Pat Conroy, one of America’s most beloved authors and South Carolinians, died yesterday after a brief illness. He was just 70. During a forty-five year career that produced deeply emotional, resonant novels and films set in Charleston and the Carolina Lowcountry, Pat earned the adulation of millions who found in his poetic descriptions of locale and poignant realizations of heartbreak and catharsis a decidedly non-Post-Modern literature of love. Film audiences will know his work in major motion pictures like “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides,” but before worldwide success found Mr. Conroy, he was a high school teacher in Beaufort SC, his adopted home town. I count myself fortunate to have been his pupil. Some years ago, moved by events in the news and in my own family life, I wrote a letter to Mr. Conroy that, for one reason or another, I never sent. I’m sharing it here.
“April 24, 1995
This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the dramatic, if not actual, end of our generation’s war in Southeast Asia. I suppose that Mr. McNamara’s recent recantation will cause lots of extra bleating when the event is commemorated in the national press and I hope that you will not find in my remarks here even more bleating, because I no longer believe that the excess of courage was on our side—that is to say, the Opposition side. The boys who served deserve our gratitude and better faith from their countrymen. Nevertheless, today is an anniversary of another event in the long opposition to that war that only now seems poignant and I thought I’d share a memory with you of one of the days when some of your former Beaufort High School students stood up and took sides. It was a long time ago now.
I am looking at a picture taken on the day of our great antiwar march through Beaufort—Moratorium Day, April 24, 1971—and I see Bucky Wall and me and a boy named Merrill Baker whose father piloted Harriers and a few others close by the National Cemetery on Boundary Street. We aimed to lay a wreath of mourning and condemnation, and if our high school muscles appear tense, it is because just beyond the photographer’s frame a regular phalanx of Sheriff’s Deputies and Highway Troopers and Military Policemen stands barring the little roadway leading to that quiet place. It is sunny, what you would recognize as a perfect Lowcountry spring day, and there is a slight northerly breeze bringing whiffs of Edisto and Coosaw and fluttering the banners in the slender ranks to our rear. Whatever chanting or raucous chatter our cohort raised during its march up Bay Street has failed now that our hour is at hand, and the policemen—barely more than boys themselves—seem unprepared for our numbers, but resolute. This old photo cannot show it Pat, but in my sweating palms, I know already that we will not test them. Orangeburg is still a fresh memory in those parts, and the hard men in sunglasses among them who stand weighing their truncheons know that they have taken away our initiative.
In a moment, Bucky and I will approach Sheriff Wallace and ask for permission to send a delegation through that narrow gate, where white federal gravestones recede into the shadows like spokes beneath a canopy of moss and palmettos. And in a moment he will agree, but at that precise instant recorded in my photograph, no one knows this and the air is tense with a thousand uglier possibilities. From the safe haven of retrospection, I can tell you that the wreath was placed beneath a flagpole, that one of us mouthed some dry-tongued words about peace and withdrawal, a prayer was read, and then we all dispersed to the Yankee Tavern where these events quickly grew larger in retelling.
But none of this can be seen in the solitary photo I’ve saved from that day and I have now just the image of us marching forward, hands clasped. I suppose that memory is like that: we see the defining moments as buoys in the flood and let the rest just pass astern. In the photograph, I look pretty much as I must have appeared in your high school classes, but if I tilt the picture’s frame just so, I can see a forty-year old man reflected in its glass.
I’m telling you all this now, Pat, because that forty-year old man has a new baby son, a little knucklehead who will probably ask about that picture someday. Sure, I’ll tell him how scary it was and how high-minded we all felt, but if he wonders why those kids in the photo chose the sides they did, I just want you to know that I’m going to blame it all on you. Everything I am is Conroy’s fault, I’ll say. I’ll want him to know that clarity is courage, just as you taught us all those years ago in a sleepy little military town by the sea.
Mr. McNamara may have come to his epiphany too late to spare our generation, but I’m sure it’s because he never had a great teacher.