INTRODUCTION: THE PILOT’S HOUSE
The pilot’s house where I grew up was mostly a women’s world. There were five of us. We had the place to ourselves most of the time. My mother made the big decisions—where we went to school, which bank to keep our money in. She had to decide these things often because we moved every couple of years. The house is thus a figure of speech, a way of thinking about a long series of small, cement dwellings we occupied as one fictional home.
It was my father, however, who turned the wheel, his job that rotated us to so many different places. He was an aviator, first in the Marines, later in the Army. When he came home from his extended absences—missions, they were called—the rooms shrank around him. There wasn’t enough air. We didn’t breathe as freely as we did when he was gone, not because he was mean or demanding but because we worshipped him. Like satellites my sisters and I orbited him at a distance, waiting for the chance to come closer, to show him things we’d made, accept gifts, hear his stories. My mother wasn’t at the center of things anymore. She hovered, maneuvered, arranged, corrected. She was first lady, the dame in waiting. He was the center point of our circle, a flier, a winged sentry who spent most of his time far up over our heads. When he was home, the house was definitely his.
These were the early years of the Cold War. It was a time of vivid fears, pictured nowadays in photos of kids hunkered under their school desks. My sisters and I did that. The phrase “air raid drill” rang hard—the double-A sound a cold, metallic twang, ending with ill. It meant rehearsal for a time when you might get burnt by the air you breathed.
Every day we heard practice rounds of artillery fire and ordinance on the near horizon. We knew what all this training was for. It was to keep the world from ending. Our father was one of many dads who sweat at soldierly labor, part of an arsenal kept at the ready to scare off nuclear annihilation of life on earth. When we lived on post, my sisters and I saw uniformed men marching in straight lines everywhere. This was readiness, the soldiers rehearsing against Armageddon. The rectangular buildings where the commissary, the PX, the bowling alley, and beauty shop were housed had fallout shelters in the basements, marked with black and yellow wheels, the civil defense insignia. Our dad would often leave home for several days on maneuvers, readiness exercises in which he and other men played war games designed to match the visions of big generals and political men. Visions of how a Russian air and ground attack would happen. They had to be ready for it.
A clipped, nervous rhythm kept time on military bases. It was as if you needed to move efficiently to keep up with things, to be ready yourself, even if you were just a kid. We were chased by the feeling that life as we knew it could change in an hour.
This was the posture. On your mark, get set. But there was no go. It was a policy of meaningful waiting. Meaningful because it was the waiting itself that counted—where you did it, how many of the necessities you had, how long you could keep it up. Imagining long, sunless days with nothing to do but wait for an all-clear sign or for the threatening, consonant-heavy sounds of a foreign language overhead, I taught myself to pray hard.
I remember my father warning of sudden invasions, Russian tanks and banners poring through the Fulda Gap from East Germany into the West. Jack taught us to expect these advances, the sudden appearance on a near horizon. I imagined the aftermath of the lost war. American kids and mothers too lined up like soldiers submitted to an oppressive regime’s harsh discipline.
These scenarios were worse in some ways than the nuclear night- mares, the scenes of the great nothing—empty streets, trash blowing in the toxic wind; no people, no nature. The bomb, soon after it was launched, would wipe out everything. Readiness would prove an illusion. Suddenly engulfed in toxic airwaves, my sisters and I—if we were still alive—would have to grow up fast. Left to wander a scorched earth, we would “live” in bafflement at the memory of our duck-and-cover preparations.
In spite of all the breath-holding and panic practice, my sisters and I were given to think ours was a world of sunny liberty; and the target, of grim, determined men far away. They watched for the chance to catch and smother our happiness. The horror visions came and went because we, like millions of other kids, were told again and again that liberty, the exclusive property of America and its friends, was and always would be held up by its own, natural strength. This strength had to be cared for, tended, groomed, protected. That’s what our fathers did. They took care of liberty. The carefully guarded strength meant the invasion might not happen. But then it might.
Our fathers knew the particulars in threats of war, but we, the daughters, sons, and wives known collectively as “dependents,” found ourselves on the receiving end of terrifying, half told stories of what sounded like imminent catastrophe. The stories were maimed by our fathers’ commitment to a code of military secrecy, to a self-censorship we sort of knew about. That was how things were, floating, half told, partly known but mostly not. Dads were present, intermittently, but even the youngest kids could sense there were limits to what you could ask, fences around what they could say. Our fathers were divided, distracted, distant, even when they paid attention to us.
When I think back now, this not-knowing was one of the strangest things about life inside the walls of our “quarters,” as houses on the post were called. The waiting and watching weren’t based on the knowledge of anything. We tried to decode our mothers—to interpret their facial expressions and body language—while they tried their best to fathom the moods of our fathers. Growing up in a military family during the Cold War was an experience in not knowing. It was like living in a censored document; with black tape partly blocking everything you saw and heard. If Dad understood things clearly and definitively, he never let on. So we lived in this half-light. It was as if something was always up, something threatening on the edge of what you could see and hear, but you never knew what it was.
In our household, the horror of imminent, total destruction was compounded by the sort of Catholicism we practiced. Our religion emphasized the last chapter of the Christian narrative, the story that told of the end of the world, when time itself would come to a conclusion and we’d all be judged. The image of Christ coming in a fury to sort the evil from the good faded as my sisters and I grew older, but while we were young, it sat reasonably well beside the fearful image of a bombed and desolate planet. The ruins of the nuclear nightmare would simply be a prelude to the judgment. The United States, gone up in mutual destruction with the malignant powers of the Soviet Union, would be resurrected in the aftermath. Christ would come riding in on a cloud; point this way and that as trillions of souls climbed out of their graves. The sorting would send the mournful damned to an eternal twisting and turning in endless discomfort. It wasn’t pain exactly, not everlasting torture, but a constant squirming and fidgeting, a ceaseless effort to position yourself comfortably. The good people, on the other hand, who were more substantial than just souls, would get clouds like Christ’s and ride up to heaven with him. You would always be at home there, light, comfortable. And heaven would be full of Americans.
Visions like these would later seem laughable, but in the 1950s they were powerful motivators for good behavior. If you didn’t do all the things your parents and the military leaders wanted you to, you could weaken and fall prey to the devil. He—the devil was absolutely, profoundly male—was always around, hankering, watching, waiting to get at you. So you had to be good all the time. Goodness was a shield, a force field that kept the devil back. He was always ready to slip inside the webs of imagination, whisper something in your ear, put an image in your mind that was bad, bad, bad. If you weren’t washing the dishes or doing homework or giving up some shiny object you liked so your sister could have it, the devil could get at you.
Similarly, if you weren’t careful and aware all the time of the kinds of ideas you heard, you could be influenced by communists. A communist would whisper mal influence in your ear, like the devil did, or slip you a note with some corrupting thought scrawled on it, now in your brain forever. These were some of the arguments J. Edgar Hoover spelled out in the doggish prose of Masters of Deceit, a book I never read because I was afraid it might show me more about communism than I wanted to know.
We were quiet when our father came home from work every day and even quieter when he came back from TDY—temporary duty assignments that could take him away for a week or months at a time. Mom and Dad would have a cocktail, alone in the living room. They murmured to each other in tones we could barely hear. Dinner was formal. We used the silver every night, a linen tablecloth, and candles. We sat up straight, napkins in our laps. We used the knives and forks in a very particular way. My three sisters and I were raised to be “ladies,” to reflect my mother’s identification with an Irish Catholic, anxiously upper-class culture. Being a lady didn’t necessarily involve being feminine. It was the right set of codes for the class my mother—we called her Frannie behind her back—wanted us to mirror.
Not long ago the journalist Mary Edwards Wertsch, another Army daughter, published Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress, a vivid account of military family life with The Great Santini tagged as “our first family portrait.” The general tone of discipline that characterized the Santini household reflects pretty accurately the obsession with order and control in many of the military homes I saw growing up. And Santini’s acute consciousness of how the family looked to his superiors—the men who would decide on his next promotion— reflects the careerism deeply embedded in military culture. But formal rituals of inspection and strict daily codes like the Santini kids had to endure under their father’s literal command, wasn’t the pattern in our household. We followed our father’s rules for being tidy, punctual, and concise because there were no alternatives. These practices were internalized in us early on. Drills and inspections at home would have been redundant.
Of course, many of the formalities of military professionalism as it was conducted on post found their way into daily life at home. In our house, your bed had to be made as soon as you got out of it, and you couldn’t sleep late, even on weekends. If I was too sick to go to school, my father would keep a close eye on me, as much out of suspicion I might be playing hooky as for concern about my health. But Frannie would never have put up with his addressing us as soldiers or line us up for inspection.
It was a matter of taste. At the dinner table, there was a certain script we were expected to follow, but it had more to do with my mother’s concerns that we be shaped according to the expectations of our social class than with military rigor. My parents would start the dinner conversation, and we spoke whenever we found an opening. If one of us was in high spirits, we might tell a story or try out some joke, and laughter might follow. Still, when the story or the joke fell flat, you felt estranged and lonely. It was the loneliness of an isolated voice in a frightening time, a voice cut away from the common banter, left out, understood by nobody.
My father, John LaBoyteaux Lawlor, known by everyone close to him as Jack, was a decorated military pilot. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for action during the Korean War, eight Air Medals, and the Cross of Gallantry for service in Vietnam. Because he specialized in testing new planes and teaching people how to fly them, we moved a lot—almost every two years. I went to fourteen schools by the time I graduated from high school. This was not unusual for military kids during those years, and I know of many who moved even more.
My mother was Frances Walsh, who everyone knew as Frannie. Her people had been well positioned socially, inheriting, losing, rebuilding small fortunes over the few generations they’d been in the United States. Frannie always had mixed feelings about military culture, embarrassed by the uniformity, indignant at the obsession with polished brass and straight lines. But she was also proud of the worldliness in military life and the ethics of heroism. Although she took a back seat to Jack whenever he was home, Frannie was “outspoken.” She often re- fused to acknowledge his opinions or desires when they conflicted with her own, revealing a sharp anger at the patriarchy that always counted her second. Of course, she never said a word about women’s rights and certainly never used the word “patriarchy.”
Jack and Frannie fought a great deal; but between the fights they liked each other immensely. Their experiences during the many separations were vastly different, and I think it was hard for them to under- stand each other, to really get what the other had been through. Jack would have been in an all-male environment, sometimes for as long as a year, under conditions of ever threatening violence. Frannie would have been trapped at home with kids, trying to entertain herself and keep her idea of a cultured imagination going. The uneven communications hampered their ability to fathom each other too. Dad didn’t write regularly. During the longer absences, we sometimes wouldn’t hear from him for months. Frannie, on the other hand, sent off letters to him every week. He had the reports of our accomplishments and of mishaps in the household, but we got few pictures of the man’s world he inhabited.
When he came back Frannie would be gleeful, nervous, expectant. Things between them would seem romantic for a while. Eventually her not-so-subtle forms of resistance would irritate Jack. My sisters and I heard and saw a lot of tension and open hostility between them. The sharp words and ice-cold tones got to be so common we took them— and the dramatic zigzagging between tension and affection that defined our parents’ marriage—for normal.
The moving fostered a feeling of not belonging. To the degree identity depends on place, we were out of luck. These days the Department of Defense maintains a “Youth Sponsorship Program” that puts military kids whose families are about to be transferred in contact with their peers at the new location. This child becomes an information source and social guide for the new arrival. Nothing like this existed for us. A Family Services Program was created in the office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff in 1962, but for us this never meant more than a sponsor meeting us at new postings. The sponsor was first and foremost a liaison for my father at his new job. Any help from the sponsor’s family for the rest of us was secondary. The kids weren’t necessarily eager to show you the ropes. When my sisters and I were older, we had access to the post teen clubs. These could be interesting, but you had to find your way into them, just as you had to negotiate space for yourself at each of the many new schools.
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 we could ever claim.
For the kids at the new schools we’d soon leave behind, I made up identities. My family was rich, and I had lots of fancy clothes. What did they know? How would they ever find out? Identity was a streak of invention, nothing real necessary. So I made stuff up whenever I felt like it.
For all the fearful religion in our house, ethics weren’t cultivated much. Manners, good manners, but not ethics. Sometimes I think it’s lucky I didn’t turn out to be a professional fraud, a con artist. It would’ve made sense for me to become an identity thief. I think it was the fear that kept these things from happening as much as anything else: fear of God, of all authority; fear of the end of the world as pictured in the Bible and in all those stories about the bomb.
The experience of being a constant stranger taught me many things, among them a shallow sociability. I see now there was something thin about my connections to others as a child, and a corresponding lack of dimension in myself. Even then I felt as if I could evaporate at any moment. This thinness and a nagging sense that the lack of substance paradoxically shows itself even now was part of what drove me to write this book. If I could take the sights and sounds and fleeting bits of dialogue out of memory and put them on a computer chip, I might be able to see the substance in the story of my growing up. Finding the borders of something that’s lacking is a tricky thing to do. I depend in this book on the people, places and events of my upbringing to tell the story, but the sensations and the feelings I register in response to them are my own. I can’t claim my sisters always share the perspectives on these pages. They were and are my closest friends, but they have their own stories to tell.
As we got older, ordinary worries—do other kids like me, should I speak, am I pretty—really shot out of proportion. Always in new territory, unfamiliar faces judging our looks, speech, movements, we spent a lot of time dazed and tentative. One morning—our first day at a new high school—the four of us were following a narrow cement path into the cafeteria, carefully avoiding the wet ground. My foot slipped into a big puddle beside the path. Now our anxious little skirts and blouses were dotted with mud, and we had the whole school day before us. In a way, the mud splash was a relief. It broke through the steel trap of self- consciousness and put the edginess out in front us. The awful moment brought us back to ourselves, to our reality as outsiders who belonged only to each other. But I’m sure my sisters didn’t feel that way, and I didn’t either at the time. I wince over it now, how that mud made them feel. We couldn’t even try to be cute or blend in. We crept through the day trying to hide the mud and ourselves from the silver disdain in other girls’ eyes.
Puberty and adolescent social life presented the same traumas girls everywhere endured. Without a neighborhood or a set of old friends we could take for granted, the physical developments compounded the feeling of alienation. The bumps, the hairs, and bleeding were signs of my strangeness—to myself now as well as in the mirrors of other kids’ faces. There was something sinful about these things. Their origins lay in my secret, devil-inspired thoughts. Self-consciousness got louder. At the same time, the acquaintances that passed for friends on the post got more serious: talk went to the bodily changes and boys. A feeling of closeness might develop. When the time came to move, those girls receded in the back window of our station wagon. The connection would be lost. At the next place, first day of school: isolation all over again.
Behind the social fears and disconnections lurked this monster feeling that large-scale disaster was waiting to happen. I don’t mean the prospect of nuclear holocaust caused the social anxieties. The niggling apprehensions about what other kids thought had their own origins and didn’t need a global horror show to keep them going. It was more like when you looked up from one panic and saw this heavier, darker dread looming on the horizon, the sense that all was not well deepened and hardened. There was one option: you could look way up, past the world before you to visions of Mary and Christ. Interestingly, that could help with bomb terror, but it wasn’t so effective against social alarm.
