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The Midweek Motivator – The Death of Santini

American Literature lost an icon when it lost Pat Conroy. Conroy’s fiction including Prince of Tides, Beach Music, and Lords of Discipline are among his most acclaimed. Each enveloped a similar theme: Conroy’s upbringing in a wildly dysfunctional family starring his sometimes abusive Marine Colonel father and his eccentric mother. Together they inflicted decades of damage leaving a mark on all seven Conroy kids. Pat’s authorship soared when he wrote The Great Santini inspired by his father’s flying “Santini” sobriquet, gifted him by fellow Marine pilots. For all his childhood torment, remarkably Pat and his father reconciled as Don Conroy’s life was flickering. From one of Conroy’s last books Death of Santini, shared here some stirring portions of Conroy’s eulogy address to his father.

“The children of fighter pilots tell different stories than other kids do. None of our fathers can write a will or sell a life insurance policy or fill out a prescription or explain what a poet meant. We tell of fathers who land on aircraft carriers at pitch-black night with the wind howling out of the South China Sea. Our fathers wiped out aircraft batteries in the Philippines and set Japanese soldiers on fire when they made the mistake of trying to overrun our troops on the ground.

Your Dads ran the barber shops and worked at the post office and delivered packages on time and sold the cars, while our Dads were blowing up fuel depots near Seoul, were providing close air support to the beleaguered Marines at Chosin Reservoir, and who once turned the Naktong River red with blood of a retreating North Korean battalion. We tell of men who made widows of the wives of our nation’s enemies and made orphans of their children.

You don’t like war or violence? Or napalm? Or Rockets? Or cannons or death rained down from the sky? Then let’s talk about your fathers, not ours. When we talk about aviators who raised us and the Marines who loved us, we can look you in the eye and say, “you would not like to have been America’s enemies when our fathers passed overhead.” We were raised by men who made the United States of America the safest country on earth during the bloodiest century in all recorded history. Our fathers made sacred those strange, singing names of battlefields across the Pacific: Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh and a thousand more. We grew up attending the funerals of Marines slain in these battles.

We have gathered here today to celebrate the amazing and storied life of Col. Donald Conroy who modestly called himself by his nomdeguerre, The Great Santini. There should be no sorrow at this funeral because The Great Santini lived life at full throttle, moved always in the fast lanes, gunned every engine, teetered on every edge, seized every moment and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat.

He did not know what moderation was or where you’d go to look for it. Donald Conroy is the only person I have ever known whose self-esteem was absolutely unassailable. There was not one thing about himself that my father did not like, nor was there one thing about himself that he would change. He simply adored the man he was and walked with perfect confidence through every encounter in his life. Dad wished everyone could be just like him.

His stubbornness was an art form. The Great Santini did what he did, when he wanted to do it and woe to the man who got in his way. Once I introduced my father before he gave a speech to an Atlanta audience.
I said at the end of his introduction, “My father decided to go into the Marine Corps on the day he discovered his IQ was the temperature of this room”. My father rose to the podium, stared down at the audience, and saidwithout skipping a beat, “My God, it’s hot in here! It must be at least 180 degrees”.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis I asked my Dad if his squadron could have cleared the air of MIGs over Cuba. “Son” he said, “There wouldn’t have been a bluebird flying in those skies.”It is time to leave you, Dad from Carol, Mike and Kathy; from Jim, Tim and especially from Tom. Let us leave you and say goodbye, Dad, with the passwords that bind all Marines and their wives and their children forever. The Corps was always the most important thing. Semper Fi, Dad. Semper Fi, O Great Santini.”