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My exaggerated life, p.37
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.37

           Pat Conroy

  I said, “No wonder you boys got such high rank. That’s pretty good for freshmen, knowing how to brownnose a world famous general who’d written a book on anticommunism.”

  That’s how ambitious Jim was. Jim was as ambitious as anybody in our class. He looked like he was going to eat the world alive. Freshman year, his mother came to Scott Graber and said, “You should attach your destiny to my son. He is going to be a great man.”

  I got to know him a little more, in sophomore year, when four sophomores were selected for the Roundtable, which was the intellectual discussion society of the Citadel. Only four sophomores were allowed to blacken its ranks. I had distinguished myself in no way at the Citadel at this time, but for some odd reason I was elected by the Roundtable. Why, I do not know, but there I was, intellectually discussing with dimwits whatever they brought up. Usually it was right-wing Nazi politics. Later, I learned it was the valedictorian of that graduating class who’d spotted me. He’d been in the public speaking course with me and heard me do a paper on Thomas Wolfe. So I was in the Roundtable with these three military guys from the sophomore class: Steve Grubb, Bill Meck, and Jim Roe.

  The intellectual discussion club at the Citadel seemed to me like the most right-wing organization I could ever join. Many of the students on it were prosegregation. I don’t remember anyone saying a good word about integration the three years I was on the Roundtable. In my junior year, I went on one of my little rants. This one was about the integration of the Citadel. I said, “That’s coming, kids. You can talk all you want; you can make philosophical arguments. The Supreme Court has ruled. It’s the law of the land. And I don’t see why we’re not getting ready for it.” I was passionate about it.

  It was not particularly well received. Jim totally disagreed with me, but when we go out, back to the barracks, he told a friend of mine, “You know, Conroy’s a jock, but he actually seemed smart tonight. Never occurred to me he might be smart. I always thought he was just a jock. Do you think he read something?”

  That was my relationship with Jim.

  Later, our senior year, Steve Grubb, Jim Roe, and I were elected to the Honor Court, if you can believe there’s an honor system in a place where they torture young boys. I did not particularly want to be on the Honor Court, but there I was, elected. I thought, “Oh, great. I get to throw kids out of school; can’t wait.” But I told myself, look, I agreed to this when I came to this school. These are the rules I agreed to. And I tried to abide by them; I did.

  First of all, Jim was nominated chairman, but he said there was so much he had to do: he had become regimental executive officer; he had become something with the Summerall Guards; he had become something on the Sword Drill. He was everything. I mean, Jim was everything, so he had to decline. They elected Steve Grubb, who was a good friend of mine, very high ranked, as chairman, and then they stunned me by electing me vice chairman, which meant that I was going to have to sit on every trial. I had not had a leadership role at the Citadel at all, but I had to take one, and it was agonizing for me.

  So anyway, Jim is the second-highest ranked cadet in our class. First Citadel cadet ever to get into Harvard Law School. That was a great victory for our campus, and we all exulted in that and celebrated that. So Jim Roe goes off to do that. Meanwhile, most of my class goes off to Vietnam. This is 1967. They walk off stage, and they are headed for Vietnam. And I become, of course, the only draft dodger in my class.

  A few years later, when The Boo comes out, I’d said two of the people who were most responsible for getting the Boo fired were the regimental commander and the regimental executive officer of my class, 1967. I did not name them in the book. But it was Jim Probsdorfer, the regimental commander, and Jim Roe.

  When I get this Ford Foundation Fellowship, Barbara and I had rented a place in San Rafael, way outside of San Francisco, because I couldn’t afford anything in the city. And one day I see two guys coming up to our house on Vendola Drive in San Rafael. It is Barry Murray, who was my classmate in Romeo Company, with Jim Roe. Jim was stationed in the Army in California, and Barry was in the Air Force.

  My wife Barbara, who hated all Citadel graduates, liked Jim and Barry. I had both Bo-Pig and Mike-Swine as roommates, and both were jocks, so these two were the first gentlemanly Citadel guys that Barbara had met. And Jim is the most charming man you have ever met. He paid attention to women, which is a rare thing for a Citadel guy. I mean, he paid real attention to them. Barbara was by his side just cooing, because Jim was a pleasure to be with.

  But as we’re talking, I’m thinking, “What are they doing?” Jim never paid me any attention at the Citadel because he saw no need to. There was nothing to be gained. Suddenly there was something to be gained. Because of The Boo, I had suddenly become a figure of importance in the class. Even if it was a negative renown, it was still renown.

  When I walked them back to the car Jim says, “Pat, I really have a bone to pick with you about the way you said that Probsdorfer and I had something to do with the Boo being fired.”

  Even though I had not named him, he knew that all his classmates knew. I had besmirched his reputation by writing that the Boo was fired by the complaints of the regimental commander and the regimental executive officer. Jim had said the Boo was bad for discipline, because the senior officers like Jim would mete out punishment to the privates, and the Boo would let them off. It’s always about power.

  I said, “Well, that’s what the Boo told me, Jim. If you have a different story and it holds up, I’ll be glad to change it. I’ll call the Boo tonight to see if he’s made a mistake,” which I did.

  And the Boo says, “He’s running, Bubba. They all run for the hills now, Bubba.” He said, “Since your book came out, they’re calling me all the time. They were all on my side. They all fought for me.”

  It was a great lesson to learn in life. But I liked the way Jim approached me when he said it, and we talked about it. He just wanted to say he didn’t like the way he was portrayed in the book.

  Anyway, a year after we moved to Atlanta, Jim Roe moved to Atlanta with his adorable, lovely wife. God, she is a lovely, lovely Smith girl, majored in Latin and the classics. She’s beautiful, and we were all dazzled by her. Anyway, because of Barbara’s loving them, we became instant friends. Cliff and Bernie loved Jim Roe too: the charm. They’d say, “Pat, who can make you feel like a million bucks more than Jim Roe can?”

  But Jim knew where they were going much more than Barbara and I did. Jim told me he was only going to live in a certain zip code with a certain area code. Buckhead. He lives in the smallest house on earth, but has the prefix, and that’s the way he begins. He enters one of the big law firms in Atlanta: Kilpatrick and Cody.

  And Jim Roe’s life was, I thought, set. He was a serious Baptist, and he’s the kind of guy that when he joins a Baptist church, within three years he’s a deacon. He joined the Rotary Club younger than anybody is ever asked to join the Rotary Club in Atlanta. He joined the Capital City Club. He joined every club there was with the prize being the Piedmont Driving Club, but you couldn’t get into that until you spent a certain time on the waiting list.

  But to everybody’s shock, I was the first of the group to make any money. Especially to me, the shock was tremendous. Here’s what happened. When I graduated from the Citadel and I was teaching, I made $4,700 the first year, and I felt like a millionaire, because my mother and father had never given me anything. I felt like I had a million bucks. With The Water Is Wide, they gave me an advance of $7,500. I remember Barbara dancing all over the house when that came through. Life magazine did an excerpt; I got some money from that. Then the movie’s bought, and what their option was, it may have been about five or $7,000 too. We felt like millionaires at that time. When they made the movie, that was $50,000. Huge back then. The Great Santini comes out, didn’t sell much, but sold to the movies, another $7,500 option.

  This is all happening when Jim Roe makes a career shift. He calls me in and says, “Pat, l
aw is not a very satisfying way to make a living.” So he tells me he’s going to start one of the first financial investment firms in Atlanta, which he does, Roe, Martin, and Neiman. So Jim starts his firm. I’m not only one of the first clients; I am one of the first investors in the firm. And Jim says, “Pat, this’ll be your retirement. The money you invest in my firm is going to be like the first investor in CocaCola,” you know, that kind of horseshit. But I trusted Jim, and they became one of the leading investment finance firms in Atlanta.

  Meanwhile, who joins the firm? Steve Grubb. Steve and Jim were very close. That lasts for about two years, when Steve pulls out of the firm, which should have been a red flag to me, but still, there was great prosperity. Also, Jane Lefco was hired by this firm, and she became my friend for life.

