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