How I became a writer, part two (incarceration)

A few years back, I edited a client’s draft of a website page about his company’s headquarters location. The text began, “Ah, Petersburg.” Now, in George’s Style Manual (Make-believe Publications, 2008, page such and such) that expression falls under “Corny clichés to avoid,” where I give it a five-ear rating. (One ear equals the annual harvest of a leading, corn-growing state.) Is there any instance when one may write “Ah, (something)”? Not really. And in certain cases, the expression would be laughable as well as inconceivable. Take “Ah,  totalitarianism,” for example, or “Ah, Virginia Military Institute.” Some subjects simply cannot be romanced via trite expression or otherwise.

Hand-tinted postcard of VMI barracks

Marching was a popular activity at VMI, as was standing in formation.

From the moment I arrived at VMI, I discovered that Augusta Military Academy was its secondary-school equivalent in imagination only. How bad was VMI? It was back-of-fridge, mayo-based, eons past sell-date bad.

One’s first year was the worst. VMI didn’t allow freshmen, or as we were affectionately called in the corps of cadets, “Rats,” to have radios or stereos. The only respite was mail. To encourage its daily arrival, I wrote letters night and day, often revising them, sometimes illustrating them. I wrote to anyone who’d write back—the furthest of distant cousins, the slightest of casual friends, even my sister. When I discovered that certain businesses loved having pen pals, I struck up ongoing correspondence with them. (In industry terms, they are often referred to as “direct marketers.”) I wrote so many letters that I neglected the world of letters along with the worlds of science, mathematics, et al., and as my Rat Year drew to a close, I found myself in a world of academic hurt: academic probation.

My Rat photo in the VMI Bomb

What did I have to smile about for my first VMI yearbook photo? Not much.

My problems didn’t end there. I was also on conduct probation for one too many demerits. Well, to be precise, it was not one; it was a 72-ish number. And I was on confinement to barracks for an I-don’t-remember-what transgression. Unlike my poor GPA, however, these other problems had nothing whatsoever to do with excessive letter writing. No, they were the natural effects of an extended period of incarceration. But at least my first year at VMI was over, and I had a nice break coming before I had to return to VMI for both summer school sessions and more letter writing.

My sophomore year at VMI, life began to look up as I undertook the only major I was suited for: English. Under the onslaught of essays, letter writing waned. Then came the day I called an Air Force Captain an SOB for giving my roommate a demerit. Fortunately, the officer had just left our room. Unfortunately, he was standing outside the door listening. The next day, I stood before the Commandant of Cadets (read “unfriendly dean of students”) who said to me, “Tisdale, you’re not the kind of cadet we want at VMI.” In principle, I agreed with him, but VMI’s Superintendent (read “aloof but kind college president”) took pity on me and let me stay for the cost of a months-long penalty of confinement, which included 40 hour-long personal tours of the front of barracks with a rifle resting on my shoulder. And so, restricted to VMI and its environs, I returned to my default coping mechanism: writing letters by the bushelful.

Was that Air Force officer an SOB? Yes, indeed he was. And as much as I might liked to have lied about it, VMI has a rather strict honor code. I had no choice but to tell the truth. It was a real-life Catch-22.

Next post, my circuitous route to becoming a writer takes me from art school to the U. S. Army to advertising, all in all, a natural progression.


  1. Very entertaining reading George….I cant believe your AMA experience did not prepare you for VMI ! It must have been pure rebellion after your stay at America’s Miniature Alcatraz, as AMA was fondly refered to

