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My exaggerated life, p.3
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.3

           Pat Conroy

  My Great Dog Chippie had the only natural reaction to Dad possible: she wanted to kill him. It was my sister Carol’s theory that Chippie could sense evil. Anytime Dad drew near this dog you’d hear Grrrrr-rrrrr.

  My mother was a gorgeous woman; she dressed impeccably; she was exciting; she read everything that came out; she had ambitions for her children. She wanted all of us to go to college; she wanted me to be a Southern writer. Mom really wanted that; that was repair work for her. She bought books all the time, and in the way I was raised by Mom, fiction was something totally real. When a book got to Mom she would talk about it and act it out. I remember in some book she was acting out the mental breakdown of a six-foot-six giant. I remember the rhythm of her voice, and I can still hear it. So at least in my misguided, misled childhood, a rhythm for language was built in there somewhere from Mom’s voice reading to me. She would change intonations, and when there was a male speaking she would lower the register of her voice; the princess would get her most charming voice; the frog prince, he’d get a squawky voice. Whatever she was reading was something we would talk about, and Mom could always go, “Now, doesn’t that man remind you of so-and-so in To Kill a Mockingbird?” And “Doesn’t so-and-so remind you—?” So, for us it was a nice way to grow up, where literature seemed like part of our life.

  Unfortunately, she was married to a one-celled animal. But she played the game. She obeyed the code of silence. She never uttered one word about how Knocksy Boy let loose on the house. As Mom said, “How would I make a living, how would I feed all of you?” I just didn’t see what else she could do—a woman, not college educated, with no skills whatsoever. I think that kept her. Her not knowing what to do without him, because going back to Piedmont, Alabama, was not a big option with her. Later, when I saw Piedmont as an adult, I grew affectionate toward my mother for her choice of never taking me there.

  I just adored her, and I do not think I would have survived without her. She fought for me; I’ve always remembered that. She’d pull him off me, knowing that she was going to get it herself. That became a definition of courage to me. I think I’ve stuck my nose into a lot of shit because Mom was like that.

  Ours was a family in danger from the beginning, although I think my parents loved each other. But possibly the coming of kids interfered. Seven children; six miscarriages. I think Mom’s love of me was too much for Dad. Me coming very early was too much for him. They got married in 1944, and I was born on October 26, 1945. Then there were too many of us. Mom was overwhelmed. We moved too much. We were always at new schools; we didn’t know anybody. All the kids are screwed up because we came through Mom and Dad. That was a difficult country to travel in.

  Dad eventually broke all our spirits. Carol is mentally ill, and Tom had a violent suicide. Carol was the smartest girl in the world until Dad broke her spirit. I saw her being driven crazy day by day. She is the first guard dog who barked. When Dad came home, Carol would give out the warning: “Godzilla is home!” We’d all go hide. I was like a sheep-herder, moving. I could get the kids running. We had hiding places everywhere we went. Carol told me, “Our parents are crazy, and we’ve got to be careful.” She based that on watching Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Instead of the father coming to the dinner table in a coat and tie and the parents treating the children so kindly, Dad comes home drunk from Happy Hour at the Officers’ Club, Dad hits us, Mom gets mad at Dad, and we run to our rooms.

  Kathy went to bed at six after dinner every night so she wouldn’t experience anything that happened to her brothers and sisters. And she never laughed out loud, which she said was a way to not be noticed. She saw that I laughed and got hit. Carol laughed and got hit. So she developed, along with my brothers Jim and Mike, silent laughter, where they could break up but no noise would come out of their mouth. To this day we’ve never heard Kathy laugh.

  And our poor, innocent Jim, who’s now the dark one. Jim had something that almost no Conroy has had: he had a really good image of himself, the first full-fledged ego we produced. Bright and sunny, had a great personality, slaughtered in hell, with Dad slowly breaking his spirit, slowly Jim being beaten down from that ebullient, boyish, effulgent, filled-with-light kid that he was, and by the time Dad was finished with him, Jim walking around as though he lived inside a cage. It was horrible to watch. Dad turned Luke Skywalker into Darth Vader in about a two- or three-year period. Jim is now the snarling, irascible, nothing-good-can-happen man he is today. Then Tom, the kid who was schizophrenic, marinated in the Conroy family madness and got no help, did a back flip off a fourteen-story building.

