Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

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

Saturday, May 25, 2013

When City Hits Country

City Kids!

My cousin was visiting.
For two whole weeks.
She was a city girl.
But the only difference between a city girl and a ranch girl was location.
I took her swimming in the river.
She got sand in her suit.
She taught me ballet.
I fell over a lot.
I taught her how to swing from a rope in the hay loft.
She got a rope burn on her hands.
She taught me how act out stories.
I . . . actually, I liked that. A lot.
I tried to get her to ride the pigs.
She stood outside the fence and made a face.
And held her nose.
She taught me gymnastics.
I fell and knocked the air out of me.
I decided it was time to teach her my most favourite thing.
Horseback riding.
I drug her out to the corral and pushed her up to the top rail. Kicking and screaming.
Her, not me.
Looking back, I can see the differences between the two of us as we perched up on that fence.
The country and the city girl.
Me, in my inevitable shirt and jeans.
She in her white slacks and blouse and light blue sweater.
Even a fool would have found it obvious.
I wasn't a fool.
Well, actually . . . never mind.
The horses were drowsing in the corral.
She eyed them suspiciously.
“They're okay,” I reassured her. “C'mon.”
Trustingly, she followed me down and into the corral.
I picked out the nearest horse, Coco. “Here. This is a good one.”
“But she's so huge!” Her eyes got bigger as she drew closer.
“She's gentle!” I gave the large, coco-brown mare a reassuring pat. The horse reached out and lipped my hair. “See?”
My cousin moved beside me. “Okay. What do I do?”
I showed her how to stand beside the horse and grab a handful of mane. Then I cupped my hands, told her to step into them and boosted her up. At the proper time, she swung her leg.
She was aboard.
The excitement must be coursing through her! She must be palpitating with accomplishment and eagerness and a sense of 'the world is mine'!
I stepped back.
I must admit that everything my cousin did was graceful. Her walking. Her dancing.
Her falling off a horse.
It should have been all right. The horse wasn't even moving, after all.
But she didn't land on the ground.
Instead, she fell onto something much . . . softer.
I don't think she was pleased.
I guess some people have a problem with large, steaming piles of horse buns. Road apples. Horse puckies.
To the uninitiated, manure.
People are so weird.
She got to her feet. And looked down at her light blue sweater.
Her heretofore pristine light blue sweater.
Then she looked at me.
I never got my cousin back up on one of our horses.
Instead we spent the rest of her stay dancing. Doing plays and gymnastics. Reading.
While Mom got the marks out of her sweater.
Before her mom saw them.
City girls.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Southern Alberta Slavery

Dad and some of his many slaves . . .

My Dad didn't have children.
He had slaves.
At least that is how his children saw it . . .
Dad worked hard doing . . . ranch stuff.
It took him most of the day.
Every day.
When he came in at the end of the day, his recliner looked really, really good and it took great motivation to entice him to leave it.
Great motivation.
Silly little things like removing one's work boots or tossing things in the garbage weren't nearly big enough. Thus it was necessary to find other ways to accomplish these things.
That's where we came in.
His six little, willing slaves.
Every evening, one of us would be chosen for the distinct honour (his words) of helping Dad remove his boots.
Fortunately, this was a fairly simple operation, easily accomplished by a pair of small, eager hands, a backside and a large foot.
Don't get the wrong idea. There was no kicking involved . . .
The large person seated in the chair would lift his booted foot.
The standing smaller person would turn their back, straddle said foot and grasp the boot.
That's where the large foot came in.
While the small hands gripped the boot, the large foot would apply pressure to the small backside.
Small person would be pressed away from the large person and the boot would slide slowly from the foot.
Until, at last it would drop to the floor.
The boot, not the foot.
Surgery completed.
The second boot would follow the first and much toe-wiggling comfort would be achieved.
And, more importantly, no one who had been working hard all day would have had to move out of his chair.
Utopia. (That's another word for Paradise, I looked it up . . .)
Moving on . . .
Dad was also reluctant to leave his chair for such frivolities as throwing things in the garbage.
Call in the slaves once more.
Dad always finished the evening meal with a toothpick.
I know, I know, the rest of the world would infinitely prefer ice cream, but what can I say? Dad even followed his ice cream with a toothpick.
That's just Dad.
He even had a preference.
For toothpicks, I mean.
He liked the wooden ones.
Which he would then proceed to chew into a little ball of pulp.
Umm . . . ick.
Now in our earlier years, we kids could always be counted on to receive the little ball of 'ick' and drop it into the proper receptacle.
As we grew older, we got, for want of a better term, smarter.
We found other places to be when Dad got to the end of his little splinter of wood.
Dad had to get . . . creative.
My Mom had a plant. A beautiful pineapple plant. She had grown it from the cut off top of a pineapple imported from her and Dad's trip to Hawaii.
I think the rules for bringing fruit across the border were different then.
But I digress . . .
It was large.
Really large.
And it sat in a tub on the floor right beside Dad's chair.
He's only human, he can't be blamed for what happened next.
He finished with his toothpick and called out for a child.
Any child.
We were all hidden in the family room.
He sighed and looked for someplace to deposit his little, wooden offering.
Huh. A large, leafy plant right beside him.
If Mom hadn't wanted it tampered with, she should have found somewhere else to put it.
He hid his little lump of sawdust in the pot under the convenient leaves.
Mission accomplished.
Hey, that worked great! And there wasn't a sign of anything!
He had discovered something new and wonderful. Especially when one was blessed with slacker children.
Like us . . .
He did it the next night.
And the next.
And for many, many nights afterwards.
Then, one day, when Mom was taking care of her beloved plant, she noticed that it wasn't looking very healthy. She pulled out the pot to investigate.
I don't have to tell you what she found. At this point, the layer of chewed up bits of toothpick was a couple of inches deep.
The plant was obviously as fond of them as we kids were.
And protesting in the only way it could.
By dying.
Okay, yes, that is a bit extreme, but it was a plant. You have to admit it really didn't have many options.
Huffily (real word), Mom moved the plant somewhere . . . not close to Dad.
And put a garbage container beside his chair.

We have all moved away from home.
Dad still has the garbage can conveniently beside his chair.
And now he wears shoes that he can remove by himself.
When we were visiting a short time ago, he initiated our oldest granddaughter in the fine art of helping Great-Grandpa remove said shoes.
For the rest of us, it was a short stroll down memory lane.
In work boots.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

My Mountain

You can look, but remember who it belongs to . . .

Mountains.Beautiful. Majestic. Snow-capped. Towering.
I love the mountains. Maybe not as much as my husband, who is a true connoisseur, but why quibble over details?
All my life, I have lived in the 'shadow' of the great Rockys. They were the immovable, dependable wall immediately to the west of us.
Our friends.
Source of direction.
One distinctive peak, in particular, was familiar to us on the ranch. It was our nearest neighbour in the immense range. A huge block of stone, standing alone, with a large, rather squared-off top.
Boy scout troops had been know to clamber to its very summit.
Of course, that was in the early days, before danger was invented.
I loved it.
It was my mountain.
I just couldn't remember what it was called.
When we drove west, towards the ranch, it was the beacon, the marker on the horizon that told us we were going in the right direction.
Not a fact that I discovered with my fantastic powers of observation, however. I had to have it pointed out.
Mom and I were heading toward the ranch.
She was driving.
I was bouncing around in the back seat.
This was before such safety measures as . . . seat belts. Shoulder harnesses.
I had been laying on the back seat, staring up at the roof. Suddenly, I thought of my mountain. I don't know why.
I sat up and leaned over the front seat. “Mom?”
That was her usual response. It didn't necessarily mean that her attention was yours, but it was a start.
“What, dear.”
Okay, the line was open.
“Where's the Old Indian Hill?”
“The what?”
“The Old Indian Hill.”
She laughed.
Well, really!
“Do you mean Old Chief Mountain?”
“Umm, okay.” Whatever. I just knew that the name had something to do with the Native tribes.
“It's right there, Sweetheart. Straight ahead. When we're driving to the ranch, it's right in front of the road.”
She was right. There it was. Rising before us in all its purple glory.
I stared at it. My mountain.
From then on, whenever we were travelling home, I would look out the windshield for my stalwart, immovable beacon.
My guardian. My defender and protector.
The Blackfoot Tribe called it, Ninastiko.
The Peigans, Minnow Stahkoo.
The white man named it many things.
But, to me, it would always be my beloved 'Old Indian Hill'.

Read the legend!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Daddy's Dating Disaster

Who wouldn't want to date this face?!
Today's post, in honor of my 88 year old Dad, and because I have him on my mind, will be about . . .

Dad's Worst Date, Ever!!!

This should be fun . . .
Dad was home from college for the Christmas vacation in the winter of 1946.
He'd been working very hard. At least that is what he told me.
Moving on . . .
He was ready for some fun.
What could be better than a dance?
With girls.
He gussied (real word - I looked it up) up and drove to Raymond, a nearby town.
The band was hot (my word) and the girls were cute.
He was in heaven.
One young lady (hereafter known as The Girl) particularly took his eye. He asked her to dance.
The Girl agreed.
They danced.
He asked her again. Again she said yes.
They danced.
This went on for some time.
Finally, he asked if he could call on her. This was the 40s. Guys said things like that . . .
The Girl was most agreeable to that suggestion as well.
He floated home.
A couple of days later, he drove out to see her. Now, I should point out, here, that it was only about twenty minutes from Dad's family home to The Girl's family home. When the conditions were good. As in - during the summer.
But it was winter.
Anything goes.
Dad reached the girl's house just as a blizzard hit. That was okay with him. He was warm and safe.
And he had The Girl totally to himself.
Well, totally to himself if one didn't count her parents, siblings, siblings friends, neighbours . . . you get the picture.
They enjoyed a few minutes of conversation. Things were going well. Then, the doorbell rang.
Dum, dum Duuuum!
Actually it probably sounded more like," Bing-bong!" But that would be boring.
And totally not-ominous.
The story needed ominous-ness.
On we go . . .
It was another guy. And from the ensuing conversation, one who was already close friends with The Girl.
For the remainder of the evening, the two young men tried to engage The Girl in conversation.
And glare unobtrusively at each other.
Finally, the evening drew to a close. It was time to leave.
I capitalized this because it's important.
The Girl's mother announced that the blizzard had grown so bad that she would allow neither of the suitors to leave. The two of them would have to spend the night.
Okay, not so bad.
Umm . .
In the same bed.
According to Dad, it was the most uncomfortable night he had spent. Ever.
Including his time serving in the army.
At daylight, he peeked out the window. The storm had blown itself out. It was the best sight of his life.
No need to even stop to dress as he'd not bothered to un-dress. In fifteen seconds he was out the front door.
Leaving an astonished The Girl's mother with a batter-coated spoon half-raised in greeting.
Dad left in such a hurry that he even beat the snowplows.
He didn't care.
The sooner he made it home, the sooner he could begin to forget the whole thing.
And 65 years later, he's beginning to.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Toad Today. Gone Tomorrow.

The native denizens of the pasture
I was checking the herd in the north pasture.
My favorite assignment.
You pointed the horse in the right direction and sat back for the ride.
Occasionally you would be required to come out your reverie long enough to glance around and take stock (literally).
The cows would stare at you for a moment, glance towards their calves for reassurance, then drop their heads and continue grazing.
Then you could sink back into your own thoughts.
Tough job.
The most peaceful work on the planet.
Except that this time, there were more critters in the pasture than I had anticipated.
But I am getting ahead of myself . . .
It had been a wet year. Almost unheard of in very arid Southern Alberta, but very much appreciated.
Things were green and growing. There were even small ponds of water standing about. 
Something I had never seen.
I started up the east side of the pasture, heading north.
All was well.
I turned west at the northern fence and continued on.
Everything remained quiet.
Reaching the western boundary, I turned south.
Halfway along the western fence, my horse stopped.
Okay, this was different. I emerged from my thoughts long enough to frown at her and give her a nudge.
She stayed where she was, eyes and ears pointed straight ahead.
Huh. Weird.
Maybe my goofball ex-racehorse had seen something. It would take a miracle, but I believed in miracles.
I decided to look around.
Just to my left was a small hill, and beneath it, a basin, hardly more than a dimple, which had until today been filled with fresh, clean water.
Water that had . . . too quickly . . . disappeared in the sandy soil.
Now only mud remained.
And something more. Something that was . . . moving.
I nudged my horse again.
But she was staring at that mud and "had no intention of going any closer, thank you."
I slid off her and, looping the reins around my arm, proceeded forward on foot.
My horse let the reins play out as far as she could, then reluctantly followed.
I stopped a few feet from the mud's edge because that was as far as I could go without stepping on something.
A tiny toad.
One of dozens, maybe hundreds of them, crawling over each other and milling about.
In a place that, in a normal year, was miles from any water.
And where, I should point out, we had never, ever seen them before.
Where could they have come from?
And, more importantly, how could I get one home?
I glanced at my still-nervous horse and my 'saddlebag-less' riding pad.
Nothing there that would hold them.
I had pockets.
Hmm. Worked for Dennis the Menace on TV.
I picked one up and studied his small, sturdily-built body.
No. I might squish him.
I set him down.
I watched them for some time, moving about, doing their little 'toady' things.
It was fascinating.
But finally, I had to move on.
Regretfully, I mounted up and let my horse make a wide detour around the writhing mass of little bodies.
By the time I was able to drag my father out to see them the next day, the mud had dried up.
And my little friends had disappeared as if they had never existed.
I glanced around.
Surely this was the spot?
But there wasn't a living thing to be seen.
Certainly nothing moved.
Where could they have gone?
Dad stared at the spot.
Then he looked at me and shook his head.
He believed me. I know he did.
I'm almost sure he did.
Okay, well, it wouldn't have been the first time I had told a 'big windy'.
But this time, I was telling the truth.
We never saw them again.
They disappeared as completely as if they had never existed.
Maybe they hadn't.
But if that's true, I had held, for a short time, a bit of my imagination in my hand.
It tickled.

