The Story Behind Fighter Pilot’s Daughter by Mary Lawlor


For decades I’ve wanted to go back into memory and revisit how it felt to be a stranger everywhere when I was a military child. I also wanted to explore the old feelings of worry and fear I lived with when my Dad was away at war. I also wanted to think hard about what all the moving and my father’s absences meant for my mother and sisters. I started writing what turned out to be Fighter Pilot’s Daughter about five years before the book came out. The academic in me kept thinking I had to make the dates Fighter Pilot's Daughterand 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.

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. His dramatic departures, the excitement of his returns. The way the ground shook on the tarmac and the way his flight suit smelled of canvas and fuel.

My mother on the other hand came back in the photos as a tall, slender Saks girl, with thick, black hair, wearing glasses, and looking intelligent. Later she’s curled up under a tree with my twin sisters wearing a piquet sun dress. The twins are modeling Saks baby clothes. Frannie looks sweet and gentle.

The years go by fast in the pictures. My parents start looking less happy behind their smiles. The have four four little kids and the money’s stretched thin. Cocktails in the evening ease the troubles. Evidence of these nightly rituals leave are legible in their faces.

My mother’s voice comes back, her chin-up, pleasant chiming of everything’s-great-even-if-we-are-packing up-again; then 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, 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.

It took longer than I hoped—almost five years. If memory is never precise, the process of writing the memoir got me closer to the raw wounds, explosive thrills, and resentments I’m still trying to shed than ever before. 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.

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Mary LawlorMary 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.

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