Boom! Goes the Dynamite

[Thank you, Brian Collins, sportscaster profundo of Ball State University.]

As you read a previous episode, “All Up Mount Wilson – All Down in the Family“, Part 3 of a series {secretly} titled ‘Jim, you ignorant troll – A chronicle of my life’s moments of stupidity’, you may have learned to expect a tale of Jim’s fallibility. The title (A chronicle . . .) does, technically, leave room for my experiences with the failings of other people. These episodes are as delightful to me as Part 3 may have (must have!) been to you. This episode, Part 4 of the series, has been a source of savory recollection for many years.

Caltech on-campus undergraduate student houses (7 then, 8 now) have governance and traditions which are partly Greek fraternity, partly explosive creativity, partly outlet for tension, and partly denial of reality, with a dash of Honor Code. The best element was Alley Challenges. The four Old Houses, built in lovely California Mission style, have numerous short branching hallways – known to Techers as ‘alleys’. This slang was retained for the New Houses, where alleys were designated as segments of relatively long hallways. Alleys often had distinctive characteristics, such as ‘Pot Alley’ for Orthodox dopers. Houses also emphasized some characteristics, with Fleming being the jock house, Ruddock the Glee Club house, Blacker and Ricketts were badminton houses, and Dabney Eats It. Alley Challenges provided an opportunity for friendly (?) competition and a subtle mixture of clever intrigue with silly diversion. Each house had unique ways of managing Alley Challenges. They were exclusively intramural, operating only within the monastic realm of an individual house – until a certain fateful day of my freshman year.

Fleming House issued an unprecedented challenge to the other houses, an Interhouse Alley Challenge. It was, in accordance with Fleming’s character, an athletic challenge.

‘Race a chariot one lap around the track (440 yards). A chariot must have at least two wheels, six (house member) pullers, and one person designated as the driver.’

In Ruddock, a normal Alley Challenge might be counter-challenged. It is a negotiating tactic to establish favorable conditions prior to the event. The Interhouse Alley Challenge had no practical counter-challenge. Six challengers would not have been able to agree on a counter-challenge. Those houses who accepted Fleming’s challenge were accepting a challenge which was, a priori, rigged.

Ruddock’s response was enthusiastic. We had a productive discussion in planning a chariot build. Another discussion determined the driver. Larry and I were the lightest members of Ruddock. At 6’0″ and 128?Lb, I was skinnnnnny. But Larry had a shortness advantage that made him lighter. Jim, an average runner, would be a puller.

Dabney Eats It - Fleming Eats It, too!The chariot was remarkably competent. It had the form of a horse-racing sulky, light and narrow, with a long, flexible pole extending forward which had straps for the pullers to grab. It looked fast.

We were the first to arrive at the track. As other houses arrived, our confidence grew. The competition was large, heavy, unwieldy, and utterly non-competitive. One entrant failed to realize that the goal was speed and came prepared for projectile defense. Their chariot had a steel body. Then Fleming, intentionally waiting for the deadline, arrived. Their chariot was even lighter than the excellent Ruddock chariot. Did I mention the concept of ‘favorable conditions‘? Yes, I even used the term ‘rigged‘. Fleming had, in the best Alley Challenge tradition, rigged the race. Their chariot was string, which each of six ‘pullers’ pulled, tied to two small (lawn-mower) wheels dragging on the ground, and ending at the person ‘designated as the driver‘. This person was not sitting. He was running. Do you understand? The rules did not require that a person ‘drive‘ the chariot. He merely held title to that appellation. We had been snookered, bamboozled, and scammed. Round 1 : Fleming.

The race was not to be conceded. Ruddock, with its early arrival, had the inside lane. Fleming was outside. This was a very small disadvantage for them. These were guys who were already familiar with the track. At the start of the race, Ruddock quickly separated from the non-competitors. Fleming sauntered beside us at the first turn. They were laughing.

Fleming was confident that the race would be decided promptly. They made a move to pass us on the first turn. They did not show any inclination to be patient as they ran outside, a somewhat greater distance than needed for our inside lane. We drifted outward. This manuever, unplanned but precisely choreographed, frustrated Fleming. Ruddock emerged from the first turn with a lead.

Fleming found the patience needed to wait for the middle of the backstretch, at about 200 yards, to ‘kick’ and use their superior speed to pass us. They were not laughing. They were focused and determined. They pulled even. Then Ruddock pulled ahead.

Now we believed that we would win. We had simply out-run better athletes WHILE PULLING ANOTHER PERSON. Fleming must have felt a corresponding loss of confidence. They made another futile attempt to pass us around the last turn. They must have been desperate to have tried that again, instead of waiting for the last 75 yards of straight track.

Ruddock won the race. Fleming was second. No other houses ran through the first turn.

Arrogance and overconfidence are a form of stupidity – an emotional stupidity. I have, on a few occasions, wielded instruments of self-defeat. My parents were very wise to keep arrogance and overconfidence from my arsenal.


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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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