Gail Kenna was born in Fullerton, California but has spent her life traveling across the world — first as a tennis star, and later a military wife and decorated author, traveling across the US and the world from Alabama, to Napa, Germany, Lima, Peru, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Caracas, Venezuela, and Washington DC.
From age three through six, her family (mother, father, brother) lived in Phoenix, then Tempe, Arizona but by second grade she was back in Fullerton, California where she graduated from high school in June 1961 before embarking on quite a journey at USC in Los Angeles; (her father’s alma mater) because “she wanted to please him.”
Gail claims she had failed to fulfill her father’s dream of becoming a tennis champion due to an traumatic foot injury in June 1960 at the National Hardcourt Championships near San Francisco. She fell in her first match, and broke all five metatarsal bones in her left foot ending her tour which would have taken her all the way to Victoria and Vancouver in preparation (hopefully) to travel East to compete, the following summer. “When O fell, Billy Jean Moffit (King) was watching me.” She says. “Here is a six-word memoir,” ‘My broken foot, Billy Jean’s smirk.'”
At the same time Gail was facing this potentially tennis career-ending injury, her father had fallen extremely ill back home in Southern California. “All the way home on the train from Northern California, I didn’t know if Father would be dead or alive — but because my mother worked, someone had to care for him that long summer. So, breaking my foot was good luck for Mother; and my accident gave me an excuse to give up competitive play.” Gail was in a cast that entire summer but kept asking herself if she had never fallen on a tennis court, what would have happened back home.
Despite these setbacks, Gail went on to excel in competitive tennis at USC. “But this was before Title 9, so no benefits, just expense-paid trips. Billy Jean was over at LA State then — a vastly different tennis time. But tennis showed me another world.” Gail says she’s written a long essay about the inside world of tennis, along with some “tennis” stories, such as “The Summer of Watergate” having gone to USC and even knowing some of the conspirators. “I’ve been among a lot of famous and infamous persons; and I know I’m often thought to be a name-dropper. But when asked about my life, lots of known persons are in it.” says Gail.
Gail admits she wasn’t a great student at USC… “Women then (girls, we were called) went to college for the ‘MRS.’ degree. I vowed that was not for me and promised myself not to marry before age 25. I majored in English, with a minor in History, because all I liked to do was read.” She shared.
From USC she went on to San Francisco State, with a desire to earn a master’s degree in English — which didn’t seem feasible at the time, because it was an additional two year schooling program and her parents would not pay for the extra education. “Good lesson in life,” she says, “I did not come from money; but I learned about poverty between September 1965 and January 1967.”
“Women then (girls, we were called) went to college for the ‘MRS.’ degree. I vowed that was not for me and promised myself not to marry before age 25.”
Gail began teaching for the LA School district in early 1967 — but mid-year, she could only get a job at a three-year junior high. Her student-teaching had been in a high school outside of San Francisco — in LA, she was thrust into a vastly different environment, teaching at Dodson Junior High where she was given classes with kids bussed in from lower income areas, and who came from adverse backgrounds. Since L.A. did not pay teachers during the summer she ended up owing money and was forced to get another job… This is how she ended up at the Montesito-Sequoia camp for privileged girls where a bizarre incident led to her being fired after just the first-four-week session.
“I could write a book about that camp!” She says. “It reminded me of The Butterfly Revolution, or Bless the Beasts and the Children, and Lord of the (female) Flies, too… Many of the girls like Carrie Fisher were locked into eight weeks there.”
Her then boyfriend, now husband had just graduated from San Jose State and was waiting to go to Air Force pilot training. A year later they married, and she began her life as a “military spouse” and was thrust into a whirlwind of travel. Her husband Mike was assigned to Travis AFB near Sacramento. Gail taught in the Napa Valley from January 1969 until spring 1979, when Mike’s Air Force career took him to Montgomery, Alabama; and then to Sembach AF in West Germany. At the time they had two little daughters, Michelle and Bonnie, who were ages six and three.
“On the internet you can find a recent October 2020 article from the Napa Register about me, two of my books, and my friend and graphic designer in Napa, who was my student in 1969 in the Mass Media of Communication elective.” Shares Gail. She goes on, to chronicle the remaining adventures of her life and writing escapades in depth:
“Leaving Napa was harder than anything I had faced in my life… To leave Napa had been my test of entering the unknown. I only began writing because I found my great-great grandfather’s letters in that Poso Park cabin the summer of 1978. In Montgomery, Alabama, the children were in pre-school. For the first time ever in married life, I was not working. I had time, to dabble in writing.” She says.
“My first attempt at publication was to submit an essay I dashed off to Redbook for their Young Mother’s Column. Months letter I had a letter and a 500 dollar check. I wrote about the conflict in me between teaching and being a mother. It struck a cord at the time in the late 70’s. That ‘luck’ gave me the courage to keep writing, to query New Reader’s Press about a fiction work related to my great-great grandfather’s letters.
I went on to write the story in a tiny German village: only a tiny base library, not close to Otterberg, on an electric typewriter. The book had three editions, sold over 30,000 copies, was in print until 2003. The company (formerly Laubauch) offered to sell me the rights to the book. I wrote back (living in Lima, Peru, at the time) that I had spent money earned from writing to support artists and causes. I asked that the rights to be given to for free!
I eventually moved to Bogota, Colombia, where my husband had been working since 1998. and received a grant from the Puffin Foundation of New Jersey, which allowed me to write and publish Beyond the Wall. Then, my daughter Bonnie came to live with us for a year after she graduated from Florida International University.
My daughter Michelle, a Duke graduate, and an Army officer, had married in June 1999. While living in Lima, I had to go to North Carolina to stay with two-year old Lauryn while her parents went to the Middle East for the second gulf war. I had to take care of two Persian cats, too. That’s when the idea of The Story of a Contrary, Contumacious Cat came to me.
So, how did my husband and I end up on a creek in the Northern Neck of Virginia? By chance I gave Face of the Avila to General Barry McCaffrey’s wife when she and her husband stopped in Venezuela on a South America military tour.
He’s a well-known general, now retired, often on MSNBC. As a result of thrusting the book into Ms. Jill’s hands, I did some speaking gigs in Panama and met the woman who led me to the Northern Neck.
And now? I still teach and have taught since 2005 for Rappahannock Community College’s RILL program of continuing education. Last week I completed a course on Edna O’Brien. I also began an LLC this past year: Crosshill Creek Publications. My goal is to complete a novel that is 3/4 completed. I thought I would never return to the Venezuelan prison saga but I have. Too long to explain this epistolary novel… I hope to have the courage to return to Of Love and Circumstance, a novel that Graywolf Press kept for almost a year before rejecting it.
My mantra in life, borrowed from Samuel Beckett: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Concludes Gail.
Wise words indeed. Read more about Gail and her accomplishments, on her website at www.gailwilsonkenna.com.
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