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Sleight of Hand

One thing that VMI taught cadets in Fred Willard’s time was how to take care of certain matters in the close confines of a cellblocklike environment with zero privacy.

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I guess my fellow Virginia Military Institute graduates felt as saddened and embarrassed as I did about the actor Fred Willard's arrest in Los Angeles for lewd conduct July 18. What was Willard — who graduated in 1955 and has been married for 44 years — thinking when he went into the Tiki adult theater that fateful evening?

Based on the evidence, plus my imagination, it was along the lines of, "I'll slip in here to catch a porno flick and flog my dog." (No, dear reader, I am not going to pepper this piece with colorful ways to say masturbation. But I can say they number north of 105, the point where I got bored with online research.)

What has VMI had to say about Willard's arrest? Nothing. And frankly, I'm not expecting a news release any day now. So, I asked myself, "Who would bravely speak out publicly on behalf of VMI grads everywhere?" I was alone at the time; I got the nod.

As would any investigative journalist, or freelance advertising copywriter pretending to be one, I first looked into how the — ironic prefix alert — penal code in California defined the Los Angeles Police Department's charge against Willard. To paraphrase Section 647, paragraph a, with research-assist props to the Shouse Law Group of California and Nevada, lewd conduct means to engage in lewd conduct in any place exposed to public view. Setting aside the obvious stylistic fault of that definition, I can confidently say that I take the meaning. Shouse, by the way, bills itself as a round-the-clock, sex-crime consultant and provides a toll-free number for those wee-hour, weenie-in-trouble calls.

The more I looked into Willard's arrest, the more my brain was wracked with questions in search of answers.

Did Willard — an especially well-known comic actor with credits as wide-ranging as the 1960s sitcom "Get Smart" and films such as "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and "Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy" — not know of the countless porn sites to be found online? They're there, so I've been told.

Or, could it have been frustration with a slow Internet connection that led to the Tiki trip?

What was Willard's critique of the film he sort of watched?

Who knew that adult theaters still existed in 2012?

And most troubling, how could a VMI man have been caught doing that?

Sadly, we may never know the answers to most of these questions. No matter. I'm only going to address the last one, for which a bit of back story will enlighten those unfamiliar with the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.

In addition to whatever four-year degree a cadet earns, the institute also awards a bachelor of arts in getting away with stuff. As a nonaccredited distinction, no physical diploma is awarded. VMI is college with more rules than you ever dreamt could be dreamed up — and most come with this temptation: Can I break this and get away with it?

The attention paid to observing rules or breaking them varies by cadet. The institute attracts all types. For example, my classmate Thomas G. Jones was an Eagle Scout before attending VMI; and he attained academic distinction, regimental-staff rank, and rarely got in trouble. In contrast, I washed out of the Boy Scouts after two weeks and at the institute won the triple crown of lesser distinctions: academic probation, conduction probation and confinement to barracks, all concurrently. The commandant of cadets — read evil dean of students — once told me I was not the kind of cadet they wanted at the institute. He had a point. But did the truth hurt? No, not especially.

One thing that VMI taught cadets in Willard's time as well as mine — both, though decades apart, were the all-male days at the Institute when the idea of women in barracks was more fervent wish than reality — was how to take care of certain matters of sexual release in the close confines of a cellblocklike environment with zero privacy. In my four years at the institute, only once, when I happened to be on the guard team and delivering message slips throughout barracks, did I interrupt a cadet in the act of pleasuring himself. I don't know who was more embarrassed, but if I had to guess, it was he. I heard he went on to become a regional sales manager. He did have a firm handshake, as I recall.

So, I was surprised that Willard got caught, given he was an old hand at the task and had a darkened theater to boot. Of course, had Willard gone to some other Virginia college or university — the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech or the College of William and Mary — he most likely would have been nabbed sooner in life than age 72. Had he gone to Washington and Lee University, VMI's next-door neighbor, I suspect he would have found himself doing the perp walk within one to two weeks of graduation. All of these schools, fine as they are, simply don't instill the getting-away-with-it skill to the extent that the institute does.
While Willard got off legally in exchange for therapy — "Hello, my name is Fred and I spank my monkey in public!" — he was fired from a PBS television show and subsequently another on ABC. Just like at the institute, broadcasters award penalties for messing up in an unseemly way.

But I wonder. Might there be a way to turn Willard's recent notoriety to his advantage? I believe he might make an ideal on-camera talent for endorsing certain products. High-definition computer monitors for safe, at-home, porn viewing? Perfect. Hand-strengthening devices used by climbers and for arthritis therapy? Without a doubt. Bigger trench coats that afford more privacy in public? A fitting choice.

I might even be able to help Willard. I'm a copywriter. I went to VMI. I could give him a discount on ad copy for any new endorsement deal he picks up.
In the bonds of institute, I'd like to help the man.

But even if I can't be of service, I still have his new film to look forward to. I don't know his role, but it's about an American who goes to Ireland to find true love. And the title is easy to remember: "The Yank." S

George Tisdale is a freelance creative director and writer. He hopes he'll be welcome at his next VMI reunion.

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Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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