I've shared different versions of this reflection over the years. Today, on the anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole, I share this most recently updated version that I featured in last years' AN ALMOST TOLERABLE PERSON, a memoir that would have been quite incomplete without this chapter about Pat.
I think of him every day. His photo hangs on a wall in my classroom. Today I'm thinking of his family and many friends all over the world. He was an amazing young man who continues to teach me on a regular basis.
In the fall of 2000, I was teaching and coaching at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in North Jersey and attending graduate school full-time at Seton Hall University. I’d spent the previous four years as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, theater director, nighttime security guy, and Dean of Students at The Storm King School, an independent boarding school in the scenic Hudson Valley of New York.
October 12, 2000. The United States Navy Destroyer USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers at the Port of Aden, in Yemen. It was a Thursday.
When I first heard about the attack on the news, I was sad to hear about it. It was bad news on what I recall was a day of bad news stories, but something about the report bothered me. It was like a slight buzzing on the edges of my mind that I had no explanation for. I remember shaking my head and returning to whatever it was that I’d been doing.
The next evening, the wife and I had dinner at the Dublin Pub in Morristown, NJ and a went to see movie that I don’t recall. Returning home, as we often did, we checked the answering machine. (Remember, this is before cell phones were really a thing) After a few messages for the wife from work, there was one from Billy, my good friend who was still at Storm King. I was just walking into the room and greeting our black lab, Gracie, as Billy’s normally bombastic voice dolefully resounded through the tinny speaker.
“Kugs…I don’t know if you’ve heard, but, that ship that got hit out there, in Yemen, well, I don’t know how to say this, but Pat was on it. It looks like they can’t find him…call me.”
I remember falling backwards, just catching the edge of the bed as that buzzing in the back of my head grew louder with sudden understanding. Gracie came up and laid her head on my lap and I scratched her head. I remember saying “I just knew…” Then, I cried a lot.
Pat Roy was the kind of student that makes me miss teaching English. He was not a spectacular student, but a good one who worked very hard and was surprisingly creative in his approach to language and literature. In the few years I knew him, he gave me some of the best moments I’ve ever had as a teacher, a coach, and really, just as a human being.
He was also the kind of athlete that makes me miss coaching. I was the assistant lacrosse coach, mostly because I was pals with the head coach and we wanted to hang out. I learned the game in order to do the job and Pat was helpful to me in those efforts. He was not an amazing athlete but he worked really hard at that as well. He really loved lacrosse and was a coach’s kind of player, selfless, team-oriented, fearless, and fun to be around. I remember hearing the head coach say, “Kugs…give me a team full of kids like Pat. That would be a fun team” on more than one occasion.
Pat was a student of the game, throwing himself into his position as a defenseman. He was the kind of player that you knew would make a great coach in the future. I remember well the times that he simply willed our team on to victory with his infectious enthusiasm or times when he simply had a better idea than everyone else. There were also times that he simply threw himself in front of the ball as it was shot towards our goaltender. I kept all the game statistics and he asked me early in one season to track blocked shots for him. “Like they do in hockey, Kugs.” I told him he could easily track it himself by counting the bruises on his body, but he grinned and said “Come on, Kugs,” and I agreed. I was happy to do it, since Pat had asked. He blocked a lot of shots.
Pat made some mistakes on campus early in his time at school, including an incident where my car was shaving-creamed and the air was let out of all four tires. I was in my early twenties and not as mature as I should have been, as I look back on those days. I was living in the dormitory at the time and that type of close living can lend itself to hard feelings and small worlds in which to express them. Initially, I was angry and offended at what had been done to my car. I’m embarrased now at the way that I overreacted. I wanted justice and was intolerable for days until Pat came to talk to me. While no one else from the offending group stepped up, Pat did. He was sorry, and he made that clear. He looked me in the eye and apologized. He also made mention of the fact that no real damage had been done. Eventually, I was able to write the whole thing off as a goof, because of Pat.
There were other times during his tenure at school where I saw him behave in a manner that was way beyond his years, not just with his immature teachers, but with his classmates and dormmates. A lot of those stories are wildly entertaining and not really appropriate for this setting, but rest assured, those stories are told and shared and cherished by those who knew him, but there are a few that I can share.
I was trying to teach Hamlet to a group of seniors that had little interest and less motivation to study Shakespeare. Pat was in the class as we were trying to read aloud the “Folger Library’s” excellent translation. It was not going well. At all.
After we’d slogged through another tremendously unproductive class, Pat stayed behind for a moment, I believed because the young lady he was dating was in my next class. While he waited, he was quite comfortable telling me: “Kugs…this reading aloud thing is not gonna work for everybody. Like it is NOT working.”
He was right, of course. I was trying to teach a play in a dead and overly artistic language to students who came from wildly disparate academic backgrounds and in some cases, countries. Everyone was amazingly uncomfortable and the last few days where I’d tried to have them read the play aloud had been a colossal waste of time.
“Well, you got any ideas?” I asked. He did. He always seemed to.
He thought that the class would be able to understand what was going on if they were able to follow along in their Folger editions as they watched it onscreen. I remember his saying: “If everyone can see what’s happening, I think they’d get it.” I checked out the fabulous Kenneth Branagh version of the play and it turns out that Pat was right. Everything clicked and that unit with that group of seniors is among my favorite memories of teaching. I never taught Shakespeare the same way again. Pat forced me to think differently as a teacher and I did for the rest of my career. That was a fun group, especially once we were all on the same page, thanks to Pat.
