Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In the Dark

Me. In the light.
I always was afraid at night
When Mother would turn out the light,
Into the darkness, I would stare
And look for monsters waiting there.

My fear has lasted all my life,
E’en after I became a wife,
Though I must admit it’s better when
There’s someone sleeping near you, then.
But still the darkness frightened me.
Still harboured scary things, you see.
Into the darkness, I would stare
For thugs and villains waiting there.

Once, Husby took me out to see
A great new movie, just released.
About a girl, so sweet and kind
But with powers that absorbed her mind.
That night, my world again askew,
The light stayed on because I knew
Into the darkness, I would stare,
Certain Carrie waited there.

And so it’s gone - the darkness wins,
The light goes off, and my mind spins.
Creating creatures in the night
That disappeared in morning light.
Beings who would steal your mind
Performing tests on all mankind.
Into the darkness I still stare
And watch for aliens waiting there.

Last night I stumbled down the hall
Intent on answering nature’s call
And when I glanced into the mirror,
All I could see was one pale blur.
For my tri-focals help me out,
So I can see my way about.
If in the darkness, I did stare,
I’d not see anything waiting there.

What you cannot see won’t hurt you, right?
Shhh . . . I’m turning off the light.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Whales . . . And Seesick

Somewhere out there are whales . . . and nausea.

Water and I have a thing.
We love each other.
Alright, alright, so I love water. I really don't know how it feels about me.
Moving on . . .
My family was going whale watching off the west coast of California.
I was excited. Because (remember?) I loved water. And things in the water. And boats.
I should maybe point out here that this child-of-the-prairies' sum total of water experience consisted of my river and Chin lake. Not necessarily in that order.
We put on our life jackets and climbed aboard.
So far so good.
The engine started.
My heart rate increased.
We pulled smoothly away from the dock.
Still fine.
We skimmed lightly across the bay.
Okay, so, it was a fat, clumsy boat loaded to the gunwales with tourists. But I chose the word 'skimmed' and I'm sticking with it.
My more daring family members were already hanging out over the rails, looking down into the amazingly blue water as it slipped past.
I had managed to find a seat inside the little 'house' part.
Because yes, I was a little trepidatious (real word - really!).
We cleared the bay and moved out into open water.
And then the boat started . . . for want of a better term . . . bucking.
Now, I should point out here that I'm used to bucking. In fact, bucking has been a daily ritual in the horse corral since forever.
Just not this kind of bucking.
The deck under my feet rose up. Then, that same deck fell.
And I mean fell.
Worse than an elevator. (And elevators and I do have a history . . .)
Worse than when I fell off the barn roof.
In fact, most of my inner parts were rapidly in danger of becoming . . . outer.
And just like that, I was sick.
Really sick.
I was instructed to stare at the horizon.
I tried.
But the horizon was going up and down along with the boat, the tourists and me.
Maybe it shouldn't be called 'seasick'. Maybe it should be 'seesick'. Because there sure is a lot to see.
Okay, so horizon staring wasn't going to work.
I began to count the steps. Four to the doorway. Four more across the deck.
Could I make it?
I mean, before something . . . icky . . . happened.
Another 'heave' of the deck.
Okay, so the choice was taken from me.
It was sprint or die.
I sprinted.
I needn't go into the details of what happened next. I suppose you can furnish your own particulars. Suffice it to say that I lost everything I had ever eaten.
Or even thought of eating.
Funny thing about being sick on a tourist boat.
Everyone suddenly has something else to look at.
Somewhere else.
I was abruptly, gratefully, alone where my humiliation and I could happily enjoy our time together.
I don't remember much about the rest of the trip. We saw some whales. I was hauled off of my bench in the cabin in time to see a whole herd (erm . . . pod) of them.
They were neat.
And wet.
And . . . splashy.
And never in my whole life was I so relieved to stand later on real, solid ground.
I didn't kiss it. I didn't dare shift that much. Suffice it to say the two of us were very happy to see one another . . .

