My Exaggerated Life, p.7Pat Conroy
Well, I’m a sophomore at the Citadel, not a very happy one, but I was playing pretty good basketball my sophomore year. And I get this letter from Gene Norris: “Pat, Mary Alice got pregnant,” by a redneck, our class redneck. “And we don’t know where she is. We think she’s in West Virginia because that’s where her family is from. You’re going to play the University of West Virginia next week. Could you look up these names in the telephone book and call?”
So when I got up there, I looked it up, called, found out from one of them that Mary Alice was living on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina, which is outside Charleston. So when I got back, I wrote her a note. “Dear Mary Alice, we were in Miss Baumgartner’s geometry class together. We even dated once, and I thought you might need some help, thought you might need some company.” At that time, getting pregnant was the ultimate humiliation and nightmare for a girl.
I went out after a game. There are these two women staying in a shack on Sullivan’s Island with nothing, no money. Mary Alice and her mother. I loved her mother, but she was a nutcase. Mary Alice was obviously very unhappy. So I started going out there each weekend, and I was a goner. I had never been in love with anybody, never dated. Of course, I’m not dating her, because she’s pregnant. But I just thought, my God, this is it. She would drive me back to the barracks sometimes, and on one of these trips she leaned over and kissed me. That was as far as it went. I was such a good little Catholic boy, I cannot tell you. It never even occurred to me that anything else should go on. My friends can’t believe I did not make love with her, but I didn’t because I thought she’d be hurt by that. She didn’t need that. She didn’t need me in that particular way.
But we made plans that I was going to quit the Citadel, we were going to get married. I had some other schools interested in me for basketball at that time. So I was going to write them and see if I could transfer. I was going to work in the summer, work at night, and I thought we could do it.
We were playing Furman when she was getting ready to have that baby. Away at Furman, I get an emergency phone call from her mother that she’d just taken Mary Alice to the hospital. The baby was born dead with the cord wrapped around her throat. At least, that’s what they told me. Now, I must have known twenty-five kids born in Charleston around that time who have come to see if they were Mary Alice’s child. One was not long ago, in fact. “I used to dream you were my father.” And I said, “Well, if you were Mary Alice’s child, I would not have been your father. But I would have raised you.” I have no idea if the baby died or made it into Catholic Services.
When I returned to the Citadel, I couldn’t go until that weekend to see Mary Alice. As soon as I walked in the door, it was different. Boom. She wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t talk to me on the phone, wouldn’t answer my letters. A couple weeks later, I get a letter from her. It said, “Dear Pat, you were so sweet to me during this. But the two people who remind me of the worst time in my life are my mother and you. You were here and you saw me at my worst, my lowest. I’m very sorry about this, I regret this.”
Oh, Christ, Jesus. It completely shattered me. It had never occurred to me they could fall out of love with you. I thought once you fell in love, that was it, and I was going to love Mary Alice for the rest of my life; she was going to love me for the rest of her life. We were going to spend our life together, it was going to be great, and that was it. It never occurred to me that the girl or boy could say no. I didn’t know that. It had never occurred to me you could love somebody that much and then have it flung back in your face, not because you’re an asshole, but because you weren’t. I could not get it. And, I was like, my gosh, she needs to like me. What it was, I now realize: I took advantage of this girl’s complete, abominable loneliness.
I also think my mother probably got to Mary Alice in some way, although I do not know that. This could be just my ego: my male ego was so badly hurt that it still hasn’t recovered. But I do know Mom had caught wind of it and was not pleased. “I hear you’re dating a pregnant woman. I will never accept her.” You know, “We’ve put all our dreams and hopes on you.”
I said, “Mom, I’m so sorry. I fell in love with this girl.”
And she said, “This will never ever be something that we can approve of. We’ll never speak to you or your wife or her child.”
Gene told me this much later. He said, “Your mother called me a lot during that time, Pat, and she was highly disapproving.” But Gene would always take Mom’s side. “She wanted better for you. She didn’t want you to marry a used car.”