In spite of all the trouble it brought us, the moving gave my sisters and me the chance to see and feel, if not exactly know, places that would’ve been out of reach if our father had kept on as a salesman for National Cash Register and Purina Feed in South Orange, New Jersey. We lived in the North East and the Deep South, in Miami, California, and Germany. Each new place refreshed our disconnectedness, but it also had its intrigue—even Alabama. The spookiness of the South brought out not just timidity but adventurousness. California showed us there was beauty in the world. It was worth seeing even if it didn’t belong to us, even if we had to leave it behind. If Europe brought on a deeper alienation, it also made us feel more American than we ever had. Talk about adventure, Europe was this in spades. And through it all, my sisters and I shared not just anguish but amazement at so much that was constantly new.
Strangers to everybody else, the four of us became each other’s most important company. We were our best friends and most aggravating intimates. The twins, Nancy and Lizzie, were the oldest. Four minutes apart, and fraternal (the kind of twins who don’t look alike), they were simultaneously very close and very different from each other. Nancy came first, and she was always our leader. Her sandy colored hair was lit by a brilliant streak of blonde across the front—the kind of thing women pay serious money for at the hairdressers’. It was like an advertisement for the lightening in her character—the smarts, the fun, the energy. Lizzie was dark haired, shy, soft spoken. Her bangs protected her brow and eyes from too much direct contact with the rushing world. Photos show them holding hands, ready for school, Lizzie’s smile show- ing her sweetness and reserve, Nancy’s aimed at the plans she’s cooking up for the moment the camera turns elsewhere.
Sarah was the baby. Because she was a plump infant, the unfortunate nickname “Pudgy” followed her through girlhood. We stopped calling her that as she grew into a svelte, elegant woman. The littlest, Sarah got lots of pinching and cooing from everybody. She and I were a pair, the “little ones,” while Nancy and Lizzie were always “the twins.” They had a room, we had a room; they had bunk beds, we had bunk beds. For how many years, Sarah was either above or below me, tossing around in the narrow space our bed took in the narrow bedroom of our quarters? As we grew older, the twins and I punched through one wall of generational difference with my parents after another, leaving the openings a little easier for Sarah to come through. Sharply perceptive even as a teenager, she saw the elementary struggles under way that she wouldn’t have to face. Amazingly for one so young, she acknowledged our fumbling efforts, worried about what marks they left.
It took a long time to get to the point of resisting Jack and Frannie’s authority. In the teen years, when most people our age were breaking away from their parents, creating their own worlds, we still spent many evenings and weekends with ours. They were in our bones. If moving made friendships hard to fasten, the tight family culture kept us isolated too. It made us less available to others. We didn’t know how to manage the different expectations that came with friendships—the easy, fluent movements, the sharing, the airy feeling of not having to be together.
As they were for many other military kids of our generation, friend- ships were also hobbled by the blazing reality of social class in Army society. Subtle differences in rank counted for a lot in our eyes. My parents would gloss them over, claiming it was character, intelligence, and whether a person was interesting that mattered, not their rank. But my sisters and I felt the differences sharply. Most Army kids did. We knew the ranking system too well; and could be rigid, mean, short sighted in our class prejudices. Our fathers’ ranks were the first marks of our own identities in the small, intricately woven post societies. An officer framed himself and his family in the straight, elegant lines of a portrait, with depth and shading for romantic appeal. Enlisted men, from our point of view, were formless people who maintained the facilities, whose families lived in smaller houses, whose kids dressed in bad taste.
When I was in second grade, Jack transferred from the Marines, where he’d had the rank of major, to the Army, where he was made a chief warrant officer. A CWO is an officer, but it’s an odd rank occupied largely by aviators and military police—professionals in particular, technical fields. It’s rather obscure in the Army hierarchy, and I felt more than a little anxious about it. Such a ratty feeling is hard to admit, but it was the source of deep sensitivity. People who didn’t know would ask if a CWO was some non-officer rating, and I was quick to clear them up. It was crucial to see and represent myself as an officer’s child; otherwise my family would flounder on the margins of acceptability. The fear was real whenever rank came up, and it came up often.
In addition to the murky status within military society and the alienation that came with the shifting series of schools, I felt tertiary inside the immediate family. I was in the middle, without a clear corner in the family structure; my sisters, including baby Sarah, seemed more significant and clearly placed within the household and more confident than my declining self. On the edges of family life, I was suspicious of myself. The stern eye of Cold War Catholicism was well internalized. I wanted to be honest, disciplined, saintly, but that eye always picked out the deceit and the indulgence. Being alone so much wasn’t an effect of our migratory life: I was selfish, willfully isolated. Fractured in myself, with- drawn inside the family, intimidated by kids on and off the post, I was nowhere and nobody in particular. It took decades of weaving in and out of situations and identities to give up the dream of finding bottom and seeing I had a presence anyway.
The 1960s brought dramatic changes in the culture of the Cold War. The conflict in Vietnam mushroomed from an unknown mission to a full-scale colonial war, and the international student antiwar movements grew alongside it. 1968 was a pinnacle year for the resistance, with massive demonstrations everywhere. Not unlike the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Your City movement that began in 2011, the indignation spread throughout the United States and Europe. The issues were different: in 1968 the anger of students and labor was directed at elected rulers and their corporate funders; in 2011 the unelected, financial elite incited wrath across class and generational divides. But the methods are often parallel: groups in distant cities bolster each other; and the Situationists International, an anarchist collective made famous by Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle, gets cited as an important model.
One of the most widely remembered demonstrations that spring took place in Paris. I was attending the American College there, a small liberal arts school on the banks of the Seine. This had been my choice among the colleges my parents had made available to me, most of them in Europe. Jack and Frannie were hoping to shield me from the fray and the hoo-rah, as Jack called it, on campuses all over the United States.
In April 1968 French students began demonstrating against the educational policies of the de Gaulle government. Not long before the marches started, a group of draft resisters from Madison, Wisconsin, had come to Paris. My roommates and I befriended them. A few came to stay in our apartment. Things began to change.
A dream image came to me one night while I was writing this: a girl, good, well behaved, standing on the curved earth. She crosses her arms over her chest, levitates, and starts to spin. Like a tornado, she picks up speed, whirls so fast she becomes a blur. The spinning slows, and she is transformed to a black haired punk rocker, a serious, dark person. The punker mode is out of time, but the idea’s clear. This is what happened to me in the Paris days. I spun out of the cocoon my parents, the church, the Army, patriotic America, and I myself had spun around me.
That spring my father was in Saigon, flying Huey Cobras—the helicopters he helped arm—and cargo planes into combat areas near the North Vietnamese border. The draft resisters in Paris meanwhile were setting up a union to protest that war. I was one of their supporters. I stopped going to classes. My mother called me home to Heidelberg and panicked when I left again. Dad came back to Europe on emergency leave and took the first train to Paris. Turning up in the city by surprise, he shocked me, rattling memories of who I was supposed to be. There he was one day, with his long-distance, aviator’s stare, his war-exhausted body, dressed up in a suit and tie. The sight of him was terrifying, and I went back to Heidelberg without a fight. For the rest of that month, we avoided each other as much as possible, exchanging fire only in the accidental gaze. He was, in my perception, not just the father who had always been distant and frightening but the uniformed image of the “system,” with all its violent powers. His glare and his angry questions made it clear that I stood in his eyes for all the leftists he despised. He insisted the Paris students, and myself among them, were allied in sympathy with the manipulative Soviets. One afternoon I spun on him, flipped too much attitude, and it all blew up. When he went back to Saigon, peace returned to the household; but when his tour was over, we still weren’t speaking. The strain between us lasted for decades.
By the mid-1970s when the United States finally gave up in Vietnam, the common fears of the Cold War had to a great extent subsided. Fifteen years later, with the break-up of the Berlin Wall, those fears started to look like symptoms of another time and another reality. Documentaries of the Cold War in print and film appeared. Among the many frameworks they offered for understanding the social psychology of the postwar period, the idea of a complex of mass pathologies gained a lot of ground. My family had been sorely infected by the national illness, and we did our part to help the U.S. military spread it around the world.
Jack retired from the Army in 1978. In the novel situation of a steady life in one place, he went through some of the most important transformations he’d ever experienced. It was hard for him to stay put, and he was bored. Anger and discontent hung on him like a bad odor. He worked through it, wrestling hard with the monsters in his past and a few that clung to the present. Eventually he found honor in ordinary home life. He learned to trust people with different political views from his own. To my great joy, we became very close, and by the time he died in December 1993, the weight of our difficult past was more of an anchor attaching us than an obstruction keeping us apart.
In May of 2001, almost eight years after Dad passed away, Frannie died. She hadn’t taken much to the role of widow. Frannie had made a real go of it on her own. For a while she worked. She liked being out, part of the public, engaging with people. The seaport gallery, where she presided over the reception desk, specialized in two kinds of art: maritime adventure scenes that recalled the ideals of military heroism; and images of a picket-fenced domesticity—tidy houses and gardens nestled by the shore—that Frannie had dreamt about for years. In her late fifties she had finally gotten a house like this, but the image still played in her head, still an object of desire. From the desk by the door, her inner eye traveled back and forth between these two kinds of pictures.
Like my dad, Frannie had softened in her later years. The fierce military mother who kept her chin up and shoulders back in the middle of adversity, expecting the same of us, wasn’t so necessary after Dad retired. The edgy warrior’s wife, so sharp during our girlhood, faded like the old uniforms hanging in the attic. A different kind of toughness emerged in her. Bent first on staking out a place for herself in the work world, Frannie later, without Dad, girded herself up for sheer survival. This was never a matter of physical care-taking but of determination— to save money, to keep her house, to do what she wanted. To the end, she remained a devotee of cigarettes, whiskey, and meat, never seeing any problem in this diet. At the same time, an appreciation of the beautiful that went back to her girlhood took on weight and depth in Frannie’s mental life. She had always seen to it that there were good books on the shelves—Twain, Shakespeare, Yeats, Conrad—and classical music on the record player. In the later days she bought beautiful paintings, not the dramatic or sentimental scenes in the gallery where she worked, which were after all quite expensive, but smaller, more subtle ones she could afford. In her last years, the walls of the house in Noank were covered with artwork. She put all her money into it, as if this would be a more stable investment than stocks or money markets.
With her gone, I thought I’d lost my first model of womanhood, a strange mixture of Heddy Lamar, Olive Oil, and Pamela Livingstone (the bird-watcher of “The Bob Cummings Show”). But Frannie is still around, ready to step in and speak, handy with a posture or an inspiration that somebody else in my head might be happy to recognize; or might prefer weren’t there.
