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My exaggerated life, p.4
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.4

           Pat Conroy

  Except for two years at Beaufort High School, I went to Catholic schools all my life, and the Catholics got me. They fucked up everything connected with my dick and my brain. In sex education class, the nuns taught sex like it was something Tasmanian devils did to each other. Sister Skalaska made the vagina sound like a sewer pipe leading to hell. She told us about the hideous smells and said, “I know you young men would never even think of putting your fingers in this.” She made it sound like the most repulsive thing you could do. She made the male organ sound like a rhinoceros schlong, like some loud beast you must learn to control, but of course it’s uncontrollable when confronted with a sewer-like vagina. The nuns made the girls think there was going to be this beast waiting for them in bed. He was going to come on like a Tyrannosaurus rex. “You must give of yourself because of children, but if it’s not giving you children, you can’t do it.”

  On the playgrounds at school while all these boys and girls raced around having a ball, the nuns were watching with their peregrine eyes for any sign of sexual intent or a hard-on. When the bell rang, you had to freeze wherever you were, as though you had been turned into a pillar of salt, and you’re suddenly Lot’s wife. So you freeze in midstride or bent over double and remain locked in these positions until the nun clangs her bell, and then you walk to get in line. They had us completely trained.

  But all of a sudden, I wake up one night to find I have a dick. I am completely stunned by the power of this thing, the power of this urge, which the Catholic Church simply tries to make you a soldier against when it comes up to you. No one had told me about nocturnal emissions. I thought I was bleeding to death. This was in ninth grade. God, it feels good to bleed to death. I touched some of the blood and saw it was white. It was a complete shock to me. All of a sudden something clicked: This is what they’ve been talking about. This is it. This is the great sin. This is what the nuns are worried about, the priests are worried about. And of course it’s easy to be good when you don’t have that to worry about. It’s really easy to be a good Christian boy. But to suddenly have this Vesuvius located directly inside you which you had no idea was there, no idea would explode out of you, changes everything. I could have been a priest if not for that. Still, I was the most virginal, ridiculous teenage boy who ever lived, the most Catholic kid in America, an altar boy from fourth grade all the way through the Citadel.

  They scare you to death when you’re a little kid; that’s what the Catholics do to us. I was a little second-grade kid, and these nuns had Joycean powers of description about what hell was like. And I thought, Hmmm. It ain’t worth it. You mean I got to be good or I go there? I found it difficult when I was in second grade hearing that if I fucked up at all I would burn in hellfire for all eternity. I remember burning myself on a match, and I found it rather painful, and then I thought, you know, this will end. But all eternity? I thought a school day lasted a long time, and I’m thinking good God Almighty, all eternity? This is a God you do not want to piss off. It just terrified me. All I could see were these nightmare scenarios of me playing with my small Chihuahua-size dick and God spying me when he was taking a smoking break.

  In the time I grew up, you could go to hell and burn in eternal fires for eating a piece of ham on Friday. If you did not eat bream, trout, mackerel, or herring, which my mother solved with fish sticks, you could go to hell, and I’m thinking, that is serious. The Catholics certainly gave us a sense of sin, of borders that we shouldn’t cross, and if we did, we knew we were displeasing not just the priest, not just our parents; we’re displeasing God. And if we did that, where were we going? To HELL. They’re very clear.

  I am a nonbeliever in converts to Catholicism, because if you weren’t there in the trenches with an Irish nun giving you brain damage for not turning in your homework, I’m sorry, you’re not Catholic. These converts will Aquinas you to death, St. Augustine you to death, Thomas More you to death. It drives me crazy. There is nothing I believe in less than a Catholic conversion. Robert Coles—give me a break. Walker Percy—kiss my ass. In America you cannot be a Roman Catholic unless you were beaten up by a mustachioed three-hundred-pound nun when you were an eight-year-old boy. If you don’t have that experience, you don’t know anything about the religion. For those who do have that experience, our souls are unrecapturable after a Catholic childhood. They got their hooks in me, and that’s it. First they get the dick, then they get the brain, and you don’t ever get them completely back. It is all a story in being fucked up, completely screwed up, nuns teaching me sex. I am lucky one of those priests did not fuck me. Because in my life that would have been it.

