Among the worst things about growing old is the loss of those irreplaceable friends who added richness and depth to your life. I met Tim Belk in Beaufort in 1967, the first year I taught and coached at Beaufort High School. We were the only guests at a dinner that the only writer in Beaufort, Ann Head, had put together so we could meet and form what she was certain would become a serious “literary” friendship. Ann had taught me creative writing my senior year in high school and had written me a series of generous-spirited letters about the sad-sack poems I wrote for the literary magazine at The Citadel. Ann Head and my father hated each other on sight and she worried that my college was the worst possible breeding ground for a young man who wished to be a novelist. Ann’s articulate response to the shaping of my writing life by my father and the Citadel was my introduction to Tim Belk. With this, Ann Head made my life delicious and presented me with a friend who would prove a treasury of constant delight. Tim Belk became a dreamboat of a friend and the news of his death in San Francisco this October killed something of measureless value inside of me and all of his friends.
Tim Belk had received his Masters degree in English from the University of South Carolina and come to live on Port Republic Street and teach at USCB. He became famous as a gifted and hard-nosed teacher of the language, a stickler for grammar who considered a dangling participle a minor crime against humanity. He was passionate about literature, music, and all the arts and he was the kind of southerner I only encountered in literature. He seemed to drift out of the pages of Carson McCullers and would have looked natural with a walk-on part in a Tennessee Williams play. It was true. I had met no one remotely like him at the Citadel. At that first meeting, Tim Belk and I had no idea he would one day have leading roles in the novels I would write. He would make his original appearance as himself playing the piano for my Daufuskie students in The Water is Wide. In The Lords of Discipline, he took the stage as Tradd St. Croix, a Charleston aristocrat who was part of a quartet of roommates bound by the infinite resources of their deep affection for each other. When South of Broad came out, I granted Tim one of the most pivotal roles in the book as Trevor Poe, a gay piano player in San Francisco. Note that gayness has become a theme here.
I consider the two years in Beaufort when I taught high school as perhaps the happiest time of my life. My attraction to melodrama and suffering had not yet overwhelmed me, but signs of it were surfacing. No one had warned me that a teacher could fall so completely in love with his students that graduation seemed like the death of a small civilization. It was that same year that I became best friends with Bernie Schein, Mikes Jones, George Garbade and the inimitable Tim Belk.
Tim seemed sophisticated and worldly in a way that made me feel as uncultured as a listless pearl. I would sit on his porch after teaching and he would fix me a martini in a real martini glass. He served wine that was not Ripple or Blue Nun. He served canapés that I thought were coverings for boats and had no idea were wonderful pre-dinner snacks to be served on good china with cloth napkins. In those two years, Tim would introduce me to The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the novels of Walker Percy, the poetry of James Dickey and all the great classical music of the Western canon. He played the piano with an almost supernatural ease and he never forgot a song or piece of music he’d heard. He was one of the most civilized men I’ve ever known and one of the funniest. Our friendship lasted almost fifty years and much of it was spent laughing.
The world was afire in the late sixties. The Tet offensive and the murder of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy occurred in 1968 and integration was still in its experimental stages at Beaufort High. It seemed to me I was living ten lifetimes that single year and it was an exhilarating year to be curious and alive. That Tim Belk was gay was whispered about and talked about openly, intimated by some and taken for granted by others. Though my children don’t believe me now and find it hilarious, I didn’t know what being gay was. Though I had heard all the disparaging names from queer to faggot, no one had ever told me that they actually were gay. At the Citadel, if you were caught in a homosexual embrace, you were beaten to a pulp and expelled from school that day. It was part of the school’s harsh military code and there was no recourse to law. A gay southerner was an abomination of the species; it was a verminous condition that could not be brought up in polite circles.
Tim Belk was closeted himself in those early Beaufort days and dated some of the loveliest women in this town. I double-dated with him on many occasions. Later, he married a beautiful teacher from the Academy once he’d packed his bags and lit out for his new life in San Francisco. Tim left several months before I was fired from my teaching job on Daufuskie Island, the year I learned that the “separate but equal” system of the American South was the biggest lie ever told by the part of the world I love the most. I lost teaching, I lost Beaufort, and I lost Time Belk at the same time.
Before the dissolution of his marriage to Diane (“We divorced because of irreconcilable similarities”), the Ford Foundation rescued me, sending my family and me out to San Francisco. Tim got a job playing the piano at The Curtain Call in the theater district. My wife Barbara and Diane would go out on the town once a week, to dinner and the theater. Tim and I went out every Thursday night and that is where he introduced me to his new life that he found glorious and far from shameful. One night after a show, Marlene Dietrich and Elaine Stritch came into The Curtain Call and Tim heard Elaine ask the legendary Marlene if she would sing her World War II anthem “Lili Marlene.” Instantly, Tim began playing the haunting theme and heard Marlene say to Elaine Stritch, “It is the wrong key.” In the next movement of his fingers he had changed to her key and Marlene said, “The boy can play.”
