Excerpt from ‘Death of Santini’

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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.

After Barbara and I unloaded the car back in Atlanta, she gave the girls their baths upstairs, and I heard a knock on the front door. I went to the door and opened it to find my very distraught father standing there. I couldn’t have been more surprised to find the
Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Can I buy you a beer, son?”

When we entered Manuel’s Tavern, a legendary bar on Highland Avenue, I waved to Larry Woods and Paul Hemphill, two writers I had recently met. My father had not spoken in the short ride to the tavern. To me he seemed ready to launch off a carrier, but I’d respect his silence and talk when he needed to talk. Dad had never bought me a beer. As far as I could remember, he had never bought me a present, ridden me around any town he’d been stationed in, nor taught me any of the social skills necessary for a boy to make his way into an unforgiving world. I found myself strangely excited by this distinctive moment that I had read about in novels and seen depicted in movies—a father and son getting to know each other. The owner, Manuel Maloof, brought the two draft beers I’d ordered on the way in.

“Talk about it, Dad,” I said.

A look of bitterness engulfed his face. He was in an agony that was as authentic as it was vitriolic. In his newly minted despair, Colonel Conroy did the most terrifying thing: He laid his head on his powerful arms and burst into tears. The most pitiless of men had imploded on himself and felt the soft tissues of his emotions for what must have been the first time in his life. His cries began with stifled weeping, but soon turned to explosive sobs, attracting the curious attention of every patron in the bar.

Manuel Maloof came rushing over to see what was wrong.

“He all right?” Manny asked. “Should

I call an ambulance?” By now Dad was howling and blubbering and creating a scene that became increasingly alarming.

“He’ll be okay, Manny,” I said. “He just hates your fucking beer.”

“Buy him another one, Pat,” Manny said, staring at my distraught father. “Hell, it’s on the house.”

“Naw, I just had to tell him his mother died,” I said. “He was very close to his mother.”

Dad bawled and wailed for several minutes before he calmed himself and raised his sheepish face to survey the room. He said, “These people must think I am a fucking lunatic.”

“Yeah, most of them do,” I said.

“My mother ain’t dead, thank you very much,” he growled.

“I was just practicing,” I said.

“Practicing for what, sports fan?”

“For the day she does die,” I said. “You want to talk about Mom? ” At the mere mention of Peg, my father began weeping again, but his recovery was much faster this time.

“Sorry. Sorry, son,” he said, whimpering.

“I kind of love watching you cry, Colonel,” I said. “It reminds me of a boy who once lived in your house.”

During my parents’ separation, my father made the most baffling decision of his world-traveling life—he became a citizen of Atlanta, Georgia, a city he had always held in contempt. He rented a two-bedroom furnished apartment in the Darlington—which had a sign in front of it tallying the population of Atlanta each day. Even though the place looked faded, if not shoddy, he lived in that apartment until his death twenty-five years later.

During those months, Dad got into the habit of coming over for a cup of coffee before I started writing for the day. That morning ceremony solidified when I separated from Barbara after four years in Atlanta and moved into a small but well-placed apartment in the ethereal curves and gardens of Ansley Park. Each morning, Dad would knock on the door and I would rise to let him in, then plug in the coffeemaker. Mostly we made small talk about sports. But, unknown to my father, I was writing a fictional rendering of my life with him in the room next to the one we were sitting in, and it was taking an outrageous toll on my emotional life. I found it hard to write all day about the bastard who raised me, then drink coffee with him the next morning.

One morning I finally asked him, “Do I have to spend the rest of my life having coffee with your sorry ass?”

“Affirmative,” Dad said. “Those are the orders of the day.”

“I’d rather stick a wet finger in a wall socket,” I said, then, “Don’t you remember our first night in Atlanta? What I told you? Let’s refresh. I hate you. I loathe you. I want to vomit when I hear you knock on my door each morning. That do the trick for you?”

“I told the kids you were trying to make me out to be some kind of ogre,” he said, pronouncing the word as “o-gree.” “Did you see where Hank Aaron hit two homers last night?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I got it, Dad. I got it all.”

Yet the manuscript for The Great Santini was growing day by day. I suffered writing it as I tried to explain to myself the bottomless terror I felt as a boy. Because we moved on an almost yearly basis, my childhood loneliness would stay with me until I got to Beaufort High School. Though I did not perceive it at that time, the book was taking me at a rapid speed toward another great breakdown of my life. The question that troubled me most was what my father got out of putting my mom and their children on the floor of every house we entered.

In full Technicolor, I remember every beating that my father administered and I could take you to the exact spot where it happened in each of those small houses of his early Marine Corps career. I would grow heartsick when he walked in the den every afternoon after happy hour. I was afraid of him and it showed in my eyes. He had supreme contempt for my cowardice and sometimes he would backhand me because I dared to show fear.

Driving in his car, me riding shotgun, was the most dangerous place in the universe for me. After a Little League game, a backhand if I’d made an error; after a football game, a slap to the face for missing a tackle; after a basketball game, a bloody nose for playing on the losing team. A boy played a game at his own peril when the Marine was in the stands. We all played scared when the colonel was in the field house. Dad had an odd, unsettling habit of yelling out to the opposing team to put Conroy on the deck, or “Cut Conroy’s legs out from under him!” When Mom would protest, Dad would say he was just trying to toughen me up. He wanted a street fighter and not the mama’s boy he had on his hands.

