FanPost

Student Bonfire Q&A

Photo copyright Dion C. McInnis, '03 from the Dion C. McInnis Gallery (http://dion-c.me).

What are some misconceptions people have about off-campus Bonfire?

Purpose

It is traditionally said that Bonfire represents "the burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u." Probably because Bonfire was first built fully two decades before the rivalry with t.u. was formalized, this has always been the half of it. What is often forgotten is that from the first that the definition of Bonfire was codified in the Texas A&M Campusologies, the conclusion of that now-familiar line was "and the undying flame of love that every loyal Aggie carries in his heart for the school." Look it up, it's official. Everyone that has experienced Bonfire knows that last bit, even if they couldn't recite it. And they know that only that reason, not some tea-sipping school in Austin, could inspire the wherewithal to complete Bonfire.

Unofficially, it has also always been said of Bonfire that "we burn it to make room for the next one." "Clearing the field" is what they call it. For two years, under consecutive state-wide burn bans in 2010 and 2011, Bonfire burned in January after the bans were lifted. And for two years, for the first times ever, Aggies finally got to experience what it felt like to actually burn it for no other reason than to make room for the next one. It felt damn good. Speaking for myself, I say thank you to those students for allowing me to now make that boast as a statement of actual fact.

Moving on (or rather going back) to Bonfires without a t.u. game became easier after those years. In 2012, for the first time since 2009, Bonfire burned on time. There was no t.u. game, and that was fine because everyone had already been there and done that. Coach Sherrill was there with a speech, and members of the 12th Man Kickoff Team, and Bus 12, and thousands of motivated, spirited Aggies. And we were all warmed to the bone by the undying flame.

DCM_030268
via flickr.com/dion-c

Extracurriculars

I have heard (less and less as time goes by) off-handed condemnations of alcohol at Bonfire (because: "that's the way it always was"). This is when I know that I am speaking to someone who is not familiar with Bonfire off campus. It is one of my great pleasures to bring them up to speed.

It cannot be stressed enough the lengths the students have gone to in changing what was once a reality of Bonfires on campus. Today, the surest way for a participant to exclude themselves from ever participating in Bonfire again is to bring alcohol in any form to Bonfire. This includes in the participant's bloodstream.

Over the years off campus, students have taken very seriously their responsibilities to each other, the Aggie community, and the legacies of loved ones lost. None of these causes are advanced, honored, respected, or paid tribute at Bonfire with alcohol.

Now, I may go off the reservation with the following, but, I believe that it's a learning curve at Burn. The students understand the rules about alcohol and are happy (even proud) to comply. But some new folks may not have gotten the memo. If, at Burn, you do see someone partaking, you may flag down one of the students or peace officers and the situation will be resolved. This, in fact, is the prescribed course of action. Or... maybe take a moment and express to that individual what "no alcohol" really means. Why it's not allowed. Why the students are rightfully proud of that. How the students who did all the work didn't get to enjoy a single drop of hooch, and you shouldn't either. Make it a teachable moment; see if that sinks in. And if it doesn't, option #1 is always effective and usually entertaining.

Many other extra-curricular activities associated with Bonfire are likewise banned. The general rule of thumb is: if it doesn't build Bonfire, it's not allowed. A few times a year, I meet Ol' Ags at Stack who have come out for their first time. They're always smiling. We'll talk and they'll ask, "Do they still [insert wild-assed Ol' Army thing here]?" Generally, the answer is no. They may express some disappointment, maybe. But they always return to smiling, and with a nod say, "Good. I don't know why the hell we ever did that anyway."

Students take a great deal of pride in these and other such commitments that they have made. Every year, students educate more and more Aggies returning to Bonfire for perhaps the first time. And every year, more Ags can realize the joy (and numbingly cold, fully sensory-aware pain) of experiencing Bonfire, and just Bonfire, under the influence of nothing more than pride and Aggie Spirit (and Chocolate Soup®©™, if I do say so myself).

Design

Today, the iconic wedding-cake design is deceiving. Though the modern Bonfire remains tiered, all logs touch the ground. Never again will logs stand on top of logs. This comes as a great surprise to a lot of folks as the structure still sports its familiar stepped profile. The appearance of tiers comes from using progressively shorter logs moving out from Centerpole. This means the interior logs are a full 30'-plus.

DCM_029169
via flickr.com/dion-c

The current interior height was determined in the first Stack in 2003 to be the maximum safe and sustainable height. We tried a few logs at 40' back then, and quickly determined that over thousands of logs over tens (and hundreds?) of years, 40' would not be a standard to set, and furthermore would start the organization off with a reckless size-at-all-costs precedent. Again, the history of the forethought of the students across the generations is a great source of pride for me.

Coupled with the mandate that all logs touch the ground, Bonfire will never be higher. As a result, there is no longer any sense of oneupsmanship year over year, except in advances in safety and efficiency. My buddies have more than once received an early-early-early-AM phone call. "You'll never BELIEVE what they've started doing now! Why didn't WE think of that?!" I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to my buddies' families... but you should SEE what these Aggies are coming up with, even and especially at three in the morning.

