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CHAPTER 1 •
On June 4, 1963, I walked off the graduation stage of Beaufort High School without a single clue about where I was attending college next year or if I’d be attending one at all. My parents had driven me mad over this subject and neither would discuss it with me further. I had planned to get a job at the tomato-packing shed on St. Helena Island to earn some money if my parents somehow managed to enroll me in a college. But my father received orders to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, for the following year. I didn’t want to leave Beaufort, and I sure as hell didn’t want to move to Nebraska, a place where I didn’t know another human being. I wanted to go to college.
My father had the car packed and ready when I turned my graduation robe in to my teacher Dutchen Hardin, hugged my other favorite Beaufort High teachers and classmates, then fled in tears toward my life in Nebraska. Before I entered the car, I composed myself, dried my eyes, and got in the shotgun seat. The motor was running and Dad threw me a map, saying, “You’re the navigator, pal. Any mistakes and I whack you.” Before a single graduation party had begun, we were already crossing the Savannah River into Georgia. Our journey took us on back roads and through scores of towns that we hurtled by in their sleep. It was the age before interstate highways were common, so most of our trip would take us through the rural South and the farmlands of the Midwest. To my shock, Dad planned to make it a straight-through shot to Chicago, pausing only for pit stops and gas.
“Dad, you sure you want to do this?” I asked.
“Hey, jocko, you a detective?”
“That’s a lot of driving. It might be too much for you.”
“That’s why you’re on guard duty, pal,” he said. “I start nodding off, you rap me on the shoulder to keep me awake.”
During the twenty-four-hour drive, my father fell asleep three times, and I knocked his right shoulder, hard, three delicious times. Once in Indiana, he had failed to follow the curve of the highway and drove the station wagon over a cow guard and into a field heavily populated with Black Angus cattle. When I punched his shoulder, he woke suddenly, dodging fifty cows on his way back to the highway.
“You’d get a court-martial for that one, navigator,” he said.
“I kept all of us alive, Dad. This is getting dangerous.”
We arrived at Uncle Willie’s house on Hamlin Drive, where my mother had flown to the day before with her two youngest sons. Willie lived in a Polish neighborhood that looked like an elaborate card trick to me. The houses going up and down the street from Willie’s were exact duplicates of one another as far as the eye could see. Variation was forbidden, and this neighborhood stretched for miles in all directions. You could sleepwalk out of Willie’s house at night and find yourself lost as you tried to find your way back through a labyrinth that seemed to run on forever. It was an ugly house, as charmless as a Rubik’s cube.
The Conroy kids were sent to the basement, where Uncle Willie had put pillows on the carpet and mattresses all around so we could camp out during our two weeks there. It turned out to be a deadly long visit, with tension breaking out unintentionally between my mother and grandmother, who lived nearby. Grandma Conroy was a harsh-voiced, unstylish woman who could have played a walk‑on shrew in some of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies. I never saw her wear makeup or try to prettify herself, and her dresses all looked like she had bought them from castaway bins at the Salvation Army. To her Southern grandchildren, she seemed to be yelling at us all the time.
“Don’t do that. Get out of the way. Go back to the basement,” she would say to us. It became a joke to my brothers and sisters that Grandpa and Grandma Conroy had no idea what our names were and little curiosity in remedying this lack of knowledge. My father and his brothers played pinochle every day, then went out to catch a Cubs or White Sox game in the evening. My mother was left behind with her seven kids. Since she was terrified of getting lost in Chicago traffic, she could not use the car. When she asked my father to take her and the kids to the art museum, he refused. A fearsome argument broke out and I could feel Mom’s fury rising as each day passed. Dad’s neglect of Mom and her kids and his abandonment of his family by night and day were not sitting well with our pretty mother. The claustrophobia alive in that sad household was turning into a troubled, living thing.
It was Uncle Willie who set off the fuse. I had always liked my uncle Willie, because he was a schoolteacher and had no problem being around kids. He was the smallest of his brothers by far and looked like half a Conroy man as he stood in the middle of his platoon of tall brothers. His nose had been broken so many times in street fights that it gave him the appearance of a harmless bulldog. He was a droll man with a great sense of humor and we’d become golfing buddies on his visits to Beaufort. But Willie had a deep fear of my father that I could sense whenever Dad turned prickly. In his own house, Willie ignored my presence and barely spoke to me. When I offered to go golfing with him, he shrugged his shoulders and said he’d think about it. Three days later he took Dad golfing with some high school buddies of my father’s, but didn’t ask me to come. I never thought the same about Uncle Willie again.
