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When I crossed the Ashley River my senior year in my gray 1959 Chevrolet, I was returning with confidence and even joy. I'm a senior now, I thought, looking to my right and seeing the restrained chaste skyline of Charleston again. The gentleness and purity of that skyline had always pleased me. A fleet of small sailboats struggled toward a buoy in the windless river, trapped like pale months in the clear amber of late afternoon.
Then I looked to my left and saw, upriver, the white battlements and parapets of Carolina Military Institute, as stolid and immovable in reality as in memory. The view to the left no longer caused me to shudder involuntarily as it had the first year. No longer was I returning to the cold, inimical eyes of the cadre. Now the cold eyes were mine and those of my classmates, and I felt only the approaching freedom that would come when I graduated in June. After a long childhood with an unbenign father and four years at the Institute, I was looking forward to that day of release when I would no longer be subject to the fixed, irresistible tenets of martial law, that hour when I would be presented with my discharge papers and could walk without cadences for the first time.
I was returning early with the training cadre in the third week of August. It was 1966, the war in Vietnam was gradually escalating, and Charleston had never looked so beautiful, so untouchable, or so completely mine. Yet there was an oddity about my presence on campus at this early date. I would be the only cadet private in the barracks during that week when the cadre would prepare to train the incoming freshmen. The cadre was composed of the highest-rankingcadet officers and non-coms in the corps of cadets. To them fell the serious responsibility of teaching the freshmen the cheerless rudiments of the fourth-class system during plebe week. The cadre was a diminutive regiment of the elite, chosen for their leadership, their military sharpness, their devotion to duty, their ambition, and their unquestioning, uncomplicated belief in the system.
I had not done well militarily at the Institute. As an embodiment of conscious slovenliness, I had been a private for four consecutive years, and my classmates, demonstrating remarkable powers of discrimination, had consistently placed me near the bottom of my class. I was barely cadet material, and no one, including me, ever considered the possibility of my inclusion on the cadre.
But in my junior year, the cadets of fourth battalion had surprised both me and the Commandant's Department by selecting me as a member of the honor court, a tribunal of twenty-one cadets known for their integrity, sobriety, and honesty. I may not have worn a uniform well, but I was chock full of all that other stuff. It was the grim, excruciating duty of the honor court to judge the guilt or innocence of their peers accused of lying, stealing, cheating, or of tolerating those who did. Those found guilty of an honor violation were drummed out of the Corps in a dark ceremony of expatriation that had a remorseless medieval splendor about it.
Once I had seen my first drumming-out, it removed any temptation I might have had to challenge the laws of the honor code. The members of the court further complicated my life by selecting me as its vice chairman, a singularly indecipherable act that caused me a great deal of consternation, since I did not even understand my election to that cold jury whose specialty was the killing off of a boy's college career. By a process of unnatural selection, I had become one of those who could summon the Corps and that fearful squad of drummers for the ceremony of exile. Since I was vice chairman of the court, the Commandant's Department had ordered me to report two weeks before the arrival of the regular Corps.
In my senior year, irony had once again gained a foothold in my life, and I was a member of the training cadre. Traditionally, the chairman and vice chairman explained the rules and nuances of the honor system to the regiment's newest recruits. Traditionally, the vice chairman had always been a cadet officer, but even at the Institute tradition could not always be served. Both tradition and irony have their own system of circulation, their own sense of mystery and surprise.
I did not mind coming back for cadre. Since my only job was to introduce the freshmen to the pitfalls and intricacies of honor, I was going to provide the freshmen with their link to the family of man. Piety comes easily to me. I planned to make them laugh during the hour they were marched into my presence, to crack a few jokes, tell them about my own plebe year, let them relax, and if any of them wanted to, catch up on the sleep they were missing in the barracks. The residue of that long, sanctioned nightmare was still with me, and I wanted to tell these freshmen truthfully that no matter how much time had elapsed since that first day at the Institute, the one truth the system had taught me was this: A part of me would always be a plebe.
