Cats have a natural desire to get to the highest available vantage point so they can see their terrain. Operation High Exploration was Stealth Force Beta's manifestation of that feline urge. Our goals on this mission were
Phase I: The Elevators
First came the elevators. Most people think of elevators merely as vertical conveyances, but they're also great big machines that can have a lot of character. The Weir Hall elevator was rife with character, and made a good lab for Elevator Fun 101 because you could do interesting things just by pushing its buttons. Weir Hall has three levels--a basement, ground level, and second floor--and an adjacent mezzanine floor between the ground level and second floor. The elevator was next to the staircase in the back of the building, and was so slow it was never the fastest way to get anywhere. The only people who took the elevator were those terribly inconvenienced by stairs and those who wanted to play.
It was very easy to play. All elevators have a "door open" button, but in most elevators those buttons frustratingly work only when you're someplace the doors are already inclined to open. In Weir Hall, you could push the "door open" button en route and the doors would open right there, giving a view of the shaft going by as the elevator slowed to a gentle stop. Those inside walls of the elevator shaft were a time capsule of Tech history, covered with posters for long-past student movies and dances from several years before. When Amy Koerner and I campaigned for president and vice-president of the student government, we made sure to apply our campaign signs to the walls of that elevator shaft so we'd be known to other members of the Weir Elevator Clan.
Once we had seen the walls of the elevator shaft, we saw the rewards of elevator exploration. The next step was to get into the shaft outside the elevator car. Elevator doors have catches to make them difficult to open, but generally have discreet holes through which one can insert a bent coathanger as a probe to release the catch and open the door. If one is on the lowest floor, one can climb into the bottom of the elevator shaft; if one is on a higher floor and the elevator car one full floor below, one can walk directly onto the roof of the elevator car. This sort of thing was considered exciting on Tech Campus. After learning the secrets of the Weir Hall elevator, we set to explore the other elevators.
Workman Center had the tallest occupied space on campus--a five-story brick tower, topped with a sixth-floor cupola for atmospheric research. While the cupola was no longer in use (more about that later), the five stories of tower under it were still occupied. There wasn't much floor space on each level, but even that small amount of floorspace was filled with offices and laboratories. Aside from the stairway and elevator, the second floor was utterly filled with laboratories. A metal grate had been welded over the elevator doorway, and it was locked after hours.
During the day, the Workman Tower staircase was open, and hardy souls could hoof it up the stairs. At night, only those with keys could enter the staircase. The elevator, however, was always waiting to be summoned.
It was a trap.
Years before we arrived on Tech campus, some mechanically inclined professor with a lab in the tower disliked interlopers. He dismantled the elevator's control panel and re-wired it in an unusual fashion. I had once gone up in the tower to visit a graduate student friend, and she had specifically discouraged me from using the elevator. Realizing that one learns more from errors than from successes, I decided to see what could be so bad about an elevator. I entered and pressed the "4" button, but the elevator took me to the second floor. I presumed the elevator had been led to believe that a potential passenger waited on that floor, so as the doors closed, I pressed "4" again. The doors opened immediately, proudly showcasing the second floor again. Since this occurred on a workday, the grate was unlocked and out of the way--I didn't even notice it as I walked out of the elevator and finished my ascent on the staircase. I hadn't learned the elevator's secret, but I did know enough to fear its peculiar ways.
The secret of the Workman Tower elevator was this: if you pushed any destination button for any floor, the elevator would take you to the second floor. To get to any floor other than the second floor, you had to push the buttons for your desired floor and for the second-floor simultaneously.
Not everyone knew this.
Late one uneventful Saturday, Operative Rodent (Dave Hershberger), his friend Bob Broilo, and the Paydirt astrologer were exploring Workman Center. They decided to visit the cupola on top of the tower. The stairwell door was locked, so they entered the elevator and pushed the "3" button to go up the tower, activating the trap.
The elevator brought them to the second floor and the doors opened, showcasing the locked metal grate. They pushed every single button on the elevator control panel, and found that they could open or close the doors, but that the elevator would not budge from the second floor and its taunting grate. Bob and Rodent realized that it was unlikely anyone would try to use the elevator before Monday morning, that the elevator might well stay right where it was until then, and that this was bad. The astrologer panicked.
Rodent and Bob calmed him down by pointing out an escape route--the convenient hatch in the elevator roof. Rodent and the astrologer climbed Bob for their egress, and then Bob heaved himself upward with his stout rock-climbing arms. Once atop the elevator, they tripped the catch to release the elevator doors on the third floor. Delighted to see that it had no gate, the three proceeded forthwith to the stairwell, where they descended and considered themselves lucky to have escaped.
