OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
MASTER OF STUDENT HOUSES: SOME OF THE FUN
``A councillor ought not to sleep the whole night through,
a man to whom the populace is entrusted and who has many responsibilities.''
from ``The Iliad'' by Homer.
In stark contrast to the sometimes intractable and always troubling issues detailed in the preceding chapter, it was also my unofficial responsiblitity to discretely oversee some of the high-spirited fun that our students indulged in, to try to mitigate the worst excesses and the more severe consequences. The most public of these student activities were the often-ingenious pranks that our students loved to perpetrate. Most of these have been documented in alumni publications so I shall confine my account to a few of those classic pranks in which I played a background role. Indeed the period, 1983 to 1987, during which I was the Master of Student Houses is often recalled as a classic era for Caltech student pranks, coming as it did just before serious security issues raised the danger for students to an extreme level. I will recount my role not only in several of the all-time classic pranks but also in several of those that failed.
* * *
On New Year's Day, 1984, I had been Master for just over four months when the students pulled off one of the all-time classic stunts at the annual Rose Bowl football game. In its achievement it may even have surpassed the card stunt of the 1961 Rose Bowl. For those unfamiliar with the history of these stunts I should mention that they have become part of the enduring folklore of Caltech. Each generation of students feels challenged to leave a Rose Bowl legacy which will rank with that of its predecessors. When alumni meet these legacies are spoken of with mischevious pride. Indeed the most popular publication ever produced by the alumni office, ``Legends of Caltech'', recounts student pranks of all kinds - but, in particular, features the challenge presented by the Rose Bowl. Alumni, faculty and students at Caltech enjoy regaling new students, parents and visitors with the stories of pranks. Hence the tradition has substantial momentum. Indeed during his address at the 1982 Commencement ceremony, President Murph Goldberger, much to his later embarrassment, decried the absence of a good Rose Bowl stunt in the preceding few years. Murph's later regret was understandable but in his defence I doubt that his statement had much effect. Fuelled by years of tradition, plans were already being formulated.
It is appropriate to ask why the Rose Bowl became the focus of such a tradition. The obvious answer is that it is far-and-away the biggest day in Pasadena each year. The Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl game which follows are known and televised throughout the nation. A stunt at the Bowl Game means instant attention by the national media - and national recognition of the uniqueness of Caltech students. But in addition to this, the confrontation between the students and the Tournament of Roses officials has all the classic elements of a confrontation between the young and what is perceived as an unneccessarily stuffy tradition. During past incidents the Tournament officials had displayed a lack of humor, an unbending resistance to any impromptu deviation from their clockwork organization. No doubt, this stuffiness supplements the determination of the students and adds spice to the challenge.
The idea of gaining control of all or part of the electronic Rose Bowl scoreboard during the New Year's Day game seemed to have been tossed around for many years. Indeed there may have been one or two earlier attempts which were aborted. What is clear is that during 1982 and 1983 serious efforts were underway. The basic idea was to take over control of the Rose Bowl Scoreboard during the game in order to illicitly supplement the day's entertainment with some of Caltech origin. Though others were involved to various degrees during its planning and implementation, there seems little doubt that the major instigator - Caltech's own Mr. ``Mission Impossible'' - was Dan Kegel, in 1983/84 a junior in Blacker House. There he had learnt the intricacies of opening locked doors and so supplemented his formal studies in electrical engineering and computer science. One other important skill, rock-climbing, he polished with the Caltech Rock-climbing Club, an always popular activity at the Institute. Kegel and his friends faced a number of challenges. First there was the device, the computer, which would take over from the Rose Bowl computer once the latter was disconnected. Though not trivial, the hardware neccessary for this was readily available. A small microcomputer was selected and a transmitter/receiver system was integrated with the computer so that the latter, once installed in the Rose Bowl, could be radio-controlled from a neighbouring hillside. This would allow the operators sitting on the hillside during the game to change the scoreboard in whatever way they wished. All this is now part of the familiar legend. What is not so well-known is that a tape recorder was also part of the computer package. This was rigged so that, on command from the operators, the computer would connect the tape recorder to the public address system and broadcast the contents of the tape to the assembled 100,000 people.
But this hardware represented only a small part of the challenge. In addition they had to program and install the computer. This required finding not only the physical location of the Rose Bowl computer and the wires to the scoreboard but also the details of the language used to control the scoreboard. The latter was neccessary in order to program the illicit, replacement computer. Thus the first field operations at the Rose Bowl itself were carried out in order to try to extract this information. One of the earliest of these expeditions, which were all executed under the cover of darkness, soon confirmed the obvious, namely that the Rose Bowl computer was located in the press-box high up on the rim of that huge bowl. Whether Kegel and his friends used their rock-climbing skills to reach the press box I am not quite sure. In any case it was neccessary to get through at least one locked door in order to gain entrance to the interior of the press box. And for this purpose the expedition used a common student device called a ``frosh door opener''. This is used to get into a room when it is locked from the inside. It consists of some fairly rigid wires and a strap. The device is slipped through the gap beneath the door and, by rotation, the wires are used to place the strap over the door handle. The operator then pulls on the straps from outside in order to first grasp the handle and then to turn it. Such a device was used to enter the press-box. Once this was accomplished, the expedition quickly found the computer and began a search for documents detailing the language it used to communicate with the scoreboard. Fortunately they easily located the necessary manuals in an unlocked cabinet. I believe that several sorties were neccesary to consult these manuals. On one occasion a manual was overlooked and left lying on a desk. Fortunately this did not arouse the suspicions of the normal operators.
