Ditch Day: The Plot Thickens

I’m sure you couldn’t tell based on what you’re reading right now, but I’m a huge fan of stories. It’s great to be on either end: experiencing or telling.

I loved immersing myself in the atmosphere of the stack when I was an undergraduate. On ditch day as a junior, I signed up to be the friendly Bob-omb from the Mario video game.  Although there was no requirement to act like our roles, it made it much more fun to spend the day making my face red like I was about to explode and once putting my (helmeted) head through a sheetrock wall we needed to get past. I figured, what’s a sentient bomb for if not destroy in-the-way-walls?

One way that stacks can be immersive is by having different roles on the sign up sheets. Each stackee signs up to be a different character – on the Mario stack there was Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, etc. The fun mystery is that as a stackee, you have no idea whether character choice will be irrelevant, extremely relevant (different characters getting completely different tasks), or somewhere in between. In the Mario stack, the only real difference was that each character got unique headgear.

Oren and I opted against the character-assignment route to storytelling. Instead we aimed to characterize the group as a whole, and allow the stackees to fill in individual roles with their own personalities and imagination. In retrospect, I think this strategy would have been successful if the stack was composed of Ben-clones. In reality, the absence of restrictions imposed by sign-up-roles also removed the creativity that so often comes from small restrictions.

That oversight aside, I’m proud of the intricate plot we came up with for our stack: Lord of the Rings: The Other Fellowship.


Ditch Day Chronicles – Breakfast!

When we last saw our protagonists they were gathered at the art house, which through the power of imagination was the Prancing Pony in Bree.

Wait, the protagonists? Are the protagonists the Seniors or the Stackees?

From this side of ditch day I’m biased and think the seniors are definitely the protagonists. But a big goal of ditch day (in my mind) is to create a world in which the stackees are protagonists at the center of their own story.  So really, the answer is both.

And what is one of the stackees first tastes of that world? Breakfast.

Ditch day breakfasts vary as much as the stacks themselves.  They can involve full-service affairs at the Atheneum (Caltech ‘s faculty club.) Military themed stacks have had MREs  ‘paradropped’ (okay, thrown) to the them from rooftops.  When I was a senior, a mysterious ‘seniors only’ box lived in the refrigerator for several days before Ditch Day, revealing an ostrich egg that became an omelet for the entire stack.

Looking back, my first Ditch Day breakfast set the tone in my mind for the entire tradition of Ditch Day. We were instructed to go to the Tunnel Kitchen, where we found some cereal, milk and OJ. “Eh, this is acceptable,” I thought. But then, we found the note ‘look in the oven.’ Surprise! More still-hot scrambled eggs and chocolate chip pancakes than we could eat!

Influenced by that experience, hot breakfast was critical to the Ditch Day I wanted to craft. And being slightly greedy, I wanted to see my stack off on their adventure. So why not combine the two and cook breakfast to order? Oren and I played the role of the substitute Prancing Pony bartenders and cooked up pancakes and eggs.

Once they were done eating, we gave them each the letter left for them by the wizard, Radagast.

Ditch Day Chronicles – All About the People

“It’s all about the people.” This little but significant truth turns up in many different domains, and Ditch Day is no exception.  It’s an oft-forgotten secret of Ditch Day that as much effort as the seniors put into a stack, at the end of the day it’s the group dynamics that really determine the level of awesome at the end of the day.

Sure, a well-made stack certainly smooths the process of fun-making, but a great group of people could have a good time locked in a room with nothing but a pile of sticks. And on the flipside, if the stackees are naturally acrimonious or just don’t like each other then the best stack in the history of Tech can’t overcome those dynamics.

The best you can do as a senior is advertise your stack as accurately as possible and hope that the underclassmen who are drawn to your sign-up-sheet are all excited by the same things as you and thus, excited by the same things as each other and likely to work well together.

Thus, the period just before 8am is filled with excitement for underclassmen, chaos for alumni and unknowing nervousness for seniors. ‘Will my stack be full of excitement and enthusiasm or judgment demanding to be satisfied?’ The nail-biting is amplified by the fact that by this time the seniors have evacuated the courtyard and campus, lest they be duct-taped to a tree (the traditional punishment for any senior caught on campus during Ditch Day.)

We wouldn’t know who was on our stack until they came through the doors of the Art House The Prancing Pony for breakfast!

Door Bangin’


The sound of fists pounding on doors, feet pounding the ground, and senior’s shouts are the signal that Ditch Day has come. It’s time to gather in the courtyard, join a stack, and embark on an adventure. For the underclassmen, it’s pure Christmas Morning. Like Christmas, it always starts the same way, but beyond that, who knows what the day will bring.

For the seniors, 7:45am on Ditch Day morning is some combination of space shuttle launch, sending a kid off to college, and marathon-ending sprint.  Years of plotting, months of building, several days of all-out-effort all about to be put to the test.

Some of the underclassmen are already dressed and ready to sprint out their doors as soon as they are free of seniors’ fists, others foolishly think they have time to mozy through a leisurely shower. (Hint: you don’t, as you were told every time you pulled that stunt during fake ditch days.) All make their way to the courtyard, which is now circled by sign-up posters for each stack.

The sign ups range from handwritten pieces of paper to massive, laminated works of art. Sometimes there’s a correlation between how much effort was put into a stack and the quality of the poster, but sometimes quite the opposite can happen – so much effort was put elsewhere that the poster ends up as an afterthought. Basically, choosing a stack based on its poster is generally a bad idea.


Alumni roam the courtyard, encouraging the underclassmen to investigate all the possible stacks and then cluster around the sign-up sheet for their chosen adventure. One alumnus acts as the ‘Barker,’ constantly reminding the sleepy eyed underclassmen of the rules of priority (frosh first, social moles last, etc.) and pointing out where all the different options are located. There is inevitable drama when there are more prospective stackees than slots for them, with no strict process for who must leave and who gets to stay.

Picture 006

Eventually though, each stack has the right number of stackees and all wait intently as the ‘official Blacker Clock’ counts down until 8:00. And then it begins.

Ditch Day: Ditch Day Eve

Every year, the Seniors end Ditch Day announcements with “Go to bed Frosh! Ditch Day is Tomorrow!” This isn’t some sort of hazing or power trip, a useless statement handed down from the past (though handed down it has been.) Quite the opposite, it’s just good advice. A night full of sleep benefits a day full of mental and physical challenges. Even more than that though, it’s because the Seniors need the campus to themselves to make the Magic of Ditch Day happen.

The seniors can build many parts of ditch day in secret: behind the closed doors of their rooms or inside of the plastic-sheeting enclosures labeled ‘seniors only’ that pop up around campus a few weeks before ditch day like huge, black, misshapen, flapping mushrooms after a rain. However, there are always (much more than) a night’s worth of tasks that can’t be done secretly in a campus not devoid of underclassmen.

The night is filled with the shouts of seniors and alumni running hither and thither moving puzzles into place, setting out clues, and putting the final (and in unfortunate cases initial) touches on all aspects of the day that would begin soon after the dawn.  ‘Have you seen the drill?’ ‘I need some manpower!’ and from my sleep-deprived mouth at 5am ‘No time! I need to make a monster!’

Most seniors don’t sleep the night before Ditch Day, and in some cases like mine, for a couple nights before that. Thus a very, very explicit (almost) minute-by-minute plan for the night was essential lest one of the million tasks fall through giant, sleep-deprivation-induced mental gaps.

I’ll go into more detail of what we actually DID the night before as I talk about the components of my stack, but I’ll leave you with two pictures that capture some of what the night is like:


Things you can’t do secretly when underclassmen are around – move a several 500 lb blocks of ice.


