A hideous abomination, a gnarled tangled nest. A season-long ungroomed rough and itchy fluff. Roaming, hot, creeping out into the cheeks and down the neck where it forms wild peaks at the skin’s lines and creases. It evidences the day’s conditions and the season’s progress in its film of dust, salt taste of sweat, sweet smell of mud… It is The Grode Beard.
A feature of motivated participants, and a sometimes requirement of Crew leaders, it is a product of necessity, now owned, and worn proudly and defiantly as if by choice. In the throes of a season, life’s other “priorities” quickly fall off. Bonfire, and the safety and full experience of one’s fellow participants are the orders of the day, every day. In the all-consuming path to those ends, habits, behaviors, and norms are weighed, and most are found to be of indeterminable benefit (at best), if not entirely confounding distractions. The first to go and last to be restored (if ever) are the tedious, inconsequential chores of image, style, charm, and other dues demanded by “polite company.”
There was a time when I made such concessions, and grew my own Grode Beard out of such single-mindedness. But today, I don’t work nearly as hard as the students do. I don’t bear the day-to-day responsibilities that they do. I can return home at any time, for hours at a time (days even!). A warm, full meal is always a possibility, as is a warm, full shower. Not because I enjoy these comforts, but because they don’t, I still cultivate my own annually, taking my last shave the night before First Cut, not taking another until Last Shift.
It is an entertaining hobby, presenting myself in a manner to outshine my countenance. I am a professional individual. I have clients and associates, relationships to cultivate and maintain. It would be easier to do these things without cutting an image like Grizzly Adams. But then, relationships, partnerships, friendships that cannot weather a little scruff are not priorities, are they? This story, this experience, these young Aggies, they are matters of the truest, deepest significance.
So I wear this horrible, beautiful thing with pride, not in anything of mine, but in this experience of theirs. This simple beard informs my heart and mind. For me, it is a choice, for these students a simple product of a much, much bigger choice. In every reflection, as I sit and pull at its chin, and scratch at its elusive irritations, I am reminded of infinitely more significant burdens borne by Bonfire’s current students (lest you forget, they are university students). It is a months-long mantra, a reminder and consequence of our commitments, the students to their Bonfire, and I to them.
And then there are the times (especially by this time of year) that the gorilla-face in the room does become a topic of discussion. I hope that everyone can see the smile in my eyes (my mouth is well concealed), because in the answer I may introduce some of the finest individuals I have the honor of knowing, these Bonfire-building Aggies.