Finally the construction and programming of the device was completed and plans for its installation had to be made. Kegel had located a junction box through which the wires from the Rose Bowl computer ran to the scoreboard. It was directly under the press-box and could only be reached using his rock-climbing tackle. One of my enduring visions of the whole incident is the picture of Kegel hanging under the press-box while installing the illicit computer. I understand that at least one diversion was organized during this critical phase of the operation. The concept was that should the presence of night-time intruders be detected then attention would be deflected by the diversion. It was to this end that at least a dozen students were recruited to enter the Rose Bowl at night in order to play a game of touch-football on that storied field in total darkness. Fortunately this strange game was never discovered, its purpose never put to the test. I suspect that if it had, the device would have worked since the Pasadena Police are accustomed to odd behaviour on the part of our students.
In the post-mortem after the prank, it was alleged by the Rose Bowl authorities that the students had damaged the Rose Bowl computer. They then decided to ship it back to the manufacturers to have it repaired only to discover that it was, in fact, undamaged. They next claimed damage to the wires where the illicit computer was connected. In fact Kegel took great care to splice in the new connections in such a way as to allow subsequent disconnection without damage to the wires. If the wires were damaged then it was because the Rose Bowl operators thoughtlessly ripped out the connections.
But to get back to the story, everything was now in place for the prank. Several hours before the game was to begin Kegel telephoned his instructor in an electronics project class he had taken the previous term to tell him to tune in to the game for a demonstration of Kegel's class project entitled ``Bulletin Board Control''.
During the final days of the project Kegel had received quite a bit of help from another student, Ted Williams, a senior in Lloyd House as well as a number of members of Page. On New Years Day Kegel, Williams and others stationed themselves on the nearby hillside in a location from which they could observe the scoreboard. It is rumoured that an anonymous alum provided his strategically placed backyard for this purpose. They began their activities early in the game, though they were not noticed by the national television commentators until the third quarter. Initially they confined their activities to the moving message part at the bottom of the scoreboard. Small animals which could have been beavers moved across the screen. Then came the traditional signature ``DEI'' followed by a number of other messages recognizable only to the cogniscenti. I believe a message of welcome from Caltech also appeared. All quite harmless and in the best traditions of Caltech pranks. Though others in the stadium may have noticed these initial efforts it was not until the third quarter of the lopsided game that the pranksters started to modify other displays on the scoreboard. Sensibly they never interferred with the score itself or any of the other important pieces of information such as the downs. However they did change the names of the teams so that the score read ``CALTECH 38 MIT 9''. At this point the change was noticed by all the media present and the pranksters were assured of everlasting fame. One of the few Caltech people present in the stadium was Murph Goldberger, sitting in his invited position amidst a now irate group of Tournament of Roses officials.
In most retellings the story ends with that remarkable moment. For me, as Master of Student Houses, the events had just begun. Suddenly after but four months on the job I was faced with a major crisis. The media immediately descended on campus determined to seek out the perpetrators. Before I could become involved two had already identified themselves and had given numerous interviews both on and off camera. The two, Dan Kegel and Ted Williams, were front page news and featured on national television. Of the two, Ted was the more articulate and received the widest coverage though he was, by his own admission, only one of a large number of participants. Dan was the mastermind but was more wary of the publicity - and, as we shall see, for good reason. The other participants subsequently became known to me but will remain anonymous.
The altered Rose Bowl score board. The start of the changes.
Shortly after this moment in the spotlight the matter took an unpleasant turn for Kegel and Williams. First the Tournament of Roses Chairman voiced his displeasure to Murph in no uncertain terms and demanded disciplinary action. Second the Tournament of Roses Committee exerted their considerable influence upon the Pasadena Police and City officials to take legal action against the perpetrators who had so conveniently identified themselves in the media. I suspect that the Pasadena City Prosecutor, Michael Murnane, saw political profit to be gained with the Pasadena gentry who serve on the Tournament of Roses committee. Or perhaps he simply was misguided in the vigour which he now exerted to prosecute the ``criminals''. My first direct involvement was a telephone call from a Pasadena Police detective by the name of Don Hyzy. All jollity on the phone he insisted to me that he just wanted an informal chat with Williams and Kegel in order to clear up some loose ends; no mention of any pending prosecution. Though wary I saw no alternative but to make arrangements for such a meeting. Williams was away from campus on a job interview but Kegel willingly agreed to meet with the detective when I innocently relayed the content of the telephone call to him. The interview was arranged in the Master's office one morning. When Kegel, the two detectives, the Caltech Security chief Harold Ginder and myself were seated the meeting immediately took an ominous turn. Hyzy started to read Kegel his rights in an antagonistic tone quite different from that he used in making the arrangements for the meeting. I interrupted this rigmarole with the remark that I had been led to believe that this would be a friendly meeting for the purpose of transmitting information and that if this were not the case I would have to ask the detectives to leave my office, in retrospect a naive remark motivated by my lack of foresight. But it generated an immediate response from the detectives who lept to their feet, grabbed Kegel and began to handcuff him. Thanks mostly to the comments of Harold Ginder this confrontation between myself and the detectives was defused. Ginder suggested that we proceed cautiously with what was now clearly an interrogation and better conducted on campus than to have Kegel arrested and taken to the police station for questioning. Of course, the detectives may also have been bluffing; the adverse publicity that would have been generated by such an arrest would have caused considerable difficulties for the Pasadena Police. The whole incident taught me to be much more circumspect and suspicious during future dealings with City officials. I must also say that I admired the way in which Kegel handled himself. Despite this ominous start and my warnings to him that perhaps he should not say anything until he discussed the matter with an attorney, Dan decided to tell the complete story and to trust that the truth would lead to a just outcome.
This session also revealed another fact that had not previously been known to me. Hyzy told me that a tape recorder had also been installed in the computer package. In fact this was activated during the game and Wagner's ``Ride of the Valkyries'' was played over the public address system. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately because of what was to follow) this traditional music which is so much a part of Caltech tradition was not heard by most of the crowd or by the broadcasting networks because the predetermined volume setting was much too low.
During the last moments when the students were completing the device and the ``Ride'' had been recorded on the tape-recorder cassette there was, as always, space remaining on the cassette. On the spur of the moment Kegel decided to add a recording of a sketch by Monty Python's Flying Circus, that English comedy team which was so popular with our students. Kegel chose a sketch which contained many four-letter words and obscene remarks. These are rudely funny to the listener. However the entire sketch had been transcribed to paper by the detectives and, written down in black-and-white without the overtones implicit in the human voices, it looked totally indefensible. Kegel stated that this was never played over the public address system and the detectives must not have been able to prove it. Fortunately the matter never received publicity for it would have degraded the enormous public sympathy for the students.
After the interview it quickly became clear that the City Prosecutor, Michael Murmane intended to vigorously prosecute the case. Fortunately an anonymous member of the Caltech community offered to pay the legal costs for the students and arranged an attorney for them. At the preliminary hearing Williams and Kegel were charged with four misdemeanors. Three were violations of the state code: (1) Interferring with a private computer system (2) Trespassing (3) Another misdemenor. The fourth was a violation of the Pasadena City code, "loitering in the Rose Bowl at night". With tongue in cheek I suggested that their defence against the last charge should be that they were not loitering at all but were very busy.
When these charges were announced, there was a considerable upwelling of adverse publicity. Editorials in the local newspapers decried the effort spent on prosecuting this fairly harmless prank, when the city had much more serious crime to contend with. Public opinion was clearly on the side of the students though there were two flies in the ointment. The first was the Monty Python sketch though, fortunately it never came to public attention. The second was the claim that the students would receive academic credit for the project. The Caltech administration was embarrassed by this publicity and quickly tried to disassociate itself from this claim; indeed from the whole affair. Nevertheless public opinion stayed firmly on the side of the students and other city officials (in particular the mayor and the city councilmen) quickly began to criticize Murmane for misplaced zealotry. This pressure resulted in the dropping of two of the charges against Williams and Kegel and a deal was worked out between their attorney and Murmane. It was agreed that the students would plead ``nolo contendre'' to the two remaining charges, that they would be placed on probation at the conclusion of which their records would be cleared and that they would pay for the costs of the transport of the Rose Bowl computer to the manufacturer, a sum of $1200. This deal was quickly consumated at the final hearing and the television lights outside shone on the participants for the last time.
But like all good stories this one has a few footnotes. The same anonymous patron who offered to pay for the legal costs also paid the $1200. Williams went on to an excellent job and his fears concerning difficulties with his security clearance as a result of his prosecution were overcome. Kegel took a leave of absence from the Institute but returned and graduated with his Bachelor's degree. Shortly after the conclusion of the legal proceedings the City Prosecutor's office, which had previously been autonomous, was placed under the authority of the City Attorney's office. I remember a sunny St. Patrick's Day when my wife and I walked up to see the parade along Green Street. Michael Murmane was in the parade, passing in a large white convertible, sitting up at the back and waving at the crowd. As he passed us, an old lady standing next to us in the crowd turned to her companion and said ``There's that silly man who tried to prosecute those Caltech students after the Rose Bowl prank''. About a year later Michael Murmane was fired as City Prosecutor.
