Today I'm pleased to have Mary Lawlor on the blog to talk about her memoir and what it took to chronicle such an important time.
Fighter Pilot's Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War details author and Professor Mary Lawlor’s unconventional upbringing in Cold War America. Memories of her early life—as the daughter of a Marine Corps and then Army father—reveal the personal costs of tensions that once gripped the entire world, and illustrate the ways in which bold foreign policy decisions shaped an entire generation of Americans, defining not just the ways they were raised, but who they would ultimately become. As a kid on the move she was constantly in search of something to hold on to, a longing that led her toward rebellion, to college in Paris, and to the kind of self-discovery only possible in the late 1960s.
A personal narrative braided with scholarly, retrospective reflections as to what that narrative means, Fighter Pilot's Daughter zooms in on a little girl with a childhood full of instability, frustration and unanswered questions such that her struggles in growth, her struggles, her yearnings and eventual successes exemplify those of her entire generation.
From California to Georgia to Germany, Lawlor’s family was stationed in parts of the world that few are able to experience at so young an age, but being a child of military parents has never been easy. She neatly outlines the unique challenges an upbringing without roots presents someone struggling to come to terms with a world at war, and a home in constant turnover and turmoil. This book is for anyone seeking a finer awareness of the tolls that war takes not just on a nation, but on that nation’s sons and daughters, in whose hearts and minds deeper battles continue to rage long after the soldiers have come home.
My memoir, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War (Rowman and Littlefield), came out in hardback two years ago and was just reissued in paper. During the half year after publication I did a number of interviews and guest blogs about the experiences the book describes—growing up with a soldier father, moving every two years, and never having a home. But I haven’t had much opportunity to talk about the research experiences I went through before and during the writing process. When DelSheree invited me to write a guest post about these things for her blog, I gladly took her up.
I wanted to structure the “plot” of my family’s life chronologically, with the focus alternating between the larger picture of the Cold War, the more intimate dramas of our gypsy household, and the private convolutions of my own psychological development. These were very different stories, and each demanded its own kind of research.
For the larger picture of the Cold War, I had, of course, all kinds of books and articles at my disposal. Studying multiple histories of the many dimensions and geographies of the Cold War as a professor had given me a lot of background material for the book. Still, I had to go further, read more, think harder, about the particular phases that determined my Dad’s career. Spending time with the wars of the twentieth century wasn’t pleasant. Those are bloody stories for anybody, but for me they brought back memories of hard times at home. With the names—Eisenhower, Kennedy, Diem—and the places—Vietnam, Moscow, Havana—came recollections of base housing, where we waited for Dad to come home and hoped he was alright. Apart from the emotional edginess, though, this kind of research was relatively straightforward.
For the stories of my own family, the sources were more complicated. First of all, my father had never told us anything. Like other military dads then and now, he was committed to a code of secrecy about the missions he was involved in. He took those secrets to his grave. And he chose not share with my sisters and me those episodes he could relate: they were too violent or frightening in some other way that might shock our young (and girlish) ears. I have reason to think he did tell these stories to my boy cousins and perhaps to my mother; but she too was very circumspect and kept them to herself if she knew them.
What I did have from my Dad was a substantial collection of letters he wrote. They start during his years in college and in flight school and continue through the later years. I’m really grateful to my mother for keeping them and to my sisters, Nancy and Sarah, for letting me hold onto them for as long as I have. And a lot of military records ended up in my mother’s files after my Dad passed away. Those provided a crucial map of the very complicated chronology of his career and definitive, if cryptic, indications of where he went and what the missions were.
But much was missing nevertheless. My Dad was a good letter writer, but he would go for long periods of time without communicating anything. During his first tour in Vietnam, for example, there was a six-month period when we didn’t hear from him at all. My sisters and I had nightmares and my mother worried constantly. Eventually we heard from the Red Cross that he was alright. It was still a while before we heard from him directly. I describe the effects of all this on my psyche in the book, but for the purpose of building the narrative it meant I had to try to sort out the speculative from the factual in family rumors (still circulating) about where Dad was and what he was doing those months he was in the dark.
And all the military records aren’t there either. Big gaps fall between years, and much information about unit missions is absent. I spent a lot of time trying to get the missing records from the various US Army and Marine Corps archives. You’d think this would be pretty straightforward; after all, it’s the military, and they’re the epitome of organization, right? But not so. There are a number of these archives scattered across the country. Some of them house certain materials, and others different things. Archivists don’t all seem to know which facility has what. And one of them, a large storehouse of military records located near St. Louis, burned down in the 1970s. All those documents were lost forever.
I should say, though, that those archivists and librarians who I asked for materials were very helpful and did all they could to steer me in the right direction. Without their help, I wouldn’t have had nearly as much information to use to build the narrative of Dad’s assignments that was the plot of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter.
My mother, of course, was another resource for the story of our family. She was a great story teller. A striking character herself, she gave dramatic accounts of my Dad, his friends, the extended family, and my sisters and me as kids. But she was unreliable. She loved the story more than anything, and the truth sometimes suffered from this. I interviewed her over a period of several months—this was a few years before I wrote the memoir—and learned a great deal about our early years that I hadn’t known before. Much of it turned out to be accurate. When I checked on her versions of the larger history and her tales of my Dad’s work, however, I saw that in some instances she’d picked and chosen scenes and dialogues for their effectiveness in her story rather than as they had actually happened. I tried to make that in itself part of her portrait in Fighter Pilot’s Daughter—without dishonoring her memory.
For the convolutions of my own psychological development, I had my girl-diaries, journals, and letters to consult. They brought back some of the crucial details of daily life in our household and in the scattered rooms and apartments I called home after leaving my parents’ care. The smells of particular kinds of paint or the odd placement of windows—these details can really bring life to a memoir, and I was grateful to my younger self for having kept a record of them.
But the greater pool of information lay in my memory banks. These in some cases were wide open, but in others not so much. For the harder memories, I had to sit with whatever I could clearly recall and wait for more to come. Sometimes it took days of going back and waiting. It was like courting somebody or, I imagine, being a therapist hoping a patient would come to see something crucial. Memories of my mother’s anger at me when I came home from college in Paris during a time when I was breaking away from the family ethics and beliefs came slow and with difficulty. What was even harder to get back was the recollection that finally emerged of her actually fearing me. She didn’t understand what influences I’d been exposed to in Paris and was frightened to know what they might mean. In the end, it was all much ado about nothing, but it was a hard picture to look at: my own mother, afraid of me.
Living in memory as continuously as I did during the writing of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter introduced a rich practice in my life. The more I remembered, the more I remembered; and writing was an important vehicle for drawing it out. I’ve tried to keep that going in the months since the book first emerged. Not that I’m plotting another memoir (I’ve turned to fiction now and have a novel ready to go…), but the whole experience of going into the deep past of my youth has given the self-portrait I carry around with me a lot more dimension than before. You’d think that somebody who took on the project of writing a memoir would know a lot about the self being narrated there. On the other hand, all this the research—into the histories, letters, journals, interviews, and my own mind—not only made the book possible, but it worked like a kind of self-therapy: and a lead to several new understandings of myself as a fighter pilot’s daughter.
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About the Author
As Mary came of age, tensions grew between the patriotic, Catholic culture of her upbringing and the values of the countercultural sixties. By the time she dropped out of the American College in Paris in 1968, she faced her father, then posted in Saigon, across a deep political divide. Inevitably, the war came home. The fighter pilot, without knowing it, had taught his daughter how to fight back.
Years of turbulence followed. Then, 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 and her husband spend part of each year on a small farm in the mountains of southern Spain.