  But we were looked upon by the priests and nuns as the perfect Catholic family. Mom and Dad with a million kids lined up in our cheap clothes from the PX, the boys with our butch Marine Corps haircuts, the girls wearing their librarians’ eyeglasses with fins on them. A T-shirt I wore five years before is on Tim; Tom’s wearing shit that I threw away. The perfect Catholic family.

  I went to eleven schools in twelve years and lived in twenty-three places before we moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, when I was fifteen. I was born in Atlanta, and six months later Dad is stationed at El Toro. That’s where fighter planes are. And that’s where I got my accent, because I learned to talk in California. I should be talking like my brothers and sisters, because all the places we lived were well below the Mason-Dixon Line, and the farthest north we got was the suburbs of Virginia. But after California, which I barely remember, I talk like Hopalong Cassidy instead of a Southerner. Otherwise, my mother made sure she was raising me as a Southerner. Mom was, in her phony but understandable way, drawn to the soft backlit South that she wanted so much to believe in, because she thought Dad’s overcharged Yankeedom was a form of low-class behavior.

  In 1946–47, my father made the Naval Olympic basketball team, which had all the best players in the Marine Corps and Navy. At that time they organized teams, met for a tournament, and whoever won went to the Olympics. So Dad followed his team, which assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, at the Naval Academy, and we went to live in—why we did this I don’t know, but this is my parents—Manassas, Virginia. Carol was born there when I was one and a half. Then I think we may have gone back from Annapolis to California.

  We came back for the Korean War in 1950 to live with my grandmother Stanny in Atlanta, and I went to Sacred Heart for kindergarten. Dad was deployed for almost two years in Korea. O, happy day; happy day. I loved it when Dad was called overseas in the military, whether it was Vietnam, Korea, or Mediterranean cruises. Carol and I used to pray for war every year. We didn’t care where the war was fought; anywhere in the world was fine as long as Dad was taken out to fight and we would go back to Atlanta to live with Stanny or down to Orlando to live with Aunt Helen. These were always the most peaceful years in our lives, and later Mom would say these were the greatest years of our lives. I wish it had happened more. I loved those years. When he was gone I was the happiest boy on earth. What would have been heaven is if there had been WWIII and Dad would be gone for four years in a row.

  But Dad came back in ’52 and I went to first and second grade in New Bern, North Carolina, where the air base at Cherry Point is. Mike and Kathy were born in Cherry Point Hospital. In third grade we moved back to Atlanta for six months because Dad went off somewhere. I hoped it was some war that he would be fatally wounded in, but he was not. He came back, and we moved in the middle of the year, which was rare for us, to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. What a Godawful place. That’s when I changed schools from St. George to Infant of Prague, and that was when a serious dip in my education took place, because in Atlanta we had not started multiplication tables, and in Jacksonville, North Carolina, they were already past division.

  So that was third grade. Dad gets another job flying at Cherry Point, which is all of fourth grade. Jim was born in that year. Fifth grade, we went to Orlando to spend the year with Aunt Helen and Uncle Russ and the Harper boys when Dad was overseas on a Mediterranean cruise
. In ’56, ’57, ’58, Dad commuted to Washington and Quantico, and we lived in two different houses on Culpeper Street in Arlington, Virginia. My brother Tim was born at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1957.

  At that time, unknown to us all, Dad was Navy intelligence besides being a fighter pilot. The Marines had to have two areas of specialty because it was a small service. So Dad spent a few years as a spy. He told me later he delivered documents to a used car dealership in Maryland and took me with him, because it looks good to have a kid, like you’re not spying. You find the car, the trunk’s open, you put these documents or a briefcase inside it. He said that happened during the Suez crisis. He was on duty the night the news came in that Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the U.S.S.R., and he had to go directly to the White House to report to Eisenhower.