I now jump forward about two years to the second Rose Bowl prank with which I became involved, that in the 1986 Rose Bowl. The participants this time must remain anonymous but I think I can safely reveal that they resided in Ruddock House which had not been involved in the 84 Rose Bowl prank. They were undeterred by the consequences faced by Kegel and Williams as a result of that earlier prank. As I have previously indicated, the challenge represented by the long tradition of successful and unsuccessful Rose Bowl pranks has its own momentum. The students will not be deterred; but they should be cautioned of the danger to themselves, the need for an awareness of public reaction to their pranks and the possible legal consequences of their action.
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In this instance I was approached by several students during 1985. They sought to ask my advice assuming that, as always, I would hold what was said in strictest confidence. This had ever been the unique position of the Master in the organization of the Institute. It is to the credit of those who conceived the position that they saw the great value to both the Institute as a whole and to the students in particular of an individual who could act outside the normal confines of a bureaucracy and who could be relied on to handle difficult personal matters and embarrassing events in a discrete but just fashion. Having as usual acquiesced to such a conversation, I was informed of ongoing plans for a prank at the 1986 Rose Bowl. This time the intention was to install devices inside the goal posts of the football field. These devices would be radio-controlled. Upon transmission of the start signal, flags would emerge from the top of both goal posts. On these flags would be printed the words ``Caltech'' and ``Welcome''. At least one exploratory sortie had already been made, during which one of the goalposts had been dismantled so that measurements could be made of the interior diameter of the tube-like posts. Upon completion of these measurements, the posts had been reassembled and, apparently, no one had detected the incursion. The devices to be installed were in the process of being fabricated; they essentially consisted of flagpoles which would be raised by springs once a remote- controlled trigger was activated.
The students main purpose in talking to me was to seek advice on what they should do if caught during the installation phase or if questioned after the event. I advised them of the possible legal consequences and urged them to avoid any danger either to themselves or to others. I reminded them that all officials in charge of large public gatherings are very sensitive to terrorist activities. The placing of any device with any remote resemblance to a bomb should be rightly viewed as a serious felony. I made this obvious statement simply to sensitize the students to this serious issue and not because their particular device would have any such resemblance. As it turned out it was a prophetic remark.
I heard no more about the matter until the middle of December, 1985. Then I received a message from the Pasadena police via our security chief, Harold Ginder, to the effect that several strange ``catapults'' had been found the previous night outside the Rose Bowl. The police lieutenant in charge of security at the upcoming Rose Bowl believed that these devices must be part of a prank which the Caltech students were intending to perpetrate. He speculated that these ``catapults'' were intended to launch missiles with flags over the stadium during the game. He had so informed the Tournament of Roses Chairman, who was irate at the thought of the danger these missiles would pose to the assembled crowd. I agreed that I would go to the Pasadena Police station with Harold Ginder to talk to the lieutenant and examine the evidence (no more interviews on campus!).
At the police station we were introduced to a pleasant lieutenant who wanted assurance that nothing would occur at the game on New Year's Day. I gave him my assurance that I would do everything I could to make sure that our students did not attempt any pranks on that day. I also expressed my incredulity at the catapult story and asked to see the devices. I also informed him that in addition to being Master of Student Houses I was also a professor of mechanical engineering and therefore qualified to give an expert opinion on the range of the ``catapults''. We then walked to an upstairs store room filled to the brim with paraphanalia much of it clearly intended for illegal purposes. There, in the corner, we found two devices about six feet long and consisting of flagpoles mounted in frames to which they were attached by long springs. I proceeded to examine these devices as though I had no idea as to their purpose but with an air of confidence in my own ability to assess their mechanical performance. I released the trigger while restraining the flagpole with my hand. I then repeated this demonstration several times with decreasing restraint on the flagpole. In this way I was able to convince the lieutenant that these devices, if catapults, could not propel the flags more than about ten feet into the air. No, I said assuming my most professorial air, it is much more likely that the springs were only intended to raise the flags up out of the frames. Then we proceeded to speculate on the purpose. I point out the narrow diameter of the frames. Could it be, I suggested, that they were supposed to be located in some hole in the Rose Bowl and to be erected at some auspicious moment. The lieutenant's eyes sparked. Of course he said and I know of some such holes up on the rim of the stadium! I then turned my attention to the bag of tools alongside the devices. Some of the tools were inscribed ``Electrical Engineering, CIT'' which left no doubt as to the origin of the planned prank. But worse than this a tape measure was inscribed with the name of a student in Ruddock House, a particularly studious young man whom I shall call Lee Smith. Now I doubted very much that Lee Smith was in any way involved in the prank; it seemed much more likely that someone had simply borrowed his tape measure. Ginder and I then departed, the lieutenant thanking us for our cooperation and promising us that we could collect the devices after New Year's Day provided the game passed without incident. As I left the station I could not help but feel that I had evened the score with detective Hyzy.