There is a sort-of codicil.
My husband took me whale-watching off the coast of Maine.
I stayed outside on deck and kept my face into the wind and miraculously managed to keep my lunch where it had been placed.
All was well.
We came upon a cow/calf pair of  whales.
I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember what kind of whale.
They were neat.
And wet.
And . . . splashy.
The mother left her baby and dove. The calf stayed where it was, lolling in the waves and the sun. Occasionally batting at the water with a flipper.
Every few minutes, our guide would say something informative.
Finally, she said, "I bet none of you can say that you've sat beside a sleeping whale!"
Okay I admit that, when hugely pregnant, I have described myself thusly (another real word).
My husband glanced at me, but wisely said nothing.
I hit him anyways.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Real Rodeo

A couple of victims clients.


First a little lot of background . . .
Branding, at the Stringam ranch, invariably took place in high summer.
And lasted forever.
Okay, I was six. Everything seemed to last forever.
Except Christmas, but I digress . . .
For the entire day prior, every rider on the place would be involved in gathering the herds. With an operation the size of ours, this was no easy task. The fields were a section (640 acres) in size and, normally, two riders would have to work together, collecting the herd. Then those smaller herds would be gathered, one by one, into the main corrals.
The sun would be high and hot, baking the wonderful scent out of the sage.
There would be glorious vistas of open, wind-swept prairies where one could see, literally, for miles.
Heat and dust and sweat.
And an unbelievable din.
Picture this: Hundreds of cow and calf pairs, which, when herded together immediately become . . . unpaired.
They start bawling for each other. ('Where are you?' in cow, invariably sounds the same, 'Mooooah') They aren't smart enough to actually . . . look . . . for one another. And everyone looks the same anyway.
The cows merely sniff any calf that happens in their vicinity. 'Sniff', nope. 'Sniff', nope. 'Sniff', nope. 'Mooooah'.
And so it goes . . .
Slowly, each herd is driven to the corrals and penned. Hay is thrown into the mangers. The cows finally find their babies. Peace is restored, somewhat.
Then, another herd is brought in and everyone immediately becomes separated again.
More bawling. Then they get sorted out. Then another herd.
This goes on all day and into the evening.
Things are quiet for the night.
Then, the big day dawns. The most exciting, but noisiest day of the year.
Cows and calves are separated and the cows are moved into the largest pen.
The calves go into pens which connect to the chutes. One by one, these smaller, though not necessarily easier to work with, animals are pushed down the chute and into the squeeze (an apparatus which captures the calf and then converts into a table by tilting sideways).
And then, with the noise, come the smells.
Hot metal of irons in the fire.
Burning hair as those irons are briefly pressed to the tough hide.
KRS, a disinfectant.
One by one, the calves are branded. Inoculated. Then released.
One by one, they find their Mamas.
And slowly, ever so slowly, order is restored.
Then the entire herd is released and driven back out into the pastures.
More noise and confusion.
Then all is quiet.
 Every year, on the ranch, this is a highlight.
For us humans, anyways. (I have to admit, it probably isn't quite as exciting for the cows, or their babies.)
Enough background . . .
This was the most exciting year of all. This was the first year I was able to participate. Well, as something more than just 'Diane-get-out-of-here-you're-going-to-get-trampled!'.
The excitement was palpable.
A crew had been assembled. (As branding is such a big job, invariably, neighbors come in to help.)
My oldest sister and I were given the smallest, and nearest field. We left the chatting, gesticulating crowd and headed towards our assignment.
The two of us gathered our herd and pushed them towards the corrals. At one point, just below the ranch buildings, it is necessary to cross the Milk River.
But the crossing is shallow and, usually, the cows show little concern.
Our small herd marched across without a pause. We chased them up the hill and into the corrals. Then we sat back and watched as the others herds came in.
There were a few tense moments, but mostly, everything went off well.
The herd was tucked in for the evening.
The next morning, the real work began.
I was assigned to be the 'pusher'.
And no, it's not what it sounds like.
I was the person inside the chute with the calves, pushing each of them into the squeeze so they could be branded.
It was hot, heavy work, especially for a 6-year-old.
And I loved it.
Push. Push. Push. Gate closes. Squeeze . . . ummm . . . squeezes. Tilts sideways. Branding. Shots. Tilts back. Squeeze - unsqueezes. Front gate opens. Calf bolts.
Push. Push. Push . . .
And so it went throughout the day. At noon, Mom appeared with lunch for everyone and we abandoned our posts to gather in whatever bit of shade we could find, and gorge.
Have I mentioned that Mom is a great cook?
Two brothers, neighboring ranchers noted for their pranks and hijinks, were on hand to help us out.
They had found a comfortable spot for lunch on one side of the car Mom had driven up in.
Mom and Dad had relaxed on the other side.
Mom had made the mistake of supplying sliced watermelon for our dessert.
The two brothers, as they had finished each piece of watermelon, launched the rinds up into the air over the car, aiming for my hapless parents.
Two rinds had been met with silence. Obvious misses.
The third rind went up.
"Hey!" My Dad's voice.
Dad got up and stalked, playfully, around the car, but the brothers were already gone. He shook his head, turned towards the corrals and walked over to stand next to the chute.
It was the signal for the rest of us to get back to work.
I crawled up the side of the chute and prepared to drop down inside.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alfred, one of the brothers, sneaking up behind my Dad. I turned to watch.
Alfred was carrying a pitcher of ice-cold water, which he proceeded to empty into my Dad's back pocket.
"Hey!" Dad spun around. But by then, Alfred had, once more, disappeared.
Everyone, including Dad, got a real laugh out of that one. Fortunately, with the hot, dry air, his soaked pant leg soon dried.
By sunset, the work was finished and the herds sent back out to pasture. Everyone who had been involved assembled at the house for supper, feeling sunburnt, windblown, tired . . . and happy.
That year, as in previous years, we all sat around the table, talking and laughing.
And it was then I realized that branding was a time of gathering, not just of cattle, but of  family and friends. Because of the vast distances between settlements in this prairie country, people go months without seeing each other.
So branding, in addition to being the apex of the year regarding the work, is also a time of visiting. Re-acquaintance and exchanging of news.
Perhaps that is why it is so important to all of us who live on the ranch.
More crew. And the squeeze.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Me and It