With Tim Belk’s elegant accompaniment, Marlene Dietrich sang the song beloved by both Nazi and American soldiers on both sides of the trenches and brought a screaming crowd roaring to its feet. Later, Tim and I would go bar hopping through the city as we always did. The bars of San Francisco had a hundred faces and some were ornate and mysterious, others bizarre, but all welcoming when Tim and I were young and our dream of what the world could be still fresh and quivering with life. At one bar, soon after the Lili Marlene night, Tim and I were arguing the merits of some new novel, when a fan of his from The Curtain Call tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to dance. This was not part of my own dream of the world. But it made me study my surroundings with greater awareness. I had often been in bars with only men when I was a cadet and I had noticed that people were dancing to a band in a room separate from the bar. Before this definitive moment, I had not noticed that they were all men dancing with each other. Tim looked horrified but I’d become friendly with the man who asked me to dance and was raised by a mother who taught her kids never to hurt anyone’s feelings. I said I’d be glad to and I followed the young man to the dance floor. He was from South Carolina, Greer I believe, and I said, “You want to teach these boy to shag?”
“Delighted,” he said.
“Mind if I lead?” I asked, and he said he’d love it if I did.
We shagged and the kid had great moves. After the dance, I thanked, my partner and returned to the bar and sat beside Tim.
“You got something to tell me, pal?” I said. Continue reading
Here is the way it was in the city of Atlanta in 1973, over forty years ago when the dogwoods bloomed along Peachtree Road and there was a party in the Governor’s mansion in Buckhead. Barbara Conroy and I were new to the city and an invite for a party from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter sounded like a ticket to heaven after being run out of South Carolina. We knew no one in the city until that night and it seemed like we knew everyone when the evening was over. As we were crowding around the doorway to the huge dining room – it was a night to celebrate the writers and journalists in Georgia – I heard the sound of high heels clicking against marble in the old tap dance of youth and radiance and I turned to see Anne Rivers Siddons and her flashy, dapper husband by her side – that devilish boy from St. Albans, the one with that ironical smile he perfected while at Princeton – and he was laughing about something that Annie was saying as they made their brilliant entrance into the heart of things.
They were beautiful to look at. Annie was as pretty and sexy a woman as ever drew breath in the sweet air of Georgia and Heyward symbolized some essence of the Atlanta businessman – sharp, tailored, and successful, every inch of him finely-wrought, brimming with the innate class of the Eastern establishment. To me, this is what I wanted Atlanta to look like – these were the people I’d moved to the city to meet. This was the night I met the writers Paul Darcy Boles, Paul Hemphill, Jim Townsend, Larry Woods, Joe Cumming, Betsy Fancher, Terry Kay and so many more, people I would come to love over the years. By all accounts, it was a magnificent gathering, except that alcohol was forbidden to be served in the Governor’s mansion during the Carter years. Toward the end, the sound of various writers choking and clawing at their throats was heard around the dining room as the first stages of delirium tremens began to set in at the tables to our right and left.
So that was how it began on a tender spring day in Atlanta and now it has ended in one of the tenderest springs in the memory of Charleston. I was too young to understand then that the brisk sound of high heels tapping out a rhythmic clatter on Georgia marble would result in a friendship that would last for forty years, that would open up my heart in so many ways I didn’t know it could be opened, and that my life had changed forever by the entrance into my life of this couple born into my life at that very moment.
Here is how Heyward and Annie struck me then and strike me now and time has done nothing to change what I feel about them both. They had sprung alive from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Heyward was shy about revealing his privileged, Ivy League background and I believe it took over five seconds for him to tell me he was a Princeton graduate that night. In our next four thousand meetings we enjoyed Heyward would dip into his high-stepping past and reveal that he had gone to Princeton while I had spent the majority of my youth majoring in “Flamethrowers and Bazookas” at the Citadel. It was an article of faith in our relationship that Heyward believed he had received a better college education than I did. It got so bad that I would enter an Atlanta party, spot Heyward in the corner with Annie, and I’d say, “Hey, Heyward. Tell me now that you went to Princeton so you don’t have to drop it later at the party.” I’d then make my way to the Siddonses, hug both of them, and find out what was going on in their very well-lived in lives. It assured me that I’d always have my first drink of the night while talking to Annie and Heyward.
My association of them with F. Scott Fitzgerald was not accidental. Heyward, in his understated elegance and good taste, had fallen in love with Anne Rivers Siddons who was about to begin a career that would make her a household name among discriminating readers in America. By marrying Heyward, Annie had placed her destiny alongside one of the greatest readers she would ever encounter, her head cheerleader during her remarkable career as the queen of Southern fiction, whose passionate love of her work was just another side to the most successful literary marriage it’s been my pleasure to observe. Heyward became her number one fan, first reader, first editor, first critic, and the first to tell Annie that what she’d written was original, unique, and even magical. Heyward Siddons found great joy in telling me that he had married the most beautiful prose style in the South. Here is what was remarkable about Heyward Siddons, the Princetonian. He knew it, supported his wife in every way conceivable, and would shout it aloud to the world. He was the first great male feminist I ever met. He made his life a conscious celebration of his wife’s career. Heyward Siddons made it all possible and he made it look effortless.
It was not lost on me that Anne Rivers Siddons was some wraith-like incarnation of that lost soul of American letters, Zelda Fitzgerald. But where her husband Scott was enormously jealous of his wife’s talent, Heyward held his hand over Annie’s realizing its precious flame. It was never easy for women writers in America, and it was especially not easy in 1973. The legendary editor Jim Townsend dismissed Annie’s writing as mere “frou-frou” when I came to Atlanta. Women were held back, not listened to, given the lightest stories to report, and never given the chance to walk as equals in the boys club of Atlanta writers. As Heyward announced to me my first year in Atlanta, Annie was about to change all that, and change it she did. It was Heyward who gave me my first warning of incoming fire when Heartbreak Hotel was published. “It’ll define Southern college life in the 1950s, Conroy, the way Fitzgerald described Princeton of the Twenties,” and it did.
