I had a few magic encounters that can only be described as “Pat moments” at the 2015 “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration” in Beaufort, South Carolina. And there I was a complete stranger to Pat, but by the end of the three day festival, you wouldn’t have thought this. Sometimes in life you just flat connect with someone through mysterious forces, and when you do, it feels something like recognition. I felt this way the first time I locked eyes with Pat Conroy, and although I was decidedly star-struck, he wasn’t having any of it.
I was late to the screening of “The Great Santini.” Most everyone was seated in the auditorium, and the film was set to begin any minute. I rushed into the scantily populated lobby of the USCB’s Center for the Arts, flustered and apologetic to the nice woman behind the table, who took my name and handed me my event tickets for the following two days. As I turned to head for the auditorium, there was Pat, wearing a red t-shirt, a big smile, and walking straight towards me. His face was aglow with child-like delight and his blue eyes beamed with the kind of enthusiasm you’d jump to upon spotting a friend. Now, mind you, I’d rushed to the conference all the way from California, and in that moment I had yet to find my bearings. I’d hoped at some point during the conference I’d be lucky enough to exchange a few words with Pat, get it off my chest how much his writing affects me, tell him that he’d singlehandedly shown me what is possible with the written word, and illustrate his impact upon me by saying if I were a musician, he’d be my Mick Jagger. I didn’t expect to walk through the door and find him there like a one man welcoming committee. In that destabilizing moment that caught me off-guard, I was so startled to see my literary hero in the flesh that my text book Southern manners flew out the window and speech completely failed me. So I did what anybody would do: I looked Pat Conroy straight in his Irish eyes and said, “I love you.” To which he threw back his head and laughed.
“I flew all the way from California to see you, “I gushed, and without skipping a beat, Pat said, “You’re crazy,” to which I replied, “I know.”
“My daughter lives in California, let me go get her,” Pat said, then he walked away and returned with his daughter, Megan. As Megan and I stood talking about California, Pat sauntered off then reappeared with his brother, Tim. I couldn’t tell you now if Tim wondered who I was or why Pat found me worthy of introduction, but all three Conroy’s stood friendly and smiling, as if they were legitimately thrilled to see me.
“Let me ask you something,” Pat said. He spoke haltingly, searchingly, as if he were thinking something through, though he gave me a look that shot straight through me as if willing the power of his steady gaze to sear something into me. “Can you remember this street address? I want you to come over to the house for a drink or something.”
“When?” I said. It was all I could think to ask.
“Sometime during all this,” he said, waving his hand. “Whenever there’s downtime,” he said, as if it’d be obvious, as if I’d know when there’d be a lull in the conference and could just mosey on over to find him lounging around.
“Oh, wait, they’re telling me it’s time to go in,” Pat said, “Let’s go.” I trailed behind Pat into the auditorium, and when the room rose to its feet in reverence at the sight of him, I ducked discretely out of the way and made for the auditorium’s back row, dumbfounded and lit by the fire of Pat’s personal attention.
Another of my “Pat moments” occurred while standing in line, holding my copy of “The Prince of Tides” in the creeping queue that snaked along in slow motion. Nobody seemed to mind that it took forever to reach Pat; we were all so animated to be in his jurisdiction, we didn’t begrudge a soul their moment in his sun. The air was charged with Pat fever. We were a chatting, laughing, fraternizing assembly linked by a warm inner knowing that we were all members of a secret society, waiting our turn for a moment in Pat Conroy’s sphere of luminosity. Eventually, the line progressed, and I got within clear sight of Pat. There were only three people ahead of me when I spied a regal, chestnut haired woman rounding the banquet table to stand beside him. She held a drink in her hand as she leaned down to say something, and I saw Pat rear back in blindsided astonishment at her appearance. His face flushed adolescent pink, there was glee in his smile and joy in his eyes, which cast around excitedly as if looking for someone to say something to, and I knew in that moment Pat Conroy was bursting with story. I looked around to see if anyone else was paying attention then leaned forward to say, “What is it, Pat?” and he spilled forth with, “You’re not going to believe this story!”
Never before have I been a more willing audience than I was as Pat launched into his story, which was a humorous take on unrequited love.
“Twenty five letters I wrote to this woman when I was in college, and not once, not once did she ever respond,” he shared, as the object of this story shook her head and protested. It was then I pulled out my camera. I ran into her much later, at the catered party the festival had on the last night of the weekend. Her name was Terry, and she felt moved to straighten me out with the facts.
“Already he could write better than anyone else, how in the world could I ever respond?” she insisted.
My Pat moments didn’t end there, nowhere near it. During what turned out to be a three-day love fest in honor of Pat Conroy, it seemed every time I turned around, he was there exuberant and smiling. We were friends now and he wanted my story; he wanted to know what I thought about the poetry panel, and he told me the panel discussions by the authors of “Story River Books” would be right up my alley. And they were, and it all was. Every moment of each day during the “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration was a gift that keeps on giving for many reasons, but mostly because of my magic moments with Pat.
I understand the USC Press and the USCB Center for the Arts will hold its first annual literary conference this October in honor of Pat Conroy, where his spirit, no doubt, will be hovering. To this I have one thing to say:
I’m looking forward.