Sunday, January 20, 2008

Conroy's My Losing Season

During part of a long conversation by a fire pit this past Thursday night, a fine cigar in one hand, a glass of The Macallan somewhere near the other, we were joined by my friend's youngest son. The maturity of our own children tends to sneak up on us because we see them every day. It's like our own age--we don't notice ourselves growing older, but look around at a class reunion and you end up praying that you don't look as "mature" as all your classmates. You do. Likewise, my own youngest daughter hasn't been a little girl for quite some time, but I gained a new appreciation for just how much of a young woman she's become through my time spent in conversation with my friend's son, who's very much a young man. The last opportunity I had to visit my friend in his home, this same young man was but a gleam in his father's eye.

At some point, in a bit of conversation that almost certainly left an indelible impression that I was a pontificating ass, I mentioned to the young man that he would never really understand how special his own family was until he was away at college and had heard from others the nature of the families in which they had grown up. I could be wrong of course. Perhaps he knows already that his own family is far nearer the ideal than 90% of his friends' or acquaintances' ever will be. I was speaking, of course, from my own experience with the dawning of that realization and being as guilty as ever of generalizing from it to that of others, blissfully oblivious that the futility of such generalization was the very point I was trying to make. (There is an old saying that, "We teach best what we most need to learn.")

In attempting to illustrate the point, I made reference to the particular case of a young lady who entered with my class at the academy, but who upon leaving, had no home to return to. Tonight, as I was reviewing some old posts and the links within them, I found that I had elaborated upon that very example in a comment to an August 7, 2007, post at The Archer Pelican. While I would normally let the link in that last sentence carry the day and not think of importing, virtually whole hog, both the bulk of my friend Phil's original post and all of my own comment, the topicality of that exchange to Thursday night's conversation prompts me to make an exception.

For the most part, other than noting the sadness inherent in recognizing that My Losing Season is not a work of fiction and also providing a link to Terry Gross's 2003 interview with Pat Conroy, Phil let Conroy's work speak for itself.

Pat Conroy calls home from the Citadel, collect:

"Don't make this a habit, young man. You know this family isn't made of money. How you're first couple of weeks in college going? You having a ball?"

I began weeping and couldn't stop. I'd suffered a mild breakdown of spirit and character as I lost grip on all the words I'd planned to say to my mother. For thirty seconds I sobbed until I could gain control. "Mom, you sent me a torture chamber," I gasped out finally.

"Well, it'll be good for you. It'll make a man out of you."

"It'll make a man like Dad out of me," I snapped back.

"Just how bad is it?" Mom asked. "Give me an example."

"It's worse than Dad--that's how bad it is. I'd much rather be living with Dad than going to this school."

After a long pause, my mother said, "Oh, my God."

Then my father took the phone, and I heard his despised, mocking voice. "It sounds like my little baby boy's having some boo-hoo time with Mommy. If baby boy wants to do some whining he can talk to Daddy-poo."

"I don't like the Citadel, Dad," I said, controlling the quaver in my voice. "I'm thinking about coming home."

I heard my father's laughter, then the hardening of his voice as he asked, "Where's home, son? You no longer have a home." He hung up before I could talk to my brothers or sisters.
And my response to that post made use of the same example that I alluded to on Thursday night, in trying, probably unnecessarily, to heighten my friend's son's awareness of just how exceptional a father he had. Likely enough, he already knows.
My own father's last words to me before I walked across tarmac to climb exterior stairs to a plane at Charlotte International Airport enroute to my induction at the US Air Force Academy were, "If you don't like it there, son, you can always come home." In many ways, that made either staying at or leaving a place for which my affection has steadily diminished since day one a more difficult decision whichever way it went, because it made it all mine. It was my idea to go, my decision to stay. Leaving would have been no disgrace, no great act of defiance. Staying was no vicarious fulfillment of anyone else's dream nor any expected compliance with any family tradition. It was, mostly, inertia.

But, by the time I left, I was keenly aware that not all my classmates were so paternally blessed. One girl I knew (mine was the second class with women) told me in a hallway during finals after our first year that this would be her last semester. I was surprised to learn that she would be staying in Colorado Springs after outprocessing rather than returning to Hawaii. "I can't," she said. "I have nowhere to go. My father told me that if I left the Academy, I had damned well better not come home." Another classmate, I dated years after she had also left that same summer. She was working to put herself through school. "My father told me that if I would just try the Academy for one year, that if I didn't like it, he would pay for my college elsewhere. Well, I didn't like it, but when I left he said, 'If you're going to throw away a free education, surely you don't expect me to pay for one.'"

Free. We used to refer to it as "a two hundred fifty thousand dollar education crammed up your ass a nickel at a time."

Conroy's experience resonates because it is far from unique. What makes people love a writer, is that he or she thinks or feels what the reader feels, but can express it far better.