And this picture sums up the feelings of 6am – cold, stressed,satisfied and ‘HOW CAN IT BE LIGHT ALREADY’

Ditch Day: Battle Plans

Nine hours. Eight AM to five PM. A normal work-day can often pass by like a snap.

But Ditch Day is anything but normal: it’s amazing how long nine hours can seem when you feel responsible for filling every minute of it with undiluted awesomesauce of your own design. And yet in a bizarre case of Schrödinger’s Scheduling, there’s also nowhere near enough time for all the awesome puzzles you’ve been dreaming about for years.

And it’s not just a matter of saying ‘well ok, they’ll watch this lecture for an hour, take five minutes to walk to the next location, where they’ll do a supervised activity that will be timed for 45 minutes… etc.’ Not at all. It’s a matter of trying to guess how long an group of unknown (from within a subset) group of Caltech undergrads (certainly not known for predictability) will take to finish a series of tasks that have never been completed before.

Testing by friends or alumni can give some puzzles a rough time estimate, but between the variations in prior knowledge (“hey, this puzzle is just like this one I saw in a magazine three years ago!” vs. “So…where’s the puzzle?”) and external circumstances, it’s like trying to extrapolate from a small experiment in a lab to the real world in extremely non-ideal conditions.  Other puzzles really are one-shot affairs and their time-footprint can only be guessed.

Combine those considerations with my desire to weave a coherent story through the puzzles and planning became a terrifying beast. It involved layers of buffers, contingencies, what-ifs, and a really big whiteboard (spoiler alert):

2010-04-08 17.37.52

As the weeks ticked down towards Ditch Day, Oren and Mike’s huge double essentially became our war room. Random electronics, maps, sketches, and drying painted objects were strewn wall to wall.

In the end most stacks hit surprisingly close to the 8-5 mark, an amazing feat in and of itself when you think about it, let alone what creating what happens in that time period. (I’m getting there, I swear!)

Announcements Pt. 3

Ah yes, the actual Ditch Day announcement. I hope you’re reading these posts in order and have had to wait a bit for this one.  The atmosphere of unspoken sentiment that pervades the dining hall: “Get to the announcements! We know they’re coming. Between the hint-hint wink-wink emails, the periodic banning of non-seniors from the dining hall and the alumni now helping pack dinner wall to wall, we know it’s going to happen! Come on already!”

And of course, most Ditch Day announcements are better if you get their references so here is some background viewing that might increase your appreciation. Oh, and the little bit of background reading is the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

I walk into the dining hall in full lab safety gear – googles, coat, and welding gloves to the intro music of ‘Will it blend?’ and announced that I am Tom Dickson. (Suspension of disbelief pervades announcements as well as ditch day itself.) “I wonder if this banana will blend?”

On a conveniently placed table at the front of the Dining hall sits my trusty ‘BlendTec Blender.’ I pop the banana in and what do you know? A banana will blend.

“Now, that’s all I had planned for today,” I announce, pulling a ring on a chain out of my pocket, “but on my way in to work I found this shiny ring on the ground. Which of course raises the question – will it blend?”

I hold out my hand to drop the ring in, but then quickly pull it back. I try again, but my hand can’t quite seem to let go.  Finally, through sheer willpower, I get the ring out of my grip and into the blender. “Here we go!”

I turn on the blender, and suddenly there is a screeching explosion within! As the smoke clears, I pull off the top and reach in to grab … the fully intact ring.

Pulling back my goggles, I say in astonishment “If a BlendTec blender can’t destroy it… there is only one other way …”

cue music and movie-trailer-voiceover voice

“It must be taken across rivers and over mountains. Through darkness and water. It must be taken to its very birthplace – Orodruin – and cast into the fires from whence it was forged! Few friends will aid you, and many enemies will bar your path.”

“You have a long journey ahead of you frosh, so go to bed –because DITCH DAY IS TOMORROW!”