I want to tell you about a trip I made on Tuesday, March 3rd. It was Orange & Maroon Legislative Day in Austin. The two great flagship universities of Texas, University of Texas and Texas A&M University, have common interests and issues. By working together we believe we can accomplish what each could not alone. It was a wonderful day, but that is not the part of the trip I want to tell you about.On the first Tuesday of each month, a ceremony takes place in College Station if needed. Near Bastrop, just after sunrise Tuesday morning, my Blackberry vibrated telling me an e-mail was coming in. When I could safely read it, I found the e-mail from Texas A&M confirming that Silver Taps would take place that night. I knew this would be an emotional night because Silver Taps is the unique way the Aggie family pays final tribute to a currently enrolled student that we have lost.I haven’t attended Silver Taps since the late 70’s, so I turned my car toward College Station when I left Austin Tuesday evening. I arrived in College Station at 9:30 p.m., an hour before the ceremony.The Academic Building has a large copper dome atop its five stories.Academic Plaza, a large open area, sits west of the building. The lights across campus were dimmed. I found a place to stand at the edge of the Plaza near the flagpole. At the flagpole’s base was a simple white card with two names neatly typed. As I waited, a few people trickled in, then larger groups of students began to arrive at the Plaza. College students can be a rambunctious group but tonight they were silent.Periodically, a unit of the Corps of Cadets would march into the plaza.Spurred boots on the concrete and the fallen leaves from the majestic hundred-year-old Oaks blowing across the Plaza were the only sounds. At10:15 p.m. the carillon from the Albritton Bell Tower began to play. The clear, very cool night air allowed the bells to be heard across much of the 5000 acre main campus. And still the students came, in groups or singly, but the number in the Plaza grew. The huge Academic Building, completely darkened from the ground floor up five stories to the copper dome provided a stark but beautiful background.At 10:30, as the last strains of “How Great Thou Art” rang out from the bell tower, I noted that the Ross Volunteer Firing Squad, honor guard to the Texas Governor, had silently formed up just north of the Academic Plaza. In the light of the half moon they looked almost ghostly in their pure white uniforms. As they stepped off at a slow cadence, the only sound was their shoes echoing on the pavement. It took several minutes for them to reach the center of the Plaza, where now hundreds of students stood in silence.
Ever so slowly, one step at a time, with almost robotic precision, they turned and pierced the stillness of the night with three volleys of seven rifles – the flames from the shots visible in the darkness. And then silence again.
I stood amidst hundreds of people and the only sound was the leaves blowing across the ground. Then, from the north side of the dome of the Academic Building, muted trumpets penetrated the quiet with a mournful duet of Silver Taps. Tears welled in my eyes as they again played Taps from the South side of the dome. Finally, the third time from the West side. Silver Taps is not played to the east because the sun will never rise again on these Aggies.
Almost in unison, hundreds of students turned and silently walked away from Academic Plaza in every direction. Within moments, only the ghostly specter of the white-uniformed Ross Volunteers, still at attention, and a small group who seemed to be in silent prayer, were left in the Plaza. The Bell Tower chimed one note for a full five minutes. As the final toll of the bell faded, the Ross Volunteers turned and marched south in their same sad, slow cadence. As the echo of their steps faded, the Plaza was again dark and quiet. Another Silver Taps was over.
I’ve heard it said that the Aggie culture is one that from the outside you cannot understand and from the inside you can’t explain, but I’m not sure that is true. I didn’t know Troy Marschang, a Petroleum Engineering major or Elton Samir Vasquez, a Mechanical Engineering major. I suspect that very few of the hundreds gathered in the Plaza did either, but they were part of the Aggie family and we all felt the pain of their loss. That is why hundreds of us were standing there on a cold and windy night. A final tribute to fallen comrades. These two young men will be remembered again on April 21st at Muster. The roll call of the absent – every student and former student we have lost in the last year – will include their names.
For each of them, a friend will answer, “Here.”
Unfortunately, I can already tell you there will be a Silver Taps ceremony on the first Tuesday of April. A student was killed in a traffic accident just last weekend, but too late to be included in this ceremony. I didn’t know her either, but if I’m near College Station, I’ll be there.
If you want to hear “Silver Taps” click on this link: