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BACK TO THE SWAMPS

This except is from Mary Lawlor’s Book, Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing up in the Sixties and Cold War. To read more about Mary, check out her website.

Three of us wearing Pap's gear. Photo: Mary Lawlor

Three of us wearing Papa’s gear. Photo: Mary Lawlor

As soon as school was out we were back on the road. This time the van

wasn’t so much fun. Leaving the Mission school and the beauty of

Monterey Bay was hard. Leaving it for the flat, humid zones of the

southeast again was nothing short of depressing. Dad would be assigned

only briefly to Fort Benning, Georgia. Soon thereafter he would leave

for another destination unknown to us. My sisters and I didn’t have a

clue why we were moving to Fort Benning. We knew Dad would be

leaving—without us—not long after we arrived. This information didn’t

come directly from our parents but from half statements, overheard

words, impressions picked up from the strange emotions passing back

and forth between Jack and Frannie…

During our last California winter, Vietnam, a new name, a distant place, had

turned up in my parents’ conversation. We heard the rhythmic phrase Southeast

Asia. And talk of war was in the news. Dominoes for some reason were worrying

the leaders in Washington… On Valentine’s Day, 1962, JFK had held a press

conference… “We have not sent combat troops in the generally accepted sense of

the word,” [he] explained. These were training missions, aimed at getting South

Vietnamese units into shape…Jack and Frannie read and listened to the news

assiduously… The ease of our California days floated away…Something serious was up…

On a clear June morning, we stood on the tarmac and saw Dad off for what would be a

long trip… Jack’s olive green flight suit blended with the plane behind him, the big,

awkward looking Caribou. He wore one of those folded cloth uniform hats. Hands at

his sides, smiling at Frannie’s camera, he looked happy and ready to go. He was

forty-two years old, a much decorated senior aviator, and although we didn’t know it

yet, this would be his third war…[T]he house became a hollow shell for waiting. Late in the first week of his absence we learned where Dad was going. Thailand…That, we would soon

learn, meant Vietnam. If Jack had whispered this destination to my mother

at any point since the orders had arrived at Fort Ord, she did a good job of

keeping it from us…In the sunlit room in Noank where we talked so many

years later, she waved off the question. We didn’t know anything, she insisted…

I tried pressing her, but when my mother didn’t want to talk about something,

nothing could make her…

© Rowman and Littlefield.  Request permission to reprint.

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