TEXAS A&M HAS ALWAYS BEEN my Candyland—a place of childhood fantasy and adult adoration from afar. Because of my burnt-orange blood (my parents, two aunts, an uncle, and grandparents are all loyal Longhorns), College Station was the forbidden Sodom, full of Wranglers, shit-kickers, and pickups too uncouth for my ancestors but enticing in my eyes. So when my best friend, Blaire, invited me to check out the largest spirit club in Texas, I whooped at the chance. I was spending my time in Austin with Longhorns while I was on an internship, and I thought I was ready for a change of scene. I wanted to see if College Station was the roughneck, beer-guzzling, spirited nutfest that my family had always maintained. It was time to experience the antithesis of my being (studious, uptight, shy) and wallow in the sin of Aggie tradition for a weekend. May my mother forgive me.
In my mind Aggies were different from the cookie-cutter students I had seen at the University of Texas. In my walks at UT-Austin and in conversations with my family, Longhorns seemed self-conscious, image-crazed—and normal. Texas wasn’t a place of cultural awakenings and new experiences; it was run of the mill in terms of a solid education and student life. UT students were there to get through four more years of school. They went to football and basketball games because that’s what college students do, not to necessarily prove that they were part of the team. A&M with its Twelfth Man seemed to be completely opposite. Aggies were dedicated and united from the stories Blaire, a political science junior, told me as we sat in my house in Dallas every winter and summer break. She built it up in my mind as a beacon of tradition and unity. You couldn’t walk down the street without a “howdy” from a stranger. Texas A&M was a big family reunion—its customs and devotion celebrated all year long to the beat of the Corps drum line. It was a place that could only be experienced, Blaire said, so I had to come down to truly understand. I promised I would sometime, and the time was now.
I knew I was getting close to the old agriculture school by the sheer volume of pickup trucks on the road. As I drove into town, I saw the identifying markers of the College Station skyline: Kyle Field with its eerie, empty look and the university’s water tower; there were no tall skyscrapers or massive interchanges of highways. After a quick burrito at Freebirds, a College Station must, Blaire took me on the Texas A&M tour.
The traditions were as mind-boggling as the maze of buildings we navigated. Blaire was still my best friend in body, but her personality altered as soon as we hit Military Walk, a path surrounded by memorial trees to fallen Aggies. She spouted off knowledge like a tour guide; I certainly didn’t know this much history about my school (Northwestern University). She chuckled as she said, “If someone does something more than once here, it’s a tradition.” Because I got the tour, I now believe her. As she showed me Century Oak, she turned around and walked backward under its branches and urged me to do the same. I stared at her in disbelief. “Why?” I asked. Or else I would never find my true love, she responded with intensity. I laughed off her superstitions and walked facing her. At the bronze statue of former A&M president Lawrence Sullivan Ross, affectionately called “Sully” by fellow Aggies, she whipped out a penny and placed it on his shoe. I noticed about a quarter’s worth of copper coins on the metallic base and shot her a puzzled look. She explained that a cent at his feet means a good grade on a test.
Somewhere between the holy grass at the Student Memorial Center and the graves of Reveille I through V, my eyes began to glaze over. I was starting to wonder if the ghost in the old agriculture building didn’t possess Blaire’s soul. She kept speaking in tongues—it was “Aggiespeak,” a language so revered by the university and its students that The Aggie Dictionary was published in 1995. Her demeanor was contagious, though, and I was caught up in the ideal of Aggie-dom and its rituals. In some ways, I wanted to go to Fish Camp, where Aggie upperclassmen teach incoming freshmen the traditions, and be inducted into the family.
On the way back to her car, she took me to the place in front of three dorms where a small Bonfire memorial had been erected to remember the three students from those dorms who died. It seemed like a simple marker in a timeline. Made of concrete and bronze, three “pots,” or helmets worn by Bonfire workers, stood silently as a testament to A&M before the 1999 Bonfire fell and after. Blaire, who was a freshman when Bonfire fell, said things would never be the same. Twelve deaths had changed the face of the campus irreversibly from the unified, friendly Aggie clan with a “howdy” tradition to a maroon group that came out during sports events but disappeared the rest of the year into books, lectures, and parties. (Not as many students take pride in the rich history of Aggieland as Blaire does. Another high school friend, a sophomore who never experienced Bonfire, was educated in Aggie tradition as I recounted Blaire’s tour.) Many students echoed Blaire’s sentiment. Over the years, even traditions like Bonfire and the Corps have been watered down. One Corps member told me that some students enlisted in the Corps for scholarships, not the leadership and tradition for which the military unit has always stood. After that dark November tragedy and the Bonfire that didn’t burn, Blaire realized what the Twelfth Man and Aggies were all about: character, dedication, leadership, and family. Now, without Bonfire, some students believe freshmen never truly feel a part of the Aggie family, making it harder for them to understand and easier for them not to participate in Aggie rites.
