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Aggie Culpa: The Aggie Files, Part 4

camptower.jpgChief among the things a guest must not do -- flood the bathroom, steal the booze, overstay his welcome -- is this: A guest must not insult his host. Is that what I was guilty of doing to Aggieland in my blog post yesterday?

I didn't think so when I wrote it. When I read some of the comments, I'm not so sure. "I'm sure you find us to be a bunch of rubes and ignoramuses, but you seem to have failed to notice that we are in the business of producing leaders and far surpassing others," writes one reader.

"Son, we use words like honor, code, loyalty...we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline," writes another, borrowing Jack Nicholson's speech from A Few Good Men. "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it!"

Someone on campus said, "I saw those bad things you wrote about Muster."

Uh-oh. Is that what I did?

I thought I was just describing Muster, the way an anthropologist might describe some hallowed South Seas tribal ritual. For the record, I think Muster is an incredibly moving event. I also think it is an incredibly unusual one. I don't mean unusual in a bad way. I mean unusual in a "this is something you're not going to see anywhere else"-way.


When I wrote that the version of Taps that is played -- known as "Silver Taps" -- was excruciatingly slow, I meant that in an almost ancient, literal sense. The word means "to crucify," and there are religious overtones to the somber celebration, along with something that borders on mortification: Celebrants stand during the Muster (as Aggies do during football games) and the subtext I detect is, "Pay attention; this is just a taste of what sacrifice is like."

I do regret saying that Aggies have an inferiority complex. That's not very scientific and it implies that I think that Aggies are underachievers. What I meant was, Aggies often act as if they have a lot to prove.

campbigbevo.jpgI was trying to make sense of why so many A&M traditions evolve from encounters with other universities. The most famous cow in College Station is Bevo, the University of Texas mascot. I was told that "Gig 'em," the Aggie slogan, came from what A&M was expected to do the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University. Aggies are overachievers. Why?

To say, "Because they're Aggies" doesn't really answer the question. Yes, it must be something about the university and the students it attracts. There is an esprit de Corps and an esprit de corps -- the former the military-styled student organization, the latter the sensibility that is first injected during the freshman gathering known as Fish Camp.

I realize that people reading this who have never set foot in Texas have no idea what I'm talking about, are wondering why I'm wasting so many pixels talking about Fish Camp, horned frogs and "Howdy." Aggies know. (God, that sounds like such an Aggie thing to say.)

What I mean is: Texas A&M is a different kind of place. It trades on its differentness. Personally, I think one of the consequences of trading on your differentness is not being surprised when the occasional person says, "Wow, you're different."


How you're different is an easy question to answer (See: Taps, Silver; Muster, Annual, etc.). Why you're different is not quite so easy. There's a saying in Aggieland: "From the outside in, you can't understand it. From the inside out, you can't explain it."

campskull.jpg Frankly, that's a bit of a cop-out. I invite Aggies to try to explain it in the Comments section below.

Let me say that the students I've met during my brief week here have been unfailingly polite and engaged -- and devoted to their school. I've never seen a higher proportion of students decked out in the colors of their college. I went to the University of Maryland, and if there were any traditions there, they were successfully hidden from me for four years.

Finally, about that blanket of freedom: I'm thankful to sleep under it, though if I may be so bold, journalists have helped stitch together some occasional holes in the fabric.

By John Kelly  |  April 23, 2009; 10:25 AM ET
Categories:  Aggie Files  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Muster's Last Stand: The Aggie Files, Part 3
Next: Goodbye Mr. Clips: The Aggie Files, Part 5


John, this is a "no-win" situation for you. For the rest of us whose beloved alma maters you did not visit, the "aggie-ony" of these alums seems overblown. We saw your piece as a really interesting description of a school that has traditions, probably, very different from ours. To the Aggies, it seems, that you are the perfect foil. They were spoiling for a fight and no matter what you said or didn't say, you were going to get one. This could have been worse though, I remember one of your very early Oxford blogs about a bad haircut. You could have ended up at the wrong place and time down there and come out looking like one of the cadets. Keep on blogging. All of us here in bloggy bottom appreciate it.

Posted by: mfromalexva | April 23, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse


I just hope this backlash does not hurt your daughter's chances if A&M is her choice of schools.

Posted by: Slinger61 | April 23, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse


I have read all of your blog entries and found them to be both insightful into Aggie life and entertaining. You haven't said anything that isn't correct, you haven't said anything inflammatory, or hurtful. Your description of Muster was right on the money. I've been more times than I can count and I thought you nailed the thoughts, sentiment, and true meaning of Muster. I was so impressed that a non-Ag actually got it on their first attempt.

Overall, I have been nothing but totally entertained by your entries. I was even impressed at your thoughtfulness at taking notice of our water towers we're so proud of. (on a side note, you should take a side trip on your way home and head up to Temple, TX. There are more water towers there than you an shake a stick at)

I am a very proud member of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Class of '99 and '03 and I am currently a faculty member here. If someone thought you said anything derogatory, has been offended or hurt by anything you've said, in my opinion, they were trying to be offended. I, for one, was totally impressed.

Adam '99

Posted by: adampickens | April 23, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse


Thank you for these blogs.

For the record, I am a class of '93 graduate of A&M and did not take any offense in your remarks. I'm not afraid of other viewpoints or observations about A&M and our traditions. Its part of being such a unique place.

Most importantly, I thought your comments were respectful and objective...what more can I ask? I was disappointed to hear that you did not hear a lot of "Howdy" on campus. That is one of our best traditions and the visitors that I have brought to A&M always comment on it.

Living in the mid-atlantic bubble of VA Tech (another great land-grant college), UVA, UMD, JMU, etc, it's nice to see some coverage of other great schools (especially my alma mater).

Well done. I hope we get to hear more from your visit.

Posted by: gscottbrown | April 23, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

For Mr. Brown -
If Athletic Director Bill Byrne is reading this - LETS GET SOME MORE GAMES WITH VA TECH.

On to the challenge - explain being an Aggie? I think Sec. Gates gave a pretty good start at Muster -

“Its excellence is built on a firm foundation and time honored and proven values and treasured traditions. The Aggie culture is grounded in patriotism, religious faith however expressed, love of family, loyalty to one another, an old-fashioned work ethic, a sense of duty and the importance of service to others and to the country, and a shared belief of the supreme importance of character and integrity.”

I would add to that an enthusiasm for those values, and a strong belief in respect for others and their beliefs.

The one other characteristic of Aggies that I think seperates us from others is the Aggie willingness to embrace unity in service or support for a cause.

Witness: Bonfire, Bonfire collapse, Bonfire
Memorial, Red, White, & Blue Out, Fish Camp, Maroon Out, Silver Taps, Aggie Muster, 12th Man, etc.

Perhaps a better way to describe it would be - An Aggie is eager and willing to be one more yelling at the game, one more waiting quietly in the dark, one more saying "Here", one more giving of their time.

But we're also always looking for a way to lead others to the action.

Thanks for visiting BCS - Ya'll come back now, ya hear?

Posted by: JustAnotherAggie | April 23, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse


As an Aggie, I appreciated your articles. I agree that "from the inside you can't explain it" is kind of a cop-out, so I'll take a shot:

The distrust you see in many of the replies to your post comes from the experience most Aggies have in talking about the school with outsiders. People tend to have a love/hate reaction to the University, so if someone isn't explicitly praising A&M for its uniqueness, they're usually lampooning the University for it's "strangeness."

This is magnified for alumni who live in 'Big 12 country', because people from the other schools in our athletic conference naturally have a reason to come down, see the school, and make fun of it. That's what most Aggies read in the newspaper when an 'outsider' has something to say about us.

