Beaufort got kicked in the gut Monday.
In a somehow lyrical statement on Facebook, Pat Conroy told us he has pancreatic cancer.
Conroy arrived in Beaufort as a military “dependent,” a rootless, lowly form of teenager dragged into town as the son of a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot.
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Pat Conroy’s tour in Beaufort should have been quicker than the touch-and-go landings cocksure aviators practice behind steely sunglasses out at the air station they call Fightertown.
But Conroy dug in and over the years his words, and the Hollywood movie versions of them, put our watery little dot on the map.
His words showed even the home folks what it is they love about the Lowcountry.
And they introduced us to his father. Col. Donald Conroy was a wild man who called himself the Great Santini. He was so self-confident that when he came home at night he pushed open the door and announced to seven children: “Stand by for a fighter pilot!”
The son also wrote that his father was emotionally and physically abusive to his wife and children.
Maybe that’s why news that Pat Conroy has a vicious version of cancer came flying at us like the tea glass the Great Santini unfairly threw at one of his children.
We knew that side of the fighter pilot because his son turned out to be a fighter writer. He’s a fighter with words, taking on an entrenched system of Southern public education, and even his beloved Citadel.
I heard the rumors about Conroy late last week. Over the weekend, I’d catch myself thinking of his warm personality that I had not expected. I thought of his kindnesses to me; his humor; his sweet wife, Cassandra King; and how he gives so much to his fans and other writers — especially those in the fold of Story River Books, an imprint he is editing for the University of South Carolina Press. I thought of the 70th birthday festival that Beaufort hosted last fall for the kid who liked his hard landing in this sea of pluff mud and eccentrics.
But mostly I thought of the words of respect he used to describe his father at the Great Santini’s funeral.
“Our fathers wiped out aircraft batteries in the Philippines and set Japanese soldiers on fire when they made the mistake of trying to overwhelm our troops on the ground,” Conroy said.
“Your dads ran the barber shops and worked at the post office and delivered the packages on time and sold the cars, while our dads were blowing up fuel depots near Seoul, were providing extraordinarily courageous close air support to the beleaguered Marines at the Chosin Reservoir, and who once turned the Naktong River red with blood of a retreating North Korean battalion.
“We tell of men who made widows of the wives of our nation’s enemies and who made orphans out of all their children.
“You don’t like war or violence? Or napalm? Or rockets? Or cannons or death rained down from the sky?
“Then let’s talk about your fathers, not ours.”
So take note, pancreatic cancer. You are picking on the son of the Great Santini. Stand by for a fighter.