Centennial Operations

Part 4 of 4

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

Operation Centennial Dig

Since we were conducting this operation during the spring student festival, we couldn’t start until the crowds had dispersed from the night’s last concert.  The final band was scheduled to finish performing at 1:00am.  We planned to meet in my dorm room at 1:30am, make the necessary preparations, and head to the Plaza at 2:00am.

At 2:00am, there were still far too many people wandering about in the aftermath of the concert.  We returned to my dorm room, and waited.  As we eagerly awaited the biggest mission in the history of Stealth Force Beta, anticipation hung in the air.

At 2:30 we returned, and things were quiet.  Time to get to work!  Some operatives begin climbing various buildings on campus to disable the floodlights.  Mom used the secret code in the Workman elevator, Spook shimmied up the drainpipe, Climber got up into the gym’s inner works, and Goldilox walked out the balcony door onto Cramer Hall’s roof.  Those of us remaining at the plaza flipped the override switches to disable the sprinkler system, and again employed the trusty Zorch Plug to squelch the lampposts and fountain lights.  Step by step, as we disabled four floodlights surrounding the plaza, four lampposts within the plaza, and the underwater lights within the fountain pool, the Centennial Plaza was transformed from one of the most brightly lit places on campus to a dark land of shadows.

New Mexico Tech Central Campus Aerial Photograph, 1992

The lookouts assumed their positions, and we tested our communications network.  Operative Goldilox was stationed on the roof of Cramer Hall, covering the northeast corner of campus.  Operative Spook was on the roof of West Hall on the southern front.  Operative Mom was on the roof of the Workman Center Tower, with a commanding view of the western half of campus, and up the hill toward Campus Police headquarters.  Stationed at the Centennial Plaza were Operatives Ratchet, Sushi, Rodent, and Climber.  I was driving my pickup truck around campus, keeping an eye on the Campus Police patrol.  All lookouts signaled that the digging could start.

My job at this point was rather dull—on the roads of the dark campus, there were few things moving in the middle of the night.  I wondered how the mission was going.  After a few minutes, I radioed in, “Sasquatch to command, Sasquatch to command.  Status report?”  For a time, silence was the only reply.  Then I heard “Ratchet to Sasquatch.  We’ve got a big problem.  The objects [our codeword for railroad ties] are very heavy.”  What did he mean, they were heavy?  Of course they were heavy!  We knew how heavy they were because we had excavated one and carried it to and fro to learn precisely how heavy they were.  “What’s with the ties?”  “Come and I’ll show you.”  I turned around and drove to the Workman Center parking lot, parked, and walked to the mission site.

Ratchet and Climber were standing next to two exhumed railroad ties.  Across the plaza, Sushi and Rodent were working on another.  Ratchet motioned me over.

“Remember that railroad tie we dug up last week?”
“Here it is.”  He kicked one of the railroad ties, and the end moved about eight inches.  “Compared to the others, this one is light as a feather.  All the other ties are like this one.”  He kicked the other railroad tie, and it shuddered but didn’t budge.  I kicked the ties myself, and it was readily apparent that one weighed at least three times as much as the other.  We were both Physics majors, and understood weight.

Our problems were just beginning.

“Hello?  This is Spook.  Can anybody hear me?” came the crackle over the headset.  “This is Ratchet.  We hear you.” he replied.  “This is Spook.  Come in.  Over.”  Spook’s headset was malfunctioning—it could transmit, but not receive.  “There’s a car leaving the South Hall parking lot.  It’s heading away.  Is anybody there?”  Even without being able to hear anything from Mission Control, Spook continued transmitting reports, again demonstrating his dependability as a Beta operative.

While Ratchet, Sushi, Rodent, and I improvised ways of dealing with the heavier railroad ties, Climber went to West Hall to deliver Spook the message that we could hear his broadcasts.

“This is Spook.  There’s somebody else up on the roof.  They must have heard me!”  Spook’s aversion to getting caught overrode his desire to distinguish friend from foe.  “I’m hiding now.  I’ll be quiet so I don’t get caught.”  Spook was very stressed.

Finally, a few moments later, came a more reassured voice.  “Spook here.  Climber says you guys can hear me.  I’ll just stay up here and keep reporting.  Over.”

One problem solved.  Another was fast on its heels.

“Visitors!”  Ratchet relayed word from Goldilox atop Cramer Hall that there were some students walking across central campus, and would soon have sight of the Centennial Plaza, possibly walking right through it.

We tossed the pickaxes behind some bushes.  Sushi, dressed in black, was well-camouflaged by darkness, so he ran behind some bushes to join the pickaxes.  The rest of us, wearing fairly dark civilian clothes, scattered.  Rodent walked nonchalantly along the sidewalk toward West Hall; Climber walked toward Workman Center, directly across the path of the approaching police car.  Ratchet walked toward West Hall, and I sat on one of the benches in the Centennial Plaza itself, waiting to see what happened.

The student walkers came into view, and were obviously infatuated with each other; they posed little threat to the Operation.  They walked slowly and on a trajectory that would take them near, but not through, the Plaza. As Spook reported that the couple walked toward President’s Hall, Operatives Rodent, Sushi, Ratchet and Climber headed back toward the Plaza.

We had not yet solved the Case of the Overweight Railroad Ties.  We discussed the situation, and re-engineered our plan.  First, I was no longer going to drive around campus looking for trouble.  With our aerial lookout network, we didn’t need to assign someone to keep track of the campus police patrol car.  Or, rather, it was readily apparent that we’d need as many muscles on the job as possible.  Second, we set up a railroad tie staging area.  Since it was going to be a lot harder than we had anticipated to move the railroad ties, we couldn’t leave the truck in the driveway while we carried ties from the Plaza.  We needed a place to stash them as close to the road as possible, yet out of sight of police drive-by patrols.  So we decided to move the ties in stages.  We’d pile the ties up against the retaining wall alongside the driveway, and then when we had enough to fill the truck, we’d drive it up to its conspicuous loading spot, everyone would fill it as fast as possible, send it on its way, and resume hauling ties to the staging area.  Sushi and Rodent came up with an innovative way to carry their ties; they removed their belts and used them instead of the ropes because belts were easier to grip. 

After a time, we had ten railroad ties ready for the first load.  I sauntered to the parking lot, spoke with the lookouts to verify the absence of interlopers, and drove along the Workman driveway to the Plaza.  We started hauling the ties up, but soon discovered that their new-found massiveness wouldn’t just limit human-powered transport of the things.  As we put the fifth railroad tie in, the truck bottomed out on its suspension springs—driving with ten ties would not be safe.  We loaded in a sixth tie and considered the load complete.  Climber came with me on that first trip to dispose of the ties, and everyone else resumed digging.

We set off for the eastern part of Socorro, where the railroad line from El Paso to Albuquerque runs just outside town.  We figured that the railroad track proximity might confuse whoever found the ties into thinking they had something to do with the railroad.  We were also on the opposite side of town from Tech, which we hoped would divert suspicion to scoundrels more proximal than we.  We found a large vacant lot across the street from the hardware store, drove onto it, and heaved the ties out the back of the truck.  Then we went back for more.

When we returned to the mission site, the next load of ties was ready, so we took those out and dumped them alongside their kin.  After that trip we resumed digging.  Ratchet transferred the role of communications officer to me, because coping with a radio headset, handset, and flashlight grows very annoying when you’re trying to excavate a series of railroad ties, each of which is three times as heavy as it’s supposed to be.

By this time, the lookouts had established a sort of air-traffic control network.  Anything that moved within sight of any lookout was reported, and there were a number of people walking or driving around the fringe of campus who never entered central campus, but the lookouts tracked them, just in case.  Suddenly, among the routine chatter, Mom had an urgent message from Workman Tower.

