Where Are We From?

So, a pal of mine asked me, “What has shaped your life? Where are you from?”

We were drinking coffee, I swear. He was also a trade school grad (what one calls a fellow military school graduate).

So, I said, “I won the lottery on parents — both of my parents were World War II veterans — and I went to Virginia Military Institute.”

VMI is one of those places that develop you. One of those places that holds you down and stuffs you full of suffering and character. Suffering builds character.

First, they dissassemble you, then they reassemble you from the broken parts, then they fire you in a hot furnace, then they test you, then they throw you out into the world — armed and dangerous — to put to work what they’ve taught you.

Same thing they’ve been doing for almost two centuries.

Come graduation, there will be far fewer graduates than when you matriculated. It is not for everybody and not everybody can make it. It is a stern, unforgiving test and if you graduate you will know that you have accomplished something hard. That hardness will be in you.

You will never have an association as that of your Brother Rats — men who have been through the same furnace and emerged intact.

It all starts right here. From this point on, VMI owns your butt. I was the first Rat — the lovely term they use to refer to freshmen after they shave your head — in my class to “sign the book.”


This is also your last look when you leave. It will still be there fifty year later when you come for your 50th Reunion.

VMI is located in the Shenandoah Valley, one of the prettiest places on the planet. Across the parade ground is Washington & Lee University with its Southern traditions and its law school.


The casual observer may opine the outside looks like a prison. Fair play. Here you see the castellated architecture of the Institute with House Mountain in the distance. The statue is George Catlett Marshall, VMI’s most illustrious graduate and the General who ran World War II. He was a mediocre student according to his report cards, but he must have learned something. He served as General of the Armies, Ambassador to China, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, creator of the Marshall Plan, and head of the American Red Cross.

From the inside, it also looks more prison like. The “stoops” or levels are organized by grade. The Rats live on the top floor and the Firsts live on the ground floor. It is Spartan. Three to four cadets to the room. Through that arch is the statue of Stonewall Jackson, a professor of physics and artillery at VMI. That is an armed guard in that guard post.


It snows in the Shenandoah Valley. Those guns are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, a battery that saw action in the Mexican War and the Civil War. VMI graduates have fought America’s wars since 1839. It is a top engineering school and has produced more Rhodes Scholars than all the other senior military academies in the US combined.

VMI has a mentor system whereby First Classmen take a professional interest in a Rat and guide him through that first difficult year and into the Corps of Cadets. The arrangement gives a Rat a shoulder to cry upon and a protector from abuse.

Bill O’Connor and his roommates Dick Sisler, Dick Hamlet, Mike Nowitzski shaped me. I won the Irish Sweepstakes on dykes — what you call your mentors.

At the end of my Rat year, I stood #1 in my class academically, a fact that surprised the crap out of me. I was studying civil engineering and Bill had forbade me to ever go to the Post Exchange even to get a Coke. I studied in the basement of the Nichols Engineering Building. I never knew I had any academic promise until VMI awakened it.

We had classes six days a week and you could not miss a class. You formed up outside, marched in, told the professor how many were present and who had excused absences (sick). VMI did not mess around when it came to cramming calculus into your head.

Calculus made more English majors than Shakespeare.

The Corps of Cadets runs the barracks and mounts its own guards. That’s Stonewall on the left and General of the Armies Marshall on the right.


At the end of the Vietnam War Era, most cadets received Regular Army commissions (Marines, Air Force, Navy) and went directly into the service. It was a hard time in the history of the United States. While the world was changing, VMI was rock solid and steady.

Here I am when they were finished with me. Those stars on my collar meant I had a great GPA. The stripes are an absolute fluke. I was a private in the corps getting ready to go to Army summer camp. I did so well at Army summer camp, they were compelled to make me an officer in the Corps of Cadets.

Here’s me at my first overseas assignment. I had just parachuted into a rice paddy.

I always say, “VMI is a hard place to be, but a great place to be from.”

So, that’s where I am from. Today, VMI is an infinitely better school than when I went there. I tell my Brother Rats we would be lucky to get in.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Thanks, VMI.

These photographs are from Jack Taggert Photography — www.jtaggartphoto.com. He’s a Central Virginia Freelance Photographer.