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Remembering Nov. 18, 1999

Most cultures, modern and ancient, have ghost stories. Even cultures that do not have an afterlife in their religious cosmology are concerned about the restless spirit, kept from its deserved rest.

The great secret that the young do not know, but those older do, is that death in itself is not to be feared.

  Death is the natural end of things, and we all become better acquainted with it as we age.  The great tragedy is leaving unfinished business when dying- the promises not kept, the important message unsaid, the blessing not given.  That is why the deaths of the young are so hard to accept.

 There are two major competing narratives of the events of late November, 1999.  The first is that the Aggie Bonfire, one of their dearest traditions, had grown beyond sound engineering design and industrial safety principles, and had tragically collapsed, killing 12 student volunteers and injuring a couple dozen more.  The next week, the Texas A&M football team defeated the Texas Longhorns in a football game, 20 – 16.  This game gave comfort to the Texas A&M campus, but in no way lessened the magnitude of the prior week’s tragedy, and indeed these were two separate and unlinked events.  During the game, there were formal recognitions of the loss, but this was more of a function of the game as the next major university collective event than the possibility of gaining any redemption from the game.  Going forward, it is understood that the best way to honor the dead is to remember them, how and why they died, and to never again let the students undertake such a task without proper supervision and controls.

 There is a second narrative, suppressed 10 years ago, but coming to the forefront now.  This telling says that the bonfire had deep spiritual significance to all Aggies, and that its value was too high to surrender.  The claim here is that the kids died doing something they loved, and that should be respected.  Here, the Aggie win is seen as a victory for the spirit of bonfire, inspiring an underdog Aggie team to victory.  Per this telling, the best way to honor the dead is to use their memory as an inspiration in the annual football game with Texas.

 Think I’m exaggerating?  That no right thinking person could think that a football game can “make up” for the deaths and maimings of dozens?  Guess again.  That view is gaining more and more hold among the Aggie faithful, supported by some Aggie officials who were not even on campus 10 years ago, and its advance is shameful.

 The 10th anniversary of the collapse was November 18, 2009.  Texas A&M had timely and appropriate on-campus recognitions.  The next Aggie home football game was against Baylor on November 21.  That was not the campus gathering where the tragedy was recognized.  The November 26 game against Texas was the game where the anniversary was commemorated.  When questioned why this game, and not the Baylor game, Ags say it is because the bonfire was for Texas, and not for Baylor.  It is as if the deaths made any imagined link between the bonfire and the game stronger, not weaker.

 The TAMU athletics department is selling an inspirational DVD that explores the bonfire history, the tragic, lethal collapse,…and the 1999 football victory.  They previewed this video for the students before Wednesday Yell Practice.  The message?  “It happened 10 years ago, and IT CAN HAPPEN AGAIN IF WE GET FIRED UP.”

 Why should anybody care if the Texas A&M AD should do this?  After all, they obviously need all the cash and inspiration they can get.  Longhorns should care, because it is tasteless, classless, and the ideas it inspires are dangerous.  Let’s be clear- in no way did the Aggie win in 1999 lessen the tragedy of the prior week.  No sane person can imagine a parent of one of the fallen finally steeling themselves a week after the funeral, entering the child’s bedroom in order to sort the clothes and belongings to be donated to charity from those to be given to cousins, and thinking to themselves, “At least we won that football game.”  For those who were actually close to the victims, winning the game gave absolutely no relief, just as losing would not have made the burden more difficult to bear.  

 Contrary to what many Ags post on and elsewhere, that these students “died doing what they loved” is not a relief.  Nelson Rockefeller also died doing what he loved.  If he had known what the result was to be, he would have instead gone home early an had a cup of tea before getting to bed early.

 Neither winning the game, nor bringing the bonfire tradition back, gives meaning to their death.  The sad fact is that 99.99% of humanity will have no meaning in their deaths.  That senselessness adds to the tragedy of their too soon deaths.

 In the years since, an independent investigation revealed some uncomfortable truths (of course, in this world very few truths comfort, and those that do must be held tight) about the role of the Aggie culture and its emphasis on tradition and conformity in causing the collapse.  The university shielded its financial responsibility behind state laws limiting liability.  It built a monument to the 12 that died.  It is a much more meaningful monument than many realize, with stone gates pointed in the direction of their home towns- a silent reminder that this campus is not where their too short lives were lived, but rather where they ended.  It is a natural human emotion to want to find meaning in the deaths and sufferings of those close to us, to see God's hand active for a higher purpose.  Sometimes the actual meaning is that there is no meaning, the pain increased by the needlessness of the tragedy.

 It is now 10 years later, and the Texas A&M athletics department is pimping the memories of these kids, in an attempt to increase the enthusiasm of the fans and the intensity of the team.  It is classless of them.  Texas A&M Athletics owns no claim on these kids, nor their families. 

 I know this is controversial.  I thought quite a bit over whether seemliness calls for silence here.  Realizing that Texas A&M is openly joining this issue to the University of Texas, by emphasizing their football game with us as the only appropriate venue for remembering the events, allows us to comment.  Over the entrance to the tower in Austin, it reads “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  It’s fair to talk about what is true, and what is not.

 Texas A&M approached UT about being a participant again in bonfire collapse recognition ceremonies, offering a chance to recapture good will earned 10 years prior.  Wisely, Texas declined.  Mack Brown recognized that any such moments would be far more about raising spirit to win a football game than about sincerely mourning a loss.  Remember, the Texas sideline actually has several coaches that were there for those awful events 10 years ago.  None of the Aggie coaches were (TAMU Recruiting Coordinator Tim Cassaday held the same position.  He is on record as stating that “the Aggie Spirit” won the 1999 game).  I was pleased to see that ESPN only gave a cursory mention to the Ags’ recognition activities. 

 I hope I get some dissenting comments.  I really don’t want to think that the TAMU community is OK with the idea that their school is trying to use this event to help win a football game.  Please, Longhorns, don’t reply with gripes about the Ramada Inn, or penalties.  That’s not what this post is about.  I have to admit that I am very relieved that Texas won.  If the Ags had won this game, we would see this revisited every 10 years, and the myth of the “Fallen 12” helping the team beat Texas would overshadow the real lessons from that truly tragic events.  The actual memorial site would become a prop for future football rallies, its actual purpose pushed to the side and forgotten.

 Please, Bill Byrne.  Let the ghosts lie, undisturbed in their deserved peace.