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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Spirit of Aggieland – looking back at Bonfire

10 years ago this very night, a horrible thing happened to a place that I dearly love.  10 years ago, a horrific scene was left.  10 years ago, 12 young men and women whom I had never met, but with whom I had an unbreakable bond died.  10 years ago, the bonfire stack collapsed and that changed the landscape of my beloved Texas A&M forever. 

I had been gone from campus for four years when tragedy struck.  I don’t remember where I was when I got the news.  I was doing life and honestly don’t remember much at all from that horrible time that I know the current students faced.  But reading this article in Texas Monthly recently gave me just a hint of what they went through.  (You really should read it.)

So, today, I remember these twelve and their families.  Today I recognize that their families still mourn the loss of those young men and women.  Today, however, I also mourn the loss of the tradition of bonfire that was so dear to the hearts of Aggies over the last 100 years.  So, today, I want to give you a glimpse into what Aggie Bonfire, was like for me.

To understand even a little bit of Bonfire, you must realize that it was entirely built by students.  The tradition started in 1909 as a pile of scraps and morphed eventually into a five-tiered wedding cake looking design and symbolized “our burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u.”  It was the height of Aggie tradition at its best.  Teamwork, ingenuity, hard work and passion all came together over the fall semester and culminated in a fire that’s probably bigger than you can possibly imagine.

Each year’s Bonfire was the freshman class’s Bonfire.  My Bonfire (my freshman year) in 1991 was the last Bonfire to be held on Duncan Field.  Now, I say “My Bonfire” but I’ll be the first to admit that I was not one of the “red-ass” girls that was out at cut and working on stack.  Nope.  My place was in the Coke Shack providing lemonade and hot cocoa to those who were red-ass enough to be building it. 

My man, though, while we did not know one another at the time, was one who went to cut, swung an axe (yes… an axe) and got in there to help build Bonfire.  Most of the stories that he could tell are not really fitting for a mostly family friendly blog.  But he did remember one night being out at stack and was tied to one of the perimeter poles  in order to protect it (don’t ask because I don’t know that I could explain it).  One of the Junior Red Pots (JeRPs) came the next morning and rounded up several fish (aka freshmen), loaded them into his truck, drove them out to cut site, handed them trash bags and told them to get to work picking up trash.  In my man’s words, “it was early, it was cold and it was drizzly. In a word, miserable.”  He also recalled,

“We’d have fun at cut because you weren’t allow to walk away from a tree with a notch in it.  You’d work together as a dorm until that tree was down.  So it was fun to go over to another dorm’s section of the woods, right before lunch, and notch a tree, then run.  The JeRPs would come through and wouldn’t release that dorm to go to lunch until all the notched trees were down, regardless of how hungry they were.”


Our sophomore year was the first year that Bonfire would be held on the Polo Fields.  It was a difficult year for those building it because the new field was still very soft soil.  It hadn’t been trampled on and packed down like Duncan had been for probably at least 30 years.  It was a muddy mess that year, if I remember right. 

My sophomore year was also the year that a friend of mine from high school that attended OU came down to visit.  Bonfire was something he wanted to experience.  When I asked him today if he remembered that trip, this was his response:

“I remember. It's not the sort of thing one forgets. I remember hearing about bonfire for several years. Usually, stories become tall tales, rarely living up to the hype; but this was different. Nothing prepared me for how big the structure really is. Now, on top of all of this is something the Aggie faithful call 'yell practice'. Well, I don't know why they call it practice, because I believe I was the only one here that felt a bit like a fish out of water. This of course did not stop the Aggie students from putting their arms around me and allowing me, an outsider, to participate in what has to be the world's largest pep rally. I feel fortunate to be counted amongst those that had the pleasure to experience such a great tradition.  I can assure you that OU has nothing in comparison.”

This is what my friend saw that night.


I love that picture because with those hands sticking up in the air, you get a sense of the size that Bonfire was.

