My Exaggerated Life, p.8Pat Conroy
This is right before the end of the school year, and I think, okay, this is good, light-hearted, humorous. Nobody will know. I won’t let anybody tell anybody, and later on, after we graduate, people will find out, and they’ll yuck it up at what hell-raisers we were and what shit-kickers we were, and we will loom in everlasting fame in Citadel lore.
But several things happened that were not in our favor. We were pledged to secrecy, but you cannot keep a secret in a corps of cadets. This is a well-known fact. Also, when they sent it off to the printer, the printer thought he was being helpful: “My God, those lines are starting all over the page, let me just even this up.” So he evened it up, and of course, after he did, you could open it up, read straight down and see “Webb and Tucker suck.”
It comes out, and all the cadets are waiting for it, that’s how big a secret it was. They turn instantly to the thing, “Webb and Tucker suck,” they roar. Anyway, I heard that the Boo and a tactical officer were seen reading it and roaring laughing before lunch.
But, of course then the Boo, being in charge of discipline, that night he’s on the hunt. He spots me in the mess. He comes up to me, smoking a nauseating cigar. He said, “Just start writing, Bubba.” It was an ERW, which is what you fill out to make excuses for what you’ve done, or what crime you committed at the Citadel. An Explanation of Report, Written. He says, “I got you, Bubba. You’re going. Your name is on every ERW I’ve gotten from all the rest of your pansies down at the Shako. I’ll be removing more gay cadets than at any time in the history of the Citadel, and you look like the main one, the big guy.”
So I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this was my only chance at a college degree, and this is over.” I’m thinking of my mother. Dad’s in Vietnam. So I’m like, “Colonel, there must be some mistake. I thought I was contributing to literature.”
And he, “Ha-ha-ha, oh Bubba, that’s so good. I like that. Even Clemson won’t take you.”
I go all summer thinking I’ve been kicked out, but nothing comes in the mail, so I go back. I go right to the Boo’s office, and he said, “Bubba, we got a new president. If General Mark Clark was still president, you’d have been gone that night.” And later Boo told me, he said, “General Harris laughed his ass off.” So nothing happened to us.
I tried to put a much lower profile on myself. I was almost kicked out of school, so I took a lesson, I thought, from this. But toward the end of my senior year, there began a series of incidents between the cadet officers and the privates, of which I was one. There were a couple of incidents where the private gets nailed and the officer gets nothing. Then there was a huge incident.
Around March of each year, you go from those horrible wool pants of winter, which everybody hates, to your cotton field uniform. This last night in mess you’re wearing your old wool things you’ve worn for four years, and if you’re a senior they’re starting to fade from dry cleaning. So there was a tradition of tearing the seniors’ pants off. You’re sitting there, and the underclassmen tore your pants off. Many times they would tear your underwear off too, in the pure deliriousness of ripping the pants off your body. It’s some primal rape thing that military schools must love.
But this year they had forbidden it. It was a waste of material, some shit like that, so they had forbidden it. For a while it held—about two seconds. We march into mess, a signal goes up, next thing we’re all on the floor and everybody ripped all of our pants off. So I get my pants ripped off; I’m sitting in my underwear.
All of a sudden we look up, and regimental staff is there. Regimental staff is looking stern, and they’re looking mean like they’re really going to take names here and everybody will get in trouble, and fourth battalion’s going to have to sit in for several weekends in a row, and we will be punished. So, they come down, they look tough, because in a military school you have to look tough.
So, the regimental commander is Jim Probsdorfer—he’s still a good friend of mine—Jim is eyeing it; they take this very seriously. Well, he is the only one who walks bravely down, staring us down, and he’s going to call the company commanders together and demand what has happened. We’ve gotten quiet because we know, in the phrase, we’re about to get jacked up our asses for our intemperate behavior and our lack of discipline. So he’s staring at us meanly, and we know he’s going to talk to all the company commanders and issue a command, and we will be in pain.