  Now, there were certain little fault lines. Jim would call me up and say, “Pat, I can’t meet the payroll this month. Can I go into your account and pay you back 10 percent?” So I said sure. As far as I know, he always went back and paid the 10 percent. But there were little cracks in the wall like that.

  The paperback rights for The Lords of Discipline sold for about $700,000. Jim may have put me in a tax shelter. Avocado farms ring a bell to me. He may have put me in something like that, but of course I don’t check this much. You know, I’m not the type, “My God, I want to look over the balance sheet, Jim.”

  Well, in 1986 Reagan passed a tax code that mostly eliminated the write-offs that Jim Roe’s firm was specializing in. The avocado farms, the alfalfa farms. Whatever they were doing, he cut it out. It sent Jim’s firm into a tailspin.

  Jim, meanwhile, had been moving up in houses. They get to the nicer Buckhead houses, much nicer dresses, much nicer parties. He finally ends up in a house on Tuxedo Road. That is serious Buckhead and serious homes, and this one, God, I think was on four acres of land. The most beautiful swimming pool you’ve ever seen, a huge mansion, absolutely huge. This was the ultimate, and Jim was driving a Jaguar. By this time he had gotten into the Piedmont Driving Club.

  He says, “Pat, all this is for the business. It’s all for the business.”

  I said, “Jim, is business still doing as well?”

  Now, they could have gone into stocks and done a zillion dollars’ worth of other things after the tax code changed. They had a lot of clients. But what Jim did then is the weirdest thing. He announces that he had hooked up with a gold expert who realized there was more gold in Nevada sand than anywhere else. It was the largest gold deposit on earth. So he and these partners ended up buying acres of this land to be dug up, and Jim gets all these investors, the most important men in Atlanta. I went to the meeting.

  I said, “Jim, I cannot invest in the Midas Project. I know more about literature than you do. This lust for gold is not unknown, and it usually comes to grief.”

  He said, “Pat, I’m giving you shares because of your support of the firm.”

  I didn’t believe it was going to work. But Jane Lefco believed utterly in Jim. And she never quite lost it. I mean, his charm was so great she would always fall for it. She said, “Pat, do you know what he calls me? He calls me ‘rich lady,’ because I’m going to be so wealthy when this gold in Nevada comes through, that ‘rich lady’ is going to be one of the wealthiest women in the United States.”

  Jim would tell me in front of all these other people, “You know, I think I’m hurting a great American literary career, because Pat is going to be so wealthy he’s going to have no need to sit down in front of a piece of paper to create; that’s how much money he’s going to have. He’s going to be the richest writer in the history of the world.”

  I would laugh and say, “Jim, why don’t you tell me that after? That would be my advice.”

  He said, “Pat, you don’t know how to sell. You’ve got to build up enthusiasm.”

  He took Jane and me to lunch one time and said, “Rich lady, you sit there.” And Jane, she’s so happy she’s going to be rich lady. And, “Writer, you sit over there.”

  We’re sitting there, and he takes something out of his pocket. It looks like a hockey puck, and he spins it across the table at us. It’s pure gold.

  Jane looks at it and says, “Jim, where did you get it?”

  He says, “We created it at the plant last week. The project works.”

  So Jane, she goes over, and she’s kissing Jim, she’s just so happy. “So the process works! It works!”

  He said, “That’s what it looks like, doesn’t it?”

  Then there’s a huge meeting in a big hotel like the Ritz-Carlton, and food is served, heavy hors d’oeuvres, drinks. It’s done very, very well. What Jim was good at is talking investors into investing money. I look around, and every big shot in town is there, the biggest. Because of Jim Roe’s reputation for integrity and coming through and his utter charm and his salesmanship, they’ve all bought in to the Midas Project.

  So Jim comes out and says, “We’ve been working on this process night and day. There’s a factory out in Nevada that we have built, and we have now perfected the technology to get gold from the Nevada sand. Look at this.”

  He takes this puck out of his pocket and hurls this fucking piece of gold across the table. Everybody goes, “God, it works! This is wonderful!” They’re all picking it up, holding it, tossing it back and forth.

  He says, “Does anybody have any questions?”

