A 50-year-old Lawler mystery is ‘answered’ in middle of Florida
What are the odds?Iowa's population? Three million. Florida's? Twenty million.And five years earlier I had written a book about growing up 1950s-style in the small northeast Iowa village of Lawler: short essays recalling its unique characters and its character.Five years after selling a thousand copies of that book, “Depot Street Memories-The Lawler Stories,” I stumble upon a story relating to a five-decade old mystery in my hometown. It is certainly one that would have been included in the memoir.Reliving that 50-year-old mystery involved a series of events that should not have happened in a proverbial million years.It was the Saturday night before Super Bowl Sunday, 2015. Snowbirds, now living in the Des Moines area, Renee and I tried to get as close as we could to our Florida destination, with the goal of having a relatively short drive on Sunday for the beginning of the game in our Naples' rental unit. We intentionally had not made motel reservations; instead driving as far as possible from our previous night's stay in Clarksville, Tenn., just north of Nashville.“Let's shoot for Tallahassee,” I told her. “Then get up early tomorrow and head south.”But when we got to Tallahassee, we still had an hour of daylight and I was not particularly tired.“All right, we'll keep going for another hour or so, and pull in for the night,” I suggested.She was all for it.A problem arose, however, when it got dark and I was getting tired. We pulled off I-10 at an exit that displayed a motel vacancy sign. But it turned out to be rather dilapidated building, so we re-entered the highway without even getting out of the car.As the miles rolled on and we were not seeing any indications of finding a place to stay, both of us were getting concerned.Finally I said, “I don't care what it looks like or where it is, the very next chance we have to exit we're going to do it.”Around 7:30 p.m., we were relieved to see signs indicating motels and restaurants within a few miles.As we exited on the right, we could see to our left at least three nationally known motels a short mile or so on the opposite side of the interstate.Surely, one of them would have a room for two weary travelers.I pulled up in front of the entryway of the first and asked Renee to go in and check for availability. My view was such that I could see her talking to someone behind the desk, but was unable to see whether it was a man or woman.I silently prayed that we'd be able to score a room, but had some concern because it was taking a rather long time before she took out her credit card and handed it across the desk. Then she walked back to our car.“So we have a place?”“Yes, there were only three rooms remaining, and we got one of them. When we get our bags to the room, you're going to want to talk to the woman who checked us in. She's from Lawler!”That in itself was a surprise, but the stunner was yet to come. As the late-radio personality Paul Harvey might say, I was soon to learn “the rest of the story.”Although hungry and exhausted, I scurried down to the front desk immediately after carrying our bags to the room.If there was a shift change, the “Lawler Lady” might be gone; and I could not resist the chance to exchange pleasantries. That turned out to be a monumental decision.The 60ish-aged woman was still on duty and there were no other motel guests in sight. My timing was perfect.She smiled as I approached her with a big grin saying, “Okay. I hear you have a Lawler, Iowa connection. Spill your guts.”When she told me her last name, I recognized it immediately. She and her husband had moved away many years before to various places around the country.“My father-in-law, Ralph, (not his real name) lived there for many years, and my husband grew up in rural Lawler.”Although I did not know the woman's husband, her father-in-law Ralph was well known in and around the community.He was one of those notable characters who would certainly have been included in my little book, but I refrained from doing so due to his tragic death.At the time when I grew up, Lawler was 90 percent Catholic, and the word “ecumenical” was not a part of our lexicon.Ralph was of another faith, and not the least bit bashful about proselytizing others into his religion. That trait did not endear him to most of the citizens in town.He was always unkempt, unshaven and wearing dirty overalls. Ralph's mode of transportation was a beat-up old pickup, but more frequently, he was seen walking along dusty gravel roads to and from his rural home.Most folks did not have much tolerance for Ralph. However, because I worked at my uncle's D-X gas station while in high school and had the quiet “night shift” from 5 to 9 p.m., it was a welcome distraction for me when he stopped in. I tend toward a “live-and-let-live” attitude, so was never bothered about his unsuccessful effort to convert me.Those encounters happened more than 50 years ago. Frankly, I had not really thought much about Ralph in decades until meeting his daughter-in-law that warm, Florida, 2015 Saturday night.I had to ask the Lawler Lady” a question, even though I already knew the answer.“Wasn't Ralph involved in a terrible car crash?”“Oh, yes. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking home to his farmstead one rainy evening.”“And that was never solved. Correct?”I was shocked by her reply.“Oh yes! It was,” she said. “One day, many years after it occurred, my husband got an urgent phone call from a nearby hospital requesting that he come as soon as possible. A person whom the family knew well was in the intensive care unit and needed to see him immediately.”The patient, near death, made a plea to her husband, “I have been living with this burden for many years and cannot meet my Maker without asking for your forgiveness. I'm the one who hit your father. I was driving home on that dark rainy evening and struck what I thought was a deer. I didn't know what had really happened until I heard the news the next day. Sadly, it turned out to be your dad instead. I was afraid, and did not know what to do. I have kept that terrible secret for years, and am so sorry.”Without my asking, she offered, “My husband did forgive him. And the man died shortly after his confession.”Now I had a choice to make. Should I ask her who did it? There were fewer than 500 people living within the city limits of Lawler at the time, and I knew most of the farmers in the rural area. At the very least, I would recognize the name of the man who caused Ralph's death.It had remained a mystery to all of us these many years. I'm guessing that the hotel clerk was waiting for me to ask, but she did not disclose who it was of her own accord.In that moment it became as clear as crystal to me that I really did not have that choice.“It has been so nice visiting with you. Please tell your husband that you met someone from his old hometown.”I knew with certainty that it was not for me to know. The driver of that vehicle lived with guilt and shame until hours before his demise.The son was given the chance to learn what had happened to his dad ... and to forgive a dying man.That secret has to remain between the two families. I will never see that Florida motel worker again in my life, and simply do not need to know.It is reward enough for me to learn the truth about a Lawler mystery, on a warm February night 50 years later in the middle of Florida.