  I never rebelled in any way that I can remember. And I wasn’t a kid that did a lot wrong. I wasn’t a mischievous kid; I wasn’t a kid that got into trouble. This is what always got to me: I was a dream kid, a goody-goody kid. Anybody would have loved to have me as a kid. I would see kids I went to school with get drunk on the weekend and wreck their cars, and I would think, my God, my father would kill these guys. There’d be a murder on his hands. But I played the game as it was written out for me. I was simply a cadet taking orders. We were all a minor branch of Dad’s command.

  But I just could not measure up to my father. I could not do it, and I tried. I really tried. But I always let Dad down. One time Dad picked me up at a game in his uniform from some school in Dumbfuck, South Carolina. Our school had earned a record; I think I scored forty-three points. Dad screamed at me all the way back for not playing defense, just screamed. In the thirty miles he just screamed. “Scouts aren’t gonna like you! You can’t play defense!”

  There was nothing I could do to impress my father, nothing I could do to make him think I was successful. I played three sports; I was in a million activities. They had me totally under their control: I couldn’t drive; I couldn’t date. But my overachieving-ness did not bring me any kudos. Finally, with Mom one time, I said, “What in the hell can I do? I’m president of my senior class; I’ve lettered in three sports. And there’s no way to please him; there’s nothing I can do.”

  Mom was my cheering squad, my marching band, my everything. But I would never tell Dad anything because this brought out his meanness toward me. He would say, “Who gives a shit? Who cares? I hate guys that brag about themselves. You win medals, you keep your trap shut. That’s part of the game.” So I learned to tell Dad nothing.

  There was a fight my mother and father had over me, a war for a son’s soul. I had to play basketball like a tough guy because I was little, but I always put out a hand and helped guys up off the court. My father hated it; my mother loved it. Sportsmanship was big with her. And I wanted to be a man like my mother admired, the kind of guy that women didn’t have to be terrified of, somebody that didn’t beat you up. Dad felt sportsmanship was the realm of the complete pussy. “Don’t give ’em a hand up. Give ’em a hand, and when they try and use it, you slap ’em back down on the floor.” It used to enrage him that I’d knock guys down and then stick out an arm and pull them up. He hated that. Nothing made my father more unhappy with me than my winning all sportsmanship awards ever offered in my direction my entire life. Dad would say, “Oh, yes, my son. The pussy award always goes to him.” And he’d say, “If you were a Chicago boy, you’d throw it back in their face. I’d break the jaw of the guy that gave me the pussy award. I don’t want to win the pussy award; I want to have guys down there bleeding on the floor beside me after I’ve put them on the deck.” And then of course, when I won it at the Citadel, he went nuts. He just went crazy. “You won the pussy award at a military college?” He just could not ever let that go.

  Dad would always say, “I’m not raising a household of lovers; I’m raising fighters. I don’t want no hand-holders in my fucking house. You give me a hand-holder I’m going to kick your ass out of the house. No hand-holders.” But Mom won. I became a good sport because my father was a bad sport. I hated the model of manhood Dad presented for his sons. Guys who beat up women don’t impress me much. Guys who bea
t up kids don’t impress me either.

  I was always walking into the first day of a completely new school and environment without knowing a soul. I will always be walking into the first day of a completely new school without knowing a soul. That is how I walk the earth and always will. Sports was my way of walking into a new school and making sure they had to deal with me somehow. The coach had to talk to me; teammates had to talk to me. I got to Beaufort, and in the first game I scored twenty-eight points. The next day everybody knew my name. I was asked to spend the night with Bruce Harper, who was handsome, vice president of the student council, and seemed like a huge big shot to me. That all changed my life, and that was because of sports.