There were other elevators on campus--those in Cramer Hall and MSEC III amused us. And the expertise we acquired in Brown Hall gave us the idea to fill that elevator with something. That idea turned into Operation Up Your Shaft.
Phase II: The Roofs
We came upon the idea for this mission quite innocently by looking up. The west side of the Student Union was a single level, partially buried in the hillside. Merely by standing near the building, one could see the roof and ladders that led to its other, higher roofs. The climb was barely more than a jump, so late one night we explored. We prowled the roof of the Student Union and adjacent West Hall and realized it was fun to peer down on unsuspecting passers-by below. We were hooked, and assigned ourselves the goal of getting onto the roof of every campus building that would support a human without climbing equipment.
At this time, Operative Ratchet decided that his roommate needed more excitement. Kent Ratajeski was not fond of loud parties, but Ratchet encouraged him to come along for an episode of late-night exploration. Our first target that night was the roof of Weir Hall. That was easy--there was a staircase that went right up top to access the Astronomy Club telescope. Next we worked to get onto the roof of the gym. Operative Ratchet found a dumpster that served as a convenient stepstool to climb atop the lower roof, and from there a long ladder brought us onto the upper roof high above campus. The modern part of the gym had a huge, high, flat roof with a commanding view of central campus.
Our next attempt was the library. New Mexico Tech's library was a 2-story building in the shape of an octagon with a central core of offices--pretty much the least efficient shape possible for a building housing vast stacks of books. It was named after Martin Speare, a former Tech Librarian of some alleged renown. (In 1991, the library moved to a new building, and in 1993 after we graduated, the Speare building reopened as a computer center. Dr. Speare is reported to have despised computers while he was alive, and in ironic tribute now has a computer center bearing his name.)
Kent was along for his first mission, and stood outside the library with Ratchet, Fingers, Torch, Rodent, and me (Sasquatch). We were looking up at the roof--fifteen feet above the sidewalk--speculating about the most effective way to ascend. Unfortunately, we weren't paying attention to what was happening on the ground, and soon found ourselves in the company of a fellow undergraduate student I'll refer to as Boris Bearbait†. New Mexico Tech was large and peculiar enough to have assembled a sizeable cast of odd characters, and small enough so most everybody was familiar with those characters. Boris was one of the oddest, and his demeanor and conversational style at the time are best described as the personification of annoyance. His trademark was a golfball that he bounced incessantly and noisily against any available hard surface. One day he visited the rugby team at practice, and their response to his chafing demeanor was to duct tape his hands behind him, wrap his legs together with more duct tape, take away his golf ball, and deposit the bound carcass in his dorm room.
Some Beta Operatives had also personally experienced Boris's amazing ability to annoy. The Student Activity Center (SAC) had a large room with a television projector aimed at a 16-foot screen. One of the perks of being student government president was that I had keys to that building and thus could show Star Trek: The Next Generation and Red Dwarf on the 16-foot screen using the sound system designed for concerts. Unfortunately, the projector was terribly out of focus. I wanted these programs to be in focus, so I set about identifying a remedy. The manual for the projector had long ago gone missing, so I made some phone calls to find someone at Sony who could tell me how to fix the image. I ended up calling Japan and speaking with the one engineer who had both designed the device and spoke English. He was thrilled to be talking to an end user--he asked me what we did with it, whether we thought it was bright enough, and so forth. It turned out that the contractor who had built the SAC had simply fastened the projector to the ceiling and neglected pages of subsequent instructions to focus and optimize the image. I transcribed the engineer's 17-step process to do just that.
Operatives Rodent and Fingers joined me with the tallest ladder we could find--a 12-foot ladder that was somewhat shy of the 16-foot ceiling. The projector was surrounded by a heavy metal cage bolted to the ceiling to prevent flying objects from striking the electronics at times of excessive festivity. Fingers climbed the ladder, stood on one of the top steps marked "DO NOT STAND HERE", and reached up to the ceiling with my socket wrench to remove the cage. When he had just removed the last bolt holding the cage to the ceiling--causing the unwieldy 50-pound monstrosity to come loose in his arms, he shouted for assistance. The thing was so heavy that if he dropped it, it was likely to send him and the ladder falling in the opposite direction. It had no handles, but it was covered with finger-holes by which one could hold it. The edges of holes were sharp enough to hurt and the openings were just the right size to catch a knuckle and wrench it off if they fell. Rodent scurried up the other side of the ladder--the side without steps--and I climbed up behind Fingers as far as I could to assist in lowering the cage to the ground, and to serve as ballast to lower the center of gravity of the whole Fingers-Rodent-ladder ensemble.
