1972: Subterranean Spring Break

There are very few times when the words “Alaska” and “spring break” appear in the same sentence, but the University of Alaska does indeed have a spring break. At least it did when I was a student at The University of Alaska (This was when there was only one university and several community colleges). We got two days off in March, which coupled with the regular weekend gave us a four day spring break. The problem was there was no place to go and as it was a holiday there was no food service. You’d think that we’d have been starved into docile inactivity during that week but as you will see it was one of the most exciting weeks I spent on campus that year.

There was another major drawback to spring break: as a high school student my Best Friend still had to go to school – and keep weekday evening study hours so I was left with my dorm buddies for evening company and entertainment during the break. By this time differences in the value of certain herbal remedies had been resolved so I was getting along well with my room-mate Scott as well as Bernie, Marty, Jeff and other members of the Lathrop Hall basement group. Not that there weren’t still some important differences of opinion: I had absolutely no interest in researching the flammable qualities of flatulence so I had to come up with another activity to pass the time (heaven forbid studying) and as luck (literally) would have it I was presented with one the first night of the break.

I took a slightly different route home from my Best Friend’s house that night as few times during the previous week I had the unnerving experience of being trailed home by a lynx. It’s a common thing and the cats never attack but it still creeped me out to see a pair of shining eyes following me at a fixed distance as I made my way along the shortcut through the woods – that’s  what had me following the sidewalks back to Lathrop Hall. The change in route also took me to the front door instead of the back and as I neared the entrance I noticed that the padlock on the metal door securing the entry to the campus utilidors was missing. The door was located on a low metal box about ten feet square and after a quick scan around I pulled up on the handle – which opened with a slight creak!

I was in!

(For those of you who don’t know what utilidors are– it’s a tunnel system usually found on large spread-out installations like a college campus or military base. The tunnels house electrical lines, steam-heat pipes, water and sewer lines that run from the main physical plant complex out to all the other buildings, eliminating duplication of  heating systems in each building and providing all-weather access to maintenance of all the lines. I had explored the utilidors under my high-school the year before but they were very limited – nothing  like what we discovered under the university.)

I didn’t stay long, quickly climbing back out and bolting inside the dorm to my room where I told the guys about the situation. We immediately geared up, though unfortunately we were short on any sort of light-producing devices ( I think we had two candles) I put on one of my dad’s old flight suits and  filled the pockets with “stuff” like a pocket knife, matches, string, hard candy etc.  I don’t know what I was thinking but for some reason survival equipment seemed appropriate at the time. Once we were all equipped we made our way to the entrance, darting from the front door to the open hatch one at a time like escaping POWs heading for the wire in “The Great Escape”

It was dark. As our eyes adjusted we found that was a little bit of light filtering from the glass windows in the doors that connected the tunnels with each one of the building – just enough light to allow some rough navigation through the passages.  That was one of our first discoveries – that the glass-windowed door in the bottom of the stairwell connected with the utilidors. All of the buildings were connected in that fashion – but unfortunately they were just about all locked as well so there would be a limit to our travels.

The first night’s expedition was limited. . We followed the tunnel down the slope (the tunnels followed the general lay of the land over them) to the athletics building where our big achievement for the night was getting into the observation room adjacent to the pool. The room had a window looking out in the water which was used for filming and critique of the swim teams. It was an eerie sight – there were low-level security lights above the water but all we saw was a silvery undulating “ceiling” as we looked into the pool.

These limitations might seem as though they would be very discouraging but you have to remember that this was 1972 and heroic fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Conan and the like) was very popular. Running through those tunnels was like living out a Robert Howard short story and I half expected bejeweled skeletons swinging swords to come lurching out of a niche in the wall.

We went back into the tunnels and headed up the hill, past our entry point and beyond. We stopped at several buildings, hoping to find an unlocked door but found them all secured. Disappointment was keenest at the basement of Chandalar Hall, one of two residence halls on campus that were girls-only. As the male-to-female ratio on campus ran a little worse than 3 to 2 I was the only guy in the bunch with a steady girlfriend so the others went through every conceivable contortion at the locked door window trying to catch a glimpse – or even just a reflected glimpse of the bare boobs and pillow fights that Playboy would have us believe prevailed amongst coeds behind locked doors.

We decided to explore just another 50 feet and leave the rest of the tunnels for another night. We passed by a very promising air-lock-like door to find the bottom of a flight of stairs at the next break in the tunnel wall. This time there was no locked door and we started up the staircase only to be surprised that it kept going up past where we assumed ground level would be. We kept going on, assuming that  we’d become disoriented by the slight up-slope we’d being climbing as the tunnel followed the contour of the terrain of the campus above – but when I spied a small window to one side I quickly figured out what was going on.

We were 20-30 feet above the sidewalk. Somehow we’d gotten into the old clock tower and the aforementioned terrain disorientation had kept us from realizing where we were. It was all quite funny until we remembered that a) the carillon bells were housed just above us in the tower and B) it was about five minutes before the hour. Not wishing to be anywhere around when all that noise started we ran down the steps to the tunnel and were piling out of the entrance behind Lathrop Hall when the bells actually did start to peal.

I slept most of the next day, and then spent part of the evening visiting with my Best Friend before our next foray underground. Because she was my best friend  I’d end up telling her everything going on in my life…but she wasn’t very happy my current antics.  Her father was on University staff and in the past there had been some dinner table dialog about students caught in the utilidors and subsequently disciplined severely when they were found to have “lifted” camera equipment.  I changed the subject as quickly as possibly and tried not to look too anxious as I left her house and headed back to the dorm for another expedition.

We were dismayed to find three more “explorers” waiting to join up with us. Two of them – Tideman and Carrini –  were from our floor and most welcome but the third guy was from another dorm and not particularly trusted,  but as  his flashlight and spare batteries were a definite improvement over our candles we took him along.  I was much better prepared information wise as well, having had combined notes from previous nights’ experience with a campus catalