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Darrell Huckaby - 09/11/09

Darn that Pat Conroy!

I spend a lot of time stringing words together. A lot of time. Every now and then I convince myself that I do so rather effectively. Don't get me wrong. I don't suffer from delusions of grandeur and never make the mistake of comparing myself to real writers who are able to make a living solely from their efforts before a word processor. I'm no Chris Starrs, in other words.

But despite the occasional gaffe - like claiming Mark Twain said something that should have been attributed to Abraham Lincoln or getting the events of 1980 mixed up with those of 1982 - I usually feel pretty good about the things I write.

I, at least, get the subject and verb in the right places most of the time and throw an occasional adjective or adverb into my prose, just to spice things up. Once in a great while I even use more advanced literary elements, such as alliteration, and have been known to use the simile and the metaphor in at least a semi-correct manner from time to time.

Every once in a while, in other words, I get the notion that I am a fair-to-middlin' wordsmith.

And then I pick up a book written by Pat Conroy and every notion I have or have ever had about being a competent writer goes right out the window, and I feel like a 3-year-old holding a big fat Crayola crayon in my stubby little fingers, trying to learn to form the ABCs on the manila paper with the wide lines.

I first became enamored with Conroy when I was fresh out of college. I watched a movie on television, "Conrack," about a school teacher who worked with underprivileged kids on a South Carolina coastal island. I learned that the movie was based on an autobiographical book by a recent - at that time - Citadel graduate. I found a copy of the book and read through the night, intrigued by the author's story-telling ability and his amazing talent for imagery and insight into the condition of the Southern soul - a condition with which I had more than a passing association.

I was hooked.

Over the years I read everything Conroy wrote, as soon as it came off the presses. As I read "Lord's of Discipline" I fluctuated between hating the absurdity of the military rituals of the Citadel, which wasn't actually named in the book, and wondering if I would have been man enough to survive. As I read "The Great Santini" I was welcomed into a world that I never knew existed, that of an abusive father, and wondered if any of my friends had ever had to endure such a childhood.

That book was also autobiographical and caused a long estrangement for Conroy and his father who was "the Great Santini." When they were finally reconciled Conroy's father told him, "It was my beating you that brought out your writing ability. If I had beat you more, you would have been a better writer."

Conroy replied, "If you had beaten me any more, I would have been &$#%@ Shakespeare."

As I read "The Prince of Tides" I yearned to move to the South Carolina Low Country and attune my life to the rising and falling of the tides, and as I read the long-awaited "Beach Music" I found myself wanting to move to Italy, at least for a fortnight, to experience the food and the ambiance of the life that Conroy so magnificently brought to life.

And, the summer I read Pat Conroy's cookbook I gained twenty pounds. 'Nuff said.

Last week I broke down and started his latest novel, "South of Broad," a story that travels back and forth across the decades of my own life. It begins in 1969 and tells the story of an eclectic group of high school seniors who were trying to march to their own drumbeat during one of the most tumultuous times in our region's history. I was a high school senior in 1969 and could identify with every syllable of the novel.

Honesty compels me to admit that it took me a while - about 75 pages - to really get into the story, but once I did, I was once again enthralled by Conroy's ability to tell a story, create images and touch the heart and soul of the Southern psyche.

I didn't want to stop reading, but I didn't want the story to end, either. I laughed out loud at places, and I tried to hide the tears that rolled down my cheek at other places, and most people wouldn't understand why I laughed when I laughed or cried when I cried.

And when I finished the book, I turned to page one and read it again.

Big sigh, here.

And then, after I finished "South of Broad" for the second time, I picked up my crayons and went back to work on my next project.