When my old school pal Ray called me and suggested I go west I couldn’t refuse. He had been working as a cowboy on a large ranch in Southern Alberta and thought maybe I’d be interested. He thought right.
I was presently working my tail off for a riding stable and even with a free home I couldn’t make ends meet. So I figured if I was going to be poor in Ontario, I might as well be poor in Alberta. A few days later in January of 1970, I boarded a Greyhound bus for Lethbridge Alberta.
After almost three days on that bus I’d had enough. I looked at the map and seen where Medicine Hat was about the same distance as Lethbridge to my destination. I told the driver to toss off my bags and to direct me to the most run down, flea bag of a hotel in town. Ray didn’t have a telephone, but his wife Pat was a bookkeeper for the town of Foremost,Alberta, my destination.
I called Pat from the hotel lobby; if you can call a moldy hall, snowing paint chips and pictures held on the walls by cobwebs a lobby. I told her to have Ray pick me up. I couldn’t even find the name of the place but I said that Ray would know where to find me.
I was exhausted and fell to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow or sac or whatever that thing was.. Not sure how long I slept but I was jarred awake by Ray pounding on the door. This hotel was the first place he looked. He knew me well.
We picked up a bag of beer, you could buy’ beer to go’ in Alberta from any bar or hotel. They just tossed your takeout in a brown paper bag and you were off. Ray liked to look at you when he talked and that guy could talk. More than once we drove off the road . Ray wouldn’t miss a beat in his stories and would just wait for a break in the stubble fields where the ditch wasn’t to deep and swoosh back up onto the dirt prairie road spitting dust and gravel as we went. Believe it not, but over time, I actually got used to the off-roading and wouldn’t even bat an eye as Ray steered that old Rambler through its paces. Sure scared the hell out of many a hitchhiker though.
The ride to Rays home was about 60 miles or around 100 kilometers. Ray warned me not to toss out our empties because, while most unlikely, if we ran into some police ( Mounties) the penalty for littering was worse than drinking in the car. As long as we weren’t drunk we would be let go. Different times , they were.
Foremost had a population of 600 then, just a small prairie town 40 miles south of the Montana border. I never seen so much open space in my life. I was surprised when we pulled up to a small but neat two bedroom house. It was called a teachers home. The town would supply teachers with free housing but with Pat working for the town they qualified for one. That’s when Ray told me he got laid off from the ranch and was going to work for the town driving a grater on the prairie roads; he would start in the spring.
Nice to find out now, I thought. I wanted to cowboy, instead I met with the town mayor at the towns one and only bar , and was offered a job with the town, also starting in the spring.
I also learned that the bar owner Max had a very strict rule. If you fought in the bar you would be barred for six months. The locals were sure to “take it outside” if there were any trouble. So , just my luck this big guy, named Gerald , who was also the towns bike gang. He had long hair, rare in a cowboy town, beard, chain on his wallet, leather chaps, leather jacket, the whole nine yards. And, he had the only motorcycle in town, hence, the towns bike gang.
So Gerald had to strut his stuff , badmouthing me and spilling my beer, stuff like that, because , I was the new guy. After several hours of this I could sence the other guys, including Ray, wondering what I was going to do. Well, Gerald, was a big guy and “taking it outside” would have been my first trip to a Alberta hospital, which was in Bow Island, 40 miles away,(60 kilometers). I was left with no choice and let Gerald have it. A face full of fist, right on the nose. My father used to say that my little bony hands was like getting kicked by deer when I let loose. While Gerald went down, thank God, he took the whole table with him, something that didn’t sit well with Max at all. My first week on the prairie and already barred from the only watering hole around. Jeese.
I avoided Gerald for the next while , wasn’t that hard, just stepped inside a store whenever I heard that unmistakable rumble of a Harley, but I did run into Max one day. In a small town nobody wants to be a waiter in a bar. They go to Max’s to drink. So, Max says he’ll lift the ban if I work for him for the next six months until the job for the township opened up. So there I was, went to Alberta to cowboy and ended up slinging beer for cowboys. Really stunk. But, it seems I had a knack for balancing that tray loaded with beer and the tips were very good. Max, turned out to be a real fair boss. I could drink all I wanted as long as I stayed relatively sober and took care of his customers.
And the waiter had all the power in Max’s. I could cut a fellow off for any reason whatsoever. So now I had Gerald, who liked to drink, right by the short and curlies. And he knew it. Funny thing though, in the next few months him and I became good friends . We hunted, fished and would drive those prairie roads like mad men. Me in the “bitch seat” as Gerald called it. We stayed pals for the next three years until I left Alberta.
Finally spring came and Ray and I began working for the township. Gerald did too but was a week late because the radio in his grater wasn’t working and he had to drive into Lethbridge to get a new one. Said he couldn’t get stoned without a radio.
My craving for the cowboy life didn’t go away and so Ray and I started to ride rodeos on the week-ends. That,in itself is another story. So next week I’ll write about my rodeo experience and why Gerald would always say that I was a real crowd pleaser whenever I rode. And the Alberta crowd were out for blood.
Thanks for reading, Jack
Remember friends, keep the faith, it gets better, it always does.