Notice: I married used cars all the way down the line. I only married used cars. I never married an unused car. For one thing, I was not interested in sleeping with a virgin, ever. I did not want that on my plate at all.
Mary Alice was the great Nagasaki at the beginning of my life. My junior year is a lost year; I just remember being in pain the whole year. I didn’t date after her, didn’t meet girls when I was at the Citadel. Except for Mary Alice, I’d never dated anybody seriously, and you can’t say I dated Mary Alice seriously since I took care of her during the last five months of her pregnancy. But that was my one serious relationship in college.
Then, the first woman I asked to marry me turned me down. I met her when I went to get a summer job after I graduated from the Citadel. She was also getting a job. In the summers, migrant workers came to work at the farms on the islands, and in Charleston there was a school for their kids. I was the athletic director in charge of sports.
Marnie was a beautiful, golden-haired Charleston girl with an impeccable name: Huger. But they had moved out of South of Broad, because when you run out of money, you’re run out of the house South of Broad. Aristocrats can forgive anything except when you run out of money. Still, her name could not have been more glorious. We were together all summer; I met her family, and they sort of took me in.
Then I went to teach in Beaufort, and she went back to a tiny little Protestant college in North Carolina. In one of the first letters I wrote her, I said, “Dear Marnie, It’s obvious I love you, and I think we ought to plan to get married.” I go on in my florid, overheated style, offering myself, my life, my love.
She writes back a very nice letter rejecting the proposal, and giving me some advice. “Pat, with the next girl you want to marry, I would suggest you might want to hold hands with her, or even kiss her before you make the proposal.”
So Conroy’s sex life sailed on, a battleship fully armed and loaded, ready for action, entering the South China Sea.
Anyway, Bernie and them, they just could not take this, the stupid way I was living my life, so they came over and grabbed me for the next party. And of course it was fun. I ended up dating a series of girls. But at the point where we were about to make love, I would think of some reason to break up with them, because I thought if you made love you had to get married. And I’m thinking this is gonna be hard with Mom: “I’m married. This girl’s Methodist.” It was scaring me.
Anytime I would date somebody, Mom would find out from someone in Beaufort, and I’d get a phone call. “Son, I hear you’re dating a young woman. Is she Catholic?” Or “She will not do. She’s a Southern Baptist,” giving her heavy disapproval of the convert.
I’d say, “Mom, give me a break. Weren’t you a Baptist when you married Dad?” In her innocence, Mom thought she had taken a step up socially by becoming a Catholic and didn’t know she’d taken a step down. In the South, being Catholic was weirder than being Jewish.
Anyway, I dated two Baptist preachers’ daughters so I could date them more than once, because I thought they wouldn’t expect anything, wouldn’t want anything. A few years ago I met the daughters of one of these Baptist girls, and one said, “Mr. Conroy, Mom was always trying to get us to date boys like you.” I said, “Could you tell me why?” She said, “You were a perfect gentleman and never tried to do anything.”
I mean, I used to call my dates “ma’am.” “Would you like some
But that was when my road to perdition began with those three guys. Mike, George Garbade, and Bernie take full credit for the wild middle years of Conroy’s misspent youth.
Bernie has always been very good about liberating the uptight Catholic boy in me. He planted a flag of liberation for me and gave me a way of coming out of this terrible shell I had built up. He showed me outrageousness; he showed me boldness that had never occurred to me. He would say anything to anybody. He was screamingly funny. Bernie set me free, where anything can be thought, anything can be said. Growing up, I had a million things I wanted to say but was afraid to. Bernie taught me that it was possible to say and think anything. I got to see a personality who was completely out there, and it was very freeing for me to see a personality let himself go. My uptight background needed a Bernie with no restrictions on what you could say or do. There’s something about Bernie that has expanded everything about me.
One time we went to a party, and there was a girl there so fabulous, so wonderful, so sophisticated, beautiful, smart as hell. She was visiting relatives; I think it must’ve been Christmas. She started talking, and the four of us, George Garbade, Mike Jones, Bernie, and I were standing in radiant attendance around her, completely lost in her wonderfulness.
Then she started telling us why she hated Southern men. We were stupid; we were redneck; we were Nazis; we hated black people; we were against women. I naturally was agreeing with everything she said because she was gorgeous. She could’ve dipped my head in the toilet, and I would’ve let her flush it as many times as she’d like. I loved her. I had just met her, but that’s the way I am. I was thinking, Gosh, how do you ask a girl like this for a date when you’re a Southern man? Then she said she would never date a Southern man, and I’m thinking, what a shame. I’d love to have married her; I’d love to have children with her. I would love to grow old with her and die in her arms. I’m going through my fantasy life together with her while she’s blasting Southern men.
As I was standing openmouthed with wonderment, I see her eyes, her beautiful eyes, lock onto something. I see a look of shock cross her face. She is silenced. I follow her eyes, and they are looking at the midsection of Bernie Schein. In the middle of this girl’s diatribe against Southern men, Bernie has taken his penis out of his pants and put his horn-rimmed glasses on top of it, where the penis is now the nose. It looked like this deformed human being coming out of his crotch. This poor woman is looking down at these horn-rimmed glasses with this penis nose sticking out of Bernie’s pants.
And Bernie says, “Oh! I need to introduce you to Mortimer. I’m so sorry; how rude of me. This is Mortimer. I love Mortimer more than I like myself. He goes with me wherever I go. And he’s the life of every party.”
She storms out of the house. I wanted to marry her and die in her arms, but when she leaves, I scream laughing. Bernie always affects me that way. I had never met anybody like this in my life who would say these things, and I am divinely grateful to him for showing me a different way of being. Bernie would pull his dick out almost anywhere. The other day he came into my house, and here we are ninety-year-old men, and he screams, “Pussy! The only subject in the world!” I would never think anything like that; I would never say anything like that. But he has played a great part in my life by doing things like that.
Also, Bernie and I discovered that we were both boiling over with this need for literature, this desire to write. And where Bernie has always been great for me—I’d give him something I’d written, and Bernie would call back and say, “God! Damn! God!! Damn!! God!!! Damn!!! How did you write this? This is so fucking great!” He would then tell me, “I guarantee you, somebody else is going to like this. It ain’t just me.”
I did not take it seriously, but that’s a good reader to have in your early life, a rare thing to find when you’re a kid starting out. You know how you think you’re nothing when you start out. Bernie has always been my head cheerleader, my hallelujah chorus.
After I got to Beaufort High, I was on the Point, living in a beautiful house for $50 a month, on the water, with a very pretty view. I was writing as seriously as I could, concentrating on being a poet. I was convinced that I was going to be a poet. Now I realize that was my way of hiding from myself, hiding from my subjects. It’s the worst poetry you’ve ever read. It is simply dreadful in the way that only poetry can be dreadful. It just wasn’t any good. These poems were beyond redemption; they showed no promise of anything. There was not one salvageable word, not one interesting idea, not one original turn of phrase. Nothing. Still I was writing constantly, searching desperately for what I was meant to write.
One of my English teachers from high school, Millen Ellis, knew I was writing, knew I didn’t type, so he came over one night and gathered all the poems I had done, took them to his house, and the next day he had typed a whole manuscript of about thirty poems, which I then read. I read them and realized, in one swift moment, that I was not going to be a poet, that something was hideously wrong with what I was trying to do. It came as a great disappointment. The poems were inert. They were dead in the water. I could look beneath the surface; there was nothing alive. It was sort of a bad Waste Land meets Robert Frost through Howl, that kind of shit. It just did not work at all. It was derivative; it was a waste of time; it was ill–thought out; it was ill-considered; it would look back from the page at me with fisheyes. All the poems were about nothing. They were subject-less. They were simply the moanings of sperm cells locked away too long in scrotums. It was just angst ridden. There was no point to them.
