Bryan’s grandfather is by far one of the most gracious, generous, caring people I have had fortune to meet. His gentle spirit shines through his fragile body. He has lived an exemplary life having seen and lived through many things I truly hope none of us ever have to.
The first time I met him, he smothered me with love; his hugs envelop all who come within five feet of his grasp. His hold is surprising in comparison to his fragility. The pinnacle of his consideration and kindness towards me was exemplified when he hand-crafted a table lamp out of a gorgeous piece of wood for me, the Christmas before Bryan and I were married. His carpentry skills are amazing. When Bryan was younger, he made workable cement mixers, trucks, diggers and various other toys, all crafted by hand using his amazing array of machinery, simple shapes and imagination. He has made beautiful cedar chests for every woman in the family, and surprised me five months later, when I arrived at the reception hall for more snapshots before the guests arrived. As I walked over to the photograph area, my attention was drawn to a quiet corner close to photos of Bryan and me. Sitting against the wall was a beautiful cedar chest, just for me — something I had not expected in the slightest. As tears filled my eyes, I felt my heart swell with love for this man. His craftsmanship echos the love he has in his heart. And, he seems to have a knack of reading people within minutes of meeting them. He’d continue to tell me I was “a good one” and that Bryan was to take good care of me.
Bryan and I used to work for the same company and commuted a long 45 minutes to work each way every day. The blessing in this was that the workplace was a mere 10 minutes or so from his grandpa’s home. We would drop by as occasion would permit, and sit and listen to his WW2 stories of his time in the military. I would often smile, knowing that I had heard a particular story in previous visits, but he would occasionally add new appendages I had never heard before. In retrospect, I am grateful that I heard so many stories so many times, it has aided in my memorization of them and their small details.
Before he enlisted into the military, he had a commercial driving license. Be certain of this: He enlisted, he was never drafted. When he arrived on base, he was issued a military driver’s license where he would move trucks around. He said one day he got called into his commanding officer’s office. His immediate thought was that he was in trouble, that he’d done something horribly wrong. On the contrary, he was impressed by Grandpa and asked him to be his personal driver for a season. He would transport this officer wherever he asked, never breaking their silence to ask questions. Ultimately, the commanding officer took favour with him and requested he become his full-time driver.
Later, his entire unit received orders to ship out in preparation for what would become D-Day. However, Grandpa did not receive his orders. When he asked, he was told that a better driver could not be found. His commander was impressed with how well he had performed his duty and wanted him to remain on base as his personal driver. In the end, Grandpa spent nearly two years on base before he was shipped out. His orders finally came and he left for the U.K. on the last voyage of HMS Queen Mary as a troop ship to Europe.
He told me during one of our visits that after getting off the ship, his regiment had boarded a train in Scotland and taken a long journey south. He couldn’t remember where he had boarded the train, but he recalled a large station outlining a coastline in Scotland near where HMS Queen Mary had docked. He smiled as he mentioned “throwing candy to small children” and how much happiness he got from it. Then his expression would fall and turn to disdain as he recalled his dislike for the war, and surprisingly, crumpets.
Bryan and I researched books, questioned my mother and finally we all came to the conclusion that HMS Queen Mary had docked and soldiers boarded a train in the adjacent town from me called Gourock. The first time I took Bryan to Scotland, we stopped where his grandfather would have been and walked so many years ago and stood in silence, respecting the solemnity and significance of the moment.
I’ve already highlighted his creativity and ingenuity, but it is obvious this characteristic was always there. After arriving at his final destination somewhere inside France, Grandpa was assigned as an armoured car driver in the 9th Armed Division of the 1st Army. He often spoke of how he disliked driving by looking through a small slit in the front of the armour plating. He had a friend of his in the engineering corps weld a hinge and handle to that front plate. Then he removed a windscreen from a damaged Jeep, wipers and all, and mounted it to the front of his car. When enemy bullets would start flying he would reach out and lower the armour plate. He often boasted that he had the only armored car in the entire war with a windscreen! He drove that same armoured car in one of the most critical times of the War. It was at a bridge in a place called Remagen, Germany.
Grandpa had become very ill and was in hospital while his unit went to the Battle of the Bulge. When he left the hospital he found that he was the only one left from his original group. The military found out he had that driver’s license and decided to make him a driver for an officer (I don’t recall which level but he could have been Captain). He joined back up with the 9th Armoured Division and was dispatched to Remagen.
Those who know the history know that Remagen was the last standing bridge over the Rhine river and that Hitler did not want that bridge to stand. When the 9th came across the bridge and saw it was still intact, they rushed into the scene full guns blazing. German planes flew overhead trying to smash the bridge, ten v-2 rockets were launched at it, and many brave men died. After the bridge had been taken, the Generals ordered tanks to start moving across the bridge before it could be taken out. Unfortunately, one of the tanks fell through and blocked the entire thing. Foot soldiers kept moving through but no large equipment could get passed. The engineers finally had it removed and the bridge patched, but they had to test it to be sure it would hold. Grandpa was asked to go, and bravely drove his armoured car across that bridge and back, all the while being attacked by the Germans. Upon his successful return, the charge was on — the Allies had entered Germany.
Grandpa stayed on at Remagen for a short time, and took his turn sitting in the tower watching for German swimmers who would try to get down river and attach explosives to the bridge. Eventually the bridge collapsed, but by that time, the engineers had placed pontoon bridges on both sides, and the movement of the Allies could continue into the Rhineland.
Grandpa never really spoke much more about what he saw. We know he was one of the first into Neuremburg Stadium. He climbed the flagpole and took the Nazi flag down. He often joked that at the top of that pole someone had carved “Kilroy was here”. He was also one of the first into the death camps. Bryan tried to get him to talk about it a few times but it was just too difficult for him. All he really said was it was awful, often with a tear in his eye. He did manage to “liberate” a few items while in Germany though. He brought home a couple of accordions and a few other little things. He always had a soft spot in his heart for the German people, those innocents who were caught up in the awfulness of war.
The man I admire and adore is crippled by a physical disease and relies on his youngest daughter, my mother-in-law, to care for him in the comfort of her own home. His Parkinson’s Disease has advanced very rapidly to a point where he no longer has any control over his physical body. Every muscle in his frame painfully contracts. He is unable to speak, but shows his once audible and animated expression through eyebrow raises, soft smiles and eye movements. His condition, much like my Gran’s was, is up and down. A few days ago, his oxygen levels had dropped to 70% and his lungs were filling with fluid.
These past few days, I have been pondering the complexity and simplicity of life, the fragility of our physical body and the mark we all leave in the world. When it comes down to it, all we have in life are our convictions, the memories of how we have lived our life and the love of our family and loved ones. Despite my religious convictions — or anyone else’s for that matter — death is never an easy subject to broach. When we’re faced with it from the perspective of (physically) losing a loved one, reality sets in and priorities are checked and ultimately re-aligned. It’s never easy to digest, even though I know that life doesn’t end at death, that our spirit lives on and we will all be reunited with the ones we love; even friends. It’s hard to say goodbye. I know that life is eternal and we are all a part of this plan that God has for us. I have no doubts that there are angels watching over us in this world, and that they are the ones who care for us implicitly: Our family who have passed on. I know that the people we meet in this life are of no coincidence nor happenstance. A quote I heard a very long time ago and have never forgotten says:
Coincidences are small miracles where God wishes to remain anonymous.
Ian with Great-Grandpa 16 Aug 2006
It may be interesting to note that Grandpa’s great-uncle was Robert Leroy Parker, Jnr. None other than Butch Cassidy himself. Because of his striking resemblance, Grandpa was called ‘Little Butch’ as a child.