What did you do when America was attacked? Part II…The Santini Effect.

Posted: Dec 21, 2006 12:02 AM
What did you do when America was attacked?  Part II…The Santini Effect.

Dean Barnett, via Scott Johnson, has commented on, and linked to an essay by Pat Conroy…an essay that speaks directly to Hugh Hewitt’s question posed above…What did you do when America was attacked? Pat Conroy, an accomplished author…The Water is Wide, The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini, Beach Music, The Prince of Tides…bares his soul in the essay entitled… “An Honest Confession of an American Coward.”… excerpted from his new nonfiction book, “My Losing Season.”

I am a great Pat Conroy fan. I presented my mother with a signed collection of his works a few years back. I was able to pick them up when I was stationed in Beaufort, SC. My mom loves Pat Conroy.

My mom begged me to read The Great Santini, which I finally did immediately after completing OCS. It is a powerful book on ego and matriculation into manhood. It is also, not accidentally, one of the funniest books ever written. Made more so to me because my dad was also a Marine pilot.

While Conroy’s father, Colonel Donald Conroy, a.k.a. “The Great Santini” was immortalized, both reverently and disdainfully, in the novel of the same name, he was not flying solo as a parental example around the Marine bases of the day. Cherry Point, Beaufort, El Toro, Yuma base housing units were all populated with dozens of Santinis. Each the all-mighty master of the household…wise, somewhat aloof, often harsh, and only rarely of human proportion. They were pilots in a combat age. They might die in training the next day. They may die in combat the next year. They were fearless and feared. They were never fully understood by us mere mortals.

My mom loves Pat Conroy, because she sees our family in each of his novels. She doesn’t have to look hard. I remember her squeal when she discovered that we (five Irish Catholic boys, our youngest brother died at two months) shared three of five first names with the Conroy sons. She loved comparing my father, an accomplished pilot with the same set of disciplinary standards, but lacking the humor of Santini, to Colonel Conroy. She says my dad and he flew together, but this is likely an implanted memory of some fictional wishfulness. Yet both “Santinis” produced similar oldest sons.

While my oldest brother would have never have actively protested the Vietnam War, and he dutifully registered for the draft on time, and he stood ready to serve if called; he generally rebelled against all of the constraints that living under a Santini produces. He rebelled against the buzzcuts that were the household standard until high school. He avoided contact with my father to the extreme. He was attuned to my dad’s greatest faults more so than the rest of us. And while rarely in open rebellion with my father…following his footsteps and becoming a Marine would have been his last choice of occupations…right after snake handler.

My brother, like Pat Conroy, was a gifted athlete…a college baseball and basketball player. Possessing, certainly as Pat Conroy did, all of the physical skills it takes to be a superior fighter pilot….agile mind, good eye-hand coordination, ability to adjust in a fluid environment. But they likely never chose the Santini path simply because they had been over Santini-ized. They could never embrace the cold and sometimes brutal aspects of Marine pilot fatherhood. They feared becoming their fathers, and in the end, correctly chose different, and respectable, paths.

My brother wrote long, never mailed letters to me while I was deployed to Operation Desert Storm. These letters, like Conroy’s cathartic essay, are an open expression of a man, who has had to come to grips with his choices. Choices that often leave us questioning ourselves out into the future. Questions that revolve around our courage, our sense of honor, our sense of duty. Questions that sometimes have us calling into question our own manliness, or even our maleness.

We can all be haunted by the stark choices of our days, and we can become self-critical as the consequences of these choices become more clear or magnified by time. I think it is important to keep in context the circumstances surrounding our choices in the perspective of the day…as my brother and Pat Conroy should. There is no way Conroy or my brother could have joined, they were to heavily influenced by forces they would not likely come to grips with or fully understand, before their time had passed.

Men are different, and men are called to different things. As with my brother’s letters, and Conroy’s essay, there are those who do not clearly recognize the gifts this nation has provided, or the value of selfless service to the country. Sometimes it is only when the sacrifices of others is squarely place in front of you…having your younger brother in peril vice yourself, or a teammate endure unimaginable hardships in combat…that you come recognize the full gravity of your choices and their impact on your life.

This was, nonetheless the point of my previous post…if you can live with your choice, then your have made the right choice.

For those like my brother, and Pat Conroy, I am not sure that there was a “choice” on the table. It is entirely possible that their fathers had stripped them of that choice…in which case I would say…forgive your fathers…forgive yourselves. It was likely impossible to move into the shoes of “giants.” There is nothing to question about your roles…your public, and private, introspections clears that up.

And to my father, dead now for 18 years…I forgive you for creating possibly the best fighter pilot that never served, and pushing him in another direction…my brother. I will never forget the one hour simulator ride my brother and I shared in the Hornet dome in El Toro…he was terrific. To my brother…your letters, finally read after my return, are exactly why I would ALWAYS serve in your stead…you deserve it.

Please read Pat Conroy’s eulogy to his dad, Colonel Donald “Santini” Conroy…you will be moved.