Then, for about a month I wandered around, knowing I can’t write poetry so I’m trying to write a book. To me, writing a novel was simply the most overwhelming idea on earth. I go back to these novels I loved, I open them up, and I’m thinking, “I would look like a fool if I tried this.”
Also, I did not realize that I had not yet begun telling myself the truth about even my own life, so there was no reason for me to write about anything. If that process had not begun, I should not be sitting down at a desk. But I had that image of myself.
George Garbade thought it was hilarious. He would say, “That boy’s goin’ home. He’s gonna whip himself up some poetry. That boy’s got this habit of thinkin’, and he don’t need to hear about women for a long, long time because he’s gonna write some fucking poetry you gonna read someday in one of them textbooks.” I had him tickling the shit out of me about this.
Then I went back to the Citadel for homecoming that first year. I went to see Colonel Doyle, my English teacher, but he wasn’t there, gone for the weekend. I’m walking back to my car, and Colonel Courvoisie—the Boo—comes out of his house. I said, “Colonel, how are you doing? How’s it going up in the commandant’s department?” because he was in charge of discipline. In a military college, that’s the guy who gives punishment. That’s all he does.
He said, “You didn’t hear about it? They fired me.”
I said, “Fired you? For what?”
“They said I was bad for discipline.”
I said, “Boo, you were discipline.” And I’m thinking, holy God. At that time, the Boo was legendary. Saying the Boo was bad for discipline wasn’t even possible. That was not possible.
He said, “They sent me down to the warehouse, Bubba. I order toilet paper for the campus now.”
He called everybody Bubba because he couldn’t remember cadets’ names. It became a term of great endearment in the corps. If the Boo called you Bubba, you could not get higher than that. At Harvard you go for Phi Beta Kappa; at the Citadel, if you got called Bubba your life was good from then on.
But the Boo was this terrifying creature in my life. He was a godlike figure walking around on campus. He was loud, and he was scary. God, he was tough. I was scared of him all through college.
I remember when I was a freshman, I went over to Ashley Hall one weekend to see Molly Hoyler. This terrifying old harridan of a woman meets me at the door, “What a
“I came over to meet Miss Molly Hoyler.”
“Does she know you’re coming?”
I said, “No, ma’am, she’s never met me before, but I just got a letter from her aunt.”
She said, “You mean you don’t even have a date with Miss Hoyler? I don’t care if you got a letter from her aunt, and I can assure you, Miss Hoyler doesn’t care that you got a letter from her aunt.” She says, “Cadet, get off my campus. Don’t come back, or I’m going to call the Boo.”
Which is the first time I ever heard the Boo’s name. Later, he tried to kick me out of school twice.
The first time was when, my God, I was the poetry editor for the literary magazine, the Shako. So I am going around, shaking down poetry. You talk about a hard job: poetry editor for the Citadel. I’m begging anybody who knows how to write a word on a piece of paper.
I was sitting at my desk at the Citadel, and this kind of snaky guy comes in. I didn’t know him at all. He said, “Are you the poetry editor?”
I said, “Yes, I am.”
“I got some poems.”
I said, “They will be printed, I promise, no matter how horrible they are. I can’t thank you enough. We needed two more.”
So he gives me the poems. I’m reading them, they’re shit, but that’s okay. It was my duty to fill up a poetry section. This guy is looking at me with sort of a wolfish grin on his face. I’m reading the first poem, he said, “You don’t see it do you?”
I said, “See what?”
He said, “Okay, get the first letter of each line.”
He had arranged it like a modern poem with lines beginning in different places, back and forth across the page, as though that deepened anything. But if you put the first lines together, the first letter of each line going down read out to say, “Webb and Tucker suck.” Colonel Webb ran the Army ROTC, was meaner than hell, and the cadets were terrified of him. General Tucker was the general commandant of cadets, and he would always give rules that we couldn’t go out or we couldn’t do this, so the cadets were always mad with him. So “Webb and Tucker suck.”
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