Huckaby: Reconnecting with my Southerness

I sat down on my front porch one rainy morning last week and decided to become reacquainted with an old friend: Pat Conroy.

Of all the Southern authors I have ever read that weren't named Margaret Mitchell or Mark Twain, Pat Conroy is my very favorite. It almost makes me cry to read his prose. He can describe a salt marsh in such a way that I can taste raw oysters in the back of my throat, and he understands the pathos of growing up in the integrated South and living as a man in that same South just as the wounds that came with segregation were beginning to scab over.

He knows me, in other words, as well as I know myself, perhaps better than I know myself because Pat Conroy is willing to write about things that I have yet to tackle, in a way so raw that my relationship with my genteel following will not let me approach. I have a lot of readers who are just now recovering from "Need Two," and it was published 20 years ago -- give or take a season or so.

My first encounter with Conroy came in the form of a quaint little autobiographical story called "The Water is Wide," based on Conroy's one year as a teacher on a South Carolina barrier island. I saw a lot of me in his book, which was made into a movie called "Conrack," starring Jon Voight. The title character was an idealistic pedagogue who wanted to help his students experience life and set goals that would take them far beyond the low country salt marsh of Carolina -- further even than Charleston or Myrtle Beach. Conroy's character fought the educational bureaucracy and the status quo for one long and entertaining school term before leaving the education of the poor black children of Daufuskie Island to someone more willing to kowtow to the politics of the day.

It was a really entertaining book -- especially to an idealistic young Southerner about to begin a career tilting at his own windmills.

It would be a long time before I would read another Conroy book and even longer before I realized that the man who wrote so poetically about the South I loved was the same person who had shared a heart-warming and heart-wrenching year with those South Carolina children.

I fell in love with Conroy's writing on the first page of the Prologue to the "Prince of Tides." When I finished that classic novel, I immediately began reading everything he had ever written. I soon learned that every book he ever wrote was rooted in the harsh truth of his own life. Every single offering seemed to contain a long-suffering mother, half-crazed in certain ways by dealing with the burden of being a Southern matriarch.

Each book seemed to contain a suicidal sibling, and each seemed to contain a brutally abusive father figure -- patterned, of course, after Conroy's own father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who he exposed in his 1976 novel "The Great Santini." Conroy's father was so upset over the way he portrayed him in that tome that he and his son were estranged for years and years.

When they finally reconciled, the father told the son that it was his abuse that made Conroy such a great writer. He famously remarked, "If I had beat you more you would be a better writer," to which Conroy replied, "If you had beaten me any more I'd be -- Shakespeare."

I love all of Conroy's novels. I love the "Prince of Tides" because it touches the very soul of every Southerner who has ever taken time to think about his Southerness. I love "Beach Music" for that same wonderful prose and the history and the geography. When I read about the main character walking through the little markets in his Rome (Italy) neighborhood, I have a genuine yearning to move to Rome. When I read about the beach house breaking apart in the storm, I want to go somewhere and try to ride out a hurricane.

When I read the "Lords of Discipline," I wonder if I could have survived freshman year at the Citadel, and when I read and re-read "South of Broad," I find myself staring in the mirror of my high school years with much greater clarity. I know and went to school with every character in that book.

There are so many books out there that I want to take time to read -- and a couple that I am still yet to write. But for a few weeks, I am going to be very selfish. I am going to get in touch with Pat Conroy and the South in which I was born and came of age.

You might enjoy doing the same thing. Let me know what you are reading and maybe we can get together and talk about it.

"I can't tell you why I do it or what it means, but each night when I drive toward my Southern home and my Southern life, I whisper these words: 'Lowenstein, Lowenstein.'"

Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at dhuck008@gmail.com. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.