Military dads in literature
It is I, Santini. The Great Santini. Soldier of Fortune. Beast of Ravenel. Minister of Death. And the best damn pilot in the Marine Corps.”
“How much sugar does the Beast of Ravenel want in his coffee?”
“No sugar. I don’t want nothing to make me sweet.”
Pat Conroy – The Great Santini
When I was still living in London, I was confined to bed for a week. I can’t remember what was wrong me – probably bronchitis or something similar – but I do remember what I was reading (or re-reading to be precise): The Great Santini a semi-autobiographical novel by Pat Conroy. In general I don’t read a book twice. I want to read as many books as possible. However, I will always make an exception for Conroy’s books, and this has to be one of his best. And the Great Santini, Bull Meecham, one of the most explosive characters on the page ever.
It’s 1962. Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meecham is all Marine. As a fighter pilot, he’s strict on discipline, hard on his children (Ben, Matt, Mary Anne and Karen) and determined to run his family like his own air squadron. His wife Lillian loves him and puts up with his strictness, teasing him occasionally in her own subtle way. As the novel starts, the Meechum family are moving again, this time to the Ravenel Air Base near Charleston, South Carolina. Bull expects his family to adjust because his bombastic, outrageous, alcohol-swilling , foul-mouthed nature allows his easy integration anywhere. Despite this it’s not so easy for the rest of the family:
Mary Anne Meechum: I hate this place.
Lillian Meechum: Now sugar, you’ve got to open yourself to a town. You’ve been in the corps long enough to know that.
Mary Anne Meechum: I am not in the corps.
Matthew Meechum: Says you!
Bull Meechum: Shut your little yaps! Now here it is sports fans, Beaufort S.C.!
Bull has a particularly difficult relationship with his oldest son, Ben, who sums up what he thinks of his dad’s selfishness:
He only stops for three reasons: trains, the death of someone in the car, or if he has to go to the bathroom…”
And later in the book, (no spoilers), when Ben is talking to his mother, especially with regard to his father’s bullying behaviour, he says:
Do you know that for most of my life I hates his guts?”
Despite this, Ben always a certain level of admiration for his father. His secret dreams of training as a fighter pilot himself sustain him when they are at their most confrontational.
Yet Bull Meecham has redeeming features, especially when he goes out to buy Mary Anne a prom dress she desperately wants. The only problem is he slightly ruins it with his own reaction to her all dolled up: “I didn’t know you looked so stacked, sports fans”. (Mary Anne’s response: “How sicko sexual can you get?”)
I love Bull Meecham for all his flaws.
And who could not be impressed with a character who answers his son’s query about whether he would like to die in action with the response:
It’s better than dying of piles!”?