My exaggerated life, p.11
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.11

           Pat Conroy
 
At one interview I found out that the deputy superintendent, Emmett McCracken, was on the board of this economic development company I was trying to get a job from, and I saw him there. He said, “You should know not even to apply.” Yes I do. Good to see you, Mr. McCracken. Then I went to a job interview in Florence, South Carolina, and on the way back from that, I had a complete physical breakdown where I could not control my body. I was jackknifing in the car. I had to put my hands in front of me to keep my head from hitting the steering wheel, and I was crying uncontrollably.

  This was not my first breakdown. The first breakdown I ever had occurred at the Citadel, when the plebe system broke me one night. It broke me completely, surprising the shit out of me. For some reason, they caught me by surprise. They came at me. When the pack goes after you, it’s hard. There can be ten of them on you, each giving you different orders and screaming at you as loud as they can right by your ear. The officer in front of you may be spitting in your face; another may be pounding on your chest with his fist. It’s an arena of chaos, a screaming horror. The pack came at me when I was not expecting it, and I had not prepared myself at all for it, and boy, I just broke. I just bawled, snot coming out of my nose, down my face.

  I was about to say I was going to quit when the seniors next door came roaring in, grabbed me, and pulled me out of there. Then they told me: “They’re coming for you tomorrow morning; they’ll be coming for you. Are you broke?” That was the phrase: “Are you broke?” Now they see the opening, they can get rid of you. They can get you out of school. Because once they know you’ll break, they’ll come back to you and try again and again and again. You’re finally going to say, I can’t take it, I’m going to leave.

  After the seniors got me collected, calmed down, I went back in to the room. My roommate had already gone to sleep, and I remember looking in the mirror, and I said, You can’t leave. Your only college education is here, whether you like it or not. So what I tried to do is kill off anything soft in me that I saw in that face. Dad used to say, “You’re like your mother; you’re soft; you’re weak; you’re a pussy.” I killed all that off as I was watching in the mirror. And when I went to bed, I knew the Red Army could not run me out of that school. I just knew it. But I wonder at what cost that comes to you.

  They came to me all the next day; they came to me that afternoon; they came to me that night. And I was fine. Yes, sir, no, sir, no excuse, sir, and whatever they told me to do, fifty push-ups, a hundred pushups, I did them. Jumped back up and somebody else would tell me to do something. What they try to do is confuse you. They’re all screaming at once. I would choose one to answer. I’d answer him fully; I’d ignore the others. You didn’t hear me, dumbass? You ignoring me, dumbass?

  I got through that just by a decision, and so I made it through. But that was a crisis. And looking back, I considered that a breakdown. That was the first time. The second time was coming back from that interview in Florence when I lost control of my body. I lost muscular control and was shaking and twisting around. I knew I was going to crash if I did not get to the side of the road. So I pulled over to the side, tried to get control of myself, and looked for the nearest person who loved me.

  It was Bill Dufford, my beloved high school principal. Bill was one of those guys—like Gene Norris—who found me. Bill was splendid to me, and I cannot thank Bill enough. So I drove to Dufford’s apartment in Columbia, where he was then the head of the Desegregation Center of South Carolina. He opened the door; I said, “Bill, I need you.” He was scared to death, so I must have looked terrible. Whatever hit me had gone on for fifteen minutes on the side of the road. Finally it slowed down, it stopped, and whatever control I had came back. Then I drove immediately to Bill Dufford’s house and spent the night. When I woke up the next day, I felt better. I drove home.

  I knew something horrible was wrong, and I had a feeling it was the pressure. I’d been drafted. Dad’s in Vietnam. I have three kids; I have a wife, three black kids living with us on the Point. It was a madhouse. Barbara was freaking out, and okay, I was too. I knew that I was in a really, really desperate situation. Also, I was writing The Water Is Wide. I now look back; that was just too much. My life was overexposed. I could not take it. I just did not do well with it. It was overwhelming, what was happening, and when I got overwhelmed is when I broke down. I’m sure it scared Barbara.

