Fatal Attraction

In the cultlike customs of Texas A&M, tradition is life. Even in death.

A Texas A&M University student belts out commands like a Marine drill instructor. His crew of ten college kids in storm-trooper helmets plays the most macabre game of pickup sticks imaginable. The crew grabs a heavy log, about eight inches in diameter and eight feet tall, lying several yards away from a bowed haystack of wired-together timber. The log is one of many that cranes gingerly removed from the pyramid that gave way 12 hours earlier.

The students hoist the log past their knees and onto their shoulders, hollering boisterously. The yells are intended to tighten their stomach muscles from which they can draw brute strength, and not to disrespect their fallen comrades, some of whom still may be trapped under the collapsed tower. The students carry the log away, following a path to the perimeter where removed timber is accumulating in separate stacks of about ten logs each.

"Swing right!" the crew chief bellows.

With a virile grunt, they throw the log on a pile. It bounces back violently, hitting one of the students square in the face. He falls backward into an adjacent log stack, his helmeted head snapping back against the wood.

"Whoa!" crew members yell as they come to his aid. He gets up quickly and laughs to indicate that he's fine.

The drill, known as swamping and practiced repeatedly in the hours following the collapse of the Aggie Bonfire, is done with the precision and pitch of a military exercise. The students are able to disassemble the stack of logs in an organized manner because that is the way they have been trained to assemble the 55-foot structure. An Aggie tradition in reverse. Backward in the backwoods.

Since 1909 the Bonfire tradition at Texas A&M has been a fanatic exercise in masochism and machismo, where size matters. Bonfire workers wear round-edged military-style hard hats known as pots that are color-coded to signify chain of command. "Red pots" are nine seniors and nine juniors in charge of the exercise. "Brown pots" are five students who help maintain equipment. "Yellow pots" are crew leaders from dormitories. "Butt pots" are unit leaders from the A&M Corps of Cadets.

It all makes perfect sense to them.

It is sacred at Texas A&M for students to take part in building Bonfire. That's Bonfire, not the small "b" bonfire. At a university seeped in prim ritual, tradition is spoken in proper noun. Bonfire begins in October with the cutting down of trees with hand axes, a rite called Cut. That is followed by the loading and unloading of the timber by hand, or Reload. It culminates with the logs being placed and wired together into what looks like a six-layer wooden wedding cake on a field at the edge of campus, a ritual called Stack. Work escalates around the clock during the final weeks, a period called Push.

On the night before the annual Thanksgiving weekend football game with the University of Texas (two nights before, if the game is played in Austin), Aggies and curiosity seekers trek to College Station to gaze and party as Bonfire is set ablaze.

There's a saying on this campus. Actually, there are lot of sayings at A&M, a string of pearls peculiar to the peculiarities of this place called Aggieland. The adage goes: "From the outside looking in, you can't understand it. From the inside looking out, you can't explain it."

This is how Aggies inform the uninitiated that things really aren't as peculiar as they appear. It also is their admission that Aggies are, in fact, peculiar.

Texas A&M, a state university with 43,000 students, evolved out of military origins that it just can't shake. It's a place where a handful of students, the Corps of Cadets, dress in World War II-style uniforms and pretend to be military officers and soldiers. And it's a place where the "civilian" students are brainwashed into thinking that they are somehow inferior to the brown shirts.

It also is a place where death is considered honorable. Most college kids tend to act as if they're immortal. At A&M, students ponder their mortality at every turn. Solemn traditions revere Aggie dead. How tragic, yet not terribly surprising, that tradition and death collided here at 2:28 a.m. on November 18.

The Bonfire tradition resulted in the deaths of 12 young men and women. If the tradition is abandoned as a result, it will be because lawyers warn officials about liability. It won't be because Aggies find it offensive to continue the ritual. They believe the appropriate thing to do is to keep the tradition alive even though their classmates are dead.

Aggies are treating those who died as martyrs to the "Spirit of Aggieland," as if they were soldiers who sacrificed their lives for a holy cause. They will remember them like they do all Aggies who pass, much like war veterans honor their dead.

Just inside the yellow police tape unfurled to form a huge rectangle around the eerie scene of the collapsed Bonfire, crews of students who helped clear the logs take rest breaks. Young men and a few women in work boots, leather gloves tucked in the back pocket of their jeans, their white T-shirts covered in dirt left by the timber. Brown badges of courage.

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