I was friends with one of the twelve students who died in the bonfire collapse of 1999. I don't pretend we were good friends because that would be a lie, or at least an exaggeration. We met at Fish Camp and hung out regularly that fall and I like to think that we would have been close friends, but there is no way of knowing that. I do know that we went to karaoke and played racquetball and surreptitiously drank underage together. I also know that he was a good person, or at least a better one than me.
I never attended Cut or Stack. I made myself a pot with the rest of the dorm and was excited to get involved, but then I just never made it out there. It wasn't a conscious decision, I just found myself out of town to visit home or go to road football games for the first few weekends of the fall, and then later I was embarrassed that I would be the only person out there who didn't know what was going on. Freshman year is dumb and awkward and I was dumb and awkward.
I was in town the weekend of November 18th. I had grown accustomed to sleeping through the pots banging on our doors to "get up for cut you pussies!" I almost never heard it anymore. This time was different because the timing was off. It was too early to get up for cut, and their voices were all wrong. The urgency in their tone broke occasionally and yielded to the underlying fear in their voices.
And they were banging on every door asking if anyone had wire cutters.
Class was cancelled that day, or at least I assume it was. No one went. Some had stayed all night out at the polo fields, others arrived after dawn, but unless you were familiar with the process of moving those huge logs then the crews didn't want your help. Hundreds of well meaning but useless people would not help the situation. So I stood by silently watching, feeling numb and impotent like everyone else in that crowd who couldn't help. I was ashamed because I couldn't help, but also because I thought I should have been out there on that stack. It wasn't even my dorm's night.
Through some strange series of events, my roommate and I ended up with the pot of that friend who died. The school had tried to give it back to the family, but they understandably didn't want it. After that we didn't know what to do with it, except that every year on November 18th we would carry it out to the polo fields and stand in remembrance with our Aggie family. Ten years later I still had that pot in the top shelf of my closet because I never knew what to do with it. I think (hope) that my roommate has it still, and it makes me sad that I'm not sure. That helmet that followed me around for years, worn by a kid who I played racquetball with the night before he died.
There is no point to arguing about the effect of the loss of on-campus bonfire. It was a thing that defined the campus for months out of the year, and then it didn't. In more ways than just that it is true that the school was a certain way before the collapse, and then a different way after. Independent of any changes in official policy, a traumatic event changes those involved forever. I entertained stronger opinions about this at the time, but I had the luxury of youth and not the burden of 15 years to think about it.
It is good that the off campus student bonfire exists. At a school so bound by its history it would be absurd to deny such a significant part of it. Off campus bonfire is different than the on campus version was, which is exactly as it should be. The impact of off campus bonfire on the campus experience is different as well - again, as it should be - but there is no denying that there is still an impact. I have never attended off campus bonfire, not because I am opposed to it but I think because the idea of attending swells up some thoughts I have never chosen to address.
To this day that fire still burns, the swirling flames themselves a metaphor for the conflict that arose in the years after 1999. But year in and year out the students still band together, sacrificing blood, sweat, and far too many tears to build that symbol of our burning desire.