A certain heroic glamour like that of the flyers in Top Gun cuts in and out of the images in my head of Jack’s life as a military pilot. My mother liked to cultivate pictures like that, of energetic, talented young men, when she talked to friends and especially to her siblings about Dad and his various aviation brotherhoods. In Frannie’s visions they were gentlemen indeed. Their specialness for her was founded on a kind of gracious morality she saw anchoring all their behavior, even the drinking and gambling. She passed these pictures along to my sisters and me. Eventually we would see and hear things that weren’t in these portraits—anger and exhaustion in Dad’s face, criticism of their bosses which made the pilots’ world seem more complex. By the time we went off to college, a lot of the glamour had drained away from Frannie’s shining images of Hollywood aviators.
I look at Army Wives, the TV series that started airing in 2007, and see little that’s familiar. The wives of officers and enlisted men regard each other with a fondness and familiarity I don’t recognize. Psychological problems produced in hazardous duty are dealt with by kind, competent therapists. Thoughtful mothers and fathers are quick to identify the disorientations their children endure with parent’s deployment, with the moves. Tony Richardson’s 1994 film Blue Sky, on the other hand, gives a disturbingly familiar picture of Frannie’s own domain during those years. The quarters the family inhabits at Fort Maxwell, Alabama—the square, cement surface, the carport, and crab grass lawn—bring back memories of places where we actually lived with haunting clarity. They looked temporary, and not just because we knew our time in any one of them would be limited. It was the thinness of the walls, the absence of real foundations. The military houses we occupied always looked like they’d been put up a few months before and would last another couple of years. They felt exposed and vulnerable, like they’d be the first destroyed in the next natural, much less nuclear, disaster. In retrospect, I see an emotional vacancy in these landscapes. At the time, they were just the raw settings of newness. Life there would be a track of blunt surprises; and then it would disappear. A next place would open up. There would be trees, boulevards, customs we’d never seen before, people we didn’t know. So we could make ourselves up again, over and over, finding temporary voices for the temporary sites.
Looking at those flat-roofed houses and tiny carports with storage sheds (like the one we had on Red Cloud Road at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where my dad’s cache of home-made beer blew up one sullen summer afternoon) from the vantage point of the present, they seem terrifying. Now I’m older than Carly, Jessica Lange’s character in Blue Sky, and I would be as depressed and horrified as she is at the prospect of living there. For a grown woman, it would have promised not the next adventure, but a dull, soundless world without depth or height. An empty shell of a house where she was responsible for making a home. That’s what Frannie faced, again and again.
Carly, of course, reminds me of my mother. The similarities aren’t in the elaborate sexiness or the well-tended beauty, but the exaggerated
performances of herself as a character. Frannie spoke loud, laughed hard, moved in long strides and reaches. She was bossy with everybody, even people she had just met. In subtle ways, like Carly, she flirted with my father’s friends. It was all part of an ongoing performance. She watched herself from the front row of a theatre in her head as she played the part of a spirited, intelligent woman who was married to an accomplished and worldly flyer. Who was the person watching? Was it the Frannie who looked out from school pictures, the shy, handsome Walsh girl whose father and mother had had so much trouble? Was it a woman bored with the shabby banality of domestic life in the military, like Carly Marshall? Or who, along with Carly, made up for the lacks by alternating indignation with visions of herself as a character in a dashing, romantic world, full of bravery and excitement.
Frannie was practiced at revising the raw data of her life, as Carly is, especially in the aftermath of her father’s scandalous abandonment of his wife and children. He was an alcoholic who ruined his own and their lives, but she always talked about him as if he were the most elegant, gifted gentleman she had ever known, as if he were for her the standard of masculine grace. He may, indeed, have been all this; but there were dark, cavernous places in that story where Mom never went, at least not in our hearing.
My mother also shared with Carly Marshall an explosive anger at the abusive arrangements the Army imposed on us. She argued with my father about the orders that came down from on high, as if he’d issued them himself. While the moving was in full tidal shift, Frannie fiercely resisted what she understood to be the common profile of the officer’s wife, the mild manners, pleasant resignation, the hopelessly faint shad- ow of her husband’s career. She refused to spend time with the Offi- cers’ Wives clubs, choosing instead one or two select friends, not necessarily from the military community. She bonded with them in reading, walking, and thoughtful conversation, ignoring the female hierarchy that paralleled the military’s.
I remember Frannie generalizing on several occasions about women being “tough” and not nearly so “nice” as men. She was talking about the bourgeois bitchiness of military wives—the competitive housekeeping, the sidelong glances at each other’s clothes and hair. Men, she claimed, were more honest and straightforward. What you saw was
what you got. It was a haughty and unjust portrait—a cartoon that allowed her to see herself as different, more intelligent and cultivated.
She was forthright, opinionated, funny, anything but shy. So when we saw her from our beds passing down the hallway on Dad’s arm heading out to a party in a black cocktail dress, red lipstick, pearls and gold bracelets, her black hair in a pageboy and smelling of Joy perfume, we could easily imagine her at the party, armed in this Vogue style, severe in its simplicity. She would move through the room, claiming people, overtaking conversations, placing herself and my tall, handsome father in his dress blues at the center of the buzz and the chatter.
