‘You’re lucky to be alive’

The Observer (Sarnia) - - FRONT PAGE - JANE SIMS

The happy photo was taken be­fore the dark times they would spend apart.

Her dress and corsage.

His uni­form.

The smiles stretched across their faces for an eter­nity.

Dorothy and Stan Lee, two kids from Sim­coe, their whole lives ahead of them. Just mar­ried and so happy.

“He just adored her and she adored him,” their daugh­ter, Su­san, said.

The photo was taken at their wed­ding in 1942, be­fore Stan was shipped off in 1944 to serve as an air­frame me­chanic on air­fields across France, the Nether­lands, Bel­gium and Bri­tain dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

“She was a won­der­ful woman,” Stan said, look­ing back al­most seven decades at the photo of his bride.

Stan, at 26, was an older, wiser re­cruit than many young men who went to war. He trained with the Royal Cana­dian Air Force and was sent to hot spots to patch up wounded planes.

He was also a fa­ther to an in­fant daugh­ter, Ca­role, one of thou­sands of Cana­di­ans who took up the torch to serve their coun­try, leav­ing be­hind young wives and chil­dren to wait and hope for their safe re­turn.

He and Dorothy com­mit­ted them­selves to stay­ing con­nected, even though they would be an ocean apart. They be­gan a let­ter-writ­ing rit­ual over the next two years in which they would ex­change hun­dreds of notes of love and de­vo­tion.

Dorothy alone sent Stan 467 let­ters. He com­mem­o­rated all of them in his jour­nal.

“Dear Diary,” he wrote on Dec. 8, 1945. “re­ceived seven let­ters from my wife.” An­other time, he noted: “re­ceived par­cel from wife and one each from both my moth­ers.”

The fam­ily would be apart un­til Stan was shipped home in Fe­bru­ary 1946, one of the later re­turnees from a rav­aged, but lib­er­ated Europe.

And then, Stan vowed to move for­ward, put the war years be­hind him and make a life at home.

***

Stan is sit­ting in his wheel­chair in a sunny room at St. Joseph's Health Care Lon­don's Park­wood In­sti­tute, look­ing out the win­dows on a blus­tery Novem­ber day.

He's 101 and clos­ing in on 102 next month. He's been at Park­wood since June 2017 and is the old­est of 112 vet­er­ans liv­ing there. In re­cent weeks, he's been bat­tling a chest in­fec­tion that has pro­duced a per­sis­tent, rat­tling cough.

His hands are large and rough, the prod­uct of long, hard work as a plumber. His deep blue eyes have watched a cen­tury go by.

Since 2001, he's lived with­out his beloved Dorothy, who died at age 81.

They both grew up in Sim­coe. He was the child of a sin­gle mom who worked at the lo­cal hospi­tal. He left school af­ter Grade 8 and was work­ing at 15 to help sup­port the two of them.

Dorothy was, as Su­san said, “a ca­reer woman be­fore it was pop­u­lar to be a ca­reer woman,” work­ing as an ac­coun­tant at Sears.

When he's asked about his war years, Stan says he was “lucky.” His wife and daugh­ter stayed with her par­ents while he saw and heard first-hand the bat­tles to win back Europe from Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion.

“I think we did a pretty darn good job of it,” he said of the Al­lied effort.

“You never know what it's like un­til you're there . . . You're lucky to be alive, that's all I can say.”

More than one mil­lion Cana­di­ans and New­found­lan­ders served in the mil­i­tary dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. More than 45,000 were killed and an­other 55,000 wounded.

To­day, as the coun­try pre­pares to hon­our wartime sac­ri­fice on Re­mem­brance Day, only about 41,000 of those vet­er­ans re­main, their av­er­age age about 93, govern­ment fig­ures show.

Lee, in the old­est van­guard of sur­viv­ing vet­er­ans, is un­der­stand­ably now a man of few words. But there’s a much richer ver­sion of his time spent over­seas, con­tained in the jour­nal en­tries he made part of his reg­u­lar rou­tine.

Stan left Canada in Jan­uary 1944 to a new, lonely life in the towns and ci­ties where his squadron was based. He kept his jour­nal en­tries short and fo­cused on what was in front of him.

Many times, he would write about the cold, the weather, the meals.

There was plenty that he never wrote down or sent in his let­ters to Dorothy. Af­ter the war, he told his son-in-law about Luft­waffe fighter planes straf­ing his air­field.

The scari­est thing he had to do was to fly with the pi­lots af­ter the planes were fixed. He re­mem­bers fly­ing over Cologne in Ger­many.

There were mo­ments that were too big not to be noted in his writ­ing, cap­tured in re­mark­able brevity given the tur­bu­lence of the times.

