Introduction to “Military Brats” – 15

(I know this ‘thread’ is getting a bit ‘lengthy’ here, but I didn’t write the Introduction!  LOL).

In 1972, my book The Water is Wide came out when I was living in the Beaufort, South Carolina.  It was not the most popular book in South Carolina during that season, but it was extremely popular at the Beaufort Air Station where the Marines and their wives looked to me as a living affirmation of the military way of life.  I accepted an invitation to speak to the Marine Corps officer’s wives’ club with the deep sense that some circle was being closed.  Seven years earlier my mother had been an officer in the same club and she produced the first racially integrated program in the club’s history.  Neither of us knew that my speech would mark a turning point in both our lives.

Instead of talking about my new book, and my experiences teaching on Daufuskie Island, I spoke of some things I wanted to say about the Marine Corps family.  I was the son of a fighter pilot, as were a lot of their kids, and I had some things to tell them.  I was the first military brat who’d ever spoken to the club – I was a native son.  I could hear the inheld breath of these women as I approached the taboo subject of the kind of husbands and fathers I thought Marines made.  For the first time in my life, I was hanging the laundry of my childhood out to dry.  I told those women of the Corps that I’d had met many good soldiers in my life, but precious few good fathers.  I also told them of my unbridled admiration for my mother and other military wives I’d met during my career as a brat.  But I told those women directly that they shouldn’t let their Marines beat them or their children.

I thought I was giving a speech, but something astonishing was unleashed in that room that day.  Some of the women present that day hated me, but some likes me very much.  The response was electric, passionate, immediate.  Some of the women approached me in tears, others in rage.  But that talk to the officers’ wives was the catalyst that first made me sit down and start writing the outline of The Great Santini.

A year later, the day after my father’s retirement parade, my mother left my father after thirty-three years of marriage.  Their divorce was ferocious and bitter, but it contained, miraculously, the seeds of my father’s redemption.  Alone and without the Corps, he realized that his children were his enemies, and that all seven of us thought he hated our guts.  The American soldier is not taught to love his enemy or anyone else.  Love did not come easily to my father, but he started trying to learn the steps after my mother left him.  It was way too late for her, but his kids were ready for it.  We’d been waiting all our lives for our Dad to love us.

“We’d been waiting all our lives for our Dad to love us.”  …so had I…


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