The lords of discipline, p.1
The Lords of Discipline, p.1
The Lords of Discipline
This book is dedicated with love and gratitude to Lt. Col. Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, U.S.A. (ret.), the finest military officer I have ever known. And to Joseph Michael Devito and Robert D. Marks, friends and brothers.
And to James T. Roe III and John C. Warley. And to my friends, teachers, classmates, and teammates at The Citadel from 1963 to 1967. And to the boys who did not make it.
Special thanks to these five remarkable people from Houghton Mifflin: Norman Berg, Shannon Ravenel Purves, Jonathan and Susan Galassi, and to Anne Barrett, whose retirement was a great loss to publishing and to the writers who loved her.
With heart at rest I climbed the citadel’s
steep height, and saw the city as from a tower,
hospital, brothel, prison, and such hells,
where evil comes up softly like a flower.
Part I: THE CADRE
Part II: THE TAMING
Plebe Year 1963–1964
Part III: THE WEARING OF THE RING
September 1966—January 1967
Part IV: THE TEN
A Biography of Pat Conroy
This book is a work of fiction. No character is real, and no incident occurred as described in this book; no man or woman who lives within the pages of this book lives outside of it. This novel is about the idea of the military school and the various forms it has taken around the country. I interviewed men from West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, VMI, The Citadel, and dozens of military high schools around the South in preparation for writing the novel. There is a sameness to all these schools; yet each is unique and has its own fiercely protected identity. It is the military school as it has evolved in America, as well as the lives of the men and women it has touched and changed, that I am writing about, and no one school or set of individuals in particular. Similarly, the actions I portray here are fictional archetypes created from my own experience and research, not actual events.
I wear the ring.
I wear the ring and I return often to the city of Charleston, South Carolina, to study the history of my becoming a man. My approach to Charleston is always silent and distracted, but I come under full sail, with hissing silk and memories a wing above me in the shapes of the birds I love best: old brown pelicans, Great Blue herons, cowbirds, falcons lost at sea, ospreys lean from dives, and eagles over schools of mullet. I am a lowcountry boy. My entrance to this marsh-haunted city is always filled with troubled meditations on both my education and my solitude during a four-year residence at the Institute.
The city of Charleston, in the green feathery modesty of its palms, in the certitude of its style, in the economy and stringency of its lines, and the serenity of its mansions South of Broad Street, is a feast for the human eye. But to me, Charleston is a dark city, a melancholy city, whose severe covenants and secrets are as powerful and beguiling as its elegance, whose demons dance their alley dances and compose their malign hymns to the side of the moon I cannot see. I studied those demons closely once, and they helped kill off the boy in me.
I am not a son of Charleston. Nor could I be if I wanted to. I am always a visitor, and my allegiance lies with other visitors, sons and daughters of accident and circumstance. Edgar Allan Poe was a son by visitation. It was no surprise to me when I was a freshman at the Institute to discover that Poe was once stationed at Fort Moultrie and that he wrote “The Gold Bug” about one of the sea islands near Charleston. I like to think of him walking the streets of Charleston as I walked them, and it pleases me to think that the city watched him, felt the shimmer of his madness and genius in his slouching promenades along Meeting Street. I like to think of the city shaping this agitated, misplaced soldier, keening his passion for shade, trimming the soft edges of his nightmare, harshening his poisons and his metaphors, deepening his intimacy with the sunless wastes that issued forth from his kingdom of nightmare in blazing islands, still inchoate and unformed, of the English language. Whenever I go back to Charleston, I think of Poe. I remember that Poe spent a single year attending West Point before dropping out in disgrace and beginning his life among words. I wonder how that year in the barracks marked him; I wonder if our markings were similar.
Osceola was another visitor to Charleston. The Seminole chieftain, betrayed by white flags and white man’s honor and brought to prison in Fort Moultrie, died there after a month’s internment, dreaming of tannic-stained creeks flowing through mangrove, flowing north from Florida, through the salt-rusted bars, bringing the heat of council fires, the cries of betrayed warriors, and the shiver of a man returning to the serenity of cypress and safety of otters. Osceola’s bones rested in a grave on Sullivan’s Island until they were stolen in the spring of my sophomore year. I remember hoping that the thief was a full-blooded Seminole who knew where the greatest of his tribe should be put to rest. Shortly after the theft of Osceola’s remains, I found myself in H. R. Rabun’s bar on King Street, surrounded by a group of cadets from R Company, toasting the escape of the chief. In the midst of this, I indulged myself with a vision. I saw myself cutting through the bars of Osceola’s cell, and together we made it back to the swamps, the Indian teaching me the ways of the forest as we traveled southward, giddy with the star-blaze of freedom. My God, it was a beautiful thing to see the Everglades through the eyes of Osceola. But in this vision I had one regret: I would have liked first to have shown him Charleston through my eyes, through the eyes of Will McLean. I, too, had my Charleston cell, and I, too, would have some bones to show him.
