As the previous post indirectly reported, Pat Conroy passed away on March 4, 2016. He was 70 years old.
If one is a graduate of a certain prestigious military college on the banks of the Ashley River in Charleston, S.C. , Pat Conroy is a figure you know and revere. He graduated in 1967, an English major, and moved on to the rather scary and worthwhile adventure that is life out side of Lesene Gate. He taught English in Beaufort after graduation, then moved on to accept a job as a teacher on Dafuskie Island, S.C.
Conroy was an interesting character as a cadet. He rebelled against the Citadel's harsh military system, which in the 1960's became particularly harsh-in part as a reaction to the emotional chaos that was going outside the campus in the 1960's. Despite that, one could always tell he developed the same affection for the place that most of the rest of us have, recognizing it, for better or for worse, as one of the key defining experiences of our lives. I know my time at the Citadel was for me, and only my time in Japan rivals it for shaping my perspective on life. Read into that, what you will.
Conroy has said his stories were heavily influenced by his military brat upbringing, and in particular, difficulties experienced with his own father, a US Marine Corps pilot, who was physically and emotionally abusive toward his children, and the pain of a youth growing up in such a harsh environment is evident in Conroy's novels, particularly The Great Santini. While living in Orlando, Florida, Conroy's 5th grade basketball team defeated a team of 6th graders, making the sport his prime outlet for bottled-up emotions for more than a dozen years. Conroy also cites his family's frequent military-related moves and growing up immersed in military culture as significant influences in his life (in both positive and negative ways).
Conroy's first book was The Boo. It was written when Conroy was newly graduated from The Citadel, self published in 1970. It is a collection of letters, short stories, and anecdotes about Lt. Colonel Thomas "The Boo" Courvoisie. As Assistant Commandant of Cadets at the Citadel, Courvoisie was a friend and father figure to many of the college's cadets. It really is an insiders kind of book-if you have not worn the uniform or wear the ring, a lot of its meaning will be lost upon you. I wrote about The Boo earlier on this blog in posts here and here.
The book was not a great commercial success until many, many years later. But his later books were: The Great Santini, The Water is Wide, The Lords of Discipline, My Losing Season, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, South of Broad, My Reading Life, and The Death of Santini. Oh, he also published a cookbook too. Several of the books were made into movies.
Conroy could use words like an artist uses a paintbrush, skillfully, to paint rich pictures in words that could fill up your mind. I like to think that it was the professors of the Citadel English department that gave him that gift, but I suspect that is only partially true. His reading before, after and during his Citadel experiences probably fixed within him a rich appreciation of the beauty of the written word. What I also suspect is that the Citadel did instill him a quick and sarcastic wit. It does in all of us who wear the ring-its part of how you make it through the experience.
And Charleston and the South Carolina low country was inevitably his backdrop for a good story.
It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River. He was talking about Charleston, South Carolina, and he was a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets. Charleston was my father's ministry, his hobbyhorse, his quiet obsession, and the great love of his life. His bloodstream lit up my own with a passion for the city that I've never lost nor ever will. I'm Charleston-born, and bred. The city's two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, have flooded and shaped all the days of my life on this storied peninsula.— From the novel South of Broad.
Words just seemed to flow in Conroy's books. They were not written for the intellectually impaired of today who want work memos to be "short and bulletized", they were written in flowing prose that was meant to immerse you in the picture he was trying to paint. Conroy was good at painting those pictures.
…I have a need to bear witness to what I saw there. I want to tell you how it was. I want precision. I want a murderous, stunning truthfulness. I want to find my own singular voice for the first time. I want you to understand why I hate the school with all my power and passion. Then I want you to forgive me for loving the school. Some of the boys of the Institute and the men who are her sons will hate me for the rest of their lives. But that will be all right. You see, I wear the ring. — From the novel The Lords of Discipline
Much of what is now being written about Pat Conroy is indeed laudatory and giving him the high praise he deserves. However, it is also interesting for me to see that many of the younger graduates are not privy to the struggle that went on between Pat Conroy and his beloved alma mater for many years. As a graduate of the 1970's, I saw much of it played out in headlines and later in e-mails and letters. I firmly believe that Conroy wrote the Lords of Discipline to somehow try to work out the conflicts that the 4th class system of the 60's had, the camaraderie it built- contrasted with the emotional violence that underpinned it.
The struggle with the college came to a head in 1995, when Shannon Faulkner, using falsehoods, lies and deceptions, applied for admission and was accepted, omitting her gender from the application. ( Which was in part the college's fault, there was no Male/ Female block on the form. Why would there be? Women were not to be a part of the Corps and why would they apply to a place they could a not and should not attend? (Yes I wrote and italicized that last part. Screw you feminists)).
Conroy later, after Faulkner had failed miserably after only one week, paid her way through Converse College. He thought it was the right thing to do-suffice it to say that I did not think so at the time, and still do not think so now. But that takes nothing away from his skills as a writer nor my admiration for his ability to tell a story. It also takes away none of my admiration for the fact that he survived to graduate during a tough time in the college's history. It is a disservice to the record, however, to not point out that his love-hate relationship with the college was a long one, only healed in the first decade of the 21st century.
In 2001, Pat Conroy gave the commencement address at The Citadel. He gave a great speech and at the end he said this:
In closing, class of 2001, I cannot thank ya’ll enough for doing this for me. I did not exactly pencil this speech into my schedule of coming attractions, and you do me the highest honor by bringing me fully into my Citadel family. And I was trying to think of something I can do because a graduation speaker needs to speak of time—time passing. Usually, I tell graduation classes I want them to think of me on their 40th birthday, but I got something else I want to do for ya’ll because I’m so moved at what you’ve done for me. I would like to invite each one of you in the class of 2001 to my funeral, and I mean that. I will not be having a good day that day. . . but I have told my wife and my heirs that I wanted the class of 2001 to have an honored place whenever my funeral takes place. And I hope as many of you will come as you possibly can because I want you to know how swift time is, and there is nothing as swift—and you know this—from the day you walked into Lesesne Gate until this day—a heartbeat, an eye blink. This is the way life is. It is the only great surprise in life.
So I’m going to tell you how to get to my funeral. You walk up. . . You find the usher waiting outside, and here’s your ticket. . . You put up your Citadel ring. Let them check for the 2001, and each one of you, I want you to say this before you enter the church at which I’m going to be buried. You tell them, "I wear the ring."
A lot of the members of the Class of 2001 and a lot of members of other classes, as well, showed up for Pat Conroy's funeral. And mind you, this is a class that still has a lot of members serving around the globe-some in combat zones.
May God grant Pat Conroy rest and peace. And may his memory to us be a blessing.
One final postscript that I would like to pass along. It is fashionable these days to berate people who do not study the "hard sciences" as it were. The so called STEM disciplines as they call it. It seems to me, and always has, that this emphasis is very misplaced. Science and Engineering are all noble pursuits and very necessary, as was pointed out in the movie Dead Poet's Society. But imagine the tragedy it would have been, had Conroy been shoved by an emotionally unforgiving and short sighted viewpoint into some other major besides English.
The beauty of a liberal arts military college is that it instills a "system" of studying that imparts a great set of skills, regardless of what you study. I believe Pat Conroy benefited from it, as did I.
After all, we both wear the ring.