2000s Archive

Love, Death, and Macaroni

Originally Published February 2003
A young boy discovers that real loss can spur appetites of all kinds.

In 1962, I was playing the first baseball game of the season with Beaufort High School. Our best pitcher was the boy who sat next to me in Gene Norris’s English class, Randy Randel, son of the school superintendent. Randy was a superb athlete and a delight for us other boys in the classroom—mouthy, irreverent, and extroverted.

Mr. Norris would get ex asperated with Randy and say, “Sit down in your seat, Randy, you fool. And hush your mouth, boy.”

“Norris,” Randy would say sadly, “don’t forget who my father is. Your job’s hanging by a thread, Gene. One word from me, and you’re in the unemployment line.”

“Don’t you dare call me Gene, you little scalawag,” Mr. Norris would rage. “How dare you threaten me with my job!”

“No threat, Gene,” Randy would say, grinning at the class. “I’m talking fact here, son.”

Randy had asked me to go golfing with him on Easter weekend, when his parents were returning to his grand mother’s house in Newberry, South Carolina. Because I was a military brat, I had never gone to anyone’s house for a whole weekend in my life. Up until then my high-school years had been excruciatingly lonely ones. My mother was thrilled that Randy had extended this invitation, and gave me permission to go immediately.

At 15, Randy was six feet four inches tall and a true baseball talent. Already there was talk about his pitching in the major leagues one day. But that first game our coach started Jimmy Melvin, a lanky junior who was hit hard by the visiting Wade Hampton team in the first inning. Jimmy Melvin’s name is now enshrined on the wall of black marble honoring those killed in action in Vietnam during that long, dispiriting war. The coach replaced Jimmy with Bruce Harper, who had a fastball I was afraid of, but Bruce was throwing wild that afternoon. Soon the coach had Randy warming up in what passed for a bull pen at Beaufort High. Bruce Harper would walk out of the history of that game and into the history of his time: He would serve with distinction as one of John Ehrlichman’s lawyers during the Watergate trials.

Then it was Randy Randel’s time, and he was called on to shut down the Wade Hampton Generals. Randy was going to prove that there was substance to all the talk about his chances in the majors. He struck out five of the first seven batters he faced, and the other two batters did not even get the ball out of the infield.

Randy Randel had not allowed a single hit when he fell suddenly to the ground after striking out his fifth batter. The ambulance finally ar rived, and a girl named Pat Everette gave Randy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until Dr. Herbert Keyserling moved her aside and injected a shot of pure adrenaline into Randy’s heart. The doctor said that Randy had been dead when he hit the ground. In that moment, the lives of every witness to Randy Randel’s fall to the earth had been changed, and changed for all time.

In Eugene Norris’s English class the next day, Randy’s empty seat exuded a disconsolate sense of loss. His seat’s emptiness filled the room. The whole world seemed misplaced and ill-fitting. My class and I were in a state of shock when Gene Norris walked into the room, cleaning his glasses with his tie.

“I was just thinking about grief and how we express it. Or how we don’t. Boys seem to have the toughest time showing how much they hurt, but don’t be afraid to. Not in this room. Not among those who loved Randy with you.”

The room came apart, and I cracked like an egg. I wept for two days and could do nothing to stop myself. I wrote my first poem about Randy’s death and gave it to his mother and father after the funeral. Nor did I have to call off my trip to Newberry, because Randy was buried there with his mother’s people in the Rosemont Cemetery. I rode to Newberry with Gene Norris and stayed in his Uncle John and Aunt Elizabeth’s house, where I fell in love with Gene’s pretty cousin, Liz, or “Cuz,” as he called her.

I did not know then that love and death could find each other at the same dance. Liz was an uncommonly lovely freshman at Columbia College, and I was smitten the moment I walked into the room. She moved with a dreamy, sophisticated air that made me and the other high-school boys who encountered her unsteady in our loafers.

On the way to Randy’s burial service, I asked Mr. Norris, “Does Liz ever date high-school boys, Mr. Norris?”

“Of course not,” Gene said, dismissing the fact out of hand. “She wouldn’t be caught dead with a high-school Harry like you. Liz only dates the cream of the crop. College boys. From the very best fraternities. Her boyfriend’s going to be a doctor. Yes, sir, a doctor.”

“If she ever breaks up with her doctor friend, I’d sure be interested, Mr. Norris.”

“Of course you’d be interested, boy,” he said. “But she’s got big plans with a Clemson man. She left you boys back in the playgrounds a long time ago. Now quit mooning over my cousin and start thinking about Randy.”

When I got to Randy’s grandmother’s house, I could smell the food all the way up the hill on Main Street, where we parked the car. His grandmother, Mrs. Smith, who would soon become Mamaw to me, introduced me to Dunbar macaroni. She gave me the history, lore, and legend of the dish as she served me a large portion.

pat conroy
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