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The Great Pumpkin Hack of 1962

     I was a sophomore that fall of 1962, leading several lives: still the kid from Idaho at some level, a harried sufferer of sophomore slump beavering away at the rigors of Course Eight (physics), a member of ATO, and a member of the fencing team. I felt more than a little schizoid. Then Norm Davis recruited me for his scheme, and I could add secret agent hacker to my multiple personalities. I am not sure why Norm picked me, I was one of the
last to be added, and I do not know why I accepted. "Excess is never enough," I suppose.

     Norm had already scouted the site and laid the plans for which he recruited his commandos. At this time, the upper floors of the Great Dome were book stacks. There was free access to the upper levels through the library below. All that has been remodeled now, so however the Class of 1997 did it, they did not use our secret. The key involved those upper stacks where a heavy gauge chain link fence with a locked gate barred access to the stairs that led outside to the catwalk around the outer rim of the Great Dome. To get through this gate required a key, but to get back there was a simple lever handle that allowed one to return to the library area. Undoubtedly, the presumption was that only people who had legitimate access would be on the far side, and there was no point in locking them out of the library. Norm had discovered, if memory serves, that at one point there was a gap in the fence, between the fence and the gate, or between the fence and the ceiling. It required just a bit of quick and easy acrobatics to get in. Once in, one could simply open the handle and leave through the gate or use the gate to smuggle in pieces of Great Pumpkin. It was that easy.
      We were divided into three teams. One would go out onto the roofs of the adjacent wings that held the lights that illuminated the dome. I think access to those was trivial, but maybe not. This team would cover the spotlights with orange-colored transparent sheets to give the Great Pumpkin the appropriate hue. The other two teams would go up into the dome and create the eyes, nose, and mouth. I was on the nose team. We must have had one or two
dry runs, because I recall Norm leading several of us up into the dome during daytime and showing us how to get access to the outside of the dome.
      The preparations were all done at 37 Bay State Road, the home for ATO at the time. The mouth was to consist of triangular teeth painted on bed sheets that in turn were suspended from three bamboo poles, one to hang horizontally, the other two slanted slightly upwards to give the proper tilt to the corners of the mouth. The whole rig was about thirty feet from tip to tip. I recall this bamboo arrangement sprawled out on the dining room floor so that
we could check the span and the manner in which the three poles would be lashed together and the sheets affixed to them before the whole rig was heaved over the side of the dome. All these pieces had to be smuggled up into the dome in advance. Then on Halloween, we would pull them from their hiding places and assemble them and drop them over the edge. I was not part of that smuggling, so I do not know where all this stuff was hidden. I also
do not recall now how the whole assembly was tied to the dome. There were some protuberances to which it could be lashed. The nose was also pre-painted on a single sheet tied to yet another bamboo pole that would be lowered over the edge in a similar fashion.
      The eyes had to go on the vertical surface that rose above the walkway. There was no way to get above that point to hang something down. The eyes, therefore, were to be painted directly on the limestone. Cans of the paint also had to be smuggled up into the dome in advance. To avoid permanent stains, black, water-soluble, poster paint was chosen. That paint was our ultimate undoing.
      Norm had the timing all worked out as well. We could not go up too early to avoid library personnel and dusk would mask our skullduggery, but we had to be done by the time the outside lights came on. Norm had a plan for the exact choreography of the assembling of the nose and mouth, the painting of the eyes, and the independent teams working the lights in parallel. He was a study of controlled anxiety, making sure all of us understood the close timelines.
      On Halloween, we all drifted into the library at the appointed time. I went alone and felt a definite adrenaline rush while squeezing through the access that evening. Many of the other guys were already there. I do not have a clear memory of assembling the nose. It was a bit windy and overcast, I think, but things went more or less according to plan. At one point I got out my pocket knife to cut one of the strings that lashed the sheet to the
pole. The mouth went over first. I recall some minor glitches because it was the most unwieldy part and was big for the space available on the walkway to assemble it. Finally, though, the three poles and their toothed sheets went over the edge and draped properly. Then we dropped the nose sheet over, hanging from its bamboo pole. That went smoothly. Finally, someone with a roller brush on a pole painted the triangular eyes. There must have been
some rush to get the leftover paraphernalia off the catwalk, but by then I was really on an adrenaline high, and do not remember anything. We left separately at intervals to avoid drawing attention.
      My next memory is of standing, alone, at the end of the Great Court and looking back at what we had done. I do not recall if I was already stationed there when the lights came on, or whether the timing was so close that the lights were on by the time I walked out to the Great Court to get a perspective. I do remember it was one of the greatest rushes of my life. There it was! The Great Pumpkin! There was absolutely no mistaking it, and it was there for all of Boston to see!
      I was already a bit late for fencing practice, so could not linger, but my impression was that I floated across Mass Ave to the Dupont athletic center. If this was not being in love, it was something closely akin. A great hack, a great adventure, and absolutely no one or nothing harmed or hurt. Just pure fun. The fact that I had a soft spot for Linus and his Great Pumpkin only amplified the feeling. I had fuzzy thoughts to the effect of exhorting Linus to check out this pumpkin patch. I dropped a hint to a couple of my fencing buddies that something had happened to
the Great Dome, but we were sworn to secrecy, so I had to swallow the urge to tell the whole story.
      At some point in the next day or so, I realized I was missing my pocket knife. I knew immediately where it was. I took a cue from Norm. I carefully cased the joint. I checked out the parapet from outside. I could not see anyone. I skulked up into the library and into the stacks. I checked for loiterers or employees. The coast was clear. I made my move through the Davis-gambit fence opening and walked up the stairs and out onto the exterior walkway.         

