Charles Templeton
An Anecdotal Memoir


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BEGINNINGS (Charles Templeton Memoir)

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It is doubtless true that the child is father to the man. Nevertheless, because this book is less about me than about what happened to me, I shall little more than touch on my origins and my youth, much as a watercolorist might lay in a wash as a background. I will pass lightly over those childhood traumas which, it is argued, shape us all. I do so not only because I am not sure which events did the shaping, but because any extended attempt to identify and plumb them might be tedious.

So, briefly:

Never having climbed my family tree above the lower branches, I know only that my forebears were Irish with Scottish antecedents and a dash of French. I am not even certain that my family name is Templeton. When we were children, our father used to intrigue my three sisters, my brother and me with a story that hinted at a family scandal that had led to the changing of our name to its present form.

Knowing the propensity of the Irish to trace their ancestry to kings - there were, conveniently, a host of kings - I have wondered if his story is not apocryphal; but according to father, our great grandfather was Lord Templetown of Templeton, County Armagh, Northern Ireland. He was a prominent Roman Catholic landowner, whose predecessor had been knighted by the crown for bringing fighting men from among his tenants into the British army. One of his sons, James Bradley, fell in love with a girl by the name of Kathleen Denroche, a Protestant; through her influence he began to attend services in the Methodist chapel, where he underwent what is termed today a "born-again" experience.

Shortly thereafter, he approached his father with the two requests most likely to enrage him: might he have permission to marry the young lady; and worse, might he study for the Methodist ministry? There was a towering row and permission was refused. Moreover, young James was warned that, if he persisted in his foolishness, he would be disowned and lose his patrimony.

But he did persist, and only after months of impasse, the rift was repaired in part. During an uproarious session behind the locked doors of the library, an agreement was reached: he might retain his inheritance, but only if he left the area and changed his name. He did so, and within weeks he was married. A few years later, having completed the prescribed course of study, he was ordained the Reverend James Bradley Templeton, a minister in the Methodist Church of Ireland.

The couple produced nine sons. Most of the boys had different birthplaces because of the Methodist custom of moving its clergy to a different parish every three years. My father, William Loftus, fifth in line, was born in 1889 in Roscree, County Tipperary. At fourteen he was sent to boarding school at Methody, a denominational college, and then to Trinity College, Dublin.

At twenty, seeing no future for himself in Ireland, he followed in the way of thousands of his peers and left for the promise of Canada. In Toronto there was little work, and he was reduced to pushing a merchandise-cart at the T. Eaton Company for eight dollars a week. He got the job through a subterfuge, stating on his application that he was from Timothy Eaton's home town, Ballymena, it being well known that you were sure of a job at Eaton's "if your were a Ballymena man and could sign your name.”

Not many months afterwards, he met a young lady, Marion Elizabeth Poyntz, who had, oddly enough, emigrated to Canada from Ballymena. She had been born in Belfast, the eldest of five children born to Robert James Poyntz, a draper, and Doris Elizabeth Kershaw. Though her father was, as the saying had it, "in trade," mother took particular pride in the fact that her mother’s brother was Sir Louis Kershaw of Lancashire, England. The premise was a dubious one, but through our youth, we children were often admonished to "stand up straight - you have blue blood in your veins.”

Mother and father were surely mismatched. She was a high-spirited, happy woman from a family that had a great love of fun, a highly developed sense of the ridiculous and an enormous zest for life. She loved to perform in public and was gifted with an excellent singing voice; she won the contralto division of the Saskatchewan Musical Festival in 1925. Among my most vivid memories are those of my mother, dressed in a pierrot costume-a vogue at the time - singing or reciting an unabashedly sentimental bit of doggerel, "Skimpsy Was a Jockey.” Ah, how the tears did flow!

Dad could not have been more different. His reserve may have stemmed from his being "a child of the manse" or from his years within the strict regimen of a Methodist boarding school. I have seen him laugh until reduced to tears, unable to finish the story he was telling, but he was more often stiff and restrained, sometimes forbiddingly so. A fastidious man in speech and dress, he preferred Loftus (with the diminutive, Loftie,) to his first name, William, and only encouraged "Bill" in his later years.

