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Call Sign Revlon: The Life and Death of Navy Fighter Pilot Kara Hultgreen

Call Sign Revlon: The Life and Death of Navy Fighter Pilot Kara Hultgreen

by Sally Spears

Editorial Reviews

Lt. Kara Hultgreen, the Navy's first fully qualified female fleet fighter pilot, was only 29 when her Tomcat slammed into the Pacific Ocean in 1994. Kara's mother takes readers behind the headlines to tell the story of this remarkable woman who made history. She draws from journals Kara kept from the time she entered the Navy, and from interviews with her friends, peers, and commanding officers. No index. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

Product Details

Naval Institute Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Luck of the Draw

"He could charm snakes and people," her grandfather Adrian said about his father, J. Monroe Spears, who at age sixteen had run away with his bride to join the circus. Adrian, their seventh child, swore his father could hypnotize a man to become stiff enough to act as a tabletop between two chairs. Kara, having a flair for the dramatic herself, was fascinated. It was much less interesting to her that he later became a lawyer and was elected solicitor of Darlington County, South Carolina. "My father could remember anything he heard just once and repeat it verbatim," her grandfather told her, and Kara identified with him because she could do the same thing. Adrian remembered nothing about his mother because he was only eighteen months old when she died at age thirty-two giving birth to her eighth child.

    Kara's grandmother Elizabeth grew up in a small town at the opposite end of South Carolina. Elizabeth's father was a pharmacist, and he was called "Dr. Wylie" by Clover's nearly three thousand citizens, including his wife, Sara. Strong and capable, Sara took in boarders to help support the family during the depression years when few could pay for the drugs they needed from Wylie's Drug Store. Though the schoolteachers at her table were paying guests, Sara served the noon meal formally; two women in the kitchen cooked and responded to the beckoning of her silver bell. Sara was a tall woman for her day, and her great-granddaughter Kara would be the same height, five feet, ten inches.

    Elizabeth and Adrian met when she went to Darlington to teach school; they married in San Antonio, Texas, where he had moved in order to practice law with an older brother. President Kennedy appointed Adrian a federal district judge in 1961. Kara's mother, Sally, was the oldest of Adrian and Elizabeth's five children. She went to law school at the University of Texas because she had always said she would be a lawyer like her father and grandfather (it seemed to please her father when she said it) and because she had broken up with her college boyfriend and thought she would never marry (marriage being the recommended career path for young women in the 1950s). Of approximately a thousand law school students, about ten were women.

    Kara's paternal grandparents were from Norway. She was only a baby when her grandfather Hultgreen, Odd, died, but her parents talked fondly about him, telling her how generous he was and how he could make a birthday special and holidays magic occasions. Odd was six feet, four inches tall with curly blond hair and rosy cheeks, and he loved life, wine, and a good cigar. A brilliant man, he earned several advanced degrees in engineering and economics in Germany.

    Returning home to Drammen, Norway, he built a paper converting operation and then a factory that made inks for the printing industry. Odd was active in the Norwegian resistance during World War II, but when the socialist government imposed heavy taxes on capital after the war, he moved his family to the United States to begin again. Dagny, his wife, was a talented artist. All her children and grandchildren wanted her paintings with their bright colors, geometric designs, and thick texture. Kara inherited her grandmother's talent and her way with color and loved to paint.

    Tor, the oldest of Odd and Dagny Hultgreen's three children, was fifteen when his family immigrated to the United States. A natural athlete, he skied, played hockey, and was All-American in soccer at Middlebury College in Vermont, graduating with a degree in economics. Tor (the name is the Norwegian version of Thor, God of Thunder) looked the way you would expect a Viking descendent to look; he was voted Most Handsome his senior year at Greenwich High School. He and Sally met in summer school at the University of Colorado in Boulder and married the next summer in San Antonio. A combination of such diverse bloodlines, Kara was intrigued by what she called "the randomness of life."

    Born on 5 October 1965 in Greenwich, Connecticut, Kara was their third daughter in as many years. Dagny had turned three a couple of weeks earlier; Kirsten, in the middle, was twenty-one months old. Kara was not quite two years old the summer of 1967 when Tor, who sold wood pulp to paper mills, was moved by his company to the Chicago area. He and Sally bought a home in Lincolnshire, a beautiful residential suburb of about three thousand people that had recently been carved out of one of the thickest forests in Illinois. Each of the homes in the village was on a one-half acre lot dense with magnificent oak trees, with enough bedrooms for three or four children and a two-car garage.

    The people who bought these homes for the most part were new to the area--high-class transients--and like Kara's parents, many of them were in their late twenties. They met each other walking their babies or wandering over to critique the newest house under construction, and they formed close friendships.