Though I will always be a visitor to Charleston, I will always remain one with a passionate belief that it is the most beautiful city in America and that to walk the old section of the city at night is to step into the bloodstream of a history extravagantly lived by a people born to a fierce and unshakable advocacy of their past. To walk in the spire-proud shade of Church Street is to experience the chronicle of a mythology that is particular to this city and this city alone, a trinitarian mythology with equal parts of the sublime, the mysterious, and the grotesque. But there is nothing to warn you of Charleston’s refined cruelty. That knowledge must be earned. No gargoyles hang from the sides of St. Philip’s or St. Michael’s. No messages are in the iron scrollwork of its gates to warn visitors like Poe, Osceola, me, and you.
The city of Charleston burns like a flame of purest memory. It is a city distorted by its own self-worship. I do not believe there is another city like it on earth, nor do I believe there is another college like the Institute. Nor can I imagine the Institute in any other city. The school has adopted many of the odd, quirky mannerisms of Charleston itself, an osmotic, subterranean effect, and each has shaped the other, magnified the other’s flaws, reinforced the other’s strengths. If the Institute existed in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, or Phoenix, it would be a vastly different school, and I would be a vastly different man. The city, river-girt, has a tyrannical need for order and symmetry. It is not a city of outlaws, not a landscape for renegades. There is no ambiance of hazard here, but something so tightly repressed, so rigidly ordered, so consecrated to the adoration of restraint that you sometimes want to scream out for excess, for a single knee bent toward bad taste, for the cleansing roar of pandemonium to establish a foothold somewhere in the city. But, of course, the charm of the city lies in this adherence to a severity of form. Entering Charleston is like walking through the brilliant carbon forest of a diamond with the light dazzling you in a thousand ways, an assault of light and shadow caused by light. The sun and the city have struck up an irreversible alliance. The city turns inward upon itself, faces away from visitors, alluringly contained in its own mystery. The city has a smell, a fecund musk of aristocracy, with the wine and the history of the lowcountry aging beneath the verandahs, the sweetly decadent odors of lost causes. Around you, in late August, beauty is reduced at last to beauty at the confluence of two rivers. But I know what the late August smell of the city is; I know it well. It is the awful fear of boys entering the Institute to begin their plebe year. That is what I smell when I cross the Ashley River on my return to Charleston.
I define myself in this way: I am the son of Thomas Patrick McLean of Savannah, Georgia, a volatile, brawling man who attended Benedictine High School and Carolina Military Institute, and as a Marine captain won a Navy Cross for his valor under fire during the invasion of Iwo Jima. He returned to Savannah as a wounded hero in 1944, went to work for Belk’s department store, and married a girl from Dahlonega, Georgia, who worked in the perfume department after a brief stint in notions. I liked neither the Corps nor Belk’s nor my father, but grew up worshiping the black-haired woman from the perfume department. My mother blamed my father’s temper on Iwo Jima, but I entertained the heretical thought that he was a son of a bitch long before the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor. When he was dying of cancer, he made me promise to attend and graduate from Carolina Military Institute, and through tears, I promised. He told me to stop crying and act like a man and I did. Then he made me promise I would be a pilot when I entered the service, that he didn’t want any son of his getting killed on some godforsaken beach like Iwo Jima, especially a son he loved as much as he did me. Eight hours after he told me he loved me for the first time, he died of melanoma and left me a prisoner of his memory. At age fourteen, I was the man of the house.
My mother is a different case. As lovely a woman as I have ever seen, bred and nurtured like a gardenia, she has always seemed somehow odorless and sexless to me, yet viscerally seductive in the manner of Southern women, that taloned species who speak with restrained and self-effacing drawls, fill a room with elegance and vulnerability, move with the grace of wind-tilted cane, and rule their families with a secret pact of steel. The sweetness of Southern women often conceals the secret deadliness of snakes. It has helped them survive the impervious tyranny of Southern men more comfortable with a myth than a flesh-and-blood woman.
