Life can take some strange turns, and if you live 100 years you get to see plenty of interesting events unfold. Lewis Marson has cheated death at least twice, but the most serendipitous moment came in 1941 when a co-worker suggested that he should go and meet her pen friend while he was in Canada training as navigator in the air force. That random suggestion eventually led to a happy marriage to Isabel for 58 years.
Lewis has enjoyed music, surfing, gardening, faith and family over many years. Although he worked as a power company executive and as an airman in WWII, he has now been retired for longer (43 years) than he was employed! Imagine saving for retirement! “I retired in the middle of my life” he says. For the last 23 years he has been a resident at Powley house in Blockhouse Bay. Isabel was with him there until her passing in 2003.
This remarkable life began in Mt Albert on 23 December 1919 as the eldest child. Eventually the family grew with another brother and two sisters. Lewis was educated at Gladstone Primary, Kowhai Intermediate and Seddon Memorial College before going off to work at the Waitemata Electric Power Board (WEPB) at age 14. Although his IQ qualifies him for Mensa and he got through a lot of difficult situations on his wits, formal education didn’t seem to work for him. He later took accountancy but did not complete the qualification due to time and family commitments.
Lewis was fortunate to even reach age 14, having nearly drowned at Waiheke when he was 8 years old. He was on the wharf at Ostend when he noticed some sprats and descended some slippery steps to the landing platform for a better look. He slipped against the piles and was knocked out. He had gone under twice by the time his younger brother grabbed him by his heavy winter coat. He had a slow medi-vac on the steamship Onewa, which was in service between Auckland and Waiheke at the time. The gash on his head required about 12 stitches in Auckland Hospital. “I owe my life to my brother, Ralph,” he says. The two brothers have always been very close and did everything together.
Lewis is a keen and skilled musician; “I have harmony in my system.” He says. His brother Ralph played fiddle. Lewis acquired a piano accordion and sold his stamp album to pay for it. Later on, his musical ability made him very popular especially on the long voyages during the war.
For many at the time, WWII was a period of extraordinary experiences. For Lewis, it was war service as a Navigator with the Royal NZ Air Force. He rose through the ranks to Flight Lieutenant from 1941 to 1945. Following three months training in Levin, further training lasted just on a year in Canada and the UK before he was ready for action in the Middle East. He chose the Middle East because it sounded interesting. He had contracted Malaria in West Africa, and it flared up again, so his crew found a replacement for him. That flight was shot down in flames over the Mediterranean and Lewis cheated death again.
He was proud to be the Navigator in the leading plane of 100 in a massed flight over Cairo, Alexandria and Suez celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the RAF. In 1942 he transferred from Bomber Command after some months in Iraq and based in Cairo he joined many pilots delivering aircraft from West Africa to Egypt, Zimbabwe, and India/Pakistan.
With the war ending it was time to head home via New York. He had it in mind to marry Isabel, and wanted to detour to Canada to propose. He told his CO that he wanted to marry his girlfriend in Canada, and could he have permission for a detour. “No,” was the reply from above, “that’s not in the rules.” But Lewis’s wasn’t one to take a ‘no’ as final. He asked what he needed to do to make it happen, and eventually was called to his CO’s office in Cairo. He needed to send a cable to Isabel to ask her to supply evidence of his intentions of marriage. This was the first Isabel had heard of the matter, but she went along with it anyway. He says “You can do anything if you set your mind to it. Rules can often be worked around”. Lewis was granted a month’s leave in Canada to be married. Isabel had to wait for a bride ship before she could join Lewis, who had gone on by train to San Francisco, offloaded in New Caledonia, and flown home from there by the RNZAF.
Then it was back to working at WEPB. His war time experiences helped him climb the ladder at WEPB, retiring in 1976 from the role of Secretary/Treasurer after stress contributed to a heart attack.
Reflecting on his relationship after he fell in love with Isabel, he says “She agreed to marry me, a man with a property but no prospects at that time. She was happy to come to New Zealand and made her home here in Auckland”. They went back to Canada ten times and loved going back. “I was just one of the cousins.” When friends and family would comment to Isabel how nice it was that she had come home, she would reply, “My home is in Auckland now.” Isabel’s parents came over to Auckland and also lived out their lives here.
A keen surfer, Lewis surfed wherever he could, including West Africa and the Mediterranean. He officially hung up his surfboard in 2015, but managed to get in a sneaky surf at Ohope Beach a couple of years ago.
During their retirement, Lewis and Isabel travelled extensively. Lewis has set foot in 70 countries, including Antarctica where he enjoyed a quick summer’s dip in the frigid waters, but strangely, has never been to Europe! Lewis’s philosophy is, “You may only be here once; if an opportunity comes up you might as well take it.”