When Husby's family took a trip to the ocean, they had all sorts of . . . experiences.

Grant, age 3.  Jelly Fish rescuer.  And cutie.
It looked like a blob.
It was a blob.
A blob of jelly-like substance, trailing long streamers and lying inert on the dark, sandy shore.
We stared at it. Walked around it. One of my brothers touched it with a tentative toe.
Yep. Blob.
The rest of my family soon lost interest and walked away. I squatted down and continued to study the strange . . . thing.
We were children of the prairies and knew, intimately, the frogs, snakes, minnows and other creatures that inhabited our little river. But here, facing the great and awesome expanse labeled 'ocean', we were . . . out of our depth (pun intended).
And this? This was something new. Something unheard of. Something mysterious.
I think it was a jelly fish, but, somehow, admitting that takes away the magic.
I continued to study it.
It didn't move. Probably a good thing, considering that it was roughly the size of a chicken.
I narrowed my eyes. Something about the creature was wrong.
Oh, I might be from the prairies, but, believe me, I know when something is out of place. And that jelly fish was definitely out of place.
Somehow, in my mind, I could picture it . . . floating happily.
That's it! Floating!
I was a genius!
All I needed to do was to somehow get this creature back into the water where it belonged.
I walked around it again. Maybe I could pick it up . . .
I reached out. Then stopped and looked at my hands. Then back at it.
No. That didn't seem right.
Another circuit.
I had it!
I would find something to lift it as unobtrusively (and yes, that is a word) as possible and send it home.
I ran up and down the beach, and finally spotted a worthy tool for the job at hand. A long plank, weathered and beaten by the waves.
I drug it across the sand and carefully maneuvered one end of it underneath my . . . erm . . . blob.
Gently, I slid it further and further, careful not to jar or disturb my stranded friend.
Finally, I had pushed it completely underneath.
I was ready.
Carefully, I lifted the plank.
With . . . most . . . of the jelly fish aboard.
In horror, I watched the strange creature disintegrate.
I mean, I've heard of going to pieces, but this thing really did.
Imagine trying to lift a blob of jello with a board.
Soft jello, like my Mom makes. Not the concrete kind that they serve in restaurants.
You get the picture.
This was worse.
It left it's legs and arms and a good portion of the rest of it on the sand.
Umm . . . Ick.
Panicked, I swung my board and threw the portion I had managed to collect into the water.
The rest, I abandoned.
What would be the point?
I'm pretty sure both halves were dead.
Or at least very, very ill.
Who is it that says that no good deed goes unpunished?
They were right.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Long, Cold and Slithery

