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Remembering Bonfire 1999

Stephanie Cannon '06 November 17, 2010 10:54 PM

This article, “Experiencing the Bonfire Memorial” was written by Glenn Allen Phillips ’01 for the January-February 2005 issue of Texas Aggie magazine. On Nov. 18, and every day, The Association of Former Students honors the memory of those lost: Miranda Denise Adams '02, Christopher D. Breen '96, Michael Stephen Ebanks '03, Jeremy Richard Frampton '99, Jamie Lynn Hand '03, Christopher Lee Heard '03, Timothy Doran Kerlee Jr. '03, Lucas John Kimmel '03, Bryan A. McClain '02, Chad A. Powell '03, Jerry Don Self '01 and Nathan Scott West '02. Your comments and memories are welcomed as the Aggie family collectively remembers Bonfire 1999. 

Experiencing the Bonfire Memorial
By Glenn Allen Phillips '01
The first time I saw the Bonfire memorial it was dark.  A winter wind, staying either too early or coming too late, had cooled the evening to a silence.  It was late, just after 2:00 a.m.  I had driven past the entrance before, but tonight was the first time I stopped.  I pulled up quietly to the parking lot, grabbed a tattered composition notebook and a leaking pen and made my way toward the ash white walls. 

The front wall of Traditions Plaza reads, “There’s a Spirit can ne’er be told….” There seemed to be nothing more appropriate. I put my hand on the next word-filled wall and felt the pulse of the stone.  It took be back to the first time I heard the poem. It was at Bonfire my freshman year. I looked down at the name carved at the bottom right.  Did Philo H. DuVal, Jr. ’51 know when he wrote “The Last Corps Trip” the implications of his poetry? Could he possibly sense then the power of his words in this moment, for this monument?

As I turned the corner I saw great stone doors sunk into the earth. Like some modern Stonehenge bathed in silver, they glowed with significance.  I began the walk along the crushed stones and my slow march worked into a cadence in perfect time with the pulse of the memorial.  I closed my eyes, bracing myself for the wind and memories that kept shivering through me.  After some time I looked up again to realize I was barely half way down the gravel path.  The length of History Walk made it not a place but a pilgrimage.

An amber glow of lights symbolizing each year Bonfire burned poured out from granite blocks on my right. I came to a break in the blocks: 1963. I recalled the stories about how Bonfire was dismantled in 1963, after President Kennedy’s assassination. Then Head Yell Leader Mike Marlow ’64 had said, “It’s the most we have. It’s the least we can do.” Three bronze plaques indicated three years where a student passed away in a Bonfire-related incident.  I heard Marlow’s words still echoing, the sense of respect and remorse thick in the air around me.

Finally I reached the Spirit Ring. I stepped into the first portal I saw.  It was a large threshold 12 feet high built out of sharp granite rough to the touch.  It was the kind of door that giants walked through.  Within it was a smaller frame, smooth like golden water. On one side there was a face and a name.  The names were familiar, like books of the Bible.  I knew them in some place deeper than knowledge, some place quieter.  Beneath the name was a signature cut into the bronze like a stick through sand.  The handwriting seemed delicate, historical, and powerful.
Beneath the name and signature was a face I’d never seen, but whose picture I knew.  These are the twelve names that still echo through these hallowed halls, the twelve faces that shook a university, a family to its knees.  I read each one like resonance, stared at each one like a specter. The faces seemed alive within the bronze.  I felt their presence, then their absence that much stronger. I walked out from one doorway to another, and realized there was no way to enter or exit, except through the portals, through these symbols of their spirit.  Later I read about how it was planned this way, so that no one would enter without filling a void. I could only assume they also meant that no one could leave without feeling a void. 

I stopped in the center of the memorial and turned to see the giant ring surrounding me.  Twenty-seven bronze slivers flashed in the moonlight representing those hurt but still with us.  I imagined what the memorial would look like from the plane that flew above me and imagined a glowing halo tossed to the ground. 

I stared down at my Aggie Ring, and thought about the students, current and former, who left their Rings at the base of the Administration Building flagpole following the 1999 collapse of Bonfire.  I remembered thinking it strange that people were leaving their Rings as a tribute.  I was awed by the sentiment but didn’t understand its implication.  It wasn’t until I put my own on two years later that I could comprehend what it meant to take it off.

I left that night heavy but hopeful, hopeful that the memorial, though never able to replace a vacancy would indeed acknowledge and honor the hollow. 

I left that night thinking that I understood the Bonfire Memorial. Later I realized I understood only a piece. As with everything in Aggieland, there is much more to this symbol of tradition and Spirit.
I met with Dr. George Rogers, Director of the Bonfire Memorial Office, a few days after my initial visit to the memorial.  I told him that in this article my primary goal was to give the feeling of the site to those who wouldn’t be able to visit it.  He politely smiled and then knowingly wished me luck.  Dr. Rogers knew what I was about to realize. The memorial itself is overwhelming.  The symbolism, the meaning, the reasons behind each stone and each word are difficult enough to explain, but the essence of the memorial stretches further back than the day they broke ground. 

Dr. Rogers told me about the time and effort put into the design competition that he oversaw as a co-chair. The number of entries alone was a tribute to the memory of our fallen brothers and sisters.  When we arrived at the Memorial the first thing he pointed out was a flowerbed.  The compost used to fertilize the bed was formed of thousands of flowers left in the spontaneous shrine that developed beside an orange plastic fence surrounding fallen logs.

I asked Anthropology Professor and Bonfire Memorabilia Coordinator Dr. Sylvia Grider about the rest of the memorabilia left at the site, and what she said taught me even more about our Aggie Spirit. More than 5,000 articles of memorabilia were collected from the Bonfire.  It took 300 boxes to hold, and five years of faculty and students to catalog what was placed at the polo fields in just weeks.  Over 50 Aggie Rings were laid down at the Administration Building’s flagpole base during the month after Bonfire fell.  Thirty were collected before cataloging began, and 29 were sent to their rightful owners by The Association of Former Students.  There was one however that could not be returned.  Tied to a small white cross at the 1999 Bonfire site was one Ring with its inscription filed off.

Bonfire has always reached into the hearts of people inside and outside of the Aggie family, and so too has the Memorial, helping those who would not have known it, to understand.  Due to the immense size and quality of the granite needed, large slabs were imported to College Station from a quarry in Southeast China.  The owner of the quarry, so moved by the idea of the memorial, has applied for a special visa just to come and see it.  A man who has never been to Texas A&M plans to fly half way around the world to honor 12 men and women he never knew.  That is what the Aggie Spirit is.  It is a beacon and a pull.  It is a power and a strength.

When fashioning the brass molds, an undergraduate interning for the company specifically requested to be a part of the process.  He understood the importance of what he would be doing and knew that he needed to be a part of it.  The bronze casts, in need of a seamless appearance, could only be finished with a new process, using cold table technology, designed specifically for the Bonfire casts.  And when I looked at their faces and saw how each cast was formed so perfectly to match their personality, to honor their life, I understood why such care and measures were taken in their creation.

This memorial is in the same class as national monuments; indeed it is one.  The simplicity of design, complexity of significance and perfection of materials and craftsmanship are all tributes to the Spirit of Texas A&M University.  The structure and the stories surrounding the it pay due respect and honor to the Aggies the Bonfire Memorial remembers.  But after walking through the portals, reading “The Last Corps Trip,” and learning of a mulch filled flowerbed, I know that it remembers 12 Aggies and more.  It remembers the family that loved and will continue to love them. It remembers the Spirit which Bonfire symbolized but did not define.  It remembers the strength of our tradition, and the timelessness of our devotion.

There will never be a moment when we accept a loss so great.  There will never be a day when we are again willing to pay a price so high.  There will never be a November 18th that we do not stand in silence and feel emptiness.  But this November I felt some peace.  Their names and faces will never leave the hearts of those who knew them, or were here when tragedy struck, but now there is security that tomorrow will not forget them either.  They are history here, strong like the Century Tree, heavy like Muster, honorable like the Corps, Spirited like the Aggie Band, dedicated like the student body, and forever burning like the Bonfire they proudly built.

Bonfire was always meant to be a symbol, a symbol of a Spirit that can “ne’er be told.”  As I watched the ring fill with people, young and old, current, former, and future students, I realized the Spirit can never be told, but it can be seen.  I saw it my first two years in college when Bonfire sent flames to the sky. I saw it when Rudder plaza filled with students prostrate, praying for those that were lost and their families. I saw the Spirit when thousands of Aggies paid tribute to 10 men and 2 women taken from this world but never gone.

The first night I saw the Bonfire Memorial I scribbled in the darkness what I felt and what I thought.  I stood in each doorway to honor them, to remember them, to grieve them, to celebrate them.  I imagined the tremendous weight of the sculpture and how it would never compare to the weight still carried in their absence.  I put my leaking pen to paper.  After some time, the only words of significance I wrote were these.
There is no fire here, but I am warm.
There is no light here, but I can see.

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