Every year starts this way. Four hundred and some odd young men and women, fresh out of high school, descend upon the little town of Lexington to begin what will become one of the toughest four years of their lives. They come from all walks of life, from all over the United States, and even the world. They come for a college experience different than the norm. They come for the discipline, the education, the challenge, and to be called VMI graduates. What they find varies by the individual, but one thing is certain: it will NOT be easy.
It all starts with the signing of the matriculation book, a roster of all of the individuals who have matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute. Thousands of names fill the tome. Of all those names in the book, there are only 22,000 of those individuals still living who made it to graduation day. After signing the matriculation book, these new cadets now belong to The Institute. In the coming months, they will be broken-down, shaped, and molded into fine upstanding citizen-soldiers. Now, they cannot even call themselves Rats.
They eat one last lunch with their parents and move their meager belongings into their new rooms. It is useless unpack now, they do not know the regulations nor will they be allowed to keep many of the things they now have. They are told to change into gym dyke and make their way down to Cameron Hall. In Cameron Hall, they are addressed by the Superintendent and then are called down the floor to form up with their new companies. They say good-bye to their parents one last time, and take their first steps towards graduation. Some cannot bring themselves to even form-up with their companies and stay frozen in their seats. The attrition has already begun.
From Cameron Hall, the new cadets march up to Barracks. The band plays and still some cannot bring themselves to walk into Barracks. They are corralled into New Barracks Courtyard, and whipped into a frenzy by their corporals. While clapping in time, they scream “We Want Cadre!” with smiles upon their faces — unable to comprehend how weighty that connotation is. They scream and clap, clap and scream. On the stoops above, a crowd gathers. The upperclassmen and VMI staff pack into New Barracks, much as the plebeians would pack into the Coliseum to take in the afternoon’s death match. This is no different, though the scars will only be ephemeral.
Soon a bass drum begins to play, and all falls silent. The leering spectators know exactly what is coming next, and let out a cheer. The beat is slow, fitting for a dirge. It caters to the situation perfectly, as the civilian life the new cadets once knew is now over. Slowly, Cadre marches out.
Everything of Cadre’s is immaculate. Each shoe polished to a perfect shine. Each gray blouse freshly pressed and free from stains. Each pair of white ducks is starched and a brilliant white. And each one of their faces is as serious as if it was chiseled from stone. Cadre is all business
They march at the same slow, methodical pace until they are lined up in front of the new cadets. This is Cadre’s show now. They turn outward and face the new rats, and Barracks is so quiet you can hear a pin drop. The Regimental Executive Officer steps up to railing of the second stoop. He has memorized this speech and practiced it ad nauseum, but this is show time, he cannot mess this up.
“RATS!” He begins. “Look at the Cadets who stand before you. They, are your Cadre. They are the BEST!” He continues on, each word eloquent, and yet still filled with unbridled authority. He is the rats’ example, the goal they all must meet. A crowd of parents gathers outside of the arches. The gates are locked, this is a closed affair.
The rats’ eyes are wide open now. They are starting to grasp the gravity of the situation. They realize for the first time that they are on their own. Their parents cannot help them, their only hope is to come together and bond with their co-matriculants beside them. That is the only way they will ever see Break Out, they ONLY way they will ever survive VMI.
“Your Cadre are the most fit, the most professional, the most disciplined, and the most knowledgeable. They will teach, and you will learn. Rats, you will learn because you have no choice. They will not fail you. They will not give up on you, even long after you have given up on yourself. RATS. . .” There is a long, drawn-out pause. They crowd on the stoops is foaming at the mouth, waiting for the carnage. Cadre move to encircle their respective companies. The suspense is tremendous. “MEET YOUR CADRE!”
A terrible din rises from the courtyard as Cadre swoops down upon the rats. Screaming, sometimes not even words, mere inches from rats’ faces. This is part of the breaking down. This is to shell shock the rats, let them truly know what they are up against. It works.
Saliva, sweat, breath from deep within the diaphragm, these are the smells that assault the rats. The weather is hot and humid, like most summers in Lexington, but today, and it only adds to the environment. Most of the rats are too stunned by the whirlwind of chaos laid before them. They are in a purely reactionary mode, now. Say jump, and they jump; tell them to get on their faces, and they start pushing. And the noise is indescribable. It is simply pandemonium. There is no order, no law, just noise, just the rats and Cadre.
Soon, Cadre grows tired of screaming and begin to file off the rats. Out of the courtyard and up the stoops, the rats climb, all the while being yelled at. Soon they are all on the fourth stoop, and in their company areas, getting to know Cadre better. They are Cadre’s responsibility now. Their parents are miles away, unable to help. Some will not make it, but most will, should they survive the first 6 months. It’s the start of a long six months.