So there’s complete silence as he’s walking down, but of course, it’s hard to take it completely seriously when you’re in your underwear. Okay, I see a huge behind in his underwear moving surreptitiously between the seats. It’s my friend John Bowditch, a huge guy, played tackle on the football team. He was the wild man of our class. So I saw his behind kind of low crawling, like we’re doing maneuvers in the Army, and he’s low crawling, setting himself up. So Probsdorfer is standing there, he’s got his hands on his hips, very military. Probs always looked the part, beautifully dressed and coifed and wore a uniform well, as opposed to Conroy who wore it like a piece of badly put on wallpaper.
The next thing I know, Bowditch, who is huge, leaps and tackles a very surprised regimental commander, and he drives and drives him through the swinging doors of the kitchen and disappears. So there was about thirty seconds of silence, and then Bowditch comes out in his underwear with a huge, triumphant grin on his face, and he is waving Jim Probsdorfer’s pants to the crowd like a flag. There was such jubilation, and the next thing, there’s chicken bones flying through the air, mounds of potatoes flying through the air hitting guys. That was the second biggest no-no in mess, to have a food fight.
Bowditch got the worst punishment order. I would have killed myself. I would have shot my dick off. It means you’re restricted and cannot go off campus. It means you walk tours, and walking a tour is doing fifty minutes with your rifle walking in military precision back and forth across the quadrangle, then rest for ten minutes. So you do that all Friday night, all Saturday and all Sunday until six, and it ain’t fun. It can really do damage to a guy’s psyche. It means you can’t date, you can’t go out and drink, you can’t do anything. So, it’s not one that I ever wanted applied to me. Now this was, once again, Bowditch was a private doing this to an officer.
If we were talking about college life at Harvard we’d be talking about, my God, should I take this professor who won the Pulitzer Prize for his seminal book on the works of T. S. Eliot, or should I take creative writing with Bernard Malamud? Those are the great decisions of life at Harvard. My college life was to participate in a food fight that breaks out because a guy’s pants get ripped off and he’s standing in his underwear.
Anyway, the next thing that happened, we had a guy in our battalion, a nice guy, who had a very unfortunate name. Nobody from the North has ever believed me when I told them what his name was: Jim Crow. Can you believe his poor dimwitted parents named him Jim Crow? Poor Jim Crow, he is a company commander of N Company. I was in R Company, so we were in the same battalion, in the same building, basically. Lovely, lovely building that I served four years in. Goddamn, you gotta love that Moorish architecture. It looked like a fucking prison.
So, Jim did not have what is necessary in a corps of cadets: a leavening sense of humor, a sense of the absurd. Now, Jim Crow is driven absolutely fucking crazy by something that happened. Somebody told me I did this first, but I don’t believe it. You’d see Jim on campus and you’d go, “Caw, caw.” Everybody knew he hated it. Finally, when he would take his place as the commander of N Company, we’d see him coming, and we’d start a crow call, just because there’s nothing else to do. You saw him walking, and so we’d, “Caw, caw, caw.” It started out about four guys doing it.
If he’d let it go it would’ve been nothing, but he rushed to the edge of the quad and shook his fist at us, said he was going to jack it up our ass, give us demerits if he found out who was doing it. Of course, this encouraged it. It got louder and louder every day he’d come down, until finally the whole battalion of about five hund
He’d be on the third battalion, looking like Mussolini shaking his fist at us, which just made it louder and louder. Well, that really drove poor Jim Crow crazy. Jim was marching out on a Friday, I think it was right after Probsdorfer had his pants torn off by a private, and so he was leading his guys out to parade. And he’s head of the whole company, he’s standing there watching these guys go out, and he’s about to join them, when a little private from O Company sees him march past and goes, “Caw, caw.” Crow evidently had been driven crazy by this experience; he has his sword out ready for the parade, and in this sudden and helpless gesture, stabs the poor sophomore in the thigh.
