For decades I’ve wanted to go back into memory and revisit my crazy youth as an Army daughter. We moved on average every two years, so I was a stranger everywhere. During much of this time, my father was away at war or on dangerous exercises. My sisters and I were always anxious and frightened during those absences. This plus all the packing, unpacking, and remaking of home on such a regular schedule took its toll on all of us, especially my mother. Ever since I left my parents home I’ve wanted to explore the feelings that accompanied those unstable years.
As an English professor, I began some time ago teaching courses on fiction and film of the Cold War. Students’ questions were often directed at my own experiences: they wanted to know what it was like to see pictures on TV of the bomb exploding, of Kennedy and Jackie in the back of the navy blue limousine riding through Dallas, and much more.
Eventually I began listing anecdotes of daily life in the Cold War to bring to class. The anecdotes became stories, and eventually I found myself writing what turned out to be Fighter Pilot’s Daughter.
Studying my father’s career again—in the pages of his letters, in the photographs, and the interviews with my mother—brought back the old dramas. Envisioning Dad’s departures can still make me cry. And remembering the excitement of his returns gets my heart beating right now. I can feel the ground shaking on the tarmac. The canvas and fuel smell of his flight suit is as clear as yesterday.
My mother came back in the photos as a tall, slender Saks girl, with thick, black hair, glasses, and a look on her face like she was thinking hard about something. Later she’s curled up under a tree with my twin sisters wearing a piquet sun dress. The twins are modeling Saks baby clothes. Mom looks sweet and gentle.
The years go by fast in the pictures. My parents expressions aren’t as happy, in spite of their steady smiles. The have four little kids, and the money’s stretched thin. Cocktails in the evening ease the troubles. Evidence of these nightly rituals are legible in their faces.
My mother’s voice comes back. It’s pleasant but insistent that everything’s great even if we’re packing up the house again. Then I hear her smoky, confident growl. This brings me right back inside the itinerant pilot’s house that was “home” for so many years. The furniture is there, the paintings and the books we transported from house to house. My father comes through the door and bellows “Hi ya, Mame. What ya doing?”
In the late sixties, I had an explosive blow-up with my parents. I had joined the anti-Vietnam War movement while at college in Paris. Meanwhile my Dad was in Saigon fighting that very war. We didn’t speak for a year. Much later we found our way back to each other. Still the jagged-edged feelings lurked in my heart. Writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter helped me sort through these emotional mine fields.
If memory is never precise, the process of writing the memoir got me closer than ever before to the raw wounds, explosive thrills, and resentments I’m still trying to shed. This is what I had to go through to answer a student in the my Cold War class one day. His question—“what was it like?”—was my own. Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is my answer.
Mary Lawlor grew up in an Army family during the Cold War. Her father was a decorated fighter pilot who fought in the Pacific during World War II, flew missions in Korea, and did two combat tours in Vietnam. His family followed him from base to base and country to country during his years of service. Every two or three years, Mary, her three sisters, and her mother packed up their household and moved. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended fourteen different schools. These displacements, plus her father?s frequent absences and brief, dramatic returns, were part of the fabric of her childhood, as were the rituals of base life and the adventures of life abroad.
As Mary came of age, tensions between the patriotic, Catholic culture of her upbringing and the values of the sixties counterculture set family life on fire. While attending the American College in Paris, she became involved in the famous student uprisings of May 1968. Facing her father, then posted in Vietnam, across a deep political divide, she fought as he had taught her to for a way of life completely different from his and her mother’s.
Years of turbulence followed. After working in Germany, Spain and Japan, Mary went on to graduate school at NYU, earned a Ph.D. and became a professor of literature and American Studies at Muhlenberg College. She has published three books, Recalling the Wild (Rutgers UP, 2000), Public Native America (Rutgers UP, 2006), and most recently Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War (Rowman and Littlefield, September 2013).
She and her husband spend part of each year on a small farm in the mountains of southern Spain.
Her latest book is the memoir, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War.
About the Book:
Title: Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War
Author: Mary Lawlor
Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield
FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER: GROWING UP IN THE SIXTIES AND THE COLD WAR tells the story of the author as a young woman coming of age in an Irish Catholic, military family during the Cold War. Her father, an aviator in the Marines and later the Army, was transferred more than a dozen times to posts from Miami to California and Germany as the government’s Cold War policies demanded. For the pilot’s wife and daughters, each move meant a complete upheaval of ordinary life. The car was sold, bank accounts closed, and of course one school after another was left behind. Friends and later boyfriends lined up in memory as a series of temporary attachments. The book describes the dramas of this traveling household during the middle years of the Cold War. In the process, FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER shows how the larger turmoil of American foreign policy and the effects of Cold War politics permeated the domestic universe. The climactic moment of the story takes place in the spring of 1968, when the author’s father was stationed in Vietnam and she was attending college in Paris. Having left the family’s quarters in Heidelberg, Germany the previous fall, she was still an ingénue; but her strict upbringing had not gone deep enough to keep her anchored to her parents’ world. When the May riots broke out in the Latin quarter, she attached myself to the student leftists and American draft resisters who were throwing cobblestones at the French police. Getting word of her activities via a Red Cross telegram delivered on the airfield in Da Nang, Vietnam, her father came to Paris to find her. The book narrates their dramatically contentious meeting and return to the American military community of Heidelberg. The book concludes many years later, as the Cold War came to a close. After decades of tension that made communication all but impossible, the author and her father reunited. As the chill subsided in the world at large, so it did in the relationship between the pilot and his daughter. When he died a few years later, the hard edge between them, like the Cold War stand-off, had become a distant memory.
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