    Kara was a sweet child who wanted to please. Occasionally she didn't get it quite right. At two, she christened their new house by drawing pictures all the way down the staircase wall with her mother's best lipstick. At three, she picked every one of the tulips bordering the sidewalk of the house across the street. She proudly presented the flowers to the owners with a sunny smile and the innocent and unfulfilled expectation they would be happy.

    Kara was a little daredevil, always game for whatever there was to do. She wanted to swing high, skate fast, and swim deep. The first time Tor took the girls skiing, he started to demonstrate how to snowplow to slow down. Kara watched him start skiing and didn't wait to see the purpose of the lesson. She just pointed her skis straight downhill as she had seen her father do and took off. Her father and sisters watched her furious descent and saw her finally halt at the bottom of the hill, still upright, unfazed, and ready to do it again.

    She and her best friend, Amy Hoffman, were eight years old the summer they sneaked out of Amy's house after her parents were asleep. When they spent the night together they always got into mischief. Once they pilfered a cigarette and poured a little brandy from a decanter (not enough so Amy's parents would notice) and went up into the hot attic, where they had a wonderful sinful time coughing and choking. This time the village police found the two little girls riding their bikes after midnight and took them back to Amy's. Kara said their plan was to ride to their school--not more than a mile away--climb a tree to a second-floor window and see if they could open it. They hadn't thought about what they would do once they got inside.

    Life in Lincolnshire was comfortable, and the family was content. Then Tor's company transferred him to Toronto, Canada, in 1973, and everything changed. In some ways, the change was wonderful. They moved into a beautiful home in a small village called Oakville, about an hour's commute to Toronto. A private road led to one and a half acres of land where their house sat surrounded by forty-foot cedar trees, the barrier broken only by a driveway. Lake Ontario was just across the street. They started heating their swimming pool in May, and on cold Canadian mornings a mushroom cloud of moisture arose from the warm water. There was even a sauna in the pool house. The girls loved that house. Their friends thought they were rich.

    In other, more important ways, the move was ruinous. Sally had been working, and in order to persuade her to move to Canada, Tor's company offered her a position in its corporate law department. She and Tor left home around 7:00 A.M. and usually didn't return to the house until after the girls had had their dinner. They had live-in help--but it kept changing. The girls didn't seem to mind. They could walk to school and ride their bikes to their friends' houses. They had a great house, meals served, clothes washed and ironed, and freedom from supervision most of the time.

    Dagny, at age eleven, wrote a story for school entitled "Housekeepers We Have Had." She described the young black woman with a huge bosom and a tiny waist who wore a bikini three sizes too small when she took them swimming and the woman from El Salvador who spoke only Spanish, had never seen a banana, and proceeded to eat one without peeling it. She told about the English woman whose disposition was mean and whose food was bland, and the Irish woman who dressed the children for Halloween, sent them out, and was gone for good without a word before the children returned home with their trick-or-treat candy and before their parents got home from work.

    Sally's job was very demanding and she was under a lot of stress, leaving her little time or energy to spend with her children. But she felt her ability to help make money for the family was the most important thing. When she was growing up, money had been an issue--never quite enough of it for five children--and she wanted everything for her own children. Besides, they were making good grades in school (parent-teacher conferences were an ego boost). Dagny was involved with her friends, and Kirsten was absorbed in sports. But Kara, only nine years old, needed more attention than she was getting.

    Kara claimed she was a self-raised child. And she was. During those first years in Oakville, she remembered her mother either with a book in her hand or upstairs taking a nap. One Sunday, Kara ran away from home and no one noticed. She told her mother years later that she left early in the morning and walked all the way into the town of Oakville intending never to return. But after wandering around for a while, she realized she had nowhere to go, so she walked back home. It was late in the afternoon when she returned, and she was sure her mother and father would be distraught. She envisioned police cars with sirens wailing in front of the house. But everything was quiet and when she walked into the family room, all her parents said was "Hi, Kara, where have you been keeping yourself?" They didn't even know she had been gone.

    Dagny and Kirsten didn't want to be bothered with or by their little sister. The three girls had some major battles, and usually it was Dagny or Kirsten or both against Kara. Part of the reason they excluded her was that Kara lacked the cut-off valve, inborn in some people, that signals enough is enough. You could wrestle with Kara in good-natured horseplay, tumbling on the ground and laughing, until you lay there exhausted. But Kara would never want the game to end. She would push you to continue until your good humor vanished. She would understand that your mood had changed, but she wouldn't understand why and she would be hurt.

