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Muster's Last Stand: The Aggie Files, Part 3


Frequently during my brief stay at Texas A&M I've wondered to myself: Does anybody in the outside world know what's going on here?

This is not to suggest that College Station is cut off from the outside world. Television signals penetrate the perimeter. Newspapers are delivered. There are no roadblocks or checkpoints. My e-mail appears to get through.

And yet this is a place apart, a bubble so full of strange rituals that I sometimes feel moved to flee, to drive out of town, stop at the first house I see and bang on the door. "Oh thank god," I'd say, when the door was opened and I fell across its threshold. "Do you know what's going on back there? We've got to call for help."

Only then would I notice the maroon shirt on my savior, the chunky class ring on his hand, the needlepoint hanging on the wall that reads "Gig 'Em." Cue manic sound of shrieking violins.

Of course this former Aggie -- there are no ex-Aggies -- would say "Howdy," invite me in for some iced tea and recommend the best barbecue nearby.

What do I mean by strange rituals? Well, no one is permitted to wear a hat in the student union, a building dedicated in honor of Aggies who died in service to their country. You may not walk on the grass near the building either.


Students are meant to say "Howdy" to one another, though frankly, the "Howdies" are rather thin on the ground. There is one place you can be assured of hearing one: When the elevator doors open in the lobby of Rudder Tower, home of the faculty club, a cheery recorded voice says "Howdy!"

You will see buzz-cut uniformed students in polished boots tucked into jodphurs. Spurs -- spurs! -- jingle as they walk. These are seniors in the Corps of Cadets, a quasi-military 1,700-member subset of the total student population. Most won't actually go into the military upon graduation, but they'll spend their college years living together in dormitories, drilling, taking classes on military subjects and saying "Yes sir" to anyone they talk to -- even journalists from liberal East Coast newspapers.

Being on the A&M campus occasionally feels like being on the set of "300." This is Sparta.

Which makes sense. It used to be that every student was in the Corps. They nearly all went into the military. Women weren't admitted to the university until the 1960s. The campus is in a relatively conservative part of a relatively conservative state. Most students, I'd wager, come from pretty religious -- mainly Christian -- families. It's a dream in many Texas homes that sons and daughters will attend A&M, just as parents and grandparents did.

Put all that into the crucible and you get an amalgam where ritual and traditions are important, especially on a relatively isolated campus whose founders (and even current leaders) arguably possess a bit of an inferiority complex. Many of Texas A&M's traditions revolve around not being the University of Texas in Austin.

Which brings us to Muster. It's an annual event that has no counterpart at any other university. It is a roll call of the dead, infused with military imagery -- the name itself means a gathering of soldiers -- but also mystical and quasi-religious.


Muster basically works like this: Whenever two or more Aggies are within 100 miles on April 21 they are supposed to get together and remember those graduates who died the previous year. And so yesterday they gathered -- in some 325 places around the world, we were told. It's like something from the Bible. Or like a Shirley Jackson short story, which is one thing that sprang into my mind as a huge crowd streamed toward Reed Arena.

Robert Gates was the Muster speaker. He was there not in his capacity as secretary of defense but as a former president of Texas A&M -- a much-loved and much-missed former president. He spoke of the sacrifice Aggies have made in our nation's wars. Twenty-two have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He read each name and the 12,000 of us in the stands responded "here."

Then the lights were cut and the arena was plunged into darkness, or as much darkness as you can have in the red glow of "Exit" lights. As the name of each freshly deceased Aggie was read -- starting with students yet to graduate and working back to a member of the Class of 1926 -- a candle was lit and friends of the late Aggie said "here."

A Corps of Cadets honor guard made a somber march into the arena then fired three volleys of seven shots -- a 21-gun salute -- before the band played "Taps." It was a "Taps" as I've never heard it: excruciatingly slow, fractured, split into a few measures with 20 seconds between them. If you don't feel your mortality at Muster, you never will.

And that must be part of this ritual's purpose. Muster celebrates the departed -- "our fallen Aggies" in the language of Muster -- but it's also a memento mori: You too will die and when you do, your name will be read here, a candle lit in your honor. Your essence will join the ether and become part of the great Aggie spirit. I don't see this catching on at George Mason or Frostburg State.

