My exaggerated life, p.10
My Exaggerated Life, p.10Pat Conroy
She said, “Look.”
And Stanny is reaching for a glass, as unsteady on her feet as she can be, grabs her glass, puts it to her lips, stumbles and tumbles out into a huge bush, from which Bernie and Mike Jones have to retrieve my completely drunk grandmother. I think by then a bottle of Scotch had been consumed. She is completely blotto, so much so I don’t think she made the wedding.
Afterward, there was so much pressure on Barbara and me instantly. I was teaching on Daufuskie Island by then, married to a woman with two children who would not even think about living on Daufuskie with her two babies. I’m going by boat, forty-five minutes across the water and back each day.
I come back from Daufuskie one night, and Barbara’s weeping. Her parents, the Bollings, are getting ready to call the Joneses. The Bollings are going to take Jessica and Melissa away from us as unfit parents. This is the typical melodrama that always follows me, or I draw it out. I can’t do anything without something like this happening. It was not good for our first two months of marriage.
I said, “Why is he taking the kids away?”
“You’re a hippie.”
I said, “You’ve got to be shitting me.”
Hippie? In Beaufort, South Carolina? I was not a hippie; I can just tell you that. I have never been a hippie in my life. But Barbara had put up posters all over the house of Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen on a motorcycle. She had these ugly little mobiles saying “Make Love Not War.” Her father thought it was hippie shit.
Barbara is terrified by the Joneses, and I feared them very much. Their kid did what I was supposed to do. Their kid was a Marine fighter pilot, as I was supposed to be. But his parents were utterly magnificent people. I call the Joneses. Said, “Colonel and Mrs. Jones, we’ve only met once, and I just want to tell you what’s going to happen. I want to warn you about this. I have no idea what you’re going to do about it, but the Bollings are going to call you.”
They were fabulous. “Pat, we cannot thank you enough for taking care of our son’s children. We have been worried about it since he was killed.”
So the next day, unknown to Barbara, I went down and started adoption proceedings. Didn’t tell Barbara, didn’t tell anybody. Adoption papers came, showed them to Barbara, signed them; in less than a month they’re my kids, Conroys. Her parents couldn’t do anything once the adoption came through.
Over the years I became really good friends with the Joneses, and especially with the Colonel. He had been a Marine fighter pilot in World War II, shot down in Germany, badly wounded. What he did is he made it to a church, rested there for a couple days until he recovered some of his health, then started on his way. He dressed as a farmer and walked with a pitchfork, and the truckload of soldiers would wave to him and he’d wave back. He had to kill a woman in a farm who discovered him. That was the rule. You did anything you could to escape, to come back. Finally he got to Switzerland.
Anyway, the Colonel was very open and intellectual, he loved to read, was interested in everything, president of the Tennessee Library Association. In the summer when the girls were older I’d take them to their farm in west Tennessee near the Mississippi River, and we would stay for two weeks. They had a finished basement; I’d stay down there, and they had a 120-acre farm and a pond we’d swim in. He’d drive me all around the county.
One of the last times I was up there, he drove me past the monument where his son’s name had just been carved with the other guys in the county who had been killed in Vietnam. Colonel Jones tells me that when he lost Wes, it was the worst moment of his life. He then, rather intellectually, says, “You know, Pat, this is wonderful, you coming in to my life. It almost killed me when I lost my son. And then God gave me another son when you walked into my life.”
I had to walk back to the car swiftly I was so moved. It must be rare for a man who lost a son in Vietnam to say that to a draft dodger. But I always found them grateful about me taking care of those girls, and they became as close as parents to me.
When they came to visit me once in Beaufort, I took them to the cemetery to visit their son’s grave. Colonel Jones walks up to the grave, leans down, and starts pulling weeds up from around it. Then he stands at attention, military attention, salutes the grave, and says, “Well done, son.”
I about fucking collapse. Mrs. Jones is weeping against my Buick.
“We’ve never been here, Pat. Not since the burial. It’s too painful. Thanks for knowing where it is.”
Anyway, I had to adopt those girls very quickly because of Barbara’s stupid parents, the Bollings, who were not worth a damn. There was all kinds of shit like that going on. I don’t think our marriage had a chance. And I don’t think any relationship could have survived what happened with Daufuskie Island.
While I was in my first year of teaching, I wanted to serve my country some way without going into the military. I was feeling guilty about not doing anything for my country during the Vietnam War. I did not want to be a soldier, and I did not believe in that war, but I wanted to give two years to my country.
This embittered shell of a man I have now become, this empty husk, this spent cartridge, was not always like this. There was a time when I had blood surging through my veins, when I was young and could not do enough good for the world.
So Bernie and I applied to the Peace Corps. When we never heard from that, Bernie found out about this job on Daufuskie Island. It was the first year of teacher integration, and the county was in a bind. They needed some white schoolteachers on this all-black island, which had two black teachers there already. So Bernie said, “Pat, why don’t you and I go over, rent a house and live there? I’ll be the principal and you’ll teach grades five through eight, and we can use that as our Peace Corps.” I said that sounds great. So Bernie applies for both of us to have a job. Naturally we get it since we’re the only applicants on earth.