Atlanta novel; Downtown, Annie’s rendition of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta, including a grand portrayal of Jim Townsend who once labeled her work “frou-frou.” Fox’s Earth, Colony, The Homeplace came off her typewriter with astonishing speed, proving that hers was a deep, profligate talent that was not bound by any singular geography. Heyward Siddons played policeman, watchdog, and was the furious protector of her privacy as Annie wrote the books that would change our times.
Their house on Vermont served as a pleasure palace for the writers of Atlanta. Heyward and Annie hosted dinner parties that still feel like some of the best parts of my young manhood. Heyward was a refined, articulate host who wrote book reviews for Atlanta Magazine, read the New York Times daily, kept up with the news of the world and literature, kept alive the curiosity he developed in his early career in television and radio, could charm your socks off (on the rare occasions I wore socks), and turn his sardonic, or should I say Satanic, wit on anyone who popped into his newsfinder on any particular night. He had a special genius for ferretting out any bad review I had received throughout our great land and cheerfully reciting from it as we dined over one of Annie’s shrimp casseroles. You had to be fast on your feet to be a worthy guess at Heyward Siddons’ house. Those conversations sparkled in the Atlanta air.
Remember the click of Annie’s high heels coming around that corner of the Governor’s mansion; I’ve been following the dance of that pretty woman and her debonair husband for forty years now. I followed them from Atlanta to a writers’ weekend in Tate Mountain, Georgia, to this mansion South of Broad, to a wedding in Rome, and to the deep immortal silences of the Maine Coast. For me, the great, unseeable reward I received from watching the marriage of Heyward and Annie Siddons is to be a witness to the greatest love story it has been a privilege to watch. This couple found each other in Atlanta during a time of stormy change in the South. That woman with the tapping heels found a man who did an elegant soft shoe beside her in a dance that would last the rest of their lives. If Heyward and Annie ever fought, I was never a witness to it. If they were ever furious with me or anyone else, I never knew of it. They seemed inseparable to me and I rarely saw them when they weren’t together, a perfect match, a bindery of souls. They taught every writer they ever met the limits of marriage and came close to proving it had no limits. Heyward Siddons taught all the writers in his life how to treat a woman, how to love a wife, how to live a life that was joyful and rich with happiness and worthy of imitation. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, Heyward, you lived a full life with stalwart sons, lovely grandchildren, and a remarkable body of friends.
There were no madhouses or crack-ups, and you let your Zelda bloom into one of the most storied careers ever lived by a woman in the American South. You made that possible, Heyward, and through Annie’s work you helped launch the careers of Josephine Humphreys, Patti Callahan Henry, Cassandra King, Mary Alice Monroe, Sue Monk Kidd, Dorothea Benton Frank, Rebecca Wells and hundreds of others like them. A writer has never found a better man to accompany her on her waltz toward art. Every writer needs the solid foundation of the love and grounding you brought to Annie’s life. And in your generosity, you gave it to the whole generation of writers who came to adore you and that is your legacy for all time – until our last words are written.
Hey, out there…
Since I returned home to Beaufort after my book tour was over, I brought part of the tour back to my house with me. I’ve never found myself attracted to the world of fantasy writing, with a few quite notable exceptions. When I lived in Italy, I came under the sway of Italo Cabrino and his books. The Baron in the Trees, the Cloven Viscount, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and especially Invisible Cities sparked deep ysteries in me. At the same time, I became familiar with the nearly unclassifiable work of Jonathan Carroll who has a narrative voice that can take me places I never knew I needed to go. Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury have brought me many great pleasures and I’ve tried to read as many of the Fairy Tales of world literature as I can. The Arthurian legends have always found a captive audience with me and I read The Once and Future King and few books have ever struck me with the powers of its wondrous imagination. I read it recently and failed to cherish it as I once did and I asked myself if something squirrelly and unappreciative had entered my reading life as I’ve grown older.
I’ve never relished the company of the dystopian novel much, but then I remember Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and that was good enough to shut my mouth for a while. Though I revere much of the writing of Cormac McCarthy, he did not seduce me with The Road. Literary taste is a defining thing in all of us. It is as unpredictable as it is fascinating. I’m as astonished by the work of Jonathan Franzen as I am incapable of reading five pages of Thomas Pynchon. I treasure the works of John Fowles and Ian McEwan and I want to like Martin Amis, but just can’t or don’t. Metafiction sends me running to the hills and always makes me think that I’m not smart enough to understand it. I’m confident enough in myself as a reader to think, “If I can’t understand it, then who the hell can?” The pleasure principle kicks into high gear whenever I pick up a book. Toni Morrison’s prose style is a joy inducing mastery of the language and no one deserves a Nobel Prize more than Alice Munro. Philip Roth is a gift to American letters, but the most celebrated book of the eighties, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, left me feeling like a beast of burden as I slogged my way toward that infinite finish line. A.S. Byatt’s book Possession grabbed me by the throat and held me in its immense thrall until the very end. I hated everything about J.M. Coatzee’s book Disgrace, but could not deny its power and greatness when I completed it. Ann Rivers Siddons’ Colony made me fall in love with Maine and she’s the most southern woman I’ve ever met. Ron Rash’s Serena made me think about the North Carolina mountains in a way that Thomas Wolfe never did.