Some students and faculty, I'm sure, scratch their heads at all the hocus-pocus. And surely the challenge for A&M is to find the right balance of tradition and innovation. A stirring video shown to campus visitors says A&M is a place without room for cynicism, which is wonderfully refreshing, though a bit worrying to cynics.

Every family's traditions look alien to an outsider. But it's hard not to be impressed by the enthusiasm that exists on this campus. And I will say this: The Aggies put on a hell of a show.

By John Kelly  |  April 22, 2009; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Aggie Files  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: A Jogging Tour: The Aggie Files, Part 2
Next: Aggie Culpa: The Aggie Files, Part 4


Geez, and people wonder why no one reads newspapers anymore.

Posted by: goaway41 | April 22, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Not me. But I do sometimes wonder why people make snide references to newspapers in the comment section of a blog.

Kinda like complaining to a radio station about something you saw on TV, no?

Posted by: EinDC | April 22, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

"Put all that into the crucible and you get an amalgam where ritual and traditions are important, especially on a relatively isolated campus whose founders (and even current leaders) arguably possess a bit of an inferiority complex. Many of Texas A&M's traditions revolve around not being the University of Texas in Austin."

First off, I am not an Aggie, but a lot of my friends are, and my father was a three degree Aggie. I am a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, a tea sip from tu in Aggie parlance. The only thing that I had against A&M when I entered college in the fall of 1962 was that they didn't have any girls there, but that was enough. One thing I have never encountered is an Aggie with an inferiority complex. They have a pride and a bond that I have long envied. All Aggies are Aggie Buddies, and they all wear the Aggie ring to identify each other (as they pick their noses we tea sips say. Some of their traditions do relate to not being at UT, but the majority of them revolve around brotherhood, patriotism, and pride; and frankly I am a wee bit jealous of them.

Posted by: Gringo-Viejo | April 22, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

For EinDC:
Geez, and people wonder why no one reads content in its various formats that is spewed by the corrupt and dying legacy medium known as newspapers anymore.

Posted by: goaway41 | April 22, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse


I'm certainly glad you made it to Muster as I recommended. And I am pleased that you were impressed. And you are right about Dr. Gates, he is missed at A&M. During his confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense, he said that being President at A&M was the best job he ever had.


Posted by: billteer | April 22, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Aggie Muster is the toughest aggie event I attend...year in and year out. I guess I have a slight aversion to feeling my own mortality. I do believe however that it is the most important aggie event year in and year out. It is such a powerful and spiritually moving affair. It seems almost as if it belongs to a secret society, but anyone and everyone is invited. Thanks so much for sharing this!

Jeff '04

Posted by: jboz77 | April 22, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

I do have to challenge your presumption or shall we say, "error", that many of our fine Cadets do not go on to serve in the Military. While our friends over in Austin would like you to believe that many cadets do not serve in the Armed Forces, that idea is incorrect. Based upon the latest numbers, 44% of Jr. and Sr. Cadets are indeed contracted, which is up from low-to-mid 30% range that was witnessed in the mid '90s. The Corps of Cadets is 4-year ROTC program that encompasses a student's 4-year experience at Texas A&M, much like one would find at Virginia Tech, VMI or the Citadel. All freshman and Sophomore Cadets are classified as contracted ROTC students and are not allowed to opt out until after 2 years are completed. The Corps is working to continue to increase their numbers of contracted cadets, which hit an all-time low during the Clinton/Post Cold War years, but has been on the up-tick since 9-11-01. The Aggie Corps numbers between 1700-2000, depending on the time of the year. We Aggies, like many others, are a patriotic bunch and believe strongly in service to our country. Whether in terms of the volunteerism, the Armed Forces or in civil service, as exemplified by our Former University President and Secretary of Defense, we aspire to serve. While on campus, go visit our tribute to our Former Students who have won Congressional Medals of Honor. Go read of their heroism and sacrifices. Pay a visit to General J. Earl Rudder's statue. Read of his accomplishments. In concurrence with Gringo-Viejo, we are indeed proud of our University of who we are, as opposed to who we aren't. Our traditions are unique indeed, but that is what separates us from being a generic state university in Texas. While we like to mock our fellow Texans to the west, we are more proud of what is ours, not of what isn't ours. We love our traditions, camaraderie & brotherhood and will not change that. I suggest maybe that you should have spent more time chatting with our fine Cadets and our Non-Reg students to learn a little more about our University before you marginalize us with your patrician views. I find your photo essays to be pedestrian and full of sarcasm, reeking of piety towards us as the "great unwashed or hoi polloi". 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. Last I checked, our State is not experiencing the economic problems that your whole northeast region seems to be mired with. Maybe if you took another attitude towards those that do not subscribe to your condescension, your industry might be a bit more successful.