For all her indignation, Frannie, like Carly and a lot of women of her generation, was enchanted by men in uniform. The Army identity had a powerful charm for her, beyond the stability and security it meant. This was the domain of heroism, of sacrifice for the country, of princely masculinity. But her pride in military life stood right beside her disdain for the service and for the men who maintained it. She once confided to me that in the aftermath of the Korean War, when all the husbands and brothers came home, it wasn’t considered “nice” for them to stay in the service. A man of any substance, got out, got a job, left the military to memories and stories. “Everybody would be trying to find a job for you; they thought you were having a hard time” she said eagerly, as if taking that point of view. This, of course, meant Dad’s entire career had been déclassé.
Frannie passed away before the twin towers came down. I’m grateful she didn’t have to see that. The sight of the airplanes crashing into the skyscrapers, demolishing a skyline we assumed so profoundly, would’ve been obscene to her. All the fortitude in the world wouldn’t have helped her take in the dreadful facts of that day. On the other hand, I’d have liked to hear her take on it. I try to imagine this but come up with nothing.
The “war on terror” that followed 9/11 had many things in common with the Cold War my family knew. The element of surprise, the clan- destine nature of the enemy’s work, the call to be on watch, these things the two “wars” have in common. And our own nervousness about national security wouldn’t have made her any more anxious than the nuke fears so familiar in her time. The Patriot Bill, introduced during the George W. Bush years, outlined a program of clandestine watchfulness not unlike the covert informing that went on during McCarthy’s hey-
day. Efforts at phone tapping and the surveillance of private correspondence that we learned about in the aftermath of 9/11 were familiar to citizens of early Cold War America.
Talk of the war on terror, amplified so much during the Bush years, has given a kind of after-life to Cold War paradigms. Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, tells us they never really disappeared. No sooner had the Ber- lin Wall come down, Bacevich points out, when, in 1990, the United States invaded Kuwait and pushed the Iraqis back across the border. Behind this first Gulf War, Bacevich finds a military hierarchy and a cadre of old cold warriors directing the show. The conflict worked for them, he writes, as a demonstration to the American public that the defense budget couldn’t be cut back without leaving the country vul- nerable and unprepared to defend U.S. interests elsewhere.
When he points to the Cold War as the model that ended up being adapted for the new world order, Bacevich emphasizes the structure of absolute opposition and the need for budgeting not only a standing military but a continuous state of war. And you only have to look at the cabinet George W. Bush chose to run his administration to see how much he dedicated his presidency to pursuit of a Cold War on new terms. How many people in his White House were there too during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush years? Dick Cheney, Richard Perl, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld were all in Washington during the 1980s and the early 1990s, pushing for U.S. global hegemony. When the younger Bush brought them back on stage, they were ready. In the intervening years, they’d put their heads together to influence Defense Planning Policy statements, making them echo the language of Truman’s NSC 68, composed in 1950. NSC 68 charted the global order as a contest of moralities, with the U.S. purpose in absolute conflict with the USSR’s designs. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the others must have had NSC 68 in mind as a template when they charted the need, in 1992, for the United States to enjoy unchallenged military and economic hegemony throughout the world. Their imperial vision, challenged by many voices in the middle of the political spectrum as well as on the left, upheld the conservative, hawkish side of the culture wars that had begun in the 1960s and remain with us to this day.
But sharp differences stand between the tensions of the Cold War and those of the post-millennium period. The profile of the unnerving other has little in common with the twentieth-century communist. The ideas the Soviets brandished had to do with economy and the distribution of wealth, however close or distant they came to Marx’s actual program. Radical terrorism in the twenty-first century generally faces the world with a religious drive—the kind of thing Marx dismissed as a drug, the opiate of the masses. And the horrors—images of beheadings, a medieval disregard for women’s lives—are shocking, blood curdling beside the banal representations of communism in decades past. The shooting of Nan Perry and Alec Leamus at the Berlin Wall in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is less terrifying for many of us than the image in The Kite Runner of a burka-clad woman screaming as she is lifted from the back of a Toyota to be stoned.
At home, the contrasts with the Cold War are undeniable too. The probing of private communications after 9/11 was hotly contested as soon as it surfaced in 2002. To raise your voice in defense of the Holly- wood Ten or the college professors accused of sympathizing with the enemy at mid-century was dangerous. McCarthy, of course, was eventually brought down and the scandals of his witch-hunts exposed, but while his investigations and those of the House Un-American Activities Committee were in full swing, to object was to risk being brought in yourself.
Frannie and her generation worried in the 1950s about the next- doors and people in office coming under the influence of communism. In the 1960s she was wary of strangers enticing her college-age daughters to identify with socialist ideology. Middle-class Americans now don’t generally fear our neighbors or our own grown children might be drawn to terrorism. During the George W. Bush years, our expectations of a strike faded and grew as the color warnings moved up and down the intensity scale. The better part of a year often intervened between orange moments. The fears of Frannie’s young adulthood, by contrast, made a steady background hum. The Russian threat made for a continuous, mid-conscious dread lurking behind the optimism of the American 1950s. And that threat provided an easy explanation to her and to Jack for all the political uproar of the counterculture during the 1960s: the Russians were seeding it, encouraging it, waiting for the results.
I started writing this book twenty years after the Cold War ended. The memories and feelings about our family life recorded here are very much my own. I can deliver the dates and places of our story as we all knew them. But as close as my sisters and I are, we have separate visions of what it all meant and certainly of how it felt. I don’t presume to speak for them or for our many cousins who turn up in the chapters that follow.
