Interview with Mary Lawlor, Author of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter

About the Author

Mary Lawlor

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.

Q & A with Mary Lawlor

Where did the concept for Fighter Pilot’s Daughter come from?

Growing up in a military family meant we moved about every two years. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d been to fourteen different schools. It was exciting, but it was also a difficult way to grow up. For a long time I’ve wanted to map the sequence of moves and of my Dad’s missions and try to make sense of what it all meant for my mother, for my sisters and myself. And the best way for me to do that was to write it all down, make a story of it.

Making a story called for describing the people in my family as if they were characters. It required a plot—not just the sequence of our moves but the dramas that came with them. This demanded a lengthy journey into memory and into the complicated feelings I’d had about these experiences for so long. It also required some sort of larger focus, something to link my experiences to those of others, particularly military families. And I began to see it as speaking, in many ways, to our national experience of the cold War and Vietnam.

All the moving was hard on my mother. Every couple of years she oversaw the wrapping and packing of each tea cup and piece of silverware, every book and painting we owned. It was hard for my sisters and me to leave behind friends, and later boyfriends. We didn’t have a stable place to relate to as we grew older and were trying to figure out what kind of people we wanted to be.

Growing up with the military also meant my Dad was away a lot. We’d worry about him being in dangerous places where violence was his daily fare. And when he’d come back, we weren’t used to him, nor he us. He was strange and frightening at first; then he’d be wonderful fun. We never talked about any of this, so our house was often a tense, uneasy place and then an almost hysterically joyous one. Writing Fighter Pilot’s DaughterI gave myself the chance to finally “talk” about these complicated experiences and look at them from a distance.

The book grew in particular from the confusing feelings I had about the work my father did. As a child, on many occasions I overheard my parents talking about the Distinguished Flying Cross Dad won for bombing missions he flew in the Korean War. They also talked about the nick-name he and his co-pilot were given by a North-Korean radio personality: the killers of Charlie Kahn:. I didn’t know what that meant. I knew my father was a fighter pilot, and I knew what a war was, that people got killed. But there was something unbelievable, unreal about him being called a killer.

As a teenager I struggled to understand how I felt or should feel about these things. When I went away to college, I drifted away from my parents and got involved with left political groups and the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1968 I was in Paris, participating in the May demonstrations while my father was posted outside Saigon. When I saw him again, the resentment between us was powerful. We had huge arguments, and for a year or so we didn’t speak. I wanted, perhaps needed, to write about these things in order to sort out the emotions that were still with me.

Much later my parents and I got to be very close, and I’m deeply grateful for that. Being retired from military life, Dad had changed dramatically. He’d been a heavy drinker in his flying days. This stayed with him into retirement until he sought the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA and the peaceful life he by the sea affected him and my mother in interesting ways. Dad became more reflective, and I like to think my mother left aside some of her anger for having had to follow him around the world without a house or career of her own. All of this fueled the writing of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter. The book made it possible for me to hold my own feelings out in front of me, see them from a distance. I learned to feel more sympathetic towards my parents and the military culture they believed in.

A&RBC: Which chapter was the hardest to write?

Chapter 25, titled “Lost Days,”was difficult to write. It describes the aftermath of my time in Paris in the spring of 1968. I was back in Heidelberg, Germany, home from my baptism in what came to be called the sixties counterculture. My father was home from Vietnam. He and I were furiousat each other. My mother didn’t trust me. She was haunted by a fear that I’d become a communist (I hadn’t and never did).

The three of us were alone in the big apartment we had across the river from the Heidelberg castle. It was a beautiful place, but it was too small for us, with our heavy feelings clogging up the space. It was painful to recall and write about that.

I had changed dramatically since I’d gone away to Paris. Friends from high school seemed like strangers. I’m sure they thought I was odd. In those days, hardly any military kids were leftists. Plus I dressed elaborately. I wore an Afghan coat made of embroidered hide, trimmed with long goat hair. Bell bottoms and tie-died shirts were my uniform. Floppy hats, long earrings. Nobody but hippies wore clothes like that. They were signs of a way of life, an ideology—not a well thought out one but an ideology nonetheless.

I made friends with some of the German kids, but for the most part I was very lonely. Living in the thick of my parents anger and distrust, seeing that familiar landscape through a different lens, and spending a lot of time alone, I felt lost. It was hard to go back into those memories. Writing this book forced me to do it. I sorted out a lot of old baggage in the process. I like to think the feelings on the page are more palpable for readers because of it.

A&RBC: In the book, you live in many places, was there one particular place you were more familiar with or wanted to stay?

My sisters and I loved California. Monterey Bay and Carmel were so beautiful, the dramatic coastline, the eucalyptus trees everywhere, the soft light. We had no connection to the place other than my father’s work at Fort Ord and our life at the Carmel Mission School, an extraordinary bit of old California, but the ease of life, the sea air and mild temperatures were aesthetically and psychologically—even physically—pleasing. That translated into a sense of comfort. I think all of us imagined it as home. Fort Ord had its appeal too, Compared with the places where we’d lived in the south, on and off post, the whole area around Monterey Bay was a delight. The flat, swampy, southern landscapes had no surprises, no color, no hope. California, by contrast, smelled as good as it looked, and it was hugely fun for us. Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, the beaches—there was mystery in these places and tons of things for kids to do. We learned to sail. Nancy, Lizzie, and I started synchronized swimming, and we often got to miss school for shows. But even our school at Carmel Mission was great. It was gorgeous, and the nuns were kinds, interesting women. Dad took us camping up north.; Mom was happy. We all wanted to stay, especially Lizzie and Nancy who had boyfriends by then. But orders came to go to Germany, and that was that.

A&RBC: What do you want readers to take from Fighter Pilot’s Daughter?

I’d be happy if readers of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter took from the book a better understanding of what military kids go through. So often when I used to tell people I grew up in an Army family, they would say one of two things: I didn’t know soldiers had families; or Was it like “The Great Santini”? I don’t hear the former anymore, but you wouldn’t believe how people ask the Santini question. The response is no. Santini was an abusive father, and while many military Dads work with violence on a regular basis, they don’t necessarily bring it home. Pat Conroy tells a great story, but he says himself that it’s his story, not a representative one of military family life. Since his is one of the few narratives in circulation that features a Marine Corps pilot and his dependents as characters, it gets taken as a model of military families in general. I hope readers of Fighter Pilot’s Daughtersee that Santini’s isn’t the only story; that there are other experiences to tell.

I want readers to understand the structural difficulties built into everyday life for kids and for spouses of service people. I hope they take from my book a sense of how complicated it is to maintain a healthy, optimistic family life when you’re having to move all the time and when a parent is required to spend long months away from home on deployments.

There are other things I’d like readers to take from the book: what military culture looked like from a 60s point of view and what it was like to identify with the counter culture when you were raised in military society. I also have to admit that I’d like my mother and father to be remembered. They were complicated, fascinating, larger than life people. There are far more stories about them that still circulate in our extended family than than I was able to recount in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter. It makes me happy to hear from readers that they feel they know Jack and Frannie and my own early life. I feel a little less like a stranger wherever I go.

A&RBC: What has been your biggest achievement as an author?

I’d say writing this memoir is my biggest achievement. I’ve written a couple of other books, but they were for academic audiences. Fighter Pilot’s Daughter allowed me to move to a different level in writing and to be more creative in my thinking, even though it’s a work of non-fiction. As I’ve said already, going deep into memory was an emotionally powerful experience that wasn’t easy. I also did a lot of research to set our family episodes in the context of the cold war. That called for a lot of reading and re-envisioning our life in terms of a larger social atmosphere that many people experienced. I hope it doesn’t seem too much like bragging to say I’m very proud of having been able to do this.

A&RBC: What had been your biggest challenge as an author?

As I just mentioned, my writing in the past has largely been aimed at academic readers. That’s what I was trained to do, and it was difficult to rewire my brain to write in a very different way—to make a story instead of an argument—in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter. I often found myself slipping back into academic-ese, using words and sentence structures that only professors and graduate students relate to. It was a significant challenge to finally shed most of that literary style and tell my family’s tale in a voice that’s not that of a professor but of someone who feels the past and wants to share the dramas of those feelings in the most vivid ways possible, with emphasis not on arguments but on the vibrancy of characters, the sensation of events, the color of places.

A&RBC: Are you an avid or occasional reader? If so, what is your favorite genre of books?

I read all the time. Novels are my favorite, but I read a lot of non-fiction too. Right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. It’s an impressive novel, with tricky characters that disappear and return in different guises; and it goes on for several hundred pages. At the same time, I’m reading Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls, a work of non-fiction about the lives of three women in the Army. It’s one of a spate of books by and about warriors’ experiences that have come out recently. The topic overlaps with that of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, and it’s interesting to see how other people are thinking about military experience and its effects on character and family. I love writers with big imaginations. I’m drawn to writers who pay close attention to the details of real life. Either way, I like nothing better than to have a big book in my hands and the time to settle into reading.

A&RBC: What new project (s) are you working on?

As I mentioned, I’ve just finished writing a novel. It’s about an American woman who’s trying to make a home in a small Spanish village. There’s a good deal about it that’s autobiographical—I’ve been going to Spain for years, and my husband and I have a small house there—but it’s really about someone else altogether. This woman’s story runs parallel to the story of a young Spanish real estate developer. Their pasts, their perceptions, and interests are very different. By creating these two characters and showing their opposing ways of life, I tried to dramatize life in Spain during the boom of the 90s and early millennium. I’m hoping to see this novel in print some time next year.

At the moment I’m working on another novel, this one also set in southern Spain, about a young woman who discovers her family’s roots in medieval Al-Andalus during the time when Iberia was Islamic and Arabic speaking. She goes back in time—in her imagination or perhaps through actual time travel—and visits a medieval astronomer who works with an astrolabe. He keeps track of the hours so people know when to pray. There’s a parallel in the girl’s own life, as she tracks her family’s history and her own daily rituals in an attempt to keep time from passing.

A&RBC: Where can readers find you?

I have a website, www.marylawlor.net; and there’s a Facebook page for Fighter Pilot’s Daughter. Readings, radio interviews, and other events—plus lots of photos—are posted on both sites.

About the Book:

Fighter Pilot's Daughter 3

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.

For More Information

  • Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War is available at Amazon.
  • Pick up your copy at Barnes & Noble.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.
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