    Eventually, that persistence and single-minded pursuit of whatever it was she was interested in became a great asset, but she had to learn to channel it first, and the lessons were painful to a child who had a great heart and a sensitive soul. In order to deal with the constant overt rejection by her older sisters and the passive rejection by parents who had no time for her, Kara began to build a protective shell. Rebuffed and ignored, the child who had been the most affectionate and eager to please became angry and aggressive. Her temper was formidable because she was fearless.

    If Kara broke the glass ceiling by becoming a pioneer female fighter pilot, it was an apt metaphor. She broke two glass doors fighting for her place when she was nine years old. The first one was Dagny's glass shower door.

    As Dagny told it

Kara and I got in that big fight and we were trying to kill each other practically. I tried to slam the door on her body and Kara was trying to run into my bathroom and I didn't want her in there. So finally, she came into my bathroom and I said "get out." She said, "No." She hung onto the bar of the sliding glass door to my tub and I tried to pull her off. All of a sudden, Crash! and the glass broke. I just looked at her and said, "You're going to get it." We both had to pay for it out of our allowances.

    The second time glass shattered occurred not long after. Kirsten and Dagny were walking down the stairs and Kara was following them. Pestering them. Dagny told her, "Get away, we don't want to be around you." Reaching the bottom of the stairs first, the two older girls ran down the hall into the family room and slammed and locked the door. It was a door that used to open to the outside, and it was made of heavy plate glass set in a wooden door frame. Kara paused at the entrance to the hallway, about fifteen feet from where Dagny and Kirsten taunted her through the thick glass barrier.

    Hurt by their rejection and at the same time furious at being treated so badly by her sisters, Kara threatened, "I'm coming in there."

    "Oh, no you're not," Dagny responded, smug behind the locked door.

    "I'm coming through that door if you don't let me in," Kara warned them.

    They laughed at her. With fierce determination and to hell with the consequences, Kara put her arm in front of her face like a football player throwing a block and ran straight at them. Dagny and Kirsten watched with disbelief as she gathered speed. They stepped back, frightened, as they realized she wasn't going to stop. Kara sailed right through the glass, landing on her feet on the other side of the door.

    Tor and Sally, upstairs in their bedroom, heard the noise and came running down. They were shocked to see huge shards of glass, some still hanging from the door frame and others lying on the white carpet. But no blood. Kirsten exclaimed, "Oh man, you're really in trouble this time, Kara."

    Sally was frantic. She wasn't exactly sure what had happened--the girls were standing in the family room and all of them seemed okay--but she was terrified at what might have happened. As Kirsten described it, "Mom is having a fit, she starts spanking us--all of us. Dad just stands there and goes, Now who ran through the door?' I was screaming, Arggg. Kara. Kara did it!'

    "'Kara, come over here. That's incredible.' Dad said. You couldn't accuse him of overreacting. He was picking up large pieces of glass, 'That's incredible, not a scratch on her.'"

    Dagny agreed. "Well, it was pretty incredible, really. That was the second piece of glass Kara and I had to pay for."

    It was a defining moment for Kara. Fueled by hurt and anger, she had taken a terrible risk, and no harm had come to her. The flawed and treacherous lesson of her reckless leap through glass was that she was invincible. She also resolved that she would not be cowed by the abusive use of power. Kara may not have realized that her parents abused their power by not being sufficiently involved with her, but she knew that her sisters had actively abused their power over her. Power that she had given them by looking up to them, aspiring to be like them, and craving their company and their approval--power magnified because they were older and because they ganged up on her.

    She would never be a victim again.

Sally was either working or sleeping all the time, waking up crying in the morning, too busy to name her symptoms depression. Tor knew Sally wasn't happy and was truly sorry, but when she tried to talk to him about it, he would turn on the television or signal the waiter, anything to keep the conversation from getting too personal. He just hoped everything would work itself out.

    Sally knew she had to make a change in her life. She thought it would help if the family moved into Toronto and took the two-hour commute out of the equation, but the girls didn't want to leave their school or their friends, and Tor didn't want to move either. So Sally rented a furnished apartment in Toronto and moved into it, leaving everyone else in Oakville. It seemed logical at the time. She was the sad one. Why should she uproot them? When she moved out of their house in 1976 and left her three young daughters with their father, Kara was only eleven years old. Kirsten was thirteen and Dagny was fourteen. Looking back on it, she couldn't imagine how she had done that.

    Tor and Sally still worked for the same company and remained friends, but their separation became permanent. After a year or so, she and Tor sold the house on Lakeshore Road, the house the girls loved, where they could go skinny-dipping in the sheltered pool with their girlfriends, and practice kissing in the sauna with the boys. Tor bought another house in Oakville and Sally bought one in Toronto.

