How Pat Conroy and I became lifelong best friends

Before the Citadel, before his career as an acclaimed author, Pat was the new kid at my South Carolina high school

Published September 29, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Author Pat Conroy attends a benefit reading for actor Frank Muller at Town Hall February 2, 2002 in New York City (Jeffrey Vock/Getty Images)
Author Pat Conroy attends a benefit reading for actor Frank Muller at Town Hall February 2, 2002 in New York City (Jeffrey Vock/Getty Images)

Excerpted with permission from "Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship" by Bernie Schein. Copyright 2019 by Arcade Publishing, and imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Pat Conroy, even as a child, long before he became a world-renowned writer and public figure, was either blessed or cursed, depending on how you looked at it, with a greater-than-life, love-your-ass, break-your-balls personality. As he himself so cheerfully noted, it was “fabulous.” It was.

He was unremittingly open-hearted and hospitable, especially when he didn’t mean it. Of all the actors—Jon Voight, Michael O’Keefe, David Keith, Nick Nolte—who ended up playing his character in the movies based on his novels, none had his charisma, his outsize capacity for joy, for love, for hatred, for tragedy, to say nothing of his sense of humor. His personality was simply too much for them to grab hold of and contain, to internalize, to take on, even though they were just pretending, as he often did, which no doubt complicated their understanding of him even more. Throw in his false modesty and sanctimony, his Irish mischief, and his warrior-like mentality, and the cup really overfloweth.

No matter how much he tried to deflect attention elsewhere, it managed to open Pat’s front door, invite itself in, grab a chair, and make itself at home. Why? Paradoxically, because Pat invited it in, people he’d barely met, some whom he’d never met, considered themselves his intimate. Pat loved people even more than he hated them, which meant he could see into your heart and soul like no other, expanding both your world and his, inspiring you to heights you might never have other­wise imagined—unless, of course, his world got in the way of yours.

Long before he became a celebrated writer and public figure, as far back as our teenage years in Beaufort, South Carolina, he was the type of person you heard about, were curious about, before you actually met him. He was famous, wherever he was, before he was famous all over the world.

Then when you actually did meet him, he was so gregarious that he made you feel as if you were that person, that, hell, he’d heard all about you. Even if he had.

Like most people, both before and after he became famous, I too heard about Pat before I met him, in study hall in Beaufort High School, where in the fall of 1961 I was the self-appointed teacher of a small group of my classmates at a privileged, secluded table For Seniors Only in a remote corner of the cafetorium. Our small, discreet group gathered at that particular table because it was strategically out of ­earshot of the study hall monitor. Senior privilege, Beaufort High’s public recognition of our growth and maturity during our school years, afforded us our table’s status and preferred location. The title of the course I taught: How to Successfully Cheat without Guilt and Remorse.

The purpose: graduation, namely mine.

Though I am a Jew, I was famously dumb, and my mother was all over my ass about my grades. And since a few of my classmates were beginning to express moral scruples about The Easiest Way to Get Ahead, I took it upon myself to absolve them of that unnecessary baggage.

School sucked, but I did need to graduate and get into college. So copying test papers and homework, and plagiarizing research papers, despite my lifelong friends’ and classmates’ misgivings, were becoming more and more a priority.

What they did for me was get me a diploma and therefore into college, for which I am forever grateful. Years later, when I went to graduate school at Harvard, they took full credit. “Without us, you would never have gotten out of high school,” they said, and it was true.

As their self-appointed instructor, that course in study hall was my first foray into teaching, which eventually would blossom into a lifelong career and, early on, get Pat and me out of the draft.

But that was years later. When I first met Pat, he was new to Beaufort and Beaufort High, his dad, Colonel Don Conroy, having been transferred to the United States Marine Corps base at Parris Island, Beaufort’s local military base. Beaufort, my home town, then redneck rather than resort, was as unknown to the world as Colonel Conroy’s eventual nom de roman, the Great Santini.

As I say, I heard of Pat long before I met him. Two really pretty girls, Gretchen Maas and Kathleen Kennedy, who sat at our For Seniors Only table, were themselves military brats and couldn’t shut up about him. Pat Conroy this . . . Pat Conroy that. “Oh, he’s so funny . . . Oh, he’s so cute, so nice and friendly.” And he wasn’t even a senior! Just some snot-nosed junior wannabee.

This was a guy to be reckoned with, I thought, as I copied Billy Canaday’s math homework.

Boy, were they pretty.

The first actual contact between Pat and me was when the basketball came my way in one of those pickup games in the gym involving what seemed like a thousand players on each team. Talk about threading the needle. The ball floated toward me through a byzantine maze of players—I didn’t even know at the time who had passed it. I’d been jogging lazily toward the basket, hoping maybe for a loose ball or an easy rebound bouncing my way, and there the ball was, floating softly into my open palms and, at the cost not even of a dribble rising upward, glancing off the backboard into the basket.

