November 21, 2009 – 28 years ago when I moved to Texas, I heard about the Texas Aggie Bonfire and watched it a number of times on TV. I always wanted to go to one, but never seemed to find the time. Then, ten years ago, a tragic accident claimed the lives of 12 students. Texas A&M University banned future bonfires, and with the ban, my hopes of ever experiencing one was over. That changed this past Saturday night when we attended (and participated in) a commemorative bonfire put on by an Aggie couple in Conroe, TX. How we came to be part of this special event is an interesting story as well.
This past summer a number of very old, very large pine trees on epic property died. The drought made the trees susceptible to invasion by pine bark beetles. Some of these trees were 60-70 feet tall, and measured 36 inches in diameter at the base. One was close enough to our building that there was no doubt it needed to come down (in a very controlled way). I was not sure the best way to handle this, so I called the Montgomery County Extension Service to see if the trees could be harvested by a timber company, and to find out what to do with them after they were cut down.
The Extension service suggested I speak with a private forestry company, and gave me the numbers of three companies in the area. At the Burditt Company of Conroe, I spoke with John Ross, a Sr. Forester, who explained that the amount of wood I had was too small to be of interest to a logging company. Taking down this many trees could be expensive and time consuming, but he mentioned he just talked with John Leggett, a fellow looking for trees for a Bonfire. He put me in touch with John who I called to talk with about removing the trees.
At the start of the conversation, I was not sure if John was planning to charge me to remove the tress, and John seemed unsure as to whether he was going to have to pay for them. Almost instantly we both realized we could help each other with no need for any kind of monetary exchange. I told John he was welcome to the trees, and I would even help him cut them down - as long as we got an invitation to his Bonfire!
The deal was made, and he came the next day with his wife Kristi and their 4 year old twins. One of the big pines had snapped off about 30 feet off the ground and with chain saw in hand, he went to work on that one first. Over the next three weeks, John, Kristi, the kids along with a host of family and friends came to help cut trees for the Bonfire. The amount of work these folks did was nothing short of amazing. In spite of all the hard work (or maybe because of it) we all had a blast - we had a sense of mission and purpose. Over 20 trees were cut down, and turned into 3 foot lengths, perfect for use on the wedding cake style stack they had planned.
John and Kristi are both A&M grads (class of ’95 and ’97 respectively). John always takes the full week off before the bonfire to build it, and get this property ready for the approximately 200 people who come out for the evening. They have been doing this for 10 years, and the theme of the event is Friendship, Loyalty and Tradition, but it also helps if you root against the UT Austin football team.
In an effort to better understand more about the Aggie Bonfire, and specifically the accident, I found some very interesting videos on Youtube. One was a segment from the TV show Modern Marvels which examines the tragedy and explains (from an engineering standpoint) what went wrong. The bonfire was a project created by students for students. Mechanization was shunned, to allow for as many students as possible to participate. The video ends with an interview of former student Jim Mc Tasney. He said “Any success I have today can be traced back to Aggie Bonfire. It was the most rewarding and educational leadership experience I had at this University, and ever since”.
For many the experience in being part of a project like this is one that will remain with them forever. I know it will for me – thanks to the Leggett family.
Check out the photos on the right which tells the story of the harvest along with the festivities of the night.
Posted by Vic Cherubini on November 22, 2009
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