When I left home for Paradise U (sometimes called The Citadel) I felt like freedom had finally graced me with its presence. For me the Plebe system was like living in West Palm or on Mission Bay in San Diego or even Sullivan’s Island on the beach near Charleston. I was in Wonderland. My mother was not present to harangue me about reading books. I do think I read one book while back at home….it was either” The Life of Micky Mantle” or maybe a short summer read describing Joe DiMaggio’s 56 Game hitting streak.…there was so much important knowledge to absorb in those books that it all became a blur to me.
So, because I had a decent jump shot and the school was giving me a full scholarship (to include all of my clothes, webbing, brass, and shoe polish…what else could a college student ask for?) I reported to the gym at The Citadel per instructions of my coach, Mel Thompson. While I was very familiar with glorious arenas around the country such as The Palestra in Philadelphia, Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, Freedom Hall in Louisville, and Madison Square Garden in New York, our gym was blandly called “The Armory”. Is that sexy or what?
The first person I met in the locker room was a short, stubby kid named Conroy (who over the next three years I found to also be short on talent though I learned not to remind him of that. Cocky, green- eyed Irishman…they’re all the same.) Subsequently I discovered that this guy was an English major….the only male athlete in any college that I’ve ever known to be an ENGLISH Major…and that he loved books. He was here in my school on my basketball team and guess what he started asking me? “Bridges, do you read books?” Oh my god…the nightmare resurfaced…here we go again. The ghost of my mother rose from the cold concrete floors of our dressing room and the whole place felt ethereal. For the following three years I learned to lie effectively. I would tell Conroy I read something which was probably a well-used Playboy Magazine that was carefully smuggled into the barracks of our Institution. Certain pages were rented by the half hour to curious cadets before being passed along to others. It was called entrepreneurship and sometimes referred to on campus as the “Real World of Business”.
Finally, when I ran out of believable lies regarding my reading, Conroy confronted me in the locker room which had evolved into a stage for entertainment, a business board room, a boxing ring, a therapy center and a refuge away from the Corps…an escape where we could have profanity contest….who could be the most course with the most degenerative linguistic vocabulary. Conroy’s dressing down went this way, “Bridges, you do not read, you do not write poetry, you are an idiot. Because you have a jump shot you will probably (and miraculously) graduate from this institution. You will then most likely get a job in BFE, Mississippi at a Junior High School and coach girl’s track and field….and that will ultimately be your highest level of adult achievement….all because you never read books and therefore you are a very stupid person”. Congratulations Dumb Head.
Change ensued. Fast forward a few years to tonight, for instance. I worked all day today…29 December…New Year’s Eve is approaching but I’m far beyond needing an excuse to drink so it’s just another day of fresh air and opportunities for me…. I like to work and I’ve only seen 123,546 TV football games already in my life…plus I dislike TV immeasurably….and commercials even more immensely. As I pulled into the driveway of my patio home it dawned on me that I had just finished a book at 3:00 AM this morning and that I HAD NOTHING TO READ! I panicked, backed out of my driveway and headed to Books A Million. Yes, I know about Amazon…I’m a Prime Member (whatever that means). I did not have time to order a book so I bought three paper backs at Books A Million. The same sensation tonight assaulted me when I smoked two packs of Winston’s a day and would run out on Sunday nights in a complete panic. As with cigarettes then I am now a self-proclaimed bookaholic…..totally, unabashedly a book freak….and I must have two at all times, not just one. This form of addiction is much healthier than the tobacco habit.
My mom (who I think fell in love with Pat…she would come to visit The Citadel and walk right by me and embrace this little 5’10” smart Alek with little talent). He would charm her, tell her she reminded him of Vivien Leigh (or was it Elizabeth Taylor) and she would emirs’ herself into his web of flattery and blandishment and believe for a euphoric moment that she was Scarlett O’Hara. She loved it.
Both my mom and Conroy were amazing. They convinced a wannabe, semi-literate jock that there is power in books, there is great knowledge in books and that there is love and caring in books. Whenever Pat and I ended an email or a letter or a phone conversation he always closed with “Much Love.” He did that with many, many people…I realize that…but I to this day hold that simple phrase in the highest of meaningful adulation. His was not meant to be a romantic phrase. Pat simply meant that he cared about you (me), that he sincerely appreciated you (me) and that you were very special to him and that he would unfailingly help you if you came calling. You (I) were distinctive.
So, “For the Love of Books” as Pat would often autograph his writings, go buy one, cherish it, caress it and learn what I discovered to be a wonderful addition toward the fulfillment of life.