Memory of Fire
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The cliché about any great tragedy is that it creates indelible markers in time and space: Had John F. Kennedy visited Dallas in 1963 without incident, few Americans would be able to recall much about where they were or what they were doing on November 22 of that year. As shocking news spreads, it generates hundreds of thousands of individual memories that fill the dark days on the calendar. For Aggies, and for many Texans, the date of November 18, 1999, is densely packed with these grim reminders. Everyone knows where he was when he heard that the Texas A&M Bonfire had collapsed early that morning and that a number of students had been killed. The loss of life was shocking and deeply upsetting; what made it even more painful was the knowledge that A&M’s most passionately observed tradition—perhaps the most passionately observed tradition at any university in the world—was to blame.
Every story about Texas A&M is a story about tradition versus change. In this way it is the most Texan of all our schools. Not because its particular customs are so emblematic of the state—they’re more a reflection of A&M’s military history than anything else—but because a similar struggle between mythic heritage and contemporary reality has defined Texas throughout the decades. Like Texas, the Aggies have age-old rituals (Elephant Walk, senior boots) that to the outsider seem like the customs of a foreign nation. A&M prides itself on being different—really different—from other schools, and it reveres all the little details of Aggie life that make it so. Much the same thing could be said about Texas. We are all Aggies.
Or at least we were ten years ago. It is commonly said of A&M that “from the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” But on that day, and in the weeks and months that followed, this barrier was transcended, as it is again in Pamela Colloff’s oral history of the Bonfire collapse (“Ring of Fire”). If, like me, you did not attend A&M, this story will give you a vivid sense of why Bonfire meant so much to those who stacked and burned it, and if, like me, you like to build fires, it will make you wish that you could have been there at least once to witness the rowdy glory yourself. Pam contacted nearly one hundred Aggies, including Governor Rick Perry, former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, dozens of students, and many of the survivors who were on the stack that night. In their own words, from the inside looking out, they powerfully evoke the significance (and the tremendous fun) of the tradition, the terror of the collapse, and the agony over the university’s subsequent decision to suspend Bonfire.
It has not burned since. Starting in 2002, a smaller, student-run bonfire has been held off-campus, but the official Bonfire, for now, belongs to history. Had it continued, this month would have been its centennial. To mark the twin anniversary—a poignant alignment of tradition and tragedy—our cover tries to imagine what it would have looked like. Though there were hundreds of great archival images to choose from (some of which you’ll see inside), you cannot observe a moment like this with a picture of the past, so we hired a CGI firm to painstakingly build, computer-generated log by computer-generated log, a model of the stack. This is Bonfire as it might have looked on the afternoon of November 25, 2009, just hours before the fire was to be set. The outhouse has been affixed to the top, but the sheets doused with diesel fuel have not yet been placed around the lowest tier. Bonfire may never again burn as it once did, but like all great traditions, it lives in the minds of those who cherished it—part memory, part dream, part myth.
Senior editor John Spong on classic Texas dance halls; executive editor Skip Hollandsworth on the shockingly lurid fall of Judge Samuel Kent; special correspondent S. C. Gwynne on soon-to-be-ex-Houston-mayor (and candidate for U.S. Senate) Bill White; writer-at-large Patricia Kilday Hart on health care in the Rio Grande Valley; and senior editor Gary Cartwright on wrestling with J. Frank Dobie.