My Dad and older brother and sister at The River.
Circa 1952 BD (Before Diane)
I caught a snake. Garter variety.
The banks of the river abounded with such things, as well as frogs, tadpoles, minnows and other slithery, slimy denizens of the milky water.
It wasn't unheard-of for my mother to be the calm recipient of a bullfrog, salamander, and cup full of minnows . . . all on the same day.
Okay, so, squeamish, I wasn't.
And my mother was a saint.
But snakes, we usually had a harder time catching. Actually laying hands on one was a treat. An achievement.
I know. I know. We probably should have explored other hobbies . . .
I was understandably excited about my snake. I wanted to share.
I decided to take it to school.
I can't remember just how I managed this. Perhaps my Mom helped me by putting it in a shoe box. But it, and I, somehow managed the long bus ride.
Then I was the center of attention as everyone on the playground crowded in for a peek. In fact, my snake was so popular that my teacher arranged for me to take it to every classroom to show the kids.
For the first time in my young life, I was the center of attention. I was popular. I was famous.
Yes, well, it rather went to my head . . .
To make my snake a bit more visible, the principal offered me his own glass fishbowl. Now it could be seen at all times.
I thought it was terrific.
I don't suppose the snake was very impressed.
I walked into each of the six classrooms, filled with importance. Then I would talk about my snake . . . ummm . . . knowledgeably.
"This is a garter snake. I caught it by the river. It's kind of cold and . . . smooth. It can swim. It eats frogs and other stuff."
Hey, I was six. That was as knowledgeable as it gets.
Then I would reach in, grab my snake by the end of its tail and lift it out for everyone to see. The snake would, obligingly, stretch up and flick its tongue.
This went on for the lower five grades.
Then, the last class. My oldest brother Jerry's class. The grade sixes. The big guys.
I was more than a bit intimidated.
I carried my sideshow exhibit into the class and went into my spiel. Then I lifted my snake. And stared in horror as the last two inches of its tail . . . broke off.
The poor thing dropped to the floor and began a frantic slither towards somewhere else.
Several girls screamed.
I quickly pounced on it and scooped it up, dropping it back into the goldfish bowl.
Order was restored.
Then I realized that I was still holding the piece of the snake's tail. Flushing, I dropped it in with the snake, then quickly seized the bowl and scurried out of the room.
My 15 minutes of fame were over.
For the rest of the day, my snake sat on the shelf at the back of my grade one classroom.
After school, my Mom was waiting for me at the bus stop. She loaded my brothers, George and Jerry, my snake and I into the car.
On the way out of town, she pulled over into the campground beside the river.
"Okay, Diane," she said, "let the snake go."
I stared at her, horrified. Let him go? But he was mine! We'd been through so much together!
She nodded.
Heaving a sigh, I opened the car door and carried my prize to the riverbank.
I looked back at her.
She nodded again.
Now, I should point out here, that I could have simply taken my slithery friend out and laid him in the grass beside the river. Or even set the bowl down and let him crawl out there.
But no. Instead, I made my way down the very edge of the river and tipped up the fishbowl to drop my companion and friend into the milky water.
And unwittingly added an exciting postscript to the story.
Because I also dropped the fishbowl.
My principal's fishbowl.
I did try to make a grab for it, but it quickly slid out of my reach and disappeared. I stared at the place where it had last been seen.
I was in so much trouble.
I remember looking at my mom, horror written across my whole face. She just rolled her eyes and shook her head.
She was so accustomed to me.
She must have sorted things out with my principal, the first of many such exchanges, because I never heard anything of it and it was soon forgotten.
But I often think of my little garter snake friend and wonder just what happened to him. Dropped into a foreign world, miles from his home. Part of his tail snapped off.
Did he survive? Even prosper?
I like to think so.
But more thought provoking is the fact that I had absolutely no fear when catching and handling my snake.
If he had been a chicken?
Totally another story.
Go figure.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cat Tracks

Another of my Dad's favourite stories:

“’Twas a bright and sunny summer day,”
He told me with a grin.
“And so I thought I’d clean the car
And get some ‘tuning’ in.”

