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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesGuests of the house - a John Dunn story

Guests of the house – a John Dunn story

by John DunnJohn Dunn 2005

Boys are inclined to take after their father, in his occupation, his interests, his manner of dealing with circumstances of the day. Orville  Clement did likewise in many respects, except one. His father was the master builder, Perry Clement, christened Edward Parnell, after the great Irish patriot. Perry’s schooling went as far a high school entrance, and he then set out on his life’s work, beginning an apprenticeship with Mr. Wm. Wilson, the contractor who built the Rosamond No. 1 Mill. “After one year, I was ready to go out contracting on my own.” said he.

Perry’s workshop was often the great outdoors at the side of the house between his house and the Registry Office, and a unique opportunity for Orville to gain insights into the handling of wood for human habitations. Perry had a left-handed handsaw, a left-handed hammer, and a long jointing plane that took its impetus from the left hand as well. He had no teacher to thwart his inclination to want to use the left hand. Orville became adept at using tools also, but his inclination was for the right hand.

And since in that great outdoors at the front of the house offered a view of the Mississippi River at the back of the Anglican Church, it seemed only fate at work that prompted young Orville to carve out his own niche with an ironwood gad, debarked, and skinned to a shiny white.
The gad, with a hook and a worm on the hook, made a right-handed fishing rod.

Orville had one unique advantage in getting a start on an interesting life in the early 1920’s: The Clement house next door to the Registry Office was located in a rudimentary peninsula. All forms of life on the peninsula, bounded by the Mississippi River on the one side and Jimmy
Moreau’s creek on the other, came under the scrutiny of the black-tailed iron rooster above the ridge of the Anglican church. Hundreds of interesting places lay for a child to discover other living creatures, both those that live in the water as well as those that prefer the land.

Garvin’s wharf lay at the river’s edge next door to the Anglican church. Orville became a river pilot at an early age, guiding his raft down from the mouth of Jimmy Moreau’s creek to Garvin’s Wharf. The Canadian Mississippi held lizards, frogs, and that wondrous creature which looked
like a lobster, with many legs, and claws, and could move backwards or forwards with equal skill. Orville learned it was a crayfish.When Peter Robinson in his office as “Superintendent of Emigration from the South of Ireland” brought his band of Emigrants, 586 in number, upriver from Quebec to Montreal, and then on to Prescott, he left the water route to go overland to his target destination. In his report he states:

“At Prescott I engaged Waggons to take the Emigrants cross-country a distance of sixty miles to a place on the Mississippi with a falls.”

Orville began in the usual way of youngsters near a falls: he became a fisherman.

Fishing, as we learn by experience, is both an art and a science. Fishermen are not born that way: they are products of their environment.. There must be fish in the river, thought young Orville, because minnows grow into fish, and he could see them in the water at the front bridge. Rock bass, and sunfish, and now and then, a black bass. But what use were they? Black bass, he was told, were wonderfully tasty at noon hour on Fridays. But you couldn’t say the same for rock bass and sunfish. “They’re no use at all,” older fishermen said. “Nobody keeps a rock bass. Black bass make good eating, but rock bass and sunfish, a Chinaman might be able to do something with them, but a white man wouldn’t even bother.”

“A Chinaman.” Those words singled out one man in Almonte, the Chinaman who had a Chinese hand laundry on Little Bridge Street in the shadow of the post office clock. Dr. Kelly, who lived close by, and other professional men, wore white shirts with detachable collars, stiff  collars that needed the brass collar studs to hold them in place. Their shirts and collars went to the Chinese Hand Laundry and a ticket given back with Chinese characters brushed on it.

By age six, like his father before him, Orville ventured to go out contracting on his own. He caught two rock bass at the front bridge, and with a younger companion went to test the Chinese waters for opportunities for independent-minded businessmen. They entered the den on Little Bridge Street, approached the counter, and asked, “You like some fish?” An outline, inscrutable as the quiver on the face of a cat before a dish of milk, creased the face of Almonte’s only Oriental. He reached out, accepted two rock bass from the fishmonger, and pressed two big pennies into the six-year old’s hand. A bargain sealed. The notion of charity caught in Orville’s gill: the Golden Rule has rewards. Do unto others as you would like to have them do for you. If the Chinaman could use the rock bass and sunfish, Orville could use pennies.

Alas, and alack, economic variants enter this picture. Almonte Town Council in 1929 undertook a massive overhaul of the town’s infrastructure. They let a contract to Mahoney Construction of Ottawa for installation of a complete water supply and sewage disposal system, including storage tank at the top of Irishtown, pump houses with pumps installed at selected locations throughout the town, and distribution lines in trenches blasted out of limestone on which the town was built,
and hydrants for firemen to hook hoses to in the event of fire. All for $25,000!

Water from artesian wells was great for drinking, but awful for washing. Besides, some Occidental devil had invented a shirt with collar attached. The devil himself. The Chinese hand laundry dried up in a flood of hard water. The Great Depression struck the world just at the time of the start of the waterworks project, and the horrible economic slump known to history as The Great Depression of the 1930’s got steadily worse. Business failures multiplied. Cash money almost
disappeared. Almonte’s only Oriental disappeared, without a trace. No one knew where. He simply disappeared. The same downturn in the economy affected Orville’s fishmongering too — he had to start to school.

