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The Silent Marine
May 16, 2016
by William P. Meyers

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Growing up with what passed for Intelligence in the Marine Corps

"I've seen a thousand Marine kids and you and I both know that they're the most screwed up bunch of kids that ever lived."—The Great Santini

Recently I finally got around to reading The Great Santini by the late Pat Conroy. When I was a young writer, in my twenties, I considered many ideas for novels, including loosely biographical ones. Of course that would mean the almost trite male coming of age novel, an ever popular literary form. My coming of age was within a retired Marine Corps family, but with a twist: my father had been a career Marine but my mother had served in the Women Marines during World War II.

But one day in the lower east side of New York City I was describing my family. The know it all young woman I was talking to said "like The Great Santini." That was before the movie came out, but she had not necessarily read the book itself: more likely the New York Times book review of it. In any case I knocked it off my list. Been done. Would be seen as a copycat.

The Great Santini came out in 1976, and Pat Conroy is about 10 years older than I am. Reading the book now I recognize that anything I wrote, if based on my actual family, would seem like a copy. Colonel Meecham and Captain Meyers were both from Chicago and Mother was from the south. Captain Meyers was Catholic and Mother had converted to that religion. Possibly the woman thought I was pulling her leg.

But despite the common Marine Corps background, there are some major differences that are worth exploring. Bull Meecham, aka The Great Santini, who stood for Pat Conroy's father, was a boastful man. He was a showoff and in many ways a narcissist. And of course he was a daredevil jet fighter pilot.

My father was a Quiet Marine. He had only a high school education when he enlisted in 1938. The Marines were hiring because FDR had pummeled a few extra dollars out of Congress to start building towards conquering the world. So Father had been in the Corps a few years before the Battle of Pearl Harbor. By the time he got to Guadalcanal he was a Signal Corps Sergeant. If he ever saw actual combat, in the sense of firing a weapon at an enemy, he never talked about it.

But my father never talked much about anything. The rule in the Meyers household was not just that silence is golden, especially for children. For my brother, sister, and I speaking without being asked a direct question was punishable by anything from a sharp word to a sharp blow.

My father hated boasting. He and Mother also claimed to hate lying, though I eventually figured out that lying was more natural to them than raising children.

In short, while my father had a number of assignments while in the Corps, the one that suited him best was Intelligence Officer. I can personally attest to the fact that he could inflict a great deal of pain upon a person without leaving a bruise that some other adult might question. I don't know how accurate The Great Santini is, I imagine it is exaggerated because it is quite entertaining, but Captain Meyers did not beat his children anywhere near as often as Bull Meecham did. And he never, ever punched one of us in the mouth or face.

Then again my Mother [see Juanita Meyers] was the opposite of Lillian Meecham, who was as gentle as could be. Mother was as gentle as a mortar barrage. One reason my father rarely beat us was that she kept us in line with a constant diet of pain and threats of pain.

So I write to some extent because I don't speak so much, though I have loosened up over the decades. We were also forbidden to smile. "Wipe that smile off your face," might have been the family motto. (Actually, it was "don't volunteer."). Try fitting into a social group when your neural networks have been trained to not talk unless answering a question and never, ever, smile. Fortunately, at some point I read How To Win Friends and Influence People. I found that if I asked people an occasional question many of them would chat endlessly, hardly even noticing the conversation was one-sided. If someone wanted to ask the questions, that was easy for me. If my parents asked questions, you had better answer.

But Father (he did not require us to call him Captain, except when we were giving his name to someone else) did do me quite a bit of good. He taught me numbers and baseball when I was five and encouraged me to be interested in science. He retired when I was six years old, and was considerably more open-minded in his views than Mother. He became more like a normal person over the decades after he left the Corps.

I do go on sometimes. If I had a literary agent or better still, a publisher, I would write The Silent Marine. Complete with wonderful, only partially made up stories about interrogating prisoners, marching across craters just after nuclear test explosions, and working for the Office of Naval Intelligence undercover at a shipping company. But then again if I had an agent or publisher, there are a lot of projects I would like to finish up. There would be quite a choice.

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