Saturday, January 17, 2015

Photo of the Day: Where the Great Santini Came to Rest, at Last

Beaufort National Cemetery, located in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina, would have been noteworthy even without its connection to local literary lion Pat Conroy. One of six national cemeteries established in 1863 for the reinterment of Union soldiers and sailors who died in the region, it provided quiet and a final resting place for servicemen who, during life, heard all too often the crunch of cannon and the terrifying “rebel yell.” These youths, frequently thousands of miles from the Northern and Midwestern farms in which they had grown up, long moving with nomadic armies, had now found a most unlikely home for eternity.

Since then, in American conflicts up through the War on Terror, more than 18,000 veterans have been buried on this site, according to the National Park Service Website about the cemetery. That number is expected to increase considerably, a function not just of the conflicts in which the United States continually finds itself, but also of an increasing number of veterans who come here in retirement.

I became aware of this historic, and beautiful, site on a bus tour last November of the town of Beaufort. It was then that I not only learned of the existence of this cemetery (and took this photo) but also that this was the final resting place of Donald Conroy, the father of the novelist.

Marine Corps Col. Donald Conroy is buried in Section 62, Site 182. Death may, in fact, have been the only thing to slow his restless spirit.

This bluff, brash veteran received a host of medals for his service in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Yet amazingly, he seldom spoke of all his honors to his family. Unfortunately, they knew him better for the war at home he waged with his wife Peg, in which their children became collateral damage.

The details of Donald Conroy’s life are found most directly, in fiction, in The Great Santini, but he also appears, in only slightly altered guise (as a fisherman and judge), in other novels by his son (notably, The Prince of Tides).

As told in Pat’s memoir, The Death of Santini, the novelist eventually made a kind of peace with this brave but very complicated man. Not long before his death, the retired colonel came out to inspect where he would be laid to rest, telling the surprised cemetery administrator that this would be “the second time I’ve been buried” there. He then explained helpfully: “You ever catch the flick The Great Santini? That was me they planted at the end of the movie.”

Oak trees and Spanish moss formed a majestic backdrop to the row upon row of graves when I visited briefly. When Conroy attended the burial of his father in May 1998, the ceremonial rites performed by the military added to the majesty of the setting. 

Even that, however, was not without its irony, he observed: “The beauty of things military takes nearly all of its children prisoner in its primal love of order, its ceremonies that are timeless and changeless—they buried my father in the same cemetery where my mother was laid to rest.”

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