Vanity of the Bonfire

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A Texas A&M University student belts out commands like a Marine drill instructor. His crew of 10 college kids in storm-trooper helmets plays the most macabre game of pickup sticks imaginable. The crew grabs a heavy log, about eight inches in diameter and eight feet tall, lying several yards away from a bowed haystack of wired-together timber. The log is one of many that cranes gingerly removed from the pyramid that gave way 12 hours earlier.

The students hoist the log past their knees and onto their shoulders, hollering boisterously. The yells are intended to tighten their stomach muscles, from which they can draw brute strength, and not to disrespect their fallen comrades, some of whom still may be trapped under the collapsed tower. The students carry the log away, following a path to the perimeter where removed timber is accumulating in separate stacks of about 10 logs each.

"Swing right!" the crew chief bellows.

With a virile grunt, they throw the log on a pile. It bounces back violently, hitting one of the students square in the face. He falls backward into an adjacent log stack, his helmeted head snapping back against the wood.

"Whoa!" crew members yell as they come to his aid. He gets up quickly and laughs to indicate that he's fine.

The drill, known as "swamping" and practiced repeatedly in the hours following the collapse of the Aggie Bonfire, is done with the precision and pitch of a military exercise. The students are able to disassemble the stack of logs in an organized manner because that is the way they've been trained to assemble the 55-foot structure. An Aggie tradition in reverse. Backward in the backwoods.

Since 1909, the Bonfire tradition at Texas A&M has been a fanatic exercise in masochism and machismo, where size matters. Bonfire workers wear round-edged military-style hard hats known as "pots" that are color-coded to signify chain of command. "Red pots" are nine seniors and nine juniors in charge of the exercise. "Brown pots" are five students who help maintain equipment. "Yellow pots" are crew leaders from dormitories. "Butt pots" are unit leaders from the A&M Corps of Cadets.

It all makes perfect sense to them.

It is sacred at Texas A&M for students to take part in building Bonfire. That's Bonfire, not the small "b" bonfire. At a university steeped in prim ritual, tradition is spoken in proper nouns. Bonfire begins in October with the cutting down of trees with hand axes, a rite called "Cut." That is followed by the loading and unloading of the timber by hand, or "Reload." It culminates with the logs being placed and wired together into what looks like a six-layer wooden wedding cake on a field at the edge of campus, a ritual called "Stack." Work escalates around the clock during the final weeks, a period called "Push."

On the night before the annual Thanksgiving weekend football game with the University of Texas (two nights before, if the game is played in Austin), Aggies and curiosity seekers trek to College Station to gaze and party as Bonfire is set ablaze.

There's a saying on this campus. Actually, there are lots of sayings at A&M, a string of pearls peculiar to the peculiarities of this place called "Aggieland." The adage goes: "From the outside looking in, you can't understand it. From the inside looking out, you can't explain it."

This is how Aggies inform the uninitiated that things really aren't as peculiar as they appear. It also is their admission that Aggies are, in fact, peculiar.

Texas A&M, a state university with 43,000 students, evolved out of military origins that it just can't shake. It's a place where a handful of students, the Corps of Cadets, dress in World War II-style uniforms and pretend to be military officers and soldiers. And it's a place where the "civilian" students are brainwashed into thinking that they are somehow inferior to the brown shirts.

It also is a place where death is considered honorable. Most college kids tend to act as if they're immortal. At A&M, students ponder their mortality at every turn. Solemn traditions revere Aggie dead. How tragic, yet not terribly surprising, that tradition and death collided here at 2:28 a.m. on November 18.

The Bonfire tradition resulted in the deaths of 12 young men and women. If the tradition is abandoned as a result, it will be because lawyers warn officials about liability. It won't be because Aggies find it offensive to continue the ritual. They believe the appropriate thing to do is to keep the tradition alive even though their classmates are dead.

Aggies are treating those who died as martyrs to the "Spirit of Aggieland," as if they were soldiers who sacrificed their lives for a holy cause. They will remember them like they do all Aggies who pass, much like war veterans honor their dead.