  The one job I did have during that time was working on a shrimping boat as a striker, the guy at the back of the boat. When the nets came in, I undid them and sorted the shrimp and fish. It’s dangerous work, and it’s heavy work when you bring in those nets; then you have the magic moment when you uncover the nets, and every once in a while, tremendous amounts of seafood go flying onto the deck. Everything’s flopping and flapping and quivering with life. My job was to scoop it up, collect the fish they could sell, head the shrimp, and ice it down. I got paid in seafood, so that’s what my family ate a lot of that summer.

  It was a world I’d never seen, and it had great beauty to it. I fell in love with those creeks and rivers. I loved the complete dependence on the seas, the rivers, the bays, and the outside world. It seemed like a wonderful way to make a living to me. You’re outdoors; you’re your own man. It was exhilarating to me after worrying about being fired and what I was going to do.

  I used to love hearing the shrimpers talk to each other on the radio. They’d give their latitude and longitude and say, “Ain’t nothin’ here but ants”—that meant the shrimp were really little—just ants. “Catch anything over there?” “Ants; it’s all ants.” They were always lying to each other. Shrimping was never going well; it was horrible; they wouldn’t be here next season; they were going to sell their boat. It was a world I really liked. I got to watch the shrimpers that year, and they got used to me. I’d pass other shrimp boats and wave. I met a lot of these shrimpers’ families and liked them all. They were all good people, and there was great respect for shrimpers because of how hard their work was. These guys did not get rich, and they’d have good years and bad years. I’d pass the oyster fishermen, old black men. On two or three occasions their boats would break down, they’d wave me down, and I’d haul them in, take them up to the oyster factory. I loved that world out there on the ocean, the rivers, the bays. It was a tough world, but I thought a good world. It felt safe after being fired from Daufuskie, and it was getting away from the world of assholes, which was wonderful.

  I was writing the book seriously that summer also. I’d come home and write in the afternoon. I started writing The Water Is Wide in a fury, trying to explain to myself as much as anyone else, what had happened to me on that island. I was so pissed off, had so much guilt over letting these kids down. And I kept meeting people around Beaufort: “What happened to you, Pat? You’re a nice boy.” I could not explain to them what had happened to me. So I wrote this book quickly, and I think sort of unartfully, in about three or four months in an absolute blaze of fury.

  I learned early that a good day for me was five handwritten pages a day on a yellow legal pad. Occasionally I’d get six or seven, but when I got to five I could quit, knowing I had worked hard that day, because there was usually about three hundred words on one legal page. The five pages a day has been what I’ve tried to do every time I sit down to write.

  My mother would come up behind me as I was writing The Water Is Wide and say, “Now son, I don’t mean this as criticism, but most men your age have jobs. Most men with three children have jobs.”

  I had no job, no prospects, nothing except I was trying to write this book, The Water Is Wide, and normally that would not have worked. A fired teacher writing a book—oh yeah, that works out well all the time. It worked out for me like most things have in my life: totally by accident.

  When The Boo came out, I was in court trying to get my job back. I got fired in maybe late September. The Boo came out the first week of December at a time when I was headline news in South Carolina, being fired from Daufuskie Island for, of all things, supporting
black people and liking black people. The trial where I sued to get my job back was that same week, and my mother’s book party for The Boo was the same night as I lost the trial. I had ruined my life in a very short time, I was looking at a lifetime of doom, and things did not look good. So my first book party was in this funereal atmosphere.

  After I had finished writing the book, the Boo says, “While you guys were down there fixing your panties and putting on your bras in the English department, did you ever talk about getting a book published?”

  I said, “Colonel, I have no idea how to get a book published.”

  So the colonel, of course he says, and I always loved this, “Well, let’s look in the Yellow Pages.”

  So we did. We looked in the Yellow Pages, and under printing, we saw the R. L. Bryan Company that said “Business cards, invitations, books.”

  I put on a coat and tie the next day and go down there and talk to the guy, a vice president, you know, and I said I’ve got a book I’d like to be published. And he said great.