  What had happened was I had grown into the body I was going to carry into manhood without realizing it. I was still a skinny kid, but I’d become a strong kid I didn’t know about. When that first game was played at Beaufort High School, I could tell they’d never seen black kids play basketball, and that’s who I’d played against. That’s how I’d learned. In sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, I used to go to the ghetto near our house in D.C. and pray that they didn’t have enough people. When I played I was called “that fucking white boy.” “I’ll take the fucking white kid,” or “the white fuck.” “Come here, white fuck.” In Beaufort I could hear them saying, “He plays nigger basketball.” It occurred to me I was the best player on the court. I could see it in my teammates’ eyes; I could feel it in the crowd.

  The next day, I walk into class, and Gene Norris goes, “Oh, Lord, I think a star is coming into class. I’ve never met a star before. To have a real star in my classroom, it just makes me humble.” Then Gene puts me up for president of the senior class. I had no idea who anybody was, but they voted for me because I was an athlete.

  Sports gave me a way to like myself, because I never saw myself as the worst athlete out there, and generally I was okay. I was never a great athlete, but a little better than most; never the fastest, but the third fastest. It gave me a feeling that I was doing really well at something. Still, Dad denigrated everything I did. “Who wouldn’t do well against these rednecks? These kids barely know how to put on their tennis shoes. These ain’t Chicago boys. Chicago boys would eat you alive.”

  My father was a great athlete and a great basketball player, but he didn’t teach me or any of his sons. We learned by ourselves without Dad’s help, in fact with Dad mocking us every step of the way. When I played basketball with Dad, he’d say, “Okay, come on, pussy.” And then what did he do? He wouldn’t guard me. He’d start slapping me in the face. He’d just slap me and slap me and slap me. I couldn’t go right, I couldn’t go left. I just had to stay there getting slapped until I gave him the basketball and walked off the court. And he’d say, “What a mama’s boy. I tried to make a Chicago kid out of you, and you don’t have it in you.” He’d say, “Southern pussy.”

  It seemed to bother Dad more than anything else that I had some success in basketball, a sport that he had great success in. It became a threat to him, my coming into my own as a basketball player. It made him furious instead of giving him any sort of pride. He would not come to the games, or he’d come and scream at me all the way home. On the court I’d hear my father scream at me when I’d pull a guy up, “I’d have stomped his face!” Then he’d be yelling for the other team to embarrass me. “Knock Conroy down! Kick him! Deck Conroy! Put him on the court! Put him on the ground! Break his leg!” I don’t think he wanted another hotshot in the family besides himself.

  But he could not take it away from me, because with sports, you have numbers. You have statistics. I knew what Dad had averaged in high school. He knew it, and he knew that I knew it. I averaged eighteen points my first year, twenty-two the next year, and he had never done that in high school, although he was a much better athlete, much bigger and stronger. But I was quicker and faster and often the top scorer. So I had statistics I could throw at Dad. If I threw them too hard, he’d kill me, so I didn’t. But he knew what they were. Dad would do his stuff—“You’re the MVP? What a shitty team that was”—but it didn’t dim that for me. With writing, there were no statistics. And my father: “I can’t wait to tell the boys in the squadron that my son is writing poetry.” If I had something published in the literary magazine, he’d go, “Mom, your favorite faggot just published another poem.”

  I do not know when it was that Dad applied to the Citadel for me. All I know is I had already graduated from high school, I was not accepted to a college, and Dad would not talk about that with me. I spent a horrible summer after I graduated without having even applied to a college, and when I asked Dad about it, he said, “Shut the fuck up. I’m working on it.” I was fairly hysterical about my future because I didn’t seem to have one. As far as I knew I was not going to college the next year because I had not applied anywhere. Later I learned that Dad was hoping for a basketball scholarship, and I didn’t get one. I thought of joining the Marine Corps; that was my backup plan.