The superintendent told me, “You’re a godsend, because HEW demanded there be at least one white schoolteacher on the island.”
But when I go tell Bernie we got it, he said, “It ain’t we. I ain’t going over there.” He had found out that the place we were going to live had no indoor toilets.
At a party not too long ago, this very serious journalist-reporter came up and said, “Bernie, I heard you got Pat his job on Daufuskie and you were going over there with him. What happened? Why didn’t you go to Daufuskie Island?”
He told her, “I, Bernie Schein, a Jew, would have had to take a shit in an outhouse. You may not know my religion very well, but Jews do not shit in outhouses. My people are an anxious people, a nervous people, and we all have fixations on our digestive tracts from the beginning to the very end caused by centuries of being pursued like dogs through Europe by your people. If you are Christian, if you’re part of the goyim, you can actually take a shit on a toilet in a gas station on the interstate. If, however, you’re a Jew, you could not take a shit anywhere but your own bathroom, with the possible exception of a Ritz-Carlton. Now, I can beat off joyously anywhere. I can beat off on that table; I can beat off on that chair; I can beat off in that chandelier; I can beat off on top of a car. But I cannot take a shit in an outhouse. Pat Conroy, a dumb Southern boy, can take a shit anywhere on earth, and it doesn’t make any difference because his IQ is so low. So that is why Pat went to Daufuskie Island and I did not.”
Anyway, Bernie did not go to Daufuskie, and I’d already told them I’d go, and that was it. My fate had taken over. So in 1969 I went to teach on an all-black Gullah sea island. I thought I had discovered one of the moons of Pluto, when all I had discovered was America. I spent nine months of the best years of my life being called “the white schoolteacher.” I became integration. The kids had no idea they were sending a white boy over to teach, and they were terrified when they saw me. They said, “We never met any white teachers, and what’s a man teacher? We’ve never heard of it.” There was a lot they’d never heard of. All their tests were below the first-grade reading level.
That night, I wrote a letter to the superintendent, Walt Trammell. “Dear Sir, I’m teaching fifth grade through eighth grade, and I’ve got kids who can’t write their names, kids who can’t count to ten. You told me their schools were separate but equal. It’s the biggest lie ever told in the South.”
I was not in my diplomatic best in my younger days—I was a fire-eater type person—and I pissed that superintendent off. He was not one of the worst racists in the world, but he still had this racist quality, and I got under his skin. He hated my guts from that day forward. Anyway, I fucked it up; I screwed it up; I screwed my life up, the life of my family. And now here I am, an old man, beaten by life, savaged by fate.
The guy I played guard with at the Citadel, John DeBrosse, said I deserved everything that happened to me. “Conroy, you are mischievous; you are devilish; you get yourself into trouble. You’ve got an incredibly big mouth. It must have enraged your father. You enraged the Citadel. Everything that happened to you at the Citadel was your fault if you go back and look at it honestly.”
He quoted a little poem I published in the Shako: “Last night, I dreamt I was a dog who found an upperclassman tree.” And he said, “I heard they came from four battalions to eat you alive, to make your life miserable, to torture you. But you wrote that. You knew what was going to happen. You knew that you were going out of bounds. You did it anyway, because that’s your nature. And so don’t whine to me that the Citadel picked on you. You were picking on the Citadel, and they taught you a lesson.”
There’s no question I have pissed off an enormous range of people. I can barely work with anybody or anything without ending up fighting with it, which I consider a tremendous embarrassment now that I’m in my dotage and wonder what the hell that was all about. In retrospect I wish I’d kept my mouth shut a little more, because when I opened it, it seemed to get me in trouble. I was such a young asshole; I now realize that. Pat, why didn’t you shut your mouth? Pat, why didn’t you just keep quiet? What was the reason, Pat, you had to say that then? Why type of Tourette’s syndrome mauled your youth and made it untenable for anyone to be around you?
So at the end of the year, my school board was trying to take the boat away I used to get to Daufuskie because it was too expensive. At that time there was a woman who came through town named Betsy Fancher, who must have had the most boring job in the world. She was going around the South during the summer covering school board meetings for South Today. That was the house newspaper of the Southern Regional Council. She stumbled onto me when I was arguing before the school board just for the gas in the boat. Now I’m an ancient, withered warrior, but back then I was an impetuous little cocksucker, and I fought them and won. The board voted gas. That was a rare victory of mine with the school board. Betsy wrote an article about it, and the article went, as they say, nationwide, right before the school year started. She made me sound like the most heroic figure since Apollo, trying to get gas to teach these black kids who didn’t know anything. That enraged the superintendent. I got fired almost immediately. Betsy and I met in June, and I was fired by the end of September.
I think it was two days later I got my greetings from the president of the United States. They drafted me. I’d had a deferral because I was teaching. When they fired me, I lost that, and evidently, the superintendent just called the draft board and said, “He’s not teaching anymore.”
Zach Sklar had been an antiwar activist and done draft counseling in California, and he hears of this and comes flying back, stayed with us for the next month, I think, and was a great, great help. Zach was one of the California boys who came to take a sociology class on Daufuskie Island taught by a charismatic black guy named Herman Blake. Zach’s father, George Sklar, was a playwright who got blacklisted as a communist in the ’30s. Anyway, Zach sent a telegram to the head of the Selective Service protesting my being drafted for political reasons. That stopped it right there. I had ten days to report, and the telegram stopped that process. I had no idea you could send a telegram like that. So he was a terrific consigliore in these days. Later he and I had a great thing happen to us. The year I was nominated for an Academy Award for the Prince of Tides screenplay, he was nominated for the JFK screenplay, and we got to sit in the same row together. That was a magical sort of thing that you don’t think of when you’re young.
After I got out of the draft, then there was the fear how was I going to make a living? I had three kids under five years old, I had three or four black kids from Daufuskie Island living with me, I had a wife who wasn’t working because she had just had our baby Megan, and I did not know how I was going to make it in the world. I look back and wonder how the hell Barbara did all this. I can’t figure that out at all.
After I was fired in September, Megan was born November fifth. The night she was born, I was terrified. Dr. Keyserling was my doctor and Barbara’s doctor and everybody in town’s doctor, and he birthed every child in town. He was a great curmudgeon. This is 1970, and I go in to the hospital, say, “Doc, do you know men are watching the birth of their children now?”
He looks at me, says, “That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. What kind of pervert would want to see that kind of mess? Good God, Conroy. Get the hell out of my hospital. I don’t even want you in my waiting room.”
He kicked me out, so I went down to some friends who lived near the hospital. They fed me drinks, and we waited until Dr. Keyserling called and said that Megan had been born. I went back and saw her through the window, and that was Meggie-Poo.
The two girls, Jessica and Melissa, seemed very upset about Megan coming on board. When we got home, both of them came out to ask me, “Do you like her better?”
I said, “Nah, I like y’all better.”
“But she’s yours.”
“Yeah, but I’ve known you longer. That’s how it works.”
Since Megan didn’t know anything, my main concern at that time was that I not make these other kids feel rejected by being too gleeful over the birth of my own. Now I think I may have screwed poor Megan by not showing enough. But there was so much going on, and I am not sure I was good at anything at that particular time, because I’d really messed my life up.
I was going I think fairly crazy, trying to get a job, not getting a job, knowing I wasn’t going to get a job. I was getting turned down for every job I was applying to, and it did not look good. I think there was some kind of check that came for Jessica and Melissa. Gene Norris sent $100 a month; Bill Dufford sent me $100 a month; the Boo sent me $100 a month.
That was a tough period of my life. After what happened with the Beaufort County school system, I could not get a job teaching anywhere in the state. I went to Savannah, another state, and I’m sitting there with the assistant superintendent, thinking I’m having a good interview, when the phone rings. It’s the superintendent of Beaufort, Walt Trammell, one of the guys who got me fired. They talk, and then this guy says, “Mr. Conroy, you’re exactly the kind of person we don’t want teaching our students in Savannah.”
This demonstrates my ability to make psychodrama out of anything. Millions of people become teachers and don’t end up like I did, where they can’t teach again forever. I never taught again. It takes a special thwarted personality to arrange that kind of fate, which I found myself fully capable of doing.
It was painful to lose teaching so early in my life. Success I considered teaching in high school. I thought I was going to teach high school and write poetry my entire life. I would have had a lovely life, I thought, because I think teaching is the highest profession one can enter. I love what teachers do for you: they give you the world; they give you a way to live in the world; they give you a way to operate in the world; they give you a way to live above and beyond yours
I applied for a job at a chicken farm up in Hampton County, one of these horrible places where they raise chickens. It was a long ride, but I figured I could do it. I was going to be taking care of the chickens; I might have to kill them. So, the guy likes me. I told him I didn’t have any experience with farm work, but I’m telling him that my whole family were farmers, and I’m trying to make the best case I can. So anyway, he likes me; he says he’s going to hire me.
Then he thought about it and said, “Son, you’re not the teacher they fired in Beaufort are you?”
I said, “Yes, sir, I am.”
He says, “Well, I can’t hire you.”
I said, “Can you tell me why not? You know, it’s a different thing, taking care of chickens.”
He says, “Son, I got to hire somebody I can trust with my chickens.”
I saw one job advertised paying $50 every five seconds, and I thought, Now this is a job old Conroy can get into. You know, $50, five seconds, just work a couple hours a day. What the job was: fighting an orangutan in a county fair. You got $50 for every five seconds you stayed in the ring with the orangutan. I went up to see it, this county fair. But these were big, strong, redneck boys in the ring with that orangutan. It would just pick the guy up and simply hurl him through the air into the audience. I didn’t know orangutans were so strong, but they were strong, and they’re a lot bigger than I thought, so that job didn’t work out.
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