Lessons from a little red book
I will always remember my first day at the Virginia Military Institute in August of 1977. Shortly after saying goodbye to my parents, I was led politely to the basement of the barracks where the civility ended in an instant. There were dozens of upperclassmen screaming insult-laced orders at us while we stood shoulder to shoulder facing the wall, our bodies in a posture known as straining.
I was not a college freshman, I was a VMI Rat, and the young boys to my left and my right would forever be my Brother Rats.
Straining is a rigid posture that every Rat will spend countless hours in. Your fingers are curled into a fist and pressed tightly to your side, your shoulders are pinned back with your chest out and your chin pulled back firmly to your chest. Your eyes are locked straight forward and NEVER looking into the eyes of the person speaking to you.
As I stood there straining, and thinking for the first of many times, that I may have made a huge mistake in my choice of colleges, a third classman (aka sophomore) jammed a small red book in my face and barked, “This is your Rat Bible. Read and memorize every word in there! God help you if you lose it!” I stood there with my Rat Bible in my face, straining, waiting to get my head shaved.
Also known as the Bullet, that tiny little red book was filled with information about the life of a VMI Cadet, the history of the school, and countless other things you are expected to be able to recite at a moment’s notice. Nothing in that little book carried more weight than ""The Honor System.""
It is a very simple code. A VMI cadet will not, “LIE, CHEAT, or STEAL, or TOLERATE THOSE WHO DO.”
Like most kids, my parents taught me not to lie, cheat, or steal. I clearly knew right from wrong, and more times than not I think I made the right choices. With each right choice, I earned just a little more trust. Bad decisions eroded the trust. That’s how it works. Trust is earned, and once lost, it is hard to earn it back, something I know all too well today.
VMI was different. The day I walked into the barracks, it was assumed that I was an honorable man. It was an incredible gift, that carried a tremendous burden—A cadet must always place honor above self-interest. There is no gray area. The honor code was clear about that. “Honor at VMI is a black and white proposition. There are no degrees of honor; either a [Cadet] lies, cheats, or steals, or he doesn’t.” If a Cadet if found guilt of an honor violation, no matter how small, the results are the same.
It would start sometime after midnight, while the corps was fast asleep. The lights in the barracks were turned off; it was pitch black. Then there would be a slow and somber drum roll as the Honor Court marched into the courtyard. The barracks, which looked like the inside of a prison, already had an ominous appearance, but on those few nights when the honor court showed up in the middle of the night, it reached a whole new level.
Slowly, the stoops surrounding the courtyard filled with hundreds of cadets, wiping sleep from their eyes. For the Rats, who had yet to experience someone being “drummed out”, the ritual had a particularly chilling effect.
When the drums stopped, the President of the Honor Court would slowly circle the center of the courtyard and announce, “Tonight the Honor Court has met and found Cadet [name] guilty of lying/cheating/stealing. He has placed personal gain above personal honor. He has left the Institute and his name will never be mentioned within the walls of VMI again.”
Before the bugle sounded the next morning, every reference to that name was removed from any roster or publicly available record.
The ritual leaves a lasting impression.
Like so many before me and those that followed, I carried the honor code in my heart when I walked out of the barracks for the last time in 1981.
Then, more than twenty years later, I forgot what it meant to be an honorable man, bringing a painful ending to a marriage of seventeen years. I could fill a book, in fact, I have, about why it happened, but the simple truth is, true honor is black and white. There are no qualifications. You either lie, cheat, or steal, or you don’t. It is really very simple. What followed my loss of honor was unquestionably the darkest period of my life, and most likely that of my wife and my children.
Now, fifteen years later, it remains a brand of shame I carry with me everywhere. I cannot count the number of times I have been sitting with friends and listening to them talk about some couple that is having marital issues. “He cheated on her,” one says to the other. “Once a cheater. Always a cheater,” the other replies. To the best of my knowledge, the comments are never directed at me, but I know in my heart I deserve the same judgment. Few people could ever be more critical of me than I am.
People make mistakes, and I do believe in forgiveness, even when it comes to a breach of honor. That said, it isn’t something I can just grant to someone, including myself. It needs to be earned back, and for me, it is a long journey back to feeling honorable. Maybe that sounds odd to many, given that we live in a world today, where open deceit is not only accepted but frequently rewarded.
I guess I am just like a reformed smoker who hates the smell of smoke and is willing to tell everyone, but it makes me sick to see just how willing we are to promote the virtues of a politician who is openly lying just because we like their politics. We seem to expect honorable behavior from the people closest to us, but reward leaders who demonstrate the opposite. Maybe I should run for President. It seems I have the right credentials.
While I am, admittedly, far more liberal today than ever, I have voted Republican as many times as I have voted Democrat in my life, and today I will make this one promise.
I know first hand what a slippery slope lying is, so when I fill out my ballot this November, and in every election that follows, my first criteria will be, “Have they demonstrated that they are an honorable person?” Then I will evaluate their politics.
Will you join me? Imagine how we could change the world.