I pulled my car through the Gates of Legrand and waited for the sergeant of the guard to wave me through. He was conferring with the Cadet Officer of the Guard, who looked up and recognized me.
"McLean, you load," Cain Gilbreath said, his eighteen-inch neck protruding from his gray cotton uniform shirt.
"Excuse me, sir," I said, "but aren't you a full-fledged Institute man? My, but you're a handsome, stalwart fellow. My country will always be safe with men such as you."
Cain walked up to my car, put his gloved hand against the car, and said, "There was a rumor you'd been killed in an auto wreck. The whole campus is celebrating. How was your summer, Will?"
"Fine, Cain. How'd you pull guard duty so early?"
"Just lucky. Do you have religious beliefs against washing this car?" he asked, withdrawing his white glove from the hood. "By the way, the Bear's looking for you."
"I think he wants to make you regimental commander. How in the hell would I know? What do you think about the big news?"
"What big news?"
"That's old news, and you know what I think about it."
"Let's have a debate."
"Not now, Cain," I said, "but let's go out for a beer later on in the week."
"I'm a varsity football player," he said with a grin, his blue eyes flashing. "I'm not allowed to drink during the season."
"How about next Thursday?"
"Fine. Good to see you, Will. I've missed trading insults with you." I drove the car through the Gates of Legrand for my fourth and final year. I realized that the Institute was now a part of my identity. I was nine months away from being a native of this land.
Before I unloaded my luggage in the barracks, I took a leisurely ride down the Avenue of Remembrance, which ran past the library, the chapel, and Durrell Hall on the west side of the parade ground. The Avenue was named in honor of the epigram from Ecclesiastes that appeared above the chapel door: "Remember Now Thy Creator in the Days of Thy Youth." When I first saw the unadorned architecture of the Institute, I thought it was unbelievedly ugly. But it had slowly grown on me.
The beauty of the campus, an acquired taste, certainly, lay in its stalwart understatement, its unapologetic capitulation to the supremacy of line over color, to the artistry of repetition, and the lyrics of a scrupulous unsentimental vision. The four barracks and all the main academic buildings on campus faced inward toward the parade ground, a vast luxurious greensward trimmed like the fairway of an exclusive golf course. The perfume of freshly mown grass hung over the campus throughout much of the year. Instruments of war decorated the four corners of the parade ground: a Sherman tank, a Marine landing craft, a Jupiter missile, and an Air Force Sabre jet. Significantly, all of these pretty decorations were obsolete and anachronistic when placed in reverent perpetuity on campus. The campus looked as though a squad of thin, humorless colonels had designed it. At the Institute, there was no ostentation of curve, no vagueness of definition, no blurring of order. There was a perfect, almost heartbreaking, congruence to its furious orthodoxy. To an unromantic eye, the Institute had the look of a Spanish prison or a fortress beleaguered not by an invading force but by the more threatening anarchy of the twentieth century buzzing insensately outside the Gates of Legrand.
It always struck me as odd that the Institute was one of the leading tourist attractions in Charleston. Every Friday afternoon, the two thousand members of the Corps of Cadets would march in a full-dress parade for the edification of both the tourists and the natives. There was always something imponderably beautiful in the anachronism, in the synchronization of the regiment, in the flashing gold passage of the Corps past the reviewing stand in a ceremony that was a direct throwback to the times when Napoleonic troops strutted for their emperor.
Ever since the school had been founded in 1842, after a slave insurrection, the Corps had marched on Fridays in Charleston, except on the Friday following that celebrated moment when cadets from the Institute had opened fire on the Star of the East, a Northern supply ship trying to deliver supplies to the beleaguered garrison at Fort Sumter. Historians credited those cadets with the first shots in the War Between the States. It was the proudest moment in the history of the school, endlessly appreciated and extolled as the definitive existential moment in its past. Patriotism was an alexin of the blood at the Institute, and we, her sons, would march singing and eager into every battle with the name of the Institute on our lips. There was something lyric and terrible in the fey mindlessness of Southern boys, something dreary and exquisite in the barbaric innocence of all things military in the South. The Institute, romantic and bizarre, was the city of Charleston's shrine to Southern masculinity. It was one of the last state-supported military schools in America, and the boys who formed her ranks were the last of a breed. I had always liked the sound of that: McLean, last of a breed.
I pulled my car up to the front of Number Four barracks. In my loafers, Bermuda shorts, and a T-shirt, I savored my last moments out of uniform. I was lifting my luggage out of the trunk when I was frozen into absolute stillness by the roar of a powerful voice behind me.
I had jumped when he let loose with his scream. I always jumped when he yelled at me. He knew it and enjoyed the fact immensely. I did not turn around to face him but merely stood at attention beside my car.
"Good afternoon, Colonel," I said to Colonel Thomas Berrineau, the Commandant of Cadets.
"How did you know it was me, Bubba?" he asked, coming into my field of vision.
"I'd recognize that high-pitched castrato voice anywhere, Colonel. How was your summer, sir?"
"My summer was fine, Bubba. I could relax. You weren't on campus. I didn't have to worry about my niece's virtue or plots against the Institute. Where did you spend your summer, McLean? The Kremlin? Peking? Hanoi?"
"I stayed home knitting mufflers for our boys in Vietnam, Colonel," I said. "It was the least I could do."
"You son of a Bolshevik," he whispered softly as he drew his face nearer to mine. A cigar hung from his pendulous lower lip, and its ash glowed brightly inches away from my right cornea. I had never seen the Bear without a cigar in his mouth. I could more easily have imagined him without a nose or ears. You could often smell his approach before you saw him. Your nose would warn you of the Bear's quiet scrutiny before he unleashed that voice so famous among cadets.
"McLean, I bet you were plotting the overthrow of this country, the assassination of all the members of the Senate and the House, and the imprisonment of all military officers."
"You're absolutely right, Colonel. I was lying. I spent a jolly summer in the Kremlin studying germ warfare with Doctor Zhivago. But one thing you got wrong. I would have nothing to do with the imprisonment of all military officers. I voted to line them all up against the wall and let them have it with Yugoslav-made flame throwers."
"Who would be the first American officer to meet such a fate, lamb?" the Bear asked rhetorically. The cigar ash was on the move toward the eye again.
"Why, the most fierce fighting man in the history of the United States Army, sir. The man with the soul of a lion, the heart of a dinosaur, the brain of a paramecium, and the sexual organs of a Girl Scout. The first to be executed would be you, sir."
"You god-blessed fellow traveler Leninist," he roared, smiling. "I've got one more year to make a man out of you, McLean."
"In June, I'll be a full-fledged alumnus, Colonel. A bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool, legitimate Institute man. How does that make you feel?"
"Ashamed, Bubba. Sick to my stomach. You've got to give me one good shot at getting you kicked out of here. Promise to do something, lamb, anything. We have an international reputation, and you could be the undoing of a hundred years of pride and tradition."
"I'll make the school proud, Colonel," I said, backing away from him slightly. "I'm going to have an operation and have the ring surgically implanted in my nose."
The Bear threw his head back and bellowed out a laugh. He had an extravagant, pulpy nose, stiff, white-thatched hair, sad but cunning brown eyes the color of his cigars, and a great shovel of a mouth with dark uneven teeth that looked as though he could strip-mine a valley or graze in a field of quartz.
"It's good to see you back, Bubba. Good to see you and all the lambs. This place doesn't seem natural when the Corps is gone for the summer. But I need to see you sometime tomorrow and it'll be serious, no pootin' around like we're doing today. Meet me at Henry's down on Market Street at 1200 manana. That's espanol, McLean, and it means the day after today."
"A man at home in many languages, Colonel. You should try English."
"Like you little girls down in the English Department. Tell me the truth, Bubba, is it really true what they say about English majors in the Corps? And this is confidential. I wouldn't breathe a word of it to higher authorities."
From the Paperback edition.
Copyright 2002 by Pat Conroy