Monday, May 20, 2013

World's Best Teacher

A repost of my most popular blog. Because the best teachers deserve to be honored again.

The greatest teacher who ever lived, worked in Milk River, Alberta.
In the Junior High School.
I was terrified of her.
And I  loved her.

Mrs. Wollersheim TAUGHT Social and Math.
Notice the capitals for emphasis?
I meant to put them there.
My first experience with Mrs. W was in grade seven.
I'll never forget it.
I was one of the former grade six kings and queens of Milk River Elementary, now demoted to the lowest of the low.
Grade seven in the Junior/Senior high school.
I was a worm.
Already intimidated by my surroundings, I and my classmates were seated in our desks in Mrs. W's room, awaiting the next installment in terror that Junior High was turning out to be.
We didn't wait long.
From down the hall, outside the wide-open classroom door, we heard a sound. A steady 'Creak. Creak'.
I should mention, here, that our school was old. Methuselah old. And creaky. In fact, it would have made an excellent set for a horror movie, "The Killer Who Terrorized the Grade Sevens in the Old, Creaky School."
Okay. Movie-writing was never meant to be my forte (that's French).
Moving on . . .
Each member of the class stiffened into attention, all eyes were trained on the doorway.
A trickle of sweat traced a path down the temple of the kid in front of me.
Okay, I'm exaggerating. But you have to admit that, for a moment, I had you.
Okay, you don't have to admit it.
A hollow voice rang down the hall.
"Ahem. Now class . . ."
I should point out that Mrs. W never, ever waited until she was visible to begin teaching.
She didn't have to.
" . . . and that's what we are going to do today."
She appeared in the doorway. A short, heavy-set woman in a print dress, with her hair pinned back into a bun. Sharp eyes covered by thick spectacles. And flat, black walking shoes, capable of carrying the wearer through an entire day of teaching.
The anticipation was over.
We were, at last face to face.
So to speak.
The class shivered en masse. (I'm on fire today! That's another French term. I think it means all together.)
She looked us over.
Complete silence.
We sat, frozen in our desks.
Does a teacher's visual acuity depend upon movement?
She moved forward. "The first thing you will have to learn, class, is that when I walk into the room, your books and notebooks will be opened to the correct page and you will be ready to learn."
Frantic zipping of binders (zippers were the newest, coolest thing on binders) and shuffling of paper.
Finally, silence once more.
Mrs. W had reached the front of the room and was standing to one side of the desk, watching us.
We felt like proverbial mice in the gaze of the proverbial hawk.
Our reaction was anything but proverbial.
I'm not sure, but I think a couple of students wet themselves.
She nodded and began to teach.
And, despite our misgivings, we began to learn.
And the first thing we learned was that, though she appeared to be a tyrant in the classroom, she was anything but.
Oh, she demanded respect.
And got it.
Even the class clowns showed only exemplary (real word) behavior when seated under her watchful eyes.
But she would do almost anything to have us succeed.
Every one of us.
At anything we tried.
If we were having difficulty with a concept, even if it was a subject taught by another teacher, she would bundle us off to her home. Feed us with the rest of her family.
And teach.
If any of us were involved in extra-curricular activities, she was on the front row for concerts and athletics.
My brother had decided to serve a mission for our Church and though she was of a different denomination, she was there in the chapel, both for his farewell talk, and for his homecoming.
And she did this for approximately 100 students.
Every year.
For 35 + years.
The things she taught us could never be found within the covers of a school textbook.
"You'll get it. Let's try again."
Respect and obedience.
"Mr. Russell. Would you mind putting that away and joining us?"
"How many of you are there? Well, I'm sure you'll all fit in the front room. If not, we'll jam some into the kitchen. Come in, come in. Let's have some hot chocolate. Don't worry about your boots. Jake'll clean up later. Okay, now what Christmas carols are you going to sing for me?"
Any Social or math I learned, I got from her.
Any sense of discipline?
Mrs. Wollersheim is gone now.
She spent her last few years in a nursing home in Milk River, her brilliant mind alive, her physical self hampered by disease and old age.
But she left a legacy.
Her love for us.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Low (Prairie) Flying

Add a dashboard, seat, steering wheel, and dust and this is our  steed!

