‘Family is more than biological: A tribute to my stepfather-in-law’

Apr 24, 2019
Alva Lawson celebrating his 80th birthday. Source: Heather Harold

I read earlier this year a story about special in-laws. My stepfather-in-law — Alva Walter Lawson — was born in Waikato, New Zealand in 1914. He attended school in Pukekohe South, a town at the southern edge of the Auckland region of the North Island of New Zealand.

Alva was a small man. His size afforded him the opportunity of becoming a steeplechage jockey and he participated in many high-risk races around Auckland, including at Auckland’s premier Ellerslie racecourse. (Ellerslie is world renowned as a racetrack because of its beauty — the gardens, grounds and trees, in addition to the steeplechase track). Though steeplechase might not be as popular in other parts of the world, it is still quite a sport in New Zealand. The Great Northern Steeplechase is the country’s richest steeplechase. It’s run over 6,400 metres and is also known as the longest event in Australasia.

When World War II commenced, Alva Lawson enlisted in the army at Te Kuiti, Waikato and on March 31, 1940, he went to fight in the European War as a sapper with the 10 Railway Construction Company of the NZEF: 1st Echelon. He was part of the NZ contingent who joined Allied Forces fighting the Germans across North Africa, around the Mediterranean Ocean through to Palestine.

In 1944, his brigade was in Italy and Alva joined the Allied advance towards Rome. As he was going down the gangplank his future brother-in-law was going up. It was a strange coincidence. This was before the Battle of Monte Cassino, a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against the German defences between January and May 1944. By April, 343 New Zealanders had lost their lives. Finally the Germans yielded, but the cost was high – 55,000 Allied casualties, far heavier than the Germans’ 20,000.

A souvenir postcard of Alva Lawson from his time in the defence forces. Source: Heather Harold

While he was in Egypt with some other soldiers, Alva visited the Pyramids of Geza. Before entering, the group was asked if they would like to buy candles. They didn’t think they would need them, so declined. However, after a few paces the place was so dark they could barely see each other and changed their minds.

Following the war, Alva returned to NZ but was restless and sought a different life. He went to Papua New Guinea working in Bulolo gold dredging, using his army skills to drive a Caterpillar bulldozer.

One day his blade hit a metal object and it was a safe with a stash of gold the Japanese had buried. His reward for honesty in handing it over was an Omega Seamaster watch.

He left PNG in 1963 and settled in Sydney, where he married my mother-in-law. He told the children many stories including the one about a woman who cut everyone’s hair in Belolo. She was called ‘Madam Snip Snip’ because the local children would get scared at the mention of the word ‘cut’. She would settle them by saying “Here a snip, there a snip”. He also told of the cook they had, who he thought quite highly of until he saw that food from the floor was being used in the meals.

We called him ‘Poppa Wally’ and he left us in 2005 at the age of 91. He was a great character and I’m glad he came into my life.

Do/did you have a special relationship with your in-laws? What memories do you have of them?

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