When geeks play with fire

I’ve been talking to my sons about college lately in hopes that planting the seed early will help them see college as just the next logical step after public school. They’ve known for some time that I went to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a very tough engineering school in Terre Haute. I’ve never worked as hard in my life as I did those four years, but I still managed to squeeze in some of the best fun I’ve ever had. Homecoming fell on a weekend the boys were with me this year, so I decided we’d drive out to campus and share some of the good times.

The best part of Rose’s homecoming is the annual bonfire, a tradition since the 1920s. This is no weenie-and-marshmallow roast. Every year, the freshman class builds a giant structure of railroad ties. Pollution-control ordinances limit the structure’s size, but those budding young engineers make the most of the space they get. Typically, the structure is 25 feet tall, not including the crowning outhouse that has been part of the tradition since the 1940s.

After a late pep rally, everybody made their way to a field on the campus’s eastern edge where the structure awaited. The area reeked of gasoline. Fortunately, we didn’t have to suffer the fumes too long before a flaming object arced in from nowhere – I learned later that it had been launched by trebuchet – and set the mass ablaze. My youngest son was so impressed that he pumped his fist, let out a whoop, and did a little victory dance. In almost no time, the structure was fully involved.

2009 Rose-Hulman bonfire

I haven’t been to a homecoming bonfire in a dozen or more years, but this one played out much the same as all the others I’ve seen. Everybody let out cheers and whoops and hollers when the timbers burst into flames. The fire spread quickly, warming the crowd. Soon everything was cast in yellow-orange light, and you could make out every face around you. And then, suddenly, it got very, very hot. The crowd backed away quickly, except for a few “brave” souls trying to tough it out. I would have liked to join them as I did in the old days, but my sons weren’t so hardy. We found a cooler spot near the back of the crowd, where I took this photo that shows how tall the flames were and how well they lit the scene.

2009 Rose-Hulman bonfire

The one difference since my last bonfire is the proliferation of digital cameras and the ease and speed with which photos and videos can be posted on the Internet. During my time at Rose, a handful of people always photographed the fire – but this night I swear every arm around me was stretched up with some sort of camera at the end of it. I wish I had photographed the sea of LCDs! And by the next morning, the first bonfire videos had already appeared on YouTube.

My sons talked excitedly about the fire about a third of the long drive home before they calmed down and dozed off. I decided that telling them about all the hard work could wait for another day.


5 responses to “When geeks play with fire”

  1. Michael Avatar

    I’d guess this year’s didn’t have explosions or bottle rockets shooting out over the crowd. Those were the days… hehehe. The trebuchet was a nice touch though.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Nope, it was just a fire. Do I remember right that the fires during our days there were bigger?

      1. Michael Avatar


  2. B.T. Avatar

    Nice posting and good photos. Thanks for sharing. Look me up next time you’re on campus.

    Bryan Taylor
    Communications & Marketing

    1. Jim Avatar

      Bryan, thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed this.

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