This was going to be a story about a Canadian war hero whose traits – and faults – I sometimes see in myself.
And what a story it would be.
L/Cpl. George L. Simpson was a gun fitter in the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division who helped liberate Holland. He earned a medal for bravery but never told a soul about what he did to earn it.
More interestingly, he had written a diary from his time in the war. I had been given a copy of his diary just last year.
I know this man, not as a battle-hardened war veteran who struggled to deal with civilian life after the war, but as a kind gentle man who smelled delightfully of pipe tobacco as he read me stories on his lap. (To this day I love the smell of pipes or cigars.)
He was my Grandpa George and I was going to write about him.
But I changed my mind.
I decided to write about a different kind of war hero, one we don’t hear much about anymore.
This is the story of L/Cpl. Simpson’s stunning war bride, whom I know as Grandma Iris. Her story is one of strength and perserverance and love.
To be honest, I haven’t been the best grandson to Grandma Iris.
I don’t call her nearly as much as I should. In fact, I am embarrassed to say it’s been many years since I’ve seen her.
Despite this, she recently sent me a box full of memories and souvenirs – mostly newspaper clippings from my dad’s WHL hockey years.
She knew I was always interested in the war years, so in the box, she included a copy of Grandpa George’s wartime journal.
But something else caught my eye. Also inside the box was a thick document, held together with a big white paper clip. It was a memoir.
In capital letters, the title reads “REFLECTIONS——1939 to 1947 by IRIS M. SIMPSON.” Every page – 36 of them – is written with the same old, rickety typewriter.
Except the final page.
LIFE DURING THE WAR
Iris Hooper was 13 when Great Britain declared war on Germany. Born and raised in Wolverhampton, England, she grew up with blackouts, rations and air-raids. The men were off to fight, women took over their jobs and the spirit of the people was simply do or die.
During the Battle of Britain and the “blitz” air raids, things often looked bleak. There was little rest and always the uncertainty of where the next bomb would drop.
As Iris grew older, the good times overshadowed the sadness and she enjoyed life the best way she could. She and her friends would distract themselves with weekend dates with the handsome “Brylcreem Boys,” as they used to call the hair-slicking members of England’s Royal Air Force.
Romance in those days was innocent. Holding hands, walking in moonlight, maybe a good-night kiss, nothing serious.
But the flirty Brylcreem Boys lost their appeal with the arrival of the Allies, whom Iris and her friends found much more interesting, with their exotic accents and such.
And on March 25, 1943, one of these handsome young Allies changed her life forever.
Canadian L. Cpl George L. Simpson was on leave, heading back to London. On an impulse, he fatefully got off the train at Wolverhampton.
I first saw him while I was waiting for some friends. He was waiting in front of a theatre, looking very handsome and smart. I said to my friends, “Behold. There stands the light of my life.”
Using his irrestible Simpson charm.. ahem… George introduced himself and later ended up walking Iris home in the rain.
They made a date for the next night and although she had her doubts about whether they would keep it, curiosity got the better of Iris and the date was on.
When I saw him waiting for me I knew we belonged together. He must have felt the same, for he stayed in town until his leave was up and every moment we spent together meant so much more. Saying goodbye was not easy.
For George and Iris, love was built through letters. Every night she would write and mail a letter. On Sundays, she wrote two – one in the morning, one at night.
Between the letters were George’s leaves and they would be together again. But time always went by so quickly.
Soon, one of George’s leaves were used to meet Iris’s family
Iris was anxious. Her Aunt Phyl – who raised Iris – was reluctant about her involvement with a Canadian.
“You’re asking for trouble,” Aunt Phyl told her.
Aunt Phyl heard Canadians were rough, tough and wild.
But the ol’ Simpson charm kicked into high gear once again and soon Aunt Phyl thought the world of George, proudly proclaiming “there is nobody like him.”
During a troublesome period leading up to D-Day – George was shipped out and wasn’t happy Iris joined the ranks of war-worker – the two stopped writing for some time but their love was rekindled with more letters in the new year of 1945.
On May 8, Churchill announced the war in Europe was over. Hitler had been defeated.
Soon after, George sent word that he would be on furlough and would be there to see Iris within weeks. Her emotions were in a tizzy – she was worried how they would feel about each other.
But when I opened the door and saw him standing on the steps I knew my worries had all been in vain. For a few moments the world stood still for us and we knew that we belonged together. From that moment on, the future was ours.
The two were married in St. Peter’s Church (seen on left) on Sept. 27, 1945.
Then came the inevitable. George was being repatriated back home to be demobilized. There, he was to wait until Iris could join him.
As she awaited the journey to her new country and her new life, Iris watched uneasily as many girls who married Canadians began to return home, disappointed in the way things had turned out. It caused great concern for her family and made waiting very uncomfortable.
Finally, on June 19, 1946, she embarked on the journey that would take her to a new life. She had very little in her pocket (about 10 pounds) but had a whole lot of faith.
LIFE IN CANADA
Hearing the cries of, “You’ll be back,” from sailors on other ships, Iris boarded “The Lady Nelson” for the nine-day trip across the Atlantic and a three-day journey by train to where George was waiting with his family in Salmon Arm, B.C.
Once there, adjusting was hard, to say the least. Everything was different than she imagined it to be.
Canadian life was a far cry from the comforts of her English home. No electrictity. No running water. No toilets. Just outhouses.
With these changes came frustration and tears. I longed to be back with my family and friends but I had a lot of pride. Come hell or high water, nobody would ever say, ‘we told you so.’ Love conquers all.
Iris felt out of place for the next few years. Everything was strange to her – the customs, the weather, the clothes, even the sports (she once made the mistake of insulting George’s first true love – baseball).
After some turbulent times living with George’s family, the couple ended up in Lacombe, AB, where things were looking up. George got a job as a carpenter’s helper and Iris was expecting their first child, Philip Lester Simpson – my father.
Iris was finally adjusting.
And they were back to having fun and laughing together, something they had not had for a while.
Sure, George was still annoyingly talking baseball night and day but now Iris was going to the games and meeting people. She was becoming part of the community.
In June 1947, she celebrated her first year in Canada, much the wiser. She started focusing on the future. And never looked back.
LIFE ON HER OWN
The final page of my grandmother’s memoir is a piece of paper cut to about two inches high. It’s written with a different typewriter and is initialed with a blue, hand-written, “IMS.”
Although many said our marriage would never last, we had 42 years together. Then on August 11th 1989, the light of my life went out. My beloved died of a massive heart attack.We had made a lifetime of memories, raised three children through many ups and downs, laughter and tears but always had that special love that will be with me until the end of my days.
Grandma Iris is turning 90 in April. I called her at her Red Deer home Monday morning to let her know I would be writing about her.
“Those were the best years of our lives,” she said, her voice slightly breaking just before hanging up.
My wife and I plan on being with her for Christmas.