Back on campus I discovered what had gone wrong with the installation phase. Apparently the pranksters had been proceeding with their plan and had been about to enter the Rose Bowl the previous night when a police car came racing up. It stopped and a conversation ensued in which it was clear that the police were in pursuit of an individual who had just robbed a nearby house. Though the police soon departed the students were so unnerved by this incident that they fled leaving the devices and the bag of tools behind. I then informed them of my visit to the station and my opinion that since they had committed no offence they should simply lay low until the New Year had passed. I also suggested that they speak to Lee Smith and ask him to inform me if he received any contact from the police.
I then awaited New Year's Day with the belief that it would pass without incident. Hence I was very disconcerted to learn during the afternoon that the ``Caltech students'' were being accused of having placed a ``bomb'' on one of the floats during the Rose Parade and that the float, representing the Big Ten schools, had had to be removed from the parade onto an evacuated side street until the bomb squad arrived. Apparently someone had been observed running out to the float during the parade and placing a device which might be a bomb on the float. After some tense moments it transpired that the device was ``only'' a fake bomb consisting of an electrical junction box and some wires. The Tournament of Roses officials had, without evidence, assumed that Caltech students were involved and several such charges were overheard during the day. Tom Branigan, in charge of Public Relations at the Institute, and I tried to communicate the fact that our students would never get involved in such a thoughtless and pointless act. But the suspicion remained and it was some months before the police found the criminals who, of course, had nothing to do with Caltech. At that time we did receive an apology and the police allowed me to recover the bag of tools and the ``catapults''. Left in my office, this paraphanalia was recovered by the students from Ruddock House.
And so it appeared that the 1986 Rose Bowl story had ended quietly and would be forgotten. But there is a sequel to the story for toward the end of 1986 I was approached again by some members of Ruddock House, the heirs to the preceding years equipment. I repeated my warnings adding that since ``Lee Smith'' was still a student in residence he might be in a rather vulnerable position. Nevertheless I was not surprised to receive a phone call several weeks before the end of December in which I was informed by the student caller that ``he might be rather late for breakfast''. And so I waited with slightly bated breath until I heard the next day that ``breakfast had been successful''. Apparently rebuilt flag-raising devices had been installed without incident in the goalposts at the Rose Bowl and the intention was to activate them at the beginning of the half-time entertainment. Only one minor hitch had occurred. The radio controlled switches required line-of-sight to the top of the goal-posts in order to ensure reliable activation. And, surprisingly, one could not see the top of the goal-posts from the hillsides surrounding the Rose Bowl. It was determined that the individual chosen to activate the devices on the day would either try to get a ticket for the game (a difficult undertaking) or would try to achieve a line-of-sight through one of the tunnels through which vehicles could enter the Bowl at the south end of the stadium.
But these plans were all for nought because of one of those random coincidences which can upset even the best-laid plans. It so happens that the area around the Rose Bowl is frequently used by a model-airplane club which enjoys flying radio-controlled airplanes in the wide-open space of the stadium parking lots. And, apparently, one of the frequencies which they used corresponded to the frequency employed for the flag activation switches. And so, one day shortly before the day of the game, these model airplane enthusiasts inadvertently activated the flags and they rose into full view of the stadium officials but not any larger audience. So passed into history another chapter in the long-tradition of Rose Bowl pranks.
* * *
Another of my favorite prank failures involved the "Fleming airship". There was a period of time during the 1970s-1990s when the Rose Bowl was a frequent venue for the Superbowl (1977, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1993) and, given the success of the Caltech pranks at the College Rose Bowl Game on New Year's Day, it was natural for the students to think of similar success on the even bigger stage of the Superbowl. When I was consulted on this possibility just after the failure at the 1986 Rose Bowl I warned the students that the Superbowl involved a whole new level of national security concerns and pointed out that the increase in terrorist activity neccessarily meant an increase in the danger associated with any prank at a national event. Despite my warning, a group of Fleming students decided to attempt a prank at the 1987 Superbowl scheduled for the Rose Bowl on Jan.25, 1987. They had in mind the construction of an airship which would have CALTECH and a large red F on its sides and would overfly the Superbowl at half-time. When I caught wind of this idea I was appalled to think of what might happen. Indeed, just ten years earlier John Frankenheimer had made a movie called ''Black Sunday'' that featured a blimp pilot, deranged by years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a failed marriage, and a bitter court martial. Along with a female Palestinian terrorist he planned to cause a massive suicide bombing by detonating a device attached to a Goodyear Blimp while overflying Superbowl X at the Miami Orange Bowl. However, in so far as the Fleming plan was concerned and knowing the limits of my influence, I needed to bide my time in dealing with that craziness.
