Way back in 1909, several members of the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University took it upon themselves to have a rather modest bonfire before the 6th annual football game between the University of Texas Longhorns and the Fightin' Texas Aggies. A&M won the game, and the bonfire, like so much other stuff of Aggie lore, became an annual tradition.
Soon, the bonfire had grown - not just in size, but in splendor as well. An outhouse painted burnt orange (the color of the hated 'Horns) was placed atop the bonfire, and soon administrators, coaches, and cadets were making speeches commemorating A&M's "burning desire" to beat the hell out of t.u. (the derivative term of that school in Austin which had, in A&M's eyes, no right to call itself the University of Texas.)
By 1922, the bonfire was officially sanctioned by the university. It was built in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving by the students themselves: they would cut down the logs at nearby woodlands and bring them to the Polo Grounds on the northeast side of campus. There they would stack them (often precariously) as high as they could manage. On Thanksgiving night (the eve of the big game), a crowd would gather around the bonfire and a yell practice would commence. A good time was had by all. The tradition of bonfire was even memorialized in a 1941 Robert Mitchum wartime vehicle called We've Never Been Licked.
Bonfire had not gone without its share of protesters. By the early 1960s, the primarily engineer-dominated school was building a bonfire of tremendous proportions - the largest one on record was at 109 feet! Environmental activists and safety experts intervened, and the bonfire was limited to 60 feet from then on. The bonfire continued to burn, however, in every year except 1963 - in tribute to the recently fallen John F. Kennedy.
Over the years, the process for the creation of the bonfire was streamlined rather well. The corps of cadets (and later, the non-regulated students) would select leaders known as "pots" - a tribute to the early days of anything-goes head protection during construction - whose job was to get students directly involved with the bonfire. First, a site was selected for "the cut" - the cutting of the timber needed for the bonfire. A large sturdy oak center pole was then brought in from West Texas to serve as the main point for stacking the bonfire. After the cut, the next job was "the stack" - the arduous process of tying the logs together into groups via steel and aluminum wiring and placing them around the bonfire. This was perhaps the most important process - the logs had to be placed precisely to ensure that the bonfire collapsed inwardly on itself, rather than out onto the crowd. In 1982, another important process began: that of Replant, wherein students would go the area they had removed tress from, and planted more trees, for future generations of Aggies to use in their bonfires. And thus the cycle was complete.
I was raised on this gospel, and experienced it for myself three times. It was a truly amazing spectacle, the culmination of weeks of hard work by young men and women - maybe the first time they had worked hard in their life. It was a beautiful thing, and destroyed as a loving sacrifice to the team they had devoted themselves to.
When I came to Texas A&M University as a freshman in 1999, I became hesitantly involved with Bonfire myself. My classes were a burden enough already, and though I admired the determination and grit of my fellow Ags, I couldn't really bring myself to go out to Cut. Finally, I made a trip out to the location of the bonfire, to help organize the logs into piles of equal size, giving the bonfire more balance. I spent virtually an entire weekend there, sleeping in one of the several small temporary buildings stuffed with cots for weary workers. At 6 AM we were up again, measuring, moving, making. I met some wonderful people, and it was an extremely fun time.
I went back out once more, in the early stages of the stack, and did some minor woodchopping, correcting some of the logs. By now, mid-terms were past us, and the pre-Thanksgiving round of tests was upon us. Still, hundreds of Aggies young and old came out to visit the Bonfire and to take part in its creation.
On November 18, my mom called me at 6 AM to ask if I was alright. I was confused, and she told me something that to this day I cannot fathom.
The Aggie Bonfire had collapsed.
I flipped on the news, and saw the ruin that had unfolded. No longer was there a proud tower awaiting its call to duty. Now it was just a jumble of pick-up sticks, splayed carelessly on the ground. There was no report yet on people still trapped within the structure.
11 students were confirmed dead.
I woke up my roommate, and then we began patrolling the halls, knocking on doors, informing our friends - and, in part, making sure they were alright. The news had spread quickly: by the time we made it outside, the sidewalks spidering between the dorms were teeming with students - some still in their pajamas. Nobody had any real information. Some people brazenly speculated that someone had deliberately knocked it down; others thought a crane might have struck the center pole. It was a total disarray. Some people who had heard the news the earliest had made their way over to the site, only to be turned away by authorities.
Around 6 pm on Thursday, Tim Kurlee was pulled from the wreckage; he was taken to a local hospital, where he passed away the following evening, making him Bonfire's 12th man. The other victims were: Miranda Adams, 19; Chris Breen, 25; Michael Ebanks, 19; Jeremy Frampton, 22; Jamie Lynn Hand, 19; Christopher Heard, 19; Lucas Kimmel, 19; Bryan McClain, 20; Chad Powell, 19; Jerry Self, 20; Nathan West, 19. Besides having the affirmative common sense to attend the finest school in the world, among the dead were 8 National Honor Society members; 5 Eagle Scouts; a cheerleader, a swim coach, a pilot, a husband, and one of my very good friends. They all died unfairly, and unexpectedly, and undeservingly. 27 other students were injured.
A Commission initiated by Texas A&M issued its final report in February of 2000, citing organizational failures and lack of oversight as the key factors in the collapse of the bonfire. Despite warnings that the center pole had been increasingly leaning at an awkward angle, construction had continued and, under pressure, it had snapped, sending the bonfire tumbling to the ground.
A bitter debate ensued over the future of Bonfire at A&M. It was finally decided that Bonfire would be put on temporary freeze for five years, while a new plan for its re-entry into the A&M system would be implemented. Since then, several off-campus bonfires have been built and burnt in a form of silent protest over the university's whitewash of the whole affair.
But no Bonfire has burnt at A&M since then, and likely never will. A tradition has died, and they are not easily resurrected, for they carry with them the spirit of all of the years' past - and in Bonfire, that spirit will linger with sadness forever.