Saturday, March 05, 2016

R.I.P. to the Prince of Words

When my family moved to South Carolina December 22, 1985 I was convinced we had moved to Hell.  Having come from the Seattle area I thought Charleston was a backward thinking, redneck filled wasteland that was stuck in the past and I couldn’t wait to get out.  I was 16 years, 11 months and 2 days old.

Since high school I had been going from place to place to escape South Carolina and find a place to call home.  Being a former Navy brat I never had a “home” but I knew it wasn’t in South Carolina.  Life in the land of Strom Thurmond felt so oppressed that I felt like I was suffocating on the stagnant air and I wanted more out of life so in 1988 I left and moved back to Washington State… then I moved to Columbia, SC and then to Staten Island, NY.  I had no responsibilities nor care in the world and at the time I liked it that way.

Being 21 and living in NYC was a crazy time in my life full of partying and being free but I was also restless and in turn was very reckless with some life choices.  I was young, immature and selfish and in a place that I couldn’t easily escape from.  The only place to run to was back to South Carolina and that’s the last place I wanted to be.

I wasn’t working so I was usually broke during that time.  When I couldn’t afford to go into the city my days were filled with wandering around Fort Wadsworth and all the old tunnels and batteries, taking walks under the Verrazano-Narrows bridge where there was the most amazing view of the Manhattan skyline and picking up sea glass on the filthy Staten Island beach which was at the mouth of the New York harbor.  Directly across from me was Brooklyn and on the far end was Coney Island. 

One morning I was back at the house sitting on the couch wondering what to do with my day.  There was a stack of books next to me and I picked up the one on top which happened to be “The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy.  I started leafing through it and was immediately absorbed by the pages.  I stayed up late reading it and only put it down to go to the restroom… probably not even then.  Every word I read touched a nerve deep inside of my body and made me feel something I had never felt before.  I was homesick.  I was homesick for South Carolina and left New York a few days later.

By the end of that month I had read all of Pat Conroy’s books that had been published at the time.  I made my sister read them too.  When he was in Charleston doing a book signing I was one of the people who waited for 4 hours to get him to sign my books.  He is the only person I have ever met that pronounced my maiden name correctly on the first try.  I joked to friends that I wanted to have his baby.

After I read ‘The Water is Wide’ I drove solo to Beaufort and hopped on a boat to Daufuskie Island.  I wanted to see where Pat Conroy lived and taught school early in his career.  At the time the island was incredibly rural and there was only one vehicle on the island, a big pink school bus that was used for tours.  There was maybe 20 people on the boat and everyone besides myself was over 50.  When the bus driver started the tour he asked if anyone had read the book and I was the only person who raised my hand.  Really?!  The tour guide asked if I remember the couple that lived on the island that ran the “store” and delivered the mail… yes, of course I did.  Well, he was their son.  Hello Bob Burns.  From that moment on I felt like it was just myself and Bob on the bus.  

When my sister finally read ‘The Water is Wide’ I brought her to Daufuskie.  I was surprised to see how developed the island was becoming and it made me a bit sad that it wasn’t as pristine as it was the first time I went.  Instead of the bus tour we opted to rent a golf cart to tour the island – that wasn’t even an option the first time I visited!  We drove around the island at a snail’s pace since our big asses were weighing that poor golf cart down.  I showed her all of the spots significant to the book and then we headed back to catch the boat to the mainland.  Since the golf cart was so slow we were almost late and would have had to stay the night on the island.  I think we would have made it sooner by walking back!

Over the years I went to every one of Pat Conroy’s book signings, I tried to find his house on Lady’s Island (before he was married!), I wrote him letters on stationary I made… and when I say made I REALLY mean that I made the paper… from pulp.  Yes, it’s true… from pulp.

Spoleto did a Pat Conroy lecture series that I attended each year.  I loved to hear the stories he told about his personal life.  Not only was he an incredible writer but he was an amazing public speaker as well.  I went to so many of his appearances that he started to recognize me.  I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing though.  My friends joked that I was the Pat Conroy stalker and there was some truth to that I suppose.

When the book ‘Beach Music’ came out the Jewish Community Center in Charleston had a ceremony to honor Pat for his beautiful and touching stories in the book which came from several members of the center.  During his speech Pat told of how he met with many people who gave him the inspiration and permission to use their life experiences in the book, most memorable being the “lady of coins.”  I was late for work because of that ceremony and had to convince my supervisor how important it was for me to be there.  She didn’t understand my fandom but excused my tardiness nonetheless.

The last time I met Pat it was at another lecture but I can’t remember where it was, only that it was in Charleston.  He had just married his wife Cassandra King and she was with him when I went backstage to say hello.  I have a friend who has been hounding me to write a book about my Great Nana and I wanted some advice on how to get started.  My sister was with me and I introduced her then I asked him what the best advice he could give to a person who wanted to write a book that would be fiction but based on a true story.  He took a moment, looked me in the eye and said “Just do it.”  Not exactly the advice I was looking for but he definitely had a point.

Over the years my love for South Carolina has grown and although I move away from time to time it is undoubtedly home for me.  I was living in Ohio February of 2009 when my mother passed away.  I came back to South Carolina, among other reasons, to settle her estate.  The following month I learned that Pat was going to be inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame.  The ceremony was to be held in Myrtle Beach at the convention center.  Of course I had to go.  Unfortunately, he was continuously surrounded by well-wishers so I wasn’t able to speak with him that time.  I was happy that even though I was going through a very difficult time in life I was still able to go to the ceremony.  It was nice to be able to focus on something positive for a moment.

Last year a group of people from the Charleston History Before 1945 Facebook group decided to take a daytrip to Daufuskie Island.  I was so excited to be able to go back to a place that I really loved visiting.  When we arrived by boat I was astounded at what was there…  a store, a restaurant, small huts to stay overnight in, a marina and a lot of mansions and condos.  Wow.  Daufuskie definitely was not the same magical place I first visited years before.  I am so glad I was able to see it when it was practically pristine.  This was definitely not the Daufuskie from ‘The Water is Wide’!

Any friend that knows me well knows of my love for Pat Conroy and his books.  Last night I was sitting on my bed when I got a text message from my friend Devin telling me about Pat’s passing.  I was shocked.  It had only been announced last month that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  I sat and cried like a dummy by myself, well me and my dog Murray.  

There are really no real words that I can write telling of what a profound effect Pat Conroy’s work has had on me.  He gave me a home when I had no clue what a home was.  He made me love a place I was so busy despising that I never took the time to discover the real beauty of.  Once I discovered the Lowcountry and it became such a part of me whenever I was away Pat Conroy was my connection to it once again.  His words were like the beacon I needed to always find my way home to the sea air, the sweetgrass basket ladies, the cobblestone streets of Charleston and the familiar smell of pluff mud.

I am away now, in another state, but because I have the words of Pat Conroy I will never be lost again.  He gave me that and I will forever be grateful to him for helping me find my way home all those years ago.