Wednesday, November 17, 2010

November 18

I can't sleep tonight. For once it's not classroom stresses that are keeping me awake. I, like several thousand other Aggies, am waiting for 2:42 AM. That was when the stack came down. It happened 11 years ago. The only thing standing on the Polo Fields right now is the Memorial, but I can't sleep.

They say you will always remember where you are when devastating news hits. On September 11, 2001, I was at work when the Twin Towers went up in smoke. I was loping horses all morning and when I heard the news on the radio on a campus bus headed to class I thought it was a joke at first. On November 18, 1999 I was in Oklahoma City at the Quarter Horse World Show. We were at our hotel getting ready to go to the awards breakfast where we would learn how we had performed in the Collegiate Horse Judging Contest. I don't even remember how we placed. My memories from that morning are a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I endured what felt like the longest ceremony of my life. Eating eggs that tasted like rubber. Wondering if any of my friends were trapped under a pile of logs. The other teams attempting to express sympathy for a tragedy that they couldn't begin to understand. My judging teammates and coaches were family to me by then, but Bonfire had been my home the year before.

I came to Texas A&M a complete stranger to the Aggie way of life. I had heard a little bit about the traditions during Freshman Orientation, but I was far away from home and really knew nothing about what it meant to be an Aggie. That first year in the dorms, it was Bonfire that drew me into my new world and bonded me to the people around me. I'm not much on joining clubs, or even socializing most days. I had a good roommate that I didn't have much in common with, I swung back and forth between being excited about the journey I had started and terrified I would fail. I held no animosity for that little school over there in Austin, but I was intrigued by the idea of a gigantic bonfire and the co-chairs in my dorm were both girls that I liked and looked up to. So I went to my first cut. I saw girls that I had written off as prissy hacking at brush with machetes and swinging axes. I learned that we could work together and hump giant logs out of the brush to the tractor path. I got muddy and dirty, my hands blistered. I loved weekends when the football games were out of town, because that meant we could cut both Saturday and Sunday. I sent gifts to my Bonfire Buddy during the week. I made friends. I grew up a little.

Schoolwork kept me from participating in stack very much that first year, but I was hooked. Bonfire was not the only thing that made A&M special to me, but it was the defining activity for me. Even though I was gone most weekends at horse judging events in my second year, I knew it was only a temporary diversion. I would be back out at cut and stack for as long as I was a student. I would pass on what I had learned and do my best to help the lost little freshmen as they struggled to find their place in Aggieland. Then it fell.

Oklahoma City is a five-hour drive from College Station. On November 18, 1999 it felt more like fifty. We listened to the radio for updates, but mostly we looked out the windows, cried, and prayed. I didn't own a cell phone at the time, but even the girls who did couldn't learn much. The lines were so flooded with frantic friends and relatives that it was nearly impossible to get ahold of anybody. I was fortunate enough not to lose anyone close to me, but I'm not sure the sense of loss could have been any deeper. I will always be greatful for my Aggie family, and for the place that has made me what I am today. I've spent enough years here now that I'm ready to move on, but this place will always have a part of me.

I've been to the Bonfire Memorial once, shortly after it was completed. It's a beautiful and moving tribute to the 12 we lost and the tradition which has had to return to its non-University authorized roots. I feel bad for the younger students who will never have the opportunity to know Bonfire for what it was. I wish words could capture it.