I knew through the grapevine that the Fleming blimp was under construction in the old power plant behind the Thomas building (now the site of the Sherman-Fairchild Library). I also knew that several of the Flems involved were currently enrolled in my junior level course on fluid mechanics and that they had seemed unusually interested in the design of airfoils and propellers. Finally one evening I was approached by one of these students and asked if they could consult me on a small, practical fluid mechanics issue with which they were wrestling. Upon offering to help, I was escorted into the old power plant where, lo and behold, a large airship was stashed. It was about 25 feet long, 4 to 5 ft in diameter, painted red with CALTECH and a large red F on its sides. My heart sank as I visualized a public confrontation high in the air above the Superbowl as security helicopters attacked this unknown intruder. However, keeping my cool, I proceeded to enquire as to the nature of the consulting advice they needed of me. It transpired that they were equipping the airship with manoevering propellers and they needed advice on how large those propellers should be. They had purchased a number of 6 inch diameter, model airplane propellers and planned to use these unless I thought they would be insufficient to overcome the wind loads on the airship. Keeping my cool while recognizing a golden opportunity, I first indicated a need to examine the airship. It was beautifully designed. Fabricated in three sections it consisted of a lightweight wooden frame coated with thin plastic sheeting designed to contain the helium with which they intended to fill it. Four battery-driven electric manoevering motors were mounted on the central section and each of these was equipped with one of the 6 inch plastic propellers. I think I recognized immediately that the propellers were too small to control the flight of the airship in any significant breeze but I said not a word and simply admired the construction of the blimp itself. I then departed after warning the students of the dangers they would be creating if they tried to deploy the blimp at the Superbowl; indeed, in desperation I tried to deflect them to the Rose Parade of the following year.
Ready for launch. The end of the flight.
After this I heard nothing and waited with baited breath as Sunday, Jan.25 approached. I heard later that the Flems had ''successfully'' tested the airship on the Athletic Field in the dead of night. Then the device had been transported in a large van to the site of Superbowl XXI. Unfortunately (fortunately?) during that transport, one student had inadvertently put his had through the plastic covering and the blimp had lost a fair amount of its helium before the hole could be patched. This limited its lift. But a more serious problem was the inadequacy of the propellers for the airship could not be prevented from taking off on a trajectory that did not even come close to the Rose Bowl. Indeed it disappeared off into the darkness in the direction of Glendale. Of course on the evening of the Superbowl I knew none of this as I sat glued to the television waiting for Caltech's reprise of ''Black Sunday''. For me it was tremendous relief as the game came to its end without any untoward incident other than the defeat of the Denver Broncos by the New York Giants.
The next morning I waited in my office for any possible aftermath of the failed prank. Soon the head of security, a jovial man called Harold Ginder, called to tell me that he had a little old lady from Glendale on the phone. She reported that a large blimp had come to rest in the frontyard of her Glendale home and she suspected that Caltech students might have something to do with it. Harold put her through to me. She seemed mildly amused and was satisfied when I told her that I would take care of the matter immediately. I then made a brief call to the Fleming president and there the matter ended. I never did see or hear of the Fleming airship after that but the vision of it emerging from the darkness into the glare of the Rose Bowl floodlights has been with me ever since.
* * *
One of the most publicized events of my time as Master occurred in the months of March and April, 1986. The central character was the Fleming cannon. For those not familiar with this campus totem let me briefly review its history. The 1.3 ton breech-loading cannon was constructed in France for the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. However it was finished too late to see action and was stored in France for 25 years. In 1896 it was loaned to the United States and its 12 foot-long barrel was rebored to 5 inches to accept U.S. ammunition for use in the Spanish-American war. By the time the reboring job was finished the war was over and the cannon was returned to France. The last false alarm came in the early 1900s. The Russo-Japanese war appeared to be heating up and the French, apparently bent on ridding themselves of the gun, offered to sell it to the United States for coastal protection against the Japanese. Theodore Roosevelt negotiated an end to hostilities before a deal could be closed.
Eventually, a French consul in Santa Barbara decided that the cannon would look good on his front lawn. He sent for it and the cannon made its third trip across the sea. The consul kept it until 1924 and then presented it to Maurice Veronda who was starting Southwestern, a military academy for boys in what is now San Marino, California. The cannon sat out in front of Southwestern and became a symbol and plaything for the students. In 48 years it was drenched with more than 30 coats of paint, the butt of a traditional prank.
The Vietnam war saved the cannon from further drenchings. Southwestern had been converted to a co-educational boarding school and its administration was concerned about being associated with that unpopular war and wanted to shed its military image. The cannon had suddenly become an embarrassing liability. So when it was rumoured that a group of Caltech students from Fleming House might steal the cannon as a prank, there was no great opposition at Southwestern. Then one night in 1972 a group of about 80 Caltech students wearing black clothing sneaked through the streets of San Marino and dragged the gun from the academy to a site on the Olive Walk outside Fleming House. The rotten wooden wheels almost gave way and a number of repairs had to be effected on the spot.