     Right into a group of workmen.
     "Can we help you?" one of them asked politely.

     "No, I, uh, just lost something," I replied, recognizing that the knife was probably already confiscated and that I certainly could not search for it with those men there. I turned on my heel, walked as calmly as I could back down the stairs, and let myself out through the gate. I still wonder how those guys thought I got up through that locked gate.
      We were pretty full of ourselves those next few days, but this, as the old song goes, "is where the spider bit." It was that paint. The mouth and nose were okay, a little of the poster paint had rubbed off onto the stone of the dome, but that was not the problem. The problem, unforeseen, was that the cleverly chosen poster paint, while water-soluble, soaked into the pores of the limestone. This may have been aided by the damp day, making the
stone more permeable. Whatever the reason, the paint would not, in fact, wash off. We had given the Institute a semi-permanent black eye. Two of them. Why did we not have a "materials-type" on the team?
      So the pressure came down from the Institute. This was not a purely harmless prank after all. Someone would have to pay for the effort to scrub the dome and that meant perpetrators had to be identified. I do not recall the details of how that played out. I do remember that somehow it leaked that ATO was involved. That bought us under scrutiny. Then Norm did the manly thing and confessed to being the ring leader. This was perhaps a week after
Halloween. He went in and faced the Dean of Students, Dean Fasset, alone and took full responsibility. He was presented a bill and we all in turn kicked in to pay it. I think Norm carried the brunt of it. On the other hand, rumor had it that Dean Fasset, with a twinkle in the eyes that peered over his famous half-glasses, paid half the bill from his own pocket. Justice was done.
      I had one subsequent perspective to the drama. I remember standing again in the Great Court, staring up at the Great Dome and watching how the Institute staff were spending my money. I was not terribly pleased. There were four or five men. A supervisor, his supervisor, his supervisor, and his supervisor. These chiefs were standing around doing their job, supervising. One fellow was making fitful swipes at the black triangles with a rag, and I was presumably paying a piece of all their salaries! Hey, guys, I'll get up there and dab with that rag myself if it will speed things up.
      On return visits to Cambridge over the next few years, I would always crane my neck at the Great Dome. The Institute did a pretty good job of getting the eyes off, but for years the black triangular smudges could be revealed to a discerning gaze. Then finally, they could not be seen even with the most fervid imagination. That was the end of the Great Pumpkin hack. Until 1994. I hope you fellows did not use poster paint.