Since 2009, there’s been a Last Shift photo (I commissioned Mikel Duke for the first). After the last Stack Shift is complete, early in the morning, students gather around Stack one more time for stories, suggestion box, awards (Best Y-Stick) and Yell Practice. But first, the photo. We’re all tired, of course they more so than I. So if I’m tired, they are absolutely exhausted. But they’re happy.
I told them this year that this was the best Stack I had yet seen, keeping in mind that I was Head Stack for the first two Student Bonfires in 2003 and 2004, and that I had been there start-to-finish for every other one since. This was met by raucous whoops from many. But not all. I was later told that I had said this the year before, which I honestly don’t recall. Still, the compliment was left lacking.
I’m rarely found without a fist-full of these photos. I hand them out at every opportunity. As a Dead and a supporter, the response is heartening. Some bellow “Red ASS!” Some run to their buddies, hollering “look at this!” Some gather their children around and stoop to point to young men and women living a story they once did, and they relive it now. Some say thank you for the photo. Most say thank you for Bonfire, as if I were one of the proud Aggies standing in front of it. These thanks I accept humbly on the behalf of the students doing the year’s real work.
But then there are the thanks too big for a “you’re welcome,” or “I’ll pass that on,” or “aww shucks.”
In the post-game parking lot of the t.u. game, I gave a photo to a woman busily packing up her tailgate. Looking down at the photo, she caught her breath and put her hand to her heart. “Wait here, please,” she said running into the RV. She returned with a small button of a vibrant, smiling young lady wearing a Bonfire pot. I recognized the face, but waited for the woman to tell me her story.
Through tears, she told me about meeting the young girl’s dad at a tailgate years ago. He was wearing the button on his chest, a little piece of his girl – she was one of the 12 Aggies lost in the Bonfire collapse of 1999. “She looks so much like you,” the woman had told the father. Without hesitation, he took off the button and gave it to the woman. “I want you to have it,” he said “Remember my girl.”
Then holding the photo in one hand, the button in the other, she held the photo up and the button close to her heart as she said “This is beautiful. Such a tribute. This is love. Thank you.”
On College Station’s (in)famous Northgate, walking into the Dixie Chicken, I went down the line of queued lunch patrons, handing each a Last Stack photo. One stopped me, “I’ve seen this. Honey, we saw this,” showing the photo to her husband. Turning back to me she said, looking hard at the beaming, proud faces of so many young men and women standing before their gift, “We saw this, at the Bonfire Memorial. Someone left one of these with flowers.” She paused, and it was clear it wasn’t the photo she was talking about when she said “Thank you.”
A memorial. A tribute. That is Bonfire. And that is the truest compliment to you Aggies who build it. Thank you.