On this Friday, neatly nestled between Veteran’s Day and the 20th Anniversary of Bonfire’s collapse, consider the two most prominent and purported memorials on campus: the Memorial Student Center and the Bonfire Memorial. If you winced while reading the word “purported” you probably know what you’re about to read. On some level, we’ve always known. We knew it before we became Aggies, when we took our first campus tours as high school seniors. The simple truth, available to all who have spared a passing thought to the matter, is this: The Bonfire Memorial — dedicated to “the collapse [which] claimed the lives of 12 Aggies and injured 27 others” — is a proper memorial, one which demands reverence and a certain comportment when in its presence. The MSC — dedicated “to all of the Aggies that have lost their lives in wars past, present, or future” — is a shopping mall with a memorial tucked away in the back corner.
Sure, we remove our hats when we enter the building; never have any of us dared to step on that grass. And yes, technically — but only technically — are the nine memorials honoring the Aggies who received the Medal of Honor at the front of the building. But let’s speak plainly here: No one enters through the front entrance. Those memorials might as well be at the rear, shuttered away where no one can see them. Even the MSC’s webpage has as its banner a picture of the building’s backside. (If you’re still unconvinced, consider the fact that I lied earlier — there are eight memorials — and I’m relatively certain no one caught the error.)
Perhaps nothing better signifies what the MSC is than an article that ran in this paper one month ago about students going barefoot on its grounds. Imagine such a back-and-forth about the appropriateness of walking in one’s socks down Bonfire’s 540-foot History Walk, a timeline meant to visualize the 90 years of Bonfire before its collapse. Contemplate the affront to propriety it would be to walk barefoot through one of Bonfire Memorial’s 12 portals — each facing its respective student’s hometown, each with a copper arch falling short of a stone arch, meant to signify the potential that they will never reach.
Instinctively, you feel the difference.
Some debates stir the passions. Others debase you to engage in them. The former is the debate about socks in the MSC. The latter, at this moment still hypothetical, is the debate about going barefoot to Bonfire Memorial. Merely entertaining the idea feels sacrilegious.
Maybe that’s why Bonfire has a new documentary coming out this week and the MSC has a cameo in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” (Before anyone writes me a letter, it is not my intention to slur the sainted Dolly Parton. I like the film. But like most, I appreciate the work in part for its dearth of solemnity.)
And on the topic of the film’s subject matter, meditate on these two questions, both somewhat salacious yet each posed seriously. (1) What is the likelihood that over the past month, a pair of students has copulated in the Memorial Student Center? No reasonable person, upon honest reflection, can sensibly put the odds below 50 percent. Doing so would be obtuse. You would be laughed off of campus. (2) Arguably the more important question: What about the MSC’s architecture — the office spaces, the food courts, the hidden rooms — in any way suggests that it is something more, that defiling it would be more inappropriate than, say, defiling Blocker or Langford or The Academic Building? The answer, of course, is nothing.
Is that uncouth? Sure. Undignified? Absolutely. Unbecoming? No doubt. Surprising? Please. That’s the problem with the MSC — it’s the problem with the entire concept of “a living memorial.” Living memorials are exercises in self-contradiction, monuments serving antinomic masters. One feels a pang of sympathy for the MSC’s architects: Life frequently gets in the way of respectability. The Flag Room can’t simultaneously be “the living room of A&M” — as the university itself refers to the space on its website — and a central hub in a memorial. A living room suggests potato chips and beer and Netflix. Above all else, it suggests comfort. Memorials shouldn’t be comfortable.
If the Memorial Student Center is to be what the first word in its name suggests, the memorials themselves can’t be shoved in what is effectively its back corner. They should be placed at the primary points of ingress and egress. Additionally, there should just be more. Plain and simple. What we intend to memorialize should be dispersed throughout, unavoidable. One should be able to explore the building’s myriad floors and discover something new every time. Fifty-five Aggies died in World War I. Start there. Give them something a little more educational than the 55 trees surrounding Simpson Drill Field. It would be an imperfect yet sensible compromise between our twin impulses.
If we aren’t going to invest the time, money or effort in changing the culture, so be it. Aggies can live with that. Aggies are living with that. But if that’s the decision to which we are committed, spare us the self-serving sermons about the MSC’s supposed sacredness. We must pick a gear and stay in it. Because when visitors walk through without shoes, loudly cursing, never pausing to hazard a glance at those eight memorials, one can’t help but to feel that aggressively telling someone to “Take off your hat!” or “Get off the grass!” just seems trivial.