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Aggie Bonfire and What It Means To Me
It's been a long time since I've used my long abandoned journalism major skills, but I recently felt inspired by an article, which was 100 Aggies from various stages of Bonfire history commenting on the old Bonfire and especially on that fateful day of November 18, 1999 when it all came down. I finished that article visibly shaken and nearly in tears. I had long since graduated and was not there that night, but honestly, it’s still emotional for me. Even though I worked on it only one day in my time at A&M (as an 18 year old freshman), over the years until the collapse, it took on increasing importance to me every November.
I actually began my time at A&M leaning against supporting Bonfire. What’s the big deal about a stack of wood burning? Why are people risking their safety, their grades? Why was a guy in my dorm beating on my door at 5 in the morning with an axe handle screaming, “Bonfire! Wake up you pussies!” I resisted going to cut for weeks but I was talked me into going to cut one day. I didn’t want to go, I was doing it because I lacked the maturity and the backbone to stand up for my own feelings unfortunately. But go I did in early October of 1989. I had not been to cut class (I was told to keep quiet about that), so my participation was a direct violation of the rules. I spent most of the time hanging out, watching people drink on site or doing a lot of other crazy things. It took me a bit of time to get the technique of swinging the axe, but I still managed to cut a couple of trees down. However, like with the others, safety should have also been a bigger concern for me. I was standing in the wrong place, and my face came within a couple of inches of a swinging axe. It’s now one of a few instances for which I make my case that I’m still alive because God is watching out for me, but I digress. After I felt like I’d been there long enough to have “served my time”, I hitched a ride back to College Station in the back of a pick up, I was left alone, and I never went again. The night that bonfire burned was a fun, and even sober time. The stack was lit without a hitch, it stayed up for over 2 hours, and a neighbor and I were one of the comparatively few people left at the scene when it finally collapsed. Looking back, I’m glad I participated. Though I’m sorry the experience wasn’t voluntary in heart and mind, I can still say I did it.
During my subsequent years at A&M, I almost always attended (I might have actually skipped it in 1991), but the most memorable was 1993, my last semester before graduation, I became pretty radically pro Bonfire, though I still lacked a desire to work on it. I did the Elephant Walk a year late. Most people are totally covered in mud and shaving cream, but until I made it to the Bonfire site pretty clean, except for being wet from the traditional walk through Fish Pond. It was then that some friends picked me up and threw me into a nearby ditch at the largely mud-covered bonfire site. I was little irritated, but nonetheless I posed for a picture with my other mud-covered friends, and began the long walk to the house south of campus where I was living at that time. We all got together for Bonfire the next night, and in the subsequent hours and changed the weather from sunny and 70s to rainy and near freezing. In spite of the cold rain, the strange inability to get the fire lit, and the constant need to find restrooms, we had a blast and I was fully hooked. I returned every November until 1998 to see the Bonfire burn. There was something powerful and primal about seeing a 55’+ stack of hundreds of logs burn, and there was that burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u., which we did most years at that time. Not to mention that it was also a great excuse to party. I didn’t care that maybe it wasn’t the most environmental event, that it wasn’t built by real engineers or that there was uneven enforcement of any structural or safety standards that existed at that time. It was Bonfire and it was awesome!
I was driving to my job at AT&T Wireless at LBJ and the Tollway in Dallas that November 18th. As I had nearly finished the trip to work when I heard about the Bonfire collapse on the radio. Like with other news of this nature in my life, the gravity of it was slow to hit me. But as I started exchanging emails about it with college friends and saw it on cnn.com as the lead story, it hit me and I couldn’t help but find whatever I could find about the condition of the survivors. The commiserating continued that evening as a friend who had thrown me into the mud years earlier called about it (he’d heard about it on his way to work as well). We talked about the sadness we felt, in spite of our lack of direct involvement. I had planned to be there for that Bonfire but cancelled my plans after the collapse. I didn't want to attend what I felt would be a funeral, a decision I've never looked back upon that decision until now, interestingly enough. Interesting, how the #12 again became symbolic at that moment. Why did 12 people had to die for this? How did this happen when one of the best civil engineering schools in the country is yards away? What were we thinking by letting students who don’t study structures run it? In subsequent weeks and months whenever my time at A&M came up, the conversation came to Bonfire. Most were gracious, even the Texas Exes in Dallas put together a joint UT-A&M fundraiser to raise money for survivors. Others were less kind, but admittedly also factually correct in most cases. I also found out years later that someone I’d been to school with at that time had returned to finish his degree in the late 90s, and had been on the Bonfire stack right before it had collapsed. Hearing that story was difficult, but it was still good to have his perspective. In spite of a few subsequent trips to College Station, it was only last year that I set foot on that site again and visited the memorial. It’s not often that I shed tears for people I never met that have passed on, but it’s hard to leave the memorial without an appreciation for the vitality of the 12 young adults that we lost that night.
So how are my attitudes changed? You can’t get around the fact that 12 people are dead because tradition became more important than common sense. An inflammatory statement, yes, but perhaps also a catalyst that lead me to be a more vocal, independent voice. I also looked at the big rivalry against UT differently. I stopped calling them “t.u.” outside of game day. Yes, I still want them to lose every game 50-0, but beyond that I do not wish ill of Longhorns or the University of Texas at Austin in general. The Bonfire is back as an off campus event, and in spite of it all, I’m glad it’s back, as it’s something that’s a part of me and my Aggie experience. It would be dishonest to not acknowledge that a part of me feels it is Bonfire lite (no pun intended) now, but after what happened, we can’t go back to the way it was. But even with some degree of safety standards, the lessons in leadership and camaraderie can still be learned by current and future Aggies, and maybe it will have less impact on the grades of current students than it did in my time. If nothing else, I still have that primal desire to see a big fire that symbolizes a burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u., or whatever rival the bonfire symbolizes nowadays, but that’s a different discussion.