Copyright 2002 by Pat Conroy
Adapted from the book "My Losing
Season" by Pat Conroy, published by
Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday,
a division of Random House Inc.
Reprinted with permission.
Throughout my nun-spooked, Catholic school life, I had heard and digested the urban legend of the Jesuits, the rottweilers of a Catholic boy's education. The order had a reputation for intellectual ferocity and suffering fools lightly or not at all. They were a warrior caste of the intellect, famous for the rigor of both their training and their teaching. Founded by St. Ignatius Loyola as militant advocates of the Pope, the Jesuits have always prided themselves on their fierce reputation as cunning foot soldiers of the far-ranging, free-thinking Catholic mind. Astuteness, acumen, and razor-sharp perceptions were virtues in the high precincts of the Jesuit world.
So began my one (sophomore) year (at Gonzaga, 1960-61) I spent learning the desperate melancholy of the commuters baby-stepping their way into the big cities. That was the year I knew the sadness of inbound traffic when I saw the Shirley Highway slowing into gridlock each morning at 5:30, when the Marine who lived across the street from us would find me waiting in his car each morning. He'd turn on the Eddie Gallagher Show and we'd listen to the news and good music for the fifteen congested miles it'd take us to drive to the Naval Annex. The ride took exactly two hours, at which time the good major would deposit me on the sidewalk in front of the Annex. I would catch a bus to Twelfth and Penn, then transfer to another one that would take me to the corner of North Capitol and I Street. My days among Jesuits, like Gaul, were divided into three parts: three hours to get there, three hours to get back and three hours of homework the Jesuits proudly crowed that they saddled their students with each night. Soon I found myself trapped in days that had too much of everything except time.
A dark sensuality and a celebration of the masculine virtues as tribal rites inhabited each corner and room of that school. Everything was tough about Gonzaga, including its neighbors. The Jesuits possessed a genius at making learning itself seem like a martial art. Before I met the Jesuits, I'd never encountered another group who thought that intellect and arrogance were treasures beyond price and necessities in waging wars against blasphemers, heretics, and the many faces of Protestantism itself. At Gonzaga I always felt as if I should be wearing a coat of armor instead of a coat and tie. The school taught Latin as though it was sorry it was not Greek, and Greek as though it was sorry it was not Mesopotamian. The paint was so drab that each classroom looked like it could have served as a holding cell for Galileo. The hallways stank with boy sweat and boy fear and candle wax with a light touch of incense leaking out of the church, and old Jesuits shuffling along in cassocks both shiny under the armpits and late to the dry cleaners. The whole school smelled like eau de Catholic boy, cheap pipe tobacco, and stiff drinks on the rocks. Gonzaga was the kind of place you'd not even think about loving until you'd left it for a couple of years.
I took one crown jewel from my Jesuit immersion at Gonzaga High School. When the scholarly, charismatic Joseph Monte walked into 2A that first day, he radiated an owl-like authority and a passion for literature I'd never come across in a classroom. The way he talked about fiction must have been similar to the post-Pentecostal apostles spreading the word of God. He brought his love of books and words and fine writing to us every day of that year, and he thunderstruck me with the mesmerizing power of his teaching. He came into my life as a rose window onto the world of literature. He opened me up to the pleasures of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and dozens of others. The first book I read for Mr. Monte for extra credit was History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, the second was David Copperfield, and the third was The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. Each time you finished a book you would have to find Mr. Monte to discuss the intricacies of that book with him. He gave off the aura of having read every book worth reading since Gutenberg invented the printing press.
Joseph Monte could make the intellect look like the most lustrous and forbidden city of all. After my single year with Monte, I wanted to be curious and smart and unappeasable until I got a sentence to mean exactly what I ordered it to mean. Whenever I wrote an essay in that spiral notebook that he checked once a week, I tried to show off for Mr. Monte, distinguish myself from my classmates in a unique way. I took off on one boilerplate English assignment and wrote what I now realize was my first short story. When I turned the story in, I spent an uncomfortable weekend thinking that Mr. Monte would consider me pretentious or worse for not following the assignment literally. When he passed out the notebooks the following Monday, I turned to the story, breathless, and saw this notation: More of this, Mr. Conroy. A+, double credit. For imagination."
The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life. I wanted to follow Mr. Monte around for the rest of my life, learning everything he wished to share or impart, but I didn't know how to ask. All I knew was, I was not the same boy who walked into Gonzaga that previous fall.
In November I had gone out for the junior varsity basketball team, drawing down the wrath of my father who wanted me to try out for the varsity. I explained to him that only one sophomore had been invited to try out for the varsity and only because he had excelled on the freshman team the year before. Coach Mike DeSarno cut the JV team down to 16 and I breathed a sigh of pure gratitude when I saw my name on the list. There was no scene I dreaded more than that imaginary one where I'd have to return to my house to inform my father I'd been cut from a team.
