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November 29, 1999
Funeral Pyre School spirit claimed 12 lives at Texas A&M
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November 29, 1999


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Funeral Pyre
School spirit claimed 12 lives at Texas A&M

Last Thursday in the predawn gloom of College Station, Texas, 11 Texas A&M students and one alumnus were killed and 27 others were hurt after a 40-foot tower of logs they were building to fuel an annual bonfire collapsed. The ritual lighting of a bonfire to celebrate A&M football dates to 1909, when students tossed scraps of wood onto a pile and ignited it. In the course of nine decades the tradition evolved into Bonfire, a two-month ritual in which students cut down 8,000 trees, haul them to campus, stack them up to 55 feet high and then, on the eve of the Aggies' game against Texas, douse them with diesel fuel and light them.

The tradition of the A&M bonfire (shown above in 1995) came under scrutiny after last week's accident, and not for the first time. Nine years ago 87 A&M faculty members signed a petition calling Bonfire a "waste of natural resources, a symbol of lack of concern for the environment and a very conspicuous source of embarrassment" Calls for an end to Bonfire resumed in '96 when one student died and nine were injured in a car crash as they returned from the cutting site.

The project is run by students, who pass down their know-how from class to class. There have been reports of hazing and abuse by Redpots, the 18 juniors and seniors who oversee the work. (They wear hardhats called red-pots.) Last year two members of the school's Corps of Cadets—a campus clique whose members shave their heads and wear military-style uniforms—punched a female student after another cadet ordered them to take her hardhat, and just last month a 5'4", 95-pound junior claimed she was shoved because she had entered an area forbidden to any woman who hadn't slept with a Redpot.

Tradition's hold at Texas A&M is so strong that the school has a Traditions Council to affirm true Aggie rituals. Those that have passed muster include kissing one's date after an A&M score; Yell Practice, which sees male yell leaders escorting the student body to the football field on Fridays before home games for fight songs and war hymns; and Aggie Muster, a rite in which each April 21 A&M alums the world over honor Aggies who have died in the past year. There is also Silver Taps, a regular campus ceremony to remember Aggie students who have died within the past month. On Dec. 7 at 10:30 p.m., the victims of this year's bonfire will be honored with chimes from the Albritton Tower and three rounds of taps played by buglers from the Aggies' band.

Last week Chad Hutchinson, a freshman who was hospitalized after the accident, was as fired up about Bonfire as ever. Anticipating next year's festivities, he said, "I'll be the first one in line—me and 1,000 other students."

The Ballot of Pedro & Pudge

In the 48 hours after Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez (right) was named the American League's Most Valuable Player on Thursday, Minneapolis Star Tribune sportswriter La Velle E. Neal III received 325 E-mails, answered 100 telephone calls and amassed another 75 phone messages, including 10 from one peeved Bostonian on a pub crawl. By omitting pitchers from his MVP ballot, Neal helped throw the vote to Rodriguez over Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, a stand that left Neal's popularity in New England somewhere between Bill Buckner's and the Boston Strangler's.

Yes, Rodriguez was brilliant. He batted .332 with 35 homers and 113 RBIs. He gunned down 53% of would-be base stealers, easily leading the majors in that department. But Texas won the Western division by eight games with a lineup that also featured sluggers Rafael Palmeiro (.324, 47 home runs, 148 RBIs) and Juan Gonzalez (.326, 39 homers, 128 RBIs) in a year of absurdly inflated offensive numbers. While most pitching stats were similarly bloated, Martinez carried Boston to the playoffs by leading the majors with 23 wins and a minuscule 2.07 ERA that was a record 2.79 runs lower than the league average.

Yet Martinez lost by 13 points, 252 to 239, because he was not among the 10 players listed on two ballots—Neal's and that of George King of the New York Post. Had Martinez ranked fourth or higher on both those ballots or first on either, he would have won.

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