The story behind this year's hell ride is pretty ... well, intense. Far more important than the twenty-or-so minutes of the actual event are the four days of its frenzied preparation. Here is the story of those four days...
Wagner's "Ride of the Valkaries" is a brilliant piece of classical music. Unfortunately, Caltech upperclassmen don't share with us freshmen that appreciation; if they ever did, the years of the Ride's association with finals week wiped it from their musical tastes. Their revulsion of the Ride is so great that it has, over the years, become a crime at Caltech to play the piece at any time whatsoever except at 7:00 am each morning of final week. Not ones to bow easily to this sort of silly indoctrination (or simply seeking the thrill of rebellion), each year's class of Blacker freshmen attempt to beat this rule. One night of the year they will barricade themselves into Hell Alley and broadcast the Ride to the entire campus -- that is, until the upperclassmen bash through their barriers and put an end to the offense. The longest the frosh had ever held out was about 40 minutes. This year we vowed to destroy that record.
As happened with the Gates 22 Winter Wonderland project, momentum was slow to build. On Saturday there were perhaps three or four of us who did any work on it at all: Ben, Nate, Marty and myself. We spent that first day carrying to Hell every heavy piece of bulky building material we could find. Most of this came from the steam tunnels, where it's very difficult to move things around, so it was slow going. Our stash was impressive: we bought 1500 pounds of concrete; Sunday night we transported from an on-campus construction site several thousands pounds of broken up concrete blocks; we ended up accumulating far more 2x4's, plywood, metal sheets, furniture, concrete pipes, etc. than we thought we'd ever need. (As it turned out, we could have used a lot more, although our main deficiency was of time.)
By Sunday afternoon things were really starting to pick up. We had many vague plans and hopes, and our enthusiasm began to rub off on other frosh. Some of our most enthusiastic helpers were people who had probably never held a hammer, mixed concrete, or carried anything over 20 pounds in their lives. Even Ravi --the quintessential recluse scientist-- spent several hours sharing our hard labor. At one point, at 3:00 in the morning, we were having great fun throwing bits of concrete into a "borrowed" wheelbarrow at the Avery House construction site. Ravi turned to me, and in a revelatory tone of voice said, "I never thought I'd ever be doing anything like this at Caltech!" It was a wonderful feeling to be doing something so different from the normal work, work, work routine.
Our plan was to block off every possible entrance to Hell as well as we possibly could. We wanted to construct a reinforced concrete wall at the main entrance to Hell with a very strong support structure. Behind that we'd have lots of furniture, possibly a refrigerator, and then finally yet another wall. At the other end of Hell we'd have a wall comprised of essentially a metal chain-linked fence gate sandwiched between plywood and metal sheets, which would be wedged between some steps and the overhanging ceiling, the top angled towards the intruders, the back supported extremely tightly with metal rods and plywood. Behind that, as at the other entrance, we'd have furniture and a second, less formidable, wall. There are other entrances to Hell, though. First of all there are windows. Since Hell is the highest alley of all the houses (hence the irony of its name), the roofs of neighboring alleys come close below some of the windows in Hell. Two of these windows are at doorway-level in relation to the neighboring roofs --thus very serious threats. We decided to block off all the windows, especially the two critical ones, with plywood and metal, supported by beds and mattresses. In one of the rooms we had a 200-lb metal grate wedged against the window by two 15-foot metal poles extending across the room to the opposite wall. Nothing short of a demolition ball would have gotten through that window, in which case it would have been the room's opposite wall to give way. The last and most vulnerable entrance to Hell is via the attic, i.e. "hyperspace". Luckily, owing to Hell' high elevation, Hell has largely its own attic, but still on both sides of the alley there are two-feet openings connecting Hell hyperspace to neighboring hyperspaces. One room in Ricketts House has attic access right into Hell hyperspace, in fact. All these entrances had to be blocked --last year this is where the upperclassmen primarily got through. (Once one has made his way into Hell hyperspace, it is a trivial matter to climb down one of the rooms' attic accesses, putting him in Hell.) So our plan was to block the major hyperspace entrances with chicken wire, concrete rubble, cement, metal bars, and plywood. Even the most obscure entrances (a 2'x2' passage from the kitchen hyperspace, for example) would be securely barricaded. For added security we would bar shut the hyperspace accesses of the rooms with the stereo equipment and the generator. (We needed a generator since the first thing the upperclassmen would do would be to cut electrical power to Hell, of course.) We decided we'd also put up some flimsy walls supported by refrigerators at the entrances to Purgatory, the lounge area at one end of Hell, just to slow them down in getting to the "real" blockade. All this security may seem a bit excessive, but we really wanted to do a quality Hell Ride. Keep in mind, too, that the record time is after all only 40 minutes, and one year the upperclassmen knocked through a pre-existing wall to get in! (We had anticipated even this.)
