Read an Excerpt
A Midnight Yell
THE CHANGES ARE SUBTLE against the blast furnace of Texas summer. Maybe the shadows seem a little longer. Maybe the heat breaks a little earlier in the day. Maybe the string of hundred-degree days is broken; it only gets to ninety-eight or so. And there are more clouds in the sky.
Maybe you notice the booming of shotguns in the distance at dusk. Practice for dove season, shards of clay pigeons in the uncut sunflower meadow. Maybe things are changing...maybe.
You sense those changes, the turning toward something new, and yet the fiery days continue to overwhelm.
I was running a lot before the football season began: four miles in the heat of the afternoon, mostly to get a feel for what the football players were going through during two-a-days in August. I was also making my regular training sessions at the boxing gym, and at six in the evening, I might as well have been stepping into the heater coil of a '77 Cadillac that's just made the fast run from San Antonio to Austin--that's how hot it was in that metal building behind the Goodwill. The heat sucked the air from your lungs. I'd be sweating before I unwound the jump rope in my gym bag. It was always two hours of hell.
Newcomers to Texas from such gentle climes as Northern California are dying for home. I'd hear it everywhere I went: They can't take any more. Yet I ran. I hit the boxing gym. I endured. I always kept thinking, How do those guys survive practices in this heat?
In fact, some didn't. Some high school kids collapsed and died in Texas. The newspapers and TV reports were full of it. Around the country, college players collapsed and died. Even a pro football player collapsed and died. Then I got a little taste of it myself. One afternoon, my feet seared, the sun scorching my forehead as I ran, a chill shot through my body, and my legs abruptly stopped running without my consciously deciding to do so. I scooted off the street to the sidewalk and the shade of trees. Pulled off my T-shirt, fearing, My God, is this what IT is like? I made it home, got a sport drink from the refrigerator, stepped into the shower with my jogging shorts and sneakers still on, and turned on the water. I survived. And the next day I was running again--this time in the relative cool of the morning.
Finally the remnants of a tropical depression stalled in the Gulf, and the long siege of heat broke. Waves of rain swept across the parched land. Everything seemed to be in recovery. Thank God.
The rain is about to give up as I stroll the campus of A&M in College Station, deep in the East Texas woods, late on the last Friday night of August. Just two or three hours ago, it was pouring, so I went to the Target store on Texas Avenue in search of some sort of weather gear. In the camping section, the rain gear display had been stripped, except for a lone Eddie Bauer jacket. A white-haired man and I arrived at the same time, eyed the jacket in friendly competition, joked with each other. Then he said, "I believe I'll let you have it, young feller. It's a little rich for my blood."
"You're sure?" I said, but it was only a feigned protest. I pictured myself being drenched at midnight, and imagined myself fighting off the codger to get the jacket.
"It's all yours," he said, smiling. He gave me a wave and pushed his red plastic Target shopping cart down the aisle. Aggie partisans might say this is the kind of hospitality you come to expect to find in College Station. Maybe so.
But now that I have the jacket, I don't need it. The rain comes to a complete stop. The clouds are parting. The moon appears, although it looks as if it is behind a scrim. And as it does, whatever breeze might have been cooling the evening disappears. The night swelters. Sweat begins to trickle down my temples. I take off the jacket, but my shirt is soon soaked with sweat anyway.
Still, walking around the campus tonight is not unpleasant. The walkways are softly lit. The air smells clean. The trees ebb into the night sky. I've always liked taking walks or running in the dark, and this is a good place to do it. In many ways, the A&M campus is more appealing in darkness than it is in the light of day.
The campus is not ugly, but you can't say it's lovely either. The two structures that dominate it are Kyle Field, the colossal football stadium illuminated by grayish-blue lights tonight, and a water tower that looks like a tan golf tee grown gargantuan on steroids. Between stand some graceful structures but also many boxy, uninspired buildings--typical public building architecture of the '70s and '80s. All of them crammed onto the grounds to accommodate the school's enormous growth during the last three and half decades: the period during which A&M went from an all-male military college cut along the lines of the Citadel or Virginai Military Institute to one of the largest coed universities in the United States. It's short on hoary bell towers and ivy-cloaked libraries. There's not a flying buttress to be seen. But in the dark, the campus is agreeable, peaceful even, never mind the thousands of scurrying students or the occasional Aggie whoop or the pickup horn blasts from University Avenue.
Near the stadium, on the steps of the Memorial Student Center (MSC), I meet up with Ruth Coleman and Tommy Connell, two young friends of mine from Austin who are both recent grads of A&M—Aggies for life. We walk through the wet night to the Academic Building. It is an exception to most of the buildings you see on campus. Built in 1912, it is a handsome domed structure with columns out front, and in the sunlight it has a soft sand-yellow glow to it. At night, it has the look of a fortress.
A statue of Sul Ross--called Sully by A&M students--stands in front of the Academic Building. At his feet are a scattering of quarters and dimes and nickels.
"So what's the money about?" I said.
"It's one of the traditions," Tommy said.
Ruth said, "When you're getting ready for a test that you're nervous about, you can put money at Sully's feet for good luck."
"Yeah, when it's time for finals, you can see rolls of quarters stacked up here," Tommy said.
"I see," I said. The first week of classes and already there's money around Sully's shoes.
Texas A&M is a tradition-enriched (or a tradition-laden, depending on your perspective) institution. Paying a tribute to Sully in exchange for his help with a test is only one of scores of traditions the Aggies have managed to keep alive in spite of the university's enormous changes over the years. A couple of days ago, I told an Aggie joke to an Aggie friend of mine: How many Aggies does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Three. One to change the lightbulb. One to write a yell about it. And one to make it a tradition. My Aggie friend grinned and said, "That's about right." It's fitting that the statue of Sully graces the grounds in front of the Academic Building in this most tradition-conscious of all major American universities. Had it not been for Sul Ross, there might not have been any traditions at all.
Lawrence Sullivan Ross was born to Shapley Prince Ross and his wife, Catherine, in the Iowa Territory a couple of years after Sam Houston's army bested the Mexican troops of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna on the San Jacinto. But by the time Sul was a year old, his father had moved the family to Milam County, Texas. Sul became a bona fide Indian fighter while still a boy, and thus his legend took root. As an adult he fought Comanches both as a member of the U.S. Army and as the captain of a Texas Ranger company.
It was as a Ranger that he established his statewide fame, becoming a hero to the Anglo-Texans on the frontier. In the late fall of 1860, he lead a band of Rangers, civilian volunteers, Tonkawa scouts, and troopers from the 2nd Cavalry in pursuit of Comanche marauders who had struck East Texas. After several days, Ross's group located a Comanche encampment. Following the ensuing melee, Ross took credit for recovering a blue-eyed blonde woman once known as Cynthia Ann Parker. She was Texas's most famous Indian captive; her story more or less became the basis of the John Ford film The Searchers, starring John Wayne. Cynthia Ann had been taken from her father's "fort," located only seventy-five miles from the present A&M campus, twenty-five years earlier by raiding Comanches. For years Texans had attempted to "rescue" her. Like John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, Sul Ross always claimed to be the man who pulled it off--never mind that Cynthia Ann didn't want to return to "civilization," preferring instead to live with her children among the Comanches. No happy ending occurred for Cynthia Ann, in spite of Sully's efforts. Forced to remain among the Anglos, she died a few years later, legend has it of a broken heart.
During the Civil War, Sul Ross resigned from the Rangers to fight with the Confederates, fighting in the battles of Corinth, Pea Ridge, and Vicksburg, and getting promoted to brigadier general along the way. In the years after the war, he served as a county sheriff, helped write Texas's state constitution, was elected to the state senate, and finally, held the governor's office for two terms. As soon as he left office as governor, he became president of the fledgling Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College. The college was in bad straits when Sully took over, but he repulsed attempts to put it out of business, got more money from the legislature, increased enrollment, and oversaw an extensive building program. TAMC was on firm footing when Sully died unexpectedly in 1898. Comanche fighter, Texas Ranger, Old West sheriff, military commander, legislator, governor—Sul Ross was many things, but as Ruth and Tommy are explaining to me tonight, he is forever hallowed by Aggies as one of the men who saved A&M.
We leave Sully.
We pass a dorm that is not air conditioned. Unimaginable these days, living in a dorm in this part of Texas without air-conditioning. Brutal, even. But it is in part another tradition, Ruth and Tommy tell me. A way for students to experience dorm life the way it once was. And those dorm rooms are cheaper than air-conditioned rooms. Before the rain arrived, Texas had just come off a heat spell that in Austin, ninety miles to the west, included some twenty days of hundred-degree temperatures. Maybe some concessions to tradition definitely should be examined, I'm thinking--a dorm without air-conditioning in Texas might just constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Before A&M officials halted the annual bonfire tradition--known by the proper name "Bonfire" in Aggie lingo—following the 1999 collapse that injured dozens and claimed twelve lives, students from this dorm were among those taking part in the early morning firewood cuts, arriving back in clothes caked with sweat and mud and leaning toward the fetid side: "grodes" (rhymes with "roads"). Tradition calls for grodes never to be washed. A common practice was to hang the filthy jeans and T-shirts from dorm windows following a cut—better that, I suppose, than have them smelling up the room. But true Aggies preserve their grodes long after they become Former Students (a proudly held formal title), sticking them away in a trunk like a talisman that might bring them luck someday. Tonight, nearly two years have passed since Bonfire last occurred, nearly two years since grodes flapped in the moisture-rich breezes blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico. But in the darkness we see people wearing them proudly.
Ruth, Tommy, and I continue walking, heading in a roundabout way to the stadium. Soon we're in the flow of thousands of people approaching Kyle Field. It is nearing twelve A.M., the magic hour for Aggies to engage in a hallowed tradition, Midnight Yell. Throughout football season, home and away, Aggies congregate at the cusp of game day for what I was going to call a cheerleading session, but that's not exactly accurate. It's more than that. And it's not cheerleading that goes on; it's yell-leading. The distinction means as much to the Aggie mind as the difference to a beer drinker between sipping from a chilled mug and chugalugging from a pitcher until you're ready to puke.
Yell Practice in general began in 1913 when different Corps companies gathered after dinner to "learn heartily the old-time pep." A practice at midnight took form in 1931 when members of the Corps, hanging around the Puryear Hall dorm room of a cadet called Peanut Owen, determined it would be an entertaining notion to have that year's Fish fall out on the steps of the campus YMCA building to practice yells. Two senior Yell Leaders, Horsefly Berryhill and Two Gun Herman, arrived shortly and, in the radiance of railroad flares and torpedoes stuck in flower plots around the building, directed the freshmen in practicing yells for the upcoming game against Texas. And just like that, a tradition was born.
As we pass through the Quad—the cluster of buildings housing the Corps of Cadets, A&M's connection to its "Old Army" days—we get caught up in an ever-growing stream of people moving toward Kyle Field.