I believe I could write like this forever and not remember half the books that made my time on earth a wonderful place to be. The reading of great books has been a life altering activity to me and, for better or worse, it brought me singing and language-obsessed to that country where I make my living. Except for teaching, I’ve had no other ambition in life than to write books that mattered.
All of this is preamble to the fact that I met the most extraordinary American writer while I was in the middle of my tour. His name is George R.R. Martin and I think he is a writer for the ages. Over the past several years, I’ve kept hearing about George R.R. Martin from his readers, who often verge on the edge of possession. But my own form of literary snobbism has kept me from reading him because George writes in a field I encounter with much resistance – he writes in the genre of fantasy, part of the lower pastures of world fiction. Despite my love of Tolkien, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Carroll and Ursula Le Guin, I like to spend my reading time among other writers. I had also known personally one of the great fantasy writers of our time, Robert Jordan, which was the pen name for Jim Irvin, a Citadel graduate who got his degree seven years after I did. Jim and I were taught by the same distinguished English teachers at the Citadel and he blazed an amazing trail with his Wheel of Time series that led some to refer to him as the new Tolkien. I read several books in the series, enjoyed them, but never found myself captured by Jim’s world of fantasy. Yet Jim’s books became number one bestsellers on the New York Times bestseller list every time he came out with a new volume. He died of a very extreme form of cancer in the middle of his prime. But his fantasy required a leap of the imagination I was not prepared to give at that time of my life and I’ve regretted it. The last time I met him I asked him if he knew any other college that had produced two writers who had occupied the number one slot on the NYT list. It seemed a rare distinction. A week later he called me and said he’d researched my question and only Harvard had produced more than two. Naturally, it was Harvard, but for novels like Love Story and Jurassic Park – none of the Harvard heavyweights like Norman Mailer. I thought John Updike had probably made it, but Jim was too happy with his findings and I let it go.
My friend Katherine Clark was the first full-fledged fanatic of George R.R. Martin that I found and she was relentless on the subject. Katherine had published an Oral Biography of my friend Eugene Walter called Milking the Moon. It’s a one of a kind book that celebrates the life of a quirky unknown writer who lived a fascinating and joy-giving life. I did not meet Katherine until she introduced me before I gave a signing at
Page & Palette bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama. We’ve been fast friends since. She is one of the few friends in my life who reads more than I do and her eye is cunning and so far infallible. She went to Harvard then wrote her dissertation on William Faulkner at Emory University. Our friendship is based on the books we’ve read and those we are now writing. Two years ago she started reading George R.R. Martin and I listened as a fanatic was born on the telephone. By then, her good taste was a proven commodity, but I listened to her rapture with growing discomfort. She read his Ice and Fire series of five doorstopping books, then re-read them again to see if they were as good as she originally thought. She found them much better. She started throwing out comparisons to Dante and Shakespeare and I thought that the seafood she was eating from the BP oil spill was starting to affect her brain in Pensacola. One of the things I’ve admired about Katherine is that she can read books by people she hates, and if the writing is good, she will surrender her sword and admit to the book’s excellence. I can do that sometimes, but not often.
“Shakespeare?” I once asked Katherine, mockery in my voice.
“Yes, Shakespeare, Pat. We read the same guy and I think this guy might be better.”
“Do you tell your Harvard friends that? Or just us Citadel boys?”
“I tell all my Harvard friends that they’re just like you – they haven’t read him, either.”
“Magic, direwolves, mammoths, giants, dwarves and dragons. I can’t believe I don’t want to read these books.”
“Read them. Then tell me I’m wrong,” she said.
“That’s a deal. If you quit talking about them,” I said.
I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading. On February 26, I drove from Beaufort, SC to Williamsburg, Virginia to attend the memorial service of Barbara Nelson Warley – she of the grand spirit and radiant beauty. Her husband John was the best friend I made at The Citadel who roomed with me on the baseball team and we were inseparable during our senior year. Neither of us dated much that year – no, let me be blunter than that; we dated hardly at all, except on big weekends when cadets in Romeo and Tango companies had sisters who required escorts to the Corps Day Hop. But John and I would drive around Charleston on weekend nights, talking about girls and where we might go to pick some of them up. We never found that mythical place.
In Rome, at dinner with the novelist Gore Vidal, I once talked about my friendship with John Warley. Gore was fascinated by military colleges and had liked my book The Lords of Discipline. His father had attended West Point and had been a legendary football player there.
“You do realize, Pat, that Mr. Warley and you were gay.”
“I can’t wait to tell John,” I said.
I missed John and Barbara’s wedding at the National Cathedral in Washington. I believe I was embroiled in a fight with the School Board to get my job back on Daufuskie Island and I did not meet Barbara until after The Water is Wide was published. They were living in the Claremont Apartments within rock-throwing distance from the Culpeper Street house I lived in when Dad was stationed at the Pentagon.
Barbara Warley was a pure knockout, the stuff bad novels are made of. I’d never seen such a pretty girl and I found myself as intimidated as I was dazzled. But she bounced up to me and kissed me on the lips and said, “John’s told me all about you and I bet we’re friends forever.”
