Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War


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SAMPLE READING FIGHTER-PILOT’S-DAUGHTER-Introduction-The-Pilots-House-first-10-pages

SAMPLE AUDIO Chapter One, “Learning to Fly,” of the audiobook of Fighter Pilot’s Daughter

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.

Rowman & Littlefield (August 2013)
ISBN-10: 144222200X
ISBN-13: 978-1442222007



“This engrossing memoir adeptly weaves the author’s account of growing up in a military family in the United States and Europe with domestic American and international Cold War events. Mary Lawlor’s descriptions of her parents’ origins and aging, and her perceptive, honest reflections on childhood and young adulthood between the 1950s and 1970s, are illuminated by the knowledge and wisdom that develop over decades of adulthood. In re-visiting her earlier life, the author reveals a process of arriving at a compassionate understanding of the significant people in it—relatives, friends, nuns, boyfriends, and draft resisters, among others—and through this, a clearer understanding of one’s self. She demonstrates that comprehension of the broad historical context in which one lives—in her case, the pervasive global rivalry between communism and anticommunism, and its influences on American ideals about family roles, political values, and aspirations, which she questioned and challenged as a young woman drawn into the counterculture—is crucial for attaining such self-knowledge.” Donna Alvah, Associate Professor and Margaret Vilas Chair of US History, St. Lawrence University

“As a nation at war, we know the cost of war. Soldiers lost. Soldiers coming home with permanently altered dreams. Astronomical materiel costs itemized on our collective tab. Mary Lawlor, in her brilliantly realized memoir, “Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing up in the Sixties and the Cold War,” articulates what accountants would call a soft cost, the cost that dependents of career military personnel pay, which is the feeling of never belonging to the specific piece of real estate called home. Lawlor sets the ground rules for her book right on page 2: ‘I had lots of fantasies of belonging. I dreamt of living with my New Jersey cousins, of going to the same school with them, year after year. Of living, like they did, in the same house until I would go away to college. But place wasn’t something I could ever claim.’

The lack of a sense of place is what makes Lawlor’s memoir so riveting. Without it, the author has to find another way to navigate the geography of her life. Lawlor chose her father’s plane, an apt metaphor because her father was a career military aviator, first with the Marines, then the Army. From this perspective, Lawlor looks down at the landscape of her life, which begins with the Cold War in the early 1950s. Lawlor focuses on family, and in the Lawlor family the father, the person who controls the family’s fate, rules in absentia. There is unstated rage that the father is doing exactly what he wants to be doing — flying — while Lawlor, her mother and her sisters must rearrange their lives to suit his. Her parents’ rocky relationship is a steady beat throughout the narrative, a familiar one to anyone whose parents must try to remember what they loved about each other after long, forced separations.

‘In May (1953), the five of us joined him in Miami, and for the first time in two years we were living with our father. We kept moving like gypsies nonetheless.’ This rootlessness propelled Lawlor toward rebellion. In first grade in 1955 and the new girl in a Florida elementary school, Lawlor is immediately ostracized when the popular alpha girl pronounces, ‘I don’t like Mary … I don’t like the way she acts,’ based on nothing except her outsider status. The feeling it induced in Lawlor, she writes, was growing anger waiting to explode, which it does when Lawlor finally rebels while attending the American College in Paris during the height of the Vietnam War and falls in with an underground draft resister organization. You don’t have to be Freud to appreciate the delicious irony of what follows. When the faux parent administrators at the American College find out what she is doing, they contact her father, who is pulled off the tarmac at an airfield in Vietnam right before he was to take off on a bombing mission, and granted permission to fly to Paris to rescue her from the clutches of the ‘communists.’ The book is filled with class consciousness: the frustration of explaining what a chief warrant officer (CWO) is to people who are used to birds and bars in the chain of command and yes, my daddy is still an officer; the discomfort of having African-American servants. But the real story is Lawlor and her father, who is ensconced despite their ongoing conflict in Lawlor’s pantheon of Catholic saints and Irish presidents, a perfect metaphor for coming of age at a time when rebelling was all about rebelling against the paternalistic society of Cold War America. Lawlor, to her credit as a writer, never claims victimhood for being born in a time that was shaped largely by men and living a life shaped by a father in the military. She tells her tale from the vantage point of someone who has built her own aircraft to navigate life. By the time she is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the deck of her then-retired parents’ home in Connecticut, her father has stopped his arguing and drinking and in a gesture as lovely as it is humble, he declares a truce by serving her lunch.” Bathsheba Monk, author of Nude WalkerNow You See It: Tales from Cokesville, and most recently Dead Wrong, Stars and Stripes Friday, September 20, 2013

