Friday, 30 December 2011

Christmas (Past) on the Prairies

Now that Christmas (present) is over it’s time to reflect on the times we had in the past, mostly good, but some holding disappointments.  I told you about the book that my grandfather Skjenna gave me in 1949, but there are other gifts that, to me, are memorable.  Puzzle 1943During the War my mother and I lived with my Murphy grandparents in Medicine Hat.  I am not sure whether Mom worked, but I know that my Aunty Jean worked for a construction company, F.R. Gibbs, the office being located on 3rd St. across from what is now the Assiniboine Hotel.  Since rationing was in effect, I suppose that there were shortages of some goods, but we always managed to have what I remember to be good food and good times during the Yuletide season.  The adults celebrated as much as they could, trying to forget for a few moments what was going on in the world and wondering how the young soldiers were faring.  In 1943, the Canadians, which included my father, would have been fighting a terribly bloody battle in Ortona.

These were the days before the sophisticated electrical appliances like refrigerators and so any perishables had to be stored in the ice box beneath the telephone in the kitchen.  Yes, there was a wall mounted telephone that actually worked most of the time, unlike the battery powered phones in Buffalo and Bindloss.  At the farm there was one of the large wooden phones with a crank handle on the side and anTelephone earpiece that one held to the ear, while shouting into the mouthpiece hoping that the person at the other end could hear.  Since there were no telephone lines to the farm, the calls were carried through barbed wire fences, dicey at the best of times.  The batteries were large 1.5 volt monstrosities and there was a magneto that the crank operated.  In later years, having taken the phone apart, the magneto came in handy for shocking friends, teachers, etc. as it produced one heck of a jolt when cranked vigorously.

In the city, ice was delivered by the “ice man” who drove up the streets in a wagon powered by two horses.  The milkman also had a horse-drawn wagon and would leave the milk on the doorstep.  In cold weather, the milk would freeze, pushing the cardboard caps up on a column of frozen cream.  In summer, I could hear the comforting clop, clop, clop of their hooves as they meandered down the street delivering goodies to our residence.

There was no central heating in the ‘Hat, but the house was kept cozy with a natural gas stove in the living room.  My grandfather would sit and listen to the latest news of the war while smoking a White Owl cigar or his favorite pipe.IMG_0282  There would be layers of blue smoke  floating in the room accompanied by the sweet fragrance of the tobacco and I would sit watching him peacefully smoking and blowing the occasional smoke ring for my benefit.  Smoking implements had other functions as well:  if I had an earache Papa would blow warm pipe smoke into my ear and for a tummy ache he would use the burning end of a cigar to make circles above my belly button.  I don’t know where he learned this but I found out much, much later that this is similar to one of the oriental practices of moxibustion – and it did seem to help relieve the pain and discomfort of the cramps, or maybe it was simply the magic of a grandfather tending to my needs.

Most of the toys in that era were made of wood since metals were used in the manufacture of war materials. There were even drives to encourage households to donate their aluminum pots to the effort.  One Christmas, despite the metal shortage, I became the proud recipient of a red anodized Mickey Mouse pocket watch that Santa had deposited in my stocking.  This was a thing of beauty, with Mickey’s gloved fists at the ends of the hour and minute hands waiting to point out the time.  Because I couldn’t tell time, I am sure that the purpose of the watch was to encourage me to learn.  With great joy, I wound the watch for the first time, probably too much, and it stopped, never to run again!  I kept it for many years, perhaps hoping that the deity of watches would take pity on me and bring Mickey to life, but to no avail.

In 1945, my grandparents presented me with a book: “The Birds of America” illustrated by John James Audubon.  As you can imagine, this was not a thrilling toy for a three year old, but my tears were assuaged by being informed that the book would someday be valuable.  I recently checked on the current price for this edition on and discovered that it’s current value is about $57.00.  It is, however, a beautiful book and is still treasured.  There are even beautiful drawings of birds that have disappeared from our countryside, having become extinct.  Around the same era, my aunt gave me a brass bell.IMG_0263  What the heck did I need a bell for, especially a queen bell rather than a king?!!  I tried playing with it for a while but, to add insult to injury, the adults found it annoying and I was forced to cease and desist!  I suppose that gifting the bell would be analogous to giving a child a new drum set and telling him/her (mostly him) not to play with it!  How cruel!  Well, I’ve got to admit that I, too, found the bell annoying.  Still do!!

After the War, when metal was in greater supply, I received a Meccano set and a real steam stationary engine.  Dad and I made a flat bed truck and installed the motor so that the truck would steam across the room, usually headed for the flammable Christmas tree!!  One time I fashioned a combine from the pieces.  Dad was so pleased with my Meccanomechanical aptitude that we set out for Buffalo that very day so he could show it to my grandparents.  Meccano is again on the market and is one of the best things that a boy can have, with all of its nuts and bolts, beams, girders, plates, wheels, pulleys and gears.

One of our favorite Christmas movies is “A Christmas Story” where little Ralphie desperately yearns for a genuine Red Ryder BB gun but is discouraged by everyone, including Santa Claus.  He is told over and over again that he would shoot his eye out!  Well, I was confronted by the same litany of negativity when I asked for the same thing for Christmas as a boy in Bindloss.Red Ryder BB Gun  Therefore, I dropped my request down a few notches by asking Santa for a pop gun, a rifle that shot corks a good three feet!  I had visions of hunting bears, deer and other game for sustenance and defending our home against savage Indians and outlaws as well as other miscreants in the two stands of wind-breaker trees along the field east of the house.  I would soon be able to ride with my heroes Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Red Ryder or even Gene Autry, as we rid the land and defended helpless damsels from the n’er-do-wells that threatened our peaceful existence.

I could hardly sleep on Christmas Eve as I waited for Santa to bring my trusty rifle, but I finally drifted off.  When awakening in the morning, I could not spot any packages that even looked as if they could conceal a rifle.Red Ryder BB Gun 2  Perhaps they were waiting to surprise me – maybe even with a BB gun!!  There was, however, a large package that resembled a huge tissue-wrapped Christmas pudding with a strange protuberance under the tree.  I wondered who this present was for, as I imagined that it was some kind of a broom, but was soon informed that it was for me.  I unwrapped the strange looking package and discovered, not a BB gun, not a pop gun rifle, but a large, complicated anti-aircraft gun!  It sat on a base the size of a 33 rpm record or, for the younger generation, a large dinner plate, and had separate cranks for elevation and rotation.  cork CannonIt was a wondrous thing (in retrospect), but not what I wanted at the time.  I looked for other parcels that might harbour a rifle, but none were there.  Then I thought that maybe my parents would come forth and surprise me with the rifle, but that just did not happen.  I was saddled with an anti-aircraft gun, impossible to use for hunting wild animals or defending us against the Indians, outlaws and other threatening things.  I knew that Hoppy, Roy, or even Gene, or especially Red Ryder, would never let me join them in the pursuit of these villains as the gun could not be shouldered and was too cumbersome and awkward to carry with me on my noble steed.  Besides, airplanes hadn’t been popular in the old west times that I imagined and I was surely not going to shoot down Sky King!  I learned from this incident that, when a child makes a specific request, it is wise to honour that yearning with the exact thing that he/she wants, lest Christmas morning be ruined!

Lionel TrainPerhaps one of the most memorable gifts was another thing for which I had yearned – a Lionel train!!  This was at a later time in Medicine Hat where we did have electricity.  It was, and still is, magnificent!!  The locomotive was a Hudson class steam engine that really puffed smoke and there was a remote controlled whistle in the tender.  The loco and rolling stock were individually packaged in orange, blue and white boxes – I was so excited!!  My brother, Graham, and I played with it for hours on end and constructed mountains, fields and villages through which Casey Jones drove the train.  I still have the Lionel, along with other trains in smaller gauges as this train piqued an interest that has remained with me to this day.

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
Norman Vincent Peale

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas on the Prairie, Early Days

I have just flown home from Medicine Hat where I spent many enjoyable hours with Uncle Olaf.  We had a wonderful Norwegian style lunch put on by Doris and Ed, where we were served the traditional lutefisk and other delicacies.  We were also treated to a turkey dinner at the lodge where Uncle Olaf resides.
Having had at least 70 Christmas’s in my logbook, there is much to remember, ponder, and for which to be thankful.  Although mainly reminiscing here about my early childhood as a little fellow living with my family on the prairie in Alberta, nothing is as important as celebrating our lives now.  Carpe diem.  Although I have, up to this episode, mentioned grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts and my sister, Kristine, others entered the picture and became part of my existence.  My brother, Graham, arrived in 1952, my wife, Pat, in the early 60’s and then my own children, Laura, Kirsten, Olaf Jr. and Graham, arriving in our family one by one, making each Christmas more and more magical.  Now we also have grandchildren, Shenna and Nissa in New Zealand and Juliette and Erik Olaf here in Ottawa, not to mention our “kids in laws”, Carm, Shawn, Tammy and Carole, to help celebrate Yuletide and bring the magic and innocence of childhood back into the picture.  Only now, Christmas is a bit more lonely as the kids are only here for half of the time as they have their other parents and grandparents to visit.  We are also blessed in having many other relatives and friends here in Canada, Norway and other parts of the globe.  And for this, we give thanks. 

I am now going to go back to earlier times to show you how we celebrated Christmas before we had  modern conveniences such as electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, telephones, etc., but were able to experience the joys and peace of the season with family and friends.

Buffalo Winter 3Christmas is a magical time, especially for children, and when you live on a farm or a small community on the prairie, it is also very meaningful to adults as well.  This is a time for celebrating, socializing, baking, preparing traditional fare and visiting with neighbours.  Harvesting is over and there is a bit more time to relax although caring for the farm and the livestock is a full time responsibility that cannot be ignored in any season.

There are many memories of Christmas times passed on the prairie.  Memories of deep snow banks, cold, crisp clear days and nights, northern lights and stars that lit up the snow blanketed countryside with their brilliance, and looking forward to seeing relatives, especially grandparents, while waiting impatiently for Santa Claus.
 Christmas Tree Candles 2
In Bindloss and Buffalo, there was no electrical power so the tree was decorated with, of all things, candles!  There was no such thing as artificial trees that didn’t resemble bottle brushes so Mom or Dad would come through the door dragging a more aesthetic real tree and then setting it up in the living room.  We would hang home made strings of popcorn around the tree and tinsel icicles, that sparkled in the glow of the coal oil lamps, would be placed among the branches.  Maybe there would be a few extremely fragile glass ornaments to hang – many were so delicate that they would break just from handling, leaving shards of sharp glass on the floor.  Then, the little candles would be clipped onto the limbs in strategic locations so as to be quick and easy to light and, more importantly, to extinguish.

After checking that the family cat had not ascended into the branches as he was wont to do, Dad would light the candles one by one but with great haste as this was an extreme fire hazard.  We could only admire the candlelit tree for a few seconds before the candles, wavering in the draught and heating the overhanging needles almost to the point of combustion, had to be extinguished.  Then, we were left with the fragrance of the extinguished candles as they smoked and cooled off.  We kept a pail of water close by just in case the tree or the cat caught fire.  Dad loved that cat, as reflected in the lavish praise he heaped on it while he tried to shoo it out of the room and away from the tree.  Some of the verbiage indicated to me that the poor thing maybe was capable of having kittens even though there were no felines of the opposite gender nearby and that he or she had been “fixed” which should have, in my childish mind, made such happy events possible. 

extinguisherSpeaking of fire, I can still remember the so called fire extinguishers that hung on the wall.  They consisted of a glass bulb filled with colored “extinguisher” fluid and a spring loaded lever that resembled a mouse trap, held back by a thin lead foil.  The theory was that, in the event of a fire in the room, the foil would melt and the lever would smash the bulb and the fire would be doused by whatever chemical was inside.  Thankfully, this apparatus was never tested in any of our homes, but my friend, Harvey’s family was not so fortunate as they lost pretty well everything in a house fire.  Christmas is the saddest time to endure such an event.

Preceding the Big Day there would be the inevitable Christmas concert put on by the local school and most of us children would have some sort of a part in one or other of the pageants.  Alas, in my case, this did not launch me into a lucrative career in acting as I usually was assigned a minor part such as a shepherd tending his sheep whilst the more talented aspiring actors played Mary and Joseph or one of the three wise men or perhaps even a cow or a sheep hanging around the manger at center stage.  The entire town and surrounding farm population would turn out for the festivities to hear us hollering out carols and attempting to play various musical instruments whilst our admiring parents looked on. There were occasional periods where the heating must have failed as I noticed while I peeked through the curtains, some of the adults seemed to have impending frostbitten ears as they would warm them up with their hands clasped to the sides of their heads until the music ceased.  It was especially cold when one of the young virtuosos screeched out a tune on his fiddle sending the dogs outside into fits of howling as they tried to join in the festivities.  Santa would always appear at the end of the dramatic presentations and carolling that would, at last, end, much to our relief, as we were anxious to see what he would bring.  It was strange to us that his voice would be usually be familiar and that some kid’s father, including my own on occasion, would temporarily disappear.  Santa would pass out little gifts to the kids, whose names would be called individually, and then, after gleefully opening the packages and comparing gifts with the other kids, we would head for home, clutching our little souvenirs, and attempt once more to burn the house down  by setting fire to the candles in the tree -  after, again, being certain that the cat was not lurking on a branch and ensuring that exits were not blocked.

One Christmas, in 1949, we drove to Buffalo to spend time with the Skjenna’s on the way into the ‘Hat to be with the Murphy’s.  There was a ferocious winter storm in progress that necessitated shovelling our way through gigantic snow banks as we struggled for the twenty or so miles to the farm.  On numerous occasions, we were unable to make any progress and Dad would have to shovel the snow away and push as Mom gunned the car.  Although, I don’t remember him as being pious or attending church for other than weddings or funerals, I could hear him praying as he pitched the snow over his shoulder.  He seemed to be asking the Almighty to construct some sort of dam to hold the snow back, although that would prove to be impossible.  But despite the vicissitudes of winter driving, and with more worship, we finally made it.   I don’t think that it was our intention to stay at the farm that time, but there was no choice as the roads were basically impassable as the requested dam didn’t seem to function. IMG_0255 Grandpa Skjenna was quite a learned  man and thus, the present he had on hand for me was a book by Zane Grey titled “ King of the Royal Mounted and The Ghost Guns of Roaring River.”   I don’t know whether or not you have read any of Zane Grey’s books but his works are literary works of art.  The vocabulary in Ghost Guns is complex and descriptive, making it a difficult read for a young lad, but the story was exciting and compelling especially for a boy whose heroes were the likes of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry.  I still treasure the book with its yellowing pages and have tried to read it to our kids on several occasions, but it was just too esoteric for their young ears.  I still have to have a dictionary nearby when I read it.

