Clare Laking

By JAN WONG

In the sepia-tint photo, Clare Laking poses solemnly, a bandolier of ammunition strapped across his chest. To enlist, he had defied his father, an Ontario farmer, lay minister and staunch pacifist.

"He said, `You do, and I'm through with you,' " recalls Mr. Laking, who, in a fit of teen rebellion, hitched a ride to the recruiting station in Guelph.

It was 1917. Charles Clarence Laking was 18, and had just missed the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Of all the young men in the farms around Campbellville, he believes he alone made it home alive. "I wonder why I was spared." Mr. Laking, who turns 104 in three months, has a full head of snow-white hair and clouded blue eyes rimmed in red. Although he is nattily dressed in a striped grey shirt, silver-string tie and polished leather shoes, he has been feeling poorly after a recent pacemaker operation. Otherwise, he would be speaking this week at a school assembly, as he always does for Remembrance Day.

But he hears fine, with double hearing aids. And with jeweller's glasses, he still reads three papers a day, mainly business. Like many investors, he bought Nortel, but nevertheless managed to make a pile of money in the stock market. "More than I ever made in business," he says, alluding to Danforth Wallboard, a company he sold when he retired at 65.

Mr. Laking fought in France as a signaller, stringing telephone wire along the trenches. He also had to sneak to the front to observe where the first shell landed and phone back the information to the gunners at the rear. The army paid him $1.10 a day.

Once, a German shell landed metres away. He had several other brushes with death. A week before the Armistice, a shell hit a house where he and others were hiding. A flying brick knocked him out, leaving a fist-sized dent in his steel helmet. When he regained consciousness, he helped to carry out his wounded comrades.

"We were carrying Baldy Craig down to the dressing station," he recalls, when he asked another soldier, "Is there a hole in my tunic?" He was informed that his right back shoulder had been shredded by shrapnel. He spent the next few days in a local hospital. "Just long enough for somebody to steal my helmet. I wanted to hang onto it for a souvenir."

After the war, he reconciled with his father and worked for a string of lumber companies in Toronto. In 1929, he married Helen Patter-son, a legal secretary. She died in 1993 at the age of 94, but he still sees his children, Keith, 72, and Sheila, 66, his eight grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Laking quit smoking at 80 and curling at 96. At 98, he stopped pushing the wheelchairs of other residents at his retirement home in suburban Toronto. At 100, he gave up his season's Leafs tickets. And at 102, he gave up his driver's licence. He insisted that he could still drive, but his doctor warned him he would be suspect if he were ever in an accident.

Now, with a century of wisdom behind him, he is no longer the rebellious teenager who rushed off to battle. "I think it was a just war," he says slowly, "but I do not want to see another war."

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