On to nonsecurity matters, we wanted to do this year's Hell Ride with style. In previous years the Hell Ride has degenerated into nothing less than a war between the frosh and the upperclassmen. Typically, the upperclassmen drop into a viscerally frenzied state of mind, willing to break any thing or even anybody to get the Ride out of the air. In the days before the Hell Ride, the house sledgehammers, axes, and power tools would be stolen back and forth between the frosh and the upperclassmen. This year we wanted to be somewhat mature about it. Once the upperclassmen got through our walls, that would be the end of it. No silly, dangerous struggling or fighting. No duct tape. Nothing stupid like locking the door of the room with the power switch (that simply invites a sledge hammer to the door.) Our walls would be strong, and our music would be loud. Period.
I wanted to go for even more style points. My idea was to turn Purgatory --which would otherwise be an empty room save for the relics of construction-- into a neat and comfortable living room. We would have comfortable chairs around a coffee table supporting food, drink, and flowers in a dainty vase; we would hang framed pictures on the walls; and finally we would set out neatly before them the sledgehammers, axes, and power tools they would need to violently destroy our walls and, in consequence, Purgatory's peaceful atmosphere.
So that was the plan. As I say, by Sunday things were beginning to fall in place. We were quickly accumulating tons (literally) of materials, including cast-iron and cement foot-diameter pipes, meters and meters of 2'x4's and plywood, metal sheets of various sizes, dry cement, 100-lb broken cement blocks, massive metal desks, the Purgatory couch (a traditional component of the blockade), reebar, tools, nails, and all kinds of other random stuff. We were beginning to get the frame for the concrete wall in place, and progress was beginning to be very visible. Hell was quite a sight!
Then Sunday evening a very strange and frightening thing happened. Alex, a Hell Frosh, a friend of everyone, had three friends from his high school visiting him, and at some point they decided to go out to get something to eat. He also took Ryan, another Hell Frosh, and three others went in a separate car. Alex was driving down the 210, doing 60 to 70 mph, when his car suddenly went out of control. They started swerving back and forth, first very gradually, then violently. Suddenly they went off the road and the car began to drive up a bank before it flipped over back on to the road, upside down. They skidded down the road, sparks flying, until the car eventually stopped. Amazingly no one was hurt. There weren't many other cars on the road, and they didn't fly off the other side of the road, into oncoming traffic. A girl cut herself minorly on broken glass as she climbed out of the car, but that was the extent of the injuries from the wreck. In the meantime the other car that was going with them, which had been a little ways ahead of Alex when the problems arose, had stopped and ended up taking the girl who cut herself to the hospital. I don't know the exact details here but whatever they are, they're bizarre: for some reason there was a camping knife protruding somewhere in the other guy's car, and as the minorly injured girl got out of the car at the hospital, she cut herself very badly on this knife. She needed several stitches for that cut --her car accident injuries requiring nothing in comparison. Alex was understandably shook up. Actually, to me, an observer, he seemed both incredibly p.o.'d and scared to death. One of the girls in the other car got to Blacker first, and told everyone about the accident and warned us about Alex's state. Meanwhile Ryan, the other Hell Frosh in the car --who's a bit of a psycho at the best of times (sorry Ryan! :) )-- was obviously in some sort of a state of shock. He could not get his mind off how near he was to death, and how "ironic" things were. He hadn't been wearing his seatbelt, you see, and that really scared him. He walked around talking to himself for hours afterwards. Things like this don't happen every day, and for it to happen while we were so involved in the Hell Ride contributed to a general eerie feeling about those days. Nothing at all was like life as usual at Tech.
Getting back to the Hell Ride, we began actual substantive work on the walls that night. By this time we had quite a lot of people willing to work. It was a very exciting time. The frame for the concrete wall was erected, sealing off one end of Hell, and cementing began. At around 3 am I had to saw something for the wall, but the only power saw we had was a near-dead circular saw. I began using it, but the thing did little more than wheeze and cough and spit out some smoke. As soon as I smelled the burnt fumes I stopped, scared to death of setting the fire alarm off. Everyone else smelled it, too, and suddenly all of Hell froze in fright, realizing the imminence of being caught erecting a massive cement wall in our alley. We stared at the nearest smoke detector, its red light being the indicator of what it is detecting. It flashed once and we were all set running, shouting to each other "Cover it! Cover it! Get a condom! Quick!!" (A common way to get around such problems is to make a smoke detector condom --a plastic bag duct taped to the detector-- something we should have already done.) We frantically found a bag and taped it up, but as we were doing this, the red light lit up and stayed on. We stared at that light, hoping against what we knew was about to happen. Sure enough, the fire alarms went off. We all went running in different directions. Some went to check the central panel, to meet security when they would go to check it. Jesse ran to a phone to try to catch security before they left; he called them up, and in a voice full of panic tried to reassure them that, "This is Blacker, and, uh, well, there's no fire -- you don't need to come." Needless to say they came anyway. I ran as fast as I could out the other Hell entrance, down to the SAC and back up to the other side of our wall. I thought I might try to say something to the guards when they came. Meanwhile those working on the wall tried to get it back down, even though it had concrete delicately setting in it, and it had not been easy getting the frame into position in the first place --without concrete. They were screaming and yelling at each other, truly panicking. Just seconds after the wall came to the floor, two security guards walked into Purgatory. I tried to explain to them what had happened. Marty argued with amused upperclassmen who had come to snicker at our problems. The security guards inspected the scene a little bit, but generally seemed to agree with the upperclassmen that the whole situation was worth a good laugh. They took it really well, telling us only that we shouldn't saw inside. Once they had left we raised the wall back up and got back to work. I finished my sawing with a hand saw.
After another few hours Marty and I were the only ones left still up and working. Together we had got half the wall cemented, and Marty was beginning to worry that we wouldn't get the cement done in time to dry. He was tired and had work (that is, school work) to do for the next day, and was pretty uptight, as were we all that night. I told him to go to bed and that I'd take care of the wall. With great reluctance that's what he did, and I was left alone with over half a wall to cement on my own. I worked hard all through the night and managed to get the job done. For some stupid reason I hadn't been wearing gloves, and the concrete literally wore the skin on my hands away. when I cleaned my hands I discovered I had no fingerprints left; the entire undersides of my hands were smooth. I had countless cuts all over, basically in the places where the skin had got so thin there was nothing left. Actually, the cuts were not countless, since as I cleaned each one with H202 I counted them --the number I got was 62. I had cuts and scrapes all over me, but my hands looked like they belonged to a dead man.
Monday morning, having finished the wall, I took a shower (a painful experience --I found it rather difficult applying soap and shampoo without the aid of hands.) Afterwards I ran into some men in Cannes who happened to ask me where the sawing had gone on the night before. I told them, then immediately called someone in Hell to have him rip all the detector condoms down. As it turns out all these men wanted to do was inspect the fire detectors, but obviously they saw the misplaced dead end, reported it, and through the course of the day word propagated through the ranks of the safety office. Finally the much-dreaded Safety representatives came by and had a long talk with Marty. They stipulated that we either take down the wall, or we would have our Hell Ride with a maximum of four people inside, with the two windows that opened to roofs left open. Furthermore, if we chose the latter option no one could sleep in Hell until the wall came down. Neither of these options appealed to us. We had spent so much time on the wall we could not imagine tearing it down. Then I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea: we could leave the concrete wall up, board up the two windows, and have no one inside! Now there's style! When (and if) the frenzied upperclassmen made it through the barriers, ready to slam a Hellful of frosh in the showers, they'd find instead a completely empty Hell. Some people thought this was a great idea; others thought it completely ruined the point of the Hell Ride and was utterly out of the question for them. We talked and talked, debated and debated (there were many, many details of the deal that I'm leaving out --yes, I'm actually leaving some things out!) Finally, after Monday's dinner when we had failed to come to a consensus, we had a big meeting and took a vote. The result: 7-7. Everyone was feeling really bad about the Hell Ride by this point, the upperclassmen knew we were in trouble, and many of us were doubting whether the Hell Ride would take place at all, in any form. I didn't know if I'd feel motivated to do any more work on it if we had to tear the wall down. Some people were saying screw Security; we'd do it the way we wanted anyway. That was completely out of the question, though. Marty and Alex were adamant about being completely honest with the authorities. While I was perfectly willing to bend some of their rules (we could easily get around their no sleeping in Hell stipulation), I did agree that we could not blatantly defy Safety. Doing so would cause huge problems for us, the house, those people in the Housing Office sympathetic and responsible for us, and, most importantly, the entire undergraduate community. People complain about the administration slowly encroaching on our freedom; a fiasco with Safety would certainly have very big repercussions. Our decision involved many issues.