So it was and so it would always be. When John went to work the next day, Barbara and I began telling each other the story of our lives. Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of that unhappy tribe who came from troubled and deeply flawed families. Like me, she endured one of those violent fathers who made their kid’s life a march of shame and terror. I had begun the write the first chapters of The Great Santini and told her of my own difficulty in describing a father I had loathed since I was an infant. When I told her I’d always worried that John’s parents did not seem to like me very much, she surprised me by saying that I was John’s parents’ least liked friend among all of John’s acquaintances. With a great laugh, she then admitted that John’s mother and father didn’t seem to like her much better. Barbara thought the Warleys thought John would marry a much higher class girl, “and they certainly want John hanging around with a much higher class guy than you.”
We would be fast friends for over forty years. I’ve had a bad tendency to fall in love with my friends’ wives, but it would seem unnatural not to fall for Barbara Warley. Everyone came under her spell, male and female, and it was a lemon-like soul who could resist her sweetness and vitality. She and John made a great marriage out of it and produced four children for the ages. No one writes much about the joy other people’s children bring to your life, but Caldwell, Nelson, Mary Beth and Carter have delighted me each time our paths have crossed. Mary Beth was a Korean orphan adopted by John and Barbara who provided some kind of ripeness and deepening of the whole family. John was a successful lawyer in Newport News, VA and a local player in Republican politics. Then he and Barbara announced that John was selling his law firm and moving to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. John also told me he planned to become a novelist.
This was akin to me calling John Warley to tell him I was becoming an astronaut. But Mexico was their destiny as a family and San Miguel changed everything about them and became the most romantic adventure of their lives.
Hey, out there.
I’ve returned to Beaufort after my long tour for The Death of Santini and the town has never seemed more welcoming or restful to me. Though I feel hollowed out and exhausted by the whirlwind nature of an American book tour, I’m smart enough to know that it’s still a grand way for any writer to connect to those readers he has picked up along the way. If any writer in this country has collected as fine and passionate a group of readers as I have, they’re fortunate and lucky beyond anyone’s imagination. It remains a shock to me that I’ve had a successful writing career. Not someone like me; Lord, there were too many forces working against me, too many dark currents pushing against me, but it somehow worked. Though I wish I’d written a lot more, been bolder with my talent, more forgiving of my weaknesses, I’ve managed to draw a
magic audience into my circle. They come to my signings to tell me stories, their stories. The ones that have hurt them and made their nights long and their lives harder.
Citadel graduates show up everywhere, and, of course, I took off on this tour in October, forgetting my Citadel ring on the untidy desk where I left it. “Where’s your ring?” The question always comes. My explanation always sounds hollow, but they bring their wives, children and grandchildren to meet me. The Marines and their families show up and military brats by the score. Teachers come by the dozens from Minneapolis to Miami.
Ah, yes, the teachers of America. When I meet them I always say, “God’s work, but not God’s pay.” I enrolled myself in their ranks when I wrote my book The Water is Wide, and they have never issued me my walking papers.
“Why do we hate our teachers in this country?” I ask them, and not one of them disagrees with me from Santa Fe to Charleston, from New Orleans to Philadelphia.
“I don’t know why. But I agree with you,” the teachers say in an almost unanimous voice.
The teachers of my life saved my life and sent me out prepared for whatever life I was meant to lead. Like everyone else, I had some bad ones and mediocre ones, but I never had one that I thought was holding me back because of idleness or thoughtlessness. They spent their lives with the likes of me and I felt safe during the time they spent with me. The best of them made me want to be just like them. I wanted young kids to look at me the way I looked at the teachers who loved me. Loving them was not difficult for a boy like me. They lit a path for me and one that I followed with joy.
Teaching is an art form, pure and simple. I’ll trust a teacher over a bureaucrat every single time – a teacher over an administrator. Education by test scores seems like the worst thing that’s ever happened to American education, by far. I met ten high school English teachers on my trip whom I’d have loved to have teach me. To my surprise, my novel The Lords of Discipline is taught in more high school English classes than any of my others. I thought the language of the barracks and the nasty racism of the Corps would prevent that book from ever being taught in an American classroom. I met a whole cadre of teachers in Kansas City, Missouri who had taught The Lords of Discipline for years. When I asked the head of the Department at a large public high school how his teachers navigate through parents and school boards offended by the book, he told me it had been a challenge, indeed. His teachers let their students make the case with the school board, and the passion of those students had carried the day each time the subject had come up. I fell in love with the English teachers of Kansas City and that is a bond that’ll never be broken.
Yet the unhappiness of teachers was a constant theme and they suffer from the lack of respect and honor due them for their choice to spend their lives teaching the children that are sent to them. The testing of American children all began with well-meaningness and high-mindedness. “No Child Left Behind” is a phrase of enormous beauty, yet it has caused more suffering among teachers than the pitiful wages we pay them. Whether it’s a Republican or Democratic administration doesn’t seem to make a scintilla of difference. The theories that are born in Washington D.C. and in the Ivy League are ascendant throughout the land, and as far as I can tell and as well as I can listen, they’ve had a chilling effect on most of the classrooms in our land. A nation of unhappy teachers makes for a sadder and more endangered America.
Before my beloved English teacher Gene Norris died, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the South Carolina Council of the Teachers of English. The year before, Gene had received the first Margaret Roberts Award given by the Thomas Wolfe Society to honor the extraordinary woman who had taught high school English to the great novelist. It was a good year for Gene, even though he was suffering greatly from the leukemia that would kill him. We drove to Greenville together on one of our last road trips. The chemo had made Gene grouchy and dyspeptic when he said to me, “I don’t want you to go on and on about me. The way you usually do. You always exaggerate my influence on you. I’m so tired of you gilding the lily. I told them I don’t want this award and I certainly don’t deserve it.”
