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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804

Bull Meecham is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps who routinely declares himself the best fighter pilot alive. He is stationed at the Ravenel Marine Air Base in South Carolina. He moves to Ravenel with his family, Lillian, a southern aristocrat; seventeen-year-old Ben, their athletic oldest son; sixteen-year-old...

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Bull Meecham is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps who routinely declares himself the best fighter pilot alive. He is stationed at the Ravenel Marine Air Base in South Carolina. He moves to Ravenel with his family, Lillian, a southern aristocrat; seventeen-year-old Ben, their athletic oldest son; sixteen-year-old Mary Anne, their brilliant yet acerbic daughter; and Karen and Matt, who strive like their older siblings to earn their father’s approval while dodging his frequent flights of temper.

Bombastic and flamboyant, Bull asks no quarter and gives none. He often threatens his children with physical violence and occasionally makes good on his threats. Bull is fond of referring to himself in the third person at times, calling himself the Great Santini and requiring his children to recite a litany of his praises. Despite his arrogance and swagger, he makes friends with locals at Hobie’s Diner and with his senior sergeant and the others under his command. Bull establishes control over the 367th Marine Squadron with leadership qualities that earn the respect and loyalty of his men. At the same time, he has a temper that turns on his children, particularly Ben.

Settling into life in Ravenel is not as easy as it could be for Bull or the family. His commanding officer, Colonel Varney, is also his enemy, a hatred that goes back to the time when they were young lieutenants. To ensure the success of his new squadron, Bull will have to swallow more pride than he finds palatable.

Early in the school year, daughter Mary Anne forces her brother Ben to intercede in a schoolyard brawl on behalf of Ben’s friend, Sammy Wertzberger, who is being picked on by the local delinquent, Red Pettus. Red actually pulls a knife on Ben, and although Ben gets the better of him, the Pettus family will remain his enemy.

In his first meeting with the officers and pilots of his new squadron, Bull explains in typical humorous hyperbole and braggadocio that he will accept nothing less than extraordinary excellence from them. Not long after this meeting he is challenged by Ben to their semiannual game of basketball. Ben defeats his father in a close match, but Bull refuses angrily to acknowledge his son’s win. Bull instead immediately calls for a rematch. Lillian attempts to interfere but is kicked by Bull—literally off the court. Bull then follows Ben as his son leaves the court, bouncing the ball off the back of the teenager’s head. Bull, the hero-villain father and fighter pilot, gears up for what will be called the Cuban Missile Crisis. He expects—and needs—a war that never materializes fully.

Ben is now a hero on the basketball team, promoting himself overnight from quiet newcomer to small-town celebrity. The worst part of the games for Ben is his father’s attendance; even as the entire school revels in Ben’s victories, they are never enough for Bull. One day, Ben is fouled hard by an opposing player in a clear attempt at intimidation. Bull screams to his son, “You get that little pimp, or I’m gonna get you.” Ben attacks the opposing player, causing him to break his arm. As a result, Ben is dismissed from the team.

Some time later, Ben is wrongfully locked up and accused of drunk driving by a vindictive deputy sheriff. Bull refuses to hear Ben’s story and instead simply slaps him down and leaves him in the jail cell. Ben’s principal, Mr. Dacus, helps the boy out of jail. Even as Bull keeps his family at arm’s length with such acts of abuse, he also buys a stunning evening gown for Mary Anne so she can accompany Ben to their high school prom.

Red Pettus shoots Toomer Smalls, the son of the Meecham’s housekeeper, at his home in the woods, and Ben rushes to save him at Mary Anne’s insistence; he arrives too late. His father, arriving even later, slaps Ben for having defied his order in leaving the house, before he realizes that Toomer is dead.

Bull assaults Lillian after a drunken party with his fellow Marines. His entire family attacks him to defend her, and he eventually runs out into the night. Lillian sends the unwilling Ben after him. Ben captures his incoherent drunk father and is able to calm him only by telling him “I love you” over and over. Not long after, Bull leaves his family and his comrades, bombastic and enigmatic as ever. He refuses to eject from his burning jet until he is sure the falling jet will not hurt innocent civilians on the ground. He is killed in the crash, and Ben and his family are forever left with their chaotic and contradictory memories of their father.

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