By making that JV, I began the hardest and least manageable part of my Gonzaga experience. The freshman basketball team started their practice at four in the afternoon, followed by the varsity at five, then followed by my JV team at six. When practice ended at seven, I walked to Union Station to take a train into Alexandria where my father would meet me every evening at eight o'clock for a twenty-minute ride to our house in Annandale.
Before practice I would often go to the National Gallery of Art to do homework on one of the benches in one of the garden rooms. Admission was free and soon the guards grew accustomed to my presence as I did my Latin and algebra and biology homework amidst the palms and sound of falling water. If I finished my homework early or just grew bored, I could wander through the galleries, studying the paintings and trying to memorize the names of the artists who painted them. So often did I come to their gallery during basketball season that year, that whenever I return as a grown man, it has the feel of a homecoming to me.
It was not a successful year for me as a basketball player, nor was it a total bust either. The squad I played on was a very good one, and all sixteen of us could play the game at a fairly high level. It was the most evenly matched team I was ever a part of, but we could not seem to find our identity. My coach, the itchy, unreadable Mike DeSarno, was a man more comfortable with football than basketball. He carried himself with great authority, was careful in his grooming and dress, and ran a quick and efficient practice. When Coach DeSarno shot the basketball, he displayed exceptional style and form, his mechanics were flawless, but the ball almost never went into the basket.
The team was explosive and erratic. DeSarno told us all year long that we had the makings of a great team. He could never make up his mind about a starting lineup, and we had a dizzying series of changes over the year. I started a third of the games, but DeSarno would always taunt me with the fact that I was a military brat who could disappear overnight.
"Conroy, what does Gonzaga get out of it? I mean, I could be playing a kid who'll be here for four years instead of one. I'm making you a better basketball player for another school that neither of us even knows about. Argue with me. Tell me where I'm wrong."
"My parents think I'll be here three years, Coach," I said.
"Can you promise me that?" Coach DeSarno said. "Can you put it on paper?"
"No sir. We might go to war or something."
"Then I can't start you. Do you understand? I'm hurting the school down the road. You can understand that?"
"Yes sir," I said, trying to disguise my misery.
DeSarno was generous in allowing his overstocked team adequate playing time, and he ran us in and out of games. We ended up wearing down those understaffed teams who depended on the stamina of a starting five. Our talent was evenly distributed and we played well together even though we lost our big games by shockingly close scores. We lost to DeMatha, on its way to becoming a national power in high school basketball, by two points, and to our archrival, St. John's, but a single point.
After our loss to DeMatha, Coach DeSarno singled me out in a team meeting after the game and said, "I'd like to apologize personally to Pat Conroy for taking him out of the game after the first quarter. He was playing a hell of a game. But I kept thinking of next year, Pat, and we don't know whether you'll be back or not. The old story." I had scored eight points in the first quarter of the game when DeSarno replaced me with Buzzy Vail. His doubts about my availability were prophetic.
The following month I was in my room catching up on the voluminous homework that was the scourge of every Gonzaga boy's existence when my mother knocked on the door.
"Could we have a talk, Pat?" She was carrying my infant brother, Tom, who had been born in October.
I read her face and said, "No, Mom. Not again. I can't move again. I won't do it. You can't make me."
"The good news is that we're going to Cherry Point," my mother said. "You've always loved Cherry Point."
In the beginning of May, my father came into the city for the annual father-son banquet and the awarding of letters to Gonzaga's athletes. Gonzaga had become my home and I wanted my father to see for himself how easy I was navigating its hallways and shortcuts. I gave him a brief tour of my domain, even taking him down to the grotesque basketball court, a converted swimming pool, that was, by far, the worst gymnasium I ever saw. I walked him up to 2A, a room I had fallen in love with, and introduced him to all the teachers he had heard me talk about during the year.
My father's mood was withdrawn and saturnine that night, and he resented my perpetual sunniness. We ate dinner among the other fathers and sons without Dad directing a single word to me or to any of the fathers. He brought a closed shop to that banquet and I put a quietus on my own ebullience when I saw his blue eyes go arctic.
After the banquet, the crowd moved toward the school's compact auditorium where the athletes were seated in the fifteen front rows with our fathers behind us. The Jesuits possessed a gift for both order and organization, and each athlete had been given a number which told us where we'd be seated during the ceremony. I found a piece of paper with a number 63 taped to the back of the chair that corresponded to the number I carried in my hand. I sat down between Chris Warner and my basketball teammate Tim McCarthy.
When Father McHale, the headmaster, finished his opening remarks, Father Coleman walked up to the front row and barked, "First row of athletes, please rise." The first row, led by the now-famous William Bennett, walked up the side steps of the stage, then walked across the stage one by one as Father McHale called their names and presented them with letters.
Finally, the line of boys sitting directly in front of me were ordered to stand and they responded. A Gonzaga boy sitting to my right, next to Warner, deftly took one of the taped numbers from the seat in front of him and attached it to the bottom of the sports coat of the unwary sophomore who stood with his back to us. Gonzaga boys were famous for their tireless pranks on one another, and this seemed innocent enough. Chris and Tim and I laughed when we saw the poor kid walking toward the stage trailing his seat number behind him.
The evening had turned so tedious that no one expected the guffaws and explosive laughter that broke through the audience when this kid walked across the stage with a white tail fluttering around his buttocks. All the Jesuits' love of control collapsed when the absurd little practical joke caught the audience by surprise. The young man shot the audience a Chaplinesque look of bewilderment, the laughter increasing when Father McHale said something about his unauthorized tail piece. The boy looked behind him and saw nothing and kept spinning around until Father McHale ripped it off and dangled it before the embarrassed boy's eyes. Father McHale then barked at us to settle down, and the rest of the awards ceremony moved with swiftness. I received my two junior varsity letters for football and basketball and felt great pride as I examined them after returning to my seat.
When Father McHale offered final congratulations and dismissed us, I joined the slow procession of boys who drifted down the center aisle to join our fathers in the back of the theater. Moving slowly with the other student athletes up the carpeted rise toward the milling fathers, I was talking to a boy on my left when I received a stunning backhand across my jaw that sent me crashing to the floor. The blow was delivered with such force that I did not know if I was going to be able to rise, but a furor had taken hold of the men above me. There was shouting and pushing and obscenities. Slowly, I rose off my knees and stood up on unsteady legs, disoriented, humiliated, and confused by where the blow had come from and why. "Are you okay, Pat?" a father asked me, and I smiled and nodded my head, knowing for the first time that any Gonzaga father knew my name. The second backhand caught me on the left jaw, harder than the first, and I went down to the floor again. Then a free-for-all began.
I looked up from the floor and saw my father being tossed around like a Raggedy Ann doll. Gonzaga was a tough ethnic, inner-city school and many of our fathers were blue-collar, working-class men -- big Irishmen, Poles, and Italians -- who were making their hard way in America. They had no idea who my father was and did not care. They saw a stranger knock a Gonzaga boy to his knees and came roaring to my defense. Someone punched my father in the back of the head; if I'd known who that man was I'd have sent him brownies every Valentine's Day. I struggled to my feet, grabbed my father's arm, and led him through that angry mob of men, getting him safely to the parking lot and into his car.
It was in this car and on this night that my father took me apart. He gave me a beating like none other I would receive in my childhood. "It was you who taped that number on that kid's ass!" he yelled.
"No, it wasn't, Dad. It was another kid. I swear I didn't do it." His fist landed so hard on my forehead that I thought the back of my head would go through the passenger-side window. Again he punched my face and I covered up as he began raining blows all over my body. He beat me until I grew tired of it. "You shouldn't have laughed," he said. Then he started the car and drove home to Annandale, and I never came out of my rolled-up crouch until he sent my mother out to the car to get me. She had to peel my arms and hands away from my head. I was hysterical when I heard her voice, and Mom screamed when she saw my face. She refused to let me go to school for the next few days and would not let me show myself to my brothers and sisters. I ate in my room and caught up with my homework and wondered if a son had ever hated a father as much as I hated mine.
Ten days before graduation, Father Anthony McHale summoned me to his office. I had come to know McHale only slightly, but he recognized me in the hallway and sometimes he would stop me to quiz me about my progress in Latin or algebra. He had a great sense of justice and duty, but lacked that leavening one of humor. When I entered his office, he was studying my file. He looked up at me and said, "You've made your mark here at Gonzaga, Mr. Conroy. I didn't think you'd survive first semester. You're well thought of by your fellow students. Your coaches and teachers speak well of you. Mr. Monte speaks highly of you. We have decided to award you a full scholarship for the next two years. We understand your parents are moving out of the area. We'll arrange for your room and board."
That night, I heard my parents arguing. Later, I heard a tap on my door, then my mother tiptoed into my room. She said, "Your father ripped up the scholarship, Pat. He said Gonzaga or no one else is going to steal his kid from him. He loves you too much to let you go."
"No, Mom," I said coldly in despair. "He hates me too much to let me go. He hates it when good things happen to me."
"Your father wants the very best for you, Pat. He always has and he always will."
After the moving van left in June and headed down the highway toward our new quarters at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, my mother locked upon the empty house and walked toward the station wagon, laden down with excess baggage and seven kids. Halfway to the car a phone rang in the empty house and my mother tan back to answer it. She returned to the car and said to my father, "It's for you, Don. Headquarters Marine's calling."
The children grew restless in the fifteen minutes Dad spoke to the unseen Marine who was in the process of changing all our lives. When he returned to the car, Dad started up the engine and began backing out of the driveway.
"What did he want Don?" my mother asked.
"My orders have been changed," he said as Carol and I both groaned aloud. "Shut up, you two," he demanded.
"Where are we going to be living next year?" my mother asked in a calm, measured voice.
"Beaufort, South Carolina," he said.
"I've never heard of Beaufort, South Carolina," Carol groaned.
"It's where Parris Island is," Dad said. "They built an air station there a couple of years ago."
"Do they have a high school there?" I asked.
"Have no idea, pal," Dad said as he moved the car out toward Shirley Highway and headed south, away from Gonzaga High School forever.