Saturday, 15 December 2012

BOYS WITH APRONS



JC once said that sometimes he would rather forget that he attended school because school didn't hold many fond memories for him. In fact he avoided every class reunion for 30 years for that reason. But that all ended when his class held an impromptu reunion that more commemorated their collective fiftieth birthdays than an actual reunion. He never could figure out what set that reunion apart from what he'd heard about the others but somewhere along the way, his classmates forgot about how well everyone was going, instead being glad everyone was still in relatively good health and carrying on with life. There was a lot of reminiscing and rehashing of events that would remain in their memories for the rest of their lives. JC could finally see that the good outweighed the bad by a long shot. And one of the memories was about an actual experiment that the school board decided to try. It would be better known as the day when the boys turned over their shop coats to the girls who reciprocated by giving the boys their aprons.

For the last four weeks of ninth grade, the boys headed into the Home Economics room and Ms. Dorothy (same Ms. Dorothy as 2nd grade, as well as 7th grade health class) while the girls headed for the Industrial Arts room and Mr. Jim.

Now, had Ms. Dorothy known what she was about to endure she might've had second thoughts but then, she'd raised three boys herself (and mostly by herself) so she had a pretty good idea what she was getting into. So she planned out the course and did her level best to curb those testosterone-charged man-cubs.

The first thing she attempted to teach the class was how to act like gentlemen. They had to learn to sit properly, and how to pull a chair for a lady. She sat herself at the table demonstrating good posture and crossing her ankles while telling them that, contrary to the instructions that the boys had read in Sex to Sexty, a favorite publication at the time, especially for the boys, a real lady crossed only her ankles, revealing nothing to the masculine gender. One by one, the boys had to stand, pull the chair for Ms. Dorothy and in a respectful manner, help her get seated. Then, due to a shortage of time, the boys had to pair off and seat each other whilst pretending that they were seating a lady.

Well, somehow JC and Gord got paired up. That's very interesting as those two were an uncanny comedy duo. They were best friends forever and knew each other so well that they could tell what was on the other's mind; that is as long as it was something devious. Their first comedy routine started a couple of years before during a class that was supervised by a substitute teacher. JC was very talented at making loud flatulating noises by cupping his hand under his armpit and bringing his arm down on it forcing the air out of the little pocket his hand made. Gord sat in front of JC and their act was to have Gord lift his leg right when JC popped one. It was so authentic and timed so perfectly that Ms. Truman, upon hearing that ignorant sound, caught Gord with his leg up and thus sent him out of the room. When the sound persisted Ms. Truman realized that somehow JC had something to do with it and he was sent out of the room with instructions to get to the bathroom. Well, two years later the act made an abrupt change to how they could ham up what Ms. Dorothy told them to do. It wasn't to see just how subtly they could yank the chair out from under the other one; that was so old. They quickly found out that shoving the chair forward knocking the other's legs out thus causing them to drop in a heap on the chair was more fun. That provoked the rest to join in the fracas and a whole lot of adolescents had the time of their lives.

Ms. Dorothy just shook her head.

The boys also learned table manners--as if they weren't taught proper manners at home. They had to sit up straight, use the utensils properly and politely ask for whatever they needed; they could not reach for it, nor could they stand up and reach even further. There was a time they made pancakes. Gord quickly consumed the stack on his plate then called out to JC. 'Hey, JC, toss me a pancake... please?' JC promptly tossed a pancake like a frizbee across the table where it landed almost squarely in Gord's plate.

Bullseye!

Of course Charlie had to get into the act too.

Now, before I go any further, I have to say that Charlie was the class whipping boy. He was an only child; kind of spoiled; never had to work; unco-ordinated as he could get. He had a bit of a short fuse too and that made him all the more fun to tease. One time, after cleaning up the kitchen unit, JC was rinsing out the sink with that handy-dandy sprayer that was so popular back in the 50s and 60s. He glanced over the partition into the next unit to see Charlie standing there all alone. JC called out to him and when Charlie turned, JC let fly with a blast from the sprayer.

The spray caught Charlie right in the zipper area of his pants making a wet fan shape that could easily have been mistaken for an accident. That sparked a round of adolescent laughter that subsided only when Charlie asked Ms. Dorothy if he could go home.

'Why do you need to go home?' Ms. Dorothy asked

'To change my pants.' Charlie responded.

'What's wrong with your pants?'

'Can't you see?'

Ms. Dorothy glanced at them and smiled. 'Oh they're just a little wet; they'll dry right out.'

'But everybody is going to tease me; they'll say: "Look at Charlie, he peed his pants!"'

Ms. Dorothy had a hard time keeping a straight face. 'Aw they don't look like you peed 'em; they look like you piddled in 'em.'

Charlie spent the rest of the period standing in front of the stove, oven door open, oven on high, in hopes that there would be enough heat to dry out his pants before next period.

Anyways, back to the pancakes and table manners. Charlie asked Don to toss him a pancake. Don responded similarly to the way JC did and frizbee'd a pancake to Charlie. The trouble was, Charlie had such a deep pool of syrup on his plate that the pancake splashed syrup all over the table and Charlie's shirt.

Don wasn't very popular with Charlie but then, he wasn't very popular with Ms. Dorothy either.

Yes, teasing Charlie was fun for the moment but JC and Gord have since had their regrets about all the abuse they heaped upon their classmate.

The Home-Ec room had some unwelcome residents that had moved in and proliferated during the ten years that the room had been there. Those little furry rodents got into the cupboards and cabinets leaving those little black seeds wherever they went. The girls from 11th Grade had their class in the morning just before the noon lunch break, with the uncouth ruffians coming in right after. Consequently, getting near lunchtime they (the girls) were getting hungry and thus looking for something to munch on. One of the girls happened upon a bag of macaroni which she opened and poured into a kettle along with water and set on the stove to boil. The others all chipped in and helped by preparing some cheese and adding just the right amount to make the traditional staple of macaroni and cheese, which they scarfed down as fast as they could.

Ms. Dorothy came in and could immediately tell that the girls had been up to something other than practicing sewing. Of course she asked them what they had cooked. The girls 'fessed right up and told her about the bag of macaroni. Well, Ms. Dorothy made a grimace and told the girls a story:

'I was going to throw that macaroni out. I saw that a hole had been gnawed through the bag and there were a bunch of mouse turds inside.'

She didn't have to say anything more. Let's just say that the girls suddenly lost their appetites...

I think it was the day the boys learned to cook pork and beans in such a way so as to remove the gaseous nature of the dish thus making it totally boring. They were seated at the table munching down the concoction when one of them glanced over to the cabinet under the sink. 'There's a mouse,' he said excitedly, and the whole table vacated, the boys grabbing any kind of bludgeouning device they could get their hands on and joining in the hunt.

The mouse scampered into the broom closet which unbeknown to it was a dead end. Rod opened the door exposing the poor mouse to the ten hunters. It barely made it to the linoleum floor when JC brought his cast iron skillet to bear and slammed it down on the prey. He lifted the pan up to reveal a bloody spot on the floor but no mouse. A close examination of the skillet showed that the carcass was stuck to the bottom.

Yes, he would later develop a method to kill mice by using ether which was somewhat less messy but maybe a little more dangerous. I might add that that story has already been covered in another entry in this blog.

Thus school wasn't all that terrible. There was always something to look back on and be able to laugh about. Interesting enough that JC and his friends now enjoy getting together to rehash some tales from the days when things were slower and simpler, friendships lasted for life, and that some of Ms. Dorothy's efforts to teach them some manners and culinary skills actually paid off.

TEST FLIGHT



Airplanes, like anything else mechanical, require maintenance to keep them in proper flying condition. In reality they don't need a whole lot more than the average family car does but let's just say that if airplanes were maintained the same as the average car, there would be a lot more of them falling out of the sky; it's a lot easier and safer to guide a car to a stop with a dead engine than it is an airplane. One could safely say that if cars were kept up the same way as airplanes they would be a lot more reliable and somewhat safer.

An airplane is required by law to be inspected and overhauled by qualified personnel at specific intervals. If those maintenance schedules are not followed, the pilot/owner can get into a lot of trouble, not to mention losing life and/or limb.

The various airforces throughout the world practice maintenance with military precision. Scheduled maintenance is performed to the letter and when the job is completed, all personnel involved with the work that was done are required to sign off (endorse) on it. Of course the only way to completely accomplish that is to test it under flying conditions. That means everyone involved climbs onboard for a test-flight and evaluation. I might add that it also tends to curtail sabotage should one of the maintenance personnel have a bone to pick with one of the regular flight crew.

Stew was in the Air Force for the duration of WWII and a little beyond. Although he was stationed at several different fields during his career, the type of aircraft he worked on the most was either the twin engined Avro Anson or the Cessna Crane with a dusting of deHavilland Gypsy Moth's thrown in for variety (that's another story). Stew's field of expertise was that of an aircraft electrician which meant that if it generated, used, or conducted electricity, Stew was the one who would be called to fix it. He found himself stuffed into the tightest of places, either an engine nacelle, under the dash, or down the fuselage chasing down a short or an open circuit, or else attempting to connect the wires to the terminals of a component that some engineeer hid behind something major and thus couldn't be reached by anything larger than a gnat.

Stew once told JC about such an incident where a generator failed on a radial engine on one of the Ansons and one of the other electricians removed it for repairs. Stew performed the actual repairs to the generator and handed it back. The electrician who removed it was rather small in stature but he discovered that reinstalling it was next to impossible as it was stuffed way up inside the engine cowling and one could either fit his hand in the opening, or the generator but not both--how he even got it out of there would forever be a mystery. Somehow the electrician managed to get the generator maneuvered into place and even properly secured to the gearcase but he still had to connect the wires to the terminals. He slid the eyes of the wires where they belonged but then the lock washers and securing nuts had to be attached and that's where everything fell apart.

He tried his best but failed; his sergeant tried but failed. With the two of them about to give up, the sergeant summoned Stew to see if he could manage. Stew came out, took a look at that tiny crevice then, without comment, smeared a bit of good old spit onto his index finger then pressed the first washer into the fleshy part of his fingertip. The washer sort of stuck there and Stew gingerly slid his hand up around the bulk of the generator and managed to set the washer onto the terminal. He followed with the nut. It took a great deal of effort but he was able to not only attach all the wires but also thread the weatherproof harness over them and finish the job.

Trainer planes got a lot of (more often than not) hard hours added up in a very short time. Consequently there came several times in the service life of an airplane when major work was needed. All jobs were broken down into intervals based on a specified number of flight hours. Different components needed attention at different times but there came the time when everything needed to be rebuilt at the same time; the engines, electrical components, radios, instruments, air frame and skin all came apart. The different components each got shuttled off to the various shops where the specialists quickly overhauled them.

This particular Anson went through such an excercise. The airplane was completely dismantled and the components stripped down, examined, evaluated, overhauled, put back together and certified. All components were reinstalled on the airplance where they awaited the final endorsement, the actual test flight. The job was completed in true, proficient, orderly, military manner, and in good time at that. Nothing was allowed to slip past, even with a trainer, because training aircraft often endured more abuse than those in combat--listening to JC recount his own experiences of his flying lessons gave testament to that. The job completed, the flight crew, and the maintenance crew wedged themselves on board and the tests began.

The engines were started and warmed up. Everything OK. The charging and lighting systems were all functioning properly, so Stew could relax a bit. The engines showed proper oil pressure and the mixture and throttle controls were funcitioning properly--so far, so good. One by one, the systems were checked off; the airplane was allowed to taxi, during which more checks and rechecks were performed, showing everything well within limits. Finally they were given clearance to take off.

The Anson left the ground and headed for the clouds. Further checks were conducted, all showing business as usual. The airplane flew straight and level, the elevators, ailerons and vertical stabilizer all doing what they were supposed to. The trim controls were also functioning the way they should. In fact the airplane was flying so well, the pilot decided to perform a climb at full power.

He firewalled the throttles and eased back on the column, guiding the aircraft upwards at twenty-plus degrees. The occupants all had to find something to hang onto to keep themselves from sliding towards the tail and possibly causing a sudden unbalance of the plane. All they could see ahead of them was sky.

There was no warning that something could be wrong; it happened so suddenly. A loud thump and a crash on the port side, accompanied by a ball of flame from the engine nacelle and the aircraft lurched to port. Those who saw anything caught a glimpse as the port-side prop and crankshaft exited the crankcase trailing a shower of debris and oil. Fortunately the pilot was experienced and immediately shut off the fuel to that engine while simultanteously bringing the Anson back to level flight.

Most twin-engine aircraft are designed to fly on one engine. They won't be able to take off but they can fly straight and level, and land with little difficulty. The trim tabs are designed to help the pilot hold the plane in control without too much strain. In this case the Anson flew with few problems other than having more than twice the normal number of passengers jammed into the fuselage like so many sardines. Luckily this incident occured over the vast prairies of Southwestern Alberta so all they had to do was head back to base and land--hoping that the wind wasn't blowing at gale force (common to the region) making landing with one engine very tricky.

Luck would be with them this day because they made it down in one piece, except the airplane, of course. An initial check proved that the front crankcase half, the part that bears all the thrust from the propeller, had given way (probably due to a tiny flaw that managed to escape detection despite the rigorous testing when the engine was apart) and the spinning prop just took off with the crankshaft and many other pieces, leaving a couple of cyliners and the gearcase attached to the airframe. Of course there was a complete investigation, part of which required a scavanging crew to be sent out along the flight path to retrieve the propeller, the crankshaft and all the pieces that came out with them.

That venerable Anson was once again restored to flight status and trained many more crews who would be deployed to the European Theater to man the likes of Wellington, Halifax and Lancaster bombers, amongst other heavy aircraft. Stew would remain in the Air Force until his discharge in 1946. He would then farm for a few years then move on to various jobs, eventually ending up as the setup man/delivery truck driver for the dealership where JC worked.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

UNCLE'S WORLD WAR II

When war broke out in Europe, many Canadians answered to the call and joined the ranks of volunteers that were headed for Europe. My Uncle Elwood felt the need to serve and headed for the Air Force. He took most of his training in Alberta but eventually found himself moved eastward from base to base until he, along with two thousand other soldiers boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth and shipped off to England.

He was assigned to RAF 408 Squadron where he was put to work as a navigator on Lancaster bombers. They flew night bombing raids, many of them ranging as far in as Berlin. Missions like those lasted over seven hours in duration and conditions were grueling at best. Sometimes they returned minus as many as thirty planes and crews, and once the loss was over fifty. Often assigned as Lead Navigator the twenty-six year old flight sergeant guided the crews to the target every time, only once making an error that allowed them to drift a mile off course. Fortunately he was able to make the corrections early enough so that they didn't lose any time.

Furloughs were few and far between but Elwood was able to take full advantage of his time away, even managing to meet and marry the woman he would have as his companion for over forty years.

On June 28, 1944 things would change for some time though. Elwood, now promoted to the commissioned rank of Flying Officer, was sent with his squadron to bomb Doodlebug (unmanned V-1 rocket) assembly/launching points and marshalling yards in the north of France. German resistance was heavy and a lucky burst from the cannons of an FW 190 fighter set off the incendiaries in the Lanc's bomb bay. In no time fire raged through the entire ship and the order was given to abandon the plane. All those who could bailed out.

They would find out later that the bombardier had perished in the plane as he was in the process of arming the bombs when they were hit.

Elwood made it safely down and landed in a field of barley. He had to lay low during the day and travel by night because the German patrols were intent on finding any survivors. He eventually made it to a farm where the farmer cautiously hid him in a shed. Elwood thought he would be turned over to the French underground and sent back to England but two days later, the shed door opened and there stood the farmer, along with two German soldiers.

Uncle Elwood spent the rest of the war as a POW in the far eastern reaches of Germany. His self-assigned job in camp was to keep the other prisoners in his barracks in line and try to keep morale up as despair could be overwhelming at times. He was allowed to send letters out but wasn't sure that they even reached their destinations for several months. However, his hope never faded. The Red Cross packages actually showed up with a lot more regularity than would've been expected and the prisoners were always glad when they did, as they always contained cigarettes which at that time were considered a necessity. They were also good for barter as the German guards found cigarettes in short supply and were eager to trade favors for smokes.

Elwood would remain a prisoner until hostilities ended in Europe in 1945. After approximately a year of incarceration the gates were opened and the prisoners were told they could leave. In reality the guards themselves were anxious to leave as they found out that the Russian army was making its way rapidly across Germany and they wanted to put as much distance between them and the Russians as possible. Needless to say, they kept up a fast pace.

By the end of that summer Elwood was reunited with his beloved Gabrielle who also introduced him to his firstborn son, whom he had no idea was even on the way at the time he was shot down.

All but one of Elwood's flight crew survived the crash and all of those, except Elwood, were able to make it back to England to eventually fight again. The bombardier never had a chance.

Elwood's contribution to the war may have been small compared to some, but in the time of war, the efforts of everyone were needed and appreciated no matter the size. He attended reunions of his squadron including numerous trips back to England over the next forty years. He often talked about how things had changed so quickly after the war was over. In as little as twenty years it was as if there had never been a base there at all.

408 Squadron and its flight crew members dwindled over the years with Elwood, whom I understand to be the last member of his crew, passing on in the summer of 2011 at the age of 93. I've found it rather unsettling that despite Uncle Elwood being a native of Southern Alberta and a veteran of WWII, I've never seen his name or picture on the special veterans' edition of the local newspaper but his family knows that he served with distinction and did his job to the fullest. And as I do each year at this time, I remember Flight Sergeant/Flying Officer Elwood W. Stringam and all those who served with him. And I thank them for the sacrifices they made.

LET US NEVER FORGET. TODAY IS REMEMBRANCE DAY/VETERANS' DAY. WE WILL ALWAYS BE INDEBTED TO THOSE WHO SERVED.




Tuesday, 16 October 2012

BARN RAISING

JC wasn't immune to helping out someone who needed help. Even if the task was more of a lost cause, he couldn't stand idly by and watch someone get himself into the glue. He had to pitch in. So when Edgar came up with the idea to resurrect an old barn, JC was there.

Sort of.

