This is Pat as a cadet. His smile masks the misery he often felt at The Citadel.
Sallie Ann Robinson one of Pat's students when he taught on Daufuskie Island learned to cook in her grandmother's house.
Just before a Friday afternoon parade Pat casually chats with students and comes eye to eye with a young cadet braced for inspection.
A Day With Pat
We cross the river to Bay Street, which once sold only what townspeople needed. Now boutiques offer what tourists want--art, antiques, designer fashions, fine dining, and books. Around a bend, magnificent antebellum homes face the water, their elegant verandas cooled by three centuries of river breezes.
Pat turns into The Point, a neighborhood thick with greenery and venerable houses along narrow lanes roofed with live oak limbs. As he drives, he describes each place as if it were a paragraph of his biography.
"My physics teacher lived here. She caught me egging her car at graduation.
"This little park is The Green. My father got drunk one night and beat up my mother. I went out looking for him and found him passed out here.
"I ran away from The Citadel my first night as a freshman and spent the night in this house. My English teacher, Gene Norris, made me go back to Charleston.
"My mother lived here during the Vietnam War. She gave me a party for my first book, The Boo. We sold 70 copies.
"During the filming of The Great Santini, Blythe Danner stayed here with her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, who was then 3."
He points out the cinder block apartment where he lived when he returned from The Citadel, and then pauses at the two-story, 19th-century house where he wrote The Water Is Wide, about his year as a schoolteacher on Daufuskie Island. In 1976, responding to "something deep set in military brats to keep moving," Pat left for his native Atlanta, then to Rome, Italy, and San Francisco. In his writing, however, he never left the Lowcountry. During that time, he penned The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides. These novels, and the movies made from them, were adored or reviled by residents and Citadel alumni.
"Here's the big guy," he says in the Beaufort National Cemetery, as we pause at the graves of his father, Donald Patrick Conroy, and his mother, Frances M. Peek Conroy. Late in the afternoon, we stop at the home of Julia Randel, the mother of Randy, Pat's best friend in high school. Soon she pulls out a poem, "In Memoriam to a Dear and Cherished Friend," and claims it as "the first thing Pat ever wrote." The young Conroy composed it after Randy died suddenly while they were playing in a high school baseball game. Pat gives Mrs. Randel a birthday present, and we chat over iced tea before driving back to Fripp.
I had asked for an hour of his time, and he gave us a day in the Lowcountry he loves. "I take people on a tour now, and my whole life flashes before me," Pat says. "This is the first town that ever seemed like home to me."