Dad was a handsome man and irresistible to some women. He was a different man when there were women about: softness and a hint of vulnerability entered his manner. And there were many women. Perhaps because he had been raised by a undemonstrative father, had no sisters, and was one of nine boys competing for his mother's attention, he had a need to be enfolded in female arms. Whatever the causes, he was loved by many women in his lifetime, even to the end of his eighty one years.

Inevitably, this led to tension in the marriage and as inevitably to its dissolution. From the time I was fourteen, I saw my father only occasionally and rarely heard from him. When he left, he took with him something vital from mother. Her courage and resourcefulness remained, and there were flashes of the enormously zestful woman she has been in the early years of her marriage, but she was only restored to something of her former self five years later when she found solace in religion.

I was born October 7, 1915, in Grace Hospital, Toronto. I was the second of five children and was named Charles after one of my father's brothers who were languishing in a German prisoner of war camp. (He died three weeks after the armistice when, too impatient to wait for transportation home to Ireland, he set off on foot and was felled by influenza.) My three sisters were all given good Irish names: Kathleen. Mickey (her baptismal name was Doris but it was never used) and Norah. My younger brother is William, after Dad. When I was six months old, the family removed to Regina, where Dad had been named merchandise manager of the new Robert Simpson Company store.

Regina in the 1920s was a burgeoning but unprepossessing city, sprouting for no logical reason - except that the CPR had willed it - from the flat, unrelieved prairie. Today, it remains a friendly but undistinguished place: its core unexceptional, its climate often inhospitable, its small frame houses characteristically western; such beauty as it has, manmade. But to a boy growing up, it lacked nothing.

I lived in the city but could be on the open prairie within minutes. There the horizons are as distant as they are at sea, and the land is overarched by more sky than I would ever see again. There is much in landlocked Saskatchewan to conjure up the sea: the horizon is an unbroken line. The endless expanses of grasses and grain fields can be transformed by the wind into a vast ocean, with tiny ripples and broad combers moving across the surface. Towering cumulus glide majestically across the blue to the far horizon where they heap up like snow - covered mountains on the distant shoreline. Little wonder Saskatchewan men, when given the option, are disposed to the naval branch of the Armed Forces.

The wind is the dominant fact of life on the prairie. Like men of the sea, the people of the prairies live with a constant awareness of its vagaries. In the dry years it can raise great clouds of dust in a boiling miles-high wall and sweep it across the prached land; darkening midday, purpling the sunset, sifting through sealed windows and closed doors, suffocating the lungs and dropping its gritty load in drifts and runnels in the lee of anything that slows its progress.

But that same wind can air out the sky as a bustling housekeeper airs out a room in spring, driving rankness and dust and pollution before it until the heavens are squeaky clean. It can be capricious with whirling dust-devils or vicious with cyclone: whipping the tip of its black maw about, gobbling trees and houses and barns and spitting out the debris. I was three when a twister ran its hellish cone through the heart of Regina. Long afterwards, I heard stories of a straw being driven through an automobile tire, of stones embedded in telephone poles, of chickens plucked naked and of prize bull being tossed fifty yards into a neighbor’s field.

But it is in winter especially that the wind determines life on the prairie. In the deepfreeze of winter the thermometer may plunge to sixty below; but what matters is the wind chill. Unimpeded by grain field or woods or mountain, the wind sweeps in: howling, blustering, badgering, and tyrannizing. Walking into it. You lean forward as though ascending a slope. Moving downwind, you are driven hunched and off-balance in a stumbling run. The cold! It whitens ears and cheeks and fingertips. It freezes the tears on your face. congeals your matted lashes and turns your eyeballs into orbs of pain. It reams your sinuses, stiffens the hair in your nostrils and paralyzes your throat and lungs. Fifty years later, you can recall the ordeal of the mile from school to home: peering through the stitching of the woollen toque, shivering like an animal in shock, whimpering as you are bullied forward only a step ahead of panic.

For all its rigours, winter also yielded joys. The cold that flayed the skin froze the flooded surface of a skating rink within minutes. The compacted snowdrifts were of just the right consistency for the hollowing out of caves and tunnels. Oiled leather shoe-packs - heavy moccasins - turned the slightest slope into a slide. There was a hockey cushion (unlikely noun!) on every second corner and the fabulous "Duke" Keats of the Regina Pats was your God.