But the story kept rolling, and I could not stop or impede its toll. I thought I was telling a story that had never been told in the history of American literature. There had been innumerable novels about soldiers and their wives and wartime, but I had never heard a word about their children. I was a proud member of an invisible tribe called “military brats,” voiceless and unpraised as both children and adults. Because I grew up encountering the restlessness of warriors during peacetime training, I had watched my father’s visible disappointment when the Russian ships turned back during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My sister Carol Ann said,

“Can you believe Dad’s pissed off because we didn’t have a nuclear war?” My father laughed when he heard that our high school had a fallout drill and said, “Skip those drills. Because of Parris Island and the air station, Beaufort is ground zero. Drill all you want. You sports fans are going to be dust in five seconds.”

The writing of The Great Santini began to feel like a case of battle fatigue. In my head, I was falling apart as I excavated one buried memory at a time. Since no one in my family knew what I was up to—and I include myself in that calculation—I issued no storm warnings or small-craft advisories. I was going at it alone, entering into strange and dangerous waters every time I wrote a page. Still, I wrote and wrote, fighting through those times when I found myself assaulted by the unforgivable crime of full disclosure. Guilt. Every time I found myself censoring the writer in me, I would write it anyway. Finally, it became a credo for my entire writing life—if I feared putting something on paper, it was a voice screaming from the interior for me to start writing it down, to leave out nothing.

In the single most creative burst of my career, I completed that last chapter by writing almost nonstop for twenty-four hours. Every word seemed summoned and anointed with a limitless power over which I had no control. It delighted me, the ease with which the words appeared, with me as some involuntary instrument taking dictation from the stars. In that chapter, I put the Great Santini into his warplane, where he flew from Key West back to his home base in South Carolina. In the middle of the flight, his fire warning lights flickered on, and Bull Meecham fought to get his plane safely back in its hangar. He aborted his first landing when he saw the lights of family homes beneath him. He changed direction and his A-6 disappeared from the radar screen forever. They found the remains the next day. No one has ever loved writing his father’s funeral scene more than I did. I relished every word of it.

Then, in the last two hours of this epiphanic night, I began an almost hallucinatory scene involving the God that eighteen-year-old Ben would pray to about his guilt-ridden relief over the death of his own father.

I began creating that God from the spirits of different characters I had made up during the course of writing the novel. This part surprised me, because I’d not planned for this. I had wanted the novel to end with a trip, the way military families always rotate through bases. I needed the Meechams to set off on the highway toward Atlanta—the son now driving the family away from the town, just as the father drove the family into town at the beginning of the book. What in the hell was God doing there? But it felt right, so I went with it. Then I felt the surge, the rush of adrenaline, when I’m coming onto something larger than myself. I had Ben Meecham pray to this God he had just created out of his own imagination:

And can one boy who has said 10,000 times in secret monologues, “I hate you. I hate you,” as his father passed him, can this boy approach this singing God and can he look into the eye of God and confess this sin and have that God say to him in the thunder of perfect truth that the boy has not come to him to talk about his hatred of his father, but has come to talk about mysteries that only gods can translate. Can there be a translation by this God all strong and embarrassed, all awkward and kind? Can he smile as he says it? How wonderful the smile of God as he talks to a boy, and the translation of a boy screaming, “I hate you. I hate you,” to his father who can’t hear him would be simple for such a God. Simple, direct, and transferable to all men, all women, all people of all nations of the earth.

But Ben already knew the translation and he let God off with a smile, let him go back to his song, and back to his flowers on River Street. In the secret eye behind his eyes, in Ben’s true empire, he heard and saw and knew.

And for the flight-jacketed boy on the road to Atlanta, he filled up for the first time, he filled up even though he knew the hatred would return, but for now, he filled up as if he would burst. Ben Meecham filled up on the road to Atlanta with the love of his father, with the love of Santini.

When I finished this last line, I fell apart and wept for a long time. For several months, I believe that Barbara—acting on behalf of our children—could have had me committed to a mental institution, because I had traveled too far into the great wound that is my family. Instead of granting me a portion of strength and satisfaction, the novel felt like a bloodletting, an auto-da-fé, or a crown of thorns. Inchoately, I could feel it killing me from the inside out, making me desperate, suicidal, emptied out. Though I thought I had written a good book, I had pulled the pin of a hand grenade, then thrown my entire body over it, knowing it would kill me without harming anyone else. For six months I walked around Atlanta, bedbug crazy and tortured by anxiety and nightmares. At the end of the six months, I found a therapist, Dr. Marion O’Neill, who came in to save me. By this time, the book was in full production and would come out in the spring of 1976. Still, I had warned no one about its content or subject matter. The days passed slowly, but inexorably, like a firing squad assembling at dawn. I could not bear to think that I wrote a 500-page novel just because I needed to love my father. It never occurred to me that I was born with a need to love my dad. It seemed like a madman’s fantasy that my father could ever bring himself to love me. Then the book was published, and my problems really began.

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.

This excerpt originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the magazine.

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