My first writing teacher, Lillian Tisdale, a.k.a., Mother, schooled me in the art of the brief thank-you note. My birthday and Christmas fell a week apart (and still do, actually), and so each January became a bulk, thank-you-note writing time of misery for me.
(I could digress here on the enduring disappointments of “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday” presents, but I won’t.)
Writing those notes was a chore, but years later the practice paid dividends when Lillian threw up her parenting hands and shipped me off to Augusta Military Academy, a sort of prep-school gulag for underachievers. This was during the days when long distance calls were major purchase decisions, so I began to write letters. I discovered that all that thank-you-note writing had given birth to a special talent: I could tell a story in an entertaining way. The letter-writing bug bit hard, and I began to dispatch letter upon letter to almost everyone I knew.
For the benefit of younger readers, here’s an historical note: Long before email, chatting and texting, people actually sent one another handwritten letters on pricey stationery by way of the U. S. Mail. (Few people know that stationery has an archaic second meaning: infuriating handwriting mistakes in ink.) One could write friends, cousins, that aunt one’s parents admonished one to write—and they would all write back. A letter would typically travel from the East to West Coast in days, a week at most, unless it was mailed with insufficient postage from, for example, a tourist trap in Germany. Then it might not arrive until months after a girlfriend had written one off as uncaring and moved on to a new boyfriend.
Letters enabled me to be creative in telling what I’d been up to. “George writes such interesting letters,” my many correspondents relayed to Lillian. Had I suspected the unintended consequence of those reports, I might have looked at stamp or coin collecting to while away the lonely hours. For when college-choosing time rolled around, I barely got the “Uni” of a University-of-Montana wish beyond my lips when Lillian said, “You’re going to Virginia Military Institute.” Like it or not, I understood her logic: AMA’s military educational model had worked for her son, so why mess with a winning formula, especially one that had such a delightful, epistolary byproduct?
And so VMI it was. VMI had a longer tradition than AMA of young men being coerced into attending it. But since AMA had been modeled on VMI, I wasn’t worried. I was an old hand at the military school business. How bad could VMI be?
Next post: How bad VMI was (and other things)