Yuletide in Medicine Hat was different from that in the country.  For one thing, most people had electricity and natural gas (methane - no not that kind) for heating and cooking.  Rudyard Kipling once called Medicine Hat “the city with all hell for a basement!” in tribute to the abundance of this resource.  Even the street lamps were gas burning and were never extinguished except, perhaps, to replace a mantle or make some other repair or adjustment.  So the house was generally warmer than its country counterparts.  I don’t remember ever awakening with a frozen nose in the ‘Hat, unlike in Bindloss.

IMG_0254Because of electricity, the tree could be decorated with colored Christmas lights peeking out of silvery metal stars and other Yuletide objects that, not only were pretty, but protected the rapidly drying needles from the heat of the bulbs.  It was interesting to me that the blue bulbs were always the hottest and most difficult to change and it took me several years to figure out why.  These lights were series wired, so if one burned out, the entire string would go dark and my Papa Murphy would be seen and heard, happily digging the strings out from the branches, replacing bulbs one by one and loudly lavishing praises upon the genius of the inventor of these “infernal contraptions” and perhaps wishing he could pitch the entire tree out the door into yet another dam.  Pity the day when more than one bulb burned out at the same time, as the permutations and combinations would present Papa with an almost insurmountable mathematical problem, sort of a Gordian knot type of exercise during which he was frequently heard to pray more vociferously than usual while my grandmother sat red-faced on the couch.  

As a real treat, I was sometimes allowed to sleep under the tree; as much as I could sleep, as excitement would nearly always shoo away the sandman as I waited for Santa to arrive and consume the cookies and milk placed expectantly on the coffee table.  In the morning, there would be gifts under the tree and the stockings were filled with candy canes, chocolates and other goodies, with a mandarin orange always stuck in the toe.

The most important parts of these early Christmas’s would always be the gatherings of family and friends, especially feasting on the vicious attack turkeys that had lurked in the farm yard and that had terrified me many times earlier in the year, knowing that their hordes had been reduced by at least one.

There are more Christmas episodes to come, mostly funny, but always precious, as I look back on them.  Meanwhile, I hope and wish that everyone has a happy and memorable Christmas and health and happiness in the years to come.

“Be forever kind and helpful toward each other as you have always been.  Rather than practice anything like sinful and hateful doings, be forever kind and forgiving towards each other.”
Olaf Skjenna Sr. 1880 – 1957, Last Will and Testament

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Back to the West (For a Week)


Yesterday’s high (temperature) was only about one degree Celsius but there were some sunny breaks, allowing me to do some solar photography.  Sadly, I missed the lunar eclipse, but it was not too spectacular here in the East anyway, so I put my solar telescope to good use.  The scope is a Coronado  60 mm Solarmax which is equipped with a Ha (Hydrogen alpha) filter that passes only light from hydrogen and helium and also has an interferometer to compensate the for Doppler Effect of light.  It can only be used for solar photography, but I have other scopes for traditional night time observation and photography.  At least with the Solarmax I don’t have to worry about light pollution!


The Sun on 10 Dec 2011Flares 101211b


For night time astronomy, I have an 8 inch Schmitt-Cassegrain manufactured by Celestron and it is shown here mounted on an HEQ5 Pro computerized German equatorial mount.  In the photo you can see the Orion 80 mm short tube scope (the white one) on top of the Celestron and this is used as a guide scope.  The small camera at the end is for guiding and it is interfaced with the computerized mount and my laptop.  Once the main scope is polar aligned and tracking, the guide scope holds the relative position within one pixel of the object I’m photographing, permitting long exposures.  For imaging, I use a digital Canon T3i that is also interfaced with the laptop and is controlled by a program called “BackIMG_0215yardEOS” that also measures various critical parameters of the camera, for the example temperature of the sensor.  We usually take 30 or more 5 minute exposures and stack them in a program called “Registax” that sorts the frames by quality and combines the best images, eliminating noise, dust particles or fingerprints.


The solar telescope is mounted on a Celestron computerized mount that is not as accurate as the HEQ5 mount, but only short exposures, like 1/250 or 1/500 of a second are required to photograph the sun.  Both mounts are what are called “Go To” mounts;  that is I can input any one of 45000 celestial objects in the computer and the mount will automatically find the target and guide on it. 


This all sounds very technical and complicated but it really isn’t and it is fun to learn.  Relatively inexpensive equipment (wives don’t think so) like this allows us amateurs to take spectacular IMG_0211astrophotographs.  You might ask “Why bother with all this when you can see beautiful photos taken from professional observatories or scopes like the Hubble?”  We would reply “Why would you paint a picture when you can purchase one, or compose poetry when you can obtain a book of poems from the library?”  Oh, and by the way, I also do a lot of observing with binoculars.  There are excellent publications about binocular astronomy, so you don’t require elaborate equipment to enjoy the wonders of the firmament.


Having loaded you with all this technical stuff, check out the solar photos that I took yesterday.  Believe it or not, the camera was handheld, pointing down through the telescope eyepiece!!  I processed the images on my computer order to enhance the contrast and improve the clarity.  Unfortunately, I have not yet learned how to show both the surface details and the peripheral prominences (flares) of Old Sol on the same image,  but that will come, as I am still on a steep learning curve.  The solar surface shows details like filaments and sunspots that are due to electromagnetic activity and eventually give rise to flares.  The larger sunspots may be as large as 4 earths and the filaments are perhaps several thousand kilometers long!


Well, this is a bit of a departure from the usual storytelling, but I’m taking a bit of a break, as tomorrow, December 12, I am flying out to Medicine Hat for a week to visit Uncle Olaf (Olaf Martin Skjenna) and will have the privilege of a lutefisk luncheon with Olaf, Mary and Dennis, hosted by Doris and Ed Kornelson.  I wish that Pat could come with me butIMG_0196 she is in the midst of making fattigmann, krumkake, rosettes, pepper cookies, lefse and other Norwegian delicacies.  Our daughter, Laura, and Graham’s wife, Carole, pitched in with Pat to do some baking last weekend, but the goodies are rapidly disappearing and we need more before the annual traditional lutefisk supper.  We still celebrate our Nordic ancestry – as my father once said “Be a Canadian first and with the time left over celebrate your Norwegian heritage.”


SpitfireI enjoy visiting Uncle Olaf as he has many tales to tell about his life in Buffalo and Norway, and in the RCAF during the War, here in Canada, England and on the European continent.  Perhaps the motivation also arises from the fact that I did not, or could not, do the same thing for my parents or other uncles.  I am trying to record and remember the stories that he relates and I will pass them on to you whenever I can.  I don’t dare tell you about all of the secrets he has shared with me as some of his exploits are, not just the stuff of legend, but could incriminate him (and perhaps, me and other family members - ha-ha).


Uncle Olaf is the last of my uncles and we have many precious memories to talk about and share – times when I lived in Buffalo and Bindloss and afterwards.  We also share an interest in aviation and funny stories.  Although he is pretty well confined to bed and a wheelchair, his mind is extremely sharp.  He is loved by all Uncle Olafof the staff at the “home” as he has a great sense of humor and they tell me that they have never had anyone as positive as him in residence.  We did give him a tablet computer as a gift last summer and he was using it almost immediately.  In addition, he also was by far, the first of the residents to figure out how to use the rather complex television cable receivers installed in the rooms.  He also enjoys contemporary films like Avatar, especially when he sees “his” name in that film’s credits.


Medicine Hat News - a bit of a mistake, as he is my uncleLast summer when I was in the ‘Hat, it was announced that there would be an airshow at the airport, mostly  static displays including some WWII airplanes.  When asked if he would like to go, Uncle Olaf responded eagerly in the affirmative so began the attempt to solve the logistics of transporting him in his wheelchair to the airport.  When the Medicine Hat transit people were first contacted they told me that there was nothing available on the Monday and could we book the bus for another day.  I informed them that we wished to attend the airshow on Monday.  The very kind lady asked me if Uncle Olaf was a veteran.  When I informed her that he was, she, without hesitation stated that she would find a way to accommodate us, which she did, and we were able to attend.  When the bus pulled up we found out that there were others who were anxious to attend and arrangements were quickly made.  The driver would not accept fares from any of the elderly enthusiasts, so thank you kind lady and driver! 


The pilots of the vintage (and modern) aircraft were very interested in what Uncle Olaf did during the war, especially when they learned that he was involved with Spitfires (every pilot views the “Spit” with reverence).  Both of us had a great time inspecting the airplanes and swapping lies with the crews.  I am so glad that our veterans are treated with respect and are honored for their contributions to our peace.  Let us never forget!


Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

Sir Winston Churchill


Friday, 9 December 2011

Sky King and Popeye the Sailor Man

Built by the Boys
     I have difficulty understanding contemporary kids when they say "I'm bored." I don't remember ever being bored as a kid. We didn't have electricity, TV, computers, or many toys.  We did, however, have books and I was a voracious reader and I played catch or softball or cowboys and Indians (oh, I’m sorry – First Nations Peoples) with my friends.  In addition, there were many natural things with which to play, for example grasshoppers, snakes, gopher and magpie traps, various plants and animal bones.  We built little corrals in the dirt and used the bones from horse’s hooves for livestock.  There were also many places to explore and we would take hikes over the hill to Cherry Coulee along the Red Deer River or pester the elevator operator across the road, fascinated by the operation of the systems, especially the huge stationery engine that he would start for us, explaining how the governor worked, and watching us carefully lest we attempt to use the elevator to the top which would have had fatal results.  Following in Dad’s footsteps, there was usually a balsa and tissue model airplane under construction, sometimes blood spotted by lacerated fingers until X-Acto knives replaced so-called safety razor blades!  I have tried to imbue my sons with model airplane skills and we built a few when they were kids.

     The one concession to the “modern” era was a battery powered radio, a huge monstrosity sitting in the living room.  It was powered by large, heavy batteries, which, because they were expensive, resulted in our parents rationing our listening time.  There were great programs broadcast from Watrous, Saskatchewan, 55 on the radio dial, the only station we could receive, and sometimes with plenty of static at that.  I did make a crystal radio from a 15 cent crystal and a safety pin for a "cat’s whisker" and an old earphone set I found in the house, so that allowed me a bit more listening time.

     What “kid” can forget “Maggie Muggens” accompanied by Fitzgerald Field Mouse and Mr. McGarrity, the all-knowing gardener who always seemed to be leaning on his red handled hoe and passing on pearls of wisdom to Maggie! Or how about “Bobby Benson of the B bar B extoling his B bar B pancakes and always saving the day! Then there was “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” and “Space Patrol” -  or maybe those two were a bit later.  
Sky King

     My all-time favorite radio program, perhaps due to its aeronautical theme, was “Sky King.”  Sky King was a heroic pilot who, flying his twin engine Cessna, Songbird,  rescued damsels in distress, found lost hikers, and trapped Nazi and Communist spies, etc.  ( Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, the series was probably based on a true-life person, Jack Cones, the Flying Constable of 29 Palms during the 1930s).  Here is an excerpt from the Sky King website:
Out of the clear blue of the western sky comes Sky King, a WWII naval aviator-turned rancher, who flies his twin-engine Cessna high above the Arizona plains. Accompanying Sky on his adventures are his nephew, Clipper and his teen niece, Penny.

The episodes always began with the awe inspiring guttural roar of an airplane and the following introduction:  "From out of the clear blue of the western sky comes - Sky King."  And my attention would be riveted to the radio for the 15 or so minutes of the program.

     Like many programs of that era, there were various souvenirs that could be ordered through the mail:  “Just send two box-tops from whatever and 15 cents and we’ll send you a super-duper something.”  Well, Sky King had a promotion that no true budding aviation enthusiast could resist – a “ Genuine Sky King Ring with a miniature model Songbird that really flew.”  I choked down two boxes of whatever, perhaps some sort of cereal, as rapidly as I could and mailed in my 15 cents along with the box tops and awaited the arrival of my Genuine Sky King Ring with breathless anticipation.  Living in the country, it was necessary to remain breathless for what seemed like an eternity – almost every day I would haunt the post office (the mail came in on the weekly train) to see if my Genuine Sky King Ring had somehow magically arrived.

     At long last (six weeks later), the little box containing the Genuine Sky King Ring with the model Songbird that really flew finally arrived.  I ran home as quickly as I could down the dusty path and sprinted into the living room where, with adrenaline induced trembling hands, I opened the package.  I peered wide-eyed into the box and discovered a silver ring equipped with a spring powered launcher and a tiny black plastic twin engine Cessna with a one-half inch wingspan.  Controlling my shaking hands the best I could, I placed the ring on my finger, pressed the airplane onto the launcher whereupon I pressed the trigger and my little black Songbird took off at warp speed, never to be seen again!

     Every few years, I drive through Bindloss and, as I pass the house, which is now derelict and crumbling, I wonder if my little black Songbird is in there somewhere. I resist the urge to clamber over the barbed wire fence, wade through the thigh high, snake infested weeds and break into the old abandoned house to mount still another of the thousands of searches that I had mustered as a heartbroken little boy, for my precious airplane.  I soon lost interest in the ring  with the spring loaded, but vacant launcher, but maybe if I had it now it would console me and ameliorate my unspoken grief.  Perhaps my little black Songbird is still flying somewhere, rescuing damsels in distress, locating lost hikers and trapping Nazi and Communist spies.  I can only hope so.

Yachting (or something like that) in Bindloss

My first yachting uniform - age 2
     I love everything that moves: planes, cars, trains, rockets, motorcycles and boats, etc.  And my introduction to boating, sailing, yachting, or whatever you wish to call it, began at a very early age.  About halfway between our house and Bindloss, not far from the well, was a slough, prairie parlance for a pond.  Every spring, the slough would be filled to the brim with water from the freshly melting snow and various life cycles would begin.  There would be frog’s eggs, pollywogs and wigglers (mosquito larvae) to catch and display in pickle jar aquariums and the banks would come alive with the sights and sounds of songbirds like the red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, and numerous other bird species that built their nests in the high grasses surrounding the banks.
Prairie Slough
     In the slough was moored a questionably seaworthy raft that someone, I have no idea who, had cobbled together from fence posts.  This was definitely out of bounds as far as my mom and dad were concerned.  I was absolutely forbidden, verboten, from going anywhere near the slough, let alone the raft.  I had surreptitiously copped a couple of excursions on this poor excuse for a boat and actually became fairly confident about my seamanship.  I realized, for example, that when first stepping on the vessel, it would sink a couple of inches for a short time due to the waterlogged condition of the fence posts.
     One day, my friend, Harvey, wanted to accompany me on one of my pirate voyages and I agreed to allow him to step aboard the raft.  The vessel immediately began its usual submarine - like antics, submerging a couple of inches.  Harvey panicked, diving off into the pollywog infested sea.  The raft was positioned directly over a part of the pond that legend had it that there was a bottomless hole right in that spot and that some sort of little boy eating sea monster might be dwelling in the depths (perhaps the rumor was started by adults to dissuade us from approaching the slough.)  I thought that Harvey might be lost forever, perhaps being devoured by the creature or surfacing in China, but, as I anxiously waited, he surfaced, covered in “seaweed.” Sputtering as he thrashed his way to the shore, he swore that his pirating days were over!  I could not contain my mirth at this blatant act of cowardice unbefitting a pirate, which angered him considerably, and his face turned redder than his carrot hued hair and even his freckles seemed anemic by comparison to the surrounding skin, which only heightened my enjoyment of the situation.  Through my tears of laughter, I asked him if he had seen any frogs down there and still sputtering, he departed for the safety of his home. 

