‘19s Keep the Old Traditions Alive

The annual bonfire roars as '19s dare the deed for our Old Mother

The annual bonfire roars as ’19s dare the deed for our Old Mother

Dartmouth’s Homecoming Bonfire dates to the turn of the twentieth century, when a bonfire celebration after a major baseball win morphed (after a few years) into a Homecoming tradition that brings alums from all over the world back to our college. Every year, in one of the College’s most cherished traditions, the freshman class runs around flames topped with a woodcarving advertising their graduation year, welcoming them to the Dartmouth community. For all freshmen, the festivities and camaraderie are surreal and intoxicating.

Homecoming is also the occasion of one of the most important traditions at Dartmouth: freshmen touching the fire. As the upperclassmen yell at the newest additions to the Dartmouth family, each freshman contemplates whether he or she should break the mold and touch the flames, risking retaliation from Hanover’s finest. Any class in which nobody touches the fire is objectively the worst class ever. None of the ‘12s did it.

The same cannot be said of the Class of 2019. This year twelve brave ‘19s touched the fire. Three were arrested. Defying the administration and proving they would do their part to uphold the old traditions, these ‘19s merit our admiration and respect. I interviewed some of them, and their tales deserve to be retold. Two of them are related below. For their safety and to ensure they will be out of the way of disciplinary action, they will be given pseudonyms. We can only hope their stories will inspire future freshman classes to follow suit.

Our first story comes from “Ronald.” In the days leading up to Homecoming weekend, he was interested in touching the fire, but “not a fan of the consequences,” which some upperclassmen had warned him about. Before the parade, a close friend of his had told him, “If anyone is going to do it, you should probably do it.” Nevertheless, Ronald began running his laps Friday night without any intention of touching the fire.

But Dartmouth’s Homecoming spirit can intoxicate even the most uncompromising abstainer. Thoughts of the glories of Homecomings past began to pulsate through his spinning head. “As soon as I saw the flames go up, I knew it’s now or never. I thought, ‘I have to do this for myself and for Dartmouth.’ There were at least a hundred years of traditions that led to me being there.” As the fire grew even higher and hotter, feelings of pride for Dear Old Dartmouth empowered him to make a move. “Strength comes to you when you see a small barrier and a forty foot inferno. I was also hammered, and that definitely aided in my decision making.”

Before he had ducked even halfway under the barrier, a policeman spotted him. When a second H-Po officer turned to look at him, Ronald made a break for it. He planned to run straight through the center of the green, touching the flames before slightly changing direction, so as not to loose momentum. The crowd erupted in boisterous acclamation, while H-Po officers shouted, “Runner!” He was unfazed by law enforcement. “As I was running, I really didn’t think failure was a possibility.” The experience was surreal and Ronald remembered it vividly. “It represents way more than touching the fire. Its all the tradition of Homecoming culminating in a single touch.”

But it was short lived. Ronald hectically sprinted out of the center, with two officers closing in on him from either side. “There was a ridiculous amount of adrenaline going through my body.” As the officers got within arm’s length, Ronald dove headfirst between them and slid under the barrier separating the runners from the flames. He fell into the embrace of his fellow classmates who simultaneously picked him up and formed a barrier between him and Hanover Police. They shielded him from H-Po’s sight just long enough for Ronald to stand up and run. The frustrated officers had no chance of finding him among the stampede of freshman. Ronald had triumphed.

He wasn’t content to stop there. Despite the advice of many upperclassmen who told him to lay low, Ronald finished his nineteen laps. “I was so happy afterwards. It was something I will never forget.” He ran the rest of them surrounded by cheering ‘19s in the first lane, closest to the fire, victoriously screaming “I touched the f***ing fire!”

Other ‘19s were inspired to imitate Ronald’s bravery. When they crowded around him, many asked for advice on how to touch the fire without getting caught. The ones who followed his guidance were successful. It was a glorious evening, and the pride will last for years to come. As he related to me a few days later, “Next year, when I’m standing outside the circle, I can say ‘touch the fire’ and know that it can be done.”

Ronald wasn’t alone. Another freshman who didn’t talk with him, but who still successfully touched the flames, was “Reagan.” Before the festivities began, Reagan thought a lot about touching the fire. His friends encouraged him to do it “because of my personality,” but he didn’t think the consequences were worth the risk. Coming from a strict family, he thought that if his parents found out, “They would kick my ass and drive home without saying they love me.” When he did alert them afterwards that he might be facing disciplinary actions, his father was “pretty hyped up in a good way,” his mother only worried about any burn he might have sustained. Not knowing ahead of time how his parents would react, he firmly told himself he wouldn’t do it in the week before Homecoming.

But when Friday rolled around, he had different ideas. His trip leader had touched the fire without getting caught, emboldening Reagan to try it. He even felt a duty to go above and beyond the normal freshman calling. His plan was to touch the bonfire, then sprint nonstop to the Connecticut River, where he would strip down and make the swim to Vermont, returning naked via the Ledyard Bridge. “It is about the traditions. How many kids get to go to Dartmouth? And of those, how many actually touch the fire? I want to be one of them.” Such fidelity to our beloved college should make us all proud.

Come Friday night, he was mentally prepared, and the energy of the Homecoming revelries only fueled him more. As he was doing his laps with his classmates, he saw a ‘19 from across the circle running towards the fire, then two more. Reagan made a break for it, and got a “solid fist to the fire,” sustaining a burn in the process. H-Po wasn’t as impressed as the lively crowd. On his way out, an officer began sprinting at him, hoping to tackle Reagan from the side. When the officer reached out his arm, Reagan juked him out, jumped as high as he could, and was slapped in the stomach by the officer who failed to get a solid grasp. He sprinted out, through the throng of ‘19s welcoming him, past the cheering upperclassmen, away from the green and towards the river.

Exhausted, he stopped at a fraternity to catch his breath where two brothers congratulated him by offering him a beer and allowing him to hide outside the house (they would have welcomed him inside, but for MDF regulations). When his panting subsided, Reagan waited, knowing that H-Po would likely soon begin its witch hunt to punish the perpetrators. However, he couldn’t stay away for too long, and soon returned back to his classmates, leaving the Ledyard Challenge for another night.

While his writing prof was to later call him an idiot for his audacity, Reagan was heartily welcomed among his fellow ‘19s. He was legendary, a hero, a true Man of Dartmouth. The women agreed. “I did pretty well that night, if you know what I mean,” he told me with a smirk. As it turns out, Reagan’s Trip leader is not his only friend who has touched the fire. Many of his friends in his class did as well. In fact, as he proudly related: “I’m starting a band, and four out of the five members touched the fire. The other one was way too drunk to do it. It was probably a good call that he didn’t.”

Any true Man or Woman of Dartmouth cannot help but be inspired by stories like these. The bravery demonstrated by students who have experienced Dartmouth only for a mere six weeks is staggering. The spirit of Dartmouth is thriving, and if succeeding classes are anything like the ‘19s, the Old Traditions will never die.