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Philly man visits Virginia for letters he sent home in 1969

April 1, 2018

CULPEPER, Va. (AP) — When Howard Lawson’s mother died in 2002 at the age of 97, his sister took care of cleaning out the family home in Amissville. His family’s Rappahannock County home then sat for years, fell into disrepair and eventually sold.

Unfortunately, the structure couldn’t be salvaged.

The house was donated to the fire department for training purposes. The new owner searched every nook one last time for anything of value and came across a trunk full of letters dating to the late 1960s.

The homeowner, wondering if they might hold some historical or sentimental value, turned the stack of letters over to a local historian, Zann Nelson, with the hope to find their home. Several newspaper columns appeared searching for the author — Howard Lawson.

One of the local historian’s colleagues, investigator Jasmin Redden, read her plea and tracked Lawson down.

On Saturday, 69-year-old Lawson, along with his wife, Cynthia, returned to Culpeper from Philadelphia to take possession of the messages he wrote his mother as a machinist mate in the engine room of the U.S.S. Saratoga during the Vietnam War.

“It really brings back the memories,” said Cynthia Lawson. “He’s the last living relative to carry on the name. I saw the letterhead and I saw my husband’s handwriting and I just thought about what he must have experienced on the ship.

“He really captured the essence of the simple things.”

The couple also visited the site of his family’s former homestead and the small graveyard where his parents — Howard Creed “Deacon” Lawson and Irma Tolbert Lawson — are still buried.

In his letters, the young man talked of being homesick, missing his mother’s applesauce and life in general on a Navy aircraft carrier.

“You just have to listen and do what they tell you,” the young Lawson wrote to his mother.

Returning to the area brought back all of those memories and more.

Lawson said his father served in the Army during World War II and worked in Washington D.C. during the week for “better wages than you could get here.” He fell in love with horses while working at the Navy yard, and became a groom and trainer. Lawson remembers his father hauling huge amounts of sawdust from the Judd family’s sawmill to replace straw bales in the stables, an economizing measure.

“He could stand there and look at a horse and tell you what was going to happen,” Lawson said. “He was a horse whisperer.”

It was their neighbors, Capt. and Mrs. L.B. Stewart, who encouraged the young Lawson to join the Navy.

“They moved into our area and in later years they became family,” Lawson said. “She was my second mother.”

Lawson also recalled his years attending the segregated Poe’s Road school, a two-room structure with one “very strict” teacher educating 46 children in grades one to eight.

After that, he attended George Washington Carver, Culpeper’s segregated high school, for several years, getting up at about 5:30 in the morning to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus. The students would change buses in Culpeper and arrive at G.W. Carver at about 9 a.m.

“It would be about 5 p.m. by the time we got home. It was a long day,” he said. “But we needed an education. We were already behind the 8-ball.”

Lawson finished his high school education at Rappahannock County High School, which had integrated by 1967. When he finished his stint in the military, he secured an efficiency apartment in the Washington, D.C. area and came home for the weekends.

He fondly remembers the Edwards, Hollands, Poes, Cookseys, Browns and other families living in the area at the time.

Lawson met Cynthia in Philadelphia when their respective friends “dragged them” to a wine and cheese event held at a horticulture center.

The way he tells the story, she came over to gush about how handsome he was and to insist they dance together.

She tells another version.

It was one of those things I didn’t want to go,” she said, laughing. “I was bored. But he came over and asked me to dance and once we started dancing I knew we’d get married. It just took a little bit longer than I figured.”

The couple celebrates their 28th anniversary in October.

They have a 41-year-old son from Cynthia’s previous marriage who’s a jazz musician in Philadelphia and a daughter who recently finished college at the University of Massachusetts and settled in Boston. They also have two grandchildren, an 11-year-old girl and 15-year-old girl.

Lawson drove trucks for Mayflower for 47 years before retiring two years ago. He’s an avid cook, movie buff and loves traveling and history.

“History’s not a lie, but it’s not the truth,” he said, winking.

Nelson said seeing Lawson reunited with his letters was gratifying, particularly because for a brief time she thought he might have already died.

“It was more than I hoped for,” she said. “I thought the letters might be significant and it would be important to get them back in the family’s hands.”

Lawson brought some of his family’s photos to share with Nelson, since she’d already had a glimpse into his past.

“It really opened up his memory box of things that were mostly positive,” the local historian said. “He really regaled us with stories.”

For Lawson, the trip south was worth every mile. Nelson, he said, told him she wasn’t sure if she’d find him alive and initially thought he might have passed on. She wasn’t sure at first if she was looking for the author, or perhaps a relative, to take the letters.

“I got a little excited thinking maybe I wouldn’t have to pay taxes anymore,” a grinning Lawson said.

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Information from: Culpeper Star-Exponent, http://www.starexponent.com

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