Vietnam still haunting me…

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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,

Ted Bridis training...

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.

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A Long Lasting Friendship: Charlie Gibson of Good Morning America

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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.

Charles Gibson and I

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.

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On The Road Again… Airports, Editors, Publicists and my writing life

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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.

Todd Doughty, Nan Talese and Marly Rusoff

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

Nan Talese and me in her office

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.

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A Room Of Her Own… and the birth of Moonrise

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To write about your own wife’s novel should cause shame to any serious writer, but in this case I find that I can do it with pleasure and a strong sense of pride.

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.”

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The man who inspired MY LOSING SEASON left us too soon…

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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.

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The Night the Band Played the Tennessee Waltz

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I was flipping through some old journals of mine.  It has caused me much grief that I’ve never been completely seduced by the craft of journal keeping.  A laziness of soul takes over, and I abandon most of them over the course of a summer.  But I sometimes find that I’ve forgotten something that I’ve been lucky to forget.

On January 11, 2000, an event occurred in the Beaufort Presbyterian Church that took me by surprise.  Once a year, I accompany Mrs. Julia Randel to church, and she always gets the superb choir to sing “Blessed Assurance,” a hymn I fell in love with when her son, Derril, died at   age 34.  Tragically, Mrs. Randel has lost two sons, Derril and Randy.  She is my mother figure in Beaufort, bequeathed to me when her 15-year-old son died in front of me on a baseball field – a transfiguring scene in my boyhood.

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Hitch 22: A great memoir

On December 15th, 2011, Christopher Hitchens died in Houston Texas from pneumonia, a complication of his battle with cancer. Sadly, this review written by Pat Conroy weeks ago, is being placed posthumously today in honor of Hitchens and his contribution to the world of letters.

Hey, out there,

Last night, I finished a splendid memoir written by the irascible and charming Christopher Hitchens.  It is called Hitch 22, and the title reminded me of the time I found myself talking to a fascinating man at the deep end of a swimming pool in New Orleans.  He turned out to be Joseph Heller.  I always get a cheap literary thrill whenever I have these chance encounters on the road.  I first started admiring Mr. Hitchens when he began writing his bristling, fire-eating essays in Vanity Fair.  Over the years he began displaying that rarest of intellectual gifts – the ability and willingness to change his mind and do it in an orderly, well-reasoned way.  He writes with a prose style that has teeth and venom and beauty.  Hitchens is one of those uncommon writers who seems incapable of writing a boring sentence or thinking a banal thought.

There are surprises galore in this feast of a book, which is an intellectual treasure house and a reader’s delight.  He is tender-hearted and clear-eyed in his portraits of his family and friends.  I have always been attracted to male writers who can demonstrate their love and affection for women with ease yet not draw attention to themselves.  In a chapter of admirable clarity, he finally reveals what goes on in those infamous British public schools that have tortured every male writer who ever wrote a novel or memoir about the English path to enlightenment.  He clears up the mysteries of that charged, homoerotic environment and does it in a way that is explanatory and not a bit sensational or exploitative.

Mr. Hitchens writes about the importance of friendships as well as any writer I’ve ever read.  In his chapter on his long friendship with Martin Amis, he creates a masterly portrait that made me want to be friends with both men and regret that I had once had that possibility in my life, but had failed to make the right move in that direction.  Once, a lifetime away, I had been part of the creation of a movie development company, and the first book we bought for our first film was The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis.  I had read the book in galleys and knew a hot shot when I saw one.  Mr. Amis was a young gun fresh out of the box and he wrote with verve, precision and cunning.  I could have met him, and Hitch 22 made me think not doing so was one of the great errors of my life.  The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.

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The Boo’s Lambs Gather in Charleston

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My classmates in Romeo Company at The Citadel are beginning to stir and gather.  As the country paused to remember the firing on Fort Sumter, it made me remember that I went to the college whose cadets fired the first shots in the Civil War and that two of my classmates in R company were named for southern Generals – Stonewall Jackson Watson and Wade Hampton Williford III. 

I spoke at The Citadel library at an event honoring the publication of my friend John Warley’s new novel called Bethesda’s Child.  John and I roomed together on The Citadel baseball team and have been lifelong friends ever since those faraway days.  I wrote a thirteen-page introduction to his book, and it reminded me of our times on that wonderful team with road trips through the south which still remain legendary to me and John.  He and I are going to be doing a talk together next year at the Savannah Book Festival.  John and his wife, Barbara, are our neighbors now that Cassandra and I have moved into Beaufort.  We have lunch on a weekly basis to reminisce about our time at The Citadel together.

After the talk at The Citadel, John and I went out to a restaurant bar on Queen Street with three of my classmates from Romeo Company.  Unfortunately, John Warley was a slovenly uncouth member of Tango Company, the tallest company at the college, but also the dumbest and least military.  My “R” Company guys griped all evening that I had loused up the experience by bringing along a “waste from Tango,” but John is silver-tongued and quick, and he more than held his own.  The horror of all Citadel wives is to put up with their husbands telling Citadel stories with their classmates that they’ve heard a thousand times before.  I admit, there is some repetition at play.

I’d never met Robbie Schear’s wife before, though I knew of her when they dated at The Citadel.   Nancy Miller was selected “Miss Citadel” for our senior year and remains a stunning woman today.  Stonewall Jackson Watson brought his delightful daughter, Meg, who has a lot better personality than her father ever did.

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My Blogging Life

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I’ve published two books since I first wrote a letter of introduction to my newly-hatched website.  For me, this is a starting out-point caused mostly by the passage of time and the possibility of my sudden or protracted death.  Now, I’m halfway through a new book I’m calling The Death of Santini in which I tell of my father’s miraculous turn-around after he retired from the Marine Corps.  He loathed my depiction of him in The Great Santini, and he set out to prove me wrong by turning himself into something that was recognizably human.  It’s the great surprise of my life that I ended up loving him so much.  My brothers and sister, Kathy, are unloading their stories about Mom and Dad to me, and we all suffered in the house of Santini.  My siblings do not all share my exalted affection for our mother, and I have not been shy about sharing their dissent.  This causes me pain, but I’ve been writing about these two mismatched people for my whole life, so I need to get to some kind of conclusion about them, one that feels like the truth at last.

My sister, Carol Ann, remains a stranger to my life.  I only see her at weddings and funerals – all of which she turns into personal nightmares for me– as you will one day read about.  My sisters-in-law are so hysterical at the thought of reading about themselves and their poor, traumatized husbands that they have been treating me with far more kindness and respect than they could ever muster in the past.  I tell them that they have nothing to worry about, but they know that I’ve lied before.  (That’s a joke, girls.)

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