Sixty years later, Orville and Doris found life had slowed them down somewhat. A severe car accident resulted in broken bones for Orville, and recovery came only after long and painful months. When it did, he and Doris went West on a holiday, all the way, from the Ottawa Valley to the Pacific at Vancouver. All through his years as a millwright, Orville had faced deadlines for machinery installations up and down the Valley, wherever mills had been set up along the falls of the rivers, and now was the chance to take the train to the West, the very same train that ran through Almonte, the main line of the CPR, the transcontinental route, Montreal to Vancouver.

Heavens, they discovered, this Canada is a big country. Can you imagine the limitless sky of the prairie on an evening in September, harvest moon riding thousands of miles up overhead in a blue sky? And everywhere along the route they ran into big people, people with bigger hearts than hands, extended out in welcome to neighbours from the Valley.

They arrived in Vancouver, the jewel of the West Coast, Canada’s eye on the Pacific. And they stayed at a good hotel downtown in order to enjoy the sights. Stanley Park, they’d heard of it, but nothing in words could ever give Orville a notion of the majestic sweeping height of the
Douglas fir until he saw the towering giants in Stanley Park. Those tales of forest giants, Orville realized, of a sudden weren’t fairy tales at all, they were true.

They crossed the gorge on Lion’s Gate Bridge. They walked down Granville Street from the ‘Bay’. They stared at the front of the CPR station, standing with one foot in the Pacific, the other on the threshold of the Rocky Mountains. And standing there, they marveled at the mountains behind them. Think of it, a fella could drop a fishing rod into the Pacific, knowing that, a couple of weeks ago, the same water might have washed the shore of Asia at Hong Kong or Shanghai, or the Japanese Islands, and had been driven by waves all the way, thousands of miles until the waves washed in this spacious, beautiful arm of the sea.

Orville wondered at men who had traveled on the CPR to Vancouver to go aboard ship and sail away to the Orient. Father Fraser from the China Mission College had been to China before he came to Almonte, and he brought with him a young Chinese man to be trained for the  priesthood, Paul Kam. After ordination Paul had returned to bring the Faith to the pagans of his native land, and, had probably suffered the fate of martyrs for the Faith in a Chinese prison. There had been St. Francis Xavier, one of the founding few of the Jesuits, who had brought the Faith to the Orient centuries before.

“You must be getting hungry with all this tramping about,” said Doris. “Have you any thoughts about a place to eat?”Orville had not. His eyes were overflowing with the sights of Vancouver in the sunlight. “Let’s go back to the hotel and we can decide there. We leave Vancouver tomorrow to get back to the Valley, and I don’t want to miss anything.”

“No rush,” said Doris. “By the way, how far is it from here to Almonte?” “Twenty-five hundred miles,” thought Orville. “But with so many Chinese people on the streets in Vancouver, it seems as if we’ve come to some city in China itself.” “It’s quite a lot different,” said Doris,

At the hotel they readied themselves for dinner, and simply went to the hotel dining room. An elderly Chinese gentleman waited by the maitre d’s desk. Orville and Doris waited too. The maitre d’ brought them to a table by a window. They were still studying the menu when the Chinese gentleman who had been standing by the maitre d’s desk interrupted them.

“S’cuse please,” said he. “Do you people come from Almonte?” Orville and Doris laughed. “Why yes, we are from Almonte,” said Orville.“But how in the world would you come to think that?” asked Doris.“Your accent,” said the Oriental gentleman. “I hear you talking at desk, and I say, ‘I know that talk Almonte.”

“Goodness, you surprise us,” said Orville. “Almonte’s a small town, a couple of thousand miles from here, how in the world would you be able to tell an Almonte accent?”

“I had business there,” said the Oriental.“In Almonte?” asked Doris.

“Yes. Near Post Office. Chinese hand laundry. Men’s shirts, stiff collars, you know?”

“Of course we know. That was a long time ago.” Orville laughed. “Do you remember any Almonte people?”

“Long time past,” said the Chinaman. “I remember, fine people. All fine people.”

“Would you remember,” Orville reflected, “A youngster, perhaps five years old, and a friend of his who caught some rock bass and sunfish in the river and brought them to you and you gave them two pennies for fish as if they were prize salmon?”

“I do,” laughed the Chinese gentleman, with difficulty stopping himself from becoming a spectacle, “O yes, I remember.”

“I’m that youngster,” Orville said.

The Oriental jaw dropped. Surprise lit up its owner’s eyes and joy leaped out. He swept low, bowing before Orville and Doris to honour the five year old lad who had brought him rock bass and sunfish in Almonte. Yes, he remembered, and his happiness at the memory spilled over.

“How Ling, you’re a long way from Almonte,” said Orville. “What do you do here in Vancouver?”

The inscrutable eyes swept upward thirty-feet to the ceiling line and went from west to east. “I own this place,” he said.

“We’ve never enjoyed a dinner in our lives to beat that dinner,” said he. “Nothing on the menu was too good enough for us. And the service was outstanding, Everything of the highest class. That evening as we were leaving we stopped on our way to pay the bill to say thanks to the
maitre d’, telling him how much we had enjoyed the evening. “Put away your money,” he told us. “There’s no charge. For some reason you’re special guests of this house.”




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