Caltech Goes Low Tech to Get Its Cannon Back

Times Staff Writer

Cannon retrieval may not be rocket science, but a group of intrepid, cross-country-trekking Caltech students has learned it isn’t much easier.

On Monday, two dozen of the Pasadena-based scholars used more brawn than brains here to recover a 111-year-old cannon that Massachusetts Institute of Technology pranksters had swiped from Caltech last month.

Shortly after 7 a.m., in a chill coming off the Charles River, Caltech junior Scott Jordan exhorted his schoolmates to roll the 3-ton Fleming Cannon off a cobbled MIT courtyard, where it had rested trophy-like since Thursday.


“Back where it belongs!” Jordan yelled.

With that, the shivering Caltech students, most dressed in the thin red jerseys of the school’s Fleming House, broke out ropes and a handmade dolly to push and pull the wooden-wheeled cannon toward a waiting flatbed truck.

Caltech’s low-tech reclamation of the weapon capped four frantic days of bicoastal strategizing, desperate fundraising and last-minute airline bookings.

The latest skirmish in the two schools’ recent prank war also provided some practical life experience to the budding scientists and engineers.

They found out that 12 hours is not always enough time to make a sufficient number of trips to Home Depot, and that keeping a Caltech secret from MIT might be impossible because of the traffic in graduate students between the campuses.

Students at Fleming House, a Caltech residence hall, began scheming to get the cannon back as soon as they heard that MIT had its mitts on it. The cannon disappeared after a crew of “movers” showed up at Caltech on March 28, presented a phony work order to unsuspecting security guards, and carted it off -- barrel, carriage and tongue.

The Caltech students assumed that Harvey Mudd College jokesters had taken the cannon, in a reprise of a 1986 stunt.

But when it didn’t turn up at Harvey Mudd in Claremont, the Flems, as they call themselves, began to wonder if the cannon had actually been stolen.

The loss would have been devastating. The cannon is fired for Caltech commencements, “ditch days” and other special occasions.

Then it surfaced at MIT’s McDermott Court, in front of the towering Green Building, the barrel adorned with a giant mock-up of the school’s class ring, and the display marked by a plaque proclaiming that the cannon had been shipped back east by the “Howe & Ser Moving Company.”

It was payback for multiple pranks last year. Caltech students had handed out to incoming MIT freshmen hundreds of T-shirts that said “MIT” on the front -- and on the back, “... because not everyone can go to Caltech.”

The Caltech squad also changed an MIT sign to read “The Other Institute of Technology,” and rigged a laser to spell out “Caltech” on the Green Building.

But the cannon hijacking took matters to a new level, and the Flems resolved to strike back with pride-restoring razzle-dazzle.

At a lunch meeting Friday, they embraced the expensive, tricky but sure-to-be-satisfying idea of plucking the cannon from Massachusetts territory with a helicopter, perhaps swooping down in the moonlight.

They convened a larger meeting that night at the campus home of Tom Mannion, Caltech’s assistant vice president for student life. Gathered around bowls of M&M;'s, they discussed the looming difficulties of the operation and complained that MIT had crossed the line by taking the cannon. Because of its age and fragile state, they declared it “non-prankable.”

Mostly, the plotters wanted to grab back the cannon before MIT could return it. That would be true dishonor.

“The helicopter company has seen the site, and it is not a problem,” said Jeff Cox, a graduate who was advising the students.

But as it happened, Federal Aviation Administration rules would have required the Flems to arrange for street closures and partial evacuation of buildings along the cannon-laden helicopter’s route. The students queried one another about contacts at the FAA, or alumni who might have “clout” with the agency.

Plan B arose: They would truck the cannon away while the MITers slumbered. For good measure, they would construct scaffolding from which to unfurl a huge Fleming flag, replace the cannon with a toy one and cover the “Howe & Ser” plaque with a specially machined one bearing the letter F.

But money was a factor.

The students had about $8,000 in their prank fund, earned from the sale of the MIT T-shirts. They would need much more, including maybe $9,000 to ship the cannon home. They began e-mailing alumni, some of whom had already volunteered to contribute.

Meanwhile, they set up a “situation room” in a campus trailer, complete with maps and satellite photos, and a list of the students’ credit card limits.

By Saturday afternoon, the first contingent of cannon rescuers was airborne.

“It is a little nuts,” Rob Hunter said during his Sunday flight to Boston. Traveling with him was Britton Boras, who explained why they go to such lengths in the prankster battles.

“We work so hard in school that our fun is so precious to us,” he said. That’s why “we work hard at that too.”

The students rendezvoused with Caltech alumni in the Boston area. “I’m a Flem for life,” said Vicki Loewer, an MIT graduate student who had 10 or more of the Caltech brigade bivouacked in her apartment.

On Sunday night, sawdust covered the apartment’s floor, from the dolly that would be used to support the cannon’s tongue. By now, the students were sleep-deprived. They abandoned the notion to build scaffolding for the Fleming flag. “We only had 12 hours,” Jordan said.

The clock worked against them in other ways. They were determined to raid McDermott Court around 4 a.m. and parade the cannon around a bit before loading it on the flatbed.

But they decided to quietly alert MIT’s campus police about their intentions an hour beforehand. It may have been a tactical error. The police wanted to see “proof of ownership” for the cannon, and no one had a pink slip.

“Everyone is livid,” Hunter said as the hour passed 4 a.m.

Worse, secrecy had been compromised, and a crowd of MITers began to descend on the cannon.

They fixed a couple of portable spotlights on their prize and fired up a barbecue to taunt Caltech “scouts” lurking in nearby buildings.

The now-exhausted Caltechers were left to conduct their mission in broad daylight.

As the amused MITers watched, they covered the wheels with strips of vinyl siding to protect their delicate bands, took a bolt cutter to a chain locking the spokes and jacked the tongue onto the dolly.

“I really like the rivalry,” said MIT freshman Jon Spaulding. “I’m looking forward to the future and what new pranks come up.”

Shoulder to iron and rope in hand, the Caltech students made inching progress to the flatbed parked nearby. The toy cannon was left in the real one’s place, under a glass vase, next to the F plaque.

By the time the students reached the truck, the vinyl had peeled off the wheels. When it was done, the Caltech students gave a good-natured cheer to the locals: “MIT, rah rah rah ... “

But revenge would be coming, said Jordan, the Fleming president, and it would be much more elaborate than ropes and dollies.

“We’ll top this by miles,” he said.