There was the cold; there was also the warmth. The Shivering frenzy of undressing in an unheated bedroom was followed by the ineffable, rosy glow of the hollow in which you soon lay curled, with a wool mattress below and a goose-down comforter above. (Have I ever known such exquisite warmth since?) There was the desperate, breathless run to the corner store to fetch something forgotten and the gritty horror of "taking out the ashes" in the teeth of a howling, horizontal blizzard, but afterwards there was the ruby heat of the wood stove, with bread fragrant in the oven and soup simmering on the top, and your mother singing as she set the table, and the weekend comics (saved until now) to be read lying on your stomach on the kitchen floor.

Happy, happy days.

When I was twelve we moved back to Toronto. I was fourteen when Dad, in a fit of pique, quit Simpsons' Mutual Street store and moved to Montreal to become merchandise manager of Henry Morgan's. The promise was that we would soon join him but we never did. He went from Morgan's to The Hudson's Bay Company in Sakatoon and later Edmonton, finally - after complaining in his occasional letters about the small-mindedness and internecine rivalries of the department store business, he quit it entirely ending in Vancouver without a job. Each move had taken him farther from home.

Dad had sworn to starve before he would work again in a department store. During the Depression years he nearly did and so did we. Mother, with five children and no money coming in, had no choice but to rent out rooms. We were living in a great barn of a house on Beaty Avenue in the Parkdale section of the city, and the next few years were spent with strangers in the halls, seething resentments and aching kidneys over the occupancy of the one bathroom, and the worrisome sight of mother growing wan and dispirited from work and worry. And, of course, from loneliness for my father.

To survive, we took in tourists at two dollars a night during the Canadian National Exhibition. I sifted through the ashes for any unconsumed nuggets of coal. Stews were made more sub stantial with flour and barley, and we filled up with bread and the standard dessert, "fish-eye pudding.” It seemed the relief cheque was always late. There was one twenty-four hour period when there was nothing, not a thing, in the house to eat. How often the six of us waited hushed and motionless - like animals freezing when a predator is near - until the bill collector had gone from the door. Fifty years later, I can see mother at the kitchen table counting the coins from a china teapot and dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. . . .

Through the years I have earned my living by words, spoken or written, and by my ability to draw. It was my father who turned me toward both.

Words: the Irish love to talk, and exult in disputation. In my childhood, on weekends. There were invariably guests in the parlor and the house was filled with conversation. Irishmen all, recent immigrants, managers at Simpsons most of them, they came to join my father for a drink and a bout of talk. I don't recall it happening anywhere but during those early years in Regina; it may have been that these men, fresh from "the old country," hadn't yet extended their boundaries.

I would find a chair just outside the circle of men - the women went off to the kitchen - and was allowed to stay there so long as I didn't fidget or swing my feet or interrupt. Their games were played with words: throwing out opinions, challenging each other's statements and wresting. Often hotly, with meanings. I recall my father announcing on one occasion that he was prepared " to prove through unassailable logic" that black was white. Which, using a sequence of carefully planned syllogisms, he proceeded to do. The achievement set off a boisterous debate but I was oblivious to it. I was puffed with pride and dizzy with the wonder of it all.

Drawing: one idle Sunday afternoon when I was twelve, I made a sketch of Felix the Cat, a popular comicstrip character, and took it to my father. It was a rash thing to do, for each Sunday afternoon he retreated to the parlor with a variety of reading materials and a package of figs, closing the French doors behind him. He did not like to be interrupted.

But this Sunday afternoon he put his book aside and looked carefully at the drawing.

“Very good, Chuck. Was it done free hand?"


He studied the drawing, nodding approval while I vibrated with excitement. He passed the sketch back to me. "You have a talent for drawing," he said. "Keep it up.”

From that day, I drew anything and everything that caught my eye. I filled up exercise books at school, indifferent to what was being taught. After Dad left home, I mailed off sketches I thought might impress him and watched the mails for a reply. He seldom wrote, but when he did, each injection of praise stimulated me for weeks.

But I was doing poorly at school. At Parkdale Collegiate I failed grade nine (we called it First Form) and was required to repeat it, failed grade ten (standing thirty-second in a class of thirty-three), and began to repeat it, switching suddenly to the newly opened Western Technical School to study art. In the midst of the first year, "drawing a bow at a venture," I sat down at the diningroom table and made three sketches; portraits of the Toronto Maple Leafs' famous "Kid Line.” Overnight, my life changed direction.

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