Soldier's absence leaves void at home, at work


December 25, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez

The sudden departure of Marylanders for the Persian Gulf, servicemen and reservists alike, has had a huge impact at home. The accompanying articles explore that impact on the families and co-workers of three Marylanders now serving overseas.

This is what Ernie Law did:

He helped raise twin 10-year-old boys with his wife, Julia, in a nice house off Liberty Heights Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. He earned a master's degree in social work while rising from a guard at the City Jail to head its social service unit. He walked in the annual March of Dimes Walk-a-Thon, baked cheesecakes and made big pots of pigs' feet and rice. He was a handyman for his wife's extended family. He volunteered to help lead his sons' Boy Scout troop.

This is what Ernie Law does: "I can't tell you for sure,"said his wife. "But he's somewhere in Saudi Arabia with the 531st Army [Reserve] Medical Detachment . . . probably working on the psychiatric end."

Ernie Law left his job of 24 years, his wife of 19 years, his sons, Omar and Kemar, and his home of 10 years Dec. 9.

The Army major has called home only once, and no one knows when he'll be back.

Until he does, an array of people will be working to fill the void left behind when a 53-year-old man is forced from his normal orbit.

"Ernie made dinner for the kids when they got home from school," said Irene Justice, Mrs. Law's 76-year-old mother. "I do it now."

"Ernie used to help the kids with their homework," said Mrs. Law, 52. "I help them now."

"Ernie took the kids to their Scout meetings and always out for pizza or McDonald's on Friday nights," said Charlotte McDowell, Mrs. Law's 50-year-old sister. "I've been taking them to the meetings, but my money doesn't always go far enough to take them out to eat."

"I've lost half of my support with this Scout troop. When I said I was looking for leaders, he stepped forward," said Charles B. Strodtman, leader of Boy Scout Troop 274. "He was very valuable in talking with the kids and settling problems. When you have 25 boys out in the field, you need more than one man."

Mr. Strodtman said he had noticed that some of the playfulness had faded from the spirit of Major Law's sons since their father left the country. Most anyone can cook dinner and drive in a car pool, but only Dad is Dad.

"I've been sad ever since he left," said Omar.

"Daddy's not here," said Kemar.

"Ernie," said Ms. McDowell, was "always there for us."

Nina Brown, an administrative secretary, has worked with Major Law at the City Jail for 18 years. In his job, he supervised nine social workers, five correctional counselors and four clerks, and his 12-hour days were filled with meetings and paperwork.

The style and spirit of Ernie Law -- the only social worker at the jail who was around when the department was created in the mid-'70s -- cannot be copied, she said.

"You can't escape the way he wants things done -- he's an Army man and a social worker at the same time," said Ms. Brown.

"While he's methodical and a stickler for detail, he has a great sensitivity," she said.

Ernest Edwin Law was raised in West Virginia in a town called Mullens. The son of a coal miner, he joined the Army Reserves 20 years ago after a three-year hitch in the regular Army.

His army background, according to Mrs. Law, a civilian who works at Fort Meade, gives her husband a clear sense of duty.

"He said that it's an obligation, so you do it," she said. "He wasn't overjoyed, but he was very ready to do his job."

The possibility of war "really scares me," said Mrs. Law, who finds herself watching television almost constantly, telling the boys to keep quiet whenever a news bulletin flashes.

But none of the analysis spilling out of the networks gives her any idea how the tensions between the United States and Iraq will be played out.

"To me, it's almost like somebody has died," said Mrs. Law. "I lost my father three years ago, and other than my Dad, my husband has been the only man in my life.

"Ernie wanted me to carry on Christmas just as if he was here, but that's difficult...If it wasn't for the children," she said, "I'd have a very, very quiet Christmas, because that's how I feel."

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