Matriculation Day at VMI – Old Corps Style
Updated: May 12
Clint Hubbard '86
Over the years, VMI has used the byline “Don’t Do Ordinary” to describe our unique system of education. This tried-and-true VMI system relies on the Honor System, the Class System, the Regimental System, and the Rat System to work in concert like a well-oiled machine and transform youngsters from all over the world into a unified class worthy of being VMI Cadets. We all know it as “from a mass to a class”.
The Rat system is the initial introduction to the VMI way of life, and it hits you in the chops like an airbag deployed in an automobile accident. It has to be that way because it is such a unique orientation for college freshmen. And moreover, it works.
Something I remember from my Rat Bible outlined the importance of the Rat System as the first rite of passage to becoming a VMI Cadet. The 1983 Bullet noted that everyone from the Superintendent to the third class private had all walked the same infamous ratline in Barracks. It is one of the ties that binds our alumni together. I had the privilege of a close friendship with Stuart M. Seaton, VMI Class of 1941. When we talked about our cadet experiences, they were remarkably similar despite the 45 years between our graduations.
This is a excerpt of an article written for The Recorder, a weekly newspaper based in Monterey, Virginia. It was originally published in August 2022, around back-to-school time, and it outlines my recollection of my first day at VMI.
One symptom of aging is reminiscing; so, as I look at all the pictures on social media of the freshmen on their way to college and the mountains of things they take with them, it takes me back to my freshman year of college.
First of all, I didn’t go to college; I went to an Institute – the Virginia Military Institute. It was a unique combination of boot camp and academics – with an emphasis in the first year on the boot camp part of the equation. Consequently, you didn’t need and weren’t allowed much of any personal property, possessions, or comforts of home. I took all of my necessary/allowable items in one single footlocker – white underwear, t-shirts, handkerchiefs, socks, towels, washcloths and flat sheets. I also took some black socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, and shaving supplies. Because of the haircut I would receive within the first two hours, I didn’t need any shampoo.
The directive was to “report” between 9 AM and 11 AM. Since my home in Covington, Virginia was only about 50 minutes door-to-door to VMI, my parents and I got up that Wednesday morning and headed east on I-64. We got to the Lexington exit about 9:15 as I recall and I noticed it was exit # 13 – to someone who suffers from triskaidekaphobia, it was a harbinger of the day ahead.
When we pulled onto the VMI Post, we were met with a sign at the Limits Gates that read “New Cadets Stop Here”. A smartly dressed cadet in grey blouse (a grey tunic with black trim – and the VMI uniform equivalent of a coat and tie) directed my Dad to drive on and park the car in front of the Barracks. We were told to take my footlocker into Jackson Arch and we’d be met by someone who would direct us where to put it.
As we entered Jackson Arch, my Dad and I carrying my footlocker, another stalwart cadet told us to place it in the courtyard, behind the appropriate lettered alphabetical sign noting the first letter of my last name. We did.
We then went back out in front of the barracks and my Dad moved the car to a permanent parking space to make room for the other arriving poor souls who in time would become my brothers.
Next, we got in a loosely formed line to enter LeJeune Hall. Little-by-little, we worked our way into LeJeune Hall and up the stairs to a large open area/conference room. In the large room, there was a designated flow through a number of tables where we spoke with members of the various academic departments, ROTC, and the like. We finally reached a back corner and a sign that read “Parents Say Goodbye Here”. I hugged my Mom and shook hands with my Dad; I remember they were both beaming on the outside. As a parent now myself, I know they must have been very emotional on the inside, but to their credit, it wasn’t visible to me.
I stepped through a bit of an alcove, and then a heavy insulated door, and it shut slowly behind me. I don’t know what the Gates of Hell might be like, but if they include a bit of an alcove and a heavy, insulated door, it wouldn’t surprise me.
On my own for the first time that day, I was face-to-face with another spit and polished cadet who was standing there – he was physically big and imposing. He gave me a steely-eyed glare and calmly said, “Allright, from here on out, it is ‘yes, sir’, ‘no, sir’, and you don’t speak unless you are spoken to – do you understand me?” I replied, “Yes, sir.” His voice rose several octaves as he yelled, “Get your ___ off my landing and down those @#$%&+ stairs!”
The extremes of the difference in how I was addressed on the opposite sides of that insulated door was not lost on me as I ran down the steps as fast as I could. I also remember being a little impressed at his ability to ‘turn the switch’ and use all those curse words in a single sentence.
At the bottom of the steps, I was greeted by another large and imposing cadet. He didn’t say anything, he just stared at me. After a moment or two of awkward silence, I murmured something like “the guy up there told me to come down here.” This cadet stared through me and said, “Well what took you so long? Go up and come down again. Faster this time.” When I got back to the top, the first cadet didn’t even wait for an explanation, he screamed, “I told you to get off my landing and get your ____ down those stairs!” As I ran back down, my mind conjured up “Cool Hand Luke” and the scene where Luke (Paul Newman) is being made to move the piles of dirt around the prison yard. It wasn’t the last time I would feel a kinship with prison inmates.
On my second trip down, the cadet at the bottom of the stairs pointed and directed me, “Sit down (at one of the tables) and start filling out the paperwork.”
The next hour or so was a bit of a blur. I finished whatever the paperwork was, got in another line and signed the infamous ‘Matriculation Book’ and was issued my personal copy of “The Bullet”; better known as the Rat Bible – a handbook for new cadets. We were responsible for knowing every granule of information in the Rat Bible.
