When Cloud Banks Come Together

June 30, 1912

Citizens of Regina, Saskatchewan, a growing city on the Canadian prairie, sweltered in the sultry 100̊ F afternoon. The flags on display for the Dominion Day celebrations the next day hung limp on their poles. Folks sat on porches fanning themselves, longing for some ripple of breeze.

Some young folks and couples were spending the Sunday afternoon in Wascana park, or padding canoes on Wascana Lake a few blocks south of Regina’s business district. A flock of faithful Anglicans were gathered at St Paul’s Church listening to sermons by their local Bishop and Canon Hicks from London, England. Some women fainted because of the intense heat and humidity in the auditorium.

By mid afternoon storm clouds appeared in the south. Folks watched the cloud banks rolling toward each other, one system coming from the southeast and another from the southwest. At 4:30 pm the clouds were moving rapidly toward a collision. Folks began hearing rumbles of thunder; the sky took on a strange green glow; blue and red lighting bolts flashed along the ground. This phenomena was something prairie folks had never seen before. They had no idea what was coming.

The storm systems crashed into each other over the Saskatchewan Legislative Building beside Wascana Lake. There was a roar like two freight trains overhead and a colossal smoke-colored funnel dropped from the clouds. Packing a 500 mile-an-hour wind, skipping around crazily, the twister plowed a six-block-wide swath of destruction right through town, including the business district.

Reading in the book Great Canadian Disasters, © 1961 by Frank Rasky, one particular paragraph in the “aftermath” caught my eye:
Survivors today, with their varied memories, differ strongly on just about every aspect of the tornado’s aftermath: the degree of the onslaught, whether the government was generous (to victims), …the precise number of people wiped out by the catastrophe.

So true of any major event. Our own experience, our perspective on the scene, our general world-view, our position in society — all these make a lot of difference in how we process what’s going on, and later describe what happened, what helped, what hindered.

I’ve sometimes liken the Women’s Movement forming in the late 1800s to the two storm systems coming together over Regina. They came from different angles, when they united they formed a powerful force, and that force blew apart a lot of the status quo of their day. For better or for worse? Witnesses and historians don’t all agree.

I’d call one group the fore-mothers of the feminist movement as I knew it in the 1960s. Their agenda: universal suffrage; equal rights for women, including equal job opportunities and equal pay.

A lot of these women had graduated from women’s colleges in the Eastern States. They were sick and tired of the taboos of their day and did their best to prove these ideas false. I’ve lost my notes on this, but I recall that a number of these ladies met in Buffalo, NY in the late 1890s to form a group, establish their goals, and decide on a course of action.

Some of the misconceptions of their day were rather ludicrous. When trains were first invented some people raise the objections that women could never ride on a train because if women were to travel at speeds over 30 mph they would go insane, or mad with lust. Some “experts” of their day claimed girls’ educations should be limited to the basics because delicate female minds would shatter if forced to handle difficult mathematic equations. (I’m almost sad we lost that one — I’ve never been that good at math. 🙂 )

Some said physical training for girls was out because strenuous exercise would ruin their bodies and especially affect their ability to bear children. (That group should have rather taken a good look at the long term effect of wearing corsets.)

When you start setting up theories that can be so easily proven wrong, you can count on it that someone’s going to want to knock them down.

The other merging ‘cloud system’ was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. As I’ve already written, this group sprang mainly from a Protestant Evangelical base. They had embraced the ‘Social Gospel’, which basically translates as ‘How Christians should fix the world.’ Their agenda: stable homes; healthy, happy families; reduction of crime; no more war. Each and every one a worthy goal.

As these ladies looked at their society, they concluded that laws were needed to ensure these goals. Thus voters were needed so political pressure could be put on to get those laws passed. Which meant their launching point was getting women the right to vote.

Meanwhile, over in merry old England, feminist suffragettes took a more dramatic approach. Up against a more rigid and long-established social structure, their struggle for the right to vote was long and bitter. They chained themselves to posts, went on hunger strikes, were force-fed.

They also adopted what they referred to as the politics of the broken window pane. Genteel-looking ladies would appear on business streets during a busy afternoon and station themselves in front of store windows. At a given signal they’d pull hammers from large handbags and start swinging. The damage was done before anyone could react and the ladies would make themselves scarce, leaving merchants sobbing.

I don’t know how much the WCTU influenced the women’s movement in Britain but I rather doubt Prohibition was ever a serious goal. In Europe and Britain so many women accepted social drinking and drank socially themselves. Also Protestant Evangelism was never as large or powerful in Europe as it was in North America.

To be continued.

Just A Clueless Tourist, Sir

Guilty As Charged

A writing exercise one day was: tell about an adventure you had while traveling, focusing on one particular scene during the trip. So here’s a scene from when I drove my daughter to Mississippi for a Teacher’s Summer Class.

Twelve years ago our daughter wanted to attend a week-long workshop for teachers — the event being held in Mississippi, no less. She didn’t want to drive all that way alone, so I accompanied her and did most of the driving. I was excited about the trip, having never been to the Deep South before. We were living in Quebec at this time, so had two long days on the road, entering the US at Detroit and heading more or less straight south on Interstates.

The second day found us somewhere in Kentucky on a nice four-lane highway and I was behind the wheel when we came up behind a line of about six cars, every one of them in the right lane, doing almost 50 mph. I found this curious, as the speed limit was 55 mph and the left lane was completely empty. I craned my neck and peered ahead as best I could, expecting to see some extra-wide vehicle causing this slower traffic. Nada. Just a line of ordinary-looking cars.

Now I was really curious. Had the speed limit changed and I hadn’t noticed the sign? Last thing on earth I wanted to do was get nailed for speeding in the States. I knew the chain gang was passe but I’d read some pretty awful accounts of arrests at gun-point and strip searches, etc. Not to mention fines and fees for a US lawyer.

A few minutes later we passed a sign: 55 mph. So why is everyone doing below 50? As the road went round a curve I got a better look at the lead car. A police cruiser. Aha! He was cruising along at a lower speed and the drivers behind were all meekly following, no one daring to challenge his authority. I joined the line and took it easy on the gas for another mile.

Would it surprise you if I mentioned here that I can be a rebel at times? As I drew near yet another 55 mph sign, I wondered,  “Am I going to poke along at 50 mph for an hour in deference to the whims of those officers? Can they arrest me if I don’t just meekly follow? Have they got any reason to stop me for driving at the speed limit?”

Nope. At least I sure hope not! So I pulled into the left lane, sped up to 55 mph, and slowly overtook the police car, making very sure I wasn’t speeding. If I was indeed committing some other social faux pas, I trusted my Quebec license plate would tell him I didn’t know any better.

They say about sheep that when one sticks his head through the fence, the others will surely follow. People are much the same. When I was some distance ahead of the cruiser — we didn’t have cruise control so I kept one eye glued to the speedometer the whole way!— I saw in my rear-view mirror that other cars had pulled out and were also passing the cruiser. I suppose they’d been anxious to see if I’d get into trouble and when no lights started flashing they decided they could get away with it, too.

Now I can say I led a mini-coup — a social rebellion of sorts — in a foreign land. I can just imagine those policemen sitting at the doughnut shop later and chuckling about it, just as I am now.

What would you have done?