Now, as far as the school traditions and whatnot go, I'd offer you this:

The reason most people have a hard time explaining it is that most people don't go to college twice. If A&M is the only college you've attended, and especially if you don't have siblings or very good friends at other schools at the same time you're in college, it can be hard to imagine how other universities aren't like A&M.

I'd say for the average student most of the traditions are not taken as serious business, but rather as some good clean fun mainly had at the expense of Freshmen.

The more solemn traditions, such as Silver Taps and Muster, are seen as the honest displays of appreciation and value for the lives of our fellows. They seem a natural way of handling the painful loss of a member of a community.

In the end, that's what A&M is: a strong community. What I discovered after leaving A&M is that most other Universities are not a single strong university-wide community, but rather a collection of smaller communities centered on individual academic departments or social clubs.

For whatever the reason, whether it's the unique stories and traditions, or the military history and espirit de corps, people at A&M develop a sense of camaraderie. The one thing that so "different" about this is that this spirit is somehow is strong enough to encompass the entire current and former student population. The community is unusually large.

Standing out is part of being different, and if it's sometimes hard to tell whether someone is an interested observer or a sarcastic joker, that's a small price to pay for being part of such a unique institution.

Again, thanks for your articles, I hope you had a great time in College Station, and that you'll come back again sometime soon!

Andrew Burleson
Class of 2006

Posted by: burlesona | April 23, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

I'm a relative outsider that is a diehard Aggie. Born in Pittsburgh, PA, I moved to Bryan at age 11. Deciding between PennSt and A&M, I chose A&M at the last second. I am not Texan and have been reminded many times. I also never wanted to be one. I am a yankee...but I am also an Aggie. So 10 years in Pittsburgh, 18 in Texas and my last 12 in DC.
To your point of inferiority, I can see that it might APPEAR that way to an outsider.
Please don't take it that we feel inferior to longhorns or hornfrogs students or whoever. The appearance may just mean that we respect those that have gone before us and and we realize that we don't know everything yet and haven't put in our work yet to claim something others have built. A brutal generalization of 'tsippers' would be that they are a bit smug. For what reason noone knows, especially in students. That makes no sense. Alas, exposure to Aggies longterm reveals more as you go, but you can't learn it in a weekend for it took a century to build.

Posted by: aggiebones | April 23, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

To say that a somber memorial service is "a helluva show" is demeaning. You are being disingenuous. At one time, journalists were held to a higher standard.

Posted by: goaway41 | April 23, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse


I hope you understand that Aggies are a uniquely loyal (and defensive) bunch. Your assessment of Muster (what I consider our most sacred tradition) was not insulting. For someone unaffiliated with the University, I imagine it is hard to comprehend what Muster really means to the students, former students, faculty and staff, and community members.

Muster is simultaneously the most painful and joyful day of the year for me. It's a day I spend remembering those who influenced my four years as a student and those who have influenced me during my time on staff. It's also the day I remourn the loss of members of my Aggie family.

Muster, unlike some of our traditions, really showcases what is at the core of being an Aggie: love of country, integrity, faith, and camaraderie. In a time when those things seem undervalued in our society, Aggie Muster reaffirms each year the things that made our university, its students and former students, and this country great.

While I attended Campus Muster on Tuesday, my Aggie friends mustered in homes across Texas, banquet halls around the country, and even at Camp Victory in Baghdad to remember those we've lost this year. This year, I answered "Here" for 3: a respected professor, one of my most unruly Fish, and a beloved friend. One day, my turn will come and I'll be remembered at Muster.

Thank you for an honest depiction of Muster.

Noel '04

Posted by: n1devin | April 23, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Great article here:

"You don't get A&M and you don't understand its traditions; I get that. What I don't get is how have both the vanity and the nerve to not only not try to understand where the people at A&M were coming from, but mock it and dismiss it out of hand. It's not good enough, is that it? Does it lack the intellectual gravitas you require? Is it....inferior?"

