Monday, November 24, 2014

PUYB Book Club Chats with Mary Lawlor, author of 'Fighter Pilot's Daughter'

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.

For More Information
About the Book:

 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.

Thanks for joining us at the book club, Mary!  I am loving your book.  I am an Army brat myself and I know what it’s like to grow up in the sixties so this is right up my alley.  Can we begin by having you tell us what it was like for you growing up in an Army family during the Cold War?

Mary: The Cold War, of course, made tense life for everybody. On American military bases, though, fears of the bomb and nuclear war were really brought home.  Our fathers had to be ready all the time in case they might have to join their units and go to war. This turned many of them into stern and emotionally inaccessible men whose minds could not be drawn home from events happening elsewhere.  Our Dads were committed to a code of military secrecy, so they couldn’t tell us what they were thinking about or preparing for.  Still, frightening stories of what could happen made their way through the censorship.  We lived with images in our heads of the Russians pouring through the Fulda Gap in Germany or firing off missiles from nuclear-armed submarines only miles off the east coast of the US.  We imagined World War III as a real possibility.  Riding the bus to school, my sisters and I would pass soldiers marching down the post roads.  In the car with our mother heading for the grocery store, we’d hear ordinance exploding on the other side of the base. The everyday environment was literally designed for disaster.  The PX, the commissary, bowling alley, even the beauty shop had fallout shelters in the basements, indicated by the civil defense insignia—that scary-looking black and yellow wheel.

As kids, we had to be ready too.  You were supposed to know where the nearest shelter was in case a bomb hit while you were playing hop scotch.  If some threatening event occurred while you were in school, you had to know where to go and what to do. And you had to be ready to have your father disappear.

At the same time, in spite of all the threatening ideas and images, we felt the US had a special dispensation, that it would survive any evil that came at us.  There was something naturally right and powerful about America that would see it through difficulty, no matter what.  We believed this in our bones. At the base movie theatre, before the feature started, the Star Spangled Banner would play while the flag waved on the screen. Every kid, mother, and soldier stood and crossed their heart or saluted.  At dusk when the flag went down, you’d hear a trumpeter playing Taps.  If you were in the public zones of the base, you’d stop what you were doing and stand at attention.  Vehicles would come to a halt, and people would get out.  Shoppers put their bags down to cross their hearts.  Babies and pets were quieted.

It was a dramatic way to grow up.  There was nothing banal about it.  In retrospect, it looks a little crazy too.

I also remember how hard it was to keep friends being on the move all the time.  Have you ever thought about making contact with other Army brats that you grew up with?

Mary: We moved almost every other year. By the time my father retired, my parents had moved twenty times. I went to fourteen different schools before I got to college. This could be exciting—new places to explore, new kids.  A different house.  But like you say, it was very hard on friendships. My sisters and I learned to swallow our fears and walk into rooms full of strangers—kids who didn’t know us and often didn’t want to.  Some bases had their own schools, so even if you were new and didn’t know anybody in your class, the other kids were from military families and shared your experience.  My parents, however, always tried to place us in Catholic schools.  The other students had known each other since kindergarten, and we were just irrelevant oddballs.

When we moved to Germany in the sixties, my sisters and I were too old to absorb the language quickly enough to attend local schools.  We actually had a pretty good time in high school there because we were with other Army kids.  We got close to some of them and kept in touch.  I met my oldest friend, Stella Soulé, at Heidelberg American High School.  Apart from her, I hadn’t been in contact with anybody else from those years until the invention of social media.  Since then I’ve been getting news from a lot of people I knew during those years.  It’s very interesting to see how they’ve done and where they are now.  We’re barely recognizable to each other.  Still, a bond is there—that shared experience of being a traveller, without a home, for so many years.

For you, what was it like growing up in the sixties? 

Mary: The sixties brought some pretty dramatic changes in our household, as they did in the culture generally. Lots of social forces made for the changes: reaction against the conformity of the fifties; Eisenhower’s advise to keep a critical eye on the expanding “military industrial complex”; JFK’s assassination and the murky results of the investigations; and many other things. Then the Vietnam War became a huge cause of growing divisions in America over politics and foreign policy.

In our house, we didn’t talk about these issues. Throughout the early sixties, things remained pretty much the same as they’d always been for us.  Then in 1967 I went off to college and found myself in the company of people who were resisting the Vietnam War. I had always been a devoted child, but in a matter of months I made friends with leftists and  ended up joining the demonstrations.  My new friends introduced me to psychedelic music, flea market clothes, and, of course, pot and hashish.  It was all fascinating but at the same time terrifying. Having grown up in a carefully disciplined environment, I was at first very intimidated by all I was seeing and hearing.  Eventually I started reading the books and listening to the music the others people were into.  I became part of my generation instead of my parents’. That resulted in a huge explosion at home, and the beginning of a domestic cold war that traumatized all of us and lasted for years. 

Looking back over the years growing up in an Army family and traveling all over the world, what location was the most memorable? 

Mary:  California was (and is) probably the most memorable place.  Monterey Bay was so different from anywhere we’d lived back east.  It was beautiful—open, dramatic landscapes, cypress and eucalyptus trees on the cliffs above the beaches.  From Fort Ord, my sisters and I rode a bus to Carmel Mission School every day.  Even the school was gorgeous.  The classrooms looked out on an eighteenth-century plaza with a fountain and gardens all around it.  The nuns were kind, interesting women.  They inspired me to want to join an order.  That idea stayed with me for several years. I never acted on it, but it’s part of what makes my memory of life there so vivid.