That winter when the idea came to me, I was running a seminar on literature and film of the Cold War at Muhlenberg College. Bringing memories into the classroom of my Catholic, military girlhood, I thought, might offer illuminating counterpoints to the fiction we were reading and the more abstract historical and political facts of Cold War history. The students seemed willing to listen, even rather interested. They started soliciting stories of Cold War days from their mothers and fathers. These home memories became part of the class discussions and made for some vivid course papers. Through it all, I kept thinking about what had happened in the Lawlor-Walsh family during those years and about my own formation as a daughter of the Cold War. Soon the thinking became writing.
Several years earlier I had asked my mother to tell me her stories of those days. At the time, I wasn’t planning to write anything. I simply wanted a record. Frannie’s stories—no doubt elaborated for effect— filled in many of the gaps in my own. I’ve tried here to stick to the facts she gave me and at the same time make clear where I’m not sure to believe her. Frannie’s embroidery as a storyteller is all of a piece with the difficulty of actually knowing things in our household; and very much a part of the story too.
My father, on the other hand, kept his memories in careful, edited ways. There were things he wasn’t supposed to tell and I suppose never did. As I figured out many years ago, he also upheld the practice common among men of his generation of keeping more grisly episodes from girls’ ears. But he was always telling us stories of his boyhood in South Orange, his first days at sea, learning to fly. I’m grateful to my grandmother for keeping Jack’s letters, which helped me immensely in putting together a narrative of his early life. My sister Nancy held onto them after Frannie died; but before writing this book, I had never seen these letters. Reading them for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the youthful energy coming off his pages. In addition to vivid scenes of daily life at the Merchant Marine Academy and flight school, they offer striking glimpses of his character as a young man.
My parents’ recollections run through this book, parallel and in marked contrast to each other. For myself, the process of remembering has brought up fears, hopes, fantasies that still thrive. They aren’t so much the stuff of the past I’d thought they were. My old diaries and journals and the books of photographs my mother carefully put together during the 1960s and 1970s brought back the sights, sounds, and moods of those years in a flood of unsorted emotions.
I remember my parents in a palimpsest of images. In their youth, they were a big, glamorous pair, well dressed and full of an almost uncontrolled energy. In their forties, they seem lined and angry, tense, even sullen. They don’t stand beside each other so easily. They’re not really a couple anymore. Then they are old, retired, living by the sea. Frannie exchanges her long dark pageboy for a shorter cut that hides the gray better. She has a home that’s hers for good. My sisters and I don’t live with them anymore, and when we visit, it’s like a return to some ancient order of seeing and believing. It’s also great fun, not like it used to be. Frannie still embarrasses us with her exuberance and her life-long inclination to drop hints about our social status (as if it weren’t impossibly nebulous). At the grocery store, she tells the checkout clerk how much better butter was “when we lived in Europe.” She is also as funny and eccentric as ever. Visiting Hawk Mountain with us during the fall raptor migration, she walks past the park guard shack, smoking— the only one for miles, it seems, with a cigarette—and complaining in her loud, alto voice, “I don’t even like hawks. They kill small birds.” At the corn maze, hunched over a smoke, she interrogates the kids as they come out. “So how was it?” Like the maze was some sort of existential test.
Jack, in the meantime, grows dark and troubled in retirement. The trouble reaches a climax, and he has to deal with it. There is too much drinking; too much time spent looking at maps and remembering. He’s a little thicker now. He climbs out of it with the help of AA. He softens. He becomes a grandfather in fact and figure. We get close, and I know he loves me. He has a small-scale stroke one night, and the result is the loss of vision in one eye. He begins to wear an eye patch, which makes him look like a pirate to the little kids that now come with us to the house. He likes this and begins to play on his old roles as a dangerous man, exploiting them for maximum performance effect. I love him dearly.
The feelings pile up with these images. They’re confusing and contradictory. I am utterly different from Frannie and Jack, or I want to be; I am totally identified with them and can’t help it. They are the most meaningful people in my life; the most distant and irrelevant. They were hard on us; they were affectionate, playful, attentive parents. My father’s fury and my mother’s edgy hauteur ran absolutely opposite to the silly, even foolish, behaviors they were capable of. Jack and Frannie—the syllables have an almost cute rhythm, and I am not supposed to call them that. They were anything but cute, even in clowning mode. They were cultured, literary, intelligent. And they were shortsighted, easily frightened ideologues. I do not know them. I know them too well. I love them, I hate them.
In the process of writing, I’ve come to see that through the years, I’ve not only maintained what many people would consider a critical reaction to the overwhelming climate of fear we lived in during the Cold War. I’ve also been dodging acknowledgment of something else: the attractions to the mysteries and the depths, to the sense that there were things people weren’t telling you, that you might get lost in a funhouse of the wrong ideology if you flirted with communism in any form. The military itself, held together with a rationalism that bordered on mysticism, was part of this strange attraction. I wince at what I know to be fascination with the mystifications, the secrets glistening like the polished edges of coal in the periphery of our vision. Someday I may write about the pathology of these attractions. For now, my hope is that the pictures of military domestic life here will resonate with people born in the Cold War decades before 1980. And that in my story they will recognize those familiarly strange times—not just the fears but the dark enchantments that kept us down, ducking and covering, for more than forty years.