Hayes Ring Plaza

Checking Out Texas A&M University

To close out winter break and start off 2019, I visited College Station to explore one of the largest universities in the nation – Texas A&M. Having been to many of the institutions of higher education that make up our state, I wanted to see what comprised Aggieland, as well as to cross Brazos County off the list of counties yet to be visited.

With a student body of over 68,000, the College Station campus is A&M’s flagship school in their system, which is made up of 11 different campuses. Texas A&M was established in 1871 as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, under the Morrill Act. 148 years later, this school is stronger than ever, with some $9.8 billion in endowments and 4,900 staff on the payroll. Additionally, A&M is also one of the largest college campuses in the nation, at over 5,000 acres.

Upon arriving, I parked at the Cain Garage, located directly across from Kyle Field. Since it was the weekend, there weren’t many cars there, so spaces were plentiful on the first floor right by the entrance. Parking fees were still being collected, although it only amounted to $4 for the hour or so I spent here. The car now in a place where it wouldn’t be towed, I was ready to start seeing TAMU.

cain garage at Texas A&M
The Cain Garage.

My first stop along my walking tour was Kyle Field, the school’s ginormous football stadium. To give you an idea of what “ginormous” means in this context, Kyle Field is the fourth-largest stadium in the nation!

All around the stadium, the saying “Home of the 12th Man” can be seen. This term dates back to 1922 when an Aggie by the name of E. King Gill suited up to help his team, who had sustained multiple injuries in a grueling game against Kentucky’s Centre College. Although he never ended up entering the field, the “12th Man” is representative of the A&M student body, who are willing to serve when duty calls. Duty and loyalty are common themes here, as I would see all throughout my visit.

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One of the entrances into Kyle Field. Several statues are displayed around the stadium.

Past the stadium, around a five-minute walk away, was the Haynes Ring Plaza, home of a giant 12-foot replica of the iconic A&M class ring!

Hayes Ring Plaza

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For students, “Aggie Ring Day” is one of the most notable events that they will attend during their time here, as it symbolizes the completion of a specific set of academic requirements, and induction into an exclusive network of fellow Aggies. Ring Day takes place at the Clayton W. Williams, Jr. Alumni Center, located right next to the replica ring. Alongside the walkway, various Aggie quotes of respect, loyalty, and honor are displayed.

Haynes Ring Plaza

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After getting my photo taken underneath one of the most unique outdoor artifacts I’ve seen at a university, I began checking out the various buildings that make up Aggieland. Rudder Tower, named after former university president James Earl Rudder, was one of my first stops.

Rudder Tower at Texas A&M
Rudder Tower.

On the first floor is the Aggieland Visitor Center, where you can get maps, brochures, or go on tours of campus. A backdrop of the A&M school logo off to the side provided for a good photo op.

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If you are looking for a place to dine and get some good views of campus, the University Club, located on the 11th floor might just be your ideal spot. It was closed when I visited, however, according to their website they serve a buffet Monday thru Friday. It looks like a great spot to break for lunch during a weekday visit!

Heading further into the center of the school, I found myself on the Military Walk, one of the main walkways of A&M. Rooted in tradition, this was the spot where for years, the students making up the Corps of Cadets gathered daily. Many of these Aggies went on to become leaders in their respective fields.

Military Walk at Texas A&M
Military Walk.

Descriptions of the various notable points of the school’s history were displayed on both sides of the walkway. These signs provided me with a good introduction and understanding of the history I was surrounded by.

Military Walk at Texas A&M

Continuing along, I decided to go check out a building that I had seen while driving in – this tall building with an airport control tower “cab” look to it at the top. After walking for around ten minutes, I finally got to it. This structure was none other than the Eller Oceanography & Meteorology Building, the tallest building on campus.

Eller Oceanography & Meteorology Building
The Eller Oceanography & Meteorology Building.

Although it was closed for Winter Break, this 15-story building sure has an interesting design! Upon doing some Googling back home, I discovered that a Doppler radar unit is mounted on the roof. With all those panoramic windows, it would sure be nice to see the view from the 15th floor. Speaking of architecture, that is one area A&M is lacking in. Most of the buildings can be described as being pretty bureaucratic and plain. Several pieces of public art lined the courtyards and walkways, but it wasn’t anything super special by any means.

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The next stop was to the Sterling C. Evans Library, one of five libraries on campus.

Sterling C. Evans library
The Sterling C. Evans Library.

Inside, rows and rows of books lined the six different floors. If you want a good view of campus, head up to the sixth-floor graduate study lounge. Everything here was open to the public, so visitors can waltz right on in to see the landscape of A&M.