One tradition that is still alive and well at A&M is partying. On the weekends, Northgate, an area that looks like a small town’s main street, is lit with shot bars, dance halls, and clubs, where there is no cover and plenty of booze. I should have grasped this cultural practice when a cute bartender on Friday night at the Dry Bean Saloon offered us a shot at seven in the evening. I told him with a laugh that it was a little early for me to party. But that didn’t stop me at eleven o’clock the next night. Blaire, some Aggies, and I kicked off the evening with a shot a piece and sallied over to Shadow Canyon, a rickety barnlike structure that conveyed the earthy, rustic nature of A&M. But once inside, under the old farm equipment, hundreds of Aggies bumped and grinded to Sir Mix-A-Lot and other R&B dance hits. There were no Wranglers, and I saw only one cowboy hat, which didn’t count because the owner was wearing a sky-blue polo shirt—the hat was a fashion statement, not a cultural accouterment. The students didn’t look fresh off the farm but fresh from the cities. Labels and designers were out tonight in full force, and this honky-tonk seemed more at home on Austin’s Sixth Street than A&M’s Northgate. About thirty minutes later, we went to the new shot bar, the Reef, which replaced Coupe de Ville’s after a student died from alcohol poisoning in August of 1999. This bar had a conscience: When you walked in, your hand was stamped with .08, the legal blood-alcohol limit. Considering the tradition of ring-dunking (where an Aggie drops his senior ring in a pitcher of beer and guzzles), it had a sobering effect on our crowd, so we left, wondering how we would explain the mark of the beast to fellow churchgoers the next morning.
Sunday marked a return to normalcy at A&M: Students go back to their books and get geared up for the week at hand. Some students say it has gotten harder to make the grade in College Station, so they frequently spend days at the library and nights with their books. You can’t party every weekend and expect to do well. Blaire had reading to do, so I said good-bye. I hadn’t expected my trip to Sodom to exceed my expectations, but I couldn’t have predicted my conviction that the College Station I had experienced was not the one around which Blaire wove her epic tales of glory. I returned to Austin with more questions than answers.
But most of my questions were answered on February 4, when A&M president Ray Bowen announced that there would be no Bonfire in 2002. Blaire’s class would never experience the fiery inferno that towered 55 feet over campus. With the administration’s concerns for safety, the distinctively Aggie tradition was extinguished, and with it, the majority of student trust in the administration. About 92 percent of the students who voted were overwhelmingly in favor of rekindling Bonfire—but to no avail. Students have searched for a reason, and the only conclusion that some can come to is the media’s eye, the camera. For ninety years, students spent weeks constructing a tower of logs to build a fiery symbol of Aggie pride, ingenuity, and dedication for themselves and the world to see. Some students feel that the university is sacrificing Aggie honor for the press and log by log tearing down the tradition of which almost all Aggies take part. For years A&M has been the butt of many jokes, but Aggies still had their pride no matter how convinced those outside the family were that A&M played second fiddle. Without Bonfire, I see A&M “evolving” into UT—a place to go to classes and football games and get a degree.
Blaire is just glad the official decision has been made. She says that once the administration halted the tradition after the collapse, she always knew Bonfire would end like this—and she thinks that maybe it’s better this way. But then I remember her face that weekend as she talked about the hurt, the burning betrayal, and the helplessness she felt. She was still in mourning two years after Bonfire fell. Her words were laced with regret and a penetrating sadness that hung like smoke in the air. I could only look at my feet and stay silent. She came to College Station to be a part of something bigger than the typical college experience. That’s what she showed me on my trip that weekend. And she will leave an Aggie in love with her family. But she will still despise those at its head for “stealing” what she thought was rightfully hers. Even to a weekend visitor, that seems to be the greatest sin of all.
But I still have my Candyland. I succeeded in provoking my mother’s ire. She says I have danced with the devil (I brought home an A&M T-shirt). I may have burnt-orange blood in my lineage, but for one weekend I felt a part of the maroon family. For me, the Aggie bond is still a mystery, but one visit set me on a path to better understand it—and I promise I will be back for further enlightenment (even if my family disowns me).