     I guess that Harvey had to explain to his parents why his clothes were wet and why there was seaweed in his hair and, having spilled the beans, the event was relayed to my parents who had already prohibited me from being anywhere near the slough.  With very little convincing by the Hawthorne brush, I swore to myself that my pirating days were over too.  I have lost track of Harvey. Perhaps he is in China.

     My grandparents used to occasionally visit from Medicine Hat and they would always bring gifts for Kristine and me.  Well you can guess what they brought for me a few days after the above incident;  you got it – a pair of shiny black rubber boots and a sailor’s hat!!!  Well, my reluctance to endure any further wrath from my parents (and the brush), was overwhelmed by a combination of my Viking and pirate blood and the shiny black rubber boots and, especially, the sailor’s hat.  So I sneaked away, under the delusion that I was avoiding my elder’s attention and proudly boarded my ship, as any experienced seaman would do, and set sail for distant shores (really about 30 feet away)!  I soon heard a foghorn;  no, wait a minute! - it was shouting that emanated from my parents and my grandparents as they rushed to the slough, thinking that I would surely drown and require rescue from this perilous body of water. I poled confidently to shore, proudly beaming from ear to ear as I demonstrated my prowess at handling a ship, but they would not accept that I had acquired sufficient proficiency in seamanship that I would avoid a “prison term” even though I was wearing shiny black rubber boots and, especially, the sailor’s hat.

Inside our last "raft" c. 1990
     I was forced to stay indoors, confined to barracks, for a few days, unable to sit comfortably, and I visited with my grandparents, read a book about pirates and built a model airplane while pondering over whether or not to pursue a nautical career.

     There are many other things to tell you about like my first pocket knife, six guns, Meccano Sets, Black Widow spiders, more venomous creatures, horses, pets, dust devils, ghosts, books, cars, motorcycles, airplanes and other things.  I will talk to you later about these and then get into flying, aircraft accident investigation, travel and family, etc.  But this is enough for now.

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

Winston Churchill

Thursday, 8 December 2011


     I have already told you about Buffalo, Alberta, near where the Skjenna farm is located and described some of our life experiences there.  But we moved back to Medicine Hat – at least I did while my parents and infant sister moved to Bindloss, about 20 miles east of Buffalo.  I don’t know why I wasn’t with them, but I loved staying in the ‘Hat.  Dad had rented a house across from the grain elevators about one half mile from the town.
These were actually tuscan red in the 40's
     My first introduction to Bindloss was rather dramatic as I arrived by airplane!  It was my very first flight and further instilled a passion for aviation (remember the Spitfire model and the kite).  I was only five years old but clearly remember the little Christmas trees lining the runway in the ‘Hat as we raced down the snow covered strip and then lifted into the air and watched, fascinated, as the trees grew smaller in the window and receded as we flew northwards across the city, which looked like some kind of a miniature village.
Home in Bindloss c.2006
     I don’t remember the type of airplane but I think that it was a Stinson or Luscombe –  I remember that it had a green tinted overhead plexiglass window.  My grandmother had given me a chocolate covered candy bar which became my first in-flight meal!  The pilot, a young veteran whose name has been long forgotten, was very kind and friendly and I still remember him sitting in the left seat beside me, the left seat being the traditional position of the aircraft captain.  I wanted to offer him a bite of my chocolate bar but was too shy.  I watched the winter countryside slipping by as we followed the South Saskatchewan River and eventually we made a gentle approach, circled the pasture which would be our landing field – we were on skis – and then settled gently down onto the snow.  Sadly, my pilot hero was killed in a fiery accident a few weeks later.  He had a great influence on my aeronautical aspirations and career in aircraft accident investigation, so maybe he lives on in deed though his name has been forgotten.
Kristine and Me c.1948
     My mom and dad, as well as curious townspeople, met the aircraft and I was whisked away to our new home.  My little sister, Kristine, was asleep in her crib as I peered over the edge, hoping that she would wake up to play, and there were colorful toys dangling from a wooden bar suspended  over her head.  That was my introduction to Bindloss where we would live until I was halfway through grade three.
     At first, my dad was unemployed, I think.  Cash, what little there was, was stowed in a Sweet Caporal tobacco tin.  From time to time, Mom would give most of the remaining money to Dad and he would disappear for a few days, returning with a fresh supply of bills.  I found out later that he would head into Empress, about twenty miles east of Bindloss, and make money playing poker and pool.  Eventually, he got a job as a mechanic at Herman Motors and then Uncle Buster and Dad built their own service station called “Modern Service.”  Watching with great interest as they dug the grease pits and laid the cinder blocks, I would play around the grounds, catching grasshoppers, grass snakes and other specimens, and keep track of the construction.  Dad and Uncle Buster eventually became Cockshutt dealers and the yard was filled with shiny red, yellow wheeled tractors and combines  on which my buddies and I played (note proper position of preposition) (also the alliteration).
     While Dad was working at Herman Motors, the following incident occurred:  An automobile had come in for service in autumn due to a strange sound emanating from beneath the hood.  Mr. Herman opened the hood and leaned in to inspect the engine.  There, on the top of the motor where it was warm, sat a coiled rattlesnake annoyed at the noise and commotion and tired of travelling, whereupon he rattled vigorously.  Dad told us that Mr. Herman’s head left a dent in the hood of the car!
Cockshutt Tractor
     We continued to live in the old house for a couple of years.  We did not have electricity, running water or indoor plumbing but there as a cistern in the cellar for collecting rain water.  The cellar was dark and foreboding and there were Black Widow spider webs along the stairwell.  My dad always called the house a firetrap and we did experience a frightening chimney fire one winter.  As we sat enjoying supper, Dad looked out and saw flames dancing in the snow and, with alarm, herded us out the door into the cold.  Fortunately, the house didn’t burn down because my parents stuffed the chimney with wet rags. 
     There was a large open area upstairs and my sister and I used to play there.  One day, I had to pee very badly and, not wanting to go outside, I urinated into a pop bottle that I placed under a hatch in an opening in the floor.  Unfortunately, the bottle toppled over and I heard a shriek downstairs followed by the sound of footsteps running up the stairs.  The contents of the bottle had found a crack in the ceiling dripping down and running down Mom’s neck.  She had a sense of humor failure and I experienced the wrath of the Hawthorne brush.  This was a black clothes brush that came from Hawthorne’s Men’s Wear in Medicine Hat and was utilized as a threat and a punishment for misdeeds that are wont to occur with little boys (and girls).  Both Kristine and I were terrified of the brush – our parents only had to say “the Hawthorne Brush is peeking around the corner” and we would immediately “straighten up and fly right.”
Mannekin Pis - Brussels
     Because we did not have indoor toilets, Mom used to allow me to pee in the slop pail that resided beside the stove.  I guess that I found the act of peeing rather boring so I would amuse myself by seeing how close to the top of the bucket I could direct the stream .  Once I was too careless or overconfident with my aim and the urine flew over top of the bucket, hitting the side of the hot stove with an ensuing hissing sound and a cloud of rather foul smelling steam.  You can be certain that Mr. Hawthorne convinced me to discontinue my attempts at marksmanship!!
  In the summertime my sister and I would amuse ourselves outside except in August when we were confined to barracks due to the moulting rattlesnakes that frequented the yard.  One day, I think it was on Kristine’s birthday in June, we were playing ball with some of our little friends near the lumber pile. It was one of those hollow rubber balls painted in bright colors on the outside that was Kristine’s birthday present.  I missed catching the ball and it landed in the tall grass behind me.  Hearing a hissing sound,  I ran over to the ball and discovered two fang marks penetrating the shell and venom on the surface.  That ended our game (and ruined the ball)!
     I had three main little friends in town – Billy Herman, Harvey Stoltz, and Dale McMorran (her mother was a widow as Mr. McMorran had been killed in the war, I believe).  As kids, we didn’t have money though I did make a bit trapping gophers and selling their tails for five cents apiece.  So we used to play hide-and-seek in Quan’s general store and one of us would hide near the candy counter pocketing the occasional packet of chewing gum, usually Beeman’s.  Quan would look on with amusement written over his kindly face.  I really liked Quan and invited him to my birthday party.  He did not attend but gave me – guess what? – a carton of Beeman’s gum.  I guess he knew what was going on but allowed us our fun as this lonely Chinese man enjoyed having us kids, criminals as we were, playing in his store.  Quan is gone now as is any trace of his store as Bindloss is now a ghost town.
     In wintertime as well as in other seasons, it was a long hike, or so it seemed, to the one room school on the north side of town.  It doesn’t appear to be so far now, but to a little boy every journey seemed an adventure.  The school was for grades one to seven and there was the traditional pot bellied stove in the middle of the one room.  The older boys took turns stoking the coals during the winter months.  I would often ski to school and sometimes my father would use a tractor to plough a trail, the snow banks being higher than my head.  On more than one occasion, my dog, Spot, would follow me to school despite my protestations and would become  the class mascot for the day.
     Occasionally we would have fire drills in the school as prescribed by the Social Plains School Board.  The evacuation process was to line up by the exit in double file with the smallest in front (me) and tallest taking up the rear.  I figured that it was because taller people burned more slowly.  One day our teacher surreptitiously built a fire in the coal scuttle (a bucket for coal) which she had placed in the vestibule.  When she rang the bell and shouted “fire!” I raced to the door of the vestibule in order to take my assigned place in preparation for the orderly march to safety.  However, when I saw the actual flames, my body would not permit me to halt and I continued my egress from the building and raced outside, enveloped in the laughter and taunts of my fellow pupils and the teacher.  In retrospect I would question the wisdom of having a fire, confined as it was to the coal scuttle, in the only escape route from the schoolhouse and I have forgiven my body for not stopping beside the flames.
     One autumn day as I trudged home from school I noted what seemed to be a huge brown curtain or wall stretching from horizon to horizon.  It approached rapidly and I was soon engulfed by a massive sand storm and I could see only a few feet in front of me whenever I was able to open my grit filled eyes.  As I approached the well halfway between town and home, I saw a shadowy apparition-like figure approaching through the storm.  It turned out to be my mother who was concerned that I would be lost.  She brought wet rags with her and, covering our faces, we traced the path home.  I couldn’t understand why she was worried as I knew the path well, but it was reassuring to meet up with her.  Since then I have seen similar storms from the air.
      There were only three pupils in my grade, Billy, Harvey and me, and we used to watch the lessons the other grades were receiving and, being interested in what they were learning, we progressed rapidly.  Our teacher approached our parents and suggested that we could complete three grades in two years.  My mother was against the idea so the three of us proceeded at a normal pace.  One time my Aunty Jean sent me a yellow plastic ruler, the first one that anyone in the school had seen.  I was immensely proud of it but some of the other kids were envious.  Billy Herman snatched it away from me and threw it into the pot bellied stove whereupon we discovered the inevitable outcome when plastic is exposed to excessive heat.  I was devastated.  Billy passed away very suddenly a few years ago on his ranch near Bindloss following a dispute with the Canada Revenue Agency and is interred in the Empress cemetery.  I forgive you, Billy.
     There were many other adventures that occurred during this period and I will tell you about some of them later.

                When travellers pass through across our great plane,
                They all view our home, they all say the same:
                "It's simple and flat!" They've not learned to see,
                 The particular beauty that's now part of me.

                 David Bouchard, "If you're not from the prairie"


