Ditch Day at Caltech Sees How Students 'Stack' Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Strange forces took over the sedate, tree-lined campus of Caltech on Monday.

Near the cafeteria, students strapped a TV reporter for Channel 7 upside down in a tree and doused her with cold water.

At the Winnett Student Center, a poster trumpeted "Gandalf for President."

And across the quad marched 21-year-old physics major Larry Canino, swathed from head to toe in white rubber and waving what looked like a butterfly net.

"I'm in bio-quarantine," Canino announced blithely. "We lost our thermonuclear boosters and we're trying to get them working again. It involves a lot of electronics."

Canino and his team had until 5 p.m., at which time Ditch Day 1990 formally ended and California Institute of Technology in Pasadena reverted to its quiet business of imparting one of the finest science educations in the United States.

Until then, teams of underclassmen, who form spontaneously, would run frantically around campus searching for clues, solve mind-bending feats in math and physics and generally comport themselves like fools.

The object: to solve the cerebral and brute-force puzzles laid out by scheming seniors and gain access to their combination-locked dorm rooms, where caches of goodies and drinks lay hidden.

Ditch Day is a sort of scientific scavenger hunt for brainy kids that pits underclassmen--called "frosh" and "wimps"--against seniors who have spent a good part of the school year dreaming up their fiendish plots.

The puzzles, called stacks, take their name from the piles of furniture that seniors once stacked against their dorm doors in a less sophisticated era to keep "wimps" out.

Today, the stacks have evolved into ever-more sophisticated tests of brain and brawn. They can be brute-force stacks, which must be shattered with power drills, hammers and sweat; finesse stacks, which involve scientific aptitude, or a combination of both.

Students agree ahead of time to pay for any damage incurred, which has been known to run into thousands of dollars. That taken care of, school officials wax enthusiastic about Ditch Day, saying it is intellectually stimulating as well as a lowbrow way to let off steam. There is no judging or formal declaration of winners.

"Concrete is a common theme," explained Bob Finn, a Caltech spokesman. "A lot of the stacks also involve humiliation."

Such as serenading passers-by, for instance, which is what 21-year-old mechanical engineering major Ben Masek and 19-year-old aeronautics major Hyon Lew had to do for a stack that simulated a ride along a New York subway.

With a boom box blasting, the two belted out a raucous rendition of "New Sensation" by the band INXS, with Lew twirling on crutches as the result of a torn ligament and Masek wielding a tennis racket like Jimi Hendrix on guitar.

While they rocked, another group scrolled on a bank of computers in the Page House dorms as they labored over a demonic stack that mixed cerebral games with aerobic ones.

For starters, the group bored with power drills to find three computer chips buried inside 3x5 blocks of concrete. Then they had to apply their computer skills to simulate a circuit board whose workings would yield up the combination to the senior's door lock.

At 11 a.m., dusty from concrete powder and sticky from cans of Cheese Whiz hidden in the concrete that had exploded all over them when pierced by the power drill, the frosh were already plotting their revenge.

"I've got $300 we can spend on manure," mused Kevin Park, a 19-year-old aeronautics major.

Mindful of all the publicity that has come to accompany Ditch Day--TV, radio and newspaper reporters descend on the campus as avidly as if covering an earthquake--some cynical seniors have even incorporated media tasks, such as talking a TV reporter into being tied to a tree, into their stacks.

The ignominious drenching wasn't originally part of the stack though. It occurred when some underclassmen mistook the bound reporter for a senior and decided to have a little fun. (Traditionally, seniors are trussed up in trees if found lurking on campus after 8 a.m. on Ditch Day.)

Jimmy Hu, a 19-year-old computer science major whose stack involved a scavenger hunt to Newport Beach and computer logic games, also had a media-related task to perform.

"We're supposed to get on Channel 4 news at 4 p.m.," he muttered, glancing at his watch with little hope as the minutes inched past 3. But things didn't end there. "We're also supposed to test-drive a new Ferrari."

Staff and students alike enjoy reminiscing about the most memorable stacks ever concocted at Caltech, where the average student has scored in the top 1% in math ability and the top 3% in verbal ability on national tests.

One senior left a one-page physics problem taped to his unlocked door. While honor required that the students solve it before entering to claim their reward, the problem proved beyond their abilities. In desperation, they took it to Prof. Richard P. Feynman, since deceased, but not even the Nobel laureate in physics was able to solve the problem.

For sheer elegance and simplicity, Caltech spokesman Robert Finn recalls the case of the senior who left a computer outside his locked door but no instructions.

Figuring they had only to find the right command and the computer would spit out the lock combination, underclassman spent all day vainly trying everything from "Open Sesame" to "Please Open Door."

It turned out that the computer was programmed so that if anyone left it alone for 10 minutes it would have automatically opened the door, Finn said.

Then there are counterstacks, also known as wimp revenge.

One year, dissatisfied with the reward they found after laboring all day on a bedeviling stack, the wimps took apart the senior's Porsche and reassembled it in his dorm room, with the motor running.

Another year, a senior returned to his dorm and found a huge water balloon, filled, with no drain valve. A third was greeted by his furniture, which had been bolted--to the ceiling.

This year, a group of frosh hummed like a swarm of irritated bumblebees when they discovered only soda pop, several apples and a bag of Oreo cookies after solving a stack called "Crime and Punishment."

"We had to commit a bunch of crimes, like hot-wiring a golf cart and parking it in a professor's spot, and the bribe was really weak," complained Jack Prater, a 20-year-old physics and astronomy major.

"After crime we had punishments," added Chris Campo, a 20-year-old planetary science major. "We had to put our hands in really hot water and shock ourselves."

So the weary students decided to dish up a little punishment of their own. They hoisted the senior's moped halfway up the three-story Firestone Flight Sciences Laboratory and lashed it to the outside wall with ropes, where it dangled for most of the afternoon, not even swaying in the breeze.

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