At 9:00 Monday night Marty, Ravi (!), an I met with Tom Manion from housing who was "on our side", and we discussed our options. He brainstormed with us, trying to come up with viable solutions that would circumvent Safety's objections. He suggested that we might cut out part of the wall and cover it back up with a (wink) "removable" plug, so that an escape theoretically exists that we could get through if need be. Seeing all our problems would be solved, we immediately acted on this suggestion. Finally the legal issues were settled and we could get back to work. I was exhausted, though, since I hadn't slept since Saturday. I went to bed at 11pm and woke up at 11am Tuesday. In twelve hours the hole had been cut, the plug was begun, but nothing else had happened.
We spent Tuesday until 11:26 frantically working. We had so much to do, and we actually almost had time to do all of it. My primary concentration was on the back entrance, where I single handedly built an impenetrable barrier. (Who needs modesty?) Many people were working on the primary entrance, but our seemingly rock-solid concrete wall discouraged them from building the second wall there as we had planned. In fact, we ended up not bothering with many embellishments of the one wall itself. Its support structure consisted of the Purgatory couch and lots of heavy crap at its base --far, far less than we had planned. Everything else worked out fine; all other entrances were virtually impenetrable, the sound system seemed to be working marvelously, and I actually managed to get people working with dedication on the Purgatory coffee lounge. By 10:30 everyone else was done with what they were doing. Marty was itching to start it. He at least wanted me to be done with my back blockade, since only then, when the people helping me on the outside climbed through his window could he close off his window, the last unbarricaded point in our blockade. During all this I was completely out of sight --I was between my two walls. Since I needed the second wall to be in place before I could brace the first wall, I was forced to put a small hole in the second wall which I could squeeze through when I'd finished bracing the first. The trouble was worth it, though; that wall was strong. To hammer my primary support beam into place, I climbed up on top of it and jumped on it until it was jammed in place. At 11:26 everything was ready, and the Ride went on.
The first obvious problem was that for some reason the music kept cutting out; something in the amp was clipping somewhere, and the resulting sound was terrible. We tried to no avail to locate the problem (communicating through writing since there was no chance we'd hear each other talking). Eventually we managed to get the clipping down to a minimum. There was some pounding on Marty and Alex's windows --the two easily accessible form the roof-- and nothing budged. We heard some futile attempts on the back wall, too. The place where things were happening was at the primary wall, in Purgatory. We heard the upperclassmen banging on the wall with a sledgehammer, then we heard the whine of the reciprocator saw that had mysteriously disappeared a few days earlier. I listened closely. Every so often I could hear the wrrrrr of the saw followed by quick rumbles, and I knew we were in trouble. The beloved concrete wall was crumbling like a cake. Our worst fears were becoming reality. Eventually they got most of the cement at the top of the wall down, and we could see them over the top of the single metal plate we had put behind the wall. Once everyone realized the danger, we ran through the rooms gathering mattresses and whatever else we could find to bolster the blockade. It was all useless, though. Soon there were people climbing over everything we had put behind the wall. When they got through it a brief struggle ensued, until we all accepted the fact that they were through. Everyone was disappointed. Our weakest point happened to be our most prominent point. We had the best barricade of any Hell Ride before, except for one absolutely critical point. After this inevitable outcome, no one even cared to know exactly how long we held out. The number 23 sticks in my mind. A long shot from the record. Oh well.
Amazingly, a few people were motivated enough to clean it all up afterwards. The idea occurred to a few of us that we could perhaps build the front entrance up again and have the "real" Hell Ride the next night! But I don't think anyone took that idea seriously; it was a disappointing end, but it was over. For me, the fun was in those four days before the Hell Ride. If there's one thing we, as a frosh class, have learned from our projects this year, it's that something will always screw up. But that's okay! The purpose of projects like these is not to get everything right. It's to have fun trying to accomplish something starting from nothing. Those four days were, for me, --and I'm sure for many others-- the most amazing of the year. (Well, aside from my Catalina run, but that's another story...) That's why I felt compelled to write so much here. I think the experience deserves a place in Blacker history, if only as a representative of all projects of this sort. After all, it is the ingenuity and spirit of these projects that make Caltech undergrads, and in particular Moles, unique.