Pat Conroy, the military “brat” subculture, and writing what you know

screenshot_2016-03-05-13-16-34-1.pngWith the passing of Pat Conroy, yesterday, we lose yet another great “Southern” writer. Of course, I can’t let the Southern/Southron thing go without some degree of explanation (at least for those who aren’t familiar with the background). Conroy was born in Atlanta, but his roots were Northern/Southern… his father being from Chicago, and his mother from Alabama.

So, that “Southron’ess” thing is particularly interesting when you consider the kids… the “brats”… of the military. As a member of that subculture myself, I think some of these “brats” (myself included) struggle(d) a little with an identity to a specific location (of course, I can only speak of my own experience, and I’m sure others might offer different perspectives). We (those who might relate to the experience as I lay it out, here) might be well-aware of where our roots are, physically (…and even cling to them with all our might. God knows I did), but oftentimes the exposure to such a wide array of people from a variety of locations shaped us into that unique subculture of the military brat… nomadic and distinctive, in various ways, from those on the outside. I think, in some of us, the longer we lived the life as “brats”, the more distant/distinct we actually grew from our cultural roots (and I have to wonder if there’s even another subculture in itself, for those “brats” that grew up in the DoD school system, as opposed to “brats” who were in the public schools. I, for example, was in the DoD school system from grades 4 through 12). This sometimes proved to define “destiny”… whether short- or long-term (I’d actually like to see some stats on this) in becoming part of the military, ourselves… the decision to be part of our military parent’s culture… whether in the branch of service of that parent, or in another branch (or even as a spouse of a military member). I’ve often thought that my own decision to go into the military was based on my particular brand of identification to my Southern roots, but I think that such an assumption fails to recognize/acknowledge the impact of the subculture of the “military brat”.

screenshot_2016-03-05-13-03-35-1.pngI don’t think I really appreciated it as well as a kid as I do now, but in The Great Santini, Conroy was the first (at least in my memory) to give folks a glimpse into this subculture. Though my first exposure to the work was through the movie of the same name (I remember quite well going to the theater and watching it by myself… in Jacksonville, NC), I found the representation of the character, Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, familiar, but oftentimes disturbing. I think it still says something that I don’t have a copy of it in my DVD collection (though I find myself, at this moment, wanting to watch it again). The best way I know how to describe it is… think of something with which you can strongly relate, but would prefer not always revisiting. “Bull” Meechum represented a lot of what some might term “Old Corps”, and frankly, another generation altogether. Military “brats”… and especially “Marine brats” of my generation (Vietnam era kids) can relate to aspects of Meechum’s personality… whether experienced firsthand, or in what was shared with us, from another Marine brat, about their Marine parent. I may be wrong, but I think the current generation of Marine brats could claim a subculture similar to that which I belonged, but distinctive in its own right. Is there, I wonder, still a representation of the “Old Corps” in the current subculture of “Marine brats”, or has it, like the real Corps, shifted in a different direction?

As I write this and think more about it, I find it fascinating to consider the story of Ben Meechum (“Santini’s” oldest son… and, from the real-life perspective of Pat Conroy). For those who have read the book or just watched the movie, that father-son relationship wasn’t always an easy one, and I suspect there are those who would say that no part of that relationship life was easy… but then, maybe they just wouldn’t understand the life of a (Vietnam-era?) Marine brat (or lived it in the worst way). There were ups and downs, and the downs are downright depressing… but in the end, Ben respects the greatness of that which was represented in his father and seems destined, himself, for the Corps. For all those difficult times, in the generation portrayed by Conroy (Marine brats of the 60s-80s, and maybe 90s), I think, while we didn’t openly talk about it, in retrospect, it’s easy to say that we lived, as kids, in the midst of parent heroes (not only the fathers who were service members, but the mothers who suffered in their own right). In many of us, in our decision to join the military, we paid our respect by emulating the military parent… or (for some) was that an expectation/hope?

Sure, Conroy wrote a lot more than just The Great Santini, but… as a writer, I’m incredibly impressed in his efforts to provide folks his perspective as a Marine brat, and more importantly how that work – despite the friction it caused in his family for a while – came to be, in the end, an amazing tool for self- and family-healing (see Pat Conroy’s eulogy to his father, here). That, to me, is a mark of a truly great author.

You will be missed, Mr. Conroy.

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