In the middle of June 1984 Father Ron Lawson reported to the Army’s Chaplain School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey and, now a Captain was soon deeply into basic training, feeling very pleased that he had worked out so hard to get in shape so that he could keep up with the youngsters all around him. In spite of his prior conditioning, he felt the tiring effects of the drills: after all, he was almost 50. He essentially went through a basic training course very similar to what he had experienced at Fort Holabird, Maryland in 1957 when he was a kid. He did endure combat maneuvers, in spite of his status as a noncombatant since he had to be aware of tactics, available weaponry and hand-to-hand combat—just in case. He enjoyed learning to read field maps again and was happy to know that what he had learned over a quarter of a century ago still applied. Part of this training had him become acquainted with a variety of vehicles. He enjoyed driving rapidly and roughly around in a Jeep and was proud to demonstrate a high level of skill as a truck driver. He wondered if he might be ordered to drive visiting dignitaries around, the way Private Elvis Presley did in 1959 while he served with the Army in Germany.
This school included a complete orientation for personnel of many faiths and religious beliefs who made up the different denominations represented in the Chaplain Corps. These would be the people with whom he would be working closely, especially the chaplain assistants who would be setting up services and providing security for him. He soon learned that chaplain assistants were not matched to a particular chaplain by denomination. Most of his assistants were of one Protestant denomination or another, but all were well trained in how to set up for a service of any particular faith: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or other. Included in this basic training for them were the specifics of how money collected in chapels is handled, the details of creating a budget and how to create an inventory of chapel furnishings.
In September 1984 Chaplain Lawson was allowed to take a few days leave so that he could travel to Montreal to be there for the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Archdiocese. It was September 9 when the Holy Father kissed the tarmac in Quebec City to kick off the first ever Papal visit to Canada, one of the biggest events in Canadian history. Over 7,000 letters from the young people of Quebec had been mailed to him in Rome in anticipation of his visit. A near-capacity crowd of 55,000 young people, many of them in their teens, assembled in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium where he spoke in response to many of those letters with uplifting words that were well received. The Pope, with his charisma and popularity, was able to bridge the gap between those who had mixed feelings regarding his favorite themes, and those who were his loyal followers. Several thousand clergy, including Fr. Ron, were present at St. Joseph’s Oratory on the northern slope of Mount Royal when the Pope visited this largest of all the churches in Canada. It was a never-to-be-forgotten highlight for Fr. Ron and his religious comrades.
The new Army Chaplain hurried back to Fort Monmouth to join up with a gathering of newly commissioned Catholic chaplains who were on their way to attend a meeting to be held at a retreat center in Larchmont, New York. There, about 20 of these special troops spent about a week together, getting to know one another and discussing a variety of issues of concern to be reviewed with their superior officers when they returned to Fort Monmouth. While in New York, Chaplain Lawson and several others visited the impressive St. Patrick’s Cathedral. While the grandeur of the place was surely a memorable sight, what he will no doubt remember for years was getting stuck for half an hour in the rectory elevator with Archbishop John Joseph O’Connor, soon to become Cardinal. The archbishop had the rank of Rear Admiral and was the former Navy Chief of Chaplains. Being stuck like that in a confined space can be upsetting once all conversation is used up, but is even more alarming once most of the oxygen in the air is consumed. When they were finally freed from their imprisonment in their tiny cell they enjoyed deep breaths of fresh air and then could laugh about their close encounter.
In late September, Chaplain Lawson was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland, just to the south of Baltimore and north of Washington, DC. He was well acquainted with Fort Meade from his time at Fort Holabird back in the late fifties, so he was revisiting old turf and enjoying the memories brought back by seeing familiar areas and buildings. He reported to the HQ Command Battalion, for which he became the Chaplain for the next two years. The commanding officer there was Lt. Col. Bill Parker, with whom this new chaplain soon became fast friends. Later, they ended up in West Berlin together.
After reporting to his immediate superior, Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Dan Kennedy, OMI (Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate) who was a native of Boston, Fr. Ron was given his new assignment. He was to spearhead Catholic activities at the Main Post Chapel, taking up duties there and working with a young Southern Baptist Chaplain. He soon discovered that this chaplain was quite a character with a quick wit and a ready smile, always up for some innocent mischief. The two of them got along famously for the next couple of years as they worked together.
He often reflected on what may have seemed to some to be his abrupt change in his eventful life, pondering the “why?” of it all. He concluded that the challenge of being a modern 50 year-old priest called for new horizons, new responsibilities, new quests.