I can only think of my great-great grandfather, VanBuren Field Clark, the way my grandmother described him. Longish dark blonde hair blowing in the wind, an irregular gait and blazing blue eyes. A vibrant, brave man with a gentle heart.
I wish I could go back in time and get to know him better. I say “better,” because I feel like I know him a little already, since my grandmother wrote stories about him.
The limp came from war injuries.
I dream of one day substantiating some of the war stories my grandmother passed down. For instance, in “A Soldier’s Mistake,” she writes that her grandpa Van overheard his Confederate captain discussing the need to take an emergency message to another company. Van volunteered immediately, snatching the paper from the captain’s hands. He took off, galloping “directly toward the Federal soldiers.” No shots were fired as Union soldiers gave way to the “charging, rearing horse and rider.” My great-great grandfather passed through Federal lines and delivered the paper safely.
According to family tradition, even the Richmond paper carried an account of the incident. Both Union and Confederate soldiers acclaimed Van’s horsemanship. Grandma wrote that she knew men who had witnessed the event. They said they had never seen such horsemanship—before or after. According to Grandma, Van did not want to accept the recognition, so he allowed another soldier to claim the credit.
Perhaps part of the reason was embarrassment. After returning to his home unit, he learned that the paper held by the captain was blank; the discussion had been hypothetical.
Although there are other moving war stories, including one of how he and a union soldier took turns sparing each others lives and developing a life-long friendship, Grandma’s first-hand story of her and Van’s encounter with a huge buck connects me with my great-great grandfather Van the most.
Grandma, my Great-Great Grandfather, and a Young Buck
Grandpa and granddaughter came upon a “great buck” while walking in the woods. The buck had a hoof trapped between two young trees and was in bad shape. Van “went for a large hat full of water,” but the terrified buck refused to drink.
Van took off his suspenders, wrapped them around the deer’s head and antlers, and eventually pulled the animal’s head down to the hat full of water my grandma was holding. Grandma wrote, “I still remember how quiet and deadly serious Grandpa looked as he tried to hold up his pants and pull the deer’s head down, too.” Van was “dripping with perspiration and almost completely exhausted” by his efforts.
Only after they had passed the afternoon ministering to and eventually freeing the deer, did Grandma understand the financial repercussions of their rescue. Van explained that they’d passed up a windfall. Grandma knew, money was scarce for an old, “crippled” soldier.
Grandma wrote, “Gone into the velvet night was the big buck deer that would have brought a bounty of twenty dollars and those extra fine alters another five.” When they got back to the rambling old house that with its mended lace curtains, porch roof in disrepair, and “dangerously rickety” stairs, Van told his wife what they’d done.
Van told Grandma Clark (aka Elizabeth Overton) “that he just couldn’t hurt the deer” despite all the things they needed. “I still remember,” Grandma wrote, “the tears sparkling on his white cheeks,” as he told the story.
My great-great Grandma wasn’t angry. Grandma wrote, “We knew that nothing mattered but how wonderful Grandpa was.”
Yeah. That’s why I wish I could have known him.
When I occasionally see a brawny 12-point buck pass through my Farmington Hills, backyard I imagine that he too has ancestors from Virginia, that he’s related to the fine buck whose circumstances taught my Grandma about compassion and kindness.