Column: Mourning for a man I never met

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People die every day in the same way that people are born every day. Mostly, my life is untouched by these events, because the ones who die I never knew, and the newborns I have yet to meet. But every now and then, someone on the distant horizon dies, and my life is microscopically but forever changed.

That’s what happened last week when Pat Conroy died in his hometown of Beaufort, S.C., at the age of 70 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. I never met Conroy, but I read his books. And what he wrote spoke to me. Things in his life reminded me of things in mine. The similarities weren’t great nor were they numerous. But they were profound.

“The Great Santini” drew on being the son of a Marine fighter pilot, a troubled and abusive father who treated his family like a bungling collection of clumsy recruits. While Conroy’s father abused deliberately, mine was hurtful through an inability to understand a son so radically different from him as to be a lifelong mystery.

My dad lived a life of mathematical objectivity. Mine has always been an amalgamation of subjective thought, music and creative images. Dad and I were never able to tune into one another’s frequencies.

Conroy wrote “The Lords of Discipline” about the rigors of student life at the Citadel, South Carolina’s fabled military academy. My wife has a nephew who graduated from the Citadel and who shared many of Conroy’s views.

“The Water is Wide” was a largely autobiographical story based on Conroy’s one-year stint as a teacher in a one-room school house on Danfuskie Island, a remote and isolated lump of land off the coast of South Carolina.

Conroy struggled to break through a nearly impenetrable wall of ignorance and superstition among the children and adults of the island, most of whom were descendants from slaves and who for generations had never been off the island.

His story took me back to a small town on the southern border of Missouri where I found myself in the third grade with illiterate children so poor they came to school barefoot, hungry and in need of medical attention. These tragic children found no common ground with a well-dressed boy from the north who loved to read.

“The Prince of Tides” tells us about a man who struggles to understand his younger sister’s attempted suicide. My burden was a younger brother who was brain-damaged at birth and who had to be institutionalized when he was 12.

In telling his stories, Conroy also told some of mine. In dealing with his past, he helped me deal with mine. I could ask nothing more from a man I never met.


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