The barn was located a couple of miles south of Warner at an old homestead that was settled by who would later become Edgar's in-laws. In fact when the old folks passed away, Edgar's wife inherited that piece of land from the estate. There was also a sizeable house on the property but we won't get into that at this time.

This old barn was larger than was usually found on the average farmstead. It had to be at least sixty feet long by forty feet wide. Built back in the teens it could accomodate eight draft horses, complete with tack and maybe even provide enough room to park a carriage down the center. To say that it was well-built would be a gross understatement--at least when it was in its prime. Like so many buildings of the period it was built to last.

Unfortunately everything has a time limit.

The years of unrelenting prairie winds, blistering hot summers and biting cold winters had taken their toll on that old barn causing it to develop a noticeable lean--about twenty-five degrees--toward the east. Miraculously the roof was still straight and maybe that was the reason Edgar was so determined to salvage the place.

'I can have a contracting crew come over and reinforce the barn, tighten up the walls and the roof, a coat of paint and it will be as good as new.' Edgar declared.

Well, JC applauded Edgar's enthusiasm. But Edgar still had to get a crew together to get the behemoth pushed up straight. Then they would have to get some sturdy braces in place amongst other things so they would be ready for the contractors (Walt, the local handyman to be exact) a couple of weeks down the road.

JC had a better idea though. He suggested that Edgar buy the local fire department a case of whiskey--the standard fee the department charged for demolition duties--and have them practice fire drills. Like, set the building on fire, put it out, then light it again. After the building was completely reduced to ashes all Edgar had to do was dig a large hole, push the remains of the embers in, cover it up and build anew.

Now I might add that JC and Edgar, despite their families being friends for three generations, had some episodes of less than congenial feelings. There was a time when Edgar bought a new-fangled TV set with a remote control. His old dial-a-channel set was still in excellent condition and he sold it to JC who wasted no time getting it home and set up. Then came that fateful day when the new-fangled TV set broke down and had to be sent away to the repair shop. Edgar, being the TV addict he was, ended up dragging the old fifteen inch black and white portable TV, the one with the fuzzy, snowy picture, out of the attic and set it up.

It might have been during the Olympics or some other special event when JC was over for a visit. He strained his eyes for over an hour in an attempt to identify the blurred images as either playing basketball or sweeping snow off their individual doorsteps. Whatever the case, JC finally announced that he was headed home to watch the program in color.

Needless to say, Edgar wasn't impressed; he was even less impressed with JC's brainstorm about hiring the fire department. He might have even acted a little annoyed. No, quite annoyed would be a more accurate guess. The very suggestion of demolishing that stately symbol to the prairie farm life was an atrocity. Hell, with a couple of tractors and loaders, and a load of poles for braces, that crew could have that barn standing plumb in less time than it would take to drive to the city and back.

Yeah, I had a car like that too...

JC had access to a tractor and loader; he also had a big mouth for volunteering to help. Edgar had a tractor and loader of his own so they agreed to meet at the homestead early on Saturday morning to get started.

The job commenced at eight. The crew, consisting of JC, Edgar, Edgar's son, Gord, and grandson, Kelly got right to work. Two tractors a few feet apart, loaders raised and buckets tipped down as far as they could go in order to expose their smooth backs to the walls, gently began to push. Edgar led from the northeast corner pushing the wall a few inches and JC followed. Braces in place, Edgar backed away and maneuvered around to take up a position a few feet south of JC. They kept up the pace until they reached the south end of the barn then started over again.

About five in the afternoon the barn was actually standing straight, just as Edgar said it would; although anyone who participated in such madness had more than a few thoughts as to how much time it actually took. But JC had to admit that it looked pretty good sitting there in the afternoon sun; it showed some potential, finally being returned to it's stance of forty or so years ago. All it needed was for Walt to perform his magic and brace it up properly.

JC still had an uncertain feeling about it though but didn't feel like raining on Edgar's parade so he kept his mouth shut.

At least three weeks had gone by and still no sign of Walt. Walt had phoned Edgar, promising that he would be there as soon as he finished remodeling a house in town. And please don't give up on him.

It was early summer and we all know that summer brings one thing besides lots of sunshine and biting insects: Thunderstorms. There was quite a series of them that summer and there were some lightning displays that were far superior to the fireworks of the Calgary Stampede. Not a spectacular amount of rain fell but it was definitely better than none at all, but that wind sure picked up.

Now that old barn had endured a lot of wind from the west and the north over the years and probably would've stood proudly against either one for many years to come if it was still leaning at it's former position. It could've withstood wind from the west and north with the braces in place but there was one thing that was never considered:

What if the wind blew in from the east?

Oh, don't be silly; that's a lot of nonesense. The wind never blows from the east in this region.

One fateful Saturday night a thundershower blew in. The lightning was spectacular and the thunder was so intense it almost drowned out JC's mother's quilting party. The rain came down in sheets, giving the parched land a large drink of rejuvination, making everyone happy.

And then the wind switched to the east...

It came in gusts, fifteen to twenty knots at first then it intensified to forty to fifty knots. It might have even reached sixty before the storm moved on. The wind was strong enough to push the east wall of the barn away from its braces which readily fell down. It was even strong enough to push the building past center. After that it wasn't much effort at all; a mouse crossing the floor of the hayloft could've been enough to change things forever.

The barn tipped completely over toward the west and with a tremendous crash, collapsed to the ground in a cloud of ancient hay dust.

JC, was that just one case of whiskey for the fire department?

JC can't recall if the firemen were called in to finish the job or not but the barn eventually disappeared leaving no trace that such a building ever existed. And it even bothered JC a little to see it gone. Maybe Edgar was right. After all it was a piece of history that deserved a chance to be strong again.

Monday, 8 October 2012

CELLULOSE PARKADE

To say that times haven't changed a bit is somewhat short of reality. Afterall technology has advanced and new products and methods have cast a lot of good, fun things into the trash bin only to be remembered by those who were actually there. Halloween over the years, while still celebrated on October 31, doesn't have quite the pranks pulled that used to be commonplace. But that doesn't mean that pranks pulled nowadays are no longer noteworthy; it just means that some of them have advanced with the times.

Back in the days when our parents were teenagers, the neighbor's family outhouse was always a target for Halloween. The most common prank with that was to pick the outhouse up and set it on the ground just behind the hole. The pranksters would conceal themselves and wait for some unsuspecting person to scurry down the path and--. Well, before the victim could say it, he or she would be up to his/her knees in it. But then there was always the owner who would become wise to those unpleasant tricks and, armed with a shotgun full of rock salt, take up vigil inside the outhouse itself. Trouble with that was the pranksters would simply tip the outhouse over on its door leaving the owner to crawl out through one of the 'seats' and attempt to step over the pit in the process.

My mother laughingly recalled her neighbor, the victim, poking his head through one of the holes of his overturned privy. 'I can see you--I can see you! I'm gonna shoot!

Then there's the story where half a dozen ambitious types would work half the night to dismantle a wagon and reassemble it on top of the roof of the barn. There was a cartoon to that effect in a magazine a few years ago where a man stepped outside his house the morning after Halloween, looked around and declared: 'Halloween sure isn't what it used to be.' He hasn't seen it yet, but his car is perched on top of his roof.

Today's pranks can still rival those of yesterday. Some are downright ingenious in their planning and implementing and they can still bring about some good laughs despite all the effort in their execution. The following is one of those that, while the planning and execution was super quick, the result was one of the best.

Skinny, as his family and the community knew him, lived about eight miles east of town. Having his farmstead located only a stone's throw from the main road made his place a prime target every Halloween. But save for turning chickens loose in his car one time, the majority of the pranks were harmless and not much planning went into them. Skinny was also a good sport and not so old that he didn't remember some of the tricks he once pulled. But on the same token, he was justifiably concerned about what could happen as he had heard tales of some out and out vandalism that some some demented souls had rationalized to be tricks that had been inflicted elsewhere in the region.

Just don't let it get out of hand. Good advice, he thought as the day progressed.

He was taking advantage of the unseasonably mild weather to get some chores done. One of these was to finish hauling bales of straw in from the field and stack them in the yard. Back then the bales were the tradional size (less than 100 pounds) compared to the monster sized ones that are often seen today and could be handled easily by hand. Of course they were also easy for pranksters to carry around and be used to construct barricades and other obstacles to deal with the next morning. That could add up to a lot of extra work so that was the primary reason Skinny went to such effort to get the bales off the field and stacked at home so he could keep a better eye on them. The stack was completed by nightfall and after the rest of the chores were done and supper over with, Skinny and his wife settled in and braced themselves for the annual onslaught of Hallowe's Eve.

Strangely enough it turned out to be a very uneventful night. Nothing was stirring. Skinny's kids had gone into town to see what mischief they could get into there and some friends also stopped in for a visit but left an hour or so later to keep up vigil at their own place. Around midnight the kids came home and went to bed, afterwhich Skinny's wife followed suit.

Still nothing. Skinny went outside a couple of times and took a stroll around the farmyard. He was rather surprised not to find a thing out of place. He even felt a twinge of disappointment that his place was not the target of choice for the region's nocturnal activities. Convinced that his farmstead was no longer at the top of the list, he too went inside and turned in for the night.

