My exaggerated life, p.23
My Exaggerated Life, p.23Pat Conroy
Of course she went to expensive colleges, very expensive colleges. The first two years to Furman, and then switched over to Anderson College in Anderson, South Carolina, where she graduated. Now she’s a teacher and a coach.
I wrote a letter blasting the Citadel when she left. They never showed any ability to plan ahead to get ready for something, to even prepare for something. The women caught them off guard, and they had no idea what to do once the court said they had to let them in. They had no clue. I think it took two years for the case to be decided. Wouldn’t you think somebody would say, “What if we lose? What is our plan if we don’t win in the courts?” There was no plan. So I said, “For a military college, the Citadel shows a surprising lack of strategic planning. Wouldn’t the Citadel be great if it could think ahead; if it could come up with a strategy? And where was the sense of honor among any of you? Couldn’t the Citadel admire this young South Carolina girl, who for years fought in the courts to get women to enter there? Why couldn’t you have lined the campus with cadets and saluted this girl on her way off campus for her courage? Wouldn’t it be fabulous if on the day she left, an honor guard of the Citadel lined the streets and Citadel cadets saluted that girl as she left the campus, saluted her for her courage, for changing her school forever? If they’d lined the streets and saluted her as she made her way out of campus, and saluted her for her courage and her bravery and fighting for the rights of women, in a state which does not care much for them. What would that have cost? Instead of making yourself the laughingstock of America, loathed by women in America? What woman wants to send her kid to a school where he becomes a man like that?”
Oh, and I said, “They will keep coming.” I said, “If you think this will stop them, think again. They are on their way.”
And of course the girls started coming. Here’s another thing that shocked the Citadel. There’s a little section in our alumni magazine that’s been a tradition for a long, long time: when your son is born, on that day you provisionally enroll your son in his class eighteen years from his birthday, and they accept a son that day provisionally. As soon as Shannon Faulkner gets there, and is driven off, the next issue of the magazine came out, and every daughter who had been born in that time was provisionally enrolled by their fathers. It caught the Citadel by shock. They were absolutely stunned by the number of alumni who started provisionally enrolling their daughters. It’s now my favorite part of the magazine. They used to have blue flags for provisional enrollments, and with the girls they now put pink ones.
And here’s what always happens when places go coed. They always fall in love with the girls. Always. And the Citadel has fallen in love with their girls. They are a real part of the school now, and everybody I talk to says it’s improved everything. The teachers say it’s gotten a hundred times better, made the school better; everybody says that. And it pleases me; I can’t tell you how much, every time I see a woman on the Citadel campus in uniform, it pleases the shit out of me. One of them came up to me at a basketball game, “Mr. Conroy, the women of the Citadel want to thank you for what you did, sir.”
I said, “That’s great. I’d never do it again, it was a pain in the ass, all these people were going to kill me, but I’m glad you’re having fun.”
She said, “Mr. Conroy, you don’t understand, sir.” I said what don’t I understand? She said, “You’d be proud of us, sir. We’re fucking kicking ass, sir.”
But that blasting letter was one of the low points in my relationship with the Citadel. By the time the next set of girls came in September, following Shannon, I went on a cruise. I am away from this; I’m glad to be away from it; I’m sick of it. I just wanted to get away from it all, so I went to China. I had never seen that part of the world, so I did it. Well, I’m walking through the Hong Kong airport, never have been in China in my life, and I look up at a Chinese/English language newspaper. By this time, the next set of girls have come in to the Citadel. I read a headline that says, “Citadel Sets Girls on Fire.”
I’m thinking this time the boys have gone too far, so I buy the paper, and what it was, it’s an old hazing trick they do where they put some kind of crap on your shoes, then light it, and it flares up. The blaze scares the shit out of you because it goes all the way up. It comes off your shoe and blazes straight up almost to your eyeballs, then goes right down. I remember when it happened to me. It startled me, and I said, “Sir, my feet seem to be on fire, sir.” It was done to all freshmen. It was stupid, it was fraternity-boy bullshit, but it doesn’t kill you.
So I called the acting president from China. General Poole was the interim president because no one wanted to be president of the Citadel after the girl failed. Watts had said he would never be president of the Citadel when a girl walked through the gates, so he left. He quit, and they had to do the interim thing. I said, “General, I got it. I know the trick. I will tell the newspaper this, it’s an old trick, they did it to me, they did it to everybody in my class. But let’s get some of these girls through. We’ve got to get some through this time. That seems to be what we should do. Nobody’s going to like you, particularly, General, but at least they’re not setting the girls on fire.”
This General Poole is grateful to me for the rest of his life. He was replaced that year by General Grinalds, who’d been a West Pointer, a Marine, and a Rhodes Scholar. He was not an idiot, and he was not a Citadel grad, which always bodes better for change. He was a great force in the reconciliation between the Citadel and me, which began about three or four years after that. Registration was down; it became hard for the Citadel to get people to apply there for the next five years because the women in America didn’t like it much. The Citadel, like the rest of us, were learning the power of video, and in the late ’90s it had not quite gotten to all of us, what we were dealing with. That footage went everywhere, these dumbo boys leaping up and down hugging each other because the first girl had been driven off campus. It didn’t go down well with mothers trying to decide where their sons should go to college. My reconciliation with the Citadel began about then. They had screwed up public relations so badly they didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t know what to do when they called me down there to help.
