Lessons from Stack

This week is Student Bonfire, which as you may know I work on each year. We build the bonfire from scratch, cutting and stacking the logs and then burning them before the game against the university of texas (t.u. to us Aggies). But last Friday morning, at 2:42 a.m., I wasn’t out building the bonfire, but rather remembering other people who did so one fateful night 12 years ago.

A little bit of history, one of Texas A&M’s biggest traditions was Aggie Bonfire, it started in 1909 and we built one every year until 1999. It was at its largest in 1969, when it stood 109 feet. We didn’t burn one in 1963 to honor the memory of John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated two weeks before its scheduled burn. The next time we didn’t burn one was 1999, when the Bonfire tragically collapsed, killing 12 Aggies and injuring 27 others. Ever since then, every year we have gone out to the site where the Bonfire stood (a beautiful memorial stands there now), at the exact time the centerpole snapped, and just gathered together to remember our fellow Aggies.

Bonfire Memorial
Bonfire Memorial

Now, normally I pride myself on writing my own content, but this article by the editor in chief of The Battalion is too good not to reprint. To me it perfectly captures the spirit of Bonfire Remembrance Day, and I can’t think of a better way to honor them then reading this, and maybe crying a little:

Robert Carpenter: Aggie War Hymn rings true to ceremony’s intent

As several thousand students converged on the Bonfire Memorial for the remembrance ceremony at 2:42 a.m. Friday, the only sound to be heard was feet shuffling across the gravel walkway. There was hardly a whisper.

The Polo Fields — so chaotic 12 years earlier — were now the picture of complete order. In the place of sirens was silence; in the place of floodlights, a few candles flickered innocently in students’ hands.

In a similar fashion, the ceremony itself seems, in a way, incongruous and abstract for us current students. I think many, myself included, don’t exactly know what to make of it.

We honor the lives of 12 students we never personally knew, and lament the end of a tradition we never experienced.

When Janice Kerlee, mother of Timothy Kerlee, spoke on Friday, it was with the same energy that surprised me when I first heard her speak in 2009. And, much like two years ago, when she rang out the familiar words, “Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck,” kick-starting a soft “War Hymn” among the students, part of me didn’t want to participate.

The “War Hymn,” I thought, is a song for football games and late nights at a local honky-tonk. It’s for Aggie weddings and ring dunks.

It’s a song for pleasant times.

Why would Janice Kerlee — or anyone, for that matter — want to sing the “War Hymn” now, only minutes after leading “Amazing Grace” and while we somberly recognized the event that took her son and 11 other Aggies?

But that’s just it.

The ceremony is about her son, and 11 other Aggies.

If you step into each of the 12 portals around the Bonfire Memorial, you’ll find 12 Aggies smiling at you. If you read the inscriptions that accompany the 12, you’ll find these Aggies’ passions, lifelong loves and a few quirky anecdotes that bring a smile to your face, even if accompanied by a tear.

There is Michael Ebanks, who sounds like he was a handful for his high school English teacher; and Jerry Self, whose flag football uniform apparently included red long johns.

There is Miranda Adams’ faith; Jeremy Frampton’s poetry; Jamie Hand’s first experience at Cut; Christopher Heard’s leadership; Timothy Kerlee’s brilliance; Lucas Kimmel’s eagerness for life; Bryan McClain’s Catholic foundation; Chad Powell’s kindness; and Nathan West’s honor.

The memorial itself is somber, and it is appropriate for students to approach each anniversary with a degree of solemnity. But the message that the 12 deliver is not one exclusively of somberness. It is of living passionately, remaining faithful to one another and enjoying life in the same way they did prior to 1999.

Christopher Breen’s portal does not have personal information, messages or stories. It stands alone in this regard. Instead, an Indian memorial accompanies his bronze likeness.

“Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep.”

Maybe the “War Hymn” is where Aggies can find Christopher and the others — standing, singing, swaying, arms and legs locked with the rest of us — united with the Aggie family as they would be today.

So when the student body files into the Bonfire Memorial at 2:42 a.m. on Nov. 18, 2012, I hope we’ll join Janice Kerlee singing the “War Hymn” with a little more passion and a little more life. Not because it’s a pleasant occasion, but because embracing life and its many joys — including our school’s fight song among friends — is one lesson that Bonfire is teaching us.

Bonfire Remembrance
Three students hold candles during the Bonfire Remembrance Ceremony Friday morning at the Bonfire Memorial.

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