The following morning Skinny got up and went down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. His wife was on the phone with one of the neighbors and from the snippets of conversation he overheard, he determined that the neighbors were the victims this year. From the sound of things, every piece of equipment the neighbor owned was now parked across his driveway. Of course the neighborly thing to do was to drive over and help put everything back into its proper place. Without a further word, Skinny reached for his jacket and headed outside to his pickup--truck...

What the hell..? His pickup was gone! Those little bastards had struck after all. And managed to do it right under his nose. He rushed back inside where his wife was concluding her phone conversation.

'My pickup's gone!'

'Your pickup's gone? What happened to it?'

'How the hell should I know? Those damned kids stole my pickup!'

'I'm sure they didn't steal it,' his wife tried to reassure him, 'they probably towed it across the yard and hid it in the wind break like they did with the tractor two years ago...'

Skinny hoped she was right. He bounded out the door and searched his place from one end to the other only to find his efforts in vain. His next to new pickup was gone--missing, stolen. Highly agitated by now he stormed back inside. 'It's gone! he said again as he reached for the phone.

'And you think it's been stolen,' his wife said then asked: 'Where did you leave it?'

'Well, I unloaded the bales off the wagon then parked the wagon over beside the baler where I always keep it--it's still there, I checked. I took the tractor over to the shop and parked it inside and I took the truck over to the seed cleaning plant to make sure everything was locked up and I drove back and left the truck right beside the straw--.'

He went back outside and looked at where he'd last seen his truck. It was right beside the stack--wait a minute. That stack doesn't look the same, he thought. I could've sworn that I'd made that stack a lot further from the driveway...

He sprinted for the straw stack and began tossing bales aside. As he began to pull down one end of the stack, the bales suddenly tumbled down in a heap revealing a cavity with the two headlights of his prized pickup truck peering out into the morning light. The perps must have worked through the night to do what they did; they moved half the stack over top of the truck. And they were careful not to damage it in any way. They had carefully arranged the bales in such a way as to make sturdy walls for the enclosure then placed timbers and heavy planks across the top upon which they arranged a layer of bales up to approximately the same height the stack originally was. From the house one would never suspect. And Skinny sure didn't.

And they say that Halloween isn't what it used to be. Well, maybe not quite.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

ROCKET MAN

Marty was always fascinated with speed and would go to great lengths to go as fast as he could. He found ways to make his bicycle go faster; to make the fastest soapbox racer; even the fastest sled. Competition was something he lusted for and that was probably the reason he raced during his younger years. And that was also the reason he chanced upon a new way to have the fastest go-kart.

Like so many of his other projects he built his go-cart practically from scratch. That was one of the things his father drilled into him all his life. 'You want it; you build it.' His father's choice words, and words that Marty would use on his own sons years down the road. This particular go-kart wasn't his first attempt, it was more like his fourth or fifth. But by this time he had the chassis design pretty much dialed in but he just couldn't seem to get enough speed out of the engine.

Well, he could get the speed; he just couldn't keep it there long enough to finish the race before the engine exploded in a cloud of smoke, bent cast iron, and hot oil.

One day while contemplating his situation, Marty's father, an Air Force veteran from World War II, was reminiscing about how they could get heavily laden airplanes to take off from remote, short and often muddy airstrips. 'We would attach as many as eight JATO bottles along the wings and even the rear fuselage, he said, 'we'd get the engines revved up to full power and as soon as we started to move, we'd set those things off. I'll tell you, we were either off the ground or else embedded into the jungle somewhere.'

Now, to the average person, a JATO (meaning Jet Assisted Take Off) bottle is a small portable rocket about four inches in diameter and two to three feet long. Two or more could be attached to the wings and/or the rear fuselage of an airplane and when lit, would provide a tremendous amount of thrust for about fifteen seconds, the approximate amount of time it would take to consume the fuel (and hopefully get airborne). After it was finished the pilot simply dropped the empty shell and continued the flight.

Needless to say, upon hearing his father talk about the benefits of those small propulsion devices, Marty made up his mind that a pair of JATO rockets was exactly what he needed to achieve maximum speed. Small and light, just attach a couple of rockets to the rear of the go-kart and no one would be able to touch him. He gave little thought that one of them alone was capable of launching an aircraft three times heavier than the family car. What the hell, it only runs for fifteen seconds anyways. What harm could happen in such a short time?

Yes, what could possibly happen? And we all remember when we were twelve years old...

Marty and his best friend headed for the local army surplus store and searched the bins until they came up with not one but four live JATO bottles, and only for a couple of bucks each. Of course back in the fifties the military wasn't quite as careful about the proper disposal of something as potentially dangerous as a small rocket pod. The two boys hauled their acquisitions home and immediately set about installing the bottles on the go-kart.

They first contemplated mounting two of them but Marty (or maybe it was his buddy) erred on the cautious side and decided to mount just one. If it didn't provide the desired boost, they would mount two of them for the next go-round. Despite his relatively young age, Marty was already a skilled welder and knowing what could be at stake, he fabricated a sturdy mount for the pod and even adjusted it so that the forward thrust would also apply some downward pressure to ensure some degree of control.

After all he wasn't building a flying machine...

It took the better part of a Saturday afternoon and they were ready to test it. The boys got the kart out onto the street and, after ensuring that the street was clear, Marty slid in behind the wheel and got ready for the test ride (flight?).

The fuse was popped and the boys were greeted with a cloud of smoke and a hissing/shrieking sound akin to that of one of those blaster fireworks that only spins around and shrieks; something like a child throwing a tantrum. But the sound very quickly became a roar and the kart began to move.

The kart picked up speed rapidly and turned into a streak as it shot down the road trailing a billowing cloud of whitish smoke. Marty felt his eyes water, his cheeks pulled back and his breath was nearly taken away from him as the houses and cars lining the street flew past in a blur. And he was still picking up speed.

A car pulled out in front of him but just managed to get out of the way, narrowly avoiding getting T-boned by Marty. He shot past the car on the wrong side of the street where he soon crested a rise and nearly rear-ended a delivery truck. Thanks to that little bit of foresight in designing a hint of down thrust he was able to skirt around the lumbering vehicle.

It would've been interesting to know what that truck driver was thinking when he saw a small go-kart flying past, a cloud of smoke in its wake.

The street ran straight for several blocks then made an abrupt turn to the right. The Kart ate that distance in what seemed like a nanosecond and there was still fuel to burn. Marty knew he couldn't make the corner so he gritted his teeth and held it straight; the kart shooting over the edge of the street and bouncing into the vacant lot beyond.

The tiny rocket engine wasn't finished yet and Marty couldn't do much more than hang on anyways. The lot dipped into a hollow, the end of which terminated in a steep upslope to the railroad tracks three to four hundred yards away. The kart was there probably before Marty fully realized that he'd even left the street, and shot over that embankment with sufficient speed to become completely airborne.

Somewhere over the railroad tracks, about twenty to thirty feet in the air, Marty and his beloved go-kart parted company. Marty knew he was in a bad way because in a very short time he would be headed downward and that sudden stop at the bottom could cause some serious injuries, not to mention the damage that would be done to the go-kart. But luckily for him, on the other side of the trestle was a sizeable slough and landing in it was definitely a lot better proposition than solid ground.

Marty hit the water with a gigantic splash and still hit the mucky bottom of the stagnant pool but not hard enough to hurt anything but his pride. He quickly bobbed to the surface and fought his way to shore.

The search was already well underway when this bedraggled creature, plastered with blue and black muck and showing some vague resemblance to Marty, or a cross between Marty and the creature from the black lagoon, showed up at the house. His parents had to all but steam clean him before he resembled anything presentable. But he was home, safe and sound, and that's about all anyone wanted.

A search was launched to find the go-kart but no trace of it was ever found. It probably got itself embedded into the depths of that swamp never to be seen again. That is, until the year 3127 when a team of archeologists excavate that spot and dig the kart out, thus proving that rocket-powered cars had been around for well over a millenium.

And Marty still wonders what could've happened if he had installed both rockets instead of just one.

Monday, 30 July 2012

DUCK HERDER

I have to begin with an apology. It's been over a month since I last posted a story and it isn't because I didn't want to or was simply getting lazy; it was just that July is traditionally a busy month and this year was no exception. With our graphics and photography business we've often found ourselves in the midst of marathon orders where we had to sneak away just to use the latrine. But we have to put up with it for a while yet because we hope that it will help us out in a few short years when we say good-bye to our day jobs and join the ranks of retired and leave the tired behind. So here is my latest post from my Coffee Row series and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

No one could say that Alfred wasn't impulsive. No one could say that he thought things out completely before acting on them either. One thing that you could really count on was that his temper was shorter than most and his logic was truly lacking. Nonetheless he was logical enough and shrewd enough to become a successful farmer and thus built up a substantial spread over the years. He was even lucky enough to be able to buy a few toys to play with when he wasn't neck-deep in farming.

Al loved to fly and like several younger farmers in the Milk River/Warner region during the early fifites he was able to enroll in flight school and obtain his pilot's license. Of course it would be a few years before he could actually afford to buy an airplane. But eventually that dream too, was realized by the late sixties.

