While wasting time scrolling through Facebook and thinking about finishing a blog post on our time at Carriacou Animal Hospital, I came across an event I am sorry I will miss, the Best of White Buffalo Storytelling. Inspired by the infamous Moth storytelling group in New York, a group of people in my hometown are reviving the art of storytelling, West Kootenay style! Three separate events were held this winter inviting people to come together for a cosy evening of storytelling. All stories had to be short, true and delivered from the heart. In November, just days before leaving on this adventure, I decided to give it a try. The theme for the evening was “War and Peace”. Kind of a heavy theme but I decided it was time to step outside my comfort zone, bare my soul and share a story about my past which was very personal, a little dark and not easy to tell. Despite being surrounded by friends and my community, I was nervous. I managed to tell my story and by the end, the room was unnaturally quiet or perhaps it just seemed quiet in contrast to the sound of my own pulse reverberating in my skull from my high level of anxiety! I was surprised and also thrilled to learn I was picked as one of the storytellers to share a tale at the final event, The Best of the White Buffalo. As we are still on the road, I will not be able to attend the event but I thought I would share my story here instead.
I am a sensitive person and wear my emotions on my sleeve, just ask anyone who knows me. For a long time it was embarrassing, how easily I can cry and often over the silliest things. At the same time, I have an tough exterior, I get shit done, have the pain tolerance of a rhino and can push myself harder than what is considered healthy by most people. While my family likes to tease me about this, I’ve learned to accept, if not embrace, my soft and squishy center. I have never thought of myself as a storyteller, but after my first White Buffalo event, I want to do it again. Telling a story is a bit like writing this blog and at times, the whole thing feels a bit narcissistic. Who really cares, Elaine? Just do your shit, enjoy your life, no one really wants to hear your stories or weird insights on life. But still, there is something about storytelling that I enjoy and I want to become better at it. The act of telling a story entertains us, connects us with our past and hopefully makes us feel a little less alone as we struggle through our imperfect lives. The theme for the Best of the White Buffalo is “Family” and this is a true story from my childhoood (at least as true as my memory recalls). Hope you like it!
I grew up on a working family farm in Alberta. Key word here is working. No organic kale, cute little goats and free range chickens, that people today might call farming (please note, I mean no offence if you grow kale, goats and free range chickens, this is a story about MY childhood folks and sometimes you have to take creative license). Our farm was located in prime, black dirt Central Alberta land. My 3 siblings and I were raised to work hard, play hard and if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing right!
Growing up in Alberta in the 70’s, like many farm families, we had an outhouse. Smelly in the summer and frosty in the winter, it was situated a short dash from the house and mostly used for emergencies, like when dad was enjoying a morning cigarette and sit and you just could not WAIT! I believe it was built back in the 60’s when my parents, freshly married and building a house of their own, constructed the outhouse as a necessity, until the plumbing was done. The outhouse survived into my teens by which time it was pretty much condemned. With a rotting floor, precariously tilted platform to rest your bottom and 20 years of buildup below, you were taking a pretty big risk if you went in! And so it sat, for many years, sadly neglected and a relic of days gone by.
Every season on a family farm has an associated chore, winter was calving, spring was seading, summer haying and fall harvest. Obviously, this over simplifies things as there are many other chores required to meet the farms main objectives of growing grain and beef. Our farm never employed hired hands, a family farm was worked by the family. As kids our summers were spent working on the farm, with occasional breaks for camping and fishing trips. We drove tractors, baled hay, built miles of fences and shelled wheel barrow loads of peas. We worked hard because, well, that’s what we were taught and while I cannot speak for my siblings, also because I wanted my father’s approval and was more than a little terrified of him.
As the farm prospered, my dad was able to slowly replace the old wooden graineries, with shiny new steel bins. These silver, space age storage units were a sign of a successful farmer on the prairies. To us kids, they were a welcome addition, as the circular steel bins, with no corners and crooks to capture the grain, were much easier to clean and less attractive to mice, than the dusty old wooden graineries. One summer when I was around 14, we tore down many of those old wooden grain bins as well as miles of old corral fences, that had been replaced to expand the feedlot. As the hot days of summer progressed, nails were pulled out of the old wood, in order to prevent flat tires (and punctured gum boots which would then require the use of bread bags to keep your feet dry) and the the pile of old wood grew.
Late summer arrived and with it harvest, filling those shiny new bins with golden barley and red-brown canola. For me, this was always the most stressful time of year. A season where the entire years work could all be lost due to mother nature’s fickle temperament. The pressure to get the grain into bins, while the temperature was right and the weather was holding, created stress and with it tempers ready to boil over at the slightest provocation. At this time of year, I never seemed to move fast enough, asked too many stupid questions and was usually in the wrong spot when it came time to meet the combine and collect a load of grain. I longed for harvest to end, the days to shorten, and the first hard frost to cover the ground.
The arrival of fall, meant not only a reduction in the chores that I wasn’t very good at but also going back to school, something I was good at. It meant the weather was finally right for a bonfire. One weekend afternoon, Dad decided it was time to light up the old grainery wood we had piled behind the quonset, but a few final preparations were still needed. He started up the old John Deere 60 and proceeded to tip over the old outhouse, attach a chain and drag it towards the wood pile. Somehow, the rotten old shitter managed to remain intact and was piled atop the massive stack of wood, laying on it’s side, with bottom end tilted slightly upwards, towards the sky. The four of us kids waited in anticipation. This was gonna be good. There was a lot of old dry wood waiting to burn and this was going to be the best bonfire EVER! Then Dad yelled at us to go find a jug, fill it with diesel fuel and bring it over. “And hurry up, we haven’t got all day”. Like most farms, we had two big fuel tanks, one diesel and one gas, side by side in the yard. We’d been taught the difference between these fuels, knew which vehicles used gas and which ones used diesel and we knew diesel was the safe choice to get a fire going. As we searched around for an old gallon jug, Dad decided the kids were too slow and muttered, “Never mind, I’ll get it myself”. Full jug in hand he returned to the pile and proceeded to liberally soak the wood in fuel. This wasn’t a quick or an easy job, as we’d worked hard that summer and created quite a massive stack of garbage wood. Dad climbed up the pile, pouring fuel as he went until he reached the top where, like a hillbilly wedding cake topper, sat the old outhouse. Perched on the top of the pile, in a direct line with the end of the outhouse, Dad through threw the last of the fuel into it and paused at the open end of the shitter. Time slowed down and like a scene from a movie, the match was struck and in one fluid motion, was thrown into the end of that old outhouse. We all watched, slack jawed and in shock as in the next moment, Dad was shot out from the open end of that old outhouse, like a stuntman from a cannon. In that split second, my siblings and I looked at each other. We all realized he’d accidentally filled the jug with gasoline and in that same split second I knew my siblings were thinking the same thing as me… thank god I didn’t fill that jug.
If you happen to be in Trail, BC on April 27, 2018, get a ticket to the Best of White Buffalo Storytelling at the Muriel Griffiths Room, Charles Bailey Theatre and help keep the art of storytelling alive!