By SCOTT GRABER
When I was at The Citadel, there were few college women in Charleston.
Yes, there was the College of Charleston, but in those days there might have been 100 co-eds on that campus. There were another 50 or so women at Ashley Hall; and perhaps another 50 at the Naval Base. If one wanted a tactile relationship one had to travel to Columbia, Greenville or even farther.
If one wanted to sustain a long-distance relationship, one had to write letters.
And letter writing, especially that first year when we found ourselves in a hell on earth, came naturally to me. In fact, I became an unpaid “consultant” to my less-than-literate classmates, who were desperate to write personal, intimate remarks to women at Converse, Winthrop and Mary Washington.
I ghost-wrote letters because I wanted to be popular, but I actually enjoyed telling stories about midnight “sweat parties,” running through the campus before dawn and memorializing the indiscriminate, indigenous violence that was happening in the barracks.
As time went on, my talent came to the attention of the upperclassmen, and I was ordered to write (their girlfriends) about their manliness and their magnificence. Soon, however, they wanted words of romance and seduction that they would not, or could not, manufacture on their own.
I knew enough about (romantic) letter writing to understand the need for details. One needed to know the color of the girl’s eyes; the way she cut her hair; the perfume she used. As time passed I became emboldened.
“How many times, sir, have you been intimate with Miss Claire?”
“Who the hell do you think you are smack-head!” was usually the cadet’s reply. “No way are we going into that stuff.”
“The smack-head needs to have details if the smack-head is to be persuasive, sir.”
“Jesus Christ!” the senior would blurt-out, “We’ve done it four times.”
“Would that be full-on frontal or something …”
“Get the hell out of my room you little pervert …”
And though I would scurry out the door, it was usually a matter of minutes before the cadet would come to my room, admitting “We’ve never had what you call, ‘full-on frontal. “Are you happy now? Are you satisfied you little scumbag. Now write the damned letter.”
You may think that this lack of experience was rare at the Citadel. But if one remembers reading My Losing Season by Pat Conroy — my classmate and contemporary — there was very little sex going on in his life.
This is not to say Pat didn’t think about sex at The Citadel — he was just too played-out from parades, basketball practice and the fill-every-moment-with-activity formula then in vogue.
Cadets not only contemplated sex; but we endlessly planned the four or five big weekends when girls would fly into Charleston for a formal dance — called a “hop” — preceded by a parade. We thought about how to get the girls to Charleston; where they would stay; and how we would pay for the stuffed flounder at Henry’s or Marianne’s.
But we were also figuring out what we would say, or do, while they were in town. Would there be a declaration of love? The giving of a necklace? Would there be sex?
In those days there was a formal dance on Friday night; then on Saturday night a party on the pier at Folly Beach.
Up until Saturday night things were ceremonial — often involving swords, scarlet sashes and dance cards. But the party at Folly was legendary for the drinking, for the Animal House-quality behavior, for the number of cadets (or their dates) who ended up in the Atlantic Ocean.
Often — not always — carefully nurtured relationships came crashing down during or after the party at Folly.
I know this is where I provide a story involving the removal of trousers, the exposure of buttocks, and vomit. Always there is vomit. But I won’t go into those weeds right now. Not here. My point is that there was little everyday interaction with girls when I was at the military college.
And as I sit next to my carefully tended fire, I wonder if the 500 women graduated since 1999 have changed the behavior of the boys.
More to the point, I wonder if the daily presence of women has changed the logistics of dating, or changed how cadets deal with women in a larger sense.
I’ve got to think things are better — the desperation gone — but one never knows.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.