“I had already begun the first chapters of The Great Santini. I wrote about a seventeen-year-old boy, a military brat who’d spent his whole life smiling and pretending that he was the happiest part of a perfect, indivisible American family. I had no experience in writing down the graffiti left along the margins of a boy’s ruined heart. Because I was born a male, I never wept for the boy who’d once withstood the slaps and blows of one of the Corps strongest aviators. I’d never wept for my brothers or sisters or my beautiful and loyal mother, yet I’d witnessed those brutal seasons of their fear and hurt and sadness. Because I was born to be a novelist, I remembered every scene, every beating, every drop of blood shed by my sweet and innocent family for America.
As I wrote, the child of the military in me began to fall apart. I came apart at the seams. For one thing a military brat is not allowed to do is commit an act of treason. I learned the hard way that truth is a capital offense and so did my family. I created a boy named Ben Meecham and I gave him my story. His loneliness, his unbearable solitude almost killed me as I wrote about him. Everything about the boy hurt me, but I kept writing the book because I didn’t know how to stop. My marriage would fall apart and I’d spend several years trying to figure out how not to be crazy because the deep sadness of Ben Meecham and his family touched me with a pity I could not bear. His father could love him only with his fists and I found myself inconsolable as I wrote this. I would stare at pictures of myself taken in high school and could not imagine why a father would want to hit that boy’s face. I wrote The Great Santini through tears, hating everything my father stood for and sickened by his behavior toward his family.
But in the acknowledgement of this hatred, I also found myself composing a love song to my father and to the military way of life. Once when I read Look Homeward, Angel in high school, I’d lamented the fact that my father didn’t have an interesting, artistic profession like Thomas Wolfe’s stonecutter father. But in writing Santini, I realized that Thomas Wolfe’s father never landed jets on aircraft carriers at night, wiped out a whole battalion of North Korean regulars crossing the Naktong River, or flew to Cuba with his squadron with the mission to clear the Cuban skies of MiGs if the flag went up.
In writing The Great Santini I had to consider the fact of my father’s heroism. His job was extraordinarily dangerous and I never knew it. He never once complained about the perils of his vocation. He was one of those men who make the men of other nations pause before attacking America. I learned that I would not want to be an enemy soldier or tank when Don Conroy passed overhead. My father made orphans out of many boys and girls in Asia during the years I prayed for God to make an orphan out of me. His job was to kill people when his nation asked him to, pure and simple. And the loving of his kids was never written into his job description.“
There were nights when I was determined not to cry when I was being beat – just to piss off Dear Ole Dad – my way of “resisting.” But when your ass is “on fire,” sometimes there is no choice. Then I discovered when the crying began, the beatings stopped. So, I began “experimenting.”
I soon discovered a sense of timing. If I cried too soon, it infuriated him because I was a coward; if I held out too long, it infuriated him because I was defying him. So I found that ‘small window” where I could satisfy both of us… shit, that’s sick, but it worked.
I talked with Mom a short time before her death, about the beatings we all took. “Oh,” she remarked, ” they weren’t that bad…”
“You gotta be shitting me, Mom,” I replied, “what planet did you depart for?” And we kinda left it at that… Like Conroy, I have a memory like a steel trap. They were bad…