Synopsis of FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER: GROWING UP IN THE SIXTIES AND THE COLD WAR
- Member's Book Title::
- Fighter Pilot's Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War
- Mary Lawlor
- Publish Date:
- ISBN #::
Mary Lawlor (Rowman & Littlefield 2013; paperback 2015)
FIGHTER PILOT’S DAUGHTER tells the story of Mary Lawlor’s girlhood in a Catholic, military family that was transferred more than a dozen times to posts from Miami to Germany as the government's Cold War policies demanded. Each chapter describes the workings of this traveling household in a different place and time. The book shows how the larger turmoil of US Cold War foreign policy permeated the Lawlors’ domestic universe.
The Introduction presents the family members in snapshots and scans the setting of the Cold War military post at different phases in Mary’s life. The post is a baffling, frightening landscape of artillery ranges and soldiers marching in formation; a walled compound imprisoning a teenager who wants desperately to escape for the liberal, civilian world of school just beyond the main gate. Later, the post figures in the author’s youthful political imagination as a station of empire and defender of capitalist world power. Finally, the military post becomes the background of fierce ideological arguments and then cautious reconciliation between her and her parents in the aftermath of the Cold War.
The story proper begins with a portrait of the writer’s father, Jack, in the early 1940s: a wildly excited student pilot, recently escaped from a sedate, New Jersey, Irish Catholic family. His letters home gleefully describe the spins and dive-bombs he learns to perform in the skies over rural upstate New York. The story turns to Jack’s seduction by, Frannie, the elegant daughter of a once wealthy Wall Street broker. Her glamor and worldliness have a sad edge, haunted as she is by her father’s bankruptcy and his hopeless alcoholism.
Tall, good-looking, and outspoken, Jack and Frannie are at the center of a busy social life in and out of New York City. They marry on a chilly November day in 1947 and start a family as the Cold War gets under way. The book narrates Jack’s departure for Korea, where he flies Corsairs and will win the Distinguished Flying Cross for bombing villages in the north. Frannie is at home with Mary and her three sisters, protecting them with a rifle she has learned to fire. When Jack returns, the romance that characterized his early marriage has faded. The family moves to Miami, and he is often away on military missions. When home, he goes out with his friends, drinks and gambles--repeating the sins of Frannie’s father. Frannie is pining for her days in New York, where she worked as a model and advertiser at Saks Fifth Avenue. She and Jack are both accustomed to adventure and play, but with four daughters on their hands, responsibility hems them in. Tension between the two builds until one day shortly before Christmas Frannie leaves with the girls in tow. Divorce is in the offing, but a sullen resolution comes about. Despite loud, vicious arguments and a relationship often based on insult, Jack and Frannie remain together the rest of their lives.
Mary, a well behaved, middle daughter, approaches her teen years with the great aspiration to become a nun. Choosing an order with her seventh grade teacher, a nun herself, she is all set to enter the convent after high school when her father receives orders to Germany. The Lawlors leave America on the SS United States in 1965. Their slow, glittering progress across the Atlantic presages her own drift away from the religious, patriotic identity of childhood.
As the Lawlor girls finish secondary school in Stuttgart and Heidelberg, the upheavals of the 1960s begin to overwhelm Jack and Frannie’s efforts to shape them as devout, lady-like patriots. The counter culture, alive and burning in Europe and Britain as much as in the US, overtakes the massive fears on which Mary and her sisters’ childhood ideology was based.
The climactic moment of the story takes place in the spring of 1968, when Jack is in Vietnam and Mary is attending college in Paris. She had left her parents’ house an ingénue, but her strict upbringing had not gone deep enough to keep her anchored to Jack and Frannie’s world. By the time the May riots break out in the Latin quarter, she has attached myself to the student leftists and American draft resisters who are throwing cobblestones at the French police. Getting word of her doings via a Red Cross telegram delivered on the airfield in Da Nang, Vietnam, Jack comes to Paris to find her. He enlists Interpol in the effort but locates Mary himself at the American College. Shocked at the unexpected sight of him, she is overwhelmed by a confusing mix of dismay and devotion. The book narrates in detail their dramatically contentious meeting. Subsequent chapters show how thick the tension was; and how, for many years, it was all but impossible for Mary and Jack to speak to each other.
The book concludes with an account of how, as a young adult, after a precarious life on her own in Germany, Mary buys (with very little money) property in Spain--a healing “beaker of the warm south”—and settles down to graduate school in New York City. At long last, she makes peace with her parents. Retired to a small Connecticut town, Jack had taken up drinking on a major scale but has turned to AA and cured himself. Frannie has not quite adapted to civilian life, but with a steady home of her own, a certain happiness has come to her. They are both ready to take Mary on her own terms. Living at a distance from the military culture and Cold War positions they so long claimed, their coming together again is still a delicate transaction. Mary, now a presumptuous graduate student, is full of herself and of exalted theories about culture and politics. Things could easily go wrong. But they find each other in the benign ordinariness of life without the military. Their reunion takes place as the forty-year stand-off between the heavily militarized US and USSR fades, the Berlin Wall comes down, and the Cold War comes to an end.
- Rowman and Littlefield