Friday, May 25, 2012

GI John

While Flannery O'Connor was in school at Georgia State College for Women, the Second World War was raging overseas.  Partly because of the presence of the all-female institution, soldiers were a familiar sight on the streets of Milledgeville.  The citizens of this community welcomed them with open arms, especially Flannery's aunts, the Cline sisters.  Whenever any man in uniform would show up at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, he would be invited to the Cline mansion after mass for a family dinner.  One Sunday, a handsome Marine Sergeant named John Sullivan was handed a note by Flannery's Aunt Katie Cline inviting him to be her guest at the Greene Street home for a midday dinner.  Sullivan readily accepted, and it was during this visit that he met Flannery, then in her first year at GSCW.  The two hit it off at once, in part due to their common backgrounds.  Sullivan, an Ohio boy, came from a large Roman Catholic family.  According to Brad Gooch, the two of them "were able to trade funny stories and share suppressed giggles, as he [Sullivan] became a regular visitor, a 'fixture' welcomed by all the aunts and uncles." (Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, p. 100)  Despite their similarities, Flannery and Sullivan were different in some ways.  He was debonair, outgoing, and confident.  She, who was not used to the company of young men, was awkward and painfully shy.  Yet, there was something about Flannery's off-beat humor that attracted the Marine.  The two of them went on long walks and occasionally went to see a movie.  Sullivan even escorted her to a college dance, though he discovered quickly that Flannery had two left feet.  Many years later, Sullivan said that theirs had been "a close comradeship," not a romance.  Nevertheless, as Gooch asserts, "the two played at romance enough to tease a hopeful mother.  Once, as they sat together on the couch in the parlor, Regina called liltingly over the stairwell, 'Mary Flannery wouldn't you and John like to polish the silver?'  After an exchange of amused glances her daughter wickedly answered with a flat, 'No.'"  (Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, p. 100).  Though none of O'Connor's surviving classmates or relatives remembers him, I am inclined to believe that Sullivan was Flannery's first crush.  After he left for training camp in the Pacific war zone, he and Flannery exchanged letters until the time he entered St. Gregory's Seminary in Cincinnati just after the war to study for the priesthood.  The root of Flannery's infatuation with John Sullivan may have been the similarity he bore to her recently deceased father.  Like Ed O'Connor, Sullivan was handsome, occasionally in uniform, and was "both confidant and supporter." (Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, p. 101).  As we observe Memorial Day on Monday, let us pause to remember the thousands of young men, like John Sullivan, who served our country with valor. 
- Mark

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