He purchased a Cessna 180 tail-dragger; a four-person light airplane with a tail wheel instead of a nose gear such as the 182 model had. With his new-found freedom toy he was able to log a number of hours up in the wild blue yonder and even manage to take some lengthy trips. But for the most part he was confined to short trips around home and one could say that the majority of those weren't much more than a joyride. Still he enjoyed his airplane and at least was able to show his colleagues that he actually had an airplane to go with the license.

Harvest in 1975 went fairly well, at least until around the end of September when a damp weather system moved in and decided to stick around so that it could tease and torment the farmers who weren't lucky enough to get their crops off by that time. It wasn't cold and raining or snowing as the sun shone every day; what it consisted of was high humidity. One had to consider himself lucky if he could even begin thrashing before noon but by the time the centerline of the sun was on the horizon (in the aviation world that marks the official beginning of night), the material became so tough (that's farming lingo for damp) it started wadding up. When those moisture-laden slugs started hitting that combine's cylinder, you might have enough time to finish the round before the damp material plugged the machine solid; and no one enjoys unplugging a combine's cylinder.

Of course there are worse things than trying to remove a bunch of damp straw. JC's cousin was combining late one night, moving steadily down a medium swath when a loud 'Wham' shook the entire machine. It almost stalled the engine but the powerplant managed to regain its momentum and continue the job at hand. Just as Bryan was trying to figure out what he could possibly have ingested, the smell hit him.

And yes, a skunk can shut your operation down in a hurry too.

Back to the story: there was a number of farmers chasing small patches of late seeding, some working away until the end of October before they were finally able to call it a season. JC tells the story from his family farm when they chased just over a hundred acres of barley and finished it on Halloween; and that was only because the temperature had dropped to below freezing which kept things dry enough to finish the last few rounds even despite a skiff of snow that had moved in.

For Alfred his luck was about the same. He had all of his crop in the bin save for a pesky quarter section of late barley that just wouldn't ripen. And when it did, thrashing conditions were much less than desireable. He complained about some days he couldn't start threshing until two in the afternoon and he was forced to shut down at five. Maybe it was the frustration of having all that crop lying in windrows and not being able to do much about it that made him throw caution into the winds that day. Or was it just that he was going to show who was really running things around his farm. Whatever the excuse, he was about to embark on something that would inevitably force him to think a bit more before doing something completely stupid.

Waterfowl such as ducks and Canadian geese love barley. Geese don't seem to be as bad as ducks but they can still do a lot of damage to the crops. But geese are also a lot easier to deal with than ducks.
Find a flock of geese on your crop and all you need to do is fire a rifle over top of them and they're gone. But find a flock of ducks on your crop and you've got yourself a challenge. Ducks will fly in at dusk and stay all night. Fire a shotgun at them and they will fly up and away from the first swath only to land on the next swath. Install a bird scare cannon and you'll find them parked right in front of the device within a day.

The most effective way to deal with ducks is to be out there at dusk with a high-powered rifle and start shooting through the flock as they are flying in. The shriek of the bullet through the air scares them and is usually enough to convince them to fly over to the neighbor's place and raid his crop. I might add that you also have to be there again at dawn to scare off the ones that are just flying in for their breakfast cereal.

Well, there came that fateful morning when Alfred was having his first cup of coffee of the day and listening to the news. The first rays of light penetrated the predawn haze and he was able to gaze out and see his farm coming to life. But then the life he was seeing wasn't what he wanted at all.

His field of barley was blackened with ducks. They had flown in before sunrise and were well engaged in destroying what was left of the crop. Al let out an oath and charged out the door.

But he wasn't carrying a rifle. He headed straight for his hangar, slid the doors open and pushed his trusty airplane outside. He didn't even perform a proper preflight; he just hopped in, buckled up and checked his fuel gauges when he turned on the master switch before firing it up.

He wasted no time getting airborne. He clenched his teeth as he firewalled the throttle. "Sons of bitches, I'll show you who's in charge!" he muttered as his plane picked up speed. He was no sooner off the ground when he banked hard and brought the airplane right around and set a course for the field across the road.

He spotted a flock nestled next to the main road and flew low, even under the power line, straight for the ducks. The thunder of the engine and the drone of the propeller scared the ducks sufficiently to get them up and flying away. Alfred's confidence rising, he banked again and buzzed another flock a couple hundred yards away; they too, took flight never to return. Out to his left he spotted a rather large flock nestled at the base of a low knoll. Firewalling the throttle again he banked sharply and sped off to make yet another strafing run.

The wind was blowing in from the north at about fifteen knots. That was sufficient to keep the noise of the airplane from spooking the marauding fowls and they didn't even notice until that huge flying creature was right on top of them. Panicking ducks crashed into each other attempting to take flight and all was chaos on the ground.

But eventually they were airborne, setting a course for anywhere they needed to avoid being swallowed by that giant bird. Al was really beginning to enjoy this; buzzing ducks was a lot more fun than trying to scare them with a rifle. He continued on a northerly direction maintaining an altitude of maybe twenty feet, flying steadily toward the crest of that knoll.

Now we're really into that part about Al not completely thinking things through before taking action. He continued toward the crest of that knoll and then flew over it at full throttle. What he didn't know was that the motherlode of ducks had camped just over that same knoll. And they heard him coming. And they were already airborne by the time he crested that knoll.

Hitting a sparrow at over a hundred miles per hour could put a small dent in your airplane. Hitting a flock of them could put a whole bunch of small dents in your airplane. But hit a duck, and you've got a large dent to deal with. Now try to wallow through several hundred of them and you've got something that could threaten to make the Battle of Britain pale in comparison.

Al literally flew into a black wall; duck carcasses pummelled his airplane's wings, the engine cowling and control surfaces, the latter of which threatened to wrench the controls out of his hands. The windshield all but completely turned into a bloodied opaque spider web. The propeller was obviously bent as the engine developed a tremendous vibration and seemed to have little pull.

Alfred managed to bank away from the mass. Through a tiny corner of the windshield that was still clear enough to see through, he spotted a road allowance off to the side of the field. By applying full power and full left rudder, combined with a lot of coaxing of the ailerons to keep it level, he managed to steer his crippled airplane over in that direction and land it.

Upon getting out of his airplane, he discovered that the leading edge of the starboard (that would be the right side) wing had been pounded flat and driven back as much as eighteen inches in some places. One blade of his propeller was bent at right angles toward the back and about a foot from the tip. The other blade was twisted in its root to the full pitch setting.

It was a miracle he was able to set it down at all.

Alfred eventually completed his harvest. By the time he added all things up the ducks had caused somewhere in the neighborhood of $8,000.00 in damages to his crop and over $20,000.00 to his airplane. All in all it might have been a better idea to just use the rifle to get rid of the ducks.

You think?






Saturday, 23 June 2012

BLACK JACKET


One of JC's passions, in addition to old cars, airplanes, tractors, trucks and just about anything else mechanical (he even rode a mechanical bull more than once), was motorcyles. Just about anything with two wheels (one fore and one aft preferably) would qualify but his preferred ride in that category was a larger road bike. During his single years he put as many as sixteen thousand miles a year on his beloved Harley Davidson, riding to many different places like the heartland of the United States, both coasts, Sturgis, in South Dakota where the annual Black Hills Motorcycle Classic takes place, and even numerous day trips to East Glacier in Montana.

Yes, one could say that he was well-traveled and he loved his motorcycle and the circle of friends he had made while on two wheels but life sometimes has a way of diminishing some passions.

JC settled down and married and his new partner didn't share his passion for mechanical things, motorcycles included (or anything else for that he liked for that matter). Consequently that limited JC to the occasional day trip and even those became less frequent. So many times the bike simply languished in the garage, forlorn and almost forgotten.

JC's (then) wife wanted an RV, a recreational vehicle, or sometimes referred to as a travel trailer so they could see some country in style and camp every night in the warm heated comfort of that home away from home. She referred to it as roughing it although JC was a little bit cynical. 'Yeah, just turn on that electric blanket and sleep like a --teenager!

Well that term: sleeping like a baby, was an oxymoron according to JC as it was his experience that babies didn't sleep that well. However teenagers can sleep all night, throughout the next day and well into the afternoon, especially when they had work to do; they can sleep through a hurricane.

But that's a soapbox that JC will get up on in another story...

Anyways, JC and spouse looked at RVs/travel trailers and decided what they might want--more like she decided what they might want. Of course JC put up a brave argument against said trailer citing things like: they didn't need it, they had no place to store it, and the ultimate: we can't afford it. But after some choice words, coercion and outright demands, he finally softened up and said that he'd put his motorcycle up for sale. If it sold then they'd buy that trailer and go on those 'dream' vacations.

So, JC put his bike in the paper, listing it for what he thought was an outrageous price. Like, who in his right mind would pay $10,000.00 for a seventeen year old Harley Davidson Shovelhead with 72,000 miles on it? If the truth be known, he didn't want to sell it at all.

It sold practically the first night; JC was heartbroken!

Nonetheless they bought that RV then rented a site at Forty Mile Lake where, with the exception of three of those 'dream vacations' elsewhere, they parked the trailer for the summer.