Fleming House took great pride in its new aquisition. Further repairs were made to the wooden wheels and the students removed the many layers of paint, cleaned the breech and prepared the gun for firing. And fire it they did. It was used to signal the beginning and end of the school year. And then there was the Jello incident. The cannon, when it became the symbol of the sometimes ebullient Flems, also became the target of pranks by the other six houses. In that era the rivalry with Lloyd House was particularly intense. And the cannon barrel was pointed directly across the Olive Walk at Lloyd House. Apparently, late one night the Lloydies filled the cannon barrel with Jello. When this was discovered the Flems retaliated by opening the breech, inserting a charge and blowing the Jello back at Lloyd House. Legend has it that Lloyd House was covered with Jello. Legend also has it that a barrel-full of Tampax was also fired at Lloyd on one occasion. The administration took a dim view of these hijinks and, when one concussion in 1975 blew out the some windows in Lloyd House and the Master's Office, they ordered Fleming House to return the weapon to its owners, Southwestern Academy. That school kept the cannon in storage until 1981 when the Fleming House graduating class decided to reclaim it. With advance permission from Southwestern and a rental agreement giving Fleming House the use of the cannon for an unlimited period for one dollar, another nightime raid was organized similar to that in 1971. As a result the cannon recovered its place in front of Fleming House. This time the students refrained from firing it until graduation day but failed to notify the administration before they set it off. Again the administration was angered and threatened to remove the gun. However, Fleming House presented them with an essay on the House's love for the old war machine and a list of rules that they would follow before future firings. These included getting written permission from both the Deans, the Master and the Vice-President for Student Affairs one of whom had to be present when it was fired.
From then on the ritual was well established and generations of students witnessed the firing of the cannon on a number of special days during the year. The Fleming student elected to the position of Cannon-Master was responsible for these arrangements and the technique was passed down from each Cannon-Master to his or her successor. Traditional times for firing the cannon included the moment when the house picks were posted at the end of Rotation (7pm on the Sunday after the first week of the academic year), at the conclusion of the graduation ceremony, on Bastille Day (by arrangement with the Atheneum which traditionally holds an evening party on that day) and several other auspicious moments during the year. Thus it was that the cannon rituals seemed to have settled into a modestly comfortable routine by the time I became Master and during the first few years of my tenure. The Interhouse Committee had declared the cannon off-limits to pranks some years previously so it was no longer the focus of other extra-curricular student activity apart from one occasion when it was splashed with pink paint by some unruly Page boys. The wheels began to seem rather unsteady and so I designed and built a stand upon which the axle rested. Otherwise the cannon had faded from the front-page news.
The Fleming Cannon. The cannon returns to campus.
All of this ended early in the morning of March 29, 1986, and the cannon was back on the front pages of the local newspapers. I understand that the students at Harvey-Mudd College in nearby Claremont had made several earlier attempts to steal the cannon; if so I had no knowledge of these efforts. But on this night during the Easter break of 1986 they succeeded in their attempt to remove this trophy to their Claremont campus. How they managed this is rather amazing. First they were aided by the fact that few students were around during the Easter break and those that were in residence were highly unlikely to be conscious at 6 o'clock in the morning. Furthermore the intruders had devised a modest but adequate cover story. They had learnt that parts of the south houses undergraduate complex were to renovated in the summer of 1986 and, indeed, some preparations for this were already underway. They therefore decided to pose as contractors removing the cannon as part of the renovation project. Tongue-in-cheek they labelled their truck with the insignia ``HM Salvage Inc.'' and wore similarly inscribed hard hats and tee shirts. Arriving about 6.00 am with their truck and a fork-lift they spent nearly two hours manoevering the cannon onto the flat-bed. Several other students masqueraded as Caltechers playing frisbee and tossing a football to provide a diversion. One prematurely bald Harvey Mudd junior, 27 year old Joe Agnese, acted as the foreman of the ``construction crew''. When they were approached by a Caltech security man, Joe waved a piece of paper which purported to authorize the removal of the cannon for the ostensible reason of repairing a water main that ran under the location of the artillery piece. Though the security man attempted to check this with several Flems, he elicited no clarification and so hesitated to intervene. Needless to say this security man was subsequently excoriated by the Flems both verbally and in print. But I believe that he was not the only party guilty of not raising the alarm. In the next issue of the campus newspaper, the California Tech, whose front page headlined the story of the missing cannon, there appeared a photograph of the construction crew at work taken from a window in Ricketts House. It is also important at this point in the story to mention that the entire project was recorded on slide film by one particular Harvey Mudd student.
Despite minor problems, the prank was surprisingly successful and the cannon was placed in a prominent position on the Harvey Mudd College campus later that morning. At Fleming House the alarm was finally raised at about noon but only after a Flem had observed about 5 people deposit a keg of beer and a Harvey Mudd tee shirt at the spot where the cannon had once stood. There was an immediate panic and a number of Flems raced out to Harvey Mudd to determine the position, condition and security of the cannon. There was also discussion of various wild plans to recover the cannon either by stealth or by force. A group of hotheads who simply wanted to go out to the Harvey Mudd campus armed with baseball bats were only with difficulty restrained.