Posted by: f2foxes2001 | April 22, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

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. 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! I'd rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post.

Seriously, Texas A&M is a fine school and has a lot of good people but give it a rest.

Posted by: washwave | April 22, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, Texas A&M doesn't grind out clones; Kelley is a piece of evidence. On the other hand, he has become a University of Texas clone. His arguments are the very ones UT admirers make. I know, because I've been a Texas fan (especially a sports fan) for most of my 73 years (raised in Houston) on this blessed earth; and, to be sure, I've been ruffled by A&M devotees But, in fact, I've seen similar, snickering stuff from admirers of the University of Texas. Both sides are right—and wrong. I suspect Kelley is a liberal, or has become one. That explains everything, especially now that he's in that fabulous and tolerant Washington, D. C.

Posted by: dcglover | April 22, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

I don't know why there are so many vitriolic comments here on your articles which appear to me to both gently mock and sincerely appreciate life at Texas A&M. I guess that's one reason we Longhorns dismiss Aggies--they just take everything too seriously. Also, I think most Texans would appreciate the humor in the pictures you have taken because we realize that we are an odd, funny bunch of people.
I look forward to more of your musings from Bryan-College Station.
A Cynical Longhorn (and proud of it)

Posted by: Crescent1 | April 22, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Kelly says, "....sometimes feel moved to flee, to drive out of town...."

We have a saying that "Highway 6 runs both ways" i.e. - If you don't like it here, there is always a way out of town. What we do hate is someone coming in and complaining about the way we do things or trying to change A&M "for the better". If we wanted to go to a school like one from the Northeast, we'd have gone to tu.

Posted by: AGBEN35 | April 23, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

I found the general tone of your piece to be condescending with a large touch of smug superiority thrown in. The truest statement you made was to label yourself as a "cynic" which certainly appears to fit since synonyms for a cynic are "egotist" and "mocker".

Well sir, "washwave" was very eloquent in his response to your arrogance and I, like "AGBEN35" would remind you that Highway 6 runs both ways, so flee now before you discover that democracy is hard work done by selfless people. You will not be missed.

Why you believe that something that honors the sacrifices of others to guarantee the freedoms that you enjoy is the result of "hocus-pocus" and is a "hell of a show" put on by people with an "inferiority complex" is beyond amazing. That anyone would do something for reasons other than to entertain you must certainly be a foreign concept to you and the majority of your liberal government friends who warn us that our veterans are a "danger" to the government.

Smile your smug smile while you attempt to write clever put-downs on things that you even admit you can't understand; however, you should be smiling that you experienced something special that exists despite cynics like yourself.

Posted by: AggieSpirit70 | April 28, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kelly I have a suggestion for your next article. Why don't you go to Virginia Tech next year and write a similar article mocking the memorial they hold to honor those who died at their school. Talk about the great "show" they they put on for your entertainment. Review the hocus-pocus and strange rituals in your witty and jocular prose. I am sure they would be honored for you to find the humor in their southern Virginia life style and you can surely label them as inferior to UVA in your own special way. You won't even have to take an airplane trip since it is so close to the epicenter of all knowledge and perfection, Washington DC.

If that article doesn't work, you can always write about Columbine. Surely there is humor there for you to exploit. Try reading Darrell Scott's speech to the House Judiciary Committee as it is just packed with things to amuse cynics like you.

Posted by: AggieSpirit70 | April 28, 2009 6:48 PM | Report abuse

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