In 2020, I revised my manuscripts, which were accepted by Aquarius Press, for the Mac and Irene Trilogy with a fourth YA book, Airdrie: Recollections of an Artist in Bloom, available for school curriculums. The trilogy is made up of Mac & Irene: A WWII Saga, If Trees Could Talk, and Resist! A Visual History of Protest. One artistic Catholic family from Northern Ireland sought social justice in the Adirondacks for a century and Chicago for a century.
Mom passed away leaving so many questions unanswered. Dad, was uncharacteristically willing to talk. For two curious, nationally-awarded journalists with an undying passion to uncover stories, Irene and Franklin McMahon mentioned little of their own life adventure. These books started with my curiosity and became a long-term filling out of Dad’s cryptic one-line answers. Like me asking, “When did you fall in love?” And him replying, “Not sure about your mother. It might have been my birthday at the ice cream parlor.”
I didn’t think of this exploration as a book until recently when I revised their moments into a story line. The Mac and Irene Trilogy was written simultaneously from a handful of Dad’s enigmatic idioms.
The stories I heard about were separated into Mac and Irene’s life before having a family, 1938-1947. If Trees Could Talk is told from clues I lived with — Dad’s paintings and Mom’s writing — that made me wonder. In A WWII Saga, that is interspersed with clues from Dad’s scrapbook. I had seen the scrapbook once when I was about 7 years old, but it was closed and not opened again until my son was in middle school. Dad told the story to Brendan and his friend who had a WWII interest. I videotaped one hour of the story and that is our family’s record.
A WWII Saga tells how Mac and Irene’s high school romance was interrupted by their service before they were married. Two Boeing Stratoliners (domestic planes designed from the B-17 bomber) were ordered in 1937. As Mac and Irene finished their ice cream, one Stratoliner took its 1938 maiden flight. It crashed in 1939. In 1940 FDR ordered 50,000 aircraft, then another 50,000.
Between 1940 and 1942, 300,000 aircraft were produced, a 16-fold production rise. Irene was studying art education at Francis Parker Teacher’s College while planes buzzed overhead. Mac joined the Navy Air Force as a reporting cartoonist for a Chicago magazine and was certified a B-17 pilot by January of 1943. When Irene graduated, Congress diverted the education budget to the war effort, so she traversed the continent in the Stratoliner. Irene’s Chicago flights took off from crisscrossing runways with a locomotive track down the middle.
No wonder they didn’t tell us! My challenge was to remember in which spiral notebook I had scribbled Dad’s answers.
For WWII context, I took a course conducted by scholar Professor Jay Winter who offered a week of lectures by literature, film, poetry and history professors. Once I stopped hyperventilating over the 4-foot-high stack of books that arrived, I sat on the couch to read as I went from readers to LED bulbs to prescription glasses.
Some reactions to my readings were visceral. Did I intuitively recognize my parents’ experience? Or was their experience strong enough for DNA memories? I trusted my gut, scrawled notes and researched to be sure. It was uncanny how often my hunch was almost right. From the couch, Dad’s paintings on the wall started to vibrate in a Harry Potter kind-of-way. I realized he had painted his story! My family and I were surrounded by it. Works I, and my kids, had grown up with were flipped for clues of dates, places and titles. Like Chasing Vermeer with a scavenger hunt, I matched images to years to find where Dad went and why.
Franklin McMahon went on to be a reporter, artist and courtroom sketch artist. He documented the “Chicago Seven” and murder of Emmett Till trials, as well as political events and social justice actions with his art. “Airdrie” is available for preorder: firstname.lastname@example.org. “Mac and Irene: A WWII Saga” comes out on Memorial Day. Find updated order information at margotmcmahon.com.