Vanity of the Bonfire

When tradition and death collide in Aggieland, tradition triumphs

"This university has been founded on traditions, and traditions are what bind us all together as an Aggie family," says Fongemie, a 21-year-old senior political science major from Houston. She is an identical image of Tracy Flick, the overeager and irritatingly perfect high school senior played by actress Reese Witherspoon in this year's cult movie hit Election.

Instead of running for student-body president, which was Flick's consuming passion, Fongemie is one of the 46 members of a prestigious council that speaks to classes and student organizations about the glories of the various Aggie traditions. Not surprising, she believes Bonfire should continue, although with additional safety precautions. She says that in the future, "maybe Bonfire will take on a different perspective as something that reminds us of how precious life really is."

Those who died lost their lives doing something for all Aggies, "doing it so we all can enjoy Bonfire," she says. "I think we have to ask ourselves what these Aggies who died would want. At no other university would people have died for their traditions."

Tributes to fallen classmates line the Bonfire site at Texas A&M.
Bill Meeks
Tributes to fallen classmates line the Bonfire site at Texas A&M.
Carlton Hereford, left, and Adriel Domenech, right, mourn for their fellow students at a fence surrounding the toppled logs of Bonfire.
Bill Meeks
Carlton Hereford, left, and Adriel Domenech, right, mourn for their fellow students at a fence surrounding the toppled logs of Bonfire.

No other university would stand for it.

As students scatter, a few members of the A&M Corps of Cadets hang out by the stage. Dressed in their military uniforms, which they always wear while on campus, one young man weeps in the arms of another who is a head taller. The young man crying was on the Bonfire stack 10 minutes before it collapsed and witnessed the tragedy. One of his best friends died in the accident.

As their companion weeps only a few steps away, two Aggies offer another lesson to the uninitiated.

"I'd say 90 percent of those who come to A&M come here because of the traditions and the unity they create," says Kinsey Fenner, a senior kinesiology major from Houston and a "non-reg," Aggie code for a student who is not a member of the Corps. "The traditions are what set us apart."

She is flanked by Andrew Hale, a strapping cadet from Wylie, near Plano. A senior, he is part of the most exclusive set of the most exclusive sect on campus. Aggies can see a senior cadet coming a mile away. All they have to do is look for the identifying touches on their uniforms -- slacks that balloon at the hips, tucked into knee-high, rust-red leather boots. At any other school, such a getup would be either ridiculed or reported to authorities. At A&M, the slacks and boots get respect as symbols of esteem and authority.

"Bonfire is a project that Aggies build together," says Hale, a 22-year-old electrical engineering major. "To watch it burn is an awesome sight, especially knowing that you pitched in to help build it. Bonfire is about camaraderie, whether you are in Corps or not."

Although only about 2,000 of Texas A&M's 43,000 students are in the Corps of Cadets, the cadet code dominates as if the entire campus lived under the delusion that it is a military academy instead of a public university.

Texas A&M began in 1876 as an all-military institution, even though the "M" in A&M has never stood for "military," but rather "mechanical." The school did not make Corps affiliation voluntary until the 1960s. Women were not accepted into the Corps until 1974. Today, about 120 members are female. The school remains saturated in military atmosphere and history even as it has evolved into a public college of decent academic repute.

Nowhere is that tie with its past more apparent than in the Corps, which has suffered over the years from dwindling membership but not shrinking ego. Only cadets can play in the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band, which marches at football games and has about 340 members. Cadets are considered the "keepers of the spirit" at A&M. As expected, they were all over the Bonfire stack when it collapsed. Eight of the 12 students who died were current or former cadets.

David Morefield, a senior Corps member who plays in the band, is on hand to aid in the rescue effort. Four of his friends died, including one very close to him. Well past his 36th hour without any sleep, Morefield remains at the site along with many other students the night after the collapse, awaiting word whether more people are trapped under the logs. A journalism major, he offers no comment about the accident but is willing to speak freely about the Corps.

"We strive to be soldiers, statesmen, and knightly gentlemen," he says.

In fact, though, the typical cadet is no more a real soldier than is G.I. Joe. The Corps does not require cadets to have a military obligation beyond committing to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) in their freshman and sophomore years. After that, they may pursue an ROTC scholarship or sign a service contract with a branch of the military. Only 35 percent take those options. The rest spend their junior and senior years putting on airs of a military enlistee while playing Big Man (or Woman) on Campus. In fact, the Corps' units are considered student organizations, not really different from the skydiving club or the jump-rope team.

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