While serving in the air force during World War II, Eric Smith was “dragged out of bed” one day and told he was going on a blind date. He and another fellow were invited to a house party in Darlington, about seven miles from where they were stationed in northeast England.
There he met Greta Harrison. “Then,” he recalls. “I started visiting.”
“He knocked at the door and said he’d like to take my mother to the movies,” Greta says. “My mother said ‘Well I’ve seen it’ — she didn’t really ask what it was — ‘but you can take Greta.’”
Eric sweetened the offer, literally, with a box of chocolates.
After going together for a year, he proposed on a train ride between London and Darlington, and they married in the local church on March 23, 1944 — 70 years ago today. Eric was 25 and Greta 21.
The ceremony was small; it was war time, after all. Jerry Grieves, who came from a small town in Alberta and worked with Eric in the air force, was best man. They’ve only seen him once since, years ago, and don’t know if he’s still alive. However, another Canadian who was at the ceremony is still around and not far away: Tudor Rutherglen, then in the army, now lives at Jubilee Manor.
The Smiths spent their first night as a married couple at the Strand Palace Hotel in London and honeymooned in Torquay before returning to Darlington where they rented the second floor of a house. “I wore civilian clothes and went to work on my motorcycle,” Eric says. “I fixed aircraft in the hangar and had a motorcycle business at the back. That’s how we carried on until the end of the war.”
There was no doubt they would move to Canada, but Eric stayed behind for two months while Greta travelled in a ship full of war brides. “I still remember going in that boat from Liverpool to Halifax,” she says. “Then five days across country by train. Eric’s parents met me and we got along fine.”
The couple lived at Longbeach, at first in a renovated shack formerly home to relief camp workers, and Eric held many different jobs in mining, forestry, and construction. Greta’s parents visited several times until they got tired of going back and forth and moved to Canada.
Eric and Greta moved to Nelson a few years ago, though their Longbeach property remains in the family. They have four children: Valerie, a retired nurse in Penticton; Erica, a retired social worker in Salmon Arm; Brian, who just retired after a 35-year career with Air Canada and lives on Vancouver Island; and his twin sister Daphne, who teaches at South Nelson Elementary.
“They have a practical, positive outlook on life,” Daphne says of her parents. “They never stressed or fussed about a lot of things. I think that’s a secret to being together a long time. They respected each other and had good health. Even now in their 90s they’re healthy.”
The couple are marking their anniversary quietly; family gatherings are planned in the summer.
Asked for hints to making a marriage last, Eric defers to Greta.
“Sheer determination,” she laughs. “We never had any problems. We still get along all right.”