Posted by: goaway41 | April 23, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kelly,

I am a current student at A&M and I appreciate (and was initially shocked) your visit to Aggieland.

I have just a few quick comments. I know you got some very defensive comments yesterday, but the topic of Muster is a tender one that does straight to a nerve for obvious reasons: its about life and death. I think part of the reason you seemed to get more negative comments is that anger is a better motivator sometimes, and those people got upset at your description. The other people who thought it was an accurate depiction of Muster and Silver Taps mostly didn't want to register for this website and comment.

I'm a member of (I encourage you to head over there if you haven't), the nation's (and world's?) largest collegiate forum with more than 89,000 registered users. After your article on Muster came out, some threads were started and many people really thought your article was spot on, one poster even saying it was one of the best descriptions of Silver Taps he or she had ever read.

This is all just to say that the comment section of a blog can hardly be taken as representative of everyone, but you know that, and its all you had to go off of.

Thanks for visiting campus and maybe I'll see you around?

Joe '12

Posted by: garlandag2012 | April 23, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Kelly: I thought I was just describing Muster, the way an anthropologist might describe some hallowed South Seas tribal ritual.


For the record, I'm a born and bred Yankee and have never been to TAM. The closest I get is that both of my siblings have lived in Houston for over 25 years and I visit...but I do feel like an outsider in Texas even after all these years.

The problem here is that even in how Kelly describes his column, he comes off as condescending. The anthropologist describing a hallowed South Seas tribal ritual, considers himself to be more advanced, educated and informed than the more primitive, uneducated and unworldly tribesmen. Kelly uses phrases which he think are entertaining or amusing which feel like mockery to Aggies. If he had tried to write about the rituals as an honored guest trying to pay due respect to the event, rather than an outsider trying to describe a quaint local ritual, then he might have been received better.

Condescension is rarely appreciated by the subject and you do come off as condescending. Although I enjoyed the article as an outsider, I can easily recognize why some bristled at the column.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | April 23, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I enjoyed your columns as I always have interest in a visitor's views of Aggieland. While you touched on several fine aspects, I do not think you can appreciate a place as unique as Texas A&M in a few hours or days. Like classic literature it can be opened to many interesting pages. However, there is no substitute for reading it cover-to-cover. You might want to return to experience some of our other great traditions, and to be aware of how important they are to the community of Aggies, and what fine, gracious, and patriotic folks you will find there. And you could have attended Aggie Muster right in Washington DC, where it is also held annually, or any of hundreds of locations worldwide. Thanks for visiting.

Posted by: Gigem81 | April 24, 2009 12:44 AM | Report abuse

Now Mr Kelly you have not attempted to answer the important question at Texas A&M
are the coeds good looking or are beer goggles mandatory? To you go ugly early or drive to the nearest sheep ranch? Or are the rumors true that Texas is just full of steers and queers?

Inquiring minds would like to know. And ask about the hazing rituals at the frats there. Aggie frat boyss should really be referred to as ewe doers.

Posted by: sheepherder | April 24, 2009 6:45 AM | Report abuse

And we should give Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Souterhn California back to Mexico. We took advantage of Mexico and the only fair thing to do is return their land to them. No great loss. And any current residents of those states lose their US citizenship and become citizens of Mexico only. And they can not ever emigrate to the US along with their offspring or become US citizens!

Posted by: sheepherder | April 24, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Reminded me of an Athenian visiting Sparta. Bound to be some crabbing from the Spartan side.

Posted by: jimward21 | April 24, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for these posts. I'm a former Aggie, class of '07, and have enjoyed these stories. Unless you went to to Texas A&M, you won't fully understand the depth of the tradition and pride... but you touch on it so well! I don't think your comments about not quite getting us are insulting; I think they are completely understandable. I try to explain my Aggie ways to non-Aggies all the time and it's just not possible. I appreciate you going to Aggieland and reporting back. I hope you come back with something you'll never forget!

Jordan '07

Posted by: jordyliz | April 24, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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