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Excerpt: Mary Lawlor

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

(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013)

Fighter Pilot's Daughter cover image copy


School had become part of our lives by 1955. I was in first grade, and

the twins were in third. Our school was Saint Mel’s in Miami, named

after a fifth-century Irish monk. It was, a multistoried, pink cement

structure that rose above the pale green tropical vegetation. Much of

the misery and meanness of the American 1950s was there in that

school, in miniature. The kids all knew each other. They’d lived since

birth in the same neighborhood where the school was. They’d been

through kindergarten together. The built-in relationships had hierarchies

of social power, especially among the girls. The boys were sullen and

The twins had each other. I see them surrounded by the lush flowers

and greenery of southern Florida, in pleated skirts, round collared

blouses, bobby socks, and saddle shoes. They look serious, perhaps

scared, but they’re holding hands. I was alone in my first-grade classroom.

The other kids ignored me. I knew not a sole among them. They’d go

home for lunch, but I’d find Nancy and Lizzie or stay in the schoolroom,

eating what my mother had packed in my lunchbox. Nobody else

had a lunchbox. The kids ganged up in circles in the afternoon recess.

One afternoon the prettiest, coldest girl looked at me from the edge of

her circle and pronounced in a voice loud enough for everybody to

hear, “I don’t like Mary. I don’t like the way she acts.” This mysterious

statement seared my heart and sent a flood of adrenaline that still

pumps through my veins. It was out and out rejection, and I would see

her mean, narrow figure in the schoolyard, hear the deadly judging

voice forever after. Her words stamped my marginality with indelible

I didn’t know what to do with myself at school—how to speak or

move, what postures to take. I only knew how strange all the kids were,

how close to each other, how far away I was. I…had no response to the

strangely empty charge… This original branding made sense of a number

of experiences I had already had as an outsider. Now the role was official.

Through subsequent avatars of this non-persona, a slim thread of desire

ran, a wish to belong, to be alike, to be familiar. I remember wanting this,

consciously. What I didn’t see growing, blossoming, flourishing in response

to all this was the anger—a deep, seething volcano that wanted nothing more

than to explode. It wouldn’t; not, at least, for many years to come.

Through the jagged later days in Miami, our parents grew further

and further apart. Every morning Jack went to the airfield in Opa-locka,

and experimented with new aircraft. While Frannie’s days were filled

with taking care of us, he flew around the Caribbean. She had become

an elegant, well-dressed housewife. The old wound of her father’s desertion,

exacerbated when Jack left for Korea and now again with his

frequent absences for temporary duty, was all the more provoking for

never having been acknowledged. She was aggravated too by the wrong

moves on Jack’s part. The many small ones that shouldn’t have mattered

so much—getting home late, leaving his clothes around, forgetting the

milk—grew in significance beside the big ones. Jack drank too much.

He gambled and wasted money we didn’t have. He was still partying

like a cadet. Frannie would tell us “Daddy’s out with the men,” when he

wasn’t there for dinner… When the hours slipped by, and Jack was

out who knew where, she felt not just uninvited. She was angry. What

was he thinking?…

The disappointment and the anger…toughened her. She sharpened her voice

and her posture on Dad’s sins… Frannie prepared her attack. She drove to

Burdine’s, at the time Miami’s most prestigious store. Skipping the clothes and

the perfume counters, she went straight to the jewelry department where

she purchased an exquisite, solid gold, art deco watch with a sapphire

crown. The price tag, $700. That was a lot of money in 1955, and Dad

felt it directly when she showed it to him. Turning the snaky thing in the

lamp light, she growled, “that’s how you waste good money.”


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