Excerpted from the book The Death of Santini, by Pat Conroy. Copyright © 2013 by Pat Conroy. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.
The happiest years of my childhood were when Dad went to war to kill the enemies of America. Every time my father took off in an airplane, I prayed that the plane would crash and his body be consumed by fire. For thirty-one years, this is how I felt about him. Then I tore my whole family apart with my novel about him, The Great Santini.
Looking back, I can see that I made many mistakes in the field during my rookie season as a novelist. The writing of the book had taken an emotional toll on me that included a breakdown months before the book was in the stores. I had done almost no preparatory work on my family, no plowing the fields to ease their way into a country they did not realize was their native land. To Dad, I’d given more hints about what I was up to, and for the simple reason that he lived in Atlanta then, where Barbara and I had moved. Dad would visit the house often—too often for me, but Barbara had come to adore Dad, and our daughters rejoiced in his visits. It both moved and disturbed me to see my children scrambling around on my father’s lap like some comely litter of kittens.
I would often say things like, “Hey, Dad, why don’t you break all their facial bones? Then they’d know what it was like to be raised by you.”
“Don’t listen to him, girls,” Dad would respond. “Let me take you out for ice cream cones. This weekend I’ll take you to Six Flags.”
When Dad first came to live in Atlanta, I had just committed the most unforgivable crime against him. I had refused to attend his retirement parade that took place in the summer of 1973. I did it with all the purposefulness and cunning of a man who knew how to cut deepest and wound another man. I was a son gifted in the art of patricide. Though I had loathed my father, I fell in love with the mystique and sense of fraternity I grew up with as the son of a Marine Corps officer. The corps stood for excellence and a code of honor that burned in me for life. I was raised in the mythos of the corps, and I knew about Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Okinawa. I took great pride in my dad’s gallant fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, when he provided air support for a brutal Marine retreat through entrenched Chinese lines. Don Conroy was a proud member of “the Chosin Few,” yet his oldest son did not go to his retirement parade. It sickens me to write those words.
To make matters worse, my family and I arrived for a visit the day after his retirement party, and I walked into a house touched with nothing but malice. I could feel the hatred in that house that I had sold to my parents so that they could enjoy a peaceful and fruitful retirement. My brother Mike told me that our mother had not spoken to Dad for days, not even on the day of his retirement ceremony. To Mike, their relationship had never been this poisonous. It now had turned into
a disaster area.
I entered Mom’s kitchen and she ran up and hugged me hard.
“I can’t stand it for another day, Pat,” she said. “It repulses me to look at him. Or speak with him. You’ve got to get him to leave this house.” She was begging me now. “One of us has to go. I want it to be him.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said. “But the boy’s got a stubborn streak.”
“If he doesn’t leave, then I want you to play guard duty and stand between Don and the car when I load up the kids.”
“No, Mom. You’re not going to involve the kids. If you leave, load them in the car and tell Dad that you’re going shopping at Piggly Wiggly. Just lie to him.”
“You mean my oldest son, who witnessed everything, won’t lift a finger to help his own mother?” she cried, appalled.
“Of course I’ll help. Just let me talk to him first.”
I found Dad in the living room watching a baseball game on TV, but I could tell that he’d been shaken up by the events of the past couple of days. His eyes had the wounded look of a predator limping back to his den.
“Hey, Dad, who’s playing?” I asked.
“Cubs and the Phillies. The game sucks,” he answered, not looking up to greet me. Then he said, “Retirement is harder on women than it is on the Marine. That’s a known fact.”
I said carefully, “Dad, I think Mom’s planning to leave you.” Suddenly he looked away from the ball game and stared at me with such ferocity that I braced for a charge.
“She can’t do that,” he said. “We’re Roman Catholic. We took vows to each other.”
“Them vows don’t seem to be worrying her much,” I said. “Look, Dad, let me help you develop a plan.”
“I got a plan,” he said. “I’m staying here. This is my home. Where I belong.”
“If it doesn’t work out, come to Atlanta to stay with me, Barbara, and the kids. Mom looks bewildered, terrified, and even a little crazy. Your being away would give both of you some time to think things over.”
“There’s nothing to think over.”
“The offer is there,” I said.
“Thanks for nothing,” he answered.
“It was my pleasure. How does it feel, Dad? We just had our first conversation.”
“It sucks. It’s lousy. It’s shitty. Let’s never have another one again,” he said, red faced and angry.
When we packed up the car to head back to Atlanta, I made one final attempt to get my father to consider a visit.
“Negative,” he said. “This is where I belong. I’m the head of this household.”
“You could just visit for a couple of weeks,” I said. “To give you and Mom a cooling-off period.”
“Negative. Do I have to draw you a picture?”
“You might even enjoy it,” I suggested.
“Negative. If you need me, you can find me in my quarters,” he said.