My Heart's Content

My Heart's Content

Thirty years of one man's truth are up for reconsideration

by Pat Conroy

The true things always ambush me on the road and take me by surprise when I am
drifting down the light of placid days, careless about flanks and rearguard
actions. I was not looking for a true thing to come upon me in the state of New
Jersey. Nothing has ever happened to me in New Jersey. But came it did, and it
came to stay.

In the past four years I have been interviewing my teammates on the 1966-67
basketball team at the Citadel for a book I'm writing. For the most part, this
has been like buying back a part of my past that I had mislaid or shut out of
my life. At first I thought I was writing about being young and frisky and able
to run up and down a court all day long, but lately I realized I came to this
book because I needed to come to grips with being middle-aged and having
ripened into a gray-haired man you could not trust to handle the ball on a fast

When I visited my old teammate Al Kroboth's house in New Jersey, I spent the
first hours quizzing him about his memories of games and practices and the
screams of coaches that had echoed in field houses more than 30 years before.
Al had been a splendid forward-center for the Citadel; at 6 feet 5 inches and
carrying 220 pounds, he played with indefatigable energy and enthusiasm. For
most of his senior year, he led the nation in field-goal percentage, with UCLA
center Lew Alcindor hot on his trail. Al was a battler and a brawler and a
scrapper from the day he first stepped in as a Green Weenie as a sophomore to
the day he graduated. After we talked basketball, we came to a subject I
dreaded to bring up with Al, but which lay between us and would not lie still.

"Al, you know I was a draft dodger and antiwar demonstrator."

"That's what I heard, Conroy," Al said. "I have nothing against what you did,
but I did what I thought was right."

"Tell me about Vietnam, big Al. Tell me what happened to you," I said.

On his seventh mission as a navigator in an A-6 for Major Leonard Robertson, Al
was getting ready to deliver their payload when the fighter-bomber was hit by
enemy fire. Though Al has no memory of it, he punched out somewhere in the
middle of the ill-fated dive and lost consciousness. He doesn't know if he was
unconscious for six hours or six days, nor does he know what happened to Major
Robertson (whose name is engraved on the Wall in Washington and on the MIA
bracelet Al wears).

When Al awoke, he couldn't move. A Viet Cong soldier held an AK-47 to his head.
His back and his neck were broken, and he had shattered his left scapula in the
fall. When he was well enough to get to his feet (he still can't recall how
much time had passed), two armed Viet Cong led Al from the jungles of South
Vietnam to a prison in Hanoi. The journey took three months. Al Kroboth walked
barefooted through the most impassable terrain in Vietnam, and he did it
sometimes in the dead of night. He bathed when it rained, and he slept in bomb
craters with his two Viet Cong captors. As they moved farther north, infections
began to erupt on his body, and his legs were covered with leeches picked up
while crossing the rice paddies.

At the very time of Al's walk, I had a small role in organizing the only
antiwar demonstration ever held in Beaufort, South Carolina, the home of Parris
Island and the Marine Corps Air Station. In a Marine Corps town at that time,
it was difficult to come up with a quorum of people who had even minor
disagreements about the Vietnam War. But my small group managed to attract a
crowd of about 150 to Beaufort's waterfront. With my mother and my wife on
either side of me, we listened to the featured speaker, Dr. Howard Levy,
suggest to the very few young enlisted marines present that if they get sent to
Vietnam, here's how they can help end this war: Roll a grenade under your
officer's bunk when he's asleep in his tent. It's called fragging and is
becoming more and more popular with the ground troops who know this war is
bullshit. I was enraged by the suggestion. At that very moment my father, a
marine officer, was asleep in Vietnam. But in 1972, at the age of 27, I thought
I was serving America's interests by pointing out what massive flaws and
miscalculations and corruptions had led her to conduct a ground war in
Southeast Asia.

In the meantime, Al and his captors had finally arrived in the North, and the
Viet Cong traded him to North Vietnamese soldiers for the final leg of the trip
to Hanoi. Many times when they stopped to rest for the night, the local
villagers tried to kill him. His captors wired his hands behind his back at
night, so he trained himself to sleep in the center of huts when the villagers
began sticking knives and bayonets into the thin walls. Following the U.S. air
raids, old women would come into the huts to excrete on him and yank out hunks
of his hair. After the nightmare journey of his walk north, Al was relieved
when his guards finally delivered him to the POW camp in Hanoi and the cell
door locked behind him.

