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.

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How I became a writer, part one (abridged version)

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.

Augusta Military Academy in the guise of an idyllic picture postcard

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)

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