Just inside the yellow police tape unfurled to form a huge rectangle around the eerie scene of the collapsed Bonfire, crews of students who helped clear the logs take rest breaks. They are dressed in work boots, leather gloves tucked in the back pockets of their jeans, their white T-shirts covered in dirt left by the timber. Brown badges of courage.

These young men and a few young women resemble roughnecks who worked long hours in an oilfield, similar to the lifelike bronze statue that students routinely pass on their way to class. Perhaps they look more like young infantry soldiers depicted in romanticized war movies, exhausted and contemplative after picking up the pieces of a lost battle. They lie on their backs on the browned grass, using their pots as headrests. A few smoke cigarettes, holding the butts between thumb and forefinger, sucking hard to get every last bit of tobacco before flicking it away. Dirt under their fingernails.

Aggies personalize and decorate their pots to add to the color and spectacle of the Bonfire tradition. One young man has written "Seek and Destroy" on his. Another has scribed "Mess with the best. Die like the rest." A young man dressed in camouflage fatigues is crying and leaning his head on the shoulder of an older woman, likely his mother. His pot bears the words "Fuck t.u." (t.u. is the taunting way Aggies refer to the University of Texas.)

Some of the students are wearing Aggie Bonfire T-shirts as a show of support for the tradition in light of the tragedy. One shirt says, "Last Bonfire of the Millennium: Tradition never dies."

To campus strangers, the attitude -- the entire scene -- is not only macabre and bizarre, it's brazen and appalling. But we're on the outside, looking in. And therefore, Aggies say, we can't possibly understand.

Beyond the police tape, thousands of Texas A&M students gradually assemble to witness this rescue site. They arrive on bikes and on foot, full of angst and curiosity. Some gather in groups; others stand apart. Some are praying. Many are crying. One uses the occasion to study from a textbook titled The Human Species.

The media also converges upon College Station. Aggies will have to try to explain themselves yet again.

Adriel Domenech, a junior and graduate of The Woodlands High School north of Houston, knows what the media must be thinking. His father, who lives in Miami, once asked his son, "What do you want to go to that redneck university for?" Domenech thinks his father doesn't understand.

The 20-year-old history and political science major stands alone, watching his fellow students remove the logs from the collapsed stack. He considers whether to head home to grab his pot and join them.

Bonfire, he explains, is a glorious symbol of "every Aggie's burning desire to beat the living hell out of t.u." It's a campus mantra. He explains the different phases of Bonfire and the significance of the colors and adornments of the pots. "I know how all this must sound," he says.

What percentage of students actually participate in Bonfire?

"We're all part of Bonfire whether you help build it or not," Domenech says. "Bonfire is something that brings us together. Even now, after what happened this morning, it is bringing us together."

Like the majority of Aggies, current and former students, Domenech thinks the Bonfire tradition should endure. But when asked why tradition is so sainted to Aggies, he scratches his goatee and ponders the question for a long time.

"That's a tall order to try to have to explain," he says. "I can't really explain it. Some people call it 'the other education.' It's not about school. All the things we do here -- the midnight yell practice, Bonfire, the replanting of trees in the spring -- it all makes you feel a part of a team."

A sea-blue blood-donor van is parked in an open-air plaza outside A&M's Memorial Student Center. A couple hours before nightfall, several hundred students have assembled on the plaza for a prayer service to memorialize their classmates who died in the Bonfire collapse.

Students listen to a choir and a brief sermon. Then they are asked to break into small groups, form a circle, and pray among themselves. A group of 20 clutch hands. Most are wearing identical maroon polo shirts with the logo "Traditions Council" embroidered on the breast. They account for about one quarter of the campus club dedicated to promoting and preserving A&M traditions, traditions such as the one necessitating these prayers.

Head bowed, one of the council members squeezes his eyes shut as tightly as he can in an effort to hold back tears. He sniffles, and when he finally opens his eyes, they are wet and horribly red. Others weep openly. The students take turns praying aloud.

"Thank you, God, for our university, so rich in tradition," Traditions Council member Tania Fongemie says, "and for our friends who died doing what they loved and what we loved to join in doing with them."