These discussions continued over the next week. The Deputy Master, Bernie Santarsiero, spent many long hours in discussions with Fleming House trying to make sure that any recovery plans were both legal and non-violent. The national publicity given to the prank further inflamed passions in Fleming House. For example, the headline in the March 31 Pasadena Star News read ``Harvey Mudd fires challenge at Caltech''. The situation was made even more complicated by a group of Page boys who went out to the Harvey Mudd campus to try to load spaghetti into the cannon. And then the president, Murph Goldberger, had this idea to try to get the US Marines to lift the cannon out of the Harvey Mudd campus using one of their heavy-lift helicopters. How he visualized being able to do this without the entire Harvey Mudd campus being alerted was beyond me. Fortunately he was disuaded from this or any other crazy plan.
Eventually, things began to cool down and I drove out to Harvey Mudd to discuss the problem with one of their officials who then agreed to load the cannon onto a truck and return it to Caltech and to Fleming House. I then returned to campus where I informed the Flems of the arrangement, warned them against any participation and waited the appointed time for the return. Unfortunately, the Harvey Mudd students decided to make the return a march of triumph. They festooned the cannon with signs and banners that would only inflame the Fleming hotheads. And, to make matters even worse, several of the more hot-headed Flems decided to drive out toward Harvey Mudd to accompany the cannon home. The result was inevitable. There was a confrontation on the road between Harvey Mudd and Caltech during which one of the Fleming vehicles came into contact with a vehicle belonging to the Harvey Mudd official with whom my arrangement had been made. The result was that the Harvey Mudd people turned around and returned to their campus with the truck carrying the cannon. When I heard of these shenanigans I was very angry with the Flems involved for I had given them explicit instructions. I now repeated the same instruction and arranged for a Caltech truck to immediately accompany me to the Harvey Mudd campus. Once there we loaded the cannon onto the Caltech truck and, without any fanfare or banners or Harvey Mudd involvement, brought the cannon back to Caltech. As we turned onto the Olive Walk with the cannon, I remember the walkway lined with Caltech students. Many were cheering; the Flems were silent but relieved that the saga was over.
* * *
Another of the famous pranks that occurred on my watch was the alteration of the Hollywood sign to read CALTECH. The year was 1987 and the 100th birthday of Hollywood was to occur in May of that year. Several months prior to that groups of students in Page House and in Ricketts had independently begun to plan to alter the Hollywood sign. Each group had done some reconnaissance that included making measurements of the huge letters and learning the difficulty of access to the letters. The method of alteration had already been demonstrated by several previous organizations including Fox Broadcasting who had used large quantities of white and black burlap to alter and eliminate the letters to achieve their objective. But the size of the task was not brought home to the Caltech students until they visited the sign during their nighttime reconnaisences. The individual letters are 45ft tall and 33 ft wide, for a total length of 350 ft! It had originally been constructed as a real estate advertisement in 1923 and read HOLLYWOODLAND (the last four letters were later removed). It had already been the target of many pranks and, to dissuade further high jinks, access to the individual letters (and to the ladders that allowed one to climb the back of each) had been blocked by razor wire. It was clear that a very large team would be needed to accomplish the task during the nighttime hours and so Page and Ricketts combined their efforts and recruited students from all the other houses to form a team of about five students for each of the seven letters of CALTECH. Instead of burlap, large quantities of black and white polythene plastic were purchased and a plan was made for each of the letters. I remember the evenings of the week of May 10-17 as the plastic for each of the letters was laid out in the Lloyd courtyard and the operational plan of attack was generated. Climbers were chosen for each of the letters and ropes attached to hold the plastic in place. Many of the students were aware of my backstage involvement in other pranks and so one evening that week I met with the primary organizers to advise them regarding the aftermath. The most important advice that I gave them was not to identify themselves to the press (or anyone else) for that would be an invitation to the authorities to pursue them.
The modified Hollywood sign. The view from the valley.
The plan was put in motion about 10pm on the evening of May 17, 1987. A team of about 35 students equipped with climbing ropes and the plastic for each letter swarmed over the Hollywood sign and transformed it to read CALTECH. By 5am the next morning they were finished and by 6am they had escaped without apprehension. The media had been alerted and cameras were flashing all over Hollywood and in the air as the sun rose and revealed the transformation. Unfortunately the breeze that morning began to tear at the plastic and it was not long before the night's work began to disassemble. But not before the photographs of the altered sign had been broadcast throughout the nation.
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was livid. "We are not kidding and laughing about this at all," huffed Bill Welsh, chamber president. "The incident is under investigation by Hollywood officers - except for our Caltech graduates," Los Angeles Police Lt. Sergio Robleto said wryly. The city's Department of Recreation and Parks rushed to remove the new plastic coverings, sending teams in with special tree-trimming equipment. It was not long before I received a telephone call from the police asking if I knew the students involved but also discretely implying that they were not about to come to Pasadena to investigate. I also heard from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce during a not-so-friendly telephone call. Most importantly, the students heeded my warning and avoided identifying themselves to the press though several talked to the reporters anonymously. As always I went my own way.
Last updated 10/1/2011.
Christopher E. Brennen