Life at UCSD seems calm compared to life at Caltech. The California Institute of Technology is famous for its pranks: students once surreptitiously altered cards that Ohio State football fans were to use during halftime at the Rose Bowl game to display the school logo — the altered cards spelled out “Caltech” instead. Another time, after an unpopular instructor had a student’s car towed from his reserved parking space, students sandblasted the parking lot overnight and repainted it — with that instructor’s space missing. Once an instructor returned from vacation to find his Volkswagen, in one piece and running, in his third-floor windowless office. The funniest prank I remember, however, wasn’t the work of Caltech students. It was performed by Mother Nature.
The Caltech campus is in the city of Pasadena, with Los Angeles to the west and the San Gabriel mountains immediately to the east. The San Gabriels rise abruptly from the floor of the L.A. basin, trapping the exhaust of ten million motor vehicles to produce L.A.’s infamous smog. I lived with three roommates in The Dungeon, a cavernous room underneath Dabney House, a 1930’s-era residence hall sporting Doric columns and bas-reliefs of students in their scholarly pursuits. Though fall of 1976 was one of the smoggiest seasons ever recorded, The Dungeon was unencumbered by views of the brown skyline. It was, however, burdened by a freshman from Chicago, Charlie.
Charlie had never been far from the Illinois plains. We often joked about the mountains (“That last lecture was as clear as the mountains,” or “Go hide on a mountain top”), and Charlie wanted to see them, but the air pollution wouldn’t cooperate. During the first three weeks of the quarter, smog obscured the San Gabriels entirely. One day we told one mountain joke too many: “Stop pulling my leg,” Charlie said, angry and hurt “I know there aren’t really any mountains there! Do you really think I’m gullible enough to still believe it?” It is pointless to try to argue with something utterly absurd; I said nothing.
Southern California has another interesting weather phenomenon. Occasionally a high-pressure area will develop in the deserts that lie east of the coastal mountain range (a range which includes the San Gabriels). The pressure drives the hot, dry, clean desert air over the mountains, where it blows into the L.A. basin in what is called a Santa Ana wind. The Santa Ana disperses the smog over the Pacific Ocean, leaving Los Angeles bathed in crystal clear air and sparkling sunlight. Television crews, Hollywood movie producers, and scores of postcard photographers rush to capture the southland in its pristine beauty; surfers and sunbathers clog the freeways that lead to the beach; hay-fever sufferers empty drugstore shelves; and the San Gabriel mountains rise magnificently within view of the Caltech campus. On such days they appear close enough to touch, as though they were just across Colorado boulevard.
A Santa Ana occurred a few days after Charlie had “discovered” that the mountains didn’t really exist. As I woke I recognized the dry air and wind, but I was born in Pasadena and have lived in southern California all my life. I didn’t give it a second thought. Charlie left for breakfast, while the three of us stayed in The Dungeon to study. Suddenly we heard footsteps racing back down the stairs. The door burst open. An obviously rattled Charlie appeared in the room. “Holy shit!” We were stunned: we’d never heard Charlie swear before. “There are mountains out there!”
I don’t know why things like that don’t happen here at UCSD. Yes, I saw the giant ants invading the construction site by the library, and the Visual Arts projects that pop up unexpectedly on the lawns and in the groves are often good for a laugh. But they don’t compare to the giant footprints that appeared leading up the side of the eleven-story Millikan library and which, before administrators could figure out how to remove them, mysteriously reappeared leading down. Or the forty foot high computer-generated portrait of Caltech President and Secretary of Defense nominee Harold Brown that was unfurled one day to support his candidacy — and help insure that he moved to Washington. Maybe it’s the weather here in San Diego, the greater distance from Hollywood and Disneyland, or the less frenzied way of living. Maybe it’s just that life in the 1990’s is so much more complicated than I would ever have imagined back in the seventies, and I’ve become jaded while waiting for a warm, clear Santa Ana to blow away the haze and reveal the Truth that one is supposed to find at a university.
— Ron Risley – 14 Feb 1991