H & M Construction: Bottom (from left): Byrne Sanford '86 (team photographer), Greg Felton '85, Tom Jedrzejewicz* '87, Dave Somers '87, Joe Agnese '87, Steve Olson* '87, Jeff Hong '87. Top (from left):Eric Rosser* '86, Mark "Big Unit" Moeglein '87, Chris Donnelly '87, Hernan Santos '87. Asterisks denote those who portrayed Caltech students during the heist.
At engineering schools pranks or hacks are a form of intercollegiate sport. This is certainly the case at Harvey Mudd College. The Cannon Heist is a story of how a small underdog school, Harvey Mudd, upset a national powerhouse, Caltech, in a big prank.
Stealing the Cannon. This had been a holy grail of Harvey Mudd students for about half of the history of the college. Harvey Mudd, a small, top-flight engineering college in Southern California was usually overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Caltech. When I was a student, Harvey Mudd had the second highest average SAT scores in the country. Caltech had the highest. Mudd students wore T-shirts that proclaimed Caltech: a division of Harvey Mudd College. Mudders had a score to settle. In the end of March 1986, 11 of us settled the score.
We showed up early on Saturday morning dressed as a work crew. We had a monster fork lift, 2 trucks, forged work orders, fake Caltech students, and the guts to try it in broad daylight. Three hours later we drove into the Mudd Quad with the Cannon. An enormous celebration ensued at the Saturday morning. It was as if we had just won the Rose Bowl. The student newspaper dedicated a special issue with a 96 point headline that simply read "Victory!". Alumni from the 70's sent congratulations and money for beer kegs. It is not often that one has 500 or more people cheering wildly and supporting you. We had that moment in March, 1986.
I think the first cannon attempt goes back to '74 or even '72. They once got it on a pickup truck only to break the axle. Another time the fire hose was turned on them. By the mid 80's there was still a buzz about the cannon, but no serious efforts had been made for awhile. Mark Moeglein and I made a trial run as a frosh, with a pick up truck and a pair of bolt cutters, but all we did was cut the lock -- I don't know how we would have gotten it on the truck.
In '86 I was ASHMC president and had a bit of a prank reputation. ( I was nearly expelled for moving the stakes of New II/ 7th/ Case Dorm early in construction ). Jeff Hong and Steve Olson revived the idea of stealing the cannon and had made a few observational runs. They knew it was a big job and that it would take some money (hopefully ASHMC's) so they brought me in. I got some covert help from the administration -- the phone number of an alum, Bob DePietro, who had a construction engineering company -- and a promise to post bail if we got busted.
The DePietro connection was critical. We used his name to rent a flat bed truck and a fork lift in Pasadena. I don't think they would have given it to a 21 year college student with a visa card. There were so many logistics. We had to find 2 people with class 2 drivers licences to drive the truck and the fork lift off site -- Greg Felton and Tom Jed.
We also had the problem of where to park the fork lift. We planned an early Saturday morning raid. But had to pick up the forklift by 5 on Friday. The forklift was huge and clearly could make a trip on the 210 between Claremont and Pasadena. So I scouted around and found some road construction where they left the equipment over night. We picked the fork lift right at 5 and fortunately the work crew quit a little early. Tom Jed just drove it in behind the Pasadena equipment, parked it and took the key. Well, actually it wasn't that simple. Tom ran into a BMW on the way! As we would later discover, the hydrolic steering on the forklift was defective.
OK, so we had the hardware, but how we're we going to pull it off. We picked an early Saturday morning when most of Fleming House was off on a dorm ski trip. But still we needed cover. We decided to go in daylight and pose as a construction crew. Joe, after a stint in the army, was a bald 27 year-old Mudder. He was made foreman and H&M construction was born. Phony work orders were made and blue workshirts, overalls, and workmen flannels were aqcuired.