We remember that the yell leaders would always thank all the t-sips that were there to see Bonfire burn for their presence and their support.  It’s true, too.  There were always t.u. students and fans that would come to see the spectacle, just as my friend from OU did.  In fact, our junior year, a friend of mine from t.u. came to Bonfire with us.  That was also the year that the Class of ‘94 invited the class of ‘64 to come back and have it’s last Bonfire since it was cancelled in the fall of 1963 to respect the death of President Kennedy.

My senior year was the year  that excessive rain caused the ground to shift,  and on October 26, 1994, centerpole cracked and stack started to lean.  The decision was made to pull it down completely and start over with 7 days until the burn date.  That year was known as “Rebuild.”

Both Mike and I were living off campus and since much of the Bonfire involvement was done through on campus dorms, we had not been involved up to that point that year.  At that point, though, we were involved.  Everyone was.  I think I may have even helped to schlep a log one night.  One log and I was done, but I had done my part.


It’s hard to explain what Bonfire was, but if you don’t understand it, then these deaths are also hard to understand.   (Not that they are easy to understand even for those of us who do understand Bonfire.)  The entire fall semester revolved around it.  Some people wore the same clothes to cut and stack every time they went and never washed their grodes (as they were called) but just burned them at Bonfire.  It united the student body like nothing else ever did.  At Bonfire we were one.  And I think that’s part of why we built it. 

I was not there in 1999 when the second time it collapsed it did so violently with people on top and killed 12 fellow Aggies.  I was not there and have been somewhat removed from the tragedy.  But my heart aches for the families that lost young lives that night and in the days following.  My heart also aches for my school that lost a tradition and for the classes since then who have not experienced all that Bonfire was. 

I have gotten to know several Aggies on Twitter as of late and there are two girls who were there at the time.  @aggieredhead recalled having taken a log from Bonfire in 1998 and eventually getting rid of it not realizing it would be the last Bonfire on campus.  @niseag03 told me about the Yell Practice that Friday before the game against t.u.  “…They showed an image of Bonfire on the jumbotron. Not a dry eye, and not a single sound. Such solidarity and unity in one place.” 

Will Bonfire ever return to campus at Texas A&M?  I don’t know.  I doubt it, but I wish, on some level, that it could. 

But today, my hope for Aggieland is that even if Bonfire does not return to campus, the students will find some way to unite the diverse campus in a large scale way the way Bonfire did.  That they would find a unifying way to truly demonstrate in a new way “the spirit can ne’er be told.”

I leave you with this poem that was recited at each Bonfire by the head yell leader by memory.

"The Last Corps Trip"
By P.H. DuVal Jr. '51

It was Judgment Day in Aggieland
And tenseness filled the air;
All knew there was a trip at hand,
But not a soul knew where.

Assembled on the drill field
Was the world-renowned Twelfth Man,
The entire fighting Aggie team
And the famous Aggie Band.

And out in front with Royal Guard
The reviewing party stood;
St. Peter and his angel staff
Were choosing bad from good.

First he surveyed the Aggie team
And in terms of an angel swore,
"By Jove, I do believe I've seen
This gallant group before.

I've seen them play since way back when,
And they've always had the grit;
I've seen 'em lose and I've seen 'em win
But I've never seen 'em quit.

No need for us to tarry here
Deciding upon their fates;
Tis plain as the halo on my head
That they've opened Heaven's gates."

And when the Twelfth Man heard this,
They let out a mighty yell
That echoed clear to Heaven
And shook the gates of Hell.

"And what group is this upon the side,"
St. Peter asked his aide,
"That swelled as if to burst with pride
When we our judgment made?"

"Why, sir, that's the Cadet Corps
That's known both far and wide
For backing up their fighting team
Whether they won lost or tied."

"Well, then," said St. Peter,
"It's very plain to me
That within the realms of Heaven
They should spend eternity.

And have the Texas Aggie Band
At once commence to play
For their fates too we must decide
Upon this crucial day."

And the drum major so hearing
Slowly raised his hand
And said, "Boys, let's play The Spirit
For the last time in Aggieland."

