Operation Public Hanging

Part 1 of 2

in which we hung banners bearing the name of our rival school from the tallest building on campus

In the Spring of 1991, Stealth Force Beta was ready to take the next step. We had been involved in numerous missions, but mostly exploratory and nothing obvious to the campus at large.  We were now eager to do something that other people might notice.

A dinner table in the campus cafeteria was the routine site for Beta Operatives Fingers (Jason Coder), Torch (Taige Blake), and General Sasquatch (me) to consume our meals. We set about preparing an inventory of the Stealth Force's capabilities and assets, with the goal of identifying a project for which we might employ them. Torch thought there was something to be made of our ability to get onto roofs which we had developed in Operation High Exploration.  He drew our attention to the prominence of Macey Center, the tallest building on campus, visible from much of campus. Fingers, meanwhile, realized that we had amassed a thorough assortment of well-placed informants and operatives on the New Mexico Tech campus, from the library to the geology and computer labs, to campus police and the public information office.  We should tap our intelligence network. But at the time we couldn't figure out anything exciting to do with this network.

About this time, I had grown weary from three semesters as editor of the campus newspaper Paydirt.  Amy Koerner and I created a running mate alliance and campaigned for President and Vice-President of the New Mexico Tech student government, and won.  As student government president, I was presumably expected to pay some attention to school spirit.  While we had a thriving intramural athletics program at Tech, the only intercollegiate sports were rugby and ultimate frisbee.  Over dinner one night I discussed with Fingers and Torch the uncompelling nature of the school’s spirit. It had surged a few years prior, when an individual named Sal Maestas lead a team staging a prank on our rival school, the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. (Coincidentally, Operative Rodent five years later received his Robotics Masters degree from CSM.) The rivalry went back a long time—under our school's former name, it was natural for the New Mexico School of Mines and the Colorado School of Mines to compete.  Both NMT and CSM, being mining schools, owned mountains (NMT's was dramatically larger than CSM's), and both had seen fit to place large Ms made of lime powder on the slopes of their mountain. (Coincidentally, Operative Fingers would later work at a lime plant in Pennsylvania.)  While NMT's M was guarded by a fenced perimeter and military police, CSM’s was guarded with merely a barbed-wire fence fit closely around the letter M. Mr. Maestas’ grand prank consisted of importing a lime supply to Golden to create a large N on the left of the M and a T on the right, outside the fence. Unfortunately (returning to my discussion with Fingers and Torch in the cafeteria), CSM's school spirit seemed even weaker than ours, in that they had neglected to retaliate with a prank of their own executed upon us, despite his specific challenge issued on page 7 of the May 3, 1990 Paydirt) (images at right; click to enlarge).

Fingers made a grand connection. "How about," he proposed, "since CSM hasn't gotten around to retaliating, we do it for them?"  We could create and hang a giant CSM banner from the roof of Macey Center, onto the solar panels that angled steeply toward the site where student festivals were held.  Sheer genius!  Immediately the Stealth Force started to figure out how to make it happen.  Torch graduated at the end of the semester, but the idea had been born, and the rest of us carried it out…

I used my Paydirt connections with Vanguard Printing in Albuquerque to get one of their leftover endrolls.  After I explained our scheme, they provided not mere newsprint, but a 70-pound four-foot-wide roll of letter-bond paper. My brother Ralph has an architecture degree and had once told me stories of how he had been involved in a project hanging banners from a water tower in our home town of Greenbelt, Maryland, so I contacted him. He gave me tips on how to construct banners that could endure strong winds. Eventually, we settled on a three-banner configuration, one for each letter C, S, and M.  Each banner was to be about 12 feet wide and 18 feet tall, and would include captions spelling out Colorado School of Mines to make clear who had placed them there.

Because of the double-agent nature of the project, the strictest secrecy was required—only the absolute minimum number of non-Beta personnel would ever learn of it until years later. Constructing 12x18 foot banners would require a large open space.  Anywhere on campus would be far too conspicuous.  The only suitable yet inconspicuous off-campus area under control of a Beta operative was the carport of Operatives Ratchet (Eric Backstrom) and Spook (Kent Ratajeski).  The sticky wicket with that site was that Mike Iaturo, director of NMT’s Fine Arts department—housed in Macey Center—lived right next door. But no other space was available.

Operative Spook was taking Dr. Iaturo’s music composition class, and used his piano practice as an excuse to obtain keys to the music room in the basement of Macey Center.

