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.
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