Centennial Operations

Part 3 of 4

in which we repeatedly employed devious means to make the Centennial Plaza a better place

Operation Centennial Gravity

The petition author had inadvertently suggested a covert remedy to the campus blight in his text. It read, “The stones are laid over slick plastic sheeting on a steep incline. We in the geological sciences have a term called ‘angle of repose’—the maximum angle of slope before its surface fails and material movement occurs. For well-rounded, poorly-sorted material, such as the cobbles, that angle is approximately 40 degrees. The berm is at an angle of almost 40 degrees.”

It was common for various people, including Beta Operatives, to visit my dorm room at all hours. Every night when fellow Beta Operatives were present, I encouraged us to participate in Operation Centennial Gravity. Nearly all of us participated in that mission at one time or another—Ratchet, Goldilox, Climber, Mom, Fingers, Sushi, Chicken, Rodent, Shutter, and Sasquatch.  We’d go to the Plaza and spend about 5 minutes walking on the stones to nurture their collective gravitational slide. It was never enough to make the plaza look significantly different over any single night. But over the coming months we contributed significantly to the natural geologic slump, and eventually large portions of black plastic became visible as rocks piled up on the railroad ties separating them from the surrounding grass.  We maintained our effort all semester, and even held several of our planning sessions for Operation Public Hanging on the rocks.  (At the end of the fall semester, we lost another loyal Beta member to the folly of graduation as Operative Fingers returned to his boyhood home of Clearfield, Pennsylvania.)

One of the luckiest moments of my life came the next spring as Centennial Gravity continued.  In my position as president of the student government and reporter for the school paper, I was in the office of Dr. Laurence Lattman, the Institute President who also happened to be a geology professor. In the course of discussing other matters, the Centennial Plaza came up.  His face immediately lit up with recognition, and he said “I’ve been meaning to call Jim Shaffner about that.  Those rocks have been slumping awfully fast, and the Plaza looks terrible with all that plastic showing through.  Give me a minute.’  Then, while I surged with gleeful witness, he called the director of Physical Plant and ordered the rocks removed and replaced with grass, no matter what the cost.  The transplant occurred a week later.  The administration had needed prodding to eliminate the eyesore, but it did eliminate the eyesore.  Stealth Force Beta won, along with our credo of Constructive Vandalism.

Centennial Plaza after Centennial Gravity, before Dig

Or so we thought.  Physical Plant interpreted Dr. Lattman overly literally.  While they replaced the rocks and plastic with cheerful grassy sod, they left the railroad ties in place.  The beastly logs remained, encircling the plaza with a grisly reminder of its ugly past.  The good people of New Mexico Tech were prevented from lounging comfortably on the grass, obstructed by the wretched creosote-laden logs.  Stealth Force Beta had won the battle, but total victory still eluded us.  Twenty-six railroad ties were in our way, and those railroad ties had to go.

We needed tools.  One Beta supporter who never wished to know of our missions until after they were completed was Kim Eiland, then Director of the Public Information Office.  She was also my confidante for some of the stickier wickets I had found myself on at Paydirt.  At home, she also operated a business in which she grew flowers for the wholesale florist industry, and had a significant array of garden implements.  She agreed to part with a few for several days.  Operative Sushi and I took my pickup truck to her place outside town and borrowed her collection of pickaxes and shovels.

Then Stealth Force Beta assembled to assess the feasibility and difficulty of the plan. Late at night, four of us—Operatives Climber, Sushi, Ratchet, and Sasquatch—met at the plaza.  Climber brought some of his equipment, and I brought the gardening tools.  We selected one of the railroad ties, pried it out of the ground with the picks and shovels, tied a rope around each end, and hefted it.  We discovered that two people could easily carry it, using ropes as slings.  The driveway of Workman Center was less than 20 feet away, although it was up a flight of six stairs.  We reckoned that digging up all the ties, and dividing them into two loads of my pickup truck would be the work of a few hours when done by our strongest operatives.  We mused on the best time to conduct the operation, and since we had had so much luck staging Operation Public Hanging in the midst of 49ers, the fall student festival, we decided to stage our railroad tie heist in the midst of Spring Fling, the spring student festival about a month away.  We restored the railroad tie to its resting place to conceal our intent.