Sure, it was a nice break. Take off after work on Friday night, get out to the lake in time to make supper, visit the neighbors around the campfire, then retreat into the quiet warmth of the trailer to read or watch TV...

Yeah, just turn on that electric blanket...

For three years they rented that spot at the lake, made nice, and happy, and all was well... That is until the day when the other half decided that she no longer wanted to be the other half; opting instead to add a prefix to the title to become the Ex-other half. In short she asked him for a divorce and JC, barely able to contain the thrill of hearing that, perpetrated said divorce and the two of them lived happily everafter--in their own separate worlds.

Did you know that prayers really are answered..?

Now I have to back up a bit here and say that JC didn't hold any animosity toward his ex; they had both made wrong decisions and there was only one thing they could do. And they did it. And to this day they are on speaking terms.

In short JC would joke that he sold his bike to buy an RV, then sold the RV to buy a divorce. In hindsight he'd rather have kept the bike and forgot about everything after that, especially the marriage and the RV.

They say that cannibals and sharks tend to avoid divorced people because of the bitter taste. Well, JC wasn't down on love, or even bitter over his major disaster; in fact he was optimistic that his permanent destiny was just around the corner. After all he'd just spent fifteen years in hell and thought he deserved a little bit of heaven. Of course he gave himself a year which was enough time to clear away the smoke before he put out his mugshot for all (available women) to see.

Enter Round Two and JC's best Better Half.

JC and Mattie met on the Internet and soon became quite an item. They married after less than a year of courtship but they were convinced that it was the right thing to do and they have been going strong ever since.

But even in the best of times there comes a longing for something that was lost somewhere in the past. For JC it was to be back in the wind, riding a motorcycle down a two-lane blacktop with a bunch of good people to a destination that only revealed itself when it was time to stop (hindsight reminded him that oftentimes finding a latrine was sufficient for a stop). Of course he'd settle for a brief ride just to remind himself of some happier times.

Now JC had sold his bike but he didn't sell any of his gear. He kept his saddlebags, his tool kit, his riding gloves, his helmets, even his rain suit (for all the good that would do him now). And yes, he kept his black leather riding jacket complete with all the zippers, traces of bug splatter, road grime and sweat.

While JC and Mattie were courting, Mattie invited him to a 50s dance in Calgary, an invitation that JC readily accepted despite the fact that he didn't have a clue how to dance. JC had just the right outfit to dazzle everyone else there; he had a white T-shirt that he rolled a small cardboard carton into one of the sleeves to give the impression that he had a pack of smokes (it seems to me that in reality that small carton contained Ex-lax or Imodium), blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, heavy black riding boots, bad-ass gloves (with the finger tips missing), Joe Cool sunglasses and of course, his black leather jacket (somewhat cleaned up by now). With his hair slicked back into a duck tail, he was ready to challenge even the Fonz.

Well, he must have done something right because he received the top greaser award.

And he still couldn't dance.

I might add that JC and Mattie attended another 50s party in Taber a year later where they were crowned the Top Greaser Couple. Maybe the others attending would've had a better chance if they had actually dressed up. Like, white T-shirt, blue jeans, poodle skirt (for her), red lipstick (ditto).

One of the couples did ride out from Taber on their Harley Davidson which served to rekindle that desire to go for a bike ride. But that ache would still have to go unsatisfied for two more years. There would be light at the end of the tunnel, however, and that would be through JC's new brother in law.

Harley Davidson Motorcyle Company started a Demo-Ride program where, on a certain date, anyone with a valid motorcycle operator's license was invited to the local dealership to test ride the latest models. JC heard the news and Mattie immediately marked the date on the calendar just in case JC forgot. And when that special day rolled around JC began to gather all his necessary equipment.

Heavy riding boots, gloves, Joe Cool sunglasses, jacket, helmet... Well, his usual helmet was more than a little worse for wear. It was a Bell stock car helmet that JC purchased back in '68. Once metallic red, it was now riddled with numerous scrapes and dings from falling off the bike and bouncing on the pavement more than a few times (JC hated wearing a helmet at any time and used it only when he was traveling in a region--like Alberta--where donning it was mandatory; otherwise said helmet was tied to his back packs). JC decided not to use that one, opting instead for the Cue Ball White patrolman's helmet that still had it's DOT sticker in place.

Mattie and Kammi had a good laugh over that one.

It was a chilly day so JC donned a sweatshirt that he'd picked up at the Harley shop in Pomona, California back in '91 but had not worn it since then as it was two sizes too big. Strangely enough it now fit him perfectly.

It must have shrunk while hanging in the closet. Clothes do that, you know...

He put on his boots, jacket, gloves and bandana then decided to bundle up to ensure that everything was in good enough shape to go for a bike ride. And that was when JC noticed that something was seriously wrong.

He went to zip up his jacket only to find that it now had a gap at least three inches wide in the front. There was no way he could pull that jacket in close enough to even hope to engage the zipper; he'd have to use a come-along winch.

The jacket had shrunk; that was all there was to it. Pay no nevermind to the fact that the waist on his pants had shrunk considerably too, and once when a 32 waist was just fine, it now took a 36 to make ends meet.

They were just making pants smaller these days. And what did I sat about that sweatshirt being too big, until recently?

Well, if the girls laughed at the helmet, you should've seen them this time. I'd have to say that comedienne, Jeannie Robertson said it best when she talked about laughing so hard her water broke, and she wasn't pregnant. The same could be said for the girls.

To make a long story short, JC attended the ride and rode a couple of new motorcycles. And he had the time of his life. But he had to resort to an extra bandana and his Stormrider denim jacket to complete his ensemble.

That jacket had to have shrunk; it used to fit him like a sack. But then, being a happier state of mind and thus more relaxed tends to contribute to the shrinkage of one's wardrobe.

Doesn't it?

Saturday, 16 June 2012

TO DAD

I'd like to dedicate this entry to dads everywhere and to my dad who has been  my inspiration throughout my life. I'm so lucky to have had a dad for so many years as there are some who haven't had that privilege. My son in law was only 31 when his dad passed away and that was too early for both of them.

Dad was immortalized by Mom as Max in her Delitta Belle stories published in the Canadian Hereford Digest and later in a collection of short stories entitled The Jingle Belle. I might add that Dad is also known as Max in my own Coffee Row series as I have chosen to carry on the tradition in honor of Mom.

Dad--Mark Stringam--was born in Glenwood, Alberta in April of 1925. The youngest of eleven children, Dad learned very early in life that if he wanted to eat he had to be the first one to the trough or he'd have to go without. He was often the victim of a job being dumped on him by one of his siblings but that also taught him a myriad of skills. In my lifetime I've never met anyone who could build fence, frame a building, shingle a roof, shoe a horse, treat sick animals, dig a trench, lay out a water line, herd cattle, and teach me how to tie a necktie; not to mention teaching me some particular surgical procedures at branding time.

My wife and kids think he's the most wonderful person they ever met. "Such a dear sweet old man," to paraphrase some of the comments. Of course I'm quick to point out that the man they now know has got to be an imposter as this can't be the same man I grew up with.

He was never the most patient man throughout my childhood years; if he was ready to go, he was ready to go. And the entire household knew that--many times. He'd give a wake-up call when it was time to get up, and that was followed by a second one a few minutes later. The next thing I would be aware of was the sound of leather clearing belt loops at the door to my room; I never failed to jump right out of bed and be dressed in double quick time.

He was a disciplinarian and mostly fair but there were times when he exacted justice before all the facts became known. There was the odd time when I felt the side of one of his Number Elevens on my backside or that third finger brain-duster on top of my head before he found out that I was innocent of the crime. Of course he didn't hesitate to apologize for getting out of line but also quickly added that the unwarranted discipline was for the times I got away with something.

And he was right...

Sometimes I thought of him as a taskmaster. So many times I came home from school, full of ideas of what I was going to do in the shop but only to find a list, outlining the chores that needed to be done that evening. Those loathsome tasks often kept me busy until nearly bedtime, however they got done and I was often stupid enough to ask if there was anything more.

There was always something more to do on the ranch...

But Dad was a loving husband and father. He would go out of his way to help out one of us kids. Maybe not always smiling but he would do it because he was--Dad!

Dad started to learn patience when Mom's health started to slip. The Parkinson's began to take its toll on Mom ten years before she passed away, and Dad was able to step in and take over, learning along the way. Sure, sometimes Dad had interests of his own, like building clocks or larger projects but Mom was his priority after us kids were on our own; the other things would have to wait.

The day finally came when the Lord called Mom home and Dad was there to kiss her goodbye before she passed through the veil. Dad misses her badly but he has his pet projects, and his kids and grandkids to keep in touch.

Through the years Dad has evolved from being the dutiful parent and bread winner to becoming friend and confidante as well. I meet with Dad for lunch at least once a week and we talk about everything from life in the old home town, to life on the ranch, to Mom, to what my siblings are up to, my own family life and even throwing in politics. I look forwards to our visits and dread the day when those will come to an end.

One day Dad will pass through that same veil that Mom went through. I'm sure he'll be glad to make that journey because he knows that Mom will be waiting on the other side. Of course I and others won't be so enthusiastic as we want him to stick around. But until then I want to spend as much time as we can together.

Dad, you've been a parent, teacher, taskmaster, disciplinarian, co-worker and friend but most of all, you've been Dad. You're an example to us all and you've taught me how to be a dad, and a granddad. and a friend. So on this special weekend we all wish you the best.

Happy Father's Day, and may there be many more...

Saturday, 2 June 2012

SHOWDOWN

One could safely say that JC wasn't a troublemaker at school. I tend to use this term loosely as he was a red-blooded boy who did boy things that often got on someone's nerves. But he knew who was in charge and tended to avoid trouble as much as possible by trying to obey the rules. Of course if he crossed the line there were consequences to pay.

But the discipline had to be just...

JC got his first taste of the strap in First Grade. The hardwood floors in the classroom had been polished to a brilliance and they were super slippery. That made skating/skidding in one's sock feet at high speeds down the aisles a whole lot of fun; that also made being drug down the aisle sliding on one's back while being pulled by the feet and wildly swung around at the end of the aisle a whole lot more fun.

Trouble was: Miss Warnoski didn't share the humor.

She came back after recess to find Kevin dragging JC around by the feet and put a stop to it once and for all. She had both perpetrators come up to the front of the class for a dose of that piece of black belting; one tap on each palm for first graders.

Now the strap didn't hurt all that much but what made it a deterrent was that it was done in front of the class; the public humiliation being the ultimate disciplinarian.

Enter Second Grade and Ms. Dorothy who was considerably older than Miss Warnoski but still in the twentieth century. Ms. Dorothy didn't use the strap all that much; she tended to hurl whatever was in her hand at the time at the perp. That could be chalk or a chalkboard eraser. There was an incident when JC was talking to Gord, or Lance, or both, when the teacher had her back turned. Ms. Dorothy whirled and fired an eraser directly at JC with markmanship that would put an army sniper to shame.

JC saw the projectile and ducked at the last minute, the brush sailing harmlessly over his head but scoring a direct hit on the face of Theresa, the innocent victim who sat behind.

Yes, there were some flaws in Ms. Dorothy's disciplinary actions.

Actually JC and Ms. Dorothy got along well. She was good to him as long as he behaved himself and did everything he was told. Well--his printing was horrible after many strong suggestions to do better and hasn't improved to this day.

JC's second grade class moved from the old 1917 vintage school house to the new fangled 1961 vintage school house on top of the hill, just before hostilities ended for the summer. It was quite an adventure to make that trek to the new school and all its fresh paint and shiny new desks.

The year ended too soon but JC and his gang of merry men were looking forward to the fall when they would return in the Third Grade. But they felt some trepidation about the teacher they would have.

Ms. Alice was a miserable hag. She bellered like an old bull; she belittled a student to the point of peeing himself/herself; she was not above using physical methods to invoke discipline which included slapping, pulling hair, pulling ears, or using the strap although the yardstick was her weapon of choice.

And she was OLD!

Like, she was so old that she was the technical advisor to the movie, The Ten Commandments. There is a cutaway of a giant redwood tree, at least twenty feet in diameter down in California that shows major historical and biblical events, each one indicated on one of the rings. There's a sign in the center that says: Ms. Alice planted this tree.

Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a trifle here but Ms. Alice was an old fossil of a teacher as seen by an eight year old. The only contribution she could possibly make to society was the inspiration of a name for a new subdivision in town: Boot Hill!

But she kep order; a drill sergeant could take lessons from her...

So now we come to the main part of the story:

On most days, right after lunch, Ms. Alice made all the kids stand and sing some lame song that included actions. JC hated action songs because they were so stupid and juvenile...

It's strange that people did more 'mature' versions of action songs later in life, such as the Chicken Dance, done at numerous weddings. More suggestive songs at college frat parties, or the time in the Lion's Den in Fort McMurray when four girls dragged JC and his friend, Kevin, up on stage to join in with them and the main singer in the performance of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

But that's another story reserved for another time...

One of the teacher's favorite--but definitely not one of JC's favorite--songs was the Pussy Willow song, the end of which required everyone to crouch down low then jump up and shout: SCAT! JC had participated in this song too many times so, being one the class clowns, he over did the actions.

Many of the kids saw him and laughed...

Did someone hear the theme from Dragnet?

Ms. Alice caught him and her discipline was to make JC do the song and actions by himself. She gave the order then hovered over him like a giant spider.

JC hesitated.

She repeated the order...

JC stood there.

Several minutes went by and she ordered him again with a tone of voice that all but cracked the windows.

JC's resolve might have started to crumble about that time and he was contemplating doing that embarrassing song just to get the whole thing over with when Ms. Alice did the unthinkable.

She swatted him across the back with the yardstick.

Now JC understood authority; he knew when he'd done wrong and that meant that he had to atone for his sins but he also knew about making the punishment suit the crime. And getting belted across the back with a yardstick denoted cruel and unusual punishment.

Of course you can't rule out the fact that JC was more than a little stubborn. His background was Swedish/American which was a mixture of Swedish, Scottish, English, Welso, Irish, Obstinacy, and Pig-headedness.

Well, Ms. Alice labeled JC with that ol' yardstick and JC simply made up his mind that he'd take dismemberment and death over doing that song solo; he was not going to sing it. The volley of orders and threats, combined with more lashes from that yardstick just strengthened his resolve. He stood there, gritted teeth and fists clenched as the minutes ticked by.

Ms. Alice was getting desparate so she switched tactics. "You sing that right now or you're going down to the principal's office!" More silence. "Sing it or start walking!"

Nothing...

The recess bell rang. It had taken from lunchtime to recess and still, the showdown continued.

A couple more swats. "You do what you're told!"

"Grrr..!"

Ms. Alice finally had enough. She dismissed the class for recess then grabbed the stubborn mule by the arm and proceeded to drag him out the door. JC simply let his legs buckle underneath him and went limp as an empty glove. Ms. Alice attempted to drag him for another ten feet or so but even something weighing only sixty-five pounds could be a tremendous load when one is forced to drag it along a tiled floor.

Totally exhausted, she finally gave up and stormed off to the staff room. JC let her disappear from sight then got to his feet, brushed himself off then sauntered back to the room where he seated himself back at his desk.

That's where they found him when recess was over. He was drawing a picture of a truck, or maybe a tractor, or even a motorcycle. Whatever the case he was completely unruffled and when the principal came to cart him off to the office for interrogation and sentencing, he closed his binder, left it on his desk and obediently followed.

A couple of taps on the palms of his hands with that piece of belting and the crime spree was over.

Final score: JC--one; Ms. Alice--zero.

Interesting enough, from that time on, Ms. Alice had to resort to more diplomatic means to get JC to do her bidding. When the school term was over, she promoted him to Fourth Grade, likely because there was no way she was going to put up with him for another term.

I understand that Ms. Alice taught for one more year then put in for retirement. No doubt that she was suddenly seized with the terrifying thought that JC would grow up some day and have kids of his own, and those kids just might be students of hers.

May God have mercy...

Saturday, 19 May 2012

PARTY LINE

Most of us who grew up in a rural district know all about the telephone party lines. They were no doubt the source of more scandals that all of the presidents and prime ministers combined. To those who don't know was a party line is, well, it's like having up to six extensions on your regular phone and when someone calls, there are up to six listeners; except they won't all be in your house. All calls were identified by the number of rings that could be a series of short ones, long ones or a combination of both. For example JC's family was issued two long rings for its number while the neighbors' consisted of two longs and a short. Better yet the next neighbor was a pair of longs and a pair of shorts which would tend to coincide with the words of a popular country comedian of forty years ago.

JC recalled a time about twenty years ago when his sister rented a farm house. She shared a party line with four other users, some (four in total) who tended to be rather nosy. Whenever Sis answered a call, there were always at least three distinct clicks indicating three other listeners. JC and Sis actually made a game out of it. He would phone, Sis would answer, and after the eavesdroppers were on line, JC would say something like: "We've got company." To which two or three of the more timid listeners would hang up. Then JC would pause for a moment and say: "We've still got one; is that you, Marlene?"

CLICK!!!  

 Norm was a successful farmer in the Canadian midwest; successful enough to indulge in a rather expensive pastime: flying. Although the primary use of his airplane was pleasure he often used it for business trips that were beyond a reasonable driving distance. Such that it was, he had planned a business trip down to Missoula one day and on the evening before the planned trip, his neighbor phoned.

"Say, Norm, I understand you're planning a trip down to Missoula tomorrow morning."

"Sure am. What's up?"

"I was wondering if you might be able to stop at the airport in Helena and pick up a shipment of dope for me? I got a real good deal there."

"Sure," Norm responded. "I've got to stop there on my way home anyways; I'll be glad to pick up your dope."

Now before I go any further, the term: Dope, while to the average person carries an illicit drug connotation, it means something totally different to an aviator. Older aircraft, a lot of home-built aircraft, and most of the ultra-lights are covered with fabric. Fabric is Grade A cotton which is stretched and wrapped over the ribs and framework of the aircraft. To get it to shrink and cling tightly, it is treated with dope.

