Breaking Ranks

Will Clark was a reluctant Aggie until 12 people died in last year's Bonfire collapse. Now his desire to keep the tradition alive continues to make him an outsider in College Station.

It was about two-thirty in the morning on November 18, less than a week before the 1999 Aggie Bonfire was to burn. The 60-some students of the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift were already wiring long logs onto the upper levels of a 59-foot monument to Aggie pride. Some were dangling on swings high in the air; some were standing atop the Bonfire's four tall tiers; others walked the perimeter supervising the massive effort.

They worked with a knowledge that had been passed down from student to student over the last 90 years. They worked with such aggression that they had wedged the second-tier logs into the first tier more forcefully than ever before. They worked with such zeal that they had overloaded the southeast side of the second level. They worked with such confidence that they hadn't seen the need for steel cables around the base of the stack.

Without warning, the Aggie Bonfire experienced what a special commission would later call a containment failure. Students heard a loud cracking noise and felt a rumbling within the stack under their feet. The first-tier logs on the southeast side began to break free from their wiring and fall out toward the ground. Second-tier logs shifted in the same direction and fell into the gaps being created below them. The third and fourth tiers followed suit. The center pole snapped in three places.

Clark has formed an uneasy alliance with the boys who would be Bonfire leaders.
Deron Neblett
Clark has formed an uneasy alliance with the boys who would be Bonfire leaders.

Some students tried to jump away from the crashing structure; others grabbed onto logs and hoped to ride them to the ground. But those on the southeast side didn't have a chance. Within seven seconds, more than a million pounds of lumber cascaded over them. Twelve were killed, and 27 were injured.

Will Clark was home in bed.

He hadn't been one of the 5,000 students who worked on Bonfire that year. He hadn't even been out to the construction site except for an appearance at a perimeter-pole party the week before. In fact, he had never been particularly into Bonfire at all. Will Clark calls himself a two-percenter, derogatory Aggie-speak for the miniscule number of students who are not wholeheartedly involved in the maintenance of A&M's all-important traditions.

Little did this two-percenter know as he slept that fateful night that, in the next year, he would become the most vehement advocate for A&M's sacred stack of logs. Little did he know that his quest to uphold an Aggie tradition would make him even more of an outsider than he already was.

Will Clark missed his first Bonfire, his freshman Bonfire, the one that makes true Aggies out of A&M students. It's an indoctrination of sorts. Freshmen make up the bulk of the Bonfire workforce, spending their first fall weekends in the woods, cutting down thousands of trees, loading them onto flatbeds, chanting, play-fighting in the mud and generally reveling in the sweaty physicality of hard labor. As the semester progresses, they begin to see their efforts take the shape of a giant wooden wedding cake on A&M's polo fields. By the time Bonfire burns on Thanksgiving evening in what is essentially an enormous pep rally before the football game against rival University of Texas, friendships are solidified, and so is the Aggie way of life.

In Bonfire, students learn more than how to use axes and machetes and lift logs in a group with military precision. They learn that A&M football games are like battles, and that they must stand and be ready to fight for the honor of their school. They learn that they are special, a part of something bigger than themselves. They learn that they are family, and that the president of the university is both a loving patriarch and a fearless leader. They learn that they too are leaders and can do anything they set out to accomplish. They learn that when they die, their names will be read at an annual gathering of Aggies around the world. They learn that as Aggies they will never be forgotten. It's heady stuff.

But Clark spent the fall semester of his freshman year at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. He had wanted to go to A&M, but his girlfriend's parents didn't want them to go to the same school. Clark and his girlfriend had dated for five years, and it was hard for him to be away from her -- especially when she wanted to spend weekends working on Bonfire instead of hanging out with him. When they talked on the phone, her conversation was peppered with red pots, yellow pots, brown pots and butt pots. He didn't understand the references to the hierarchy of Bonfire student leaders. Clark hated Bonfire. He hated A&M. But when she asked him to join her in College Station the next semester, he did. Their reunion was short-lived, however. She soon dumped him for a Bonfire leader.

Clark set about becoming a two-percenter. He went to class, to work, to football games and to the occasional yell practice. He made friends and met another girl. She talked him into piercing his ear and getting a motorcycle -- not your typical Aggie accessories. And yes, he worked on Bonfire a little. He might not have had much choice: His dorm, Crocker Hall, was known for sending threatening letters to nonparticipants.

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