The Great Santini
Trying to understand what God expects of us is a daunting task. God's expectation is, ultimately, that we engage in a high wire balancing act. We must be able to nourish the yin and the yang, the feminine and masculine, the dramatic and the quiet, the tough and the tender dimensions of our personality. That balancing act is presented by the parents in The Great Santini.
Pat Conroy wrote the fine semi-autobiographical novel THE GREAT SANTINI which was made into an outstanding film by the same title starring Robert DuVal. It is a fascinating look into a family dominated by a Marine fighter pilot father---who regularly refers to himself as "THE GREAT SANTINI" even though his name is Bull Meecham. In the story the family is moving, as many military families do, from one base to another over the years. They have just arrived at a new town and the father lines up his children on the front porch of their new home and gives the following speech to them:
"Your C.O.'s philosophy has always been this: If a little shit comes into your life, pretend that it's milk chocolate. It just means that you have to bear down a little bit, reach way down there in that place where the guts reside, dig in, and say to yourselves, There's nothing that can keep me down. Nothing! If anyone gets in your way, you run him down. If anyone thinks they're better then you, you step all over him until he looks like the Graumann Chinese Theater. Now, I know it's rough to leave your friends and move every year. At least it would be rough for other kids. But you," he said, his eyes meeting the eyes of every child, "you are different. You are Marine kids and can chew nails while other kids are sucking on cotton candy. Marine kids are so far ahead of other kids that it's criminal. Why? Because of discipline. You've had discipline. You may resent it now, but one day you're going to look back at your ol' Dad and say I owe it all to him. If he had kicked my butt a few more times no telling how far I could have gone in life. You hogs have one more advantage that I have not mentioned, but I will mention at this time. It gives you the edge over even Marine kids and that advantage is this: you are Meechams. Now a Meecham has got more goin' for him than any other animal I know. A Meecham is a thoroughbred, a winner all the way. A Meecham gets the best grades, wins the most awards, excels in sports, is the most popular, and is always found near the top no matter what endeavor he undertakes. A Meecham never gives up, never surrenders, never sticks his tail between his legs, never gets weepy, never gets his nose out of joint, and never, never, under any circumstance, loses sight of the fact that it is the Meecham family that he represents, whose honor he is upholding. I want you hogs to let this burg know you're here. I want these crackers to wake up and wonder what in the hell just blew into town. Now just one more thing: just because a Meecham has more raw talent than anyone else, that doesn't prevent him from thinkin' about the Man Upstairs every once in a while. Yes, I think you know who I mean. Don't be too proud to ask for his help. I've got this feeling when it comes to favorites with the Man Upstairs, the Meechams rank as high as anyone. Even I myself get down and pray to the Lord Creator every night because I realize that without him I am nothing" (p. 55).
That is quite a speech and a very powerful philosophy of life that the father is trying to impart to his children. It is one that he also applies to his work. He is tough and expects those he works with, as well as his family members, to be tough. On the job Colonel Bull Meecham is giving a subordinant Captain the following hard time:
"Did you hear what I said, Johnson? I said I was the best."
"You are second best, Colonel," the captain said again.
"Ha, ha!" the colonel roared, "you cocky, squealy voiced little bastard. You and me are gonna get along, son. I like somebody that don't take no shit. Of course, we're gonna have to fly together someday, so I can find out what you can do" (p.139).
As a tough person, tough on himself, tough on others, Colonel Bull Meecham admires those who are tough in return. Weakness he does not respect. The weak he walks over. He is a warrior. But, he is a warrior between wars. He therefore doesn't really get to be tough, to shoot down the enemy every day, to prove his worth. He has to instead put up with Generals who have less talent in being tough, who are weaker than he is, less skilled than he is, but who have learned how to play the work game better than he does so that they have been promoted over him. It is a very galling reality of life for someone who believes that being tough is what it is all about. His children are constantly caught between the father's demands for them to be tough and their mother's gentleness. When the oldest son turns 18 the two parents each in turn reach out to him in the following ways.
The mother writes him the following letter:
"My dear son, my dear Ben, my dear friend who becomes a man today, I want to tell you something," the letter began. "You are my eldest child, the child I have known the longest, the child I have held the longest. I wanted to write you a letter about being a man and what it means to be a man in the fullest sense. I wanted to tell you that gentleness is the quality I have admired the most in men, but then I remembered how gentle you were. So I decided to write something else. I want you to always follow your noblest instincts. I want you to be a force for right and good. I want you to always defend the weak as I have taught you to do. I want you to always be brave and know that whatever you do or wherever you go, you walk with my blessings and my love. Keep your faith in God, your humility, and you sense of humor. Decide what you want from life then let nothing deter you from getting it. I have had many regrets in my life and many sadnesses but I will never regret the night you were born. I thought I knew about love and the boundaries of love until I raised you these past eighteen years. I knew nothing about love. That has been your gift to me. Happy Birthday, Mama" (p. 203).
The father takes his son to the officer’s club on the base and gets him roaring drunk. But, first he toasts his son as follows:
"I would like to wish him a long life, a wife as fine as his mother, and a son as fine as he has been. To my son" (p. 206).