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

If You’re Not From the Prairie

     There is a wonderful book written and illustrated about life on the prairie as seen through the eyes of a child and I have just rediscovered it.  It is titled:
“If You’re not from the prairie” by David Bouchard and illustrated by Henry Ripplinger     ISBN 0-9696097-4-4
     The poems and illustration evoke many memories, mostly good ones but occasionally bad.  I would like to share some of these with you. 
Drawn on my iPad
     Growing up on the prairie is a sensual delight if you let it be,  stimulating all of the senses – the sights, sounds, smells, taste, touch and maybe senses you don’t even know you possess.
Horseshoe Canyon - look at the horizon
     The prairies open my eyes to the blueness of the huge sky and the vastness of the land as I stand on a hill and see distant farms and ponds, rivers and towns that dot the landscape.  I feel a sense of wonder and freedom as we stand at my favourite lookout, Horseshoe Canyon, in the Cypress Hills, and gaze across to what seems like infinity.  You can see Medicine Hat, more than 60 kilometers away and the fields beyond.  If you look to the southwest you can see the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana, volcanic bumps forgotten by an ice age, covered with “sweet grass” and sacred to the Indians.  (By the way, sweet grass is not the kind of grass that folks purchase from furtive dealers lurking in the shadows of dark street corners).  From the southern slopes of the hills it is possible to see the purple silhouettes of the Bearpaw mountain range far away in the USA.
Milk River with Sweetgrass Hills in background 2011
     The prairies constantly change if you have the eye of an artist.  In the spring, the meadows are alive with thousands of flowers, some bright like the fiery blooms on the prickly pear cactus, to the more subtle tones of the dainty little bluebells or the daisies, the clover, sagebrush, wild roses and other flowers too numerous to name. Foxtails take on the colors of little rainbows in the right light conditions and you could hurl the speargrass stalks like tiny spears, hence the name.  After a rain, snowy white mushrooms often pop up through the soil and these are delicious if fried along with some bacon and eggs or even just served with toast, especially if the toast is made from home made bread and farm butter.      Looking across the prairie is like gazing at a giant artist’s palette with all of the colors you can imagine, from the umbers, ochre's and sienna's to all of the blues, reds, oranges, greens and yellows like the tubes on display in art shops.  There is nothing like prairie grasses or crops of wheat or canola blowing in the wind, with waves like a green or yellow ocean flowing across the enormous fields, and tumbleweeds rushing along only to be stopped by a distant fence.
     You can see thunderstorms a hundred miles away with the bright white windswept tops of the cumuli nimbus clouds billowing in the sun and highlighted against the sky with the anvil, thousands of feet up in the stratosphere, giving away their direction of travel.  Or, at night, the lightning erupting from the clouds in brilliant streaks or sheets of light like huge flashbulbs illuminating the land.  I have seen lightning strike in the distance followed by a slowly growing reddish glow as a prairie fire is born, then the flames etched across the horizon as the monster engulfs and destroys everything in its path, including wildlife, farms and livestock.  On one occasion, the adults from the village were all fighting the fire along the fire breaks in the country and we kids were herded into the schoolhouse, waiting to be evacuated and worrying about our parents as wild animals ran, hopped or slithered through the village toward the Red Deer River outrunning the approaching flames.
Prairie Flowers
     Lying on my back in the grass, I would watch a hawk, eagle or curlew, with its curlew, curlew song, soaring overhead and listen to the bees and the crackle of grasshoppers as they took flight or the distinctive melodic song of the meadowlarks as they proclaimed mastery over their territory.  Near the little ponds or sloughs the red wing blackbirds, or soldier birds, were surprisingly musical.
     There is nothing quite like a prairie sunrise or sunset, especially at harvest time when the farmer’s machines such as tractors, combines or thrashing machines, churn up dust that hangs high in the air deepening the reds, purples and oranges.  And what about the harvest moon rising orange and huge on the horizon?  Walking or skiing across a field in winter time, the colors of the sunset seemed to be amplified as they reflected in the glittering snow as I trudged home, not looking forward to the pain of a thawing toe, nose or ears – winter clothing is much improved these days.
     After a rainfall, the air is perfumed by the sagebrush, flowers and sweet grasses – of course not all the fragrances were sweet, especially if there were cows nearby!  After the first frost, we could eat the cactus berries that were part of the pincushion cacti plopped low to the ground.  You had to carefully pick the individual segments, lest your fingers were pricked, and then bite through the leathery skin and suck out the contents, which tasted very much like Kiwi fruit as I discovered many years later.  One problem was that cactus berries behaved as a cathartic, giving the unwary victims the “runs” or, as some like to call it, “seeping slickness.”  Since the one-room schoolhouse that I attended did not have indoor plumbing, there would be line-ups outside of the two white with green trim outhouses, one for the boys and the other for the girls, as the hapless pupils waited impatiently, squeezing their cheeks together and crossing their legs, as some other victims relieved themselves in the facilities.  Our teacher was not amused by these events – I suppose that is why one of the older boys put a bull snake in her desk drawer – for him, and for all of us, the shrieks of terror were worth the retribution meted out by the strapping administered by the red-faced teacher as we bit our tongues until they bled, trying desperately not to laugh out loud and, at the same time, squeezing our cheeks even harder.
Small Prickly Pear Cactus
     Here’s another sensation for you:  When I was about six years old, a couple of my “friends” coerced me into riding a cow.  Accepting their dare, I leapt up onto the back of the unsuspecting beast.  She was far from being amused at this intrusion and promptly began to buck.  Not having anything resembling a handhold, I flew through the air ending my trajectory by landing butt first in a stand of prickly pear cactus.  The spines in my hands were relatively easy to remove – but the ones in my backside were another matter.  My mother had me over her lap for about two hours removing these frightful little weapons one by one.  I think that this event ignited an interest in acupuncture as it completely cured me of one thing – I never again attempted to ride a cow!
     Our parents used to make  wine from the cactus berries and wines and jellies from other fruit, like chokecherries, Saskatoon berries, gooseberries and others that we, as a family, would gather along the river in the autumn.  Incidentally, there is now a winery between Maple Creek and Fort Walsh (a most worthwhile stop for sampling wines and having lunch) that uses the local berries to make absolutely delicious wines – a surprising oasis in the middle of nowhere on the Saskatchewan prairie. Chokecherries were also used to make a sweet syrup called “poverty slop,” perhaps named during the depression, as syrup would have been out of the financial reach of most country people. After picking we would sometimes build a fire on the sandy banks and fish for mud-pout (small fish) which we would wrap in clay and bake in the flames.
     Winter brought other things to see, do and feel.  It seems to me that there was a lot more snow back in the 40’s and 50’s and I don’t think that is just my imagination.  I clearly recall snow banks up to the second story windows of the farm house in Buffalo.  The fence posts would be buried under the drifting snow and sometimes entire trains would be trapped in the snow banks.  Taking advantage of the drifts, we would head off into the countryside on our wooden skis and freeze our butts off.  Or, on a nice sunny day, head down to the river where we would skate on the ice and freeze our butts off, then build a fire to roast wieners and marshmallows and thaw our toes.  When I lived with my grandparents in the ‘Hat, Papa Murphy would make a rink for me in the front yard so I could freeze my butt off there.  I am surprised that I have any body parts left and not surprised that skating is not one of my favorite sports, in fact one that is studiously avoided.
     It was sometimes so cold in the house in the country – no furnace, central heating or good insulation, or electricity – that my nostrils would be frostbitten in the morning.  My little black and white dog, Spot, who had a tail like the handle of a teapot, would snuggle down under the layers of blankets and wouldn’t move ‘til morning.  Because we didn’t have indoor plumbing, and it would be unbearable to run across to the outhouse which was a fair distance away from the house for reasons of summer fragrances and prevailing breezes, we had chamber-pots tucked under the beds.  Using one of these would require an enormous force of will to throw back the covers and kneel, shivering on the floor in the “chamber-pot position” in order to accomplish our mission, essential as it was.
     They say (whoever “they” are) that you can’t hear the northern lights.  But I have!!  On a crystal clear cold, cold night they would light up the darkness with dazzling colors casting shadows on the snow, sometimes the northern sky was blood red and, one memorable time, in the shape of a colorful rotating corkscrew, reminiscent of Christmas candy, you know, the twisted multicolor ribbon kind, and I swear that you could hear the aurora crackle as it danced around in the sky!  I guess that “they” are not from the prairie.
Waves - 2011
     Prairie people are a hardy lot, always friendly, generous and willing to lend a hand, even to strangers.  They have to be that way as the conditions are often severe and unforgiving where mere survival is an issue and yet there are so many duties to fulfill.  You couldn’t neglect feeding the livestock or milking the cows, bringing in firewood, making sure that there was enough food on the table, lighting the stoves and lamps and helping your next door neighbour, who may live several miles away, in times of need.

If you’re not from the prairie, you don’t know me.  You just can’t know me”  David Bouchard

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Rattlesnakes and Roses

     One of my friends has graciously critiqued my writing and has suggested that I clarify the pronunciation of our name for non-family members who might have the patience to read this.  "Skjenna" is pronounced like "Shenna," also the name of one of our granddaughters in New Zealand (Shenna and Nissa Dunn are daughters of Kirsten and Shawn).
    It is snowing lightly here in Ottawa, but the temperature is now above freezing and there is no accumulation to speak of (another misplaced preposition).  I like the following quote:

From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

Sir Winston Churchill

      However, as you can see, it is often rather awkward to follow, to the letter of the law, the rules of grammar.  The weather has been atypical for November and the predictions for the winter are for variable conditions – I hope that it will be fairly mild, but the scary part is that there is such a thing as an average temperature and snowfall which means we will probably have very cold weather later.  I recently purchased a faux fir winter hat – it has the appearance of something that should be fed and watered and requires a litter box and I have been mercilessly teased about it, the taunts falling on deaf, but warm, ears.
     Ok, back to storytelling or should I say, ramblings of an ageing man homesick for the massive sky and sense of freedom of wide open spaces on the Alberta prairie:  “Rattlesnakes and Roses” seems like a strange title, particularly as the two subjects do not appear at first glance to be related, but in some ways they are.  Remember that Alberta’s official flower is the Wild Rose.
     There are pictures that come to mind when reminiscing about childhood and one of these is the garden beside my Skjenna grandparent’s house on the farm – I wish I had photos of it but it sticks vividly in my mind.  During the war my grandmother laboriously gathered similar sized rocks – there are plenty of rocks around Buffalo – and, having painted them white, laid them out in the shape, mainly, of hearts.  In each heart she planted flowers, including a rose garden.  These little gardens were beautiful tributes to her sons and sons-in-law who were off to war.  Uncles Olaf, Oliver, Buster (Ragna’s husband) and Dad had all enlisted and were in the service of their country in harm’s way.  Grandma must have thought about them long and often and she sublimated her worry by burying herself in the travails of a farm wife and creating these miniature Eden's in her yard, providing splashes of  brightness on the otherwise colorless (in the heat of summer) prairie landscape.  That is not to say that the prairie is always dreary.  For example, in springtime the cactus flowers are red and orange like fire and there are bluebells and wild roses that are feasts to the eye and candy for the soul.  Before the  sun burnt the landscape and the relentless wind deposited dust over everything the grass was green and, in all seasons, the sagebrush was, and still is, a sort of bluish grey where it dotted the meadows, perfuming the air with its fragrance, especially after a rainfall.
September 2011
     I have always been interested in and rather liked rattlesnakes (Crotalis viridis) and other reptiles that inhabit the prairie. There are bull-snakes, that look for all the world like rattlers, and also grass snakes, these two being harmless.  There are even horned toads, actually a type of lizard, in southern Alberta. We were close enough to the Red Deer River that they occasionally wandered onto the farm property.  Farmers liked them because they preyed on gophers who dug burrows into which livestock could step and fracture a leg, but often killed the poor things if they were unlucky enough to be discovered.  It was seldom that they came near the house, but in August, they moulted and were not only blind, but were a tad cranky, actually very cranky.  They could not give a warning rattle and didn’t seem to be deterred by the noise of an approaching human, as they usually were, and it was easier to step on one with predictable and unfortunate results.  Our mother, when we lived in Bindloss (more later), would not allow us to play outside during moulting season as there we lived closer to the river and the snakes often wandered into our yard.
       My first encounter with one of these denizens was actually in my grandmother's rose garden as I was helping her pick weeds from around the bushes.  The meeting was rather brief as I didn’t hang around for more that a split second and one of the men dispatched it with a shovel.  Happily, rattlesnakes are now protected and you can be fined for killing one.
September 2011
     We also had to be careful when we were stooking the hay (not having the luxury of mechanical balers at that time) as the rattlers would take shelter under the hay and feast on the ever present field-mice that also sought refuge there.  One of the farmhands was not so cautious during one harvest and a rattler struck at him, the fangs lodging in his denim trousers (a.k.a blue jeans).  Imagine if you will, this lanky gentleman possessing a huge and fascinating Adam's Apple and had the appearance of Icabod Crane , from the “Headless Horseman,” hollering at the top of his lungs while he ran at full throttle across the field, fearful of stopping, and dragging the hapless rattler who seemed to be in hot pursuit, but which couldn’t detach itself from the pant-leg.  Everyone nearly died from laughter, rolling around in the stubble, and the tale has never been forgotten, still bringing tears to one’s eyes as this awesome picture is conjured up!!
     Years later, when I was seventeen, I had the “opportunity” of working for a pipeline company laying in pipe across the prairie northeast of Medicine Hat.  Machines would dig the ditches during the day and we would make certain that the pipe wrapping was intact toiling until around 2230 when it was too dark to work.  When there was enough light (usually about 0330) we would begin laying the pipe into the ditch and, when that was accomplished, repeat the entire process.  One of my jobs was to “swamp,” that is to run ahead in the ditch and remove any rocks or  shovel out cave-ins from the bottom.  During the night dozens of rattlesnakes would fall into the ditches and we had to be on constant lookout for them.  One hot and windless day, I was sent about five miles ahead of the rest of the crew into the sand-hills (like a desert, with dunes, desert vegetation, etc.) to clear out the cave-ins as there would be many due to the sandy soil.  Looking down into the ditch, which was over five feet deep, I spotted a large rock and I jumped down to get it out.  The rock had fallen out of the wall leaving a depression.  As I landed in the ditch, I heard a rattle and saw, to my horror, a large rattler in the depression.  There was an overhanging branch about 12 feet over my head and I leapt for it.  I missed the branch but caught it on the way down!! Seriously, there was no such branch as it is a figment of my Baron Munchausen like imagination and aids in the telling of the story, but I did find myself standing on the edge of the ditch, not knowing that it was possible to jump that high!  It is astonishing how adrenaline can impart such super-powers to an otherwise normal lad.  Unfortunately, I had to dispatch the snake in order to complete the task and I still have the rattles, kept, along with some arrowheads I found, in a wooden Norwegian salt dish.
Writing on Stone - habitat for many rattlers and there are warnings posted!
     Aside from some minor encounters, the next major sighting occurred in the valley along the South Saskatchewan river known to us as Dinosaur coulee.  We often went there to look for dinosaur bones and teeth.  This particular day, our two young sons and my father were with us.  I found a likely spot to dig and suggested that my younger son, Graham, explore there whereupon he seated himself upon a large rock.  He thought that he heard his grandfather spraying insect repellent as there was a distinct hissing sound.  However, the sound persisted and he got off the rock, thankfully on the sunny side, as the sound emanated from a large, beautiful rattler resting on the shady side who was, by no means, happy!  I figured that it would be educational to demonstrate to everyone how a rattler strikes and, knowing that they can only strike about one-third of their overall length, and figuring that the snake was about five feet long, I located a stick, rare in that coulee, about four feet long.  As I approached the rattler the stick seemed to shrink in my hands and the snake seemed to lengthen perceptibly.  Also I began to question my calculations of the probable striking distance of a snake – I clearly remembered that there was the number “3” in the equation, but couldn’t decide if that meant 1/3 or 3 times, so, not wanting to demonstrate the effects of envenomation, I retreated and we studied the reptile from a respectable distance.
     This past summer, we were driving with some friends west of Buffalo and I spotted a rattler on the road, where he was warming up on the pavement.  We stopped and photographed the snake and I tried to move it off the road lest it be run over by someone who didn’t care about it or didn’t see it.  The snake did not want to move off the road, and, since I was attired in summer shorts and wearing sandals, I respected its wishes and departed.  I hope that he got out of the way before any other vehicles came by.

Other snake snippits:
     Our Norwegian relatives are absolutely terrified of rattlesnakes - the Norsk name for them is klapperslanger - too cute!  My father used to torment the cousins unmercifully whenever they visited the 'Hat which was far too few times.  He would drag a rubber snake attached by a string across the yard and relish their squeals of fear as they ran for cover.  Once, when visiting our cousins in Norway, we were sitting in the living room sipping coffee while they watched their favorite TV program "Gunsmoke" which was in English with Norwegian subtitles.  Festus, their favorite character suddenly came face to face with a diamondback rattler.  In total unison, the coffee cups went up in the air, splashing their contents all over the wall behind.  It seemed like the entire event took place in slow motion!

     I have absolutely no fear of rattlers, but I respect them absolutely!