“Mary Lawlor grew up in a fighter pilot’s house, and it was no ordinary household.
Her father, John, flew for the Marines and then the Army. The family, including her mother, Francis (“Frannie”), and her three sisters, Nancy and Lizzie (“the twins”) and youngest Sarah, traveled continuously for decades. Lawlor attended 14 schools before graduating from high school.
With her father away on missions for sometimes months at a time, Lawlor lived in a “woman’s household” on the base camps…
The book reads like a history lesson and diary in one. Lawlor reflects on her strict, conservative childhood and then her college years as a liberal, where she made friends with draft resisters and separated herself from her parents’ way of thinking…
While at school at American College in Paris with other military kids, a group of draft resisters from the U.S. came to live with her and her roommates. After attending a few rallies, she started understanding and supporting the cause…
This began a year-long battle with her father, in which the two did not speak to each other…
‘My father [believed] that war was for the nation, you believed in it, it was heroic and the right thing to do,’ Lawlor says. ‘My father thought that everyone who was against the war was a communist. And there I was, a representative of the enemy from his point of view, and he was really angry at me.’
The eventual make-up didn’t occur until 1987 while Lawlor was visiting her parents at their retirement home in Noak, Conn. She was studying to receive her PhD in English and American Literature. Her father came outside and brought her lunch without her asking, which was his way of apologizing. Lawlor was able to have a few happy years with her parents before they died in 1993 (Jack) and 2001 (Frannie).”
Mary Pickett, Allentown Morning Call
Read more:,0,2355949.story?page=2#ixzz2kG1jH3Bc

“Mary Lawlor’s memoir, “Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War” is terrifically written. The experience of living in a military family is beautifully brought to life.
This memoir shows the pressures on families in the sixties, the fears of the Cold War, and also the love that families had that helped them get through those times, with many ups and downs. It’s a story that all of us who are old enough can relate to, whether we were involved or not. The book is so well written. Mary Lawlor shares a story that needs to be written, and she tells it very well.” Jordan Rich, WBZ CBS Boston

Review Article by Jack McCallum in Muhlenberg Magazine<a

Reviews on Amazon

“I bought this book because I knew and flew with the fighter pilot: John L. Lawlor. He was a Marine Corps Aviator in WW2, but I flew with him in the Vietnam era when he was a US Army Aviator. I was the senior officer in our unit, and the commander, but Jack Lawlor, older than my mother, was a mentor to most of us. His tales of breaking formation as “Pappy” Boyington’s wingman to “bounce a Betty (Japanese bomber)” always broke up US Air Force fighter pilot bar stories. The military families influenced by the Cold War are innumerable, but this book captures the most critical period, post WW2, Korea, Vietnam.
Jack Lawlor is a legendary WW2, Korea, and Vietnam aviator and Mary Lawlor’s book connects Jack Lawlor’s family with the experiences of all military “brats” and those parents who cared about them whilst we were ‘away.’ It wasn’t only the families who shared the disconnects, as we all ventured to and fro and tried to return to a culture wherein we felt we belonged. Our own culture(s) changed along the way.” (Ron Bunch)

“I so related to Mary Lawlor’s book. As an American Army Brat growing up in Okinawa, England and Germany, I always felt like an outsider and longed to put down roots and be a “normal American”. Ms. Lawlor captures so beautifully that feeling of wanting to be part of a tribe that is continually shifting. Her descriptions of the Cold War events that shaped her youth are vivid and engaging. Ultimately, one finishes the book realizing that “home is where the heart is”. I loved this book!” (Marie Soule)