Then something came up where I defended the Citadel; it was even in a mocking way. They were talking about ending it as a military college and getting rid of the corps of cadets like they did at Clemson, like they did at all these schools. So I wrote a letter and said great, the only thing they have going for them is that they’re a military college. Take that away from the Citadel, you have nothing, not that you have a whole lot now, but you at least have that. And I said it seems like the Citadel lost some of its vigor and manhood in its fight against women, and what a shame it has lost all ability to defend itself. Let’s figure out what the Citadel does well. So I gave them a defense they could use.
Now, Sandra and I had just gotten married, and I was hated, I got people shooting me birds in the streets in Charleston, and I said just get used to it, they don’t mean anything; they just like the Citadel. Annie and Heyward had moved there about this time, to Charleston, and we went up to their house to spend a night, and one of Annie’s surprises for us, she had a horse carriage come by her house and take us all on a horse tour through Charleston.
So we’re riding down the streets South of Broad when all of a sudden Sandra laughs her ass off. She has a great laugh, and it’s uncontrollable; she almost fell off the carriage. Annie and Heyward said what are you laughing about? You know, because we were in this beautiful street, tree lined, and it’s a gorgeous golden afternoon, and Sandra’s pointing to a newspaper box. They had the headlines and a special thing above the box that said—even I had to laugh—it says, “Conroy defends Citadel.”
General Grinalds called me up, and Grinalds used me well. He used me very, very well. He is the one who eased the Boo and me back into the school. He got us honorary doctorate degrees and got me to speak at graduation. They had a parade for us, and I saluted when R
Then Grinalds suddenly does things like invite me to the president’s house on campus. I walk in and say, “Boy, nice house.” He said, “You’ve never been here before?”
I said not in my whole life, and I was about fifty-something then. I said, “No, never have. Never been invited.” This is about 2002, I think, or something like that.
He goes, “My, God.”
And I said, “Yes, there’s been a bit of a rift.”
The Citadel had become a symbol of women-hating, and their drop in applications alarmed them a great deal. In the middle of that uproar, I got Gloria Steinem to go talk to them. Somehow she and I were both getting awards from the Charleston Women’s Society. She was getting the major one and I was getting a minor one, for nicest guy of the year with a dick. Gloria’s always been nice to me; I’d met her a couple of times before, once at a screening for The Prince of Tides in New York. She came up and said she adored the book. I said, “Thanks a lot, delighted you read it. I had no idea you read it. And that’s terrific.”
And so then she said, “There’s one part in your background, Pat, that feminists do not understand at all about you.”
I was curious about that, and I said, “Would you please tell me? I can’t wait to hear it.”
And she said, “In your books, and it seems in your life, you have never once identified with the aggressor.”
When she came to Charleston I found out where she was staying and called to ask if she would go over to the Citadel to speak to the cadets. “My God!” she said. “In my world, Pat, that is like speaking to Nazi Germany.” She agreed to do it, but she was only going to spend fifteen minutes there at the most, the women had to be there, and the Citadel could never advertise that she went there. General Grinalds saw the value of it immediately and agreed to the rules.
I said, “She wants those women in there,” and he said, “Well, you know, they’re freshmen, they’re knobs and they’re plebes,” and I said, “They’ve got to come, or she’s not going near there.”
He agreed, and she spent two hours talking to the cadets. When I saw her that night she said, “They were wonderful! Those kids were wonderful. They asked the best questions; they were interested; they asked hard questions that were sincere.” She actually loved it. And I saw her a couple years after that, and she said, “Pat, how did I never hear anything about the Citadel thing?”
I said, “Now you know the Citadel knows how to keep a promise.”
They were dying to advertise that, and I told them they could not because Gloria, you know, she got criticized by the feminists just for getting married.
The cadets told me, the ones I saw later, that she was one of the most wonderful women they’d ever met. She was smart as she could be; she understood their points of view; she tried to show them where she thought they were wrong and might consider something else. Evidently she was just terrific, and General Grinalds was impressed as hell. She’s an impressive woman. I mean, she really is, and a beautiful woman, you know, lovely.
After the Citadel made a horse’s ass out of themselves in front of the world and Grinalds had me up to give advice, I hadn’t talked to them in thirty years, and now I’m now the advice giver. He said, “Well, Pat, what advice can you give the Citadel?”
I said, “For a military school, y’all ain’t very good at planning. You’d think a military college would plan for the future, plan strategies. You’d think in a military college one thing a military man could do is make plans for the future. Okay, how does the Citadel need to change for the future? This women-in-the military issue is all over America, and the Citadel is totally stunned when women apply. No one even considered the possibility women could come here and were going to get in. No one seemed smart enough to know what the Constitution says. Oh! And fighting this is going to cost a lot of money for nothing.” Then I told General Grinalds, I said, “Here’s the next thing I would look out for. Some gay kid—young man, young woman—is going to come into the office and say, ‘Hey General, I’m gay as shit and I don’t care if you know about it or not.’ And General, you may not like that, you may not like hearing it, but it’s coming, and you need to prepare for it.” Before, they used to get kicked out of school, kicked out that day.
So this poor president says, “Well, I don’t think things will go that far.”
I said, “I guarantee you you’re going to be going that far, or you’re going to be back in court against a lawsuit, $16 million in legal fees.”
And I mentioned transgender, and he said, “Well this will never,” and I said, “Oh yes, it will.”
John DeBrosse about five years later called and says, “Conroy, you’re responsible for this. I don’t give a shit how you try to get out of it, you are the cause of this somehow.” There was an ad in the Charleston Post and Courier for an invitation to a gay/lesbian/transgender ball they were going to have on the Citadel campus. They invited all alumni, all interested students, all interested cadets. And DeBrosse: “It’s you. You did this.” I told him about my discussion with General Grinalds, so he says, “I knew it! Conroy, you make me wanna puke.”
I said, “Well, John, I was going to invite you to the ball.”
“You make me sick.”
I said, “And by the way, I’ll give you a choice: you wear the prom dress or I will. It depends on, you know, what you’re most comfortable with.”
And he said, “Conroy, this is why you’ll be hated and despised by the Citadel as long as you are alive.” He hung up on me.
But there are two transgender Citadel alumni who are in touch with me. Sometimes it’s hard to believe what I’ve lived through since I’ve been alive.
When I was totally accepted back into the fold was when My Losing Season came out. For some reason My Losing Season did not offend the sensibilities of Citadel graduates like The Lords of Discipline or The Boo had. I actually said things I liked about the Citadel in My Losing Season. It came across that I loved my team, loved those guys, and loved being part of that. And something happened among the alumni, where I’d go to signings and they’d come in to get a book signed and say, “Welcome back, brother.” That was the password of the Citadel. “Welcome back, brother.” That book got to them; they could finally see my love for the Citadel drifting through the cracks of that particular book. It totally healed the rift between the Citadel and me.
Then the librarian started calling me up to give speeches every week. I’d say, “Angie, I didn’t speak on that campus for thirty years. Now you’re calling every week. But I’ve got to wash my pantyhose; I’ve got to rotate my tires; I’ve got to put new strings on my guitar. And besides, you tortured me as a young man. I was brain damaged in the process.”
One thing that’s been interesting is that after they read The Lords of Discipline, a lot of Citadel graduates now feel guilty about how they treated freshmen, that they had run kids off and had gotten rid of kids. I’ve met a lot of guys who feel horrible about what they did to freshmen now they’re adults and they’ve been out in the world. The question is: Why did I decide to run a kid out of school? How did I get that power, and why did I abuse that power like I did?
Recently I met a guy who tortured me when he was a senior. He goes “Pat, Pat, you won’t remember me?”
I said, “Oh, au contraire, Dave, I’ll remember you to the day I die. I’ve always hated your guts.”
His poor wife is there, and he said, “Yeah, Pat, you know, I was bad when I was an upperclassman.”
“You were not bad, Dave; you were a nightmare. You were horrible. But this is qu
Then he talked about running two of my classmates out of school. Some of those guys would pick two or three plebes and decide they were not Citadel material and just proceed to torture them until they left. They could run you out anytime they wanted to if they decided you were not worthy to be a Citadel man. Dave mentioned two of them, and I remembered these kids’ faces.
He said, “I hated the seniors when I was a freshman, and I was going to get back at every freshman I ever met.”
I said, “Yeah, that’s sort of the attitude. That doesn’t make you the Lone Ranger. They fostered this, so you were doing exactly what they told you to do.”
We had a nice talk. I sensed some remorse, as I always do with these guys. And he said, “Pat, I never felt bad about it until I read The Lords of Discipline.”
I said, “Well, what was interesting about The Lords of Discipline, Dave, is I was called a liar by the Citadel my entire life until recently, that I made all that up.”
He said, “Pat, you didn’t make anything up.”
Now he can’t understand why he did it and told me he feels bad. “Pat, I was twenty years old. What did I know? What gave me the right to run somebody out?”
Over the years there have been scandals with the plebe system, and The Lords of Discipline caused enough of a stir, so there were studies in the ’80s and ’90s about the plebe system, with recommendations on how to improve it. They formed committees that were trying to tone down the cruelty, put pressure on the upperclassmen not to let it get out of control.
General Grinalds told me, “Pat, we think we have it under control, but as you know, anything can happen at any time in the barracks. You and I both know that. Behind closed doors we can change the rules, but horrible things can still happen in the barracks. We can try to control it, but anything can happen in the plebe system anytime.”
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