Marty had a dune buggy.
Actually, it had once been a car. But it had been stripped down to the basics. Wheels. Frame. Seats. Motor. And a steering wheel.
Now it was a dune buggy.
That baby could go.
Just not on any conventional roads.
Marty would take us flying across the prairie at speeds beyond . . . what we should have been travelling.
But we were safe.
Marty had firm hands on the wheel.
As long as there was ground beneath us, all was well.
And that's where my story gets interesting . . .
It was a beautiful ssummer day.
The sun was high and hot. The air shimmered. The crickets and bugs were sending up a steady chorus. There was a haze of dust hanging in the still, dry air.
Perfect 'low flying' weather.
Marty had piled Michelle and I into his buggy for a ride.
Okay, I have to admit that the use of the word 'into' is a bit of a misnomer.
'Onto' would probably be more accurate.
I was in the middle. Marty on my left, steering wheel firmly in hand. Michelle on my right, casually slumped back in the seat, one foot propped up on the dashboard.
Oh, right. We also had a dashboard.
Back to my story . . .
We were flying across the prairie just to the west and north of Marty's family farm, talking and laughing and generally enjoying the wind in our faces.
The field stretched out smooth and green in front of us.
Marty stepped on the gas and we all felt the exhilaration of speed.
Then, quite suddenly, a . . . ditch . . . opened up in front of us.
Oh, not just a little ditch.
An irrigation ditch. 30 feet across and a good 20 feet deep.
More of a canal than a ditch, really.
Huh. Where did that come from? And, more importantly, how were we going to avoid it when it carved its way straight across the field before us from fence to fence.
And when we were travelling at upwards of 45 miles per hour.
You're right.
We couldn't.
We didn't.
We launched off the west bank in a graceful arc.
Now the Dukes of Hazzard would have made it.
Evel Kinevel would have made it.
Even Barney Oldfield would have made it.
But three farm kids in a souped-up, stripped-down 'dune buggy'?
Not a chance.
We hit the opposite bank just below the lip still doing 45 miles per hour.
It's funny just how many thoughts can race through your head in the split seconds between launch and land. I remember thinking that Marty really was taking us flying.
Then . . . crunch.
The buggy stopped instantly, of course, and slid down to the bottom of the canal.
We sat there, stunned for a moment.
And then the moaning started.
I was fine. I just thought I should point that out.
Something to note - when getting involved in an accident in a dune buggy, the middle position is the safest.
Moving on . . .
Marty and Michelle . . . weren't.
Fine, I mean.
Marty had broken his beloved steering wheel with his chin, splitting it open to the bone.
His chin, I mean.
Michelle was even worse off.
The foot that had been so casually propped up on the dashboard had been driven back by the force of our crash and dislocated her hip.
She was in . . . considerable . . . pain.
Marty put a hand over his chin and ran to the farmhouse a quarter of a mile away for help.
It was up to me to pull Michelle up out of the ditch.
Okay, it probably would have been easier . . . and wiser . . . to call an ambulance and wait for professional help, but we were kids of the country, raised to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.
We acted first.
And thought after.
Slowly and painstakingly, I turned Michelle onto her uninjured side. Then I pulled her up the steep bank. One step at a time.
Step, step. Pull.
Step, step. Pull.
She must have suffered agony throughout the entire ordeal, but she said little.
As we were nearing the top, Marty pulled up in his family's car.
Between the two of us, he and I managed to pull Michelle into the back seat. Then, Marty drove us to the hospital.
Funny that it never occurred to any of us to feel alarm when we again saw Marty with a steering wheel in his hands.
Go figure.
He got us there safely.
This time, professionals maneuvered Michelle out of the car and onto a stretcher.
By this point, I'm quite sure she appreciated their expertise.
And their drugs.
Her hip was restored, though she had to suffer through traction and treatments for months afterwards.
Marty was sewn back together and sports a sexy scar on his chin to this day.
I emerged unscathed.
A few days later, I was flying across the prairie with Dennis in his dune buggy.
Some people never learn.

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