  That was sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and oh my God, he got me good in those years. He got the whole family good that first year. That’s the year Mom stabbed him, when they got in a fight because he refused to come sing happy birthday after Mom lit the candles on Carol’s cake. My most charitable read on it is that it was the stress of intelligence work. My most uncharitable read that my brothers and sisters all share: Tell us the year he wasn’t an asshole.

  In ’59 Dad goes back to get his college degree at Belmont Abbey College outside Charlotte. One of the worst years also—he was around the house all the time, and it was the smallest house we ever lived in. But I went to Sacred Heart for my first year of high school, and I loved it there. I just loved it. Then Mom came in with the great news that we were leaving, and I collapsed. I said, “Hey Mom, I really like it here. I could stay here.” Several families offered to have me stay, live with them, and go to the high school. I thought, how great—it would get me out of this. I had never told anybody that I was being raised by the Joker, but these families came rushing forward: let Pat live with us. But then Mom said, “Your father says he loves you too much.”

  That next year he was the worst I remember him being. He was at the Pentagon, and that was my year of Gonzaga High School. God, that was a hard year. Of course, we argue about which was Dad’s worst year and admit there’s much competition. But Gonzaga High, that year of Washington, I really got knocked around. I think Dad had a high-powered job, and he was just a nightmare.

  I loved Gonzaga, although the commute nearly killed me; Joseph Monte nearly killed me; the studying nearly killed me. Joseph Monte was the first great intellectual in my life. Everything Monte said was brilliant. He brought passion into everything he did, but it was in a low-key and very cerebral way. The first day he walked in class and said, “What a shame none of you has read over a thousand books. Then we might begin to have a conversation.” And of course, the kids thought what an asshole. I’m thinking, God, I’d love to have a conversation with this guy. He encouraged the living hell out of me. I can’t tell you how good that guy was for me. He had a way of marking A+ double credit for imagination. I was off and running with that. Here’s how life sometimes works out: in 2005 when I received the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for lifetime achievement, the presenter was Joseph Monte.

  But that was a hard year. I carpooled with a Marine major who got me in the Naval Annex, and then I caught two buses to Gonzaga. This was in the worst traffic on earth, Washington, D.C., and it took me about two hours to get back and forth to school. I had to play three sports, and then three hours of homework a night really took some acrobatics from me. I was exhausted the whole year. That was the last year Mom had a baby so I was awakened in the middle of the night.

  We get orders again, and I’m sent off into the arms of Gene Norris at Beaufort High School. I fell in love with Beaufort when I saw it, and because I don’t come from anywhere and am part of nothing, I pretended I was part of it. Beaufort was the golden place under the sun that I came to when I was fifteen. This place that I’d never heard of in my life surrounded me with friends that I still have. Gene Norris was a prince among men. Gene was the kind of teacher who made you want to do great things for him because you adored him and you loved him. The first paper I wrote for Gene, he handed it back and said, “Boy, you’re something, aren’t you? You ain’t nothing. You’re something.” He found something in me, and it was thrilling to have been identified, to have been spotted. You know, “I see you, boy.” I was seen; I was seen. What he would always teach is: literature and art can change your life. They change everything about you and the way you see the world.

  Gene started taking me out, and he’d say, “Boy, you want to go ramblin’ this weekend?” Sure, Mr. Norris. Dad went crazy. “Peg, are you nuts? You got this faggot taking our son to antique shops?” “He’s a very nice man, Don. He’s taken an interest in Pat.” And I flowered with Gene. I was looking for role models of men who were not vicious, for a gentle kind of man.

  Two years there and then I take my next grand step into the total dissolution of my life when I march through the gates of the Citadel, which is the end of the story of my sad educational life.

  Some military brats love it that they get to see new places and remake themselves every year. If they screwed up in one place they could do better at the next place and create themselves anew. I hated moving, easing our way from one shit for a town to another shit for a town. I was a shy kid and wouldn’t make friends until sort of in the March–April period, and by then Dad would get orders, and we’d go again. The military brat always knows when orders have been cut in Washington. Mom and Dad are whispering in the kitchen: “When do we tell the kids we’re leaving? They won’t be at this school any longer, and we just got here nine months ago, Don.” “Hey, tough shit. These are orders from the Pentagon. What do I do, tell them to go fuck themselves? No, we gotta hit the road.” I never even saw anything grow; I saw nothing make it from one season to the next.

  It really got to me for the first time when we spent our year in Orlando with the Harper family. Dad was completely absent, I got completely comfortable in the school I was going to, and we were living around lakes. Orlando was a beautiful town back then, lovely beyond measure, and that was a good life.

  What the Conroy kids loved about Uncle Russ and Aunt Helen’s house is that nothing ever changed, not a piece of furniture, the deer heads on the wall, The World Book Encyclopedia. I saw a rug going into the house in 1955 that was there when Aunt Helen died in 2000 sometime. I still dream about the pattern in that rug. They had a pepper shaker that was a rooster and a salt shaker that was a hen, and we all looked on these as talismans of sameness, of belongingness. It was a real house, instead of these places where you live on bases. For us it was just magical.

  I dreamed of a life like that, and every time I ran across it, I ached for what I knew I would never have. We lived in ugly houses, Quonset huts, and trailers. What I wanted was a nice house, normalcy of some sort. I wanted the salt and pepper shaker; I did. I really wanted it. I longed for that and hungered for that. The moving around we did when I was a kid gave me an incredible, extraordinary need for a home.

  We never lived in places that were ours, and neither of my parents ever had much taste. The first portraits on the wall my mother did after she discovered painting by numbers. Even as little as I was, I saw that they were perfectly hideous, but Mom considered them beautiful. One was of the Blessed Mary, and the other was Bozo the Clown. These portraits hung on our walls for years, as though we had acquired them from a castle in England. Taste is a thing that accrues over generations, and my mother had a long way to go.

  When I was in fourth grade at Annunciation School in Havelock, North Carolina, outside Cherry Point, my mother was on some kind of committee for the Officers’ Club, and they were having a party at the general’s house. My mother had taken me over because the general’s son, Rebel Moore, was my age and he needed a playmate during this party. Rebel had the nicest house on the base, and as we were getting ready to go outside, I noticed my mother in the dining room looking at the pictures on the wall and studying them. Mrs. Moore, the general’s wi
fe, had not come down yet; she was still getting ready upstairs. Mom was the first to arrive so she could bring me to play with Rebel. So I saw my mom going from picture to picture in the dining room, and I realized what she was doing was comparing it to what she had on her walls. Mrs. Moore was a Southern woman of impeccable taste—she had come from one of those families—and one of the things she had was portraits of her children, those little blond portraits that are in every Southern household. Mom was zeroing in on this, taking in the whole thing. She’d study it and try to memorize it. That’s how she learned; that’s how she did it.

  So, the Lady of Guadalupe went off our wall; Bozo the Clown went off the wall; Jesus went off the wall; the paint-by-numbers went off the wall. All those disappeared. Now, the problem was, Mom did not have the money to do what the general’s wife could do. But there were several times Dad left during the year to go to Europe, Asia, a Med cruise—whatever. Mom sent him photos of herself and the children and asked Dad to get some portraits made from them, because they’re cheaper over in Europe. Dad writes, says, “I got portraits of you and the kids coming in.”

  Well, these portraits come in, and Mom opens up the box, so excited. Then she has a stunned look on her face, a look of complete appallment, a desperate embarrassment. Carol and I are sitting there, and Carol says, “Mom, what’s wrong? Let’s see.” “No, I’m not going to show you.” But Carol was always a troublemaker, especially when it came to poking holes in Mom’s image of herself. So Carol unwraps the portrait of me, and I start screaming. It’s not that I don’t recognize myself. I do recognize myself, but I am a young Japanese boy. My eyes are dark brown, and I am as Japanese as Emperor Hirohito. Carol is a fat little Japanese girl with big cheeks, dark brown eyes, and black hair. Mom looks like a geisha girl. Well, she hid those portraits, and we never saw them again. When Mom’s taste got better, the stuff got better, but taste was still a problem.

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