We still have to get through parade. So this sophomore marches out to parade, and all of a sudden somebody next to him says, “My God, what happened to your leg?” Everybody looks. His leg is covered with blood. So he has to post out of the parade and go to the infirmary, and I think he had three or four stitches. It was not a serious wound, but it hit a blood vessel so there was a lot of blood. They give that kid a punishment order for making the crow call; they did nothing to Crow for stabbing the kid with a sword. So by this time, the privates have gone about crazy.
I end up writing an underground letter about why the blood of privates counts for nothing, but if an upperclassman is touched, the private gets kicked out of school or gets the worst punishment order. A guy stabbing a guy and getting nothing for it? There’s something unfair here.
We spread these letters out before mess one night. By the time I got back to the barracks and marched into the R Company, a riot was going on in the mess hall. I had listed all the things that had happened during the year where the privates got nailed, nothing happened to the officers, and almost always they were responsible for the incident.
Well, I did not think any more about it, except I heard the Boo was on my tail. My friend Scott Graber was on the regimental staff, and he said there was a meeting that night, and somebody started the meeting out and says, “We know Conroy did it. We just have to prove it.” How did they know I did it? was a question someone asked, and the answer was, “Because no one else gives a shit. And no one else can write.” So they said they’d hunt me down.
I was trying to get weekend leave, and I went over to the Boo’s house. Boo’s sitting there with a bunch of cadets around him. He has a wicked smile and a scary voice. He looks up, sees me and says, “Caw, caw.”
I said, “Excuse me, Colonel?”
He says, “Bubba, I know it’s you. Every sign points back to you. I’m gonna get you. It’s only two weeks before graduation, and I’m hunting you down, and I will bet you don’t walk across that stage at graduation because even the general says if I catch you I get to kick you out this time.” And he gets this grin. He says, “I’ve already checked with Clemson; they don’t want to have a thing to do with you.”
I knew he was serious, because he took his job seriously. He said, “I’m going to crucify you without nails, Bubba.”
I was very worried, and I knew that they were on my tail, but what saved me: the next day, three freshman cadets got lost at sea on a fishing trip, and I volunteered to be among those brave cadets who scoured the ocean for them. We were praised for doing it. I nearly got sunburned to death, but I was escaping campus legally, searching for my beloved brothers in peril on the high seas. They found them after four days, and it was the first time I’ve ever heard of this place: Daufuskie Island. When I got back, it was the day before graduation. When I went up to the Boo at graduation to shake hands with him, I said, “Colonel, caw, caw.”
He said, “I knew it was you, Bubba. If I’d had one more day, I had you. I had you.”
The Boo was just doing his job. He was good at what he did, but he did it all with great good humor. He took his military role very seriously, but he remained a human being. He was feared and loved both for the right reasons. If you ever needed him for real help, he was always there. We knew he’d help us if we needed it. You could always go to him, and he was the only one on campus like that. He had a beautiful heart. He’d discipline, and he’d rack us, he’d yell, he’d scream at us, but if we needed help, the law of the corps was good as Boo. That was the law, the iron law. They taught me that the first day I was there. You’re ever really in trouble, go to the Boo. If your girlfriend got pregnant, for example, the Boo is where you went. He knew a doctor he could trust who was a Citadel graduate.
In my senior year a revolt started to develop against the Boo because some thought he had too much power and that he was usurping authority he did not have. The truth is they were jealous of the Boo because the cadets adored him. I mean, they worshipped him.
But his enemies said he was going in the barracks and taking things; they called it stealing. What it was—when he found contraband, like a TV, he’d take it and give it to charity. He’d find waffle irons or hot dog cookers or some piece of clothing that was unmilitary, he’d take it and give it to the Salvation Army. That was his job. But when they took it to the new president, he had no idea what the Citadel traditions were. He was a West Pointer.
After I graduated, they fired the Boo and put him in the warehouse where he took care of the luggage and ordered pens and pencils and toilet paper for the campus. A humiliating job from the one he held, and he held that the rest of his life; he never got out of there. He also was told he could never ever talk to cadets, except in an official capacity, at the warehouse. His genius was his connection with cadets. He could not quit because he needed the pension; he had a crippled wife. She was a nurse in a V-1 attack in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge and got her knee blown off.