Sterling C. Evans library

 

On the first floor, there was a sizeable computer/study area, which works well for research or group collaboration.

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Heading out, I came across a replica of A&M’s mascot, Reveille the Dog on the first floor by the circulation desk. Reveille has served as the school mascot since the 30s, and there have been nine lucky dogs that have held this title. The Reveilles that have passed away have their own cemetery close to Kyle Field, complete with a mini-scoreboard so they can see the 12th Man outscore the visiting team!

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Reveille the Dog greets all who visit the library.

My last stop on my way back to the car was at the Memorial Student Center, A&M’s student union.

Memorial Student Center
The Memorial Student Center.

Located close to the Cain Garage and Kyle Field, this student union was one of the newer buildings on campus. Inside, you can find everything from the bookstore to different spots to hang out. Many of the facilities inside are named after the values and traditions of the university, such as Respect Lounge and 12th Man Hall. In fact, this whole building is considered a living memorial to those Aggies that gave their lives defending our nation. To that end, signs on the doors instruct visitors to remove their hats upon entering as a sign of respect.

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The main lobby of the Memorial Student Center. Banners overhead display the core values of the university.
Memorial Student Center
The Barnes and Noble bookstore inside the MSC.

One unique spot in the MSC is The Flag Room. Nicknamed the “living room” of A&M, it contains sofas, tables, and even a grand piano! This spot is great for Aggies and visitors alike to sit down, hang out, and take in the culture of the university.

Memorial Student Union Flag Room
The Flag Room is one great place to take a break and experience some of A&M’s history.

As the name suggests, the room contains various flags used in the history of the university, including many of those belonging to the Corps of Cadets. Other A&M memorabilia was displayed, making it an interesting location to congregate and learn about the history of the school!

Memorial Student Center Flag Room
Some of the many flags displayed in the Flag Room.

In conclusion, this was one nice first visit to see one of Texas’ most well-known schools, and one that has so many different customs and traditions. This campus is simply humongous, and could easily take half a day or more to see everything. With that in mind, a second trip is already in the works for when the government reopens, to visit the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, located on the edge of campus! A lunch stop at the University Club would also be included in the itinerary.

Texas A&M water tower
This water tower reminds you that you are in Aggieland!

 

 

downtown of West, Texas

The Tiny Texas Town Shook by a Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Five Years Later

April 17th, 2013 began just like any other day in the tiny town of West, located just north of Waco. In this tight-knit community of under 3000, the adults went to work, kids went to school, and it was life as usual in a small Texas town.

West, Texas welcome sign

However, before the day ended, life as residents knew it would drastically change. At 7:50PM, the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded after a whole stock of ammonium nitrate caught on fire. Two schools, a nursing home, and numerous neighborhoods nearby sustained extensive damage. With 15 people killed and another 200 injured, the West tragedy was one of the worst industrial accidents in Texas history.

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An aerial view of the explosion site a few days after the event. (Photo by Shane.torgerson / CC BY-SA 3.0)
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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a memorial service for the victims of the fertilizer plant explosion at Baylor University in Waco on April 25, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

After an extensive investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms concluded that the incident had been an act of arson. To this day, there have been no strong leads. But whatever happened to this tiny community, stricken with grief and overwhelmed by loss? I wanted to find out, so I paid a visit to West over Labor Day weekend to see how much recovery had been done in the five years following the disaster.

downtown of West, Texas
Downtown West.

Once inside the city limits, it was only a few minutes before I reached the former plant site, where the explosion originated. What was an area flooded with first responders and later investigative personnel now sat there as a vacant lot.

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The former grounds of the West Fertilizer Company.

Talking with West Mayor Tommy Muska, he spoke very highly of the immediate recovery effort. “After the explosions, over 140 charitable organizations from all over the country came to lend a hand. From the Salvation Army to various churches, it was truly a faith-based recovery process.”

Not far away from the explosion site was the new combined middle and high school. Before the explosion, they were two separate campuses, with the middle school located right behind the plant and the high school just down the road. Both buildings suffered severe damage, and were rebuilt as one facility on the site of the high school. Classes were held at a temporary location until the new campus opened in 2016.

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The new West Middle/High School, opened in 2016.

The new school looked very nice, and was a gleaming example to the world that West would only let a tragedy like this make them stronger. Another sign of this town’s comeback were the many new homes seen in the neighborhoods lining the plant. Many of them were damaged beyond repair, and had to be razed. The new homes taking their place looked nice, and had I not known they were in West, I’d have thought this was a new development in Frisco or something!

west, texas new homes

west, texas new homes

Although recovery has come a long way, reminders of that tragic day can still be found. Just down the road from the plant site, I saw this now-abandoned duplex. Damaged in the explosion, the brick held but the windows and doors didn’t make it.

