Ten years ago this morning, I woke up in a small house that I was renting over in the Timbergrove Manor part of town. I was a Baby Prosecutor of three months, assigned to the Justice of the Peace Division and I was due in Judge Patronella's court Downtown that morning. I got up, showered and got dressed with Good Morning America on the television set. I wasn't paying much attention to it until I saw that it was covering the Aggie Bonfire.
I'm from Bryan, Texas and I grew up in a house about a mile and a half from the polo fields at Texas A&M. I graduated from there in 1995. So, when I saw that a national TV show was covering my hometown, my initial reaction was "oh, cool". I figured they were just doing a profile on the traditions of college football and they were covering the A&M tradition.
It took me about ten seconds to realize that what they were covering was probably the worst tragedy that ever hit the community where I grew up. I stopped everything and sat down and watched the coverage in stunned silence.
Seeing something like that happen in the small town you grew up and have great affection for was heartbreaking. It was 2 years prior to the attacks of 9/11, and at the time, it seemed like the worst thing I had ever seen in my life.
I had to go to work, though. I didn't even have a cell phone back then, so during every break during Judge Patronella's docket, I would call home and get an update on what was happening. Every time I called, the death toll would have risen and it felt like a kick in the stomach.
When I had attended A&M, I was by all accounts what the Aggies call a "Two Percenter". I guess growing up in Bryan/College Station had caused some of the novelty of the Traditions there to lose their effect on me. I didn't go Midnight Yell. I didn't even go Bonfire, usually. I liked going to the football games, but for the most part, there was very a much a disconnect between me and my college experience.
But on that day I felt a deep connection through deep sadness.
In the days that would follow, I would go home to Bryan/College Station for Thanksgiving. I saw the logs of the fallen bonfire and I went to the candlelight vigil. I remember standing there when the crowd parted and then-Governor George W. Bush and his father walked out. He shook my hand and said "It's a sad day."
I heard my voice cracking as I said "Yes sir, it is."
I remember the A&M/U.T. game the next day. I've never been to a more emotional sporting event. The Longhorn players and their Student Body exhibited so much sympathy and class to the Aggies in the wake of the tragedy that I don't think the rivalry ever really recovered. It was just too difficult to get fired up with hatred towards a group of people that had been so kind during the darkest days.
I remember the Aggies won the game that day. I remember Ja'Mar Toombs scoring a touchdown and I remember the giant fullback weeping in the end zone.
I cried too.
So much has changed in my life and in the world over the past ten years. In some ways it is incomprehensible to think about how much is different from way back then. But even now, ten years later, it seems no less heartbreaking as it did right about this time that morning.
I don't know why exactly I felt the need to write this post, other than to tell that little old town where I grew up, and that big old university that I once attended that I'm thinking about them today.