me, however, was 'Pixie'.
Ocassionally, she would vary it.
“Oh, here's my little Pixie-Girl.”
Or, “What do you want, Sweet-Little-Pixie?”
I think it might have had something to do with my size.
Okay I know that, looking at me now, one would find this hard to believe, but, at one time, I was under height. And definitely under-weight.
Those were the days.
Moving on . . .
Later, when I was nine, I got my hair cut. Really short.
I loved it.
So did my Dad.
He changed my name to 'Mike'. I'm almost sure it had nothing to do with our dog. He of the same name.
Mom was horrified. “Mark! She has a perfectly good name. Use it!”
I know he was as bewildered as me. Ummm . . . which name? Diane? Louise? Pixie? Tony?
Are you beginning to see why I'm such a confused person?
So, 'Lou' I became.
????? again.
Mom retaliated by calling me, 'Diane'. For the first time in my life.
Then, my brother, George, got into the game.
His name for me was Bert.
Coming from someone whom Dad called 'Dard', and Jerry called 'Pimple Pants', I wasn't worried.
Rusty, or Chris as she had been christened, had no opinion.
Neither did Blair . . . er, 'Bare Blue', or 'The Great Root Blair'. Of couse he was only two, so he could be excused.
And Anita was a baby. She was 'Sweetheart' or 'Sister'. One day to be known as 'Nutty Nita'.
Jerome got off easy.
Actually, that's a story in itself.
He was always, 'Jerry' to everyone. Except when Mom got angry.
Then, he became Jerome Allen, or worse, Jerome Allen Stringam.
All the 'angry' names, as they are truly known.
But I've wandered from the point.
Which was me.
And my names.
So, I've been through Diane, Louise, Tony, Pixie, Mike, Lou and Bert.
Now, my Honeybunny (don't ask) calls me, Honey. And my kids call me Mom.
Or grandma.
Dad still calls me Lou.
I'm so blessed.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Going Ape