    • Jorge, it prepared me, but my mistake was in thinking I was fully prepared. Of course there were huge differenes: high-school academics versus college, and AMA’s initiation versus VMI’s late-August “Cadre Week” initiation followed by the Rat Line experience lasting from fall and into mid-February. AMA was a great experience. I can remember sitting in “The Big Room” wrestling with Doc Savege’s organic chemistry-being forced to study-and the amazed realization that I could get decent grades. AMA was tough-love nurturing, whereas VMI was “This is college and you make it or don’t on your own.” Many in my VMI class didn’t. We matriculated 318 and graduated 195. (I was the 318th to sign “The Big Book” that first day due to a long detour around flooding from Hurricane Camille). I started with three roommates. One, on a full ride for football, left after a week saying, “I can’t play football and put up with this s**t,” and a second left at Christmas. Some of my VMI classmates were kicked out for rotten grades, a few were drummed out for honor offenses (one or two Brother Rats within a few months of graduation), but most left because they wanted a normal college experience. Both schools left their mark on me, and good, bad, or indifferent, I treasure all of the memories from each experience.

  2. You paint too cheerful a picture! Most of my rat year I don’t recall with much humor. When I was in 1st Armored Division in Iraq during the first Gulf War, one of my captains asked me why I never seemed to get angry at the stupid stuff that happened–I told her that no matter how bad things got, they would never be as bad as my rat year. Congratulations on gaining some perspective! Mike

    • I’ve always said that the worst day of my life was day one at VMI, and the second worst was day two. Not a day was fun, but I can laugh about it now that I have some perspective.

  3. Who was the USAF officer that was the Son of a Bitch? Porter? Wiggins? Shirley?

    Don’t feel too sorry for yourself George, I was on AcPro for five terms…I graduated, and on time; never worked harder in my life until 2011….

    “Nay, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, my Brother Rats and I are STILL some of the meanest Sons-a-bitches in the Valley!”

    Off to see the latest member of the class of 2033 next week in Denver.


    • It was Captain Porter. He told Col. French that it wasn’t willful disrespect; French didn’t care and recommended my dismissal to General Shell.

      • I served under Col French and his wife kept setting me up w/ nice looking girls who worked in Harry’s office. He was a jolly chap and we had many a nice chat. I know this is unbelievable but he was a damn nice guy and fed me at his home regularly.

        I did not recall this until reading your blog.

        • I’m sorry to feel I must be blunt with you, Jeff, my Brother Rat, but you were an overachiever. You were incredibly smart (and for all I know, may still be) and the very model of a VMI Cadet. So it’s no wonder you have fonder memories of the man. I was nearly French toast. Did I have to feature French in editorial cartoons I drew for the VMI newspaper? I did; it was the only way I could get back at him.

  4. Having met you some 35 years after VMI incarcerated you, I have to tell you how surprised I was to learn that you, of all people, had gone to VMI. Love the picture here. Your hair hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. Just thinned, I guess…

    • Actually, it hasn’t thinned in the least, Anne, though harsh overhead lighting in (every recent) photos makes it appear so.

    • I, of all people? You have a point (though I’m not sure how to take it). But look. I wouldn’t trade my VMI experience for the world. Why? Because time travel is still a theory, and there’s no way I could trade it.

  5. I have an all-time classic “AH” story for you – very intellectual joke is the way it was presented to me: A fellow died, and his soul was on the way up to heaven, when he happened to pass a majestic eagle soaring in the beautiful blue sky. “Ah, Eagle!” he said, but the eagle, being a discrete bird, just replied “Ah.” Your VMI narratives are wonderful, accurate, and since I too was a French’s Favorite, at last hilarious! ITB, M.B.

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this post. Well, that’s not true. It brought back many depressing memories of my rat year at VMI. If you weren’t a great writer, that wouldn’t have happened. Damn you, Tisdale!

    • The morning of my third day at VMI, I stood in formation in front of barracks in the rain. I’d sliced open my lip shaving. I had not had a shower since arriving – the cadre hadn’t given us enough time – and felt clammy from head to foot. And I thought, “What the f— am I doing here?” Why has this one particular moment stuck in my head for all of the intervening years? Had to be because it was an epiphany. Still have the occasional dream where I’m back there and a parade is about to start and I can’t find something – my shoes, my hat, a shirt – that I need. Ah, the memories! (That was a rare, permissable use of “Ah.”)

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