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The Nation

At A&M, Tradition Can't Be Extinguished

November 24, 2002|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In a clearing off a country road near Texas A&M University stands a giant pile of logs and shrubs, twigs jutting out at crazy angles. For weeks, students hefting chain saws have added kindling to this stack, determined to rescue a quickly fading tradition -- the annual Aggie bonfire. Or Bonfire, as it is known here.

"If we don't do this, the students coming after us will miss a great experience," senior Luke Cheatham said. "Bonfire is a tradition that stands for working together for a common goal, and we need to pass that on."

For 90 years the annual bonfire blazed on campus, the focus of a frenzied rally on the eve of A&M's football game against archrival University of Texas.

Each year, the tower grew higher, a symbol of "every Aggie's burning desire to beat t.u.," as the school saying goes, altering UT's initials as a sign of disrespect.

In 1999, the bonfire's glory days ended with a horrific crash. A 59-foot tower of logs collapsed, killing 12 students and injuring 27. Accusations of poor supervision followed claims of faulty engineering. Lawsuits were filed against the university, a crane operator and student supervisors, among others. School officials banned the bonfire from campus, forcing students to find alternate venues, such as this remote field on loan from a sympathetic landowner.

The tradition will continue here tonight, in anticipation of Friday's game, and the university administration is not pleased.

"We continue to discourage construction of any unauthorized bonfire, even if built off campus," A&M spokeswoman Cindy Lawson said. "Our concern is primarily one of safety -- safety of our students and for anyone else who might be involved."

Cheatham, who was a freshman when the tower fell, wants to prove that a safe bonfire can be built, and he co-founded a student group called the Unity Project that seeks to keep the tradition alive.

A safety engineer consulted on this year's design, Cheatham said. The logs will be stacked horizontally, and only 15 feet high. Alcohol has been forbidden during its construction -- there was a breathalyzer on site -- and gas pipelines have been marked to meet the local fire code. "We've done everything the authorities have asked," he said.

Though other off-campus bonfires have burned since 1999, attendance was by invitation only, Cheatham said. This one is open to the public. About a dozen Unity Project leaders have kicked in $1,000 each to cover costs.

"It's not really a sacrifice," graduate student Seth Ward said. He reverently recited an old Aggie saying (and there are many sayings here at A&M): "From the outside looking in, you can't understand it. From the inside looking out, you can't explain it."

The adage is meant to show why the school inspires a fierce, sometimes fanatic, loyalty. Why students flock to midnight pep rallies and stand during the entire football game to support their team.

"When I was younger, I had cancer," Ward said. "All I wanted to do was live and go to Texas A&M. It represented everything I believed in.... I want the students coming behind us to feel the same way about this school and its traditions."

But with every mile between this old farmer's field and the A&M campus, Bonfire fever seems to wane. Younger students tend to view it more as a curiosity than as a sacred rite of passage.

"The spirit with the bonfire thing is mainly with the upperclassmen," sophomore Casey Bell said. "People are kind of giving up on it now. The ones who were enthusiastic about it have mostly graduated. I think people are moving on."

Rosa Shelton, 19, agreed. "I think the older people are having a hard time letting go because they knew what it was like. We don't, so it doesn't affect us as much."

"Now it's more a memorial to the people who died than a fun party," junior Laura Remias said. "But I might go over to see what it looks like because I'm curious. Traditions in general are a big deal at this school."

Tonight, when the diesel-soaked logs are torched, this bonfire will light up the country skies. Yes, the football team will be absent, as will the yell leaders and the Aggie band. It won't be like the old days, Cheatham said. But it will be an Aggie bonfire. And for this year at least, the tradition will go on.

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