A soft pass, intended to lead me toward the pot of gold, the hoop. No unnecessary spin, easily handed, clean, thrown not only with stealth but with astonishing foresight, especially for a madhouse pickup game.

The guy who’d passed it, who would become the greatest basketball player ever to graduate from Beaufort High, an all-state player and Citadel point guard known for having eyes in the back of his head, introduced himself to me that afternoon. His gregarious smile, his bright blue Irish eyes, his body so hard and taut that when he drove to the basket, he drove undeterred, opponents just bouncing off him.

“Pat Conroy,” he said, offering his hand. “You’ve got a great shot. I was watching you.”

He was a military brat. I knew that. They were more worldly than locals like me, having lived all over the place. They were more cosmopolitan, knew geography and how to get around. On senior trips, they knew how to take the subway in New York. They almost always made good grades, which was the only thing I didn’t much like about them. How anyone could truly enjoy school was an enigma to me.

Since Beaufort was a military town, it was economically dependent on the military, giving military brats like Pat somewhat of an honored position, even though he, like most of them, talked like a Yankee.

“Gretchen and Kathleen talk about you all the time,” he told me. “They can’t get enough of you. They think you’re hilarious.”

I must have been pretty easy, because that’s all it took, though when he found out about my cheating course he hated it. What did he know? He was only a junior.

Geez, man. He was lucky I was even deigning to speak to him, particularly with people watching.

He was as bored with school as I was but just too eager to please, too Dudley Do-Right to admit it. We both loved to read, though, and we both loved sports, and popular though we were, we were nevertheless different from our friends and classmates in that he attended Mass and I attended synagogue.

More important than any of that was the fact that, unlike the Gentile boys in town, we couldn’t do anything. Like me, and all the Jewish men in town—except for the few who hunted, fished, drank beer, played poker with the boys, and were capable of going through a crisis without a change of expression—Pat was a hysteric and on seriously less than congenial terms with the toolbox, the fuse box, the hammer, and the nail, drag pipes, hubcaps, automobile engines, carburetors, and Evinrudes. All of which were, at that time in the South, Gentile specialties, like barbecue pits and pep rallies.

Daddy was a terrific businessman, great with numbers—he did Pat’s taxes once Pat got old enough to pay them—but if a light bulb needed changing or an electrical cord needed plugging in, he hired a handyman, and while the handyman was doing his work in the house, Daddy gathered the entire family together in the front yard waiting in case the house blew up.

When Pat entered Beaufort High his junior year, my senior year, Beaufort was pretty much just like any other small Southern community in the Bible Belt. Back then, long before Beaufort went from a town suspicious of strangers to a resort that courted them, long before anyone in town had even heard of soccer, much less soccer moms, the good Christians of Beaufort worshipped God and praised Jesus on Sunday mornings and worshipped football, basketball, and baseball and prayed for victory for the Beaufort High School Tidal Wave on Friday evenings. With the exception perhaps of Jesus, nothing was bigger than the Friday night football games during the football season or the basketball games during the basketball season, not even everybody’s favorite verbal sport, gossip. All the whispering about the mayor’s black Cadillac wedged among the camellias and azaleas in the school librarian’s backyard at 3:00 a.m., about the bounced checks on display in the front windows of downtown stores, about the pretty little thing left at the altar on her wedding day all stopped abruptly when Richard Drawdy hit Paul Barber with that perfect spiral in the end zone, when Butch Epps silenced the opposition with a grand slam, and when Pat Conroy took to the basketball court.

And no one was more jealous of him than Richard and Paul and Butch. They were seniors, popular, socially formidable. This was supposed to be their time. And Pat would have usurped their time in football if he hadn’t gotten hurt at the beginning of the season. He was quick and fast, so derisively and sarcastically they called him “Jethawk.”

With greater respect came even greater fear and envy when basketball season began. Pat would have to deal with jealousy and envy, those classic adolescent sneers, all his life. That was his curse, that was his blessing. He was always a star.

What added to his difficulties with the natives—the seniors, that is—in high school was that he was so friendly and gregarious, not only a star athlete but, among his fellow juniors as well as the sophomores and freshman, he was a social star, immediately, as soon as he walked through the door. So this made him even more of a threat. Not only was he a junior, not only was he new, he was already popular.

For my entire life, except when he was pissed off at me, Pat would tell everyone in the world that I had invited him to his first party, which I did after hearing Gretchen and Kathy talking about him that day in study hall. His first party? At seventeen?

And why did it mean so much to him?

It meant so much to him, I realized later, because, like many military brats, until he moved to Beaufort he’d moved every year, entering a new school, never getting to know people well enough to really be included in parties that their classmates had attended all their lives, from birthday parties when they were younger to teenage parties when they were older. More importantly, an enduring relationship was just about impossible. Upon arriving, they knew they would be leaving, and so did everyone else. They were military brats, nomads roaming from military base to military base, following their fathers to wherever the government sent them. It was only when I began teaching that I learned just how traumatic moving and relocating could be for kids.