Ahh, Sinbad. Hero. Heartthrob.
Nightmare inducer extraordinaire.
Movies are the greatest creation since . . . well . . . forever.
Needless to say, I’m hooked on them.
And have been since . . . forever.
In Milk River, we got movies twice a week.
First run movies.
Which was a real scoop for a town of 499.
My Dad told me it was because there were a limited number of prints and that the theatre owner in Milk River had been around longer than the bigwig in Lethbridge, so had seniority.
Yes. I’m sure ‘seniority’ is the word he used.
I only knew that we got all the cool movies first.
For example, when ‘Lassie Come Home’ was released, everyone in Southern Alberta came to Milk River to see it. I remember the theatre owner setting up rows of folding chairs all down the aisles and across the front.
Fire regulations were obviously in the conceptual stage in the early 60’s.
But the theatre was crammed full and everyone cried together when Lassie finally came home.
Lassie came to Lethbridge several days later.
But I digress . . .
Every Bonanza Day (Milk River’s fair day) the theatre owner would offer a free movie to everyone in the town.
Usually, it was the hit flick, ‘Santa Claus Meets the Martians’, but sometimes, he would get creative and offer, ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’.
I don’t have to tell you which I enjoyed the most.
Or which one inevitably gave me nightmares.
I think it was the scene when Sinbad, my hero, had escaped from the giant Cyclops and had pressed himself back into a tiny crevasse in a stone wall.
The Cyclops, a little piqued that his lunch would have had the temerity to run, was hunting him.
Over and over, the giant hand would reach into the shallow cave, trying to grab Sinbad, who would press himself a bit tighter back against the wall.
This time, the creature would get him!
No. This time!
I was into it.
And it didn’t seem to matter how many times I saw the picture, I still gasped and grabbed my Mom’s arm every time the huge hand reached.
At the end, with Sinbad safe once more and kissing the pretty girl, I would shiver with delight.
And that night, I’d have another nightmare.
Now my nightmares never, ever starred a gorgeous, rippling muscled Sinbad.
That would have been . . . definitely not scary.
No, my dreams inevitably starred a huge gorilla.
And he was going to eat me.
Okay, yes, I know that they don’t eat little girls, but I was four.
And they had teeth.
Enough said.
My gorilla would chase me through our house and finally, corner me underneath the dining room table.
I would shrink back to the far side as that hairy, dark hand reached for me.
And missed.
He would move around the table and bend over, looking at me. Then he would stretch out his arm again.
I would slide to the other side of the table and stay just out of reach.
This would go on until I finally awoke, dripping with sweat and whimpering.
And still, I was the first in line when the theatre showed ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’.
I think the term ‘Glutton for Punishment’ was coined by someone who knew me.
Maybe the Gorilla.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Today is Husby's and my anniversary.
Thirty-seven years with an amazing man.
Happy Anniversary, Honey!
Don't ask.
My husband, Grant, loves fire.
When we lived on the farm, our neighbours always knew when he was home. Inevitably, his presence was betrayed by the large column of smoke emanating from our property. And his tall figure silhouetted against the flames, happily poking whatever garbage he had been able to find.
Our farm was amazingly trash-free.
After our move to the city, his love of fire had, of necessity, to be squelched. For the good of the neighbourhood and our own personal safety.
Neighbours can be notoriously crabby when it comes to garbage fires in their back yards.
Just FYI.
For these reasons, he commuted his love of fire to a love of fire . . . works. They sizzled. They sparked. They exploded. They were a budding ‘pyro’s’ citified dream. They filled the void left by his unfortunate, but necessary, separation from fire.
He began a tradition. Fireworks on New Year’s Day. It was a relatively safe time. The world heavily coated in fire retardant – commonly called snow. Everyone in a festive mood, ready to celebrate.
Permits and regulations were disregarded. One merely had to invite the mayor and his family over for dinner and a show to get around those. I mean, who’s going to ticket the mayor?
We won’t go there . . .
There was a large snow bank in a field just outside of the town limits. Perfect for the display. An array of fireworks, chosen specifically from the abundant possibilities, were thrust carefully but firmly into this bank to hold them steady before their spectacular flight.
Grant had everything organized. Our second son and his friend were on hand to light things up. Strictly in order.
Chaos controlled.
Explosions only on his command.
The stage was set.
The first sparklers went off without a hitch. Starlight exploded in the sky. Red, Green, White, Blue. The display was dazzling. We oohed and aahed on cue. Everything was proceeding well.
Then the event.
One candle had ideas of its own. Not a good thing when you’re a firework. It went up, but before it could fulfill the measure of its creation, its trajectory . . . changed somewhat. 180 degrees, in fact. Straight into the box of remaining fireworks.
For a moment, Grant stared at it, perhaps too shocked and surprised to really take in what had just happened. The firework spluttered warningly.
He screamed.
Not a good sound in the middle of a fireworks display. In an amazingly graceful leap, he cleared the snow bank, taking the two boys with him. The three of them landed in an ungainly heap.
Then, totally abandoning dignity, they scrambled frantically for the snow bank the rest of us hid behind as the real fireworks display began behind them.
It was like a scene out of a movie. For several minutes, the crackers fizzed and shot everywhere, sending up showers of sparks from wherever they happened to land. A few even made their way skyward. It was spectacular. Amazing. Fun. Everyone screamed and laughed . . . and ducked.
Then . . . silence.
After waiting several minutes, Grant finally figured it was safe to move. He crawled behind the snow bank, using knees and elbows. Sort of like a soldier approaching a bunker. A very cold, snowy bunker. With exploding things inside it.
Yes, just like a bunker.
He emerged some time later holding the still-smoking box, with the remnants of his collection and a very chagrined face.
Fortunately, no one was injured. But Grant never again held a fireworks display. For one thing, he was out of fireworks.
For another - how could he ever top that?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Baby Brother

My Blair

Baby Brother
The words conjure up so many pictures . . .
A little boy, playing with his father's boots.
Riding King Prancer.
Sliding on his snow saucer.
Getting scraped off his horse.
Getting mad.
Singing on the tractor.
Doing chores.
Becoming my 'twin'.
The stories and memories are endless.
Let me see if I can pick out a few . . .

My sister, Chris and I were riding. And little Blair had come along for the first time.
I should explain, here, that the cliffs surrounding our ranch were heavily seamed, with giant crevasses (is that a word?) leading from the prairie up top to the river's edge. These openings were so steep and sandy that fencing just wasn't possible. Inevitably, the fence that ran along the top of the cliff only made a token gesture of following the radically sloping surfaces to the very bottom of each crevasse (that word, again).
Bottom line? If one wanted to use a crevasse to travel from the top down to the river, one had to duck at the appropriate moment.
Chris and I did.
Blair didn't.
There was a gasp. Then the sound of something small hitting the ground. Then a 'whoof!"
We stopped and looked.
Blair was sitting on the ground directly behind his pony, Shammy, staring up at her in surprise.
She had stopped and was looking down at him, equally surprised.
Neither was hurt, more particularly Blair, but we sure thought it was funny.
I guess you had to be there . . .

Blair and I were painting a granary. I was up on the ladder and Blair was painting lower down, his feet happily planted on good old 'terra firma'.
For some reason, we had a long two-by-four leaning up against the granary beside me.
I can't remember what we had been using it for, but, whatever it was, we no longer needed it.
I told Blair I was going to push it down. He nodded and moved to one side.
I pushed the plank.
It followed Blair.
I screamed out at him to run.
He did, darting around the granary and out of my sight.
Unerringly, the plank tilted sideways and followed the curve of the little building.
And Blair.
Slowly, I watched it fall.
It tilted further. Further.
And then hit something.
My brother.
I thought I had killed him. I started down the ladder.
Then he came around the granary, rubbing his head and glaring at me.
"You did that on purpose!"
I really hadn't, but I should have.
Even the Three Stooges couldn't have done it better . . .

Blair and I were having an argument. Not a usual thing for us.
And at the top of the stairs.
Location is everything.
I don't even remember what the argument was about, only that, for my final statement, I gave him a shove.
And sent him down several steps.
From which he quickly recovered and shot back up the stairs towards me.
I stared at him. When Blair got really, really angry, the veins stood out on the sides of his neck. Huh. I'd never noticed that before. Maybe because he'd never before gotten really, really angry.
I panicked and darted into the nearby bathroom, slamming the door and pulling out all three drawers.
You should know that the bathroom drawers were right next to the door and provided excellent barriers when one wanted to be left alone.
Usually, they worked.
Today, however, Blair was angry enough that he got a butter knife from the kitchen and began working at the drawers through the crack of the door.
Inch by inch, he worked the first drawer shut.
I let him get it closed.
Then, as he started work on the second, I pulled the first one open again.
"Oh, man!" He gave up.
One thing about Blair, he wasn't stupid . . .

Blair and I were stacking hay. Me on the big stack, Blair on the tractor, bringing me the stooks.
He was singing.
Now a tractor is noisy. Really noisy.
One can't even hear oneself when in close proximity.
But, somehow, the noise of the tractor seems to . . . boost . . . any sounds the driver is making.
To someone standing a bit away, the sound of the engine comes faintly, almost drowned out by the singing of the driver.
I was treated to Blair's version of nearly every popular song of the period.
Total entertainment . . .

We were getting the cattle ready for our annual production sale.
Blair and I were manning the grooming chute.
One of the prospective buyers walked in with our Dad.
For a few minutes, the two of them stood watching us.
Finally, the buyer turned to Dad, "I didn't know you and Enes had a set of twins."
Blair and I were both white-blonde. With our hair cut in the exact same style (Mom only knew how to cut boy's hair, which was just fine with me . . .) and the same height and virtually the same skinny figure.
I had five more years and a couple of extra curves, but whose going to point that out?
"Ummm . . . twins?"
The man nodded at us.
Dad laughed. "I can see what you mean!"
Within a month, Blair had passed me by on his way up.
But for a little while, I had a twin . . .

Blair was late for early morning religion class.
"Diane! Could you please milk the cow?!" as he dashed past.
I stared after him.
"Sorry!" faintly from the opened window as the car went down the drive.
I did milk his cow.
It really wasn't that much of a problem.
In fact . . . don't tell him . . . but I enjoyed it.
And I wish we were back there so I could do it again.

Okay, I have to admit, my little brother isn't so little any more.
I guess 50 years, marriage, fatherhood and a Doctorate in Engineering will change a person.
But I still remember the little boy who loved to play with his Dad's shoes . . .
Today, he is fifty-three.
Happy birthday, Baby Brother!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Freaky Freezer

Admit it - this strikes terror into your heart!