When I ran into him at homecoming, he had this look on his face as he’s standing there talking to me, and I realize he had been totally humiliated.
I said, “Well, Colonel, if you ever want to write down your story, please let me know.”
The Boo says, “Ah, yes, I forgot you were one of those girls who majored in English.”
So when I got back to Beaufort I wrote the Boo a letter. It’s now hanging above my computer. “Dear Colonel Boo, it was great to see you at homecoming. Sorry to hear what they did. You don’t know this, but I want to become a writer, and I thought maybe if we got together, you could tell me your stories, we could put them together and do a book.”
About a month later, I got a letter from the Boo. “Are you serious, Bubba? The only thing is, if it ever gets published, all proceeds have to go to the Citadel.”
Of course I agreed blithely, not thinking there would be a book, not thinking there would be anything, just taking this on so it would force me to write. And of course, it did, because I was still afraid of the Boo.
So I’d go up on the weekends, spend the night up there. The Boo would tell stories, and I’d just sit there and write them down while he smoked a cigar. He’d go through the yearbooks, some cadet’s face would remind him of something, and he’d tell me the story. “Oh, I remember this lamb. I should have shipped him to Clemson, but he got away from me.” So I’d write those stories down.
It turned out to be a very good discipline for me. At that time, all I knew is I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what to write about. The hardest thing I think for a writer is—God, the whole world is there. What do I choose to write about? I didn’t have any choice with this book. I was writing about him; I was writing about what happened to him. And once again—always look for this with me—I saw the injustice. That always triggers something in me. This guy was called bad for discipline? I was terrified of him. He represented what discipline was at the Citadel. That part of me that hates injustice got nicked, and I had to do my little thing of correcting a wrong. Anyway, the subject was set. And it was repair work: I wrote about the dad I wanted to have. The Boo was my attempt at another father. Most of it was just his funny tales from college; the firing took place at the end of the book.
I wrote it too fast, and of
The Boo said, “Bubba, you’re my Boswell.”
I said, “Colonel, I’m amazed that you even know who Boswell is.”
It was such an innocent, stupid, badly written book, the worst book ever written by an American, but it was the first thrust toward art for me. And what you don’t know when you first start writing is if you’ll even finish the book. What I was most afraid of was not being able to finish a long project like that. Before you’ve done it, you just don’t know that you can do it. It’s a terrifying mountain for a writer to climb. So I learned in that first book that I could write a book.
At the end of that first year, we all went to Europe together during the summer for two months—George, Mike, Bernie, and me. That was a magically happy time for me. That was just the best, the best, the best. I was dying to see Europe because at this time I felt completely uneducated. I’m living in Beaufort, South Carolina, and I’ve been to the Citadel. That rings a lot of intellectual bells in America. I found a special deal for teachers in the National Council of Teachers of English, really cheap flights, go see Europe on Air India, which I didn’t know existed. If you were a teacher you got a special rate of—I want to say—$150 roundtrip. So I went racing around after school, finally got George and Mike and Bernie to go with me, thinking this will be a trip that would change all of our lives.
We took off from Kennedy, landed in London. On the way over to Europe, George taps me on the shoulder. I didn’t know George well, but he was a riot. He grew up in Ridgeland, South Carolina, a little town about twenty miles from Beaufort, much more rural, much more hick, much more redneck. George was about six-four, six-five. He had an Olympian sexual nature. His nickname was the Daddy Rabbit, which he earned by going after every girl living and breathing before him, and sleeping with a lot of them. He was the most intellectually uninterested of all of us, because the Daddy Rabbit was interested in one thing: a willing young woman. Bunnies, he called them. And he would tell them anything to get their clothes off. “Honey, honey. I don’t wanna do anything, I promise. I just wanna lay down there beside it.” That’s the kind of line I could never deliver to a girl. If I ever told a girl that, I’d have to fling myself out of a car going eighty miles an hour just out of self-hatred.
My Exaggerated Life by Pat Conroy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes