|Prairie, Near Buffalo|
On we go:
Once my father had recovered sufficient strength we moved into a small shack on my Grandmother and Grandfather Skjenna’s farm way out on the prairie about 70 miles north of Medicine Hat as the crow flies, and about three and one-half miles south of the town of Buffalo, Alberta. At that time Buffalo was a thriving little rural community serving the local farmers with a grain elevator, rural CPR train station hosting the local weekly run, a general store (Woo Sam’s), a blacksmith shop, a pool hall and a community hall for weekend social events, as well as several residences and other buildings that I can’t recall and that are presently missing or derelict. Sadly, Buffalo is now a ghost town, slowly decaying in the prairie sun, relentless hot, dusty wind and the ravages of winter and time as the memories of the good and, sometimes bad, times fade away forever.
Farming way out on the prairie was a pretty lonely way of life, especially for the women, and it was important to have social events like community dances, picnics, occasional plays put on by the locals and even an annual parade as summer approached and the fields were sown. Folks would decorate their hay wagons, tractors and buckboards and, wearing homemade costumes, would drive down the one gravel road that ran through town, often fortified with a "wee" dram of hooch. Of course, the wagons and buckboards were horse-drawn and the animals were festooned with colorful ribbons and crepe paper flowers as well as little bells that jingled merrily, though it was difficult to hear them over the cacophony of the Model A’s and T’s and steel wheeled tractors and even the odd steam tractor or thrashing machine chuffing along. I have painted here a picture of a much larger and grandiose event, but to a 4 or 5 year old, the parade seemed like a huge and exciting celebration and, for the grownups, a great chance to party, quaffing more of the home brewed spirits.
|Woo Sam's - not much left|
My grandfather, Olaf, had immigrated to Canada in about 1913, having lived in Minnesota and California, and having been enticed by the offer of free land in Alberta. Each pioneer was given a half section of land and, if they fashioned some sort of residence and lived there for at least a year, they could file for another half section, which amounted to a square mile or 640 acres, large by European or Eastern Canadian standards. Initially living in a sod hut, Grandfather later built a wooden shack and then imported a house from Little Sweden after that hamlet had been abandoned. Over the years, the Skjenna properties expanded as other pioneers gave up trying to farm in this harsh, unforgiving land and my family, with guts and determination, bought them out and carried on.
His wife, Mary, joined him some time after 1913, never again to see her family in Norway. And together, they raised eight children, the girls, Rena, Ragna, Ruth and Rachel and four boys, Oscar, Olaf, Oliver and Arthur (my father was the odd man out as his name didn’t begin with an “O”). Unfortunately, Oscar died from subacute bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves, when in his early 20’s. The three remaining boys all served Canada during WWII, which surely must have resulted in several years of major consternation and profound worry, as well as deep, patriotic pride, for my grandparents. Uncle Olaf served in the RCAF as a rigger in outfits like 416 Squadron (Spitfires) while Uncle Oliver was a WAG (Wireless Air Gunner) on bombers and Dad was in the army as outlined previously. As fate would have it, they all came home, thank God.
|Our First Home|
Waking up after the grownup men were in the fields, I would proceed to the main farmhouse, lured by the fragrance of freshly baked bread and sizzling bacon wafting across the yard. I had to be nimble and quick in order to cross over to the main farmhouse lest I be attacked by aggressive, mean spirited, man-eating, monstrous creatures called turkeys. (Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were always enormously satisfying times as revenge was sweet - and tasty!). After hugging Grandma (my arms were not long enough to encircle her ample midriff), she would serve me slices of the bread with homemade butter and strawberry jam or pancakes smothered with farm cream, separated that very morning, and poverty slop (chokecherry syrup, manufactured in the fall when the berries ripened and were picked). At noon I helped Granma carry lunch out to the field and we would join them as they took a well deserved break from work.
Other pleasant memories include snuggling down in the hay in Grandpa's large horse drawn sleigh and wondering at the aurora and stars in the dark firmament, the snow sparkling like thousands of diamonds, watching my breath condensing like ghostly smoke as I exhaled into the crisp cold air, and hearing the puffing and snorting of the horses pulling us along and the supercold snow crunching under the runners as we wended our way into Buffalo for some sort of social event. Or riding on the horse drawn stoneboat as the grownups vainly attempted to clear, for future agriculture, the virgin prairie of rocks deposited there by the glaciers in a long past ice age. I loved hearing the lonesome howls of coyotes or the whistle of the weekly train as it approached and watching the locals as they waited on the station platform for mail or things that they had ordered, perhaps from the Eaton's catalogue before it was relegated to the outhouse, taking on the role of toilet paper (I can't bear to use the term "tissue" as there was nothing soft or comfortable about the pages though they did provide some entertainment as one waited for them to be necessary). And looking up at a kite that Uncle Olaf had fashioned for me from sticks, string, and brown wrapping paper as we flew it off one of the gently rolling hills in which the farm nestled - and hoping that someday I could fly too.
|Orion Nebula, a stack of 30 5 min. exposures taken|
through my brother Graham's scope, 2011