But just as athletics would become the social lubricant that would later ease the process of integration, so would it now, in high school, ease Pat’s integration into the social life of the entire school. He became president of his class.

And what made him different from most of the popular kids was that he didn’t have a snobby bone in his body. He was grateful for your friendship, no matter who you were. He thanked you for it. As far as I was concerned, that was odd. I’d never heard anybody do that before. He didn’t care in the slightest about what you wore. Or for that matter, what he wore. And when you were with him, for some mysterious reason, you didn’t either. Gant shirts? Bass Weejuns? Alligator belts? To be among the cool kids, which was all I aspired to, that was the ticket. What you wore was who you were. Clothes made the man. That just never seemed to enter his mind. He was uncommonly interested, it seemed, in you, in the person himself. I’d never heard of such a thing.

Also, because Beaufort was new to him, it was as if he was seeing it for the first time, which led me to discover that I, who had lived there all my life, had never seen it at all. I’d never once thought of it as lovely, romantic, beautiful. I don’t know whether it was because, as a native, I just took it for granted or, as a Jew, I was at two with nature. My grandparents had been Russian-Polish émigrés. According to the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, lost forever in Stalin’s Purge, there’s only one word in Hebrew for all the birds in the world, and that’s the Hebrew word for “bird,” and only two words in Hebrew for all the flowers in the world, the Hebrew words for “flower” and “rose.” In Babel’s Odessa, Jewish kids were expected to read, study, and play the violin. Babel had to get a Gentile to teach him how to swim.

One Saturday afternoon we were walking on the bay when Pat stopped, gazing out over the Beaufort River. It was a bright, shimmering blue in sunlight, hosting the usual sailboats and sea birds and the occasional barge, and because it was low tide, the hood of an old taxicab peering out of the water close to the shore. It’d been there since I was a kid. The only cab driver in town was a drunk, nobody bothered to fish it out, and we kids swam down in there for treasure. Frankly, at the time, that’s all I noticed, remembering how back then we’d play baseball in the streets and just naturally back off onto the nearest front lawn when Ol’ Dacus—that was the cab driver’s name—came careening down the road. Now that was an adventure.

Pat paused on the riverbank, breathing in the smell of pluff mud. “Damn,” he said, throwing out his arms, embracing all in front of us, the river, the boats, the light, the flower and fauna and gargantuan oak trees on the riverbank. “This is so fucking beautiful. Isn’t it? Don’t you think so, Bernie? I mean, God. Lovely. Just lovely.”

All I’d seen was a memory, an old taxi jutting out of the marsh in which was the forever-elusive X marking the spot where the treasure was sure to be.

I looked as if for the first time, and I saw, I believe, what Pat saw, after which I could never stop looking, every day, it was so stunning, so unimaginably lovely and beautiful, so inspiring. It brought me to tears, right then. The beauty of my home town, long before it became a haven for tourists and retirees, seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, would make me forget about the treasure for the rest of my life.

Until then, the river had been a place in which to swim, over which to sail majestically out on the rope swing, the thousand-year oak the perfect support for it, a place to fish and to ski with the Gentiles. Trees for shade in the dog days of August. Flowering shrubs obstacle courses through which to maneuver your bike, flower gardens to sneak into on your hands and knees to retrieve baseballs, grass soft and welcoming to bare feet in the summer. The woods for camping or to shoot BB guns with Gentile friends.

I never thought of any of this as something to look at.

I was so unattuned to nature in every respect that, unlike the Gentiles I knew, I could not have named one flower, one bird, or one tree other than an oak. A great blue heron was just a big duck to me. All seabirds looked alike to me.

Pat reveled in my ignorance. We’d be showing off for our dates, cruising around Beaufort. “Tree,” he’d say. “Repeat after me, Bernie: tree.”

“Sky,” he’d say. “Repeat after me, Bernie: sky.”

If we were parking, right when I’d make my move, “Moon,” he’d say. “Moon.”

What a hoot.

I had no idea that he was coming to school with deftly applied makeup on. I believed, like everyone else back then, that he really had run into a door, or that he’d tripped and fallen on his face dribbling in and around chairs lined up on his concrete driveway. After all, he practiced every afternoon.

Nor did I have any notion back then that his uncanny peripheral vision might have been a child’s only defense against a father’s stray fist coming his way.

He was such a good kid, such a nice boy.

He was.

Nobody tried harder.

You know why he liked school so much? I could never understand that. He was so creative, so imaginative. It was a yawning bore.

He told me. We were both in our mid-sixties by then, fat and lazy, drinking Wooodford bourbon and smoking Saint Luis Rey cigars on his back porch overlooking Battery Creek in Beaufort.

“In school,” he said, “I wasn’t getting hit.”

By Bernie Schein

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