20 years later, Aggies remain one in grief over Bonfire tragedy

In a few short hours, at 2:42 Monday morning as most of us are sleeping, there’ll be a remembrance ceremony on the campus of my beloved alma mater, Texas A&M University​. Hundreds will be there to honor, shed tears over and remember the 12 Aggies who died at that moment 20 years ago when a 90-year tradition, Bonfire, tumbled down in an unthinkable tragedy no Aggie can or will ever forget.

Twenty-seven more Aggies were injured when Bonfire collapsed that Thursday in the dark of night, and those survivors and the dozens of others working at the stack site near the front of campus are united in a bond that can ne’er be broken. Then again, there’s a tie that connects all of us Aggies always, as our school song, “The Spirit of Aggieland,” so clearly expresses:

“But there’s a spirit can ne’er be told,
It’s the Spirit of Aggieland.
We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we,
True to each other as Aggies can be …”

On Oct. 30, 1999, Kay and I had attended our first A&M football game as a couple (we’d been married five years), with our friends Bobby Nagel​ and his wife Annette​. It was rainy and miserable, but the Aggies sloshed their way to an ugly 21-3 win. How could we know that, less than three weeks later, a tragedy would douse 12 bright lights, cast a pall on a hallowed Aggie tradition, and transform the campus into the most solemn state in its history?

On Oct. 26, 2019, Kay and I were back in Aggieland together for the first time since that day 20 years ago, taking in another football game, another A&M victory. This time, as we made the long walk from Kyle Field to where we’d parked off campus, we walked near the Aggie Bonfire Memorial, which I had never had the chance to see. It was built five years after the collapse, on the very spot, with stirring portals celebrating the lives, spirit and Aggie pride of each one. We visited all 12 Aggies, reading their words and those of their loved ones. I marveled at their dedication to school, family and God.

****

Eight days after the Bonfire collapse, what’s usually the biggest, most meaningful game of the year (for Aggies, at least) was scheduled at Kyle Field. There’d been talk of canceling the 106th rivalry showdown between the Aggies and the No. 7-ranked University of Texas. UT coach Mack Brown said if A&M wanted to call it off, as the campus and Aggies around the world mourned, he’d be fine with that.

But Coach R.C. Slocum and his players knew this was something that, for every Aggie, for those who’d lost their lives building the symbol of Texas A&M’s ever-burning desire to defeat the Longhorns, they had to go through with. There was no way they could *not* play this game.

Heavily-favored UT brought not only a lofty ranking, but a 9-2 record and a five-game winning streak into Kyle Field. The Aggies, at 7-3, were 24th and had lost big to both Oklahoma and Nebraska. But they carried boundless emotional momentum, and that counted for more than predictions, more than rankings, more than records. After A&M scored early, the ‘Horns surged to a 16-6 halftime lead.

But in the second half, the Aggies’ vaunted Wrecking Crew defense took charge, holding the ‘Horns scoreless while Randy McCown and the A&M offense scored two touchdowns. An Aggie fumble recovery after a sack of quarterback Major Applewhite as UT was driving for a potential winning TD sealed the poignant 20-16 upset in front of 86,000-plus at the “old,” pre-100,000-plus-capacity stadium.

My friend, fellow Aggie and former Dallas Morning News colleague Rob Clark​ has written an incredible oral history of the ’99 game for The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Rob interviewed numerous key figures involved not only in the game but in the aftermath of the Bonfire collapse. If you’re an Aggie, this is a must read.

https://www.theeagle.com/news/local/an-oral-history-of-the-bonfire-game-between-texas-and/article_bdc3931e-ffe6-11e9-8d34-3fab884086f8.html

Despite all the Ags were playing for, no one really expected them to win. But 20 years later, with the bitter rivals not having met on the football field since 2011 — and no sign they will anytime soon — the game still holds significance for Aggies because of what happened eight days earlier.

And because those students (and one former student) died upholding just one of the countless traditions that lay the foundation for what Texas A&M is.

****

“From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it, and from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”

That’s what we say about Texas A&M and being Aggies. The traditions. The camaraderie. The military Corps of Cadets that is “the backbone” of the university. The unbreakable spirit. The dedication to all things relating to Texas A&M. The bond all Aggies feel with one another.

When I became a student at Texas A&M 40 years ago this fall, transferring in from North Harris County Junior College in Houston, I knew little about any of this. Knowing my mother wouldn’t allow me to move away to college straight out of Conroe High because I’d just turned 17 three months before graduating in 1978, I hadn’t gone the application route most kids did.