“But when my fiddling all was done
From the drive, I backed the car,
I realized I’d spilled some gas,
Left a puddle on the tar.”

“Just then, my neighbour stopped to chat.
(He does that now and then.)
To share with me the latest news
Of neighbourhood and glen.”

“Meanwhile: my cat had watched my chore,
As only a cat can do.
And quick, went to investigate
That icky pool of goo.”

“He sniffed, then tasted; lapped a bit,
Though it made his two eyes pop,
Before I could do anything,
He’d lapped up every drop!”
Aaaand go!

“My friend and I watched, horrified,
As my cat began to run.
For ‘most an hour he laboured on,
Ran circles in the sun.”

“And then, quite sudden, simply stopped,
And flopped down on his side.”
“Good grief!” said I. “How horrible!
Are you telling me he died?”

Again that grin, that slow, sly wink,
That nod and touch of sass.
“No, dear,” he told me, cheerily,
“He’d just run out of gas!”

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Missing Mom

Magic happening

Life on the ranch demanded creativity and resourcefulness from every member of the community.
Except for me.
I was four.
Oh, I was resourceful.
Just not in a productive way.
Moving on . . .
In this spirit of inventiveness, my Mom had taught herself to sew. And she was good at it.
From her hands and her trusty little machine emerged fantastic and wondrous articles of clothing. Dresses, blouses, skirts, shirts, trousers, all were created quickly and efficiently, with only a bit of cloth.
I know. I watched her.
I also watched her peel potatoes with equal economy, but that is another story.
And a very different outcome.
Ahem . . .
Occasionally, Mom's sewing machine would give her grief, but my Dad instructed me not to say those words.
They must have been sewing words.
Years later, I would use them as cow herding words, but I digress . . .
Mom could also fix things with her electric marvel.
The most hopeless wardrobe disasters could be quickly and perfectly repaired with ease and just a couple of strokes of the needle.
A couple of words, here, about the needles she used.
They were sharp.
Enough said.
My Dad had a work shirt.
He hated it. Something about the fit or the material.
One day, while fencing, he caught a fold of this shirt on some barbed wire and tore it.
Quite badly.
Rather gleefully, he told Mom to just throw it into the rag bag.
But Mom was far too thrifty to do that.
This was a good, serviceable shirt, with plenty of years of work left in it.
She repaired it.
Dad sighed and wore it again.
We were branding.
Dad caught the shirt on the squeeze handle and, again, it tore.
Again, the advice to scrap it.
Again, the repairs.
Another sigh.
Dad was working in the shop and caught the shirt on the work bench.
Another tear.
This was becoming a pattern.
But this time, he was determined to be rid of the hated, but indestructible shirt once and for all. He extended the tear into something . . . longer.
Then proceeded to rip the rest of the shirt apart.
He came into the sewing room, and delivered the scraps to my astonished Mom. “Rag bag,” he said.
Then he made the mistake of leaving the room.
Mom looked at the little pile of scraps and . . . smiled. Have I mentioned that Mom has a very good sense of humor?
I probably should have.
She removed whatever project she was currently sewing and started to work.
And giggle.
In a short time, she had reassembled the dreaded shirt.
Oh, it didn't look quite the same.
Frankenstein's monster comes to mind for some reason.
But it was, once more, complete.
She folded it carefully and put it in Dad's drawer.
Then waited.
She didn't have to wait for long. The next morning, Dad opened that drawer to get out a shirt and let out a little scream.
And no, it wasn't a girly scream.
He emerged, pale-faced, clutching the shirt. “It's back! It's haunting me!” he said.
Mom laughed and laughed.
We all did.
After that, the shirt finally made it to the rag bag.
It had finally served its purpose.

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