But, returning to the Stack itself, I had the opportunity last year to put to the test the organization's resolve. Standing with the Truck and Head Stack Senior Reds, I pointed out an abnormally, disproportionately large third tier (seriously, it was huge). It was a purely aesthetic concern, a product of fewer tall, straight trees for the first tiers in that year's Woods. "You've got hundreds of scrap and cut-off pieces laying around out here. Why not stand some up there, and even out the third tier?" I had not anticipated the severity of the response. In all sincerity, I thought I stood a fair chance of getting roughed up when the Truck Pot turned to me and glared for what felt like minutes. And then he let fly a stream of... thoughts. "We don't Stack logs on top of logs, Dion! Dammit!!! Of all [SSBS] people to ask a stupid [SSBS] question like that..."

And this is just one of the ways that I know that...

  1. The students are thoughtful and deliberate, even as time goes on.
  2. The students are very, very serious about their commitments, to each other and to all of us.

In what ways is modern Bonfire similar/different to the on-campus one of yesteryear?
What is the biggest difference between on- and off-campus Bonfire?

The clearest differences between the modern Bonfire and on-campus Bonfire are the size, the location, and Burn Night attendance. The latter has increased over the years, and will continue to as awareness increases and the students explore new and better ways to host more attendees. The size, or at least the height, of the structure will never change in the interest of safety. Again, the "mine is bigger than yours" mentality simply does not exist today.

The general location (off campus) may be different, but it preserves the most fundamental, indispensable element of Bonfire... that the students plan and execute it in its entirety. And that evidences an important point. Differences are adopted in order to adapt to the current conditions and preserve what is most important. The differences you may or may not see are there to preserve the sameness that you feel.

DCM_040642
via flickr.com/dion-c

At the end of the day, what matters is that Bonfire is a product of great works, spirit, pride, and devotion. Aggies build Bonfire, and though they ask nothing in return, Bonfire builds Aggies. It is in this exchange that Former Students realize the worth and fundamental sameness in what today's Aggies are experiencing.

All trees are cut by hand with axes. Felled trees are cleaned by hand, relieved of branches and boughs with axes. The resultant logs are lifted by hand and shouldered to be carried to skids along tractor paths. Once pulled by tractor a few at a time to Load Site, the only machines that will handle the logs again will be the trucks waiting there. At Load, the logs are once again lifted and shouldered, carried alongside the truck and tossed atop it. At Stack Site, the truck is unloaded, you guessed it, by hand. Then the logs are sorted by hand (and resorted, and resorted in a process that looks suspiciously like "keeping people busy"). And finally, the logs are shouldered and carried into Perimeter, laid at the feet of Stack, roped, braced with Y-Sticks, and slammed (by hand) into the ever-growing Stack.

It's a strange geology of the Aggie Spirit, this months-long endeavor. Weaknesses and pounds and trivial concerns are weathered away. Pride and spirit and calluses are built up. And the heavy, steady weight of tons upon tons of material borne under relentless Texas heat and brutally cold nights, through soaking rain and suffocating dust... like pearls and diamonds, the product of discomfort and immense pressure, an invaluable nugget of brilliant, pure, refined Aggie Spirit grows and becomes forever lodged deep in the heart of the Bonfire-motivated Aggie.

So, yeah. It's the same.

What are the student participation numbers like each year?
Are they steady, growing, or fluctuate significantly?
Have the participation numbers changed since moving the SEC?

Every year, Bonfire participation increases. Last year, more than 1600 participants registered and participated in at least one Bonfire activity. Of these, more than 600 were regular, day-in/day-out, diehard participants. Even after the move to the SEC, numbers have increased on pace with previous years. It is my observation while taking photos this year that the retention and regular-participation rate in 2013 is much higher than usual.

I chalk all of this up to a number of things. As I've often said, once you get into Bonfire, Bonfire gets into you. Then when you head back to campus, to class, back home, everywhere, you carry that enthusiasm and can't help but share it. On the twitter and the facebook, you can see even before the school year starts the incoming freshmen talking Bonfire. Organically, without being imposed or manufactured, the motivation to participate builds on itself.

Then you have the children of past participants. This is truly exciting. "Father/Son Cut" (daughters too) has historically been a sort of autumn Aggie Fathers' Day. Recently, it's also become an unofficial reunion event. Past participants and leadership now have young Aggies of their own, and they come out to participate on this day to find their buddies with their young Aggies. A former Head Stack with his daughter, the Leggett Chair; a former Dunn Hall Yellow Pot and his son, the OC Chief turned Brown Pot; the handful of former Red Pots in the Corps Woods running circles around their boys until flashbacks of youthful vigor overtook one's Ol' Army back in mid-swing at which point he doubled over and remained that way even as his buddies swamped him out of the Woods to be loaded into his pickup in blinding pain, but smiling all the while, saying over and again "Damn, this is fun! Don't tell anybody about this." But I digress.

DCM_024625
via flickr.com/dion-c

All that is to say that stories of Ol' Army days are coming to life for young Aggies raised on Good Bull of Bonfire and the burning heart of the Spirit of Aggieland. The connection, on campus to off, has been made in these families, and in more every year. That certainly helps to develop participation.