Strangely enough, though, when I first thought about a possible college, the University of Texas came to mind first — because I’d heard about the great band at UT. Having played the clarinet since seventh grade, I wanted to be in band in college, so I wrote to the UT band director expressing my interest. I got a nice letter back and thought, “OK, this is cool, I think that’s where I want to go.” I even thought about majoring in music — even though Mom wanted me to be a doctor. Yeah, right, that’s not gonna happen.

But somewhere along the way, I decided basing my college choice on wanting to be in band wasn’t the way to go. I’d always liked A&M, too, and at some point during that juco year, I made the switch: I’m gonna be an Aggie. Against Mom’s hopes, I also went with my writing passion and declared journalism as my major.

Of course, to be in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, you have to be in the Corps of Cadets. Since I had no military leanings in my head or heart, I gave up the college band dream.

http://www.thebatt.com/traditions/bonfire/hallowed-ground/article_d04ee8a2-06ae-11ea-9fb9-f74893b69aee.html

As a transfer, I missed out on one important route to soaking up TAMU traditions: Fish Camp, where incoming freshmen go to learn Aggie yells (think “cheers”), the words to the “Aggie War Hymn” (think fight song), what a Yell Leader is (think cheerleader), what Midnight Yell Practice is (think pep rally), what the Fish Pond is, what Muster is, what Silver Taps is, what you and your date are supposed to do when the Aggies score, why you can’t walk on the grass around the Memorial Student Center. And so very, very much more.

Yes, all schools have traditions. Glorious, revered ones that have been around for generations, some well over a hundred years. Non-Aggies will say we’re being pretentious and are full of ourselves, but there just isn’t another school out there that compares to Texas A&M, its unique traditions, and their significance, importance and unifying strength.

Luckily I lived in a campus dorm all four years (“Moore Hall Truckers, Bad Mother …” Well, that was the start of our yell, anyway). Dorm life gave me the chance to learn and experience Aggie traditions in a way that living off-campus never would have.

But honestly, I’d have to say that I still probably learned only *some* of what most Aggies know when it comes to traditions and A&M history. There were plenty of activities I either just skipped or missed out on because I was too busy working at the school newspaper, The Battalion. I attended Silver Taps, a solemn tradition held after a student’s passing, only once.

And from 1981 to ’83, when I was a sports writer at The Batt, I didn’t get to pull (visibly) for the Aggies, do any of the yells, sway with other Ags during the War Hymn or sing the school song — that kind of behavior’s sort of frowned on in the press box at football games and on press row at basketball games.

I’ll catch much grief from fellow Aggies for this, but I’ve never attended Muster, held every April 21 all over the world. It’s the most solemn and most visible A&M tradition, in which we hold ceremonies to honor fallen Aggies, including a “Roll Call for the Absent” in which, as each name is called, a family member or friend answers “here” to show that the Aggie is present in spirit.

Next year, I plan to start making Muster an April 21 routine.

****

Which brings me back around to Bonfire (I’m sure you were wondering). In the weeks leading up to the lighting of Bonfire before the Aggie-Longhorn game, large groups of students would gather for “cut” or “stack” duties. That included dorms, and if I happened to be in my room when a group was heading out, I always passed on helping with Bonfire. I guess that made me a bad Ag. They’d always come around banging on the door about 1 a.m. In fact, I only remember working on Bonfire once — and I can’t even remember what I did. 

As far as attending Bonfire, I’m pretty sure I only went a couple of years. For one thing, the game was often on Thanksgiving, so the night before, I was back home with my family in Conroe.

So although I feel like I missed out on some traditions during my years at TAMU (like not spending nearly enough time at the Dixie Chicken!), I’ll always cherish the experiences I did have and take immense pride in being an Aggie.

I feel naked when I’m not wearing my Aggie Ring in public and was disconsolate when it was lost for a couple of years — I left it in a press box while covering a high school football game in San Angelo while I was a sports writer at The Odessa American. Luckily, someone found it and turned it in to the Aggie Ring locator service at A&M (who knew they had such a thing?), so I didn’t have to buy a new one.

Now that I’ve reminisced a bit about my Texas A&M days so long ago … remembering and honoring those 12 Aggie angels whose “whoops” no doubt can be heard all over heaven.

2 thoughts on “20 years later, Aggies remain one in grief over Bonfire tragedy

    1. Howdy and thank you, Lynn! So sad to think about those 12 kids, all with so much promise. It’s hard to believe it’s already been 20 years. I hope you guys are doing well. Have a great Thanksgiving and Christmas!

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