Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fightin' Texas Aggie Bonfire

Overnight here in Aggieland, we will commemorate the loss of 12 young men and women whose untimely deaths are forever etched in the collective memory of Aggie faithful. 

Pulling material from the old Tomes site again, here is a letter I wrote the day after Bonfire fell in 1999 and a reflection I wrote when I put this on my site a couple of years later. It has now been 12 years since Bonfire fell and as Stephen King might say, the world has moved on since then. The most marked change has been how students relate to one another on campus. I can't exactly place the difference, and I can't attribute the change all to the loss of Bonfire from campus culture, but I do know that the change I've notice dates from the disappearance of this tradition from campus.

Since I wrote these, I think that my understanding of the symbolism of Bonfire has changed, too. I think that it was an instance of rhetorical violence that got grandfathered into our modern consciousness in the name of "Tradition." Given the visceral reaction I've heard from others who have no context for Aggie Bonfire as anything other than a lynching, this isn't a tradition that could have evolved in our era, and I don't know that that is a bad thing. Like the 12th Man tradition at Texas A&M, I cannot separate the love I feel from revulsion at an ugly history.



The following is an email response to a friend. SG wrote me after hearing of Bonfire’s collapse, and my response to him is the only way that I was ever able to capture my feelings on the catastrophe.

Even after a post-traumatic stress briefing and a year-and a half the subject still hurts to think about; it probably always will. I will probably always feel guilt for a number of reasons: for not being at work, for not being on stack, for never having taken part in stack, load, or cut…

Today, after my classes, I walked to work instead of driving. I walked across the polo fields, but had towalk well to the side because the feeling was that I was walking on holy ground. The reason why is easy to understand, shortly after I wrote this letter, Tim Kerlee died, becoming the twelfth person to lose his life due to the accident. If you are not an Aggie that might be of little significance to you; here in Aggieland, that final touch concreted Bonfire ‘99’s collapse as a mythic occurrence.

There will be other bonfires, but there will never again be Bonfire. Daily, articles in the Batt (the campus paper) talk about the administration’s idea that contractors can cut, stack, and build bonfire so that students can watch in safety. I guess this is the same sort of thinking that made them want to trademark the Bonfire image. They’ll never really understand it though until they realize that Bonfire is nothing without the spirit of the student body behind it, fueled by our Burning Desire.

Date: Fri, 19 Nov 1999 08:57:59 -0800 (PST)

From: Jon

Subject: A Sad Day....



Thanks for your call yesterday; it means a lot that you thought of me. I was on campus, but not anywhere near the stack when it fell. I know several who were out there earlier, or who were supposed to be out there but for some reason or another weren't there when it fell. I also know a paramedic who was on duty at the site when it happened.

All these people are looking at life in a different manner today. I am too. I spent 8 hours yesterday working perimeter security at the Bonfire site. Even after seeing the stack on its side, it's hard to comprehend that 9 young men and 2 young women gave their lives for what, I am confident, they felt was the ultimate symbol of our school's spirit and traditions.

When the stack fell I was asleep outside G. Rollie White Coliseum, Waiting to pull tickets for the Texas (read - t.u.) game. Earlier in the evening, I had the privilege to hear Ryan, the OCA (Off Campus Aggies) Brownpot, give an extemporaneous talk about the organization and hierarchy of Bonfire, I learned more in 20 minutes from Ryan than I have in four and a half years of being an Aggie. I have never taken part in the construction of Bonfire, and probably never will have the opportunity to do so.

Ryan, though he's invested a great deal of time and effort in this great Tradition, may not get the chance to build another Bonfire either. Bonfire will not burn this year to honor the students’ deaths. This is only the second time in 90 years that it didn't burn. The first was in 1964, when the students disassembled the stack log by log and didn't burn Bonfire that year in honor of JFK. This is the third time that the stack has collapsed; the two previous collapses were due in part to wet ground, and there were no injuries.

Because this tragedy, as well as other factors, there is rumour thatBonfire may never burn again. If that turns out to be the decision made I can accept that the University can not allow itself this kind of liability anymore; I will be thankful that I have had the opportunity to see it burn.

On the other hand, I'd like to see it burn this year too. It sticks in my mind that Christopher Breen, Christopher Lee Heard, Jerry Self, Jamie Hand, Michael Ebanks, Miranda Adams, Chad Powell, Nathan West, Bryan McLain, Lucas Kimmel, and Jeremy Frampton gave their lives to build this Bonfire. Their ultimate effort is to be quenched in a great smothering hug of sympathy and grief. In my heart of hearts I wish that we could push to get the thing rebuilt in a matter of days like they did in '94 and burn it in their honor.

My feelings oscillate from grief, to disbelief, to joy. Somewhere in the middle of all that there is a moral. I don't know that I can pull it out. I don't think that alone I should be able to. I think that there is something inherently collective about this tragedy. I think that is the way it will be remembered by many. For me at least, this tragedy has been bigger than life, a thing so immense in its scope that I can not encompass it. Why can't it be real? Because eleven college students shouldn't die in a horrible manner in the middle of campus in a town so small that it wouldn't exist without the school. I realize then that they didn't die in seclusion. Their end has been broadcast to every corner of the globe. It has become a mythical thing, and will grow ever grander and more distant with the passage of time.

So we go on. We will exult in these students bravery though they weren't intending on being seen as valorous. We will praise their sacrifice though they didn't intend to lose anything but a few hours of sleep. Now their slumber is undisturbed. We will grieve as a family as only Aggies can. We will attend the ceremonies, read the papers, see the pictures, console each otherand help each other along. Those of us who have the luxury of doing so will secretly be thankful that it wasn't us, or our friends or loved ones. Those who dealt with the tragedy first hand-- whether through their survival, the loss of a child, or boyfriend, or girlfriend,or best friend--will remember the good sunny things about their dearly departed, except in the dark of night when a memory so poignantly painful stabs their heart and won't let them sleep.Whether or not Bonfire ever burns again, this will be a watershed moment in this school's history. Should there be more Bonfires, they will be different, and in being so, not the same. Nothing can be the same. Though Bonfire has fallen three times, this will be the time Bonfire fell. This will define some people's lives.

My hope is that it makes me examine the long-term impact of my actions. Depending on your particular hegemony, that can mean a number of things, but I hope that you do the same. This morning in my Meteorology class(no, classes were never cancelled) my professor gave the motto of the Catholic University he attended. I do not remember the Latin, but translated it read, "Do what you do!" Do what you enjoy. Do it well. Do it regardless of the consequences. Live, laugh, love, dance, cry, experiment, party, drift. Just do it to the utmost of your ability and do not stop until it is complete and you are completely satisfied.

"From the outside looking in, you can never understand it. From the inside looking out, you can never explain it"

"We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we. True to each other as Aggies can be."


1 comment:

Jaelan said...

Even as a student today, "their spirits hover 'round us as if to bring us cheer".

We will never forget.