“Fuzz incoming!  I repeat—fuzz incoming!”  A Campus Police patrol car had just turned off the main road toward us.  I squawked the information to everyone at the Plaza.  We all dropped our railroad ties right where they were and tossed the pickaxes behind the bushes.  Unlike when the couple had strolled past earlier, nobody remained at the Plaza.  None of us wanted to be found at what was starting to look like an unauthorized archaeological dig.  Beta operatives strolled away from the scene in every direction, dispersed to reduce both suspicion and the ability to potentially intercept all of us.

The headlights came around the bend as the police car started driving on the narrow driveway between Workman Center and the Centennial Plaza.  Efven though he would be driving within fifteen feet of the Plaza, it would be very difficult to see our work in the darkness with foliage blocking some of the line of sight.  However, we were extremely conspicuous if the officer were sufficiently clever.  Central campus was normally lit up like a Christmas tree, and the Centennial Plaza was one of the brightest areas.  Tonight it was pitch black.  Would the officer notice?  We walked away slowly, keeping an eye on the police car, and hoped.

He drove slowly, but steadily, all the way past the Centennial Plaza, and into the parking lot on the other side.  If he had noticed the darkness, he didn’t think anything of it.  Perhaps he presumed it had something to do with Spring Fling.  As soon as he disappeared from view, all the Beta pedestrians walking away from the Plaza reversed course and reconvened as Mom reported from the tower that the police car continued patrolling the north side of campus.

When Rodent and I returned after a third load of railroad ties, folks were starting to get tired.  Shoulders, backs, thighs, and hands were sore.  It was 5:30am, and our interest in careers as day-laborers was at an all-time low.  But still we toiled.  Another pedestrian walked past, and the lookouts remained vigilant; this time the digging crew simply hid in the bushes.  The police drove by again, similarly oblivious to our presence.

As the sky lightened in anticipation of dawn, we loaded the truck with the fourth—and final—set of railroad ties.  In doing so, we left four railroad ties along the approaches to the Centennial Plaza, and eight shorter vertical posts that went straight into the ground.  Our original plans had included removing these, too (which is why we had borrowed shovels to accompany the pickaxes), but the unanticipated weight of the railroad ties had put us well behind schedule.  Fatigue and daybreak prevented us from eliminating the last traces of the Plaza’s former life as a tailings pile.

Everyone but Rodent and I headed straight to bed.  Rodent came with me to dispose of the last load of ties, and was amused to see the large pile in the vacant lot, although he was a bit concerned that we were driving across town with hundreds of pounds of stolen material.  We wasted no time ridding ourselves of it.  As daybreak found Socorro, New Mexico, we jettisoned the truck’s cargo to enlarge the woodpile for the last time. Then Rodent and I returned to our dorm rooms for some well-deserved sleep.

But I couldn’t sleep for long.  After any major Beta mission, I could never sleep much past daybreak because I was so eager to see the scene of our crime by the light of day.  Around 10am, I awoke with eager anticipation, and walked over to the Centennial Plaza.  There was an obvious ditch all the way around where the railroad ties had been, but all seemed quite well.  I then got in my truck to drive to photograph the pile of railroad ties.

As I arrived at the lot where we had dumped the railroad ties, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  They weren’t there!  Incredulous, I drove around for a few minutes, to ensure I wasn’t misremembering the location of the nighttime cargo dumps.  But the ties were nowhere to be found.  Someone had stolen the railroad ties, mere hours after we had!  In the best imaginable conclusion to our caper, more than a ton of contraband had disappeared!

Paydirt again

Since we had done almost all of the work to rid the plaza of railroad ties, Physical Plant had little choice but to finish; they yanked out the few remaining railroad ties and filled the excavated trenches with grass.  Just two weeks later, the Centennial Plaza was the site of a large outdoor reception at the May 1992 graduation—when Operatives Rodent, Climber, Mom, Spook, Ratchet, Goldilox, Chicken, and I graduated, bringing to an end the amazing secret society dedicated to the credo of constructive vandalism.  (Sushi remained on campus to finish his twin degrees in Computer Science and Technical Communication a year later.)  This photo shows that reception and its merry revelers.  Coincidentally, no Beta Operatives are shown.

Graduation at the Plaza, 1992

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