The Story of the Smoke Stack Vandals
Summer of 1962
Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa
It was late June, or early July, 1962. Three Simpson Juniors conspired near the slop room in the union where two of them were employed. They mused together about the legendary tradition of Simpson students over the years climbing the smoke stack that loomed high above the campus. Stories had drifted down by word of mouth about how many times the smoke stack had been conquered or partly conquered by students, some of whom made it unscathed, some of whom didn't.
The most recent incident as legend had it, was that a student had fallen, broken his leg, and the administration ordered the rungs pulled out up to a safe 40 feet in the air. So the rungs were no longer accessible to would be challengers. And, as a result, the tradition had been stopped, or almost stopped as it would soon turn out.
These students pondered the enormity of the challenge. Could it still be done? And if so, how? What would it take to overcome the administration's most recent move? Did Columbus accept so many King's denials? Did Lewis and Clark step aside just because the task seemed undoable. No, of course, there had to be a way.
That evening, and many more after that, the three contemplated, discussed, and turned over in their minds how it might be done. Besides working trays, cleaning the remainder of the food off the plates and sending them through the dish washing machine, the students also worked for maintenance during the non meal times of the day for summer jobs. (One of the students comments to this day about the unique perspective that the tray window gave on the people walking by, and how he actually picked out his wife, without having ever seen her from the waste up.)
Finally the night and the strategy was chosen. It would be the last day of summer school. The three would meet at the strike of midnight near the maintenance building where the tower stood majestic in the bright full moon. Since they worked for maintenance they possessed a key to the maintenance building that held the exact equipment needed within feet of the glorious tower.
Each step was carefully planned. They gathered on time, and within moments after midnight, the maintenance building was entered. They made their way by flashlight to the wall where the longest aluminum ladder was hung. It had a rope on it that enabled one to crank it up into twice its own size within minutes. The precise tool to overcome the administrations most recent move to keep the rungs of the tower 40 feet above ground.
They paraded the ladder out, brought along cans filled with white paint, brushes, and a number nine wire that bent perfectly into a hook that fit conveniently onto the belt of the one who would make the climb. This would free his arms for the treacherous climb to the top. It was unanimously agreed that thereupon he would paint letter by letter, rung by rung, down the great tower, the noble words of history: Vedi, Vidi, Vinci (I came, I saw, I conquered). After the last letter was painted, he would then pay tribute to the greatest class in Simpson history, here to fore or ever after, the "class of 1963."
The task of course would not be without its problems. The great ladder was grappled inside the wall that stood about 10 feet tall, out about 10 feet from the tower itself. Cardboard boxes and wood debris lay around within the wall. But that was of little concern especially when the three brave rebels encountered the greatest challenge. Slowly they placed the ladder against the mighty smoke stack, and aluminum against cement is never a quiet proposition in spite of their gentle efforts. Worse yet was the inevitable screeching as the ladder must necessarily inch its way up the cement one rope pull at a time, the ladder seemingly illuminating the night in the bright full moon. Fortunately the campus was empty in the late hour, for otherwise it would surely be spotted glowing its way up the huge edifice, and if the glow didn't attract attention, surely the slow screeching would.
But there was no time for worry, there was work to do, and problems to solve. As the ladder finally reached its peak, the three adventurers temporarily lost their great excitement, and the mood became somber. The ladder was still six long feet from the lowest rung. How cold this be, and how could that ominous gap, almost mocking them from far above as if the administration itself were enjoying some pleasant dream like echoes of laughter as the struggle over the years was once again being won for the administration and all things safe and reasonable. But as the night waned, the students were not to be undone, and there would be other ways, or at least so it seemed.
They furiously studied the new obstacle, and discussed it like no other discussion before or since in a Simpson seminar, be it math, or logic, or Vital Center 101. There had to be a way, they had come so far. Soon it hit them like a light bulb waiting for its own moment. They measured the wall behind them, the one that surrounded the mighty tower, and sure enough, the support two by four, that ran horizontally around the wall, was exactly six feet up the wall, the precise measure needed to lift the ladder to the lowest waiting rung. History was to be made.
The ladder was lifted, again rather noisily, until the bottom was secured onto the two-by-four. If this seemed a dangerous base to depend on, that could be easily solved by two of the brave students standing on the board, on each side of the ladder, one hand holding it securely, while the other hand clung to the top of the wall. Now the task could proceed. All was ready. The third student hooked the paint bucket to his belt, and tucked the brush in a pocket, and started the climb.
All went beautifully, and his ankles were about to go above the heads of his fellows, the street. It seemed like an eternity as they studied the cars approach. Much to their surprise and no comfort at all, they recognized the car as it turned right up to the wall surrounding the smoke stack, and stopped, a police cruiser with two officers. The student part way up in the air, with a combination of giggles and serious nervousness, considering the potential gravity of it all, began to shake uncontrollably. This only contributed to the alarm, as the tin paint can banged itself rhythmically against the aluminum ladder. Recognizing the potential consequences of such a give a way noise, each student on the wall let go of their hold on the ladder and grabbed the bouncing leg of the climber. It worked. The leg stopped its bouncing, and the can stopped its clanging.
Now the officers crawled out of the cruiser, turned on their flashlights, and began their search around the wall. They came to the opened gate to the smoke stack, and stuck their heads in, flashing their light all around. They noticed and commented on an open can of white paint laying on the ground in front of them. What the heck?? Amazingly enough they didn't expect someone hanging for dear life six feet above them right out in the middle of the air, on a brightly shinning ladder. Apparently previous burglars had not behaved this way.
Much to the student's surprise and relief, the officers also didn't fathom that someone would be standing on a two-by-four not more than three feet from their heads, holding the base of a thirty- four foot aluminum ladder. But then again, most burglars were probably not scholarship winners and campus leaders. Real burglars would probably not have such finely thought out plans that would operate on a bright moon lit night with a shinning ladder jutting up into the sky, screeching inch by inch not more than twenty yards from a women's dorm. These bright and promising students never once thought that the house mother in Mary Berry might hear a strange and loud noise, or look out into the bright moon lit night, much less in her overzeal to protect her young women, do something so rash as to call the city police.
But as bright and naive as they were at such clandestinry, the pendulum of fortune would turn once again in their favor to escape being caught. When the police explored the unlocked door to the maintenance shop, and made their way deep into the labyrinth of its maze thinking at any minute they would find the culprits, the students quietly slipped down the ladder, stole out from behind the wall, and each made his own high speed escape on foot to his particular pad, grateful with each breath to remain uncaught, but anguished that the administration had once again triumphed, though little did they know as they slept.
The on going struggle between the college administration in their wisdom and care and the lack of sense and fear of college-age kids over the decades in an attempt to defy all caution in favor of bragging and glorious defiance had once again been waged like a never ending tradition. But this specific battle was to end within months, for, as well the three students knew, or never would they have tried it, of course, the tower was due to come down, to be replaced by a much needed beautiful new library. One last attempt had been made for the students to triumph over the battle for the smoke stack. And how close they had come to victory. What a resounding moment it would have been if the wrecking ball would have had to end the struggle for the tower with the class of 1963 boasting a Vedi, Vidi, Vinci, symbolizing a final student triumph, just before it toppled forever.
Jan Dale had just finished his junior year as vice-president of the student body, and was on his way that fall to the Washington Semester program in Washington, DC. Phil McEldowney had just won the election for student body president for the next year, and Bob Kaldenberg, the outstanding conference miler (easily the first to reach his pad that night) was the new president of the S club.
[Story composed by paint-can vandal Jan Dale, with help from ladder-holding vandals Philip McEldowney and Bob Kaldenberg]