  Then finally, in the middle of the summer, at the all-star game in Columbia at the University of South Carolina, I find out that the Citadel is taking me as a walk-on in basketball. This coach says to me: “I want to welcome you, Pat. You’re in the Citadel family now.” I didn’t even know an application had been sent. I found out later that the Beaufort Citadel Club put up $500 for me, and General Edwin Pollock, who later said that getting me into the Citadel was the worst decision he ever made in his career, got them to deduct $1,000 from my tuition. So it had taken all this time to cobble together the money. Mom told me they didn’t have to pay anything for the first year, which is an expensive year because of the uniforms. Then they gave me a basketball scholarship at the end of my freshman year.

  Imagine my joy at finding myself at the Citadel after a childhood like mine. It was worse than Dad. But you know, that is what I went through, and it doesn’t do me any good to regret it; it doesn’t do me any good to think of what might have been. I used to dream that going to Harvard would have solved many of my problems. Of course it wouldn’t have. I know that now. Nothing could have solved my problems. And the Citadel is what I got, that is what I endured, that is what I didn’t like, and that is ultimately what I wrote about.

  I went up there with eleven or twelve guys from Beaufort High School; we were in the freshman class together. So I thought I was going to have a whole bunch of friends that year at the Citadel. At the end of the year, I look around, and I was the only one left. I was the only one from that group who graduated.

  I actually left before school even started. Mom put me on a train for two and a half days from Omaha, Nebraska, where Dad was stationed at Offut Air Force Base. It turned out I was early, and the only freshman on campus. I walk over to the barracks, and a group takes me and racks my ass. I’m completely brutalized that first day. Then they kick me out: Get outa here toe-head; get outa here waste wad. I’m exhausted, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I walked to Highway 17 with my suitcase and hitchhiked to Beaufort, where I find Gene Norris eating a hamburger at the Shack with Bill Dufford, who was the principal of Beaufort High School. Gene is furious with me because he thinks it’s the only way I’m going to go to college.

  “Gene,” I said, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.” And I get, “You little scallywag, you didn’t give it a chance. You didn’t even last one night. Your father’s going to kill you if he doesn’t get to me first. That’s the only chance you have for a college education.” He arranged for Ray Williams, who was a senior at the Citadel, to take me back up to Opening Day the next morning.

  My view of the Citadel was shaped forever, whether this is fair or not, by the cruelty of the plebe year. I was not expecting the savagery of the plebe system I walked into, mainly because they all lied about it. They all said hazing is not allowed. It’s against the law in South Carolina. But the Citadel did not mind breaking that law. So I get to this place where all the knobs are starving and upperclassmen are screami
ng at us night and day, making us do pushups till we vomit. Then they’d march you out to the marsh and let the no-see-ums and mosquitoes eat you up. It was ferocious, and it was beyond anything I had ever been prepared for, even by my father. It was institutionalized brutality, a complete anarchy of abuse.

  The pure aggression of male society is a terrible thing. The rack line is a terrible thing; they’ll get you and make you do pushups till you drop. They will make you do anything until you collapse physically before them, then they scream and humiliate you. Being in the barracks was like being on the island in Lord of the Flies. Young men will do anything bad as far as you’ll let them. The only thing holding anybody back at the Citadel was they could not kill you. That was the point they could not go to. But that’s the only thing I saw holding people back.

  There are always one or two people Citadel guys never forgive, who went overboard, who were too sadistic, where it became too personal. There are guys I haven’t forgiven today for what they did to me in the plebe system. All Citadel graduates have at least one guy they’ll hate for the rest of their lives. We all got one. We’d like to kill him ourselves and not just hear that he dies. We’d like to murder him. The guys who were just doing their job, who were just playing the game—you don’t hate them. But the guys who took it to this sadistic level that only the plebe system is capable of—God, you hate them.

  So I had entered into a force field of terror. I was scared the whole time I was there. The freshman year at the Citadel absolutely traumatized me. It was like being hit by a tidal wave; I was in a state of shock the entire year. At the end of the year, my coach said I went quiet, that I quit talking. He said they were more worried about me than anybody they’d ever had in the basketball program. I clammed up; I wouldn’t talk to my teammates; I just shut it off.

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