Dope is usually laquer or varathane based and different formulas are used to do specific jobs. Clear dope is used to shrink the fabric and make it taut. Silver dope primer is used to waterproof it and that is followed by colored dope in the individual's choice of color.

That sounds innocent enough...

Norm's neighbor worked for some time as an aircraft maintenance engineer and after returning to the farm, kept his papers valid. Being an aviator himself, he enjoyed flying but he also liked to work on his own aircraft. He was in the process of recovering his small vintage Piper and innocently asked his neighbor, Norm, to do him a favor.

Norm and his twelve year old son departed early the next morning. Carefully following their flight plan, they crossed the border and reported to US Customs and Immigration at Havre. Cleared, they continued on their trip and made it to Missoula without incident.

It was a long day but business was concluded in good time. The stop at Helena, thanks to the prior arrangements by Norm's neighbor, was brief and they were able to make it back to the open prairie well before dark. Once again, according to the flight plan, Norm landed at the municipal airport where he was expected to clear Canadian Customs. Norm had done this at least a hundred times before and knew the procedure as well as anyone but when he approached the terminal, he was rather surprised to see several official looking cars, lights flashing, forming a gauntlet to the terminal itself. Somewhat perplexed he proceeded to the designated area, shut the engine down and removed his headset and seatbelt, instructing his son to do the same.

They opened the doors, deplaned and were instantly surrounded by officers of every description: RCMP, Canadian Customs, US Border Patrol and DEA. Norm wouldn't have been surprised if there were agents from BTAF, Interpol, CONTROL or KAOS present. Maybe even U.N.C.L.E. All officers had weapons exposed and were at the ready to use them if the need arose.

A lone Customs officer approached. "You are a citizen of what country?"

"Canada."

"How long were you out of the country?"

"All day."

"What was the purpose of your trip?"

"Mostly business."

"Are you bringing anything back with you?"

"Yes. I've picked up some personal items and I'm also bringing back sixteen gallons of dope.

Well, one would have thought that he's just confessed to a mass murder or something worse. But as soon as Norm uttered that one four-lettered word, officers, weapons drawn, converged upon the father and son team and forced them to assume the position up against the side of the aircraft afterwhich they suffered further indignities of being searched and put into handcuffs.

Norm was tired from the long day so his patience was wearing thin. "Look, I don't know what the hell is going on here, but I've got four cases of dope in the back; I didn't know the stuff was illegal! The invoices and clearance papers are in my flight case."

The airplane was thoroughly searched and Norm was caught legally importing sixteen gallons of dope, one case of clear, one case of silver primer and two cases of colored, into the country. Charges were not laid and a whole bunch of embarrassed officers apologized for the commotion. I might add that there was more than likely a red-faced dope back home who had eavesdropped on Norm's conversation the night before and alerted the authorities to the sinister plan.

Probably a black eye too if Norm was able to identify the culprit.

Maybe a footnote to the arresting officers and the nosy neighbor, a saying from JC's grandfather: Believe only half of what you see, and nothing of what you hear...

Saturday, 28 April 2012

ICE FISHING

One could say that Elmer, although mostly honest, could still display a bit of a crooked streak. That is to say, if he thought he could get away with it, he'd be inclined to try it. That combined with a reputation as a cheapskate made him one of the last persons one would want to do business with.

Elmer loved fishing. During the summer he was seldom home except to farm; taken instead to the various fishing holes and lakes in the region. During the winter he kept himself occupied with ice-fishing, something he looked forward to as much as casting during the rest of the year.

It was in the dead of winter and the region had been struck with a cold streak for going on to a good three weeks or so. Usually that meant that most of the lakes were frozen to a thickness sufficient to support the weight of nearly anything one put on it; and one would have to emphasize the most and nearly part.

A nice sunny Sunday with the temperature barely peeking above the zero mark, someone like Elmer would think that such a day would be best spent out on Tyrrel Lake. Bore a hole, drop in a line then relax and wait with a cup of hot coffee or stimulating beverage in one hand with the other poised and ready to go into action the moment a fish foolishly went for the bait. Elmer wasted no time getting his gear loaded into the bed of his pale green 3/4 ton pickup and drove over to the lake.

He got himself set up and things seemed okay for a while despite the fish being about as interested in taking the bait as Ho Chi Minh would be in attending a Christian revival meeting. The day wore on, the thermos was empty and Elmer's feet were getting cold. He finally decided that he'd had enough and that it was time to pack up and head for home. He quickly put away the gear and prepared to drive off the lake.

Just as he was about to open the door of the truck, he heard the unmistakeable crack of the ice underfoot. He took a step closer and heard a second crack that sort of told him that he was about to have a very bad day. A third crack was accompanied by a sensation of dropping that also told him that he should try to get himself off the ice and leave his truck behind. He'd only made it few steps before he heard the fourth one.

Actually it was more of a crash. He wasn't quite to shore when the ice gave way completely. A quick glance over his shoulder and he saw his one year old pickup disappear into the freezing water, leaving nothing but a gaping black hole with several floating cakes of ice along with his tackle box.

Well, he should thank his lucky stars that he made it to shore safely albeit with wet socks.

Home safe and sound.

The next item on his agenda was to retrieve his pickup from the murky waters of Tyrrel Lake. There was one major drawback to this though, and it wasn't just getting the truck out of the drink and drying it out. You see, Tyrrel Lake is a rather unpleasant place; it's better classed as an alkali bog than a lake.

JC once told the story about when he and his friend, Gord, tuned up the boat for the water skiing season. They took it to Tyrrel Lake because it was a convenient distance away and it was evening; Ridge Reservoir where they had their summertime water sports was another twenty miles away. Everything worked fine and the two boaters enjoyed downing a few cold beverages while chasing mud hens with the boat. However, when they got the boat home, they discovered that the boat's purple and white finish was closer to a foggy pink with an equally foggy beige trim; it took several hours of elbow grease and at least one gallon of vinegar to to get the boat presentable again.

Elmer knew that he was only at the threshold of his problems. There was a good chance that because of the alkali he'd be plagued with electrical problems until the end of the next century. Let's see, he thought, I was at the north end of the lake where no one was around to see the truck go in, and the towing crew and the divers are out of Lethbridge some forty miles away...

That's it! Get it the hell out of there as quickly and quietly as possible, get some stupid backyard mechanic (even one of the mechanics from the shop in town) to come out to the farm after supper, get it drained out and running again then trade it off. Everyone knew that the truck was well maintianed so there shouldn't be any problem getting rid of it before the news got out.

And as long as everyone kept his mouth shut...

Bright and early Monday morning, Elmer hired the salvage crew then got himself ready and drove the family car into town. He stopped at the local GM dealership and immediately struck up a conversation with Courtney, the GM sales manager, whom, I might add, would have no idea of the diabolical plot that was being hatched, as he lived in Raymond, some twenty-five miles away.

"You're looking for a new pickup?" Courtney asked rather incredulously. "I sold you a new one just last year."

"It just isn't heavy enough for my camper," Elmer answered almost truthfully. "And I've always regretted not having air-conditioning."

Courtney should've heard the alarms and seen the warning lights flash as Elmer was so damned cheap that when he bought the ill-fated truck the year before, he chafed at features such as power steering and brakes which came standard on even the most basic 3/4 ton truck. But he and Elmer took a walk out to the lot and looked at a couple of possibilities, one of them being a fully loaded camper special with that super-sized gas guzzler of an engine--and air-conditioning. Totally out of character for someone who squeezed a nickel till the beaver took a dump, or Jefferson's eye's popped out, depending on which side of the 49th you were on.

Back inside, the pencil and calculator came out and the bartering began. "Where's your truck?" Courtney asked reasonably, to which Elmer responded with something to the effect that his boy was using it for a couple of days.

More warnings should have sounded as Elmer wasn't the type to let his wife use it, let alone his son. But it must have been a slow period where Courtney needed the sale. He knew the general condition of the truck anyways but conferred with JC and the boys out in the shop who assured him that the truck had just been for some service work and that it was in tip-top shape.

The dealing got fast and furious and finally a deal was struck. It would take a day or so to get the new truck ready and Elmer truthfully said that it would take at least that long to finish up what he was doing anyways.

Yeah!

Courtney, always the tradional type who believed in sealing every deal with a handshake, stood up to offer the gesture and Elmer stood up to confirm.

Just then, Jimmy, another customer, who happened to pass by the office at that moment, stopped to say hello. He then noticed Elmer.

"Hey, Elmer, did they get your truck out of the lake yet?"

"Wha-wha-what are you talking about?" Courtney asked, his curiosity naturally aroused and those dormant warning lights going off like a Mardi Gras celebration.

...Later that day, Elmer's truck, now liberated from its watery parking place, was towed into the shop. It was first drained of all fluids, flushed and replenished, then began a week's worth of drying out and checking. In no time at all every piece of wiring, every light socket, every switch and printed circuit had become encrusted with a moldy green residue and had to be replaced.

Elmer drove that truck for many more years; with its reputation no dealership between the two oceans would even look at it as a trade. He and Courtney remained on speaking terms for just as many years but there was no doubt that hell would be covered with a much thicker layer of ice than what covered Tyrrel Lake on that fateful day before they would ever do business again.