It wasn’t intended to, but our harmless prank turned into the Great Thanksgiving Eve Caper.
It was 1957. A few of us at our sober-sided small college in Ohio occasionally blew off steam by climbing various buildings on campus. Usually we left signs commemorating the ascents, some of them triggered by old-fashioned windup alarm clocks to go off at gatherings of students and faculty — of which there were many; daily chapel attendance was mandatory in those days.
One raw November day, I did my daily run on the indoor track that circled the gym above the basketball court. Down below me, the maintenance men were switching the fire alarms from a 6-volt to a 110-volt system. As I left the gym, I spotted a discarded 6-volt alarm bell left on the bleachers. I figured it might come in handy someday and stuffed it into my gym bag. I’ll tell you: If I could have funneled my talent for delinquent impulses and creativity into proper channels, I’d be typing this story on the veranda of my villa on the Amalfi Coast. But there wouldn’t be a story.
I laid the bell on my dorm room windowsill and pondered for several days. Then one morning in chapel — a Eureka! moment. We students filled the pews, and the faculty faced us from another, tiered set of pews on a raised platform at the front. Directly behind them, a great green curtain stretched wall to wall, concealing the pipes of the college’s brand-new and cherished Holtkamp organ. It was clearly the place for the cast-off old fire bell to end its working life.
There was no shortage of old-fashioned alarm clocks or cloth-insulated bell wire in those days. That was a start. But what to do for a battery? No way I was donating the battery from my old Plymouth; I had to get home for Thanksgiving. We tried the football coach’s station wagon late at night, but a large dog started growling just inside the house. In the end, we scored the college bus, parked under the stadium. A 24-volt battery! — heavy as unforgiven sin, with retractable wire handles. Two guys could carry it only about 50 feet at a crack. But we finally got it slid up onto a plank catwalk inside the organ. I set up the alarm with two loops of wire that would make contact when the clock went off and its key rotated, and we ran off eagerly to bed at last.
Tuesday: a boring secular speaker. We miscreants sat together expectantly in the front row, facing our own personal Inspector Javert, the Dean of Women, who hated us and intuitively picked up on our sudden attentiveness. Right on schedule, we heard the tinkle of the clock, and then — nothing. Something had gone wrong. But nobody’d noticed the sound — except us and Dean Golder. She glared straight at us: I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m going to get you, my pretties!
We had to go back! But they’ll be waiting for us! Some protested. Guys, I said, How can we not go back? We went. No one was waiting. Sure enough, the insulation had slipped, preventing a wire-to-wire contact. I fixed it, rewound the clock, and again we melted into the night.
Thanksgiving Eve was a half-day: morning classes and a meeting in the chapel, where Dean Wilhelm Taeusch invariably prayed over us: Lord, convey them in safety by land, sea or air to the havens where they would be, and return them safely to us once again. This was going to be sticky.
It was. Right in the middle of the dean’s long prayer, there was a little tinkle, followed by a most god-awful clanging, as an old 6-volt alarm bell rang its heart out on 24 volts. Everybody jumped up. Fire! But there was no fire — just a loud racket inside the organ. It was clear the Night Climbers had struck again. Waves of laughter rippled through the chapel (somewhat choked in the faculty pews) as Dean Taeusch, frozen in mid-orison, gripped the sides of the lectern with white knuckles. Finally, a young professor climbed into the organ, to great cheers, and turned off the bell.
It was perfect! But we’d forgotten that on the eve of vacations, the college carried loads of students to the local train station in the college bus. Which, of course, was hors de combat. The faculty rallied, however, and reprised the evacuation of Dunkirk, ferrying students downtown in dozens of cars. I spent the weekend in Syracuse anticipating an invitation to visit the Dean of Men.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.