I think my favorite memory of him might be the words he spoke at halftime of the championship match at the Harvey School during his senior season. The team was playing poorly and starting to get down on itself, as we were losing for the first time all season.
It was a crisp and clear afternoon. The field sat atop a hill surrounded by trees and I can still see Pat in my mind there, leaning on his longstick, as the Coach asked him if he had anything to add before we went back out for the second half. He said “Guys, I’m going to be on a ship somewhere in a year, and I don’t think they’ll let me bring my stick, so this is like my last game ever. I’d rather remember going out there with my friends and having fun playing lacrosse and leaving it all out there on the field.”
And they did. We still lost that game, but the way the team performed in the second half was genuinely satisfying. Despite the loss, I remember Pat smiling at least a little on the bus ride home.
There was another time when a group of students had pulled some kind of prank on me, which again was not uncommon in those days. I overacted again, which I’m embarrassed to say was also not that uncommon in those days. I decided who was at fault and lashed out at the group. They lashed back and that led to several uncomfortable days for all of us since these were young men in my classes, in my dorm, and on my team. It was Pat that sought me out, and told me, “Kugs-I’m not going to tell you who pulled that prank on you, but I will tell you that it wasn’t the guys you flipped out on.”
And I believed him, because it was Pat. I found those guys and apologized. They were less than enthusiastic about my efforts and actually got kind of snarfy about my even approaching them. It was Pat, again, who said, “Let it go guys-he stepped up and said he was wrong. Let it go.”
And we all let it go. Because of Pat.
Yes, I may have been the adult here, but those lines get very blurred in a boarding school environment like SKS. I was young and impulsive and so were most of the kids I dealt with. It made for some interesting times and interesting dynamics.
I remember the last time I saw Pat Roy. He visited school after graduation in his uniform, before he shipped out on his first tour of duty, on the Cole. He didn’t look different to me, except for the uniform. I already thought he was a pretty solid young man by that point but the gravitas that his uniform afforded him suited him. I shook his hand as he was leaving, and told him to take care and to keep in touch. I was proud that I’d been the Dean for his class and prouder still that I’d gotten to know him. I knew he was destined to make a difference with his life and I looked forward to seeing what he did with it.
When Pat was killed, I remember feeling that my life as a teacher had just grown less magical. I’d never lost a student before, much less one that I thought as highly of as Pat Roy. I remember showing up at Pope John that next Monday having missed a morning department meeting. My boss at the time found me just before classes started and voiced her displeasure at my absence. I had only been there a few months and didn’t really know anyone that well. I remember standing in the hall just outside my classroom thinking that there was no way I was going to get through the day. I asked her if she’d seen the story about the sailors who’d been killed on the USS Cole. She said that she had. I replied, “One of my students was on that ship. I just lost one of the best I ever taught…” I wanted to go home and crawl into bed with the dog and try to wake up in a world where the attack hadn’t happened, but I made it through the day. Returning to my duty seemed like the better tribute to Pat. So that’s what I did.
They held a memorial service for Pat at Storm King a few weeks later and I went up and spent the weekend on campus. It was a very strange weekend since I was definitely an outsider returning. The staff had changed and the kids had changed too. The weekend went by in a bit of a blur. I remember standing on the field where they planted a tree for him. This was the field that Pat had roamed as a defenseman and even run balls for me when I coached the soccer team. It was a beautiful day and a lot of the old crew returned to campus to honor him. There was laughter and pranks on Kugs remembered. It was a fitting way to remember him. Pat’s family attended and to this day, I remain genuinely moved by their grace and humility.
Before I left campus, I took a picture of Pat’s tree. It was small, with brilliantly bright yellow leaves that reminded me of that time he dyed his hair, and it looked out on the sports fields and the Hudson Valley from atop Storm King Mountain. I displayed it in my classroom and later in my offices when I moved into full-time administrative positions. When I left education, I brought it home, where it sits on a shelf in my living room as I write this.
Over the years, I would look at that picture, seeing that little yellow tree and it would seem to impart just the right message at just the right time. Perhaps I was dealing with a really tough discipline problem and seeing Pat’s tree would remind me to be fair and to hear the whole story. And not to overreact. I have other memories of times when the students were driving me out of my mind and looking at that tree would remind me that whatever my current crop of students were doing, it would pale in comparison to some of the stuff Pat and his pals pulled back in the day. That would make me laugh every time. Other times, I would see it and it would make me sad for the loss of a beautiful young life, so full of promise and talent and humor, to such a senseless act of violence. No parent should have to bury their child. I am sad to think of his family, his younger brother in particular, who lost far more than I did, having to move on without him. I still have an image of Pat coming into my office at the end of his senior year with his brother on his shoulders, saying, “Kugs-this is my little brother,” and flashing a proud smile. It was one of the happiest I’d ever seen him. It still makes my heart hurt.
But then, I think of Pat and something he said to me as I, in one of my heavier stages, was running laps with the lacrosse team. I was exhausted and ready to give up after a few laps and I’m sure I looked every bit the “old guy trying to keep up.” I can still see his smiling face as he turned, jogging backwards with an easy grace so he could see me as he called out, “Suck it up, Kugs! You gotta dig DEEP!” That makes me laugh, even now, all these years later. I’ve tried to do just that.
I’m a far better, far more tolerable person for having known Pat Roy. It’s a poorer world, for certain, without him.
Excerpt borrowed from AN ALMOST TOLERABLE PERSON, published 2021 by Four Leaf Publishing
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