“Then why am I wasting my valuable time driving you to Greenville?” I asked.
“Because it’s good for teachers, Carpetbagger. It’s good for all teachers – everywhere. They don’t get much,” he said, and he was grinning. “But I’m going to walk out of there if you do your usual bullshit about me.”
“I’ll say anything I want. I’m an American. I’ve got rights.”
Gene was magnificent when he received the award and I was not the only one who saw him cry that day. Afterwards, we were together when two bright and hilarious teachers stood up later in the program.
The first said, “No child left behind.”
“Every child left behind,” the second said.
“No school left behind,” the first said.
“Every school left behind,” the second said.
“No teacher left behind?” asked the first.
“Every damn teacher left behind.”
Gene and I joined in the standing ovation for these two singular women. On the way home, Gene was reflective and still deeply moved by the ceremony.
“I’ve had an amazing life, Pat. I wouldn’t change a thing. Except this: They used to trust teachers with the kids they sent us. It’s all different now and oh so wrong.”
So the teachers came to my signings as they always do. Some were veterans of the inner city schools and their voices filled up with urgency and despair. Some were in danger of being fired because of the low test scores of the students at their schools. When I asked a white woman in Philadelphia if she ever thought about transferring to a suburban school, she bristled at me. “Why I would I do that? My kids need me. I’m in love with them. Who’d fight for them if it weren’t for teachers like me?”
Teaching remains a heroic act to me and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.
₪ ₪ ₪
The word “blog” is the ugliest word in the English language to me. But I’ve written in journals in a haphazard fashion since I was a young writer. The journal I keep now is the material that makes up my own “blog” – though I’ve no idea what a blog is supposed to do or what it is supposed to consist of. Why it appeals to anyone is mysterious to me. But I use it as a way to sneak back into my own writing without being noticed. A new novel awaits my arrival, prepares for my careful inspection. Yet a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out. When I found myself in new cities or strange airports on this trip, I could feel it stirring around on the outer rings of consciousness. I could feel it begin to layer itself. Though it pointed to no real beginnings or endings, I believe I’ve got two long novels and three shorts ones still in me. But my health has to cooperate and I need to pay more attention to my health. It is not long life I wish for – it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age. Because I’ve gotten older, I worry that there will be a steep decline in my talent, but promise not to let the same thing happen to my passion for writing.
My career still strikes me as miraculous. That a boy raised on Marine bases in the South, taught by Roman Catholic nuns in backwater southern towns who loathed Catholics, and completed with an immersion into The Citadel – the whole story sounds fabricated, impossible even to me. Maybe especially to me.
Throughout my career I’ve lived in constant fear that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I’d have nothing to say, that I’d be laughed at, humiliated – and I’m old enough to know that fear will follow me to the very last word I’ll ever write.
As for now, I feel the first itch of the novel I’m supposed to write – the grain of sand that irritates the soft tissues of the oyster. The beginning of the world as I don’t quite know it. But I trust I’ll begin to know it soon.
Hey, out there…
When I was in New York two weeks ago, I received word that my Citadel classmate Ted Bridis had died. The news of his death shocked me on several levels. While we were at The Citadel, Ted and I were both “jocks,” a despised underworld in the Corps of Cadets at that time and it may still be going on at a lower level in that rough world. Ted played football and ran track and had one of those lean, elegant bodies that trackmen wear with such ease. In memory, he was a wide receiver on the football team, but I could be wrong about that. We were mess hall friends and we’d stop to talk every time we saw each other on campus. The Citadel was a small college and remains so and I will always think these small places are richer in intimacy and shared experience than the University.
After we graduated, I began my life as a draft dodger and anti-war activist while my entire class walked off that stage and stepped directly into the Vietnam War. When I talk to Ivy Leaguers or war resisters of that era, I always tell them that Vietnam was not theoretical to me, but deeply and agonizingly painful. Eight of my Citadel classmates died in that war and three of them – Bruce Welge, Fred Carter and Dick O’Keefe – were boys that I loved and whose friendship I cherished. Two of the managers of my basketball team died there and my teammate, Al Krobuth, was a prisoner of war in one of those soul-degrading camps where our captured airmen were tortured and debased on a daily basis. I played high school baseball with Jimmy Melvin, who died on a patrol in Vietnam, and attended the funerals of Marines whose children I taught at Beaufort High School. My father served two tours of duty in Vietnam and I adopted and raised two daughters whose father, Capt. J.W. Jones, was killed while flying close air support in defense of his Marines on the ground. I never was good at developing theories against the war because too many slain and wounded faces rise up to argue with me about how I conducted myself during the war. I know all the excuses I used at the time, but I find myself wordless when I visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
But Ted Bridis represented something about Vietnam that was agonizing to me. I had lost all contact with Ted until I was walking up to my tenth Citadel reunion with Saundra Hardin and I heard a voice calling to me at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the Hibernian Hall. I’d not be invited back to a reunion for twenty-five years because the appearance of The Lords of Discipline was on the horizon. But on that night,
I heard a familiar voice call, “Hey, Pat, could you lend me a hand?”
I turned around and saw Ted Bridis for the first time since graduation. He was holding up his wheelchair in one strong arm and asked if I’d carry it to the top steps of the Hibernian for him. In Vietnam, he had stepped on a landmine and lost both legs and an arm. The moment shocked me because I had not heard of the severity of his injuries.
“Sure, Ted. Be happy to,” I said, leaning down and giving him a hug.
