Remembering triumph after tragedy

It has been four years. I have a new telephone by my nightstand, but the sounds of that ring still chime clearly in my memory. It was 6:45 a.m... least 45 minutes before I normally coaxed myself out of bed for a day at work as the National Director of Public Affairs of a major national sports association.I fished for the phone and found my next-door neighbor, early-riser and close friend Mike Loughmiller, on the other end, skipping his usual banter, blurting out, "Rob, something has gone wrong with your Bonfire."

I muttered back that someone must have smashed a thumb, or perhaps somebody fell breaking a limb. Mike replied, "Rob, you better turn on your television to a news channel." I thanked him and stayed in the bed, remaining there for a couple of minutes and thinking to myself, "Why would the national news channels report on a minor accident in College Station?"

Curiosity, tinged with a slight bit of concern, pulled me out of bed. Grabbing the remote control, I switched on my trusted FOXNews Channel. My journalism background caused an immediate alarm to go off in my now struggling-to-awake brain: FOXNews had their "Live" icon on the screen, showing a shot of the fallen stack. I thought, "They wouldn't be going live unless it was a ‘big' story." Words like "presumed dead," "missing," and "seriously hurt" were now grabbing my attention. I dialed my folks and said, "Something has happened at Bonfire. Turn on the TV," then said good-bye with, "I've got to get ready for work."

By the time I got in my Explorer for the 45-minute commute to work, the death toll was five. By the time I reached the office, the count had reached seven. My office mates were understanding and full of questions. They told me how sorry they were. But for a couple of exceptions, they had little knowledge of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Bonfire. This prompted questions. I was already finding solace in playing the role of an unofficial Aggie spokesman. It kept me occupied enough to keep my emotions, grief and shock just below the surface.

With an understanding boss, I started fielding phone calls. Many were from our members, who had no connection with A&M, but knew that I had a strong connection to the school. All were sympathetic and full of questions, ranging from the easy ones, to "If you didn't know anyone personally, why are you so sad?" I realized then and there that it was going to be tough to explain the "Aggie family" and Aggie traditions to outsiders. They were trying to be sensitive, but many just did not understand.

I remained glued to the radio, telephone and internet. It was now lunch time. San Antonio's major media outlets were now on the scene in College Station. Brian McClain, a San Antonio MacArthur High graduate and member of the Corps of Cadets, was now among those listed as dead. The death of the Alamo City Aggie drove the tragedy even closer to home.

I spent the rest of the day answering and returning email and phone calls--all of the same ilk. First there was genuine sympathy. Then came the questions. Tell me how exactly you explain "push" to a graduate of an Ivy League institution? Take it from this fifth-generation Texan, it is difficult. I did it with dignity and gave the questioners as much or as little as they required.

Friday was more of the same. The weekend was long and numbing.

Monday brought similar emotions. I was looking forward to, yet at the same time dreading, a huge memorial service being held that evening at San Antonio's unique Aggie Park. The service was to honor McClain, as well as the other 11 Aggies who were now deceased as a result of the accident. I kept myself busy by helping to arrange chairs, appointing myself as a volunteer usher, and a acting as a quick-responding errand boy. I didn't realize it at the time, but my shield was up. If I kept myself busy, I did not have time to face the powerful emotions.

The week of the historic Texas A&M versus Texas football game is usually filled with much kidding from friends of both schools. No jokes were made this year. It is very hard to needle someone--even halfheartedly--when they are showering you with sympathy. The usual 'Beat the hell outta t.u.!' placards I always made for my vehicles were replaced with memorials to our fallen Aggies.

Nevertheless, despite some early discussion of canceling the game, the 10:30 a.m. Friday kickoff remained. I boarded a San Antonio A&M Club-chartered bus at 4:30 Friday morning with my mother, father, and younger brother. Almost instantly after finding a seat on the crowded bus headed for College Station, I shut my eyes tight. For whatever reasons, I was trying to block out all of the emotions of the previous week. In my mind was a raging argument about whether or not to visit the Bonfire site. That question quickly became moot as reality set in. The sound of the air breaks and scrambling people awakened me. I looked out the window and there it was. Yes, most of the fallen logs had been put into small piles, but it was unmistakable. "Let's get out, Son," my 77-year-old Dad said. "Wow, it's starting to seem real," I remarked. He responded with, "It is real, and you better start acting like it!" It was meant as advice and it was quickly taken. Our driver had positioned the bus as close as he could to the barricades.

The dead silence at the the site of the fallen stack was overwhelming. For the first time since the tragedy occurred, tears that dark glasses could not conceal were streaming down my face. I no longer cared about hiding the emotions. I was just part of a crowd of more than 86,000 football fans. The vast majority were mebers of the Aggie Family. Most of the Texas fans were also wearing some sort of tribute to the fallen. The pre-game mood was surreal. The white doves were impressive. The magnitude of the presence at the game of both Governor and former President George Bush did not escape me.

Right before kickoff, my dad, in greatest Old Army tradition, "pulled rank." A longtime fixture on row seven, section 309, and the only person around with Sul Ross status, people always kindly showed respect to my father. This time he used it to his advantage. He reminded everyone within earshot that last night at the "modified" yell practice, the head yell leader had given us our orders for the day: Yell louder and sing louder than ever before. My dad agreed with the head yell leader that, regardless of the tragedy, for the next four hours we owed our best to the young men on the field before us. After all was said and done, it was still the Texas game, and they were ranked number five in the nation. We were the decided underdog.

With the good guys behind by ten at halftime, the football war took a respite for 30 minutes. The Texas band had my tear glands in high-gear again. The tribute to our fallen Aggies, was punctuated with the playing of Taps and Amazing Grace. I will never forget the unabashed sincerity. The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band was excellent as usual. The silent Block "T" they performed as they left the field is forever tattooed in my memory.

After the halftime festivities, momentum switched to the team wearing maroon jerseys. It was beyond dramatic. A senior quarterback threw to his senior, receiver roommate on a 14-yard fade route in the east corner of the north endzone for the winning touchdown--against their heavily-favored arch-rivals. With 5:02 left in the game, the Wrecking Crew sealed the deal before the largest football crowd in state history.

As the clock ticked to all zeroes, my dad looked towards the Heavens, loudly proclaiming, "This makes up for 1940! Lord, You, can take me now!" That was the last game my Dad would ever attend at Kyle Field. He passed away September 13, 2000, after a short illness. Was he kidding? Was he prophetic? I will never know.

I felt a different kind of elation after that 1999 victory. Yeah, I was happy. I approached several members of the Longhorn Band. They warily watched a middle-aged man wearing Aggie colors approach them. I offered my hand to them and thanked them for their halftime tribute. The tears came again. It was a strange ending to a storybook game, preceded by a tragic week.

Thanks to my dad, it all remains real.

Editor's Note: Rob Gale is a not a graduate of Texas A&M; however, his father (now deceased) was a member of the War Effort Class of ‘44. Rob is a self-described loyal Aggie. He lives in San Antonio and is a former sportswriter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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