We had a lot to plan in the next month.  This plan became the most elaborate Stealth Force Beta mission of all time.  To begin with, the Centennial plaza had two systems we had to disable—the automatic sprinklers and the outdoor lighting system.

Operation Centennial Blackout

To cultivate grass in the desert, the entire campus was impregnated with automatic water sprinklers.  These seemed to always go off in the middle of the night just as we were in the midst of some covert operation or another.  Again, Beta ingenuity was up to the challenge.  Like the rest of campus, the area around the Centennial Plaza was festooned with an abundance of underground hatches and aboveground metal utility boxes, each of undisclosed purpose.  We looked into all of them.  We found the sprinkler controls in a rectangular box concealed within shrubbery.  Once opened, it revealed an illuminated display and a keypad.  But the display was cryptic, and didn’t have a simple off button.  Operative Sushi volunteered to investigate and figure out how to deactivate the sprinkler.  Since he was a network administrator at the Tech Computer Center in Workman Center, he spent long hours near the Centennial Plaza and was the best candidate for hacking the computerized sprinkler system.

New Mexico Tech Central Campus, 1992The lights posed more of a challenge.  The plaza was illuminated from within by four exceedingly bright lampposts.  The water of the fountain’s central pool was separately illuminated.  A survey of the surrounding terrain revealed that the Plaza area was illuminated by four halogen floodlights aimed toward it from the roofs of Workman Center, Cramer Hall, the Student Union Building, and the Gymnasium.

We looked in all the accessible boxes and hatches on the grounds near the Plaza, and at the innumerable circuit breaker panels and electrical control switches in nearby Workman Center.  None of them seemed to control any of the lights illuminating the plaza.

But conducting a complex mission for hours with the lights on would be excessively risky.  The Centennial Plaza is smack in the middle of campus, and anything that happened there was extremely conspicuous, visible from many sidewalks, buildings, and even the adjacent driveway that was a common route for nocturnal constabulary drive-bys.  Even with a good lookout network, it was essential to snuff the lighting for a huge chunk of the middle of campus.

First we dealt with the floodlights.  On Operation High Exploration, we had gotten onto the roofs of every building on campus with a reasonably flat roof.  It wasn’t always easy.  Getting onto the roof of the Workman Tower, for instance, required knowing the secret code of the elevator.  Getting onto the roof of West Hall involved shimmying up a drainpipe.  And getting to the roof of Macey Center involved an cumbersome injury-provoking process using a grappling hook that we employed in Operation Public Hanging.  We surveyed the four floodlights and found that each was controlled by a photosensor to turn the light on at dusk and off at dawn.  At night when we shone a flashlight into the sensor, the light went off; when we removed the flashlight, it came back on.  The next day at the hardware store, we purchased four disposable squeezable key lights, and four miniature c-clamps, all for less than $10.  That night on the roof of West Hall, we screwed a clamp onto a squeezelight, then affixed the glowing unit to a floodlight’s light sensor with duct tape.  With a delightful click, the relay controlling the floodlight tripped as it was deluded into thinking daybreak had arrived.  Thus we invented a simple apparatus for temporarily disabling campus floodlights.

Next we examined the lampposts within the plaza, and found that our credo of non-destruction compelled cumbersome solutions.  Our best plan was to sew large opaque bags to cover the lamps.  Fortunately, Operative Sushi observed an electrical outlet on the base of one of the lampposts.  While we didn’t have physical access to the circuit breaker, we did have electrical access.  Operative Rodent rummaged through his bin of disused electrical spare parts and found a 3-prong wall plug intended for heavy appliances.  Rather than connect a wire to it, he wrapped all three prongs with bare copper wire.  We dubbed it the Zorch Plug, and it would instantly short any circuit into which it was plugged—activating the circuit breaker required by the national electric code.  That night we set out to test the Zorch Plug.  After ensuring the coast was clear, Sushi put on a pair of thick gloves, skulked over to the unsuspecting lamppost, leaned back, squinted his eyes, and plugged it in. 


