PASADENA, Calif. — Under the cover of darkness, 25 Harvey Mudd College students armed with 1,500 pounds of concrete and 500 pounds of sand arrived at the California Institute of Technology at 2:45 a.m. this past Sunday morning.
Their goal? Revive Mudd’s historic pranking culture.
The plan was to build a concrete monument next to Caltech’s Fleming Cannon, which HMC students infamously stole in 1986. Attached to the monument would be a plaque that read, “Fleming Cannon, On Extended Loan From Harvey Mudd College, Dedicated in Honor of the 11 Mudders Who Bravely Relocated this Cannon in 1986.”
It all began when Aely Aronoff HM ’21 and Howard Deshong HM ’21 were walking back from Pomona College after executing a prank a few weeks ago, where they re-labeled all the “Pomona College” signs on campus. They were talking about pranking Caltech, as the Fleming Cannon theft was the “holy grail of Mudd pranks,” Aronoff said. Deshong had the idea to commemorate stealing the cannon, and the planning began.
The timing was “perfect,” Aronoff said, because the following Monday would bring admitted students to campus for Caltech’s “Prefrosh Experience.”
Then came the prank.
Munching on salt and vinegar chips and listening to “Hotel California,” the HMC students made their way to Caltech in the dead of night.
Half the cars parked behind Fleming House, the location of the cannon, while the other half went to the Caltech Athenaeum’s parking lot. Concrete pillars and slabs painted and constructed earlier that day, in addition to sandbags, were rolled to the construction site on skateboards.
At first, the students were nervous about Caltech Security. But that proved to be the least of the Mudders’ problems.
Jonathan Schallert HM ’20, one of the drivers, was waiting in his car in the parking lot when he was approached by security officers.
“They asked us if we were students, and we replied, ‘Yes!’” Schallert said. John Little HM ’20, who was with Schallert, said the students were just unloading a few things, and Caltech Security left.
By 3:20 a.m., the main pillars had been constructed and filled with sand to make it harder to take apart. All that was the left was the top of the monument and the plaque. They were making good time.
The problem was that Caltech students, known as “Techies,” never sleep. Caltech had a schoolwide party that Saturday night, and, to make matters worse, the fire alarm in one of the dorms went off at 3:41 a.m. Many students evacuated to where the HMC students were assembling the structure.
But Aronoff, who gave himself the name “Jack” for the purposes of this prank, had a whole story prepared involving bottle rockets and prefrosh. Students who approached them throughout the night were satisfied by “Jack’s” performance.
“They were like ‘Oh, that’s cool’ and walked away … and so I got so cocky,” Aronoff said. Then a real Jack showed up: a Caltech senior named Jack Lloyd.
“By the time [the real] Jack showed up, I was like ‘Oh, this is easy peasy,’ … but then right off the bat, it went sour, because he was obviously more invested … than other people I ended up talking to, and also way drunker,” Aronoff said.
Lloyd arrived on the scene around 4:01 a.m. They talked and talked. Lloyd joked about stealing the cannon, which the HMC students vigorously denied they were doing. Half an hour later, he was still there.
The more Aronoff and the others talked to him, the more suspicious he seemed to get. Eventually, the Mudders left the scene and hid behind a dumpster in an attempt to wait him out.
When Lloyd sat down next to the constructed — but still plaque-less — structure, however, it was clear he was there for the long haul.
“I was pretty drunk at the time so I wasn’t thinking that straight,” Lloyd said in an interview with TSL days later. “[Aronoff] told me that you guys were all off-campus students, which was suspicious because Caltech doesn’t have nearly that many off-campus students … And then someone said you guys were from Harvey Mudd.
“Half the group was trying to convince me that you guys were Caltech students. The other half said you were the 5Cs.”
A few minutes later, Lloyd called some of his friends to the scene.
“I was just very confused,” he said.
Lloyd and the other Techies began taking apart the structure, and Aronoff realized waiting it out would not work. He decided to “come clean,” about a prank, but made up a new false story involving aliens. The lie seemed to work, but they still needed to attach the plaque to the structure.
The pranksters got their chance when the Mudders and Techies posed together for a group photo in front of the structure, giving Ben Bracker HM ’22 the opportunity to sneak behind them and glue on the plaque.
Aronoff, Deshong and a few others lured all the Techies away by asking for dorm tours, giving everyone time to sign the back of the structure. They even signed the name Stumpy, in honor of East Dorm’s giant stuffed monkey.
When Deshong finally left, he walked by the structure only to see two Techies taking it apart again. When asked why, they said they wanted to rebuild it inside Fleming House.
“I was terrified that they were gonna take it apart and [Deshong] would be able to do nothing about it, and it was just over, we failed, because we quit too early,” Aronoff said.
Deshong pleaded with the Techies and asked them to leave it intact, warning of the sand that each of the concrete pillars was filled with. They seemed unconvinced and continued with their deconstruction.
It was 5:16 a.m. when the last Mudd car finally departed Caltech. As dawn broke, the students drove past MillerCoors Brewing, contemplating all the ways the prank had gone wrong, but how fun it had been anyway. Already, ideas were thrown around about future pranks.
The next morning, a photograph popped up in the group chat, sent by a Techie to Jarred Allen HM ’22. The concrete structure was miraculously still standing — with the plaque affixed to it.
“I was so happy, I was walking back from brunch … and I just started screaming and laughing and jumping,” Aronoff said.
Aidan Swope, a Caltech junior who saw the structure and interacted with the HMC students the previous night, said he didn’t notice the plaque until the next morning.
“I think my immediate reaction to basically the whole thing is ‘Wow, I’m really glad people are doing this,’” Swope told TSL, “because there’s a kind of growing sense that pranks, like unofficial, unapproved pranks, like real pranks, are kind of going away, and that’s something that I find kind of disappointing, so to see people actually doing a concerted effort on a multi-school level is encouraging to me.”
Aronoff said he plans to start a prank club at HMC, akin to Caltech’s prank club. If someone has a good idea, “I want to give them the resources to do it, make it happen,” he said.
For Aronoff, the experience was more than just the prank, especially after talking to Techies about the prank culture at Caltech.
“So many of the things that they talked about … the way the culture is shifting in the school [Caltech], and the way that the admin is approaching the school’s culture, it really resonated with me and the way things are going at the 5Cs right now,” Aronoff said. “There’s definitely an impression that our most culturally influential days are behind us, and I don’t think that’s true. But they feel the same way at Caltech, and that’s something that I think is unfortunate, and I think we should fight to change.”