At this point, when we bore an alarming resemblance to the "What led to the Catastrophe" segment of an industrial safety video, Boris entered.
We somehow finished tuning up the projector without any injuries, and thanks to our death-defying effort the picture quality was phenomenal. Unfortunately, two weeks later a role-playing conference was held in the same place, and afterward the picture quality was half as bad as it had been before. We never figured out what had happened to the projector. But the three of us had risked our necks to tune the projector the first time, and our self-preservation instincts prevented us from trying again.
On that dark night of Operation High Exploration, Boris approached while we were analyzing how to get onto the roof of the library. He initiated conversation.
It should be noted at this point that we had long prior established a secret Stealth Force Beta code. Recognizing that an emergency signal to abort a mission could come in handy, we wanted a word that could be forced into almost any conversation, yet would never appear there naturally. In my spare time, I taught a computer science elective course in a sophisticated desktop publishing system called Interleaf that was popular in the computer center among students preparing theses or the posters blighting campus. We agreed that the codeword "Interleaf," if ever uttered during a mission, meant an emergency abort, followed by tactical reconvening at my dorm room in South Hall 316 if circumstances permitted. Thus, the conversation continued:
His question was never answered because we were absent, having fled in every conceivable direction.
Ten minutes later, we reunited in Beta HQ and celebrated the efficiency of our codeword. We decided the best way to avoid Boris was to continue our rooftop exploits atop another structure, and chose Workman Center. As roofs on the New Mexico Tech campus went, the old Workman Center was the cream of the crop. I described the history of that ozymandian structure in the report on Operation Tunnel Exploration, and the building's glorious complexity penetrated all the way from those underground tunnels up to the top of its tower crowned with the atmospheric research cupola.
The upper roof of Workman Center was generally flat, with a gentle slope to encourage the lateral flow of rain. Atop this were a variety of large structures--the tower, some second-floor regions--and also a variety of smaller structures--air chillers, ventilation ducts, and capped entryways into the upper crawlspace. We split into two groups to explore the different areas of the roof--Ratchet and Kent were in one group, and Rodent, Fingers, Torch, and I began to investigate the upper crawlspace with our flashlights. Suddenly, a whoop from a police siren came from another side of the building.
We snuffed our flashlights. The policeman wielded a bright spotlight. We were alarmed. Pulses quickened. Stealth Force Beta was in its infancy, and engagement with the police would have strangled it in the cradle. But we soon realized that we were too far from the roof edge to be visible from the ground. The policeman probably wasn't talking to us. In hushed whispers, we discussed whether Ratchet and Kent had strayed near the edge. They hadn't seemed as addle-brained as that, but it was Kent's first mission and we couldn't figure out how else the constabulary had developed an interest up among the shingles. We reckoned the odds were negligible that anyone had heard us inside the building and called the police--for the building was almost completely empty at that hour and we'd have to make a lot of noise to be heard inside the building. We were contemplating whether we should attempt to find Ratchet and Kent when more megaphonic sounds bellowed from below.
We realized what had happened. Boris had somehow followed us onto the roof. While both groups of Beta Operatives had been taking care to ensure we weren't seen by anyone on the ground, Boris had instead been taking care to ensure he wasn't seen by us. Hiding from us behind obstacles on the roof, he was plainly visible from the ground. The police had spotted him while making a routine patrol near Workman Center.
After Boris climbed down and was escorted away in the police car, Rodent, Fingers, Torch and I looked for Ratchet and Kent. They were nowhere to be found. We finally found them in the bushes alongside the building--apparently Kent had panicked and fled with Ratchet in hot pursuit. The police never returned to investigate Boris' claim of other people on the roof.
Once our pulses returned to normal, we set about exploring the rest of the roof. We explored the tower and discovered that its cupola had been designed to rotate--there was a large motor hooked to some step-down gears integrated into a ring of teeth going the whole way around the cupola base. Unfortunately, everything was rusted solid. Rodent wanted to reactivate the mechanism, but it would clearly become his life's work if he tried.
In subsequent nights, we explored the roofs of the remaining buildings--Cramer Hall, MSEC III, and Macey Center. Operation High Exploration served as the nucleus for Operation Public Hanging, and our indirect involvement with Campus Police made us realize we needed to consider their patrols in subsequent plans. Kent had completed his first Beta operation, and for his limited fortitude in the face of alarming circumstances was christened a full Stealth Force Beta Operative with the codename "Spook".
† If you're "Boris Bearbait" and wouldn't mind your real name included here, let me know.
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