In early 1889, the New Mexico Territorial Legislature decreed that a school of mines be founded in the rural town of Socorro. In October 1890, a contract was issued to build the main building’s basement on the deeded campus of 22 acres of “level desert grassland”. The above-ground portions of that building were completed three years later, and in September 1893, Dr. Floyd Davis (Chemistry Professor and President of the College) led Theodore S. Delay, B.S. (assistant in chemistry and metallurgy) and seven students to begin the New Mexico School of Mines.
Almost one hundred years later the school, renamed the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, reckoned it was time for a celebration. Administrators planned festivities for 1989. It was apparent that some sort of memorial ought to be constructed to commemorate 100 years of scholastic progress (the final 96% of which had seen the presence of students). Plans were drawn for a plaza in the Southwest tradition with a fountain at its center. It was to be surrounded by benches and grassy slopes. Construction of the plaza would be funded largely by selling Centennial Bricks, onto which purchasers could have their names engraved for $25. Brochures were distributed throughout campus featuring a diagram of the plaza showing students lounging on the grassy slopes. The brochures were also distributed to parents of students; my parents arranged to have three bricks reading “THOMAS” “A” “JONES” embedded in the plaza. In the first edition for which I served as Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, Paydirt, I devoted the entire second page to this pending campus fixture.
Six months passed, and construction finally began. The campus Physical Plant, however, was not pleased with the blueprints—particularly the grassy slopes, which posed a daunting barrier to riding lawnmowers. At some mysterious point during construction, they surreptitiously altered the plans, deleting the grass on the slopes to replace it with a covering of heavy pointy rocks about 4 inches in diameter. Underneath they placed thick sheets of black plastic to prevent anything green from disturbing the rocks. In April 1991, the plaza was deemed complete, and the construction fence was removed for all to see.
As a by-product of their operations, most mines generate large piles of valueless crushed rock, called “tailings”. Given Tech’s rich mining heritage, many began comparing the Centennial Plaza to a tailings pile, irking considerably the people who had designed the monument. But nobody on campus was happy with the Plaza. From a distance, it appeared to consist of little more than a grand pile of rocks. On closer inspection, the bricks were terribly misaligned, and the central fountain already looked in disrepair. Faculty, staff, and students alike uttered the word “eyesore” in record numbers. At its birth, the Centennial Plaza was not a pretty baby.
Fortunately, Stealth Force Beta was on campus to do something about it.
Operation Centennial Reversal
At this point, Stealth Force Beta had conducted three missions—Operation Gaseous Research in which we ignited flammable gases, Operation Tunnel Exercises in which we explored the underground passages on campus, and Operation Southern Bumper. None of those missions had left any significant mark on campus, though, and with the opening of the unsightly Centennial Plaza, we saw a place that could use some significant marks.
There were eight benches in the Centennial Plaza—each consisting of wooden slats on a cast-iron frame and bearing the name of a sponsor who had contributed $4,000. Each bench was affixed to the fountain by four hex nuts arranged in a convenient rectangle configuration.
The first of Beta’s Centennial missions started late one night in April. Operatives Fingers (Jason Coder), Ratchet (Eric Backstrom), Sushi (Sean Kelly), Chicken (Mary Urquhart, now Mary Urquart Kelly), Torch (Taige Blake), and Sasquatch (me) converged at 1am. Operative Ratchet had brought the tools—that’s how he got his name. Operative Chicken was the lookout. With five operatives working on the benches, the process went quickly. We loosened the nuts first on one bench, then another, and a third. We rotated each so the bench faced directly into the side of the plaza. After merely 15 minutes, we had half the benches rotated. The mission was on schedule and all was well.
Yet it was to be the site of the first Beta injury. As was common among students in the rural desert, I was wearing Teva sandals, exposing most of my size 15 feet. (The magnitude of my feet led my fellow operatives to assign me the codename General Sasquatch.) As Fingers and I lifted and swiveled the sixth bench, I felt a sharp pain in my right big toe. But I had a bench in my hands, so we finished the process and re-installed the now-swiveled unit. Investigating my foot, I discovered my sandal was pooling with blood, set loose by the sharp edge on the bench’s metal base. As I limped, we finished the operation.
As newspaper editor, it seemed that this bit of vandalism was newsworthy, and in the caption of the photo I ran was the first published instance of the phrase "unidentified vandals" referring to Stealth Force Beta.
The next week, Physical Plant re-oriented the benches and welded them in place. Our work had been undone, but we had been noticed. (We had also prevented less benevolent vandals from stealing the benches altogether.) Meanwhile, the other operatives determined that my injury warranted the creation and awarding of a Purple Toe medal, for bloodloss in the line of duty. (Operative Ratchet would later receive the only other Purple Toe, for his unfortunate facial collision with a grappling hook on Operation Public Hanging. He would later join Operative Climber in receiving the Greasy Rail award for Miserable Suffering and Valiant Escape from a Wretched Greasepit in Operation Up Your Shaft.)
The next time Beta members were lunching, we discussed the ease with which our simple mission had been accomplished, and speculated that we might use this newly-found power for Good. We assumed the goal of remedying the blight in the center of campus, and dedicated ourselves to "Constructive Vandalism.".
That did not rule out constructive non-vandalism, however. There was obvious need to mount a campaign to remediate the Centennial Plaza. As editor of the two most popular publications on campus—the campus newspaper and the SPRIL Newsletter (the newsletter I published as founder and editor of the Subatomic Particle RIghts League), I led the charge. First, I ran an article ridiculing the rock-covered Plaza in the SPRIL Newsletter:
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