The friendships we made in high school were also stronger, more meaningful than when we were younger.  My sisters had boyfriends for the first time.  Then we had to leave all that behind when my father got orders to Germany.

What experience do you think was the most memorable?

Mary: Let me answer by speaking of two experiences, equally powerful, equally disorienting The first was the experience of finding myself, when we were transferred to Germany, in a baffling new world. We arrived by ship—the SS United States—which was an amazing experience in itself.  When we went ashore on the other side of the Atlantic, the ground swayed for a couple of days. That and the different language coming in our ears, the sights of Frankfurt and Stuttgart, plus the different smells and sounds all made for a pretty striking introduction. I was fifteen, and my sisters were two years younger and older. We were all developing physically and emotionally, and that added to the strangeness we experienced on entering this new world. I wrote in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter that sitting in the backseat of the car was “like being inside a fish tank, floating, looking though glass at moving scenes and images I couldn’t make sense of.”  The Germans had different clothes, facial expressions, ways of moving.  Everything was an exotic spectacle; but when we got out of the car, we were the ones who were stared at.

The second experience was my move to Paris in 1968. I had wanted to go to college in the US, but my parents were too appalled by the political and cultural upheavals underway on American campuses to let me go there. Instead, and this is of course profoundly ironic, they sent me off to Paris, which was, it soon become clear, on the verge of a student-led revolution. Once again the earth swayed under my feet; once again I got my sea legs in the new culture. And when my parents saw what I was becoming, they moved heaven and earth to save me. What followed was something like one of those cultural de-programmings. It took decades to repair the damage.

Do you remember in your own personal experience if you had friends who weren’t Army brats like yourself?  We lived on the base so I know I don’t think I knew anyone else.  What about you?

Mary: Because our parents sent us to Catholic schools, we did make friends off the base.  I had a few close friends in high school in California and stayed in touch with them for several years.  

In Germany, our first house was in Aichschiess, a small village at the edge of the Black Forest.  Across the street lived a girl named Angela with whom my sisters and I became close friends.  We didn’t speak German, and she didn’t know English, so our communications were clumsy.  But Angela was incredibly smart and had a lot of imagination.  She was great at pantomiming and acting out what she wanted to say or ask.  She showed us around the village, introduced us to people.  She was so vivacious and interesting.  I think she wanted to leave Aichschiess, as much as she loved the place.  She was part of a generation that was getting ready to break away from the world of her parents, like we were.  Anyway, after less than a year, we moved into American family quarters closer to where my father worked.  We never saw Angela again.

While attending the American College in Paris, you became involved in the famous student uprisings of May 1968. Ohhh tell us about this!

Mary: This is a long story that takes up several chapters in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, but I’ll try to give the outlines here.

As I mentioned earlier, I left my parents’ home in the fall of 1967 to go away to college.  Because campuses all across American were exploding, so to speak, with student movements and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, my parents thought it would be  better for me to go to college in Europe or the UK.  We settled on the American College in Paris, at that time a two-year liberal arts institution that geared itself toward the needs of US diplomatic, corporate, and military families living in Europe.  So off I went on the train that September, still the dutiful daughter I’d always been.  I was hugely excited.  I was on my own, and I was going to Paris!  The American College didn’t have dorms in those days, so students either lived with French families or found apartments on their own.  I ended up living in an apartment with new friends who became really important influences on me.  One was from San Francisco and the other had been to a very progressive secondary school in Vermont.  They were reading books and listening to music I’d never heard of before.  They also talked about politics.  They, and I along with them, got to know French student leftists who were organizing demonstrations against the French government’s ways of running their universities.  Then we met a group of young draft resistors who came to Paris from the US.  They were organizing against the American war in Vietnam.  In the spring of 1968, the French students started demonstrating against their government.  Soon they were joined by workers who had their own complaints.  Both groups were against the Vietnam War, and lots of organizations that shared this position showed up for the demonstrations.  In May of 1968, the city was torn up by riots.  My friends and I joined the fray.  It was dramatic, frightening, thrilling, unforgettable.  And the whole time I was involved in the anti-war demonstrations, my father was on the other side of the globe, fighting that very war north of Saigon.  We had a huge confrontation over this in the spring of 1968—it’s the climax of the book—and it took us many years to get close again.

If you wanted people to at least take one thing away after reading your memoir, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, what would that be?

Mary:  The most important thing I’d like readers to take from Fighter Pilot’s Daughter is a deeper understanding of what military kids and spouses go through.  I hope very much that readers, will see, if they don’t already, how complicated it is for the “dependents” of military people to maintain relatively healthy and happy family lives when they’re required to move all the time and spend long months separated from the parent who’s deployed to war.  Military “brats” make up a significant sector of the American population, and I believe it’s still widely misunderstood. 

Often when I used to tell people I grew up in an Army family, they’d say one of two things: a) I didn’t know soldiers had families; and b) Was it like “The Great Santini”?  You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been asked this question. The answer 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 in his novel and memoir about his father, but as he says himself it’s his story, not a representative one of military family life.  Because his is one of the few narratives in circulation that features military personnel and their dependents as characters, it gets taken as a model of all service families.  I hope readers of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter see that there are other kinds of families with different stories to tell.

I hope readers will be able to see what military culture looked like from a 60s point of view and what it was like for a young person to identify with the counter culture after having been raised in military society.
I have to admit too 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 than than I was able to recount in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter; but it makes me happy to hear from readers that they feel they know Jack and Frannie; that they have an idea of what our lives were like.  The fact that people tell me this makes me feel somewhat less of a stranger wherever I go.

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