    The children stayed in school in Oakville with Tor, but on weekends, usually one or another of them would visit Sally in the hundred-year-old three-story Victorian house in the Yorkville section of downtown Toronto that she had renovated. It was a three-bedroom railroad, or shotgun, house with beautiful old orangey red brick, high ceilings, and hardly any yard on a narrow one-way street. The girls kept pajamas and clothes there. They liked having an executive mother with her own sophisticated town house. Sally encouraged them to bring their friends to stay overnight, and she took them to Chinese, French, and Italian restaurants. Because Sally was different from their own mothers, their friends thought she was very cosmopolitan, and her daughters took some pride in this.

    In Tor's new house in Oakville, they had the same young wonderful housekeeper who had been with them since before Tor and Sally separated. A small crisis occurred when she got pregnant and the father wanted nothing to do with the baby. The housekeeper continued to live in the house with Tor and the children through her pregnancy and during her baby's first year. The girls thought it was great fun to have a baby to play with. The neighbors didn't know what the story was, and for a long time most of them thought the baby was Tor's.

    Dagny, Kirsten, and Kara ran their own lives. They didn't have a mom to tell them when to get up or go to bed or do their homework. There is a lot to be said for what children do when they are clothed, fed, and then left to organize themselves. They got up, dressed, ate breakfast, and took the bus to school when it was snowing or rode their bicycles on nice days. They played sports and had girlfriends and boyfriends; they never missed school, were healthy, and made good grades.

    But they were affected by having a mother who had physically deserted the home. Kara asked her mother later how she could have left them with their father. He was good to them in his way, but he didn't want to know how they were feeling or what they were thinking or get involved in their interests or activities. When he talked to them at all, it was about groceries or schedules. Mostly, he just went about his business and they went about theirs.

    When Sally would call home, Kara was always glad to talk to her but Dagny and Kirsten had little to say. They would talk to her for a while, and then say they were busy: they had homework or a friend was coming over. She felt like an intruder. It was a terrible realization that she had cut herself off from her daughters' lives, and after she had lived away for about six months, Sally began to return to Oakville to stay with them at Tor's house the two or three nights a week he was traveling.

    After awhile, the girls adjusted to the unusual family relationships and actually loved to satisfy the curiosity of their friends' parents who couldn't understand how their father could retain an unmarried pregnant housekeeper, or how a woman separated from her husband could spend a part of every week at his house with their children.

    When Kara was twelve years old, Tor rented a horse for her. The deal was that he would pay all the boarding expenses and Kara would take care of Dundee. She was devoted to that horse and would go to the stables every afternoon after school to ride, feed, and groom him. It was seven miles from her house to the stable. Her mother was living in Toronto and her Dad didn't get home until late, so there was no one to take her back and forth. She would take the bus as far as possible, then she would get on her bike and ride the rest of the way on service roads.

    It definitely was not a safe bike ride. Kirsten described the journey: "She had to get from our house into the town of Oakville on the bus and that was four miles. Then she had to go several more miles on her bike on service roads that were really busy. People would go whipping down the streets." But Kara wanted to have that horse and she would do what it took to take care of it.

    She took lessons and entered horse shows--all with precious little encouragement from her parents. No one else in the family was interested in horses. The shows were held outdoors in muddy fields; it was usually cold, unpleasant, and dirty. Her mother only went to one of her shows. When Sally finally visited the stables, she was horrified to see the route Kara had to take to get there. She never should have been allowed to ride her bicycle on those busy streets.

    Her freshman year in high school, Kara had a huge crush on Ralph Krumme. Ralph and his twin brother, Bernie, had moved to Oakville from Germany. They were both athletic and as Kirsten said, "the cutest guys." Kara joined the swim team and the water polo team because Ralph was on them, but it didn't work out exactly as Kara hoped. Ralph was two years older and saw her only as Kirsten's little sister.

    Kara went through a wild phase when she was fourteen to fifteen years old. Kirsten told the story of how when Kara was in the ninth and tenth grades, she and her friends would go to Kara's house and drink beer in the downstairs family room. Only the housekeeper was there before Tor got home from work and Kara's house became a wonderful after-school gathering place.

    She accumulated a closet full of beer bottles. One day, Tor happened to open that closet door. He asked Kirsten where those cases of empty bottles came from. Kirsten didn't volunteer information but Tor asked her to verify that they belonged to Kara, which she did. Tor gathered up all those cases (Kirsten said it took him several trips to the car) and took them back to the store for a refund. He never said a word to Kara, but when Kara discovered the cases of beer bottles were gone she was really upset--not because her father had found out about the beer but because she was depending upon the refund money (approximately forty dollars) to finance more parties in the basement. It was Tor's version of crime and punishment.

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