Mom and dad had a freezer.
Chest style. 26 cubic feet.
Whatever that means.
To me, that just meant that it was large.
They had had this behemoth since they were married.
It had far outlived it's 'best before' date.
Oh, it still froze anything and everything that was put into it.
It just didn't stay closed anymore.
Let me tell you about it . . .
Mom and Dad's freezer, aptly named 'Frigidaire', sat in solitary glory, in the downstairs bathroom.
In a space created especially for it.
Beside the shower cubicle. And across from the 'porcelain throne'.
For years, it had been humming busily along, doing . . . freezer stuff. Keeping cold things cold. And slowly filling with ice.
Every couple of years, Mom would take out whatever food was left in it, stack it all neatly aside, and attack the ice build up with an ice pick and a butter knife.
Then, she'd scrub it shiny, replace the food and start the whole cycle over again.
It was fun to watch.
Okay, yes, I probably should have helped, but why deprive Mom of something she so obviously enjoyed?
Well, that she appeared to enjoy . . .
Okay, I should have helped.
One thing of note: when one closed the freezer, one had to be very careful to push the handle in till it clicked, or in the middle of the night, or some other equally inconvenient time, the door would open. All by itself.
With scary amusing results.
One afternoon, the house was quiet.
Too quiet.
I was in the bathroom . . . minding my own business.
Without warning, the lid of the freezer opened.
With an appropriately eerie squeal.
Eeeeeeeeeeee . . .!
Now, my head knew that Dracula never really existed, except in the brilliant mind of Bram Stoker. And certainly, if he did exist, the last place he would appear would be in an old freezer.
In the middle of the bathroom of the Stringam ranch house.
By no stretch of the imagination would that be . . . romantic. (Does that word work here?)
But, no matter how frantically and reasonably my head was whispering all of this to my heart, my heart was still expecting Count Dracula to sit up, in all his dark majesty, maybe with a touch of real frost in his dark hair, and say, “Good evening!”
My business of the moment forgotten, I charged out of the bathroom, frantically zipping my pants as I flew.
Once in the family room, I stopped.
Sanity returned.
And I started to laugh.
And laugh.
I went upstairs and told my Mom.
She laughed.
One by one, we told it to every member of the family.
They all thought it was a huge joke.
Okay, we're weird.
I did remember to go back into the bathroom and latch the freezer properly.
And every time thereafter.
But now, years later, whenever I see a glistening white freezer, I half expect the door to open and to see Dracula sit up and smile menacingly at me.
It still makes me want to . . . mind my own business.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Though we lived at the back of beyond, the modern world did at times intrude.
Certainly it was there in the tools we used and, increasingly, in our entertainment.
Sometimes, miraculously, in both at the same time.
It was that way when we got our first ever television.
I remember it well. A large unit which stood on its own stubby legs and emitted a magical black and white picture. Mom would turn it on in the morning and I would sit and watch.
The Indian Head Test Pattern.
For hours.
That picture was amazing. It never occurred to me that it was unchanging.
It was there. I stared at it.
Okay, I was really waiting for ‘The Friendly Giant’ to come on.
But Mom would craftily switch on the set long before the program aired and I was caught. Snared by the light that flickered from the magical box. Her little 'dear' in the headlights.
It was the first ever electronic baby-sitter.
What genius!
As time went by, we discovered that, with an enormous antennae perched at the very top of the tall tower on the hill which rose to the north of us, we could miraculously get . . . two channels. The variety: endless. The choices: unlimited.
Sundays were the best.
On Sunday evening, after dinner, there was a whole line up of goodies. First was The Disney's Wonderful World of  Colour (in black and white), followed by Ed Sullivan Show, and finally, if I had been really good, Bonanza!
Surprisingly, I watched it often. It was amazing how a week’s worth of mischief could be erased by the advent of Sunday evening.
Peace filled the land, and flickering light filled our living room. We were glued to the set, as adventure after adventure unrolled before us.
But at some time during the week was the best program of all. The one I waited breathlessly for. The show with the best and biggest of heroes. And the nicest horses.
Sheriff Dillon was my hero.
But I loved Chester, with his limp. I just knew that, when I got older, I would marry Chester.
Okay, my knowledge was sadly lacking, but the spirit was there!
There was only one hitch to my love of this program.
My pronunciation.
I couldn’t say it.
If Mom made the mistake of telling me a wee bit too early in the day that it was a Gunsmoke night, I would walk around all day chanting, “Gunmoke! Gunmoke!”
And I do mean all day.
It probably got a little . . . irritating.
My Mom would try her ‘Mommy’ best to help me. She would kneel in front of me and say, and I quote, “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
I would stare at her and move my mouth with hers.
She would repeat. “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
She would smile at me encouragingly. “GunSSSmoke. GunSSSmoke.”
Expectant silence.
I would open my mouth.
Mom would nod.
“SSSgunmoke! SSSgunmoke!
I never really noticed her disappointment.
Or irritation.
I was too happily watching my hero of heroes.
Sheriff Dillon.
On Gunmoke.

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