And the band poured forth the anthem,
In notes both bright and clear
And ten thousand Aggie voices
Sang the song they hold so dear.

And when the band had finished,
St. Peter wiped his eyes
And said, "It's not so hard to see
They're meant for Paradise."

And the colonel of the Cadet Corps said
As he stiffly took his stand,
"It's just another Corps Trip, boys,
We'll march in behind the band."


jennifer said...

My name is Jenn. I was an EMT working for TAMU EMS when Bonfire collapsed and was one of the medics that helped triage and treat patients early on 11/18/99. The last couple of days have been harder than any other year. Feelings that I dont think I have acknowledged over the last 10 years have come flooding back. I was one of the lucky ones to get to see Bonfire burn before the 99 collapse. This is a hard time for every Aggie but there is comfort in each other. Thanks for writing.

rachelizabeth said...

What a beautiful post. I wrote a post detailing my memories of that day, but left out other things, like the unity the campus had afterward and the support that came, even from that school in Austin.

Like Jenn said above, I'm a lucky one because I got to see bonfire burn.

The Modernish Father said...

Thank you for sharing this. I worked on Bonfire in '97 and '98 and was one of the many students out there in the aftermath of the collapse. I live in CS and work on campus, but hadn't been back to the stack site until last night. I guess I didn't want my memories of the Bonfires that burned to be replaced with something else.

Today has been a lot harder than I had anticipated, moreso than the previous anniversaries. I appreciate your reminders of the comradery and unity that Bonfire inspired, both in good times and bad.

Amanda said...

Wow, that was a great description of all that it was. Thank you for sharing that!

Bobbie said...

Thank you for such a beautiful description of our Aggie Bonfire. I jumped over here from Amanda's blog and am very glad I did! This is what the Aggie family is all about. There are many strong traditions at A&M, but this is a big one. My husband worked on four '68-'72 and our son worked on five ('94-'98) and of course we've attended many since then,until'99.

We've lived all over the country in the past 37 years, since leaving A&M and never fail to meet Aggies everywhere we go. We're definitely family! We retired and moved back to College Station last fall and have loved every minute of once again living in Aggieland!

Thanks again for sharing your memories and giving another view of this beloved tradition.

Gig'em, Bobbie

Renee said...

I also came over from Amanda's blog, and also blogged my experiences from being there that day...

I don't know if you have seen it, but there was an addition to The Last Corps Trip to include the 12 Fallen Aggies - it follows:

Then heaven's pearly portals opened,
Hosts of Angels showed the way,
For that Fighting Texas Aggie group
On that final Judgment Day.

When more Aggies came in view.
Twelve dressed in Bonfire gear
Walking arm and arm, and singing
Of the School they hold so dear.

Twelve Aggie voices said "Howdy"
To the keepers of the Gate.
"Working hard we just lost track of time,
We hope we're not too late."

"It's the Fighting Aggie Bonfire Crew,"
St. Peter said, 'Behold."
They're ready to light up Heaven,
With their courage and faith so bold".

"I would often watch them building,
That Stack so large and high,
And surely knew the time would come
They would build it in the sky."

And so the twelve came through the Gates,
St. Peter said, "Don't fear,
You are just in time for Roll Call"
One by one, they answered. . .'Here.'

Christopher D. Breen "Here"
Jerry Don Self "Here"
Michael Steven Ebanks "Here"
Jeremy Richard Frampton "Here"
Lucas John Kimmel "Here"
Christopher Lee Heard "Here"
Brian Allen McClain "Here"
Jamie Lynn Hand "Here"
Nathan Scott West "Here"
Chad Anthony Powell "Here"
Miranda Denise Adams "Here"
Timothy Doran Kerlee, Jr. "Here"

Big Mama said...

Even though this has left me in tears, I loved every word of it.

Leslie said...

Oh my word! I'm not even an Aggie fan -- I'm a BAMA fan and alumna (thanks for taking Fran, btw)-- and I'm tearing up!! We have traditions like that, too, and I would be so sad to lose them. I'm not even going to get into losing classmates...My heart goes out to y'all.

