Friday, May 20, 2011

"Wake up frosh, it's Ditch Day!"

ACCORDING TO AN email from my alma mater Caltech:
It's that time of year again, that one day when the Caltech campus becomes a barely-controlled, seemingly chaotic playground for groups of underclassmen working on stacks the absent seniors have left behind...

It's one of Caltech's oldest traditions-a cross between Animal House and a science fair. One day each spring, kept secret until the last minute, seniors ditch their classes and vanish from campus, leaving behind complex, imaginative scavenger hunts, mazes, puzzles, and other challenges that are carefully planned out to occupy the underclassmen-preventing them from wreaking havoc in the seniors' rooms.
I despise Wagner, and most especially The Ride of the Valkyries, from Der Ring des Nibelungen:

Seniors, during finals week, would play this song at extremely high volume at dawn. Not a pleasant way to be woken: and to this day, my stomach still ties itself into knots whenever I hear it. But on one of those days, seniors would run through the halls of the Houses screaming "Wake up frosh, it's Ditch Day!" before abandoning the campus. That was the most exciting day of the Caltech year, for all studies and final exams were forgotten. (Frosh is the Caltech nickname for first year students, or freshman.)

Caltech is governed by the Honor Code, a system whereby “No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community,” enforced by the greatly feared Board of Control. This Code means that all exams are take-home, and it also means that participants in Ditch Day must honorably follow the Code also.

The underclassmen would attempt to break into the seniors' rooms, but were on their honor to do so according to the directions left by the seniors on their doors — which are called ‘stacks’. The seniors were also honorably expected to provide puzzles or tasks that were entertaining, clever, not too deadly, and not impossible or unreasonably obscure. If the underclassmen determined that a particular senior acted dishonorably in stacking his room, they would counterstack it. Seniors would leave valuable bribes in their rooms to prevent counterstacks.

On my Ditch Day, I provided a series of photos taken around campus. These were in obscure areas — not too difficult, not too easy — which the underclassmen had to discover. At each location I left a sticker which had a code written on it. After the underclassmen found all the codes, they continued on with additional puzzles based on the codes. Alas, while they found the first part of my stack enjoyable, they thought that the second part of the puzzle was unsolvable. I returned to my room that evening, finding it stacked floor-to-ceiling with Gothic Revival furniture.

From my days at Caltech. I'm third from the left.

More information on Ditch Day can be found here.


  1. You're a Techer! Awesome! So am I! I was a Lloydie but I'll forgive you for being a Flem. :) I loved Caltech, and Ditch Day. To this day, Ride of the Valkyries gets my adrenaline up.

  2. A fellow Techer! Too bad about Lloyd.......haha