The organization is committed to further growing these numbers to safely provide as many Aggies as possible the opportunity to build the hell outta Bonfire. The key word there is "safely". Increased participation requires an increased capacity of leadership, resources, and infrastructure. The organization always addresses these concerns before growing participation. It is the students' view that being able to boast greater numbers is not worth compromising safety. Leadership, resources, infrastructure first, then growth.

On a related note, when you are making your next hire, check for "Student Bonfire" on the resume.

How difficult was the process of getting the off-campus Bonfire started?

We all liked to believe, and frankly still sometimes boast, that restarting Bonfire off campus was hard. It was, certainly, in some respects. But, in all honesty, it was also dead simple. Some folks, seeing my Grey Pot in the Woods, have asked "Does the Grey Pot mean you started Bonfire?" The answer is this: "No. We were just there when Bonfire started." It'd be like asking the surfer if he made the wave. All of us were fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, to ride the swell that was already there and would have been there anyway, begging for passengers.

The real challenge was for the body of participants. Each had to answer hard questions, and persist through tough challenges, sometimes from the very people they meant to give this gift to. For my part, in 2002, for the first fire, a brush pile off Highway 30, I was meat. When we weren't building, we were panhandling for change and small bills at the major intersections on game days. I remember a maroon Cadillac with a white leather interior pulling up next to me in a frigid driving sideways rain on the corner of University and Texas. It rained so hard, my all-weather watch drowned. Half of us wound up laid up sick for the next few days. From the back seat of that Aggie Cadillac a nice older lady looked up at me... and gave me a stare like my grandma used to when she was thinking about knocking me upside the head "for my own good" before deciding it wouldn't be worth her energy. I still remember that face. As miserable as I thought I had been out there up until that moment, it somehow got worse.

And stories like that, which we all had, are what we had to remember as leaders the next year at the first Stack off campus. While we devised an unforgiving stream of activities and objectives for participants, they were out scrapping to build up support that would afford them the privilege of following through with the miserable to-do list their leadership was drawing up for them.

Since that time, on all levels, the scope of the challenges remain the same, though many of the challenges themselves have changed. Leadership and participants alike have weathered the task of beginning again. Now their energies are dedicated to further growth, and improvements in safety, efficiency, logistics, awareness, the Burn Night event itself. Every year, participants and leaders inherit an imposing new list of challenges and responsibilities. Once, the question was: "How are we going to do this with this few people?" Now: "How are we going to manage and develop this many people?" This is but one of the many trade-offs. When one challenge is overcome, another presents itself.

Does Student Bonfire currently receive enough in donations/fees each year to cover costs?

One of the greatest and most persistent of challenges is support, particularly financial support. This will always be the case. It should always be the case. Because there are always more Aggies who should enjoy the opportunity to experience Bonfire in whatever capacity and to whatever degree they are inclined. You can help provide these opportunities through your support, financial or otherwise.

Student Bonfire, LLC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit (donations are tax deductible, hint hint). As has always been the case of any Bonfire, from Burn, through winter, spring, and summer, the Junior Red Pots make their regular fundraising rounds the hard way, hat in hand. Senior Red Pots meet with donors and supporters, and attend various A&M and Aggie Moms Club meetings, Coach's Nights, and other such events. As with everything else, in their junior year, upper leadership learns how to do things the hard way first. There is nothing without method at Bonfire.

In past years, the bulk of Bonfire's funding came from proceeds from the Burn Night event. Among their many other unexpected benefits, the burn bans of 2010 and 2011 demanded that the organization reevaluate its approach to funding. By emphasizing donations and stewardship, Bonfire was able to provide 2012 attendees with the option of free admission for early arrival. Carpooling was also rewarded with a per-vehicle (not per-person) gate. These had profoundly positive effects on entrance to and exit from Burn. And that was only made possible by the generous donations of supporters that offset lost gate fees. In this and other ways, donors drive Bonfire's advancements.

But there's more that every Aggie can do for Bonfire. Tell your buddies about what these students are doing. Pass it back. Look for them at your meetings, and if they aren't there, invite them. And when you see a Bonfire-motivated Aggie anywhere, shake their hand. Tell them what their work means to you. Tell them about your Bonfires, and ask them about theirs.

DCM_030374
via flickr.com/dion-c

These young Aggies, running on dust and hot water and the Spirit of Aggieland, are following their hearts. And their hearts are leading them down a hard, hard road. But no more satisfying a road is there than the one that leads to Bonfire, that undying flame on a cold Texas night, among Aggies, friends and family all.

Helpful links

Find out more about Student Bonfire at studentbonfire.com. For events, check the calendar. Get regular updates and help pass it back by following Bonfire on twitter and facebook. Help share and grow this opportunity by donating here.

More views from Bonfire can be found at dion-c.me and flickr.com/dion-c.

Gig 'em. BTHOB.

FanPosts are user-submitted, and are not always representative of GBH editorial/staff or any of our opinions. Please don't post spam or self-promotion, because that's not very good bull. Thanks!

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