West, Texas abandoned duplex

Beyond physical damage, Mayor Muska said that post-traumatic stress disorder is still an issue for many residents. The community has stepped in to help heal emotional wounds as well, with Baylor University providing counseling services and other guidance to residents.

Another reminder of this incident came in the form of something much more positive – a park containing a memorial, commemorating the lives lost and providing a peaceful place for all. Mayor Muska said the memorial is expected to be dedicated next year, on the anniversary of the explosion.

West, TX memorial park
This park and memorial, located just behind the plant, will remember those killed in the explosion.

As I left West, I could feel the spirit of the community, and how strong they were to pull through this disaster and prevail. Despite all that happened, Mayor Muska said that today the local economy was healthy, and that the residents are very blessed. I could feel the same resolve while visiting Joplin, Missouri as well, the site of an EF5 tornado in 2011. As Americans, we may not agree on everything, but at the end of the day, everyone coming together to overcome tragedy is what makes our country so great.

West, TX Water Tower

One Hour in Brownwood: Home of the Yellowjackets

Brownwood and Brown County: a place in Texas that most people haven’t even heard of, let alone know its location. As one of the nineteen counties in the west-central region of the state, I made the trip there last Saturday to see some of the local sights, as well as to cross one more county off the map! I first heard about here while researching possible destinations to fly to. Having checked out many of the neighboring cities and counties, such as Eastland and Comanche, seeing Brownwood on the map made me curious to know what they had out there.

Located about 160 miles to the southwest of Dallas, Brownwood is a surprisingly big city relative to the other cities in the area. The county seat of Brown County, it boasts a population of over 19,000 people. The city was originally located east of its present position, however various disputes forced its inhabitants to uproot and find a new location to call home. That’s when a man named Greenleaf Fisk stepped in, and in 1884 donated 60 acres in the spot where Brownwood stands today. During World War II, the city saw a lot of activity, as one of the U.S. Army training camps(Camp Bowie) was located here. Over 80,000 soldiers passed thru here, in one of the largest training camps of its time in Texas.

Departing early in the morning, my friend Tom and I landed at the Brownwood Regional Airport after about one hour in the air. Upon securing the airplane, we signed the paperwork for the airport courtesy car, and off we went into town. One wrench that got thrown in our plans when I called the airport the day before: They wanted their car back in an hour, so we knew we could not take too long at any one place.

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The plane at the Brownwood Regional Airport. 

The first place we decided to go see was Howard Payne University, a private four-year Baptist university. Founded in 1889, it has a student population of only 1200. It was named after Edward Howard Payne, who’s brother-in-law donated the initial sum of money to get the university started. As part of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, this school offers numerous degrees in their Christian Studies department, such as Biblical Languages and Practical Theology. For those desiring a non-theological degree, HPU has degrees in many other fields, from Business to Theatre.

After close to 10 minutes of driving, we arrived at Howard Payne. We first drove around campus, getting a global view of the school and determining where we were going to park. We decided to park by the library, and explore the school on foot. Since we were so close to the library, that was the first building we looked at.

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The library of Howard Payne University, home of the yellowjackets!

It was closed that day, but looking in, it had to be one of the smallest college libraries I have seen to date. It had a coffee bar, copier, and a sofa in its lobby. The atmosphere looked relaxing and peaceful.

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That library sure is small. I would have loved to go in and see the extent of their collections. 

From there, we walked into the heart of the school. There weren’t any students to be seen that day – however, we did come across a few people heading to the chapel.

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Architecturally speaking, the buildings at this school were pretty grand. It kind of reminded me of the buildings at Ole Miss.

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I liked the architecture of their buildings. 

We then came upon their bell tower. This landmark had a very welcoming feeling to it, and marked the center of the campus pretty well. Stone benches made it a great place to relax and enjoy nature, or even catch a brief nap (just not in this 100-degree weather).

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While standing in the bell tower, I saw a commemoration piece on the floor referencing their old main building, with the end year being 1984. Upon doing some research, I discovered that it burned to the ground during finals week of that year.

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As I walked around the bell tower area, I came upon something super interesting. There were golf mats all around the surrounding lawn, complete with instructions and all!

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At first, I was like..” what is this?”