“Mary Lawlor is one of four daughters of Jack and Frannie Lawlor, a family developed, traversed and molded, for better or worse, by the immutable and awesome influences of the Catholic Church, the Cold War and the U S Army. The author has penned a penetrating, at times painful, and sometimes humorous family history created by the confluence of religion, the military, the Cold War and two strong parents who were often the binding glue and at other times destructive force. For those readers who are from military families, much will be familiar; the many moves, the abandoned friends, the harsh new beginnings in strange schools, foreign lands and uncertain surroundings. The hierarchy of Jack’s rank and duty position at each assignment conferred upon the family an often unspoken, but no less real, caste status that had a direct and often negative affect on his family as his career took them from North to South, East to West and foreign shores. Mary is exceptionally insightful as she describes how the family adapts, collectively and individually; to the changing circumstances over her father’s long and successful career spanning WWII through Vietnam and the Cold War. The success, however, is hallmarked by long absences as he goes to Vietnam twice and on many extended TDYs, leaving the family to fend for itself. Author Lawlor gives detailed portraits of her parents and three sisters, the impacts each feels from the many influences brought to them by war, Cold War and the uneasy peace in between. Mary finally leaves the family for college in Paris and a rebellion fueled by her new freedom from the cloister of the family. Her intense self-analysis, much in retrospect, gives stark revelations of the stresses she was subjected to and had not reconciled. This book is extremely well written, intensely personal and revealing of both the author and her family, yielding many important lessons of the dynamics of families under the influences of rigid institutions and challenging situations.” (Lawrence Mayes)

“Like eating something that’s delicious and good for you, this book provides page-turning immediacy with the feeling one gets when reading something that elevates the craft. The author of this insightful novels connection with the written word is more formal than that of most writers today, and, indeed, this English professor could easily use her new novel as a teaching aid – it has all the parts and pieces of a great story. Growing up hurts, and because Ms. Lawlor doesn’t run from that, the warmth and beauty it provides shines through with a warm glow. I finished Fighter Pilot’s Daughter late one night and was overcome by a sense of having just come back from a place I knew long ago but hadn’t been to for a long time. Thank you for taking me home, Mary, and for holding my hand while we were there.” (Philip C. Walsh)

“This book is a terrific read. Mary Lawlor’s experiences of the 60’s were so different from mine, but ring so true. I was transported back to that time and the difficulty and joy of growing up in the 60’s. Her experiences are illuminated by elegant research of the times that brings the adventures of her family into high relief. Her parents– distant, self-absorbed, and demanding– come alive as beautiful but flawed people doing their best. I became one of the family as I read this book, and I didn’t want it to end. Ultimately, it’s a great book about an American family!”

“I happen to be one of those people who love to read about others’ lives. To me a well-written memoir reads like a good novel only better, because you know it’s about a real person. Mary Lawlor’s “Fighter Pilot’s Daughter” captured me from the first sentence, which isn’t always the case in books I’ve read. True, the “Fighter Pilot’s Daughter” takes place in a time with which I’m familiar, having grown up in the same era. But my upbringing couldn’t be more different than Lawlor’s if we came from different planets. Her life is surrounded by the miliary and religion, two areas I have to admit were not at the top of my early references. Maybe that’s one reason the book held such fascination for me. Same years covered but with remarkably different experiences. Lawlor is a smooth, elegant writer, expressing her thoughts and beliefs as part of the physical day to day story, making sense of her life and philosophizing about the world into which she was born. Slowly over the course of growing up we can see how her changing environments (moving every two years, for example) made her life expand whether she wanted it to or not. Eventually, her preconceived ideas about her family, religion and the military life are revealed to her as her eyes are opened to the realities of the times. She reflects on her changing sensibilities and you are eased into her awakening along with her — her feelings about religion, about the war in Viet Nam and the struggles to reconcile those emerging feelings with a family mired in the cold war 50s and 60s. The book was a grabber and I couldn’t put it down until it was done. Sadly, I might add, because I never want a good read to end. I look forward to more of Lawlor’s writings and hope a new book will arrive in the near future.” (Amazon Customer)

“I should admit up front that I was mistakenly drawn to Mary Lawlor’s The Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, what turned out to be a “marvelous” memoir of growing up in the Cold War as her mother Frannie might have called the book before reading it. In choosing an account of living with parents made difficult by their unquestioning Catholicism and a devotion to the father’s military career that stretched from the triumph of WW II to the debacle of Vietnam, I thought I’d be reading about a life not unlike my own. Although a bit older than Ms. Lawlor, I also grew up in a difficult family twisted by the Depression and what we always called the War. What’s more, while my mother, like Frannie, tended to automatically find whatever I did “marvelous,” my father seemed disappointed whenever my life strayed from an early path that had given him so much vicarious enjoyment. But as I read Lawlor’s well-told tale, I discovered that our roads toward college and adulthood were not very much alike at all and that— as with all great memoirs—in reading it, I was learning as much about myself as I was about her, a revelation that has prompted this brief comment.

Ms. Lawlor’s parents were a mismatched pair, and mine were not. Frannie had the sort of higher education and expectations that girls raised in some comfort did back then, but her father, Jack, was the sort of go-getter who chaffed at schooling and sought, even in my youth, the kind of growing up (and excitement) provided by military service. While Frannie unfailingly backed her husband’s views of the world, one suspects that she was not always comfortable with that conformity. As Lawlor and her sisters grew up in the odd, almost kibbutz-like environment provided by countless assignments at military bases around the world, they dutifully learned to ape their parents’ patterns and beliefs even while being pulled in opposite directions by an alternate set of influences, the habits of behavior and conviction provided by other Army brats, who had seen different postings, and by the native kids and teens who lived near the US installations but shared very few of the Cold War certainties that shaped her family. As the girls moved through their teenage years and entered the ‘60’s cultural divide, they, like most of their cohort, felt the pull of these new ways of processing reality. The author felt this pull perhaps more than the other three girls, and when she found herself in Paris at the precursor to what is now the American University there, she erupted in full rebellion during what were called the student riots of 1968. Her participation in the upheaval caused her father to rush to France from his base in Germany to snatch her away from what he saw as debased and even criminal influences, but it was too late. She had already cast her lot with the outside agitation provided by a vast world that had been ignored during her exported Cold War childhood.

The tale of both her growing away from her parents’ assurances and into the life she eventually lived as a very good and surely inspiring college teacher is, as I say, very well told, although I sometimes felt that a few aspects of her rebellion and escape may have been left out to avoid upset among the sisters who remained alive while she wrote. On the other hand, as one reads The Fighter Pilot’s Daughter, one never feels deprived of essential details or crucial analyses. Everything one needs to understand the American self-image that blossomed after the Second War and crashed in the jungles of Vietnam is fully there and expressed in simple and elegant prose. In fact, the book’s language is one of its triumphs. There is a form of alchemy in this language that enables it to intelligently present the results of the author’s complex Cold War scholarship while at the same time providing a convincing voice for the child we see growing into and then out of the Army base culture of the book’s early chapters.

With regard to that stuff I learned about my childhood from Ms. Lawlor’s elegant presentation of her own, very little more need be said. She rebelled against the lock-step demanded by her Cold Warrior and Catholic parents because they presented a united if artificial front when enforcing the patterns of their lifestyle, something that is surely true even though one often gets the feeling that Frannie sometimes found the life as constricting as her daughters did. As I read this frequently painful story, I came to realize that I did not rebel against the life my father seemed bent on demanding of me because he did not have the same support from his wife as Jack did. My mother, though uneducated like my dad and the product of the same immigrant experience, thought that everything I did was “marvelous,” as Frannie might have, but she acted upon it, and this approval allowed me to begin building an alternative life much before a final clash came with my father. In fact, so free was my nearly subversive childhood, so lacking was it in any but self-imposed discipline that when I went to graduate school, I fell in love—at least momentarily—with what later seemed the lunatic discipline of my chosen scholarly pursuits, a revelation that came with no little embarrassment. After closing Ms. Lawlor’s book, I felt good that I’d escaped the life envisioned for me by my old man but chagrined as well that I’d grown pre-maturely middle aged in grad school and never would have answered the call to the barricades in Paris. Thanks for that, Mary.” (James Nechas)

Reviews on Goodreads

“This book is a terrific read. Mary Lawlor’s experiences of the 60’s were so different from mine, but ring so true. I was transported back to that time and the difficulty and joy of growing up in the 60’s. Her experiences are illuminated by elegant research of the times that brings the adventures of her family into high relief. Her parents– distant, self-absorbed, and demanding– come alive as beautiful but flawed people doing their best. I became one of the family as I read this book, and I didn’t want it to end. This is a great book about an American family!”

“Lawlor tells her story of growing up in a military home during the cold war, individuation during the 60s, and personal wrestling with issues of family, faith, politics, and ideals. This is an important book because it gives a poignant perspective of the generation gap between the WWII generation and the baby-boomers. Well-written, I especially enjoyed the photographs, the descriptions of the 60s, and the powerful story of struggle and tension between family allegiances and personal ideals and values.”

“This book really tells what it was like to be a child of the cold war. Lawlor captures the essence of the confusion of young adulthood–being buffeted about by circumstances and personal conflicts (with her father) echoed in conflicts that were happening in the larger world. Very well written and realized. I highly recommend reading it.”