A huge spark jumped out directly at Sushi, who gracefully leapt away and emitted one of those almost-silent exclamations of surprise that are the hallmark of well-trained operatives stifling loud expletives.  Simultaneously, an unseen circuit breaker blew and the lights in the Centennial Plaza cascaded to darkness.  We had taken out not only the power for the four lampposts, but also the lights in the pool.  It took Physical Plant several days to flip the circuit breaker to re-illuminate the lights.  We planned to simply re-zorch them the night of the mission.  We completed Operation Centennial Blackout a week before Operation Centennial Dig.

Planning Operation Centennial Dig

We still had assurance from a Vice-President of the Institute that if we ever got into trouble on one of our capers, we could call him and he’d bail us out of whatever we had gotten ourselves into.  He said he could bail us out of trouble with not only Campus Police, but also the town police and sheriff, and even the Military Police sometimes encountered on the school’s mountain.  This official had said he did not wish to know about our missions in advance, but that he understood our primal need to conduct them.  His carte blanche helped considerably with recruiting, especially among conservative students who might be reluctant to find themselves in trouble with Campus Police.  (If you happen to be this official and are willing to be named, let me know.)

Yet skeptics remained. We even had to point out the merits of the Centennial Dig plan to some Beta Operatives.  Previous projects had involved sneaking into places we weren’t expected, and rearranging things that remained in the same quantity afterward as before.  Operatives Spook and Rodent had had reservations about participating in Centennial Gravity, for it involved actively engaging in behavior that made campus less attractive (at least in the short term).  They envisioned hapless Physical Plant employees undoing our effort by meticulously moving the rocks back up the slope, one by one.  (As I had hoped, such Sisyphean repair never happened.)  The two grew willing to join Centennial Gravity when others explained that every above-board means of improving the situation had already been attempted and rebuffed, and that someone had to take these necessary steps to remove the scar from campus and make the slopes of the Centennial Plaza safe for comfort-seeking loungers.

We considered what the mission should involve.  What could we do with 26 railroad ties?  We contemplated spelling something on the athletic field, but couldn’t come up with anything inspiring. We discussed stacking them around some unfortunate victim’s car, but couldn’t identify anyone who deserved such colossal aggravation.  Besides, we reckoned, if we left the ties anywhere on campus, Physical Plant might simply re-install the damnable things.  It was best to remove them completely.

Since this was our first wholesale theft, some operatives, particularly Spook, remained concerned about what would become of us if we were caught (even with our carte blanche).  We had just the position for him—lookout.  As Campus Police lacked a counter-intelligence group, they were extremely unlikely to stage the sort of elaborate assault necessary to catch lookouts stationed atop buildings far from the mission site.  Spook agreed to take part as long as we ensured that he stood negligible chance of being caught.

I have come to realize that there are two fundamental rules of covert operations:

  1. You can do almost anything if you have enough lookouts.
  2. At least one major thing will go wrong.  Contingency plans—and the ability to communicate those plans to everyone—aren’t just a backup—they're essential.

We were ready on both counts.  Our plan included four lookouts. 

Three of these lookouts would be stationed on rooftops, and one in my pickup truck driving around campus.  These lookouts were essential to avoiding unnecessary involvement with the police.  In the middle of the night, Campus Police often drove along the Workman Center driveway mere feet from the Centennial Plaza.  We also knew from our informant on the police force that they entered Workman Center about 10pm to engage certain alarms, and generally didn’t return to that building until morning.  With our rooftop lookouts, Stealth Force Beta would have a commanding view of all approaches to the Centennial Plaza (and most of the rest of campus)—no matter where a pedestrian or driver might come from, he would be seen by one of our lookouts long before he would see us.

We had radios to connect those lookouts and the operation.  Operative Sushi had a pair of FM headsets, and another friend, Bob Hall, had a matching pair, for a total of four hands-free radio headsets.  I also had a handheld CB radio to communicate to its mate in my truck.  Each rooftop lookout was issued an FM headset, the pickup truck had a CB radio, and the communications officer at the hub of operations was tuned in to both frequencies.  We developed a rudimentary code, so anyone listening in would have no idea what was going on, or where.  (They would undoubtedly realize that something was up, of course, but anyone listening in would have to investigate to figure out what the heck was going on, and we were sure to detect any such investigation.)

Everything was ready.

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