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Among the Palmettos: My Trip to Charleston was an Excursion Into the World of ‘The Great Santini’

Among the Palmettos: My Trip to Charleston was an Excursion Into the World of ‘The Great Santini’

  • It is amazing how this historic city was rebuilt and restored as a present-day great Southern destination. And Pat Conroy’s narrative gave me perspective.

A recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, brought Pat Conroy’s writing into focus. My friends have a seaside cottage on the Isle of Palms. It is an idyllic spot on the beach, among the Palmettos. Rimmed by the marshes with marvelous displays of sunrise and sunsets that melt into your being. Like cardamom and rose petals in a cup of tea. We went for morning and evening walks on the beach, feeling the air of the low country mingled with the sand, surf, and memories of the South as it sifted through our pores. We spent idle hours looking through the telescope at sea turtles, blue herons and roseate spoonbills. One evening we even witnessed the launch of Space X. It was a surreal moment.

On our trip to Charleston, my friend and I drove from Atlanta, just like Pat Conroy’s protagonist Colonel Meecham in his novel “The Great Santini” with Lillian and their four kids in a station wagon. Of course, we did not start at an unearthly hour like the Great Santini. Nor did we sing the songs of the Marine Corps at top of our lungs. We did not exchange unpleasantries with each other like the Meechams. Not commandeered by Bull Meecham, we stopped to stretch our legs and use the facilities. Several anecdotes were exchanged about other road trips from the past but the plight of Meecham’s family cooped up in the car with their dog Okra, their older daughter Mary Ann collecting her tears in a spoon and flicking them at her father and Matt being told to send his urine up in the last two hours of the trip because his father was not going to stop was perhaps the strangest one of all.

As we drove over the bridge into the islands. We were amazed by the great antebellum mansions on Sullivan island. Big, white mansions with wraparound porches, and live oaks growing in their yards — it brought to memory the house Colonel Meecham rented for his family close to the river. Where they could enjoy sleeping in their hammocks under the moonlight and the stars. It seemed as though the tide had washed over several times and years had passed but the South had not changed. We could see the ships come up to the harbor. Shrimping boats up before the crack of dawn catching bushels of shrimp. They were the first whisperers of the morning.

We went into town and my friends told me the history of this town established in 1783 in honor of King Charles. The Broad Street and the wealthy merchants who lived on the South of Broad (Another book by PC). We strolled on river street and ogled the great restored mansions. They are so expensive that even if you bought one floor of the mansion you would need to shell out a fortune. The iconic rainbow row painted in lovely pastel colors. The exclusive wrought iron gates and fences decorate the houses, with marbled stoops, fretwork, welcoming piazzas, secret gardens, unique addresses of 0 and 1/2 “Meeting street.” Saw the first Anglican church, graveyards, an old Madame’s entertainment house which is now a law office, and the dirt road that was hastily paved to save the reputation of the police officers. The prison and its horrors. The slave market.

Big, white mansions with wraparound porches, and live oaks growing in their yards — it brought to memory the house Colonel Meecham rented for his family close to the river.

After the carriage ride through town, we returned home too tired to cook but by the dint of our collective efforts, we boiled fresh shrimp. I cooked vegetable rice with onions and cumin. My friends laughed their heads off as they shelled the shrimp for me to eat because I did not know how to. We drank a couple of “unbeers” not like the marines who have unsavory competitions of beer drinking, singing, dancing, fights, and prolonged debauchery to prove their manhood. I thought of the world of fighter pilots who put their lives at stake for their country. 

The characters in the book still identify themselves as Southern, holding the Yankees in suspicion. Pat Conroy devotes time building a true to life background in which his characters’ kids attend a segregated high school, play football, enlist as cheerleaders, date, and go to the school dance, dressed in new gowns and tuxedos ( not borrowed at Bull Meecham’s insistence), and deal with the insecurities of childhood l. He exposes the ugly prevalence of bullying by entitled “white boys” and the constant ridicule of African Americans. Not sparing the use of the “N” word and other subversive terms like pogues.

There is a local watering hole: Hobie’s restaurant where the local doctor, lawyer and baker meet the colonel. The struggle between a young boy growing up with a highly competitive, violent man is sprinkled all over the book. Bull’s fits of rage, strangling his wife and his son, threatening the younger kids with punches. Hitting his son Ben’s head several times with the football after losing the game and on other occasions grabbing his neck and pounding his skull against the wall. Teaching him to be rough and a “man” and play with a vengeance and like a good sport on the field. 

The most poignant passage is of Meecham’s last flight. His identity, inseparable from his airplane. The heady feeling of the moon in his cockpit. An exhilaration of soaring through the heavens. Noticing the emergency light. Calling the control. Knowing how to crash land his plane without panicking. Simply nosediving into the marsh trying to avoid the homes where his kids, “hogs” as he called them, and his friends’ families were sleeping and dreaming.

The bond between Ben Meecham and Mr. Dacus the high school principal is a nice touch who pulls up with his car and trailer to look for the Great Santini’s body in the wee hours of the disastrous morning. Ben’s guilt that his lifelong hatred for his father and constant prayers for him to crash his plane were finally answered is exposed. But also an unexpected revelation is delivered to the 18-year-old that despite Bull Meecham’s almost insane roughness, drunkenness and treatment of his family as though they were commandos recruited for military training, his father cared for them. That his father who lacked any apparent tenderness; loved his family in his own bizarre way. He was completely out of sorts without flying a combat mission (1962) as a marine and did everything to overcompensate for “war” glory and post-traumatic stress that was ingrained in his DNA.

One empathizes with Ben and his existential angst about finding his own place in his family. As he drove his family back to Georgia after an honorable military funeral of the Great Santini, he understood why his lovely mother put up with his father and why Colonel Varney was his godfather.

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Other lifelike characters in the book were the plain-speaking maid Arrabelle with her honest dark eyes and grand muscular upper arms from years of manual labor and a resigned acceptance of prevalent cruelty. Her son Toomer with a “gimpy leg” and a stutter, who lived in an abandoned bus with 26 dogs (his chillun) and read the river like a book became Ben’s friend. He taught him to eat oysters. “One oyster w-w-wouldnt keep a sand flea alive.” And after Ben had swallowed a few slimy mouthfuls, the oysters reminded him of days spent on the beach. “The tang of salt, of sun, of weakened brine, and grit dissolved in the breakers.” It was Toomer’s mother Arrabelle who sent Ben to find Toomer because although she would not let anyone put “a mouth on her” and she was aware of a greater devil than the one against who the “haint blue” folks painted their shutters blue.

Very poetic passages are about the ebb and flow of the tide through the marsh. How the skill with which the tiny fish navigate the current determines their lifespan against the serrated teeth of destiny. The exchange of Christmas gifts is also well done.

I have lived in the South for a long time but listening to my friends give a first-hand account of the siege of Charleston was enlightening — how the Union Army led by General Ulysses S. Grant burned down the city. What was left of it was destroyed by the earthquake of 1865. It is amazing how this historic city was rebuilt and restored to the present-day great Southern destination. My visit and Conroy’s narrative gave me perspective. I haven’t watched the 1979 movie starring Robert Duvall as the Great Santini calling everyone “sports fans” Have you? I might watch it this weekend. 

(Photos by Monita Soni)

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM and the Princess Theater.

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