- Kenneth Cook
What Really Happened June 6, 1979
For my classmates, Del Campo Class of '79
Since our high school graduation was forty years ago today, it seems like the right moment to come clean with a story from that day that I’m fairly sure you have not heard.
You probably remember how excited we all were. Caps, gowns, last day of classes, celebrations, parties. Anticipation for summer and what amazing unknowns might lie beyond.
You might also remember how upset some of us were that the school district was going to send one of the new board members to speak at graduation! He was one of those dreaded Prop-13-school-board-recall-education-fundamentals board members who voted to replace electives in the high school requirements with more math and science.
For forty years, our adult lives have played out against all aspects of Prop 13. It is part of the landscape now, but I find it amazing to recall how it felt when it was fresh, new and electric. We were the very first “all Prop 13” adults! Back then, many of us didn’t like how our younger classmates would have fewer choices for their classes. “The extra math and science courses are already university requirements, but not everyone needs them,” was our argument. Some of our classmates spoke against these changes at the board meetings. The new rules would prevent some kids from graduating.
We heard rumblings around the Senior Lawn about this unwanted speaker at our graduation. Classmates spread the word: everyone bring a newspaper to the ceremony. When the board member got up to speak, get out your paper and read it. We would stage a non-violent Read In. Within a few days, though, principal Eleanor Brown was on to us and the plans for protest died.
Or did they?
Three of us had mischievous energy to spare. Andy, Nick, and I created a new plan. Andy tinkered in electronics and had a garage full of odd parts. Our plan was not simple, but if we could pull it off, it would be perfect, or that is how our 18-year-old heads imagined it. We would trigger a fire alarm bell to go off when the board member was trying to speak! Now that I know how male decision-making skills aren’t fully wired until a few years later, it explains so much.
The day before graduation, we inconspicuously wandered over to the gym. With no air conditioning, it was hotter inside than outside. The janitors were setting up the chairs for graduation and had many of the chair racks pulled out from under the stage. While Nick and I stood guard, Andy slipped under the stage with a screw driver and a battery-powered fire alarm bell. It seemed like he was under there forever! The workers never paid any attention to us. Maybe they thought it was normal for students to hang out and watch chairs being set up, but mostly they were really busy. Finally, Andy emerged, covered in sweat.
“What took so long?” we asked as soon as we got out by the tennis courts.
“I put it way back under there, in case one of the janitors was poking around, or Eleanor decided to sweep the place. It was so hot in there I had to keep stopping to rest.”
I was concerned it might have been put too far from the seats, since the second part of the plan would use a radio signal to trigger the alarm. “Will it be close enough?” I wondered.
“I tested it at home across the garage,” Andy said. “I think it will work.”
When we all arrived for graduation the next day, my family wanted to pose for pictures, but I soon escaped to meet up with Nick and Andy so we could get a seat together as close to the stage as possible. What crazy energy there, out in the sun all in our blue robes. Our class generally got along well, but now, it seemed, everyone wanted to sit near the front. There was jostling and irritation as we steadily tried to move toward the doors, the orderly lines we made at graduation practice ignored.
Huddled together in the crowd, we saw a large boxy lump under Andy’s robe. He was wearing a CB radio transmitter in a backpack that he put on backwards. In his pocket, he had wound about twenty feet of antenna wire. We worried that someone would bump him and mess up his equipment or discover him and report us. Nick and I formed a human shield to hide and protect Andy.
The doors opened, Pomp and Circumstance started, and we marched in. We looked for our families as we walked past the bleachers. Andy looked really strange with his cyber lump. We ended up pretty close, maybe the fourth row.
The ceremony moved quickly. When the board member was about to speak, Andy went into action handing out wire. “Pass it down,” he said. Our classmates dutifully performed the take-one-pass-it-down-drill we had practiced a thousand times since kindergarten. If you were in that row, I still remember the looks on your faces, as you were suddenly handed a length of rolled up wire and asked to stretch it out. Guys in ties and girls with their perfect 1979 curls, all pressed into service for a questionable conspiracy.
Just as the wire was fully extended, the board member came to the podium. Andy reached into his robe and fumbled at the controls. We exchanged anxious glances. Nothing. Almost before anyone realized he had started, the board member finished and scurried to his seat. His speech had been no more than three sentences.
No alarm. It didn’t work! The fear on the board member’s face was all the satisfaction we would ever get.
We never did learn why our contraption didn’t work. Probably the signal was just too weak. Our little piece of political theater was never heard but makes for a good story that I’ve shared only a few times. Today seemed like the right day for the class of ’79 to hear it.
After the ceremony and many hugs, I headed to the multi-purpose room B to pick up my diploma. When I gave my name at the table, the young woman said, “There is a note here that says to see Ken Hodges.”
With a fresh batch of fear brewing in my stomach, I saw Nick and Andy standing together in Junior Hall. “They said I have to see Ken Hodges.”
“We got the same note,” Nick said.
I should explain this wasn’t our first prank. The three of us had conspired before, mostly at the expense of our favorite physics teacher, Ken Hodges. We bombarded him with paper airplanes from the roof as he left his classroom. We covered his yard in toilet paper. Kid stuff.
Now exchanged questions.
“Is he onto us?”
“How could he know?”
“Did they find the alarm this morning?”
“Is it still even under the stage?”
“Could they hold our diplomas from us?”
Andy was a lab aide with Mr. Hodges and saw him the most. “He might have seen me take the gear to hide it in his supply room,” he confessed.
“We better go find out,” said Nick.
It was mystical to feel the school at night, emptying of classmates for the last time. We walked to the far end of Junior Hall out toward the baseball field and over to Ken’s classroom. When we turned the corner, he was waiting.
With a stern face, he said, “I just need to tell you guys --” and breaking into a big smile, he handed us our diplomas. “Congratulations!”
He shook all our hands. Mr. Hodges got the last word on pranks.
We chatted for some all-too-brief moments. “We thought we were in trouble,” we said.
“Yeah, well, I thought you guys might be up to something, but I couldn’t figure out what…and don’t tell me now!”
Now you all know what we were up to on June 6, 1979.