It took me years to spot the howitzers in my mother’s eyes and many more to understand why they were there. Because of my father, my childhood was a long march of fear; my mother’s dispassionate assent to his authority took me longer to discover. She won my everlasting love by wading fearlessly into battle with my father whenever he abused me. For years I looked at her uncritically. But I learned something in my long earnest study of my mother. The adversary who is truly formidable is the one who works within the fortress walls, singing pleasant songs while licking honey off knives. It was my mother who encouraged me to keep my promise to attend the Institute. It was my mother who made me stay. Because she was a Southern wife, my domination by things totalitarian did not end when my father died, weighing one hundred pounds less than he had in his prime. Her severity was soft, but severity nonetheless, for she was a product of the South as much as I was. My father’s discipline was harsh and unmistakable; the discipline of my mother disguised itself in love and tenderness and often held far greater terrors. I am always writing revisionist histories of my mother. But because I needed to love her and love her deeply, her strafing runs against me brought on surrender almost immediately. I was all white flags and trembling fingers signing treaties and giving up territories to her. She, a Southern lady, had raised me to be a Southern gentleman, and that made us both foreigners in my father’s house. In the lock step of my nineteenth year I entered Carolina Military Institute. I did it because of my mother. She and I agreed it was because of my father. A lifetime of practice had taught us to blame everything on him. My father had become the manager of Belk’s, but he never could lure me from behind the perfume counter.
But in the end, the Institute was my choice and my responsibility It, too, became part of my definition. My instincts were those of sheep, lemmings, and herring. I trundled along with the herd on the course of least resistance. My parents had trained me exquisitely in the fine art of obedience. Because I was Southern, the military school seemed like the place for a final honing, the polishing of the rough spots. I would emerge glossy and shiny from the Institute as a man to serve my country in any way I could, but with absolute devotion and forthrightness. A Southern man is incomplete without a tenure under military rule. I am not an incomplete Southern man. I am simply damaged goods, like all the rest of them.
At first, I thought I had wasted my college years, but I was wrong. The Institute was the most valuable experience I have ever had or will have. I believe it did bring me into manhood: The Institute taught me about the kind of man I did not want to be. Through rigorous harshness, I became soft and learned to trust that softness. Through the distorted vision of that long schizophrenia, I became clear-sighted. Under its system, a guerrilla was born inside me, and when the other boys rushed to embrace the canons of the Institute, I took to the hills.
Whenever I look at photographs of myself in the cadet days, I stare into the immobile face of a stranger. His name is mine and his face seems distantly related, but I cannot reconcile the look of him. The frozen, unconvincing smile is an expression of almost incomprehensible melancholy. I feel compassion and unspeakable love for this thin, fearful ancestor. I honor the courage he did not know he possessed. For four years he was afraid. Yet he remained. A lifetime in a Southern family negated any possibility that he could resign from the school under any conditions other than unequivocal disgrace. Yet I know what he did and what he said, how he felt and how he survived. I relive his journey in dreams and nightmares and in returns to the city of Charleston. He haunts me and remains a stranger. Once while they were doing pushups on a shower-room floor, a classmate, too exhausted to turn his head, threw up on him. The upperclassmen made all the freshmen roll in the vomit of their classmate until nothing was left on the fetid tiles. He remembered the moment often, not because of his disgust or humiliation, but because it was then that he had the first premonition that someday he would tell his story, tell what it was like to be at the Institute, an eyewitness report on the contours and lineaments of discipline. Amidst the dark hearts of the boys around him, he felt a magnificent radiance. He would roll in vomit again, but the next time the symbolism of the act would be clear to him. This was the story he would tell: At the Institute the making of men was a kind of grotesque artistry.
Yet I am a product of this artistry. And 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.
When I crossed the Ashley River my senior year in my gray 1959 Chevrolet, I was returning with confidence and even joy. I’m a senior now, I thought, looking to my right and seeing the restrained chaste skyline of Charleston again. The gentleness and purity of that skyline had always pleased me. A fleet of small sailboats struggled toward a buoy in the windless river, trapped like pale months in the clear amber of late afternoon. Then I looked to my left and saw, upriver, the white battlements and parapets of Carolina Military Institute, as stolid and immovable in reality as in memory. The view to the left no longer caused me to shudder involuntarily as it had the first year. No longer was I returning to the cold, inimical eyes of the cadre. Now the cold eyes were mine and those of my classmates, and I felt only the approaching freedom that would come when I graduated in June. After a long childhood with an unbenign father and four years at the Institute, I was looking forward to that day of release when I would no longer be subject to the fixed, irresistible tenets of martial law, that hour when I would be presented with my discharge papers and could walk without cadences for the first time.
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