But Willie did ask the combustible question that I think helped to get me into college. I was lingering after dinner as my grandfather and uncle were arguing about Chicago politics. Carol Ann had already joined the kids watching television in what she called “Dante’s Inferno” in the basement. There was much talk about Mayor Richard Daley and the efficiency of his machine. My grandfather was a block captain for Mayor Daley and told a story of a man on his block who balked about promising to vote for the mayor in the next election. “He called Mayor Daley a corrupt Irish son of a bitch,” my grandfather said, laughing at the memory. Grandpa Conroy reported it to the mayor’s people and the man received no garbage pickup for three straight weeks. After his neighbors complained about the stench of his garbage overflow, the poor man appeared on the doorstep to beg for my grandfather’s intercession with the mayor. He even added a small contribution of twenty-five dollars for the mayor’s reelection campaign. His garbage was collected the following day, compliments of Mayor Daley.
“What a great story, Grandpa,” I said. “Dad used to tell us about the great Daley machine, but I never knew how it worked.”
“Are you interested in politics, Pat?” my grandfather asked. I was grateful he knew my name.
“Yes, sir, I sure am. I’m interested in everything,” I replied.
Uncle Willie asked the question that ignited my parents’ unspoken rage at each other yet again. “Where are you going to college, Pat?”
“That’s a really good question, Willie. Where is Pat going to college next year?” Mom said in a voice that was pure acid.
“Shut up, Willie,” my father growled. “It’s none of your beeswax.”
“None of my beeswax?” Willie echoed, not interpreting the signal flares of war lighting up my father’s eyes. “Hell, college starts in two months’ time, Don. If he’s not enrolled in college now, he’s not going.”
“Drop it, Willie,” my father warned again, but now my mother was in the middle of it.
“Pat hasn’t even applied to college because the great wise one over there hasn’t allowed him to do so,” she said.
“Is your kid a dope, Don?” Willie said, studying me for signs of imbecility. “You can still get him into trade school.”
“Shut your yap, Willie, or I’ll shut it for you,” Dad said.
“Shut my yap about what, Don?” Willie yelled back. “I teach school for a living. Pat should’ve been applying to colleges last fall. Our parents didn’t have shit, and they sent all nine of their kids to college. Don’t those Southern idiots have college counselors in their shitty schools?”
“We’ve got college counselors, Uncle Willie,” I said.
“You shut the fuck up and get downstairs with the kids where you belong, asshole,” Dad said to me.
“Let me know how the college search goes, Mom,” I said.
“I told you to shut up,” Dad said, then slapped me as I walked by.
“I will, Pat. That’s a promise,” Mom said. Dad slapped her in her face as my grandfather watched in wordless silence.
That night a fight between my parents rocked through the whole house. Five of us kids were watching TV in the basement when the screaming commenced. I went over and turned the TV off, then turned the lights out and said, “If Dad comes down here, pretend you’re asleep. Otherwise, he’ll start hitting.”
The shouting ended thirty minutes after it began; then the door opened at the top of the stairs and Dad turned on the lights and came halfway down the stairs. When he satisfied himself that we were all asleep, he shut the door noiselessly, so as not to wake us up. The next day, we left Chicago for Iowa as the end of my boyhood moved insanely on.
Dad drove his family to the blue-collar town of Clinton, Iowa, where another of his brothers, Fr. Jim Conroy, served as chaplain in the local Catholic hospital. Uncle Jim was a gregarious pink-faced man who grew temperamental when he was tired and was rumored to pick fights with every bishop he served under during his embattled career as a priest. He became famous for saying the fastest mass in the Midwest, and Catholics flocked to his services when he took over Holy Family parish in Davenport at the end of his career. In my lifetime of listening to lusterless sermons by Catholic priests, I knew Uncle Jim was famous for being the worst public speaker in the Iowa diocese. I never trusted him after he’d slapped me around for a nightmarish six weeks when I went on a fishing trip with him to Minnesota, and I made sure that none of my brothers went anywhere near him.
But I rode with Uncle Jim from his hospital to his home on the Mississippi River that would be the Conroy family home until our quarters were ready for us to move into at Offutt Air Force Base. Uncle Jim confessed to me that his brother Willie had called and begged him to get those seven kids out of his house.
“You guys really got on Grandpa and Grandma Conroy’s nerves,” Father Jim said. “They were driving Willie crazy complaining about the mess you were making.”
Uncle Jim drove across the Mississippi and turned north on a country road that paralleled the river, carrying us through beautiful Illinois farm country. We rode for twenty miles before he turned off to a dirt road, passed several farms, then pulled into the driveway of an insubstantial shack that looked both isolated and forlorn. The house sat on a hill above a tributary of the great river completely clogged with lily pads. You could fish all day and not get your hook wet.
When my mother toured the house, she erupted into another argument with Dad. “This is just great, Don. You’re going to leave your wife and seven kids in this run-down dump with three beds, one toilet, no air-conditioning, no car, no stove, in the middle of goddamn nowhere. Real good thinking, Don. Great planning,” she said, unhinged and wrathful. “There is no TV set, no radio, not a toy for the little kids to play with, not a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread or a jar of peanut butter. Jim, what were you thinking, having us here?”
“Not much, Peggy,” Uncle Jim said. “I’ve never had a family. I just didn’t think it through.”
Dad said, “Okay, kids. Attention to orders. Start getting this place polished up. There’ll be a formal inspection at fifteen hundred hours.”
Of all the disconsolate summers the Conroy family spent following our Marine from base to base, everyone agrees that our summer on the Mississippi River was the most soul-killing of all. We sweltered in a summer heat that was brutal, and the house was so small and inadequate for our tribe that we stumbled over one another and got in each other’s way from morning till night. In the mornings, we woke with nothing to do, and went to sleep because there was nothing to do at night, either.
Uncle Jim was solicitous and as helpful as he could be and provided our only lifeline to civilization and to groceries. Several times a week he would take us all for a swim at a public lake in a nearby town. It was the summer I thought my mother’s mental health began to deteriorate, and I think my sister Carol Ann suffered a mental breakdown caused by that ceaseless drumbeat of days. Carol Ann would turn her face to the wall and weep piteously all day long. Mom appeared sick and exhausted and slept long periods during the day, ignoring the many needs of my younger siblings. The days were interminable and Mom grew more weakened and distressed than I had ever seen her. I asked what was wrong and how I could help.
“Everything!” she would scream. “Everything. Take your pick. Make my kids disappear. Make Don vanish into thin air. Leave me alone.”
In July I got a brief respite when I took a Trailways bus on a two-day trip to Columbia, South Carolina, to play in the North-South all-star game. I’d not touched a basketball since February, was out of shape, and played a lackluster game when I needed to have a superlative one. After the game, Coach Hank Witt, an assistant football coach at The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, came up to tell me that I had just become part of The Citadel family, and he wished to welcome me. Coach Witt handed me a Citadel sweatshirt and I delivered him a full, sweaty body hug that he extricated himself from with some difficulty. In my enthusiasm, I was practically jumping out of my socks. By then, I’d given up hope of going to any college that fall and had thought about entering the Marine Corps as a recruit at Parris Island because all other avenues had been closed off to me. My father never told me nor my mother that he had filled out an application for me to attend The Citadel. I danced my way back into the locker room below the university field house and practically did a soft-shoe as I soaped myself down in the shower. In my mind I’d struggled over the final obstacles, and there were scores of books and hundreds of papers written into my future. Because I’d been accepted at The Citadel, I could feel the launching of all the books inside me like artillery placements I’d camouflaged in the hills. The possibilities seemed limitless as I dressed in the afterglow of that message. In my imagination, getting a college degree was as lucky as a miner stumbling across the Comstock Lode, except that it could never be taken away from me or given to someone else. I could walk down the streets for the rest of my life, hearing people say, “That boy went to college.” And then it dawned on me that the military college of South Carolina did not preen about being a crucible for novelists or poets. Hell, I thought in both bravado and innocence, I’ll make it safe for both.