I initially thought this was just something set up by the school for the students to do in their off time, and I later found out I wasn’t too far off. One of my Facebook friends, Melissa, who is an alumna of Howard Payne, gave me the story behind it. This activity was none other than Jacket Golf, named after the school’s mascot – the yellowjackets.

Since there wasn’t much of anything to do in Brownwood in terms of recreation outside of school sporting events, the students themselves decided to create an activity that could be done on campus. An unofficial game of golf was developed- with the campus serving as the course. As a student, memory would tell you where to stand and the point to aim for. If you didn’t remember, surely one of your friends did. As folks graduated and moved on, word-of-mouth kept the game alive over the years. At last, the school decided to make this tradition official. Mats were set up, with instructions telling people where to stand and the direction to aim at!

The sign below read: Hole 2 – “My All” Marker. “Start at Old Main Tower and aim for “My All” marker. ”

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This was for sure one of the most unique outdoor features I have seen to date on a college campus. Jacket Golf is such a part of Howard Payne tradition, that Melissa jokingly said that one hasn’t gotten the true experience of HPU if they haven’t partaken in a game!

After a few more minutes of standing there trying to figure out where the “My All” marker was, Tom and I decided it was time to head off to our next and last stop – downtown. On the short drive there, we passed by a mid-sized indoor stadium. We decided to briefly drive around to see it more. It was none other than the Brownwood Coliseum. A 4,000 seat indoor stadium, it is used by the Howard Payne basketball and volleyball teams.

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The Brownwood Coliseum.

Upon entering downtown, we first drove around to see what was worth getting out of our air-conditioned car for. The downtown area of Brownwood was larger than I originally thought. In fact, the whole city was larger and busier than I anticipated. I didn’t look at the population when planning this trip, and thus thought it would be on the same scale as Comanche or Marlin, which are both also county seats. Barely any businesses were open, much like I expected. Unfortunately, the downtown areas of many of these places just aren’t as vibrant as they were back in the day.

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The Brown County Museum of History, located on the edge of downtown. We would have gone if we had more time. 

We came across this abandoned, fairly big 12 story building, which caught my attention.  It looked like a hotel at one point.

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It would be awesome if I could get permission from the owners to explore this building! 

We parked and walked around this structure. I could tell that there used to be shops on the first floor. Looking up, there were tons of windows open, exposing whatever was inside to the elements. As usual, I wanted to know what purpose the building served back in its heyday. After some research, I found out it indeed was a hotel – the Hotel Brownwood. Opening in 1930, it was very profitable and the destination to go to when in town. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, as business began to decline in the 60s. Eventually, the hotel was converted to dormitories for Howard Payne students, and served in that role for just under twenty years. After that, it has sat vacant to this day.

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Everything was boarded up. 

By this point, it was time to get going so that we would stay on schedule. After making a stop for lunch at Sonic, it was back to the airport. Upon returning our crew car, we checked out a static display of two fighter jets – an F-111 and F-4, sitting outside the terminal!

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A pretty cool display to welcome you to the airport. 

Both supersonic aircraft, these fighters served in combat, including the Vietnam War. The F-111 featured variable sweep wings and terrain-following radar, which allowed this monster to fly super close to the ground in order to avoid detection by enemy radar. The F-4 was equipped to carry a variety of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles, and different bombs. These planes were here as part of a memorial to an Air Force Colonel that damaged an impressive number of Axis aircraft during World War II.

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The (empty) engine pod on the F-111.

Heading back to the terminal, I got the fuel tab paid, and also looked around. It was well-equipped, with a flight planning room, restrooms, and sofas to relax.

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The waiting area of the main terminal. Perfect for cooling off before departing!

Before leaving, we also went inside the main hangar on the field, which was pretty big considering the size of the city. According to the airport attendant, it was built in the 40s.

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A very sizeable hangar.
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Look at that warning sign telling you to be careful and not hit your fingers, located on the hangar doors.  It just smells like vintage. 

Inside, I got to see a FedEx Feeder Cessna Caravan. Flown by another air cargo company under a contract with FedEx, this plane is used to deliver packages to small towns around the area. UPS also services this airport, although their plane had already left.

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Ever wonder how overnight packages make it to small towns like these? There’s your answer. 

With all that we saw on this successful trip, we were ready for the flight back. After getting the pre-flight inspection done, we flew back home. With a tail-wind, we made good time and landed in just under an hour. This had been a pretty fun excursion, and now Brown County was officially crossed off the list of Texas counties still yet to be seen. On all of my trips, I try to find at least one thing unique to the place I’m visiting – Jacket Golf at Howard Payne got that box checked off this time around!