  I said, “That can’t be.”

  He said, “We’d be happy to publish it. The Citadel is wonderful. We’re a South Carolina company.”

  I said, “I heard it was hard to get a book published.”

  He said, “Not for a smart guy like you.”

  So I said, “How does it work?”

  He said, “Two thousand books, $4,000.”

  I said, “Is that how it works for everybody?”

  He said, “What, do you think it’s done for free?”

  I had met five million generals at the Citadel, but no writers, and the one writer I had met who had taught me at Beaufort High School had died, so I couldn’t go to her.

  Anyway, I go to Peoples Bank in Beaufort. Willie Shepherd was a banker, and Willie is a Citadel graduate. I knew Willie because everybody knew everybody in Beaufort. So I tell Willie about my project, and he says, “A book about the Citadel? We’ve never had a book about the Citadel. How much do you need?”

  I said, “I think we’ll need about two thousand, Willie.”

  This is the way banking was then. He says, “Two thousand? I’ll give you three thousand.” He wrote me a check at his desk.

  I said, “Do I have to fill out any papers?” He said, “We’ll do that later. Don’t worry about it.”

  Jim Bowditch, the guy who ripped the pants off the regimental commander, was dating a woman, Peggy Reynolds, first family of Virginia. Her family owned a printing company, the McClure Press in Weyers Cave, Virginia. Jim brought her down for a homecoming weekend. I met her, the Boo met her, and she offered us the best deal to print our book. We all shook on it, so that’s how McClure Press became our company.

  Another Citadel classmate, Joe Riley, was our lawyer. Joe Riley was a senior when I was a freshman, a senior I admired and loved, which was a rarity. Boo had liked him a lot too. He’s been the mayor of Charleston for twenty-seven years, but Joe was just starting out as a lawyer then. He’s been a great friend of mine throughout my life, and I send money for him when he runs for mayor. He ran for governor once; I supported him, gave speeches for him. He’s been the best mayor the country’s ever had; almost everybody says that. He’s a wonderful man and a wonderful mayor. I don’t think there’s ever been another American mayor like him.

  Well, in the book I had used real names, so Joe was the one who made me change all the names of the cadets, and I had a night to do it in. I made up the dumbest names you have ever heard of. I just made them up one night. You have never seen stupider names in your life; God they were dumb. I’m going through and throwing any name I could think of in there. Peter Doorframe and this kind of crap. Some of them were not even names, they were just things I made up. They were silly beyond human belief. It’s one reason I cannot look at that book again. But I learned the importance of names. I’ve always thought there was a genius in the naming of things, and I love it when somebody comes up with the perfect name.

  I think it was very good for me to have to publish The Boo and learn things like the commerce of book publishing: going in to borrow money, going to a publisher, asking him to print my book. As innocent as I was, I had no idea what a vanity press was. The Boo was as innocent as I was, but we actually made money. We presold enough to pay for the book before it came out, then sold out our first printing and went back to press. But I was a rookie then. I had no idea the storm this book would stir up.

  When The Boo came out in 1970, it was controversial, banned on campus as soon as it’s written, I think simply because the Citadel thought it made them look bad for firing this wonderful, fabulous, life-affirming champion of cadets and putting him in exile where he ordered the toilet paper. I emphasized the toilet paper and said something like “lesser men got rid of a greater man.” There was nothing in there that was really critical of the Citadel except they got rid of this guy. But I think there was a punishment order if they found the book in your room, so of course the sales shot up among the cadets.

  Now, I was not allowed to have any of the money, because Boo insisted all money we made go to Citadel scholarships. Of course, they never thanked us for it. The Boo and I took it to the president, gave him a signed copy, and he treats us like shit.

  We walk out, and Boo says, “Bubba, that didn’t seem like a high point in literary history to me. That was my impression. What was your impression?”

  I said, “I imagine we can see the smoke over his fireplace tonight.” We were both laughing about it, although we could not have been treated more shabbily.

  At the book signing in Beaufort for The Boo, nobody came. I was there for three hours, and nobody came to the Beaufort book shop, including my mother and my wife. They both said, Well, we already had books. All of us were rookies then, so I don’t hold this against them.

  I was sitting there in the shop with the High Sheriff of the Low Country, Sheriff McTeer. Lots of people are coming to see Sheriff McTeer and buy his book. He had learned about the Gullah people, because Dr. Buzzard was putting hexes on people the sheriff had coming in to court. So the sheriff had learned how to de-hex, and he wrote about that in his book. He says, “Pat, I’m famous all over the world. I get letters from Australia, China.” That’s great, Sheriff McTeer. And he said, “Isn’t it wonderful? I have so much fun being famous.” Sounds great, Sheriff.

  I came across my own copy of The Boo not long ago; the Boo said this was the first one he ever signed. I didn’t know what to sign when I first did a book. I only did best wishes, some oily little greasy meaningless statement like that, and I try to do it better now; I try to think about it more now. The Boo doesn’t say to Pat Conroy, he doesn’t mention my name. He simply says, “To the lamb who made me. The Boo.”

  He sent out to all his lambs these little cards he had printed up which are worth money themselves now, these little business cards saying you could order The Boo for $4.50. McClure Press couldn’t believe it: they had checks from over five hundred people before they went to press, so we paid for the book long before it even came out. By the time we published it, it was almost sold out. I think the first printing was fifteen hundred, then it went into a second printing.

  If I ever allowed anything to excite me, I’m sure that would have been exciting. But the book came out the same week I was in court trying to get my job back at Daufuskie, which I lost, so I was jobless. There was stark terror in light of my future, or my lack of one.

  After I got fired from Daufuskie, the Charleston Evening Post did a full-page article about it. This was rare for them; this was 1970. I was controversial shit then, being a white boy raising this ruckus about black people. I didn’t even think I was going to get a fair shake in South Carolina newspapers, some of the most racist newspapers in the world. But the times were changing, and I think this was one of the first times this paper got to prove it. Also, I think they had known me at the Citadel because of basketball, and I was known as a good kid. They sent down a very good reporter named Jack Leland, whom I had read al
l through college. Jack even said he’d seen me play ball a couple of times, and I did not look like a revolutionary.

  So Jack came down, and I took him everywhere. I took him out to Daufuskie, showed him the kids, told my story. He wrote a great article about my being fired and how he thought it was unjust. He played it up. Then, to everybody’s shock, the Evening Post came out with an editorial in my favor, supporting getting my job back. They were saying, “He’s discovered something, he’s trying to tell us something, and nobody’s listening.” That was unheard-of at the time, but it was certainly a great boost for me. That went on the wire and got picked up.

  Next, Joe Cumming came down from Newsweek magazine out of Atlanta. He wrote a very nice article about the firing, and it went out on the wire all over the place. The trial where I sued to get my job back was covered by the state newspapers, and some of these articles went out on the AP. After one of those, a guy came through town who made film-strips about teachers for an education company. He did a filmstrip about my getting fired. I think he thought I was either some kind of apparition or new evolutionary strain of Southerner. Every person I met from the North at that time thought every white Southerner was a White Citizens Council member or worse. They didn’t believe there were Southerners possible who could think right about integration and civil rights.

  I told him I was writing a book about my experience on the island. At that time I had no idea that The Water Is Wide was going to be any different from The Boo. I just had no idea when I started that out. I was glad that Willie Shepherd at Peoples Bank had agreed to give me the money to have it printed. I thought I was going to pay for it myself, McClure Press was going to publish it, and I would schlep it around like I did The Boo.

  But this guy asked me, “Who’s your agent?”

  I said, “I don’t have an agent. I’m not an actor.”

  That’s the first time I’d heard of an agent representing writers. I thought when you got to be Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe, somehow an agent appeared out of nowhere to guide you, but I didn’t know as an unknown, you could get an agent. And of course, you can’t.

 
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