Have you seen this multimedia/video of Bonfire?

Rachel said...

Amanda mentioned in her blog today that we should read your comments, so that's why I'm here.

My husband was a fish in 1999, (A-Co) and I found out about the collapse when my mother called me about 6:30 that morning.

I was attending a different school, so it was hours and hours before I knew he was okay. Terrifying...I can't even imagine what that was like for the families who experienced that terror, and then there was no relief to follow.

Anonymous said...

It's funny that the event became known for the solidarity Texas showed with Texas A&M, a season of unity and healing; yet in everything you read about that tragedy, everyone likes to allude to Texas as t.u. and proclaim that A&M went on to "beat the hell out of t.u." It doesn't take long for true aggy colors to show through, even in times of tragedy. Its sad that it is further propagated here, in what appears to be widely read blog.

Donna @ Way More Homemade said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm sorry that you don't choose to at least sign your name to a comment.

However, I do agree with you about the support that UT and many other schools showed A&M during that time. Even still today, if you looked at Twitter at all yesterday, there were many Longhorn fans showing support at this anniversary. I believe our schools have a wonderful mix of rivalry and friendship and I can only hope that we would be of as much support if UT experienced anything similar.

However, if you will notice, I made no mention of the actual game that followed that weekend. My post was mostly about my experience with Bonfire which was prior to 11/18/99. Which is why I referred to it as t.u. That's how I would have referred to it then.

Also, I think you overestimate how widely this blog is read. I have like 5 regular readers and some increased traffic because of a link to this post. :)

Gig 'em,

Pennie Pastor said...

I have read comments like "Anonymous's" all day. It's amazing how much the t-sips know nothing about A&M, our traditions, or anything relevant. They just like to refer to us as the "rednecks down the road". They just want accolades for their good gestures 10 years ago (which was the "right" thing to do anyway). If they hear otherwise, they go off on a tangent. Don't worry about comments like that, even though it's really hard not to let the t-sips get under your skin (like they do to me). I loved your blog post. Gig'em!
Pennie Pastor
TAMU Class of 1990

Jeff said...

Hey Anonymous!

Best I can remember, the game was still played and both teams tried their best to win. I don't think Texas let the Aggies win on purpose, so if Aggies saying we "beat the hell outta t.u." is offensive, so is Texas yelling "Texas Fight" and actually trying to win the game.

FYI, we actually didn't use the "Beat the Hell Outta t.u." yell for that game as a goodwill gesture. Also, if you watch the video of the Longhorn Band's halftime performance, the crowd at Kyle Field was very enthusiastic in showing gratitude.

Bottom line-Aggies will always refer to that school in Austin as "t.u."; not out of true hate, but out of a love for Texas A&M and the recognition of the fact that t.u. is just another Texas university, NOT the official school of the state of Texas.


(Not anonymous) Jeff Householder '03

Anonymous said...

wow. you guys just took that and ran with it, didn't you? i've never had so many unflattering words put in my mouth. to recap: it offends me when, in the context of the bonfire tragedy, people continue to refer to us as t.u. and by other colorful nicknames. read the rest of the comments to see the things i didn't say. didn't say we threw the game, that we are better than you, that your traditions are dumb, that we are perfect, that the arrangement of the words of our school name are to the satisfaction of and agreement of the world as a whole. no. i didn't. i'll say it again, and you are wrong if you disagree. it is rude, WHEN IN THE CONTEXT of the bonfire tragedy, that aggies continue, clearly without apology, to refer to Texas as t.u. as if we were in no way a part of the tragedy or in no way united with A&M during that awful time. tragedy trumps tradition. i guess we didn't need A&M to show up for the unity rally that I went to, because it was clearly of no interest to based on the comments and mischaracterizations i've read. do you really not think, for one second, any part of, that it could be slightly tacky and rude? in all honesty? i won't be back, because i'm not here to debate. but i was so shocked at what this turned into that I deserve the right to defend what is a valid opinion.