Column

A family reunion that proves blood does run thicker than grasshoppers or hail

Allan Fotheringham July 23 1979
Column

A family reunion that proves blood does run thicker than grasshoppers or hail

Allan Fotheringham July 23 1979

A family reunion that proves blood does run thicker than grasshoppers or hail

Column

Allan Fotheringham

In mid-July, after a soaking rain, the thrusting grain waves green and strong across the flatlands 50 miles

south of Regina. In the hall at Rouleau, the three-piece band wears white shoes, red satin shirts and black vests. The occasion is a meeting of the glue that keeps this country together, the glue being the concentric circles of family strengths that bind and stick. It is a family reunion—pulling together three generations that were nurtured in the

navel of the country, the wheat belt of Saskatchewan, the prime example that blood does run thicker than water—or grasshoppers or hail or Depression relief lines.

Families’ ties are stronger than armies’ and fraternities’ and clubs’ and councils’ and parliaments’.

Forged through the ineluctable experience of Saskatchewan in the dirty ’30s, they stick like warts.

This reunion—42 grandchildren eligible, 55 greatgrandchildren—is what is left of the heritage of John

E. Clarke. Born Sept. 21,

1880. Died 1956. His seed is sprinkled across the land.

There is Dora, born 1906. Then Irene, Edna, then a daughter who died, then Leslie, Ruby, Jack, Lloyd, Harvey, Dick, Jim and finally Dale, who was born in 1931. Mary Ethel Clarke, born July 12, 1885, died 1964, raised children for 40 years on her husband’s farm outside Hearne, southwest of Rouleau. The Cactus Hills are to the west, the Dirt Hills to the south, the Big Muddy Badlands next to the North Dakota border. There was, on the Clarke farm 40 years ago, a windmill that drew water from a well for the horse trough—nearly a half-century before this energy-panicky world has decided that harnessing the wind may be one of the solutions after all.

There are, in the preliminary layer, sons and daughters from Georgia, Ottawa, Prince George, B.C. There are farmers still on the original soil, optometrists, nurses, teachers, artists. On the second layer—their children—there are engineers, veterinarians, RCMP officers, school superintendents, social workers, dental assistants. The final layer down

there are personnel officers and students and babes—all victims of the cultural stickum to the sources.

There was, on one side, the Webbs, from Bromyard, Herefordshire, supposedly related to the Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice, of Fabian socialist fame. James Webb, one of the first settlers in Saskatchewan, lived in a sod house just west of Rouleau when the tall, untamed prairie grass was such a threat that uncontrollable fires swept through it. He plowed the open prairie with a team of oxen. Today, I note with great surprise

and delight, his heirs sit in $40,000 tractors and listen—their CB rigs on holdin air-conditioned comfort to Don Harron residing in a CBC studio in Toronto.

The Clarkes have that square, stubborn face that reveals they are from Northern Ireland. Surviving a shipwreck off Newfoundland, they made it to the Ottawa Valley, then homesteading in Saskatchewan. John Clarke came from a family of 15. He arrived in Rouleau in 1898, went into the livery business, was a councillor for the first municipality (his province until 1905 was still part of the Northwest Territories). He was a longtime reeve, a manager of soccer, baseball and hockey clubs (Ken Doherty went on to the Maple Leafs), a chairman of the school board. Ethel Clarke was a pillar of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. John Clarke and his seven sons, on special occasions, had a bottle of rye in the barn. It never got farther than the barn. The WCTU ruled the house.

There is, on this reunion weekend, a pilgrimage to a Sunday afternoon picnic nestled beneath ground-level heat in a leafy ravine outside Avonlea. It was Avonlea that spawned the famous four Campbell curling brothers, 10 times winners of the Brier. The pickles, as always, predominate. There are three 25-pound roasts of beef, barbecued in two bisected oil drums. The recipe is simple: add lemons, 12 onions, 20 bay leaves, 30 cloves, two gallons water, one

gallon wine, 60 peppercorns, 10 tablespoons sugar, 10 of salt, four teaspoons ginger, smoke chips. Plus an acre of pickles.

It is, as it happens, a full moon. The banjo comes out, and the guitar, then the saxophone. Wheyfaced six-year-olds, exhausted from dancing till midnight the evening before with adults who do not deprive children of adult fun, collapse facedown on blankets beneath the trees. The farm wives, greeting or departing, kiss you full on the lips in contrast to the tentative city custom of nervous sidelong swipes at the cheek.

The moon rises, the saxophone wails.

It is not quite the same as Depression days when the stud-hero of the oneroom schoolhouse wheeled his pinto stallion into the barn, as much the BMOC as today’s greaser with his muscle car peeling rubber. It’s hard to imagine anyone now spending his recess time snaring gophers by the neck from their drowned-out burrows.

The heirs of John Clarke, while their wheat goes to China, Bangladesh and beyond, drive enormous machines that seem like moon vehicles—giant campers, mobile homes, gigantic ambulatory homes which take them to Florida to flee the dreary winter. They have, with their prosperity, insulated themselves from their past which may seem romantic to us but is merely a nuisance to them. It was character building, in that there was a lot of banjo playing, but no one would offer to duplicate the experience.

I have some small personal interest in John E. Clarke. He was my grandfather.