It was at the camp that Al began to die. He threw up every meal he ate and
before long was misidentified as the oldest American soldier in the prison
because his appearance was so gaunt and skeletal. But the extraordinary
camaraderie among fellow prisoners that sprang up in all the POW camps caught
fire in Al, and did so in time to save his life.

When I was demonstrating in America against Nixon and the Christmas bombings in
Hanoi, Al and his fellow prisoners were holding hands under the full fury of
those bombings, singing "God Bless America." It was those bombs that convinced
Hanoi they would do well to release the American POWs, including my college
teammate. When he told me about the C-141 landing in Hanoi to pick up the
prisoners, Al said he felt no emotion, none at all, until he saw the giant
American flag painted on the plane's tail. I stopped writing as Al wept over
the memory of that flag on that plane, on that morning, during that time in the
life of America.

It was that same long night, after listening to Al's story, that I began to
make judgments about how I had conducted myself during the Vietnam War. In the
darkness of the sleeping Kroboth household, lying in the third-floor guest
bedroom, I began to assess my role as a citizen in the '60s, when my country
called my name and I shot her the bird. Unlike the stupid boys who wrapped
themselves in Viet Cong flags and burned the American one, I knew how to
demonstrate against the war without flirting with treason or astonishingly bad
taste. I had come directly from the warrior culture of this country and I knew
how to act. But in the 25 years that have passed since South Vietnam fell, I
have immersed myself in the study of totalitarianism during the unspeakable
century we just left behind. I have questioned survivors of Auschwitz and
Bergen-Belsen, talked to Italians who told me tales of the Nazi occupation,
French partisans who had counted German tanks in the forests of Normandy, and
officers who survived the Bataan Death March. I quiz journalists returning from
wars in Bosnia, the Sudan, the Congo, Angola, Indonesia, Guatemala, San
Salvador, Chile, Northern Ireland, Algeria. As I lay sleepless, I realized I'd
done all this research to better understand my country. I now revere words like
democracy, freedom, the right to vote, and the grandeur of the extraordinary
vision of the founding fathers. Do I see America's flaws? Of course. But I now
can honor her basic, incorruptible virtues, the ones that let me walk the
streets screaming my ass off that my country had no idea what it was doing in
South Vietnam. My country let me scream to my heart's content--the same country
that produced both Al Kroboth and me.

Now, at this moment in New Jersey, I come to a conclusion about my actions as a
young man when Vietnam was a dirty word to me. I wish I'd led a platoon of
marines in Vietnam. I would like to think I would have trained my troops well
and that the Viet Cong would have had their hands full if they entered a
firefight with us. From the day of my birth, I was programmed to enter the
Marine Corps. I was the son of a marine fighter pilot, and I had grown up on
marine bases where I had watched the men of the corps perform simulated war
games in the forests of my childhood. That a novelist and poet bloomed darkly
in the house of Santini strikes me as a remarkable irony. My mother and father
had raised me to be an Al Kroboth, and during the Vietnam era they watched in
horror as I metamorphosed into another breed of fanatic entirely. I understand
now that I should have protested the war after my return from Vietnam, after I
had done my duty for my country. I have come to a conclusion about my country
that I knew then in my bones but lacked the courage to act on: America is good
enough to die for even when she is wrong.

I looked for some conclusion, a summation of this trip to my teammate's house.
I wanted to come to the single right thing, a true thing that I may not like
but that I could live with. After hearing Al Kroboth's story of his walk across
Vietnam and his brutal imprisonment in the North, I found myself passing
harrowing, remorseless judgment on myself. I had not turned out to be the man I
had once envisioned myself to be. I thought I would be the kind of man that
America could point to and say, "There. That's the guy. That's the one who got
it right. The whole package. The one I can depend on." It had never once
occurred to me that I would find myself in the position I did on that night in
Al Kroboth's house in Roselle, New Jersey: an American coward spending the
night with an American hero.

contributed by Lisa Dulmes [This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.