We could not think of one story that would fool everyone, so we came up with two stories. We told campus security that we had be contracted to take the barrel for polishing. There was no way would that the students have bought that lame story. So we told them we're just moving it to get access to a broken water main that was below. Still a little fishy, so we added some decoys. Tom, Steve, and Eric went in 15 minutes before to pose as Caltech students. Two playing catch and one reading. I think this was critical. Each time someone would come along, they would be suspicious. But then they looked around and saw other "techies" who seemed to think all was right so they moved along. And to add insult to injury, Byrne Sanford hid inside the dorm and shot 8 rolls of photos of the whole event.
Of course it wasn't all so smooth. Campus security was called almost immediately upon our arrival. I thought we were busted. But Joe our foreman played his role beautifully and made our story hold up. Once campus security was pacified, we knew we were going to make it. Also there was a Fleming house frosh who was up early and chatting with us. He gave us a bit of a scare, but by the end he was telling us stories of how people had tried to steal the cannon in the past. Poor frosh.
Unfortunately, the steering on the forklift was no good and we had to do it by hand -- two of us on each wheel, back and forth trying to back into a corner so we could lift the cannon. The wheels were so rotted then that we didn't want to try to roll it. The cannon is now 100 years old and the last thing we wanted to do was break it! It took 2 full hours to hoist the cannon and get it to a place where we could back the truck in.
The truck sped off to Claremont. Hernan (who took over forklift responsibilities after the BMW incident) and I went to return it. Feeling pumped and a little cocky, I convinced them to only charge us half price for the "defective" forklift.
We caught up to the truck on the 210 and all pulled onto campus and drove into the quad by 10:30 on saturday. People getting up for Platt brunch were dumbfounded at first. But soon it was as if we had just won the big football game. We're mobbed. Everyone came out. A keg magically appearred. By 1PM I had to crash after the all-nighter. I remember that my face hurt from smiling so much and my voice hurt from whooping.
The attention was amazing. AP picked up the story and our pictures. We made the evening news, the LA times, even radio stories on the easy coast. Alums from the 70's called me up and sounded as excited as kids on christmas morning. Cards and even kegs flowed in. The Muddraker (now defunct) ran a special issue with a 96 point banner "Victory!".
However, Caltech or Fleming house in particular weren't too keen on playing the fool in our prank. Their alums were demanded that honor be restored. They never succeeded in stealing the cannon back, but they did succeed in driving me crazy. I felt like I had to watch the cannon all the time. We convinced the frosh to sleep with it as protection! I remember that during the LA Times interview, that two Marines showed up. They had agreed to airlift it back to Caltech -- if only Mudd would agree to a property damage waiver if it fell. Duh, no thanks. Another time, a rival Caltech house came over and fired spaghetti out of the cannon -- people in North dorm barely noticed the mess.
We nearly kept it forever. Caltech had stolen the cannon from a boys prep school. During the late Vietnam era when Caltech acquired it, the prep school was more than happy to shed its military image and to be associated with Caltech. I got the headmaster to verbally agree to lease the cannon to us, provided that we mentioned his school to the press. But news of this leaked and got to Caltech who pressured the headmaster to reneg.
When that failed we contacted MIT, who agreed to pay shipping charges. Estimated at $2850 for shipping a 3 ton antique cross-country. By this time Fleming house appeared to be watching the campus at all times and there were a few Caltech sympathisizers at Mudd. Based on what finally happenned, I don't think this would have worked.
Finals were approaching and Fleming house threatened to distrupt study period. In the end, the presidents stepped in. Murph Goldberger formally requested that we return the stolen property. So we agreed to give it back. However, to make sure they knew it was a gift, we gift wrapped it, building an 18 foot long box on the back of a truck. We wrapped the cannon in black and gold streamers and balloons. We made a huge card on the side of the truck -- To Murph with Love From Harvey Mudd. By photocopying the Mudd signing-in book. I added EVERYONE's signature.
Fleming house was not amused. They were observing the whole thing and two cars descended on us as soon as we drove the cannon off campus. They were maniacs, trying to stop the truck, trying to rip down the box while the truck was moving. Before we reached the 210 they rammed the back of Larry Hartwick's truck. And the party was over.
I've only seen the cannon once since then. I think they fixed it up nicely. I've heard that mudders like to play with the Techies minds by showimg up and unicycling around it. Sounds like something I'd do.