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OPINION: I should have talked less and listened more to grandpa

When Reg Clarke died in 1998, the father of seven left his family a tremendous gift.
William Stewart was a proud Scottish-Canadian who fought during the Great War. Submitted Photo

When Reg Clarke died in 1998, the father of seven left his family a tremendous gift.

Towards the end of his life, Clarke sat down and typed out a 200-plus page memoir of his years growing up in Sarnia during the Great Depression, his war service (some of that story is told in The Journal's 5th annual Sarnia Remembers edition, coming this week), and his later experiences when sailors, soldiers and airmen returned to help build the Imperial City and Chemical Valley.

He was a very observant man, and his tales are invaluable in capturing the flavour of the time. And he certainly had an interesting war.

Reg Clarke’s story is one of the countless millions that should encapsulate our collective memory of a time that’s fast fading into obscurity. And it made me wish I’d done less talking and more listening to my own grandfather, William Stewart.

My mother’s dad lived until I was in my late thirties. I loved the old guy, and visited him in Hamilton as often as I could.

He liked to sit at his kitchen table with me, and always had the same welcome: “Hi Phil! Want a shot?” He’d pull out a bottle of rye, pour two glasses neat, and we’d sit and chat and visit.

Grandpa was an outwardly gentle man but I knew he was tougher than he looked. He’d been a guard at the Hamilton Jail, and told me tales of preparing condemned men for the gallows, and of train trips with prisoners shackled to him bound for the big prison at Kingston.

He fought in the First World at Ypres, (he called it Wipers), and at the Somme, where he lost his twin brother.

At Vimy Ridge, he fought wearing an army-issued Maple Leaf ring that bears the word “Canada.” He wore it always, and I wear it today in his memory.

He told me of sailing into Halifax after returning from the front, and finding the city still burning from the Halifax Explosion, 103 years ago.

My grandfather took an entire ocean of memories to the grave. What a treasure it would be today to have his own version of Reg Clarke’s memoirs.

If not an entire book, we all have stories worth recounting and passing down to future generations.

Let’s record those memories now, to help inform future generations, and to honour their lives and sacrifices.

Phil Egan is editor-in-chief of the Sarnia Historical Society. Got an interesting tale? Contact him at [email protected]

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