Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Pat Conroy wore the ring, and much more

Pat Conroy died Friday night, after my newspaper was put to bed.

I wanted to cry.

The son of the man who inspired the book and movie “The Great Santini,” the product of a military childhood and a military academy, who rejected the military but loved the men who defended the nation.

The son of the man who was so abusive, Conroy said once in an NPR interview that whenever the family moved to a new house his mother would have him look for hiding spots for when the “Great Santini” came home drunk and wanted to beat his wife and kids bloody and senseless, just for the hell of it.

I read Pat Conroy’s books when I was in the Marines. “The Lords of Discipline” touched me in so many ways. People keep talking about “The Prince of Tides” in Conroy’s obits, but it’s his book about “The Institute” that really got to me. It’s a tale of betrayal and stunning hatred and racism, and about a boy growing to be a man.

The betrayals are astonishing and maybe a bit overwrought, but hey, Conroy was the man who lived the hell and made the good money, so we can allow him a little leeway.
Plus, as he said in a memorable speech at his alma mater, the Citadel, He wears the ring.

After “The Lords of Discipline” was published, he said in his first speech at The Citadel in a long, long time, in May 2001, he had about as much chance of speaking there as Saddam Hussein or Jane Fonda. We writers like to settle our scores in the things we write, and you all know that I have settled plenty in my writing about the Postal Service. Except I didn’t hide behind fiction. I named names and described crimes and incidents in the post office that will never go punished.

Even then, the book hit close to home.

In his books “My Losing Season” and “The Death of Santini,” Conroy takes you into a family in which there is no fun in dysfunction. Pat recounts a beating from his father in which his mother coaches him on what to say in the emergency room.

On another occasion, at an awards ceremony for high school sports his father wrongly accuses him of playing a practical joke on another student and beats him bloody and senseless in the hall, in front of all the other people there.

Pat gets his rescuers off his father, they get into the family car and his father continues to beat him while driving them home, and after they get home.

Another trip to the ER. Another excuse.

And yet, there was a man – flawed though he was – who wanted to understand his father and his father’s rage that often flowed toward his wife and children.

In the book “The Great Santini,” the son says before the funeral of his father, who died after he crashed his Marine F-4 jet because a ejecting from the doomed plane might have sent it into a populated area — that in spite of everything he wanted to join the Marines, become an officer, graduate from flight school and come home as a Marine 2nd lieutenant with wings over his breast pocket.

Pat Conroy believed in the power of words over the power of fists. In “Lords” he is taunted because he’s majoring in English at the Institute, and because he plays basketball. Read that book and the description of the last game his character plays, a multi-overtime game against another military college that takes every last ounce of his strength and power.

OK, many of his books are overwritten. The critics will always have their say. I say, give the man his due. He wrote from a broken heart about a broken family and the broken lives it yielded. I nearly cried at the end of the nonfiction “The Death of Santini.”

The father, the monster and destroyer of his family and his youth, who drove away everyone, eventually dies. Still and all, the father says he made Robert Duvall a great actor in the movie version, though he insisted to the end that the beatings and all were just the product of a son’s overactive imagination.

Even at the end of “The Great Santini,” the son comes to understand the father amid his determination to never be that father.

Pat Conroy was imperfect. He drank too much. He ate too much. Some in his family said he remembered too much and wrote too much down.

That’s the thing about writers, and I include myself in that category. We see and hear too much, read too much into it, and then put our business on the street for all to see.

In August 1978, I was at a little place in South Carolina, you might have heard about it, called Parris Island. Platoon 2066 was doing the obstacle course one fine morning and those of us who were “eyeballing the area” could see that there was a large group of civilians watching us go through our ordeals.

I heard that they were cast and crew members of the movie “The Great Santini,” which was shooting in nearby Beaufort. They had come to see Marine training.

I fell from the ropes and into the water that day, and I sometimes wonder if Robert Duvall saw me fall. Or Pat Conroy. Or Blythe Danner. Probably not.

Hollywood had to tone down Conroy’s book to get military cooperation for it to be filmed and shown on military bases.

Pat Conroy is at peace now. I will miss him, but I will be sure to remember that when I do my next writing project that no one is feared more than the writer with the facts.

He wears the ring. He can say what he wants.


March 5, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , | Leave a comment