We made a trip to Socorro's hardware store, where we purchased a dozen furring strips (12-foot wooden sticks), three rolls of duct tape, two rolls of masking tape, and 150 yards of clothesline. From an art supply store in Albuquerque, we bought two large jugs of blue tempura paint powder. From a general store we bought 24 curtain hooks.

We had to paint a large area, and doing it with brushes would have required a ridiculous amount of time. We didn't need a fancy paint job. I knew one person with an electric spray painting machine: Sal Maestas. I was initially reluctant to let him in on our plan—he had no direct allegiance to Stealth Force Beta, and knew a lot of movers and shakers on campus to whom he could leak word of the local culprits of the scheme. But that power painter was a required resource, so one day I called him aside and told him of our plan and asked for his equipment. Not only did he immediately consent, but also pledged that he would never let anyone else on the specific secret of who had perpetrated the crime, or the general secret that Techies had conducted the CSM operation. He looked forward to the possibility of encouraging his comrades to retaliate against CSM after it appeared they had pulled a grand prank on us.

Goldilox and Fingers reinforce the banners with duct tapeWe prepared the banners. For each, we rolled out three parallel sheets of paper, trimmed them to the proper length, and used duct tape to hold them together and to form a border around the entire sheet. Then we taped furring strips along the top, bottom, and two medial points of the giant sheet; because the firm support was all horizontal, we'd be able to roll the signs into 12-foot long marginally-portable units. Then we flipped the sign so the all-white side was up, and using masking tape and newspaper, laid out the giant letters and smaller words. We mixed the blue paint and with the power painter filled between the lines. To make the signs more transparent to wind (so they wouldn't flap excessively or get shredded), we cut v-shaped holes in various spots on the signs, and reinforced the cuts with duct tape. Then, we rolled up the banners for storage until the night of the mission.

49ers is one of New Mexico Tech's two annual student festivals. At the intense science and engineering school that has never been haunted by such specters as grade inflation or Fluff Studies majors partying night after night, serious devotion to studying is required.  (There is a Business Department, but to get a B.S. in Business, you need two semesters each of Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.)  49ers (and its corollary, Spring Fling) were both situated at that point in their respective semesters where students have begun to recognize the need to put in a great deal of study, but can delude themselves that it will not hurt to postpone that work until after the festival. Alcohol features prominently in that delusion. A minor unfortunate incident the preceding year involving a firearm had ended the tradition of the "Tea Card"—a $5 pass that entitled the bearer to unlimited quantities of beer over the weekend.  All parties knew that students would provide their own alcohol to fill the gap left by the absent keg truck.

Most of the festivities were held next to Macey Center—right where the solar panels pointed.  (The solar panels were mandated by a since-repealed state law and had never worked.)  49ers was scheduled to begin Thursday evening, and continue through Saturday night, leaving Sunday for the application of Bloody Mary breakfasts and other alleged hangover remedies.  Thursday night seemed like the best time to implement our plan.  After the New Mexican Reggae band Steele Justice closed out the night, the beleaguered and intoxicated crowd would likely dissipate quickly. Unfortunately, this wasn't scheduled to occur until 1:00am. (I typeset the 49ers schedule for Paydirt, so I always knew the schedule in advance.)

The Force
Operation Public Hanging Pre-Briefing Session, 17 October 1991
Back row:
Operatives Mom, Goldilox, Ratchet, Sasquatch, Spook, Shutter
Front row: Operatives Climber and Fingers
Other notes: This meeting took place in Beta HQ (Sasquatch's dorm room).  Note the Green TV on the right, atop which sits Leaky, whom I had proclaimed the official Presidential Seal of the student government

On Thursday, we got as much sleep as we could, knowing we'd be up very late. That evening, we frittered away the first hours of 49ers, although not with activities as entertaining as during the previous Spring Fling. (The most interesting project that weekend had started with a joyous trip down the copper fittings aisle at the local hardware store, after which we were able to modify any dorm water faucet by unscrewing the aerator, and installing in its stead an assembly of three fittings ending with a gas jet nozzle suitable for attaching surgical tubing. We then constructed a portable personal water cannon consisting principally of 20 feet of tubing, which we discovered extended to 30 feet under pressure, and held about 8 gallons of water. Through experimentation, we determined that loose draping over the bearer’s body is necessary to avoid distressing corset-like constriction as the tube is discharged and returns to its unstressed length. However, while refilling the unit for a subsequent volley, the entire length exploded, soaking much of Operative Rodent's dorm room with gallons of fluid.)

Finally, the anointed hour arrived and we all convened in my dorm room. After reviewing our plans and signals, we set off on our mission.


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