Then I watched as Ted Bridis crawled and struggled up those stairs, refusing the help of any of his classmates who ran to his aid.
That night I learned that he’d come close to dying on the battlefield, but was saved by the swiftness and courage of a helicopter pilot, then airlifted to the surgeons who managed to save his life. At first he seemed a deformed shell of his former self, but as we spoke that night, I realized his wounds had enhanced his manhood and his own sense of himself.
He had married a woman who was equal to his valor and her dedication in watching over him moved me at that last dance I attended as a Citadel graduate. From my classmates, I learned that Ted had lost his Citadel ring when his arm was blown off in Vietnam. My class had collected money and presented him with a new Citadel ring, but I did not get word and failed to contribute a single dime. Ted Bridis began his long term as symbol of the Class of ’67 – the kind of man The Citadel could produce at its best.
Our friendship was never close, and that grieves me at this moment. But he and his wife attended every book signing I ever had in Miami, Florida. He would wait near the end of the line and I’d be furious at him for not just coming to the front to get his books signed before everyone else.
“I like waiting my turn, Pat,” Ted said. “I like to hear what everybody’s saying about your books. I tell them we were classmates at The Citadel.
Hey, Out There…
It is a day before my 68th birthday and I ready myself for life on the road that I’m too edgy and tired-blooded to do as I did with pleasure in my misspent youth. When I was in New York, I taped an interview with Charlie Gibson for Good Morning America. Charlie has always struck me as a man of exceptional qualities. Because he is a creature of television, I fell in love with his looks and spirit long before I got to know him. The most difficult thing for a television reporter or anchor to suggest to an audience is authenticity. Charlie’s body language speaks a truth that can’t be faked of polished up or improved with time. It’s a natural gift and Charlie was born to his naturalness and it’s the rarest gift of the famous.
When Beach Music came out in 1995, Charlie and his crew (also delightful) came to my house on Fripp Island in South Carolina.
I have a small addiction to showing off the beauty of the Lowcountry, its white-sand beaches and its green mileage of marshlands, and Charlie’s enthusiasm matches his integrity. When we first met, he told me he thought I’d been influenced by John Irving and I told him about “Garp” thundering into my life and letting me know that I wasn’t being brave enough as a writer. It was a splendid literary appraisal and let me know that Charlie Gibson was a serious and thoughtful reader as well as one of the great students of politics I’d ever met.
New York is a city abloom with secret studios. They exist in buildings without style or architectural merit, but I met Charlie at one of them for a seven in the evening taping. In his elegance, he has become a handsomer older man than he was in his twenties. We embraced when we saw each other and he’s the only anchor I’ve ever hugged on a regular basis. It’s an emotional war between my Citadel and his Princeton, but he’s an affectionate, easygoing guy and I’ve taken advantage of that. At one meeting, he told me that he’d met everyone in the world for five minutes, but then, often never saw them again. He was an aficionado of five-minute friendships. If we’d lived next door to each other I think we’d have been best friends for life. But he was incising his name into the history of American news and I was trying to write those books of mine. The interview moved me. Charlie moved me as he always does. Once, I saw him treat two black high school girls as if they were royalty when they recognized him on a ferryboat in the Savannah River. Not every famous man or woman treats strangers with such open-hearted wonder as Charlie Gibson. His interview with me was superb. Gibsonian. Deep. It airs on Tuesday October 29th.
Hey, out there,
I flew to New York on October 1 for the opening shots of my upcoming tour for The Death of Santini. The book comes out on October 29, when I’ll be running my mouth and signing my books until I’m mercifully released to return to my writing desk to continue the writing life that has become my life. Though I far prefer writing to touring, I’ve always thought it was part of the contract to try with all the resources I can bring to bear to help sell the book and to give my publisher an incentive to publish my next book. Because I’m older now, travel takes a lot out of me, but my mother raised me to be a boy who likes to please and meeting readers has given me pleasure that few writers have ever known. It’s part of the business of being a writer, and I try to approach it with an open spirit and a clear-eyed understanding of how lucky I am to have been to be asked to do it.
After arriving, I was met at the Essex Hotel the following morning by Todd Doughty who has served as my publicist for the last three books.
Over my career I’ve come to revere the work of publicists, and the charming Todd Doughty is exemplary of the breed. Their work is back-breaking and constant and, I believe underappreciated. Very often, they are the best looking people in a publishing house, and I’ve met some great beauties and handsome men in my various swings through their hallways. Editors, in general, are a plainer but cerebral tribe, but even among this group, there are some dazzling exceptions to be found. My own editor, Nan Talese, has always walked the earth as one of those self-contained, well-composed New York beauties you catch glimpses of as you stroll down Fifth Avenue. In matters of goodlookingness, we writers are the ugliest of the bunch and normally our appearance is akin to that of someone investigating a crime scene; though the women in American writing keep producing world class beauty in droves and there are many breathtaking writers among them.
Todd had arranged five interviews that day. The first was with Bob Minzesheimer, the book editor for USA Today, whom I’d met before and liked a lot. He has great style and looks like he could have been friends with Hemingway if they’d known each other in Paris in the 20s. Our interview was cut short when he received a phone call that Tom Clancy had died and he needed to get back to his office to write an appreciation of Tom’s life for the next day’s edition. The next was a radio interview where Teresa Weaver asked questions of Fannie Flagg and me about our new books. I’ve long been enamored of the works of Fannie Flagg; her books have always made me howl with laughter and taught me a great deal about how southern women think. Hell, how all women think.
