Some mysteries will not be rushed.
A man in New Bern in the 1990s pries loose a bathroom floorboard and discovers a letter dated Jan. 17, 1946, addressed to a man at 3412 Oakwood Avenue in Charlotte.
In the letter, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal is expressing to Mr. Richard Clifton Doster the Navy’s pride in his recent service and wishing him well. Forrestal concludes: “You have served in the greatest Navy in the world.”
Also in the envelope are two photos. One of a smiling young woman in shorts, long legs bent, hands clasped at her knees. The other is of a group of Navy men around a table.
How did the letter, with its envelope slit at one end, find its way under the floorboards in a New Bern apartment? So far, nobody has a clue.
What’s lucky is that the man who found it, Richard Harrington Jr., didn’t toss the letter. Recently, he sent it and the photos to his dad in Florida. Harrington Sr. was captivated. “The photo of the young woman tugged at my heart strings because it is so iconic of the poses that were sent to loved ones deployed far away, some who never came home again,” he emails me.
Harrington was determined to find Doster’s descendants and send them the long-lost letter and photos. He contacted a cousin in Charlotte who emailed me.
With the help of Jane Johnson in the Carolina Room of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Main Library, we learned a lot about Doster, including the names and whereabouts of his children: son Charles Doster, 84, lives in Charlotte; and daughter Jean Doster Auten, 82, lives in Wilmington.
We also unearthed a more leisurely way of life, when kids were free to roam the neighborhood until the streetlights blinked on, and milk was delivered to the door.
According to the 1940 census, Richard Doster and his wife, Arietta Hope Doster, were born in Mooresville – Richard in 1908, Arietta in 1909. They met at a Halloween party in Charlotte.
Both worked at the Hudson Hosiery Mill on North Brevard Street. Richard was a knitter; Arietta a topper.
Son Charles was born in 1928; daughter Jean in 1930.
About 1937, Richard and Arietta and Richard’s younger brother, Roy, and his wife, Sarah, bought adjoining lots – 3412 and 3416 – on an undeveloped street in North Charlotte – Oakwood Avenue between Herrin Avenue and Academy Street.
By 1938, when Jean was in third grade at Plaza Road Elementary and Charles in fifth, the Dosters moved into the two-bedroom, one-bath house at 3412 Oakwood Ave. Auten says her parents paid $3,200 for the bungalow, with monthly mortgage payments of $28.
No longer a village, Charlotte’s population had passed 100,000 by 1942, when Richard Doster joined the Navy. The leisurely streetcars had been abandoned for a network of expressways to speed travelers across town.
But on the graveled Oakwood Avenue, Auten says life was as slow and easy as the sprinklers that twirled on summer evenings.
“We were just free to go and run,” she says. “We knew the whole neighborhood. You could go to any door and ask for a cookie. You knew that wherever you went you were safe.
“We were a block from Plaza Road School, and we ran home for lunch. If you fell off your bike and skinned your knee, someone was always there to take you home.”
At Halloween, one of the Oakwood Avenue mothers invited all the children over for punch and cookies. Afterward, says Auten, they took a bus to the Square in uptown, where a huge crowd gathered to show off their costumes.
Summers, the mills closed for the Fourth of July week, and Auten says her family always rented a house down at Carolina Beach, where other mill families also rented houses the same week.
But the years her father was in the Navy – some of the time, on the small destroyer escort USS Halloran – weren’t as carefree.
“We missed him a lot,” she says, “and Mom had to really work hard. It wasn’t easy getting the food we were used to. I can remember the sugar rationing. We didn’t have a car, and a friend would pick her up on Friday evenings to go grocery shopping.”
“My mother did good,” she says. “She kept it all together.”
Not long after Richard Doster returned from the Navy in 1945, Hudson Hosiery shut its Charlotte doors and moved to Germany. Doster and his brother, Roy, went to work for the city’s traffic department.
Son Charles, who played football and baseball at old Charlotte Tech, graduated and joined the Army. Later, he saw action in Korea.
Jean, a Charlotte Tech cheerleader, married her high school sweetheart William Jack Auten, and they later moved to Wilmington.
For years, Arietta Doster sold curtains at Sears on North Tryon Street. Later, in the ’60s and ’70s, she and her sister-in-law, Sarah Doster, worked in the cafeteria at Eastover Elementary.
“They worked hard,” says Charles Doster. “But they had a good time on the weekends. Sometimes my parents went dancing.”
50 years in the house
Arietta Doster lived at 3412 Oakwood for more than 50 years. She died in the house in 1989 at age 80. Richard Doster lived on there until 1996. He went into a nursing home and died at age 88 a few weeks later.
From the outside, the Richard Doster house today looks much as it did in 1938. Roy Doster’s house, at 3416 Oakwood, has been renovated to include a second story.
Open a Charlotte City Directory or log onto Ancestry.com or Google, and some long-ago details are readily available. Other information is more elusive, the details perhaps lost forever.
How would a letter addressed to Richard Clifton Doster in Charlotte – and apparently opened by him (it included two of his photos) – find its way beneath floorboards in an apartment in New Bern? Doster’s children have no answers.
If you can help solve this mystery, please let us know.