Vanity of the Bonfire

When tradition and death collide in Aggieland, tradition triumphs

Cadets spread their deceit, however, by forcing their elitist honor code across the rest of the campus. What's amazing is that the other 41,000 students accept it. Cadets call the "civilian" students the inferior-sounding "non-regs." If that's not bad enough, some of the 41,000 refer to themselves that way too.

Cadets live together in exclusive dormitories. The Corps is organized through 29 companies, each unit with its own chain of command. Commanding officers are students, some of whom have no intention of joining the military after graduation. Cadets awaken early every morning for formation. They wear full military dress while on campus. The khaki or dark green uniforms include name tags, medals, and cords. The type of colored strip in their hat, called a "cover," the type of belt and buckle, and the type of boots and spurs all classify cadets by year.

Cadets eat together in "chow hall," where they practice their clannish language. They eat cackle (eggs) and bullneck (meat), make it taste good with a dash of shotgun (pepper sauce), and wash it down with sky (water).

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.

Seniors are known as "zips," juniors as "surge butts," sophomores as "piss heads," and freshmen as "fish." The lingo originates with the Corps but permeates through the campus. Freshmen campuswide are known as "fish." The act of extending one's hand to greet someone is called "whipping out," another campuswide term that originated among cadets.

When Christy Hall returned home for the holidays after spending her first few months as a Texas A&M cadet, her mother thought she was speaking in tongues. Hall, now a senior, gives tours at the Sanders Corps of Cadets Center, which houses a museum glorifying the Corps' traditions and history. She says the Corps provides her the best of both worlds: a chance to live a disciplined military lifestyle without having to serve in the military.

"I know what I am going to be wearing to class every day," she says, alluding to a cadet's regulation uniform. "I don't have the luxury of rolling out of bed 10 minutes before class and showing up in my pajamas."

How deep does the pseudo-military Corps mentality enter into the Aggie psyche? On the evening after the tragedy, 10,000 people gather at the school's basketball arena for a memorial service. On this, potentially the most poignant of moments, the Reverend Larry Krueger of Campus Ministries delivers a sermon in Aggie-speak.

"It didn't matter if you were a fish or a senior," he says. "It didn't matter if you were Corps or non-reg. It didn't matter what color your pot was. What mattered is that we cared for each other."

A sign inside the entrance of Texas A&M's Memorial Student Center requests that all visitors remove their hats out of respect to those Aggies who died while in military service to their country. In this era where two out of every three college boys wear Abercrombie & Fitch baseball caps, asking them to remove their hats every time they walk into the student center is no small request. After all, girls don't like hat head.

There are reminders all over campus to revere the dead. Texas A&M treats dead Aggies like the VFW treats war dead. It is no wonder Aggie students are treating Bonfire casualties like victims of an honorable battle.

On the first Tuesday of the month after any Texas A&M student has died, flags on campus fly at half-staff. A small white card containing the names of the dead is placed at the foot of a flagpole in front of the Academic Building. Lights across campus dim beginning at 10 p.m. as students gather on the plaza for the somber memorial tribute called "Silver Taps."

At 10:30 p.m., a Corps drill team called the Ross Volunteers breaks the silence with a 21-gun salute. Buglers then play Silver Taps, a harmonized version of the bugle call, three times: once each to the north, west, and south, but not to the east. "That's because the sun will never rise on that Aggie again," Hall explains.

After the ceremony, students walk silently and reverently across campus, back to their dorms.

The Aggie fixation with death culminates each spring with Muster, a ceremony held April 21, the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, which secured Texas independence from Mexico. Inside the basketball arena, more than 10,000 students gather for Campus Muster to remember Aggies who have died in the previous 12 months. The dead recognized include current students, former students who live in the Brazos Valley, members of the 50-year reunion class, former students with immediate family in the Brazos Valley, and former students with immediate family currently enrolled at Texas A&M. As of November 3, 18 Aggies were on the list that now boasts at least 30.

As a "Roll Call of the Absent" is read, a friend or family member answers "Here!" and a candle is lit "to symbolize that while those Aggies are not present in body, they will forever remain with us in Aggie Spirit," according to the Student Muster Committee Web site.

Tradition also states that wherever there are two Aggies within 100 miles of each other, they will meet for Muster. About 400 official Aggie Musters are held each April 21 across the globe, Hall says.

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