“At ten thirty pm on Tues­day, May 1, (1945) it was an­nounced on the ra­dio that Hitler was dead.” Stan wrote.

Two days later: “Saw Queen Wil­helmina and Princess Ju­liana ar­rival at home by plane,” he noted about the Dutch royal fam­ily.

Then on May 5: “Ger­mans gave up in Hol­land, north­west Ger­many, Den­mark.”

The war in Europe ended three days later.

It would be al­most 10 months more be­fore Stan would go home. The diary records the steps he took on that jour­ney.

In June 1945, he marked down: “Had our pic­ture taken to­day of the whole squadron.”

“Dear Diary,” he wrote on June 15, 1945. “Re­ceived four let­ters from wife. Got clear­ance pa­pers.”

Then, the next day, “At noon to­day our air­craft left for Eng­land.”

Stan wrote about his trav­els to the towns and ci­ties where he was sta­tioned. In July 1945, in Lon­don, Eng­land — “a lovely place” — he saw St. Paul’s Cathe­dral, a land­mark that sur­vived Ger­man bomb­ing, made fa­mous by images of its huge dome shrouded in smoke from the air at­tacks.

Then, it was on to Glas­gow, “a very tough city," as Stan put it.

By Septem­ber 1945, he wrote: “Boyle and I (are) the only ones left. The rest gone to Shipton.”

He also noted peo­ple who were go­ing home, but that wouldn’t hap­pen for Stan un­til Feb. 15, 1946. “Ar­rived on Queen Lizzie at five thirty this morn­ing, she pulled out at ten thirty.”

“The meals on the boat have been very good,” Stan wrote. “Only have two meals a day.” Stan was on his way home.

***

The thing that weighed on Stan stemmed from the sin­gle moment he was wait­ing for.

He was home. Dorothy was there. So was Ca­role. She was two.

“The first time he saw my sis­ter, she was fright­ened of him,” Su­san said. “He was so up­set by it. He said he would spend the rest of his life try­ing to get her to love him.”

Fam­ily be­came his pur­pose. “You soon for­get about the war af­ter it’s over,” Stan said.

He and Dorothy started the job of be­ing a fam­ily. Both worked, and af­ter din­ner and in their spare time, they built a two-storey home where they would raise their daugh­ters.

Su­san said the cou­ple were “very de­voted to each other their whole life.”

“They did laun­dry to­gether, they did dishes to­gether, they made meals to­gether. If she was weed­ing the gar­den, he was weed­ing the gar­den with her.”

On week­ends and dur­ing the two weeks off they had in the sum­mer, they’d pick to­bacco to­gether. Dorothy dragged the girls to ev­ery base­ball game Stan played and coached.

He was fo­cused on mov­ing for­ward. “My dad never spoke about the war when we were grow­ing up. He didn’t join a Le­gion (branch). He didn’t have any medals . . . He just wanted to for­get it. He just wanted to move on with his life," Su­san said.

All he would tell them was a story as be­nign as could be told: When he was sta­tioned in Eng­land, the Cana­di­ans were given kip­pers for break­fast ev­ery morn­ing and they hated them.

“Fi­nally, the Cana­di­ans turned their plates over and told them they had to give them some­thing other than kip­pers . . . the next morn­ing ,they got ba­con and eggs.”

***

Stan’s cough is deep and rat­tling. He’s been talk­ing for about an hour. He needs a break.

Most vet­er­ans at Park­wood, their care needs great, are from the Sec­ond World War and Korean War. They’re a link to a time that is a fad­ing me­mory for many Cana­di­ans.

Stan holds onto some me­mories, but has let go of many oth­ers.

He agrees the war was both an ad­ven­ture and a pre­car­i­ous time for the world and his fam­ily.

“I wouldn’t want to go through an­other one,” he said.

MIKE HENSEN

Lee’s jour­nal re­calls a cold, event­ful week in spring 1945, with the Dutch roy­als fly­ing home from ex­ile, Ger­man sur­ren­der in Hol­land, Den­mark and north­west Ger­many, and ra­dio re­ports of Adolf Hitler’s death.

MIKE HENSEN

Stan Lee’s daily jour­nal of­fers an in­ti­mate glimpse of his life as a Royal Cana­dian Air Force air­frame me­chanic in Bri­tain, France, Bel­gium and the Nether­lands dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

A smil­ing stan Lee is seen in his RCAF wedge cap and tu­nic in a wartime photo, above, and with his wife, Dorothy, right. The two Sim­coe na­tives mar­ried in 1942, two years be­fore Stan shipped out to re­pair dam­aged war­planes in Europe.

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