Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What Did You Do When America Was Attacked? Part II…The Santini Effect

Major Mike
(re-published with permission of

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 too 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 placed 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.


Mr.Atos said...


Despite our own age difference, our mothers are probably of similar age. And my father too has long since passed. But, it was my mother that served, in many ways. She was our Santini of sorts, and perhaps there ought to be a book about her. Sadly, she never reads books, however. So, I cannot share with her those charms you share with yours. But, she has her recollections of a life spanning ages of change in just 73 years. If you ask her for instance, what she did in 1942 when the nation was uncertain of its future and its continued existence, she'll replies, "We got up before the sun, my 6 Sisters and I, and worked the fields. Then we walked 4 miles to school. Afterward, we came home and did our chores around the farm." On Sunday, they watered the wooden wheels of their truck, rubber beiing reserved for the War effort, and drove the five miles of dirt road to Church. In Winter, they were at times, sent to work as servants in houses in the City. There were no Men on that Farm. My Grandfather was blessed with daughters. And they served just the same, only in the duties that kept themselves and this Nation alive and Free... if only to exist. And that is afterall, the objective.

Years later, armed with an eighth grade education and 12 years of service to chaos and poverty, she took her four children and tried something else... to give them something better. And she did it.

She raised two great Men, and Two Great Women, who all have wonderful children. That was her service to us and to her nation. And if you ask her today about her life, she'd reply, "I get up everyday and do what needs to be done." She was no doubt, our Great Santini.

As for me. What did I do when America was attacked. Up unusually early for a Tuesday in Seattle, I watched every single moment of it. I woke my wife and we talked about it. Then I got dressed and went to work in an office tower downtown. There I remained doing my duty until we were evacuated at 1pm... told be Civil authorities to go home, just in case.

Whatever it is we do in the course of our duty now, we simply must do what needs to be done... and do it well. And as you said, in the end, be proud of it.

Well said, Mike!

dueler88 said...

My dad was a young Army officer for two years in the early 1960s. When I asked him why he joined the army, he just said it was "something you did." He never said much more about it - until I asked him recently.

Atos and I have grown up in an age when there was no draft. I registered for it, of course - my dad seemed to consider it a legal obligation AND an important rite of passage, so he made sure I got down to the post office on my birthday. In the context of a non-draft society, I found it even more curious that he "chose" to be an Army officer, and only served for two years since my friends were signing up for at least 4-year stints.

As he explained to me a few weeks ago, there was an glut of junior army officers during that period. Many college men decided to go ROTC rather than be drafted. I probably would have done the same.

From a personal standpoint, I'm sure his experiences there had a great effect on who he became - and as a result, who I am as well. But more importantly, I think there was, at that time, a general sense of obligation to serve one's country.

That sense of obligation came about as a result of first-hand experiences that the nation's existence actually COULD be threatened. We have not had such an experience in my lifetime. The closest we have come to it is in looking at "duck-and-cover" films of the 1950's. We now come to view anything associated with nuclear annihilation as either campy nostalgia or a concept so horrific that we either can't or won't wrap our minds around it, or both.

Now we face a real existential threat. In WWII we had coastal watches and internment of whole ethnic groups. A lone submarine launching a couple of shells at the mainland or a spy collecting intelligence about defensive infrastructure were dangerous, but manageable. But it will likely soon be possible that hundreds of thousands of American civilians will lose their lives in the blink of an eye. Yet we somehow refuse to accept that possibility. Is it, like the M.A.D. fears of yesteryear, so terrifying that our minds simply can't conceive of it, and therefore consider it impossible?

Never underestimate the power of motivation, especially if it is based in religion. People can change the world for the better through deeds of incredible sacrifice and love for the sake of their religion. They can also change the world for the worse through deeds of incredible hatred and destruction - for the sake of their religion. History is full of examples of both, and humanity shows no signs of eliminating its will to destroy.

I don't think I'm crazy when I believe that there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of people around the world that would be (literally) ecstatic over the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. I'm losing hope that I will be able to effectively change minds by communicating how dangerous a time it is in which we live. As a result, I fear we will all learn first-hand how fragile we are.

At any rate, Mike, thanks for sharing your story and that of the Great Santini.