A Tradition since 1907

Centerpole 2003

We didn’t think that it was something bigger than us. It was another job we had to do. So we did it.

Victor Rodriguez, ’05

Today, November 8, 2018, is the 15th anniversary of setting Centerpole and Windle Sticks for the first Bonfire off campus. I was there. So for this Throwback Thursday, Bonfire asked me to tell a little story for you, Ags.

In 2003, the first year Bonfire would Stack after 1999, I was one of Bonfire’s Greypots. When Bonfire began again off campus, there was no way upper leadership was going to just assume the title of Redpot. So we were Greys. There were eight of us to start the year. On October 19, we lost our buddy Levi Garrett Windle (whose story I highly recommend you read). As I remember it, before they had arrived, we had already decided to name the four poles that would be set around Centerpole “Windle Sticks” in his honor. That first year, those four poles and Centerpole were all whole trees. But I’m jumping ahead of myself…

The Rally

In a room in Rudder Tower in 2002, the president of the University issued a statement on the future of Bonfire. There were a lot of motivated students in attendance. When he began with the pronouncement that “there will be no more Bonfire at Texas A&M”, I for one had all the information that I needed. So I stood up and left. There was no disrespect intended. To my mind, I had just been given a directive. I was acting on it. I wasn’t alone. The room emptied of students who then gathered out in a lobby. Cameras followed. They asked what we would do. We said we were going to build Bonfire.

Later, that evening, I was up in I Ramp of Walton Hall with Derric Smith, Aaron Stagner, and others. I don’t remember any planning or fuming. Just business as usual. Then Derric got a call.

“Are y’all coming to the rally?”
“What rally?”
“The Bonfire rally.”
“Where is it?”
“Who’s throwing it?”
“You are. Aren’t you?” (We absolutely were not.)

We went outside to see what the fuss was about and found people mobbed outside, shoulder to shoulder. More were piling in from every direction. Derric and I wanted a better view, so we climbed on top of the knee-high concrete wall in front of the dorm. The crowd started to pass back “Rest!” They thought the rally was starting. It absolutely wasn’t. Or it wasn’t supposed to be, anyway.

I looked to Derric and he shrugged, as if to say “good luck”. So I asked “What the hell are y’all doing here?” “Marching to the President’s house for Bonfire,” they said. I’ll sum up the long stump speech that followed like this: “If you want to march so damn bad, don’t march in protest like t-sips, march with purpose like a Fightin’ Texas Aggie into the Woods and take what’s yours.” They got awful motivated. They were ready. I told them to go back to where they came from and start getting squared away. Then they marched to the President’s house. But after they did, they knew for a certainty that if the Aggies were going to Build the Hell Outta Bonfire again, we all had a job to do, and our next march would have to be into the Woods.

A Sawed-Off Fire

We marched into the Woods in 2002. Bonfire that year hinted at Bonfire’s very beginnings in 1907. It was off campus, and it was a heap. Three heaps, actually. Brush and some trees were piled up. From above, it was meant to look like the t.u. sawed-off horns. It was a humble beginning, to be sure.

But it was exactly what it was meant to be. It was a proof of concept. Not in any one design or plan, but a proof of the will and motivation of the Fightin’ Texas Aggies. In that regard, it was a perfect success. The students proved themselves ready. Bonfire 2003 would be a Stack.

Bonfire 2003

2003 was a thrill, start to finish. Many of my best, most cherished memories are from that time. I was aware then of the brotherhoods I was forging. I was aware of how and when our milestones were being reached. I wish I could say I was keenly aware of the greater gravity of what we were doing with respect to the future. Generally speaking, I wasn’t. None of us were. But then again, sometimes we did consider that what we were doing had permanence.

When we started stacking, we tried 36′ logs. We didn’t use ropes then. That was a hell of a rush, slamming near four-story tall trees into a Stack by explosive force of will and motivation without a thread of rope. Even though we were proceeding well, we considered the progress at that length-turned-height of 36′. Taking into account our understanding that what we were doing would be done forever after, we took the height down to 32′ for first tier. It hasn’t changed since, not one inch. It was times like that when we thought about our work then being of significance in the future. The rest of the time, we just had a job to do.

Everybody had jobs to do. Like…

“Get us a Centerpole”

Centerpole and Windle Sticks 2003
Photo credit Dion McInnis (the author’s dad)

After Cut, and the first Load operation since 1999, and before Stack, there had to be a Centerpole. A group of motivants was convened and issued these very simple, very specific, very clear instructions. “Get us a Centerpole.” This was delegation in its purest, most earnest form. I didn’t know then – nor did I know until this story – what exactly they did. I only knew that on the day that we needed it, we had our Centerpole. It was a glorious, barked, sticky, sappy, colossal length of pine.

For this story, I finally asked Victor Marines ’06 “what the hell did y’all do, anyway?” The first thing he remembered: “It was cold. I was curled up under the toolbox in the back of Dwight’s truck. It was really, really cold.” Victor Rodriguez ’05 remembered things about the same – except from the comfort of the cab.

Old Dwight had apparently had just the tree in mind, and he took them directly to it. Dwight always had a solution for every problem. I watched him yank out a daisy-chain of trucks stuck up to their axles in 2002. He fixed a broke-down car with a belt once. When the front entrance to Stack was washing away in 2013, he somehow produced a truckload of fly ash about 10 minutes after he heard there was a problem. When rigs were digging piles at Kyle Field in 2014, with ESPN waiting patiently at Stack to document raising Centerpole, it was one call from Dwight that had one of those rigs bound for Stack Site. As an old Yell Leader told me once, “it’s not who you know, it’s what they’ll do for you.” Dwight could and would do anything. Back to 2003, he brought down Centerpole – demanded as it was on a moment’s notice – with a chainsaw.

Once down, it wouldn’t get on the truck whilst out in the field. So they dragged it to the highway. You heard me. The highway. From their it fit neatly on the trailer, and the whole posse was bound for Stack again. They got back late on the night of November 7.

“I read it in books, and here I was… living it”

Those were the words of Brandon Talbott ’07 when I asked him what he was thinking when we all posed for a photo in front of the first Centerpole and Windle Sticks off campus. “The watershed moment was seeing it go up and realizing ‘this is happening’.”

As much as Bonfire has changed (guess what – they use ropes now!), most things stay the same. Centerpole, for instance, is always a pivotal moment. For weeks in the Woods, you operate on faith in your leadership and most importantly yourself that all that work somehow adds up to a Bonfire. When Centerpole arrives, when that giant metal screw rends a perfect hole in the Earth, when the boom chokes that timber and wrenches it upright and drops it into that hole… everything suddenly comes clear. That feeling has never changed.

Only in hindsight can any of us who were there truly appreciate that moment in 2003 for what it was. Fundamentally, it was the same moment as now, or has ever been. It was a moment of change, when promise yields to purpose. We are all humbled that our moment within our one season marked a moment for all seasons.

Gig ’em, Aggies. And Build the Hell Outta Bonfire.

Dion C. McInnis ’03
Greypot, HMFIC ’03-’04

Afterward… and foreward

In asking folks who were there what they remembered for this story, I found that I was not alone in having lost so many details. To a man, there was a realization “I can’t believe that I can’t remember everything.” But that’s grown folks talking now about something that was just a job then. And that is also what everyone had to say of that time. “It was a job.”

There’s a tremendous liberty and relief that is found in facing inevitability. When there is no other alternative but the one outcome, it ceases to matter how hard it will be to get there. This thing will happen. There’s no point entertaining the thought of rest or failure. A monumental challenge whose outcome is fixed presents two options: resignation or resolve. Aggies resolve – to persist and achieve with purpose. The consequence of that resolve is moments like this one, as Brandon Talbott described: 

“I was driving back into College Station for a game last year, and I saw a billboard on the highway. ‘Student Bonfire’. I realized ‘This is it. This is what we sacrificed everything for.'”

On behalf of all of us… Thank you, Student Bonfire.  Thank you for your resolve. For your many sacrifices. For your will. For your motivation. And thank you for another Fightin’ Texas Aggie Bonfire, and many more to come!

Bonfire is the undying flame of love that every loyal Aggie carries in their heart for the school.