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.
A student in the back of my class on Fiction and Film of the Cold War raises his hand. “Professor Lawlor, what was it like being an Army kid in the Cold War?”
I’m thinking, right, he really wants to know. My sarcastic inner voice comes up quickly. He hasn’t done the reading, it says. He’s playing to my vanity. Trying to bring up his C- so he can slide by.
Then I notice other people, closer to the front actually looking interested. They’re good students who listen and speak and who now and challenge my readings politely and astutely. The collective gaze shows curiosity. Either that or the kid knew what he was doing: his question really did get to my vanity.
I push the cynical voice down and keep my focus on those faces up front. “Okay,” I say. “We’ll give that a couple of minutes.”
It’s like turning on a tap. The words start to flow. “We moved every two years. By the time I went away to college, I’d been to fourteen different schools.” They’re bug-eyed. I glance at the kid in the back, and he’s slouched on the desk, chin in hand, eyes focused. I still don’t trust him, but who cares? The others really look like they want to hear more.
Somebody up front asks “Was it like in that movie, Santini? “
“The Great Santini is probably how most people in this country understand military family life,” I say. “It’s true and not true.”
The kid in back raises his hand again. “Did you have to, like, call your Dad “Sir” all the time?”
“No. Santini made his kids do that, but he was an abusive father. Not all soldier dads were like that. They dealt with violence by profession, but most of them didn’t bring it home.”
More questions, more answers. I look at my watch and fifteen minutes have gone by. Past time to stop this and get to the foreign policy we’re talking about today. Yawn, yawn. Everybody moves sluggishly to get out the George Kennan and their copies of National Security Council Document #68.
* * *
That day was one of the few times I talked at length in the classroom about my own life. The students in my course at Muhlenberg College on Fiction and Film of the Cold War wanted to hear about it from the personal side, not just from the books. When did I first see JFK on TV? How did it feel when he died? Where was I? What about the bomb shelters, duck and cover, fear of communism?
I went with the flow, and the memories kept coming. For decades I’d wanted to sort out how it felt to be a stranger everywhere, to struggle through the frightening days (and nights!) when my Dad was away at war. I wanted to try to imagine how my mother felt, and what it meant for my sisters. I started writing what turned out to be Fighter Pilot’s Daughter. The academic in me kept thinking I had to make the dates and world historical events clear, but another part of me knew it was the personal stuff, the raw feelings and images, that would bring out more memories and make a better story.
Confronting my father again—in the pages of his letters, in the photographs, and the interviews with my mother—brought back the old dramas. His long absences, the excitement of his returns. The great bear hugs; the terrifying fears.
Meeting my mother in the photos, I see a tall, slender Saks girl, bespectacled, smart-looking under a helmet of thick, black hair. Later she’s curled up under a tree wearing a piquet sun dress, my twin sisters crawling around her in Saks baby clothes. She’s sweet and gentle looking.
The years march by fast in pictures. My parents start looking sour behind their smiles. The burdens of four little kids and not enough money are starting to show. The trouble is easier to take when there are cocktails every night. I see the traces of these nightly rituals in their expressions.
I hear my mother’s voice—the chipper everything’s-great-even-if-we-are-packing up-again; and her smoky, confident growl. It brings me right inside the moving pilot’s house that was “home” for so many years. I see the furniture, the paintings, the books. I hear my father coming in the door. He says “Hi ya, Mame. What ya writing?” I close the computer fast before he sees what’s there.
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, remnants of the jagged-edged feelings lurked in my heart. Writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter helped me sort through these mine fields. I came to a more sympathetic understanding of my mother and father, the people with whom I had argued so much but who I always loved and still miss.
The book took longer to write than I’d hoped—almost five years. Even though memory is never precise, the process of writing the memoir got me closer than ever before to the raw wounds, explosive thrills, and the ever lingering fear of those days. This is what I had to go through to answer that kid in the back of the classroom. His question—“what was it like?”—was my own. Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is my answer.
About the author:
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.