At lunch, Nan Talese and I had a meal brought in from the Random House cafeteria. Nan and I have been a team for over thirty years now and
I was present the night she received the first Maxwell Perkins award for lifetime achievement in editing. It was a proud night for both of us. I’ve worked with some of the great editors of my times during my career, beginning with Shannon Ravenel, one of the founders of Algonquin Books, who passed me on to Anne Barnett, who passed me to the superb Jonathan Galassi who has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in the history of publishing and whose departure left me in the able hands of Nan Talese. I don’t think that a writer and an editor have ever been so mismatched, yet made it work out in our own ways. In her elegance, I’m always somewhat of an aardvark in her presence. She wears Armani with an unmatchable grace while I wear L.L. Bean only for dress up occasions. Her husband Gay Talese writes a prose so impeccable that I find myself studying it between books. His suits are so perfect that they look woven from pelts of manatees. Together, Nan and Gay look like café society taken to its highest register.
Hey, Out There…
Since I met Cassandra King at the Hoover Library’s Writer Conference and we decided to spend the rest of our lives together, we have written our books on opposite sides of the house. When we got married, I discovered that Sandra had never had a room of her own to write in during her entire adult life; I promised her a room with a view and all the time she needed to do her work and craft her books. She has written five novels since we met and I believe that her new book Moonrise is the best of them. It eases my soul that I share a house with a novelist of such rare and distinctive gifts.
I know it must seem like home cooking for a husband to praise his own wife’s work. But the shadow of divorce court looms over a marriage where the spouses loathe each other’s work. When Sandra hands me a completed chapter or leaves it on my pillow to read, an immense joy fills me because Sandra always hands me a complete world to cast myself adrift in. In The Sunday Wife she changed the English language. I’ve met a hundred women around the south who’ve whispered to me, “I used to be a Sunday Wife,” or “I’m still a Sunday Wife; I’m married to the Bishop.”
Nor can I read the last section of The Same Sweet Girls without breaking down at the end because I’m so touched by those amazing ties of women’s friendship. I envy the tireless intimacy of women’s friendship, its lastingness, and its unbendable strength. Cassandra captures all this as well as any writer producing literature today and I love it that our house is the source of its creation.
I was present at the birth of Moonrise. I took Cassandra to Highlands, North Carolina to visit my dear friend Jim Landon, who owned a lovely mountain home made holy by well-selected books and Asian art. Jim is one of those perfectly charming southern men who dresses with distinction, decorates his home with unerring taste, makes a perfect omelet and is one of the best lawyers in Atlanta. Cassandra fell in love with Jim immediately, as I had done when I met him in 1974. All life has more savor when Jim is around. He introduced us to his cast of immemorial friends, and hosted elegant parties on a deck that overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountains have a clear call for certain people and my wife was a goner for Highlands after that first week. Her novel is the product of her love affair with the high country of the south, its natives and its “summer people.”
Hey, out there,
My basketball teammate John DeBrosse died September 25, 2013 in Dayton, Ohio. He was the shooting guard on the Citadel team I wrote about in my book My Losing Season. It was John’s surprising and unexpected arrival at a book signing for Beach Music that reignited a friendship I’d lost when I graduated. I spotted him wandering through the aisles of books looking as awkward as a wildebeest in the shopping mall where I was signing.
“Hey, DeBrosse, you ever been in a bookstore before?” I asked. “Once, Conroy,” he came back fast, as he always had, “I was lost.”
“You ever read any of my books, DeBrosse?” I said.
“I tried once. They all sucked. Just like their author,” John said. “Hey, Conroy, would you come home and meet my wife and family? They think I make this shit up. They don’t think I know you at all.”
That ride into the Dayton night with John DeBrosse changed the course of my whole life and the arc of my career. We talked about the team we played on together in 1966-67 – that humiliated, beaten down tribe who staggered to an 8-17 record and felt lucky to win eight games. The painfulness of that year lay etched in DeBrosse’s round Ohio face as he described his mortification over a losing season that’d happened thirty years ago.
When he began to discuss the last game we ever played together, he asked me if I remembered a layup that he had missed in the final minute of a tournament game against Richmond. I told him I remembered the moment down to its last painful detail.
“I didn’t miss layups, Conroy“ he said with sudden fierceness. “I never missed a lay up in my life.”
“It didn’t come at a good time, John,” I said, knowing that the missed layup had cost us the game and our chance to meet West Virginia in the semi-finals of the Southern Conference tournament.
At the next red light, John DeBrosse reached across the van and squeezed my wrist hard. “I didn’t miss that layup on purpose, Conroy. I promise I didn’t miss on purpose.”
I laughed and said, “Of course you didn’t, John. You couldn’t even think like that.”
“Our coach did. Mel Thompson thought I missed that shot on purpose because I knew I could get him fired.”
“Hell, I’d have missed the layup if I thought Mel would’ve gotten fired,” I said.
My long conversations with DeBrosse that night led to the writing of My Losing Season. I tracked down all my teammates and my coach and interviewed them about every single aspect of that disheartening year. I listened to grown men cry about their frustrations and failures and resentments of that long ago season. I ended up falling in love with their families and children and could feel that love returned in full measure. In the end, my team came together again because the book turned us into the team we should have been, but never could be. It might be the best book I ever will write. It all began when John DeBrosse walked into a bookstore for the first time in his life.