Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of several acclaimed books and short stories --- her next novel, THE GIRL IN THE BLUE BERET, will be published on June 28th. Bobbie Ann turned to her father-in-law, who served in WWII, as inspiration for this unforgettable story of love and courage. Below, Bobbie Ann discusses both her father-in-law and her father, comparing two of the most important men in her life.
My father died 20 years ago, but for 14 years after his death, I had the privilege of having an alternate father --- my father-in-law, Barney Rawlings. They were much alike, although they seemed startlingly different. Daddy was a Kentucky farmer who knew all about the earth and cows and dogs, and Barney was a pilot for TWA, living on Long Island, where he could drive easily to Kennedy Airport. He didn't care for cars. The majesty of the airplane was what counted, and he lived to soar through the sky.
For Daddy, a car was his Pegasus. He was fond of small foreign cars, and he bought the first Volkswagen in the county. Over the years he was proud to own a Fiat, a Renault, and a Suzuki, in succession. As a farmer, he was tied to the daily chores, but every day he would jump in his car and hit the road. It was this routine, his "little run" to town, that liberated him, much as Barney's flights to Cairo or London did him. World travel meant for Barney the flight itself, not the Pyramids along the Nile. Daddy felt that freedom in his car. He always knew where home was, and the delight of going away made home worth returning to.
Both fathers served in World War II, and the John Wayne stereotype of that generation applied. Barney was affable enough, addressing his passengers from the cockpit, but he was coolly reserved, kept his own counsel, and wasn't close to his family. Daddy was withdrawn, secretive. He found it painfully embarrassing to talk to anyone outside his own community of country people. When I came home from college, I was full of ideas that I could not share. I didn't know how to explain, say, James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness or nature imagery in LOLITA. The gulf between us widened. But in the last years of his life we found common ground as I gravitated back to the land. We shared a love for animals. He liked to have a small dog with him in his car, so they could go motivating down the road listening to Chuck Berry. I got my musical tastes from him.
Daddy died too soon, and we never got to the point where we could have the ultimate conversation we both wanted. Barney, my father-in-law, was forced to retire from flying at age 60. This was potentially devastating for him, but he surprised us. Folding his wings wasn't the end of the world. He began writing novels. And he wrote a memoir about what he did in World War II --- his B-17 was shot down and he was guided to safety by the French Resistance. It was a weighty story to have carried around all those years.
He also found time to explore the genealogy of his Missouri family. He had grown up very poor, and flying had been his way out of the hard past. But in his last years he seemed content, despite being grounded. He was settled. He had several cats. And he developed a tenderness I hadn't seen before. In an old newspaper, he found an obituary for a heretofore unknown relative, a child who had died very young. He wept for this little being no one had thought about for perhaps a century.
I remember my last words to him. "I will always honor you," I said.
But it was two years before I was motivated to write a novel inspired by his war experiences. I wondered what would happen if a retired pilot went back to France to look up his wartime helpers.
Father's Day reminds us to honor all our fathers. How I wish I had asked Daddy more about his Navy days in the War. I honor both of my fathers, and I hope they knew how much I loved them.