From there, in groups of about 10-15 guys, I and my classmates were ushered down a long hallway known as the Concourse – it was a hallway between the basement of LeJeune Hall (where we started) and the Barracks. Along the way, we were periodically stopped and ‘parked’ – that is stopped and told to put our noses on the wall and remain there until we were told to move out again. We ultimately made it to the QMD (quartermaster department) where we were fitted for green fatigues and combat boots as well as gym clothes and then ushered across the hall to the barbershop for the quickest and shortest haircut I’ve ever had.
I remember several thoughts came to mind as I was standing with my nose on the wall. I recall thinking that this wasn’t really what I had expected and I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be a VMI Cadet. I also remember wanting to wrap my hands around the neck of Harrison Fridley, Jr. (VMI Class of 1961), as he was the man who put the notion of going to VMI in my head when he gave me a VMI Catalog a year or so before.
It seemed like it had been hours but that whole scenario from the stairs to get new clothes and a haircut probably played out in about 60-90 minutes. We were shepherded out and separated by our company (think groups) and then taken up some stairs into the Barracks courtyard where I had left my large footlocker. In groups of 2-4 of us, we were taken out to the luggage and directed to get our stuff as we would be taking it up to our rooms. The VMI Barracks is organized by floors or ‘stoops’ – all of the freshmen or ‘Rats’ live on the 4th stoop which means up 3 flights of stairs.
With my hair gone, all of my remaining worldly possessions were in the footlocker that my Dad and I had deposited there a couple of hours earlier. It probably weighed about 100-125 pounds or so; not that heavy but bulky as the size of the rectangular box was 3.5 feet wide by2 feet tall, and 2 feet across. As I thought about how my Dad and I had carried it in, I pondered who might assist me in carrying it up the three flights of stairs to my room on the 4th stoop. I must have hesitated because the cadet in charge of us said something like “C’mon, get your gear and let’s go.” I turned and obliquely asked him if someone might help me carry the trunk up the three flights of stairs we were about to climb. He looked at me with a deadpanned look and said in a most apologetic tone, “Oh, I’m sorry, all of the butlers and personal valets are over at Washington & Lee; you must have stopped at the wrong school.” He let those words sink in for about 3 seconds and then more forcefully and with a lot less compassion, he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Pick up your @#$%&* footlocker and let’s go!”
It was amazing how easy it was to manage after his “words of encouragement”.
The rest of the day and week was more of a blur – pulling our gear out of luggage, writing our laundry number on everything with a black magic marker, folding and putting our underwear, socks, and towels into our lockers in the proper order. We changed into our fatigues and went down to the Mess Hall for lunch.
Our experience in the Mess Hall was unique. The meal was served family-style, that is large platters for each table, but the atmosphere was very un-family-like. We were directed to sit on the front three inches of our chairs, backs ramrod straight, chins at a 90-degree angle, and our eyes on our plates. We ate one bite at a time and put our silverware down as we chewed each bite. We ate all of our meals like this for the next 7 months. If an upperclassman thought you weren’t holding the position properly, they would instruct you to put a knife between your knees and hold it there by pressing your knees together. Or my favorite was when they decided your chin wasn’t at a 90-degree angle, they would place a cup and saucer on the top of your head. Needless to say, if a metal knife or cup and saucer hit the tile floor, it made a loud clattering noise followed by louder noises of the cadre offering ‘suggestions of corrective behavior’.
This type of atmosphere was to become my new normal for the next 7 months – a lot of physical training, practice and full-dress parades, room inspections, formations at mealtimes, guard duty, and a multitude of other military activities - with the addition of taking college level academic classes and carrying 18 credit hours – not what you would call a light load. It helped me learn how to manage my time, make decisions, set priorities, manage stress, and accomplish what needed to be done. And though I may not have realized it at the time, it taught me to work hard and persevere against obstacles. Every day they demanded more from you than you could accomplish but you never gave up and you never quit trying. That resilience is a life lesson which I have drawn upon often.
In the process of it all, I became brothers with my fellow cadets – shared hardship creates strong bonds. The VMI System is predicated on adversative system – but it was equally administered and was without a doubt, the most egalitarian society I have ever experienced before or since.
Going to VMI was easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Though I did not realize it initially, VMI was the perfect place for me. I went there as a somewhat sheltered kid, persevered and graduated four years later as a VMI Man. I’m very grateful that the opportunity to go there manifested itself to me (Divine Intervention!) and that I had two parents who made it possible, as well as a host of other relatives and friends who cheered me on and supported me while I was at VMI. I should also like to pay tribute to the VMI alumni from my hometown: Harrison Fridley ‘61, Jimmy Oliver ‘61, Howard Cobb ‘62, John Mitchell ‘63, and Hal St. Clair ‘63. Whenever they were in Lexington, they never failed to check on me, and we became life-long friends.
To all the students and parents commencing another school year, I wish you all the best of luck. To the teachers and administrators entrusted with caring for those youngsters and imparting knowledge to them, I wish for you patience, kindness, creativity, and stamina.
Christmas break will be here before you know it. Godspeed.
This story (Matriculation Day at VMI – Old Corps Style) is the sole property of Clint Hubbard and may be reprinted only with permission of the author.
First published in The Recorder – Monterey, Virginia – August25, 2022.
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