  I raise my hand. And so, “Pat, this is our writer, my earliest investor and the greatest believer in me. You’ve probably read his novels.” He gives me this big introduction.

  I said, “Jim, let me ask you one question. Are you telling me that this factory in Nevada has perfected the technology where a bunch of sand goes in this thing, and when you shake it up, a lot of shit pours out one way, and pure gold pours out another way?”

  He said, “Pat, that’s exactly what we’ve got.”

  He showed me a picture of the factory, and I said, “Jim, it looks like an abandoned doghouse.” This little bitty thing, and I said, “It doesn’t make any sense, Jim. It should be huge if all this sand’s going to come in and you’re going to shake that shit up and spurt that gold out.”

  Of course, the factory couldn’t do what I asked, and Jim eventually moved to Nevada. He gave up his house on Tuxedo Road, the Jaguar, everything. Even that gold puck he threw across the table disappeared. And Jim disappears out into the desert with his beautiful wife. Human beings are strange, are they not? It’s why writers will always have jobs.

  Jane Lefco was saying, “Well, I guess rich lady’s got to go back to working her fucking Jewish ass off.”

  And I said, “Yeah, this writer thought he was going to be farting through silk, but it looks like I’ll be having to bust my ass writing books.” We would laugh about it at the time, but it was not hearty laughter.

  When Jim’s firm imploded and folded up, all Conroy’s money disappeared along with it. I lost all the money that he had invested for me, all the money I had invested in the firm. A great fortune was lost because I trusted him. I said, “Jim, I thought I was going to retire on that.” I did, you know. That actually was my thought, that my investment would be fruitful, and that was a smart thing a dumb writer had done. I really don’t know how much I lost. There’s no telling how much I lost. I never knew how much I had. And that’s my fault, not his. You know, I have signed stuff when I could have been giving my penis to science so it could be transplanted onto a chimpanzee. I have no idea what I’ve signed, ever.

  You know, his reputation with the investment counseling firm was superb, but something went very wrong. Here’s what is interesting. It’s hard to fool the Citadel. You know, the Citadel was not wrong about me. I wanted nothing to do with the military. I let everybody know I wasn’t going to take it seriously. But Jim Roe got the Willson Ring. So this is fooling an entire class, and this class turned out more generals than any in Citadel history. My class was impressive. And how high he rose impressed me, even though I got irritated by “I thought he was just
a jock; I didn’t know he could think.” But that may have been why I fell for him: my need for someone in that ranking in our class to accept me.

  When Jim is packing up leaving, disgraced, Lenore comes to me in tears in Atlanta and says, “Pat, I want to ask you something very personal and very important for both of us. I’ve been the one who followed the work of Jim Roe, and I’ve been the one to do the checking account and pay the bills, doing all the stuff that he did not do, and I think I’ve earned the right, and I hope you agree with this, to be the one who handles all our money. I’ve studied it with the accountant, and we’ve gone over the books. I’d like the opportunity to try to do this for our family.”

  I said, “Sure, if you want to do it, that would be great. Because I know I’m not going to do it.”

  I had hired Jim Roe’s firm originally because I knew I needed somebody like that, and boy oh boy, I think I have never made a more expensive decision in my lifetime than to let Lenore pick up where Jim Roe left off. That was the crucial and critical moment. Of course an adult man would have said, “I must go down and speak to a banker in San Francisco and set up an account,” but I was not an adult man at that point. About this time I was earning Prince of Tides money, and I have no idea what happened to it all. She must have felt me pulling away in San Francisco, and she was readying herself for the big break.

  But Lenore divorced me; I did not divorce her. I think she thought I was at the end of my run, that she had squeezed all the money I had, and was expecting nothing to come from Beach Music. I don’t think she expected me to finish that book because she knew I’d been suicidal. I think she thought I was crazy. Both my ex-wives thought I was crazy, and I think they were right. They were not guessing wrongly.

  When the IRS came and I learned I’d paid no taxes for two years, I was completely shocked by that, because I had signed all the tax forms. Lenore would tell me, “Sign here, sign here, turn the page. Sign here, sign here, turn the page.” Apparently the forms were sent in, but never the checks.

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