Another prayer circle erupts spontaneously into a chorus of "Amazing Grace." As the singing wafts across the plaza, other circles join in. The Traditions Council member who has tried so hard to hold back his tears stops trying. When the memorial service is over, Fongemie tries to explain the inexplicable to someone who isn't an Aggie and therefore cannot possibly understand.

"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."

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.

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).

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.

"It is an incredible feeling for Aggies to know that if something happened to them and they died, everyone would turn out for them at Silver Taps, and their name would be called out at Muster," she says. "These traditions ensure that Aggies are always going to be remembered."

There will be at least 12 names on the little white card at the foot of the flagpole during this month's Silver Taps. If that doesn't inspire Aggies to reconsider the traditions on their campus, then nothing will.

"I've lost friends before," says the sleep-deprived Corps member David Morefield. As he talks, cranes remove logs from the Bonfire pyramid less carefully and more quickly, signifying that hope of finding more survivors is lost. "What would we be without Bonfire and without our other traditions? We'd be like every other university. What would there be to pride ourselves in?"

Around the rectangular perimeter surrounding the Bonfire collapse, students continue to linger under a starry night sky, some 20 hours after the pyramid fell. Blinding floodlights illuminate the cranes, and onlookers shield their eyes to get a better view.

Standing alone on the opposite side of the staging area for the rescue effort, a young man shivers in his long-sleeved "Bonfire: The Tradition Continues" T-shirt. Night has brought cold, and sophomore Carlton Hereford wears the shirt to show his support of the tradition.

"Bonfire is about unity," says the 19-year-old engineering and business major, who grew up in Austin. "It helps bring us together as a campus community. I definitely think Bonfire should continue. Those guys were out here doing it because they loved it and believed in it. You do it because you love Texas A&M and you want to make something better of it."

Hereford met many of those he now considers his best friends while helping build last year's Bonfire as a freshman. He remembers that the night it was set on fire, he eyed the log that he had helped put in place.

The student vigil continues well past midnight as cranes remove the last of the logs. Adriel Domenech is back, this time with work gloves, work boots, and his roommate's white pot. He is ready to aid in the rescue, but the "swamping" exercise of moving logs is over. So now he just sits. "To watch; to wait," he says.

He won't call it a night until the final log is removed and he knows for certain that no other Aggies are pinned beneath the stack. "When they finish here, they are going to have a bunch of logs," he says. "If they want us to build another Bonfire, I will do it out of respect for the folks who died. I'll be out here every day, every night."

Earlier in the evening he watched CNN, and he didn't like the way its report came across as "here's a bunch of morons on a stack of wood and it fell over," he says. "How offensive. Bonfire is not haphazard. A lot of work goes into it."

Twenty-four hours after the stack fell, a Texas A&M spokeswoman announces to the students still gathered that all that remains where thousands of logs once stood are splinters. No more bodies have been found. The death count stands at 11. (It will increase by one later that afternoon when a critically injured young man dies.) She asks the students to observe a moment of silence and implores them to return to their dorms for the evening.

Domenech overhears a rumor that the Corps' Ross Volunteers are going to mark the end of the vigil with a special Silver Taps. He sets out to find the ceremony.

"Do you need a ride?" a young woman asks him. Although the two have never met before, he accepts this offer from Kristin Hall, a freshman who grew up in a tiny town near Corpus Christi.

When Hall hears him tell of the rumor about Silver Taps, she gets as interested as he is in finding it.

From the outside looking in, this appears to be the perfect time for Hall -- her first semester suddenly jolted by surreal tragedy -- to ask an upperclassman about how their school could have let it happen. Or whether the event should continue. But we, the uninitiated, don't understand the Cult of Aggie.

During the ride, Hall never mentions the collapse. Or the casualty list. Instead, she asks Domenech for tips on how to get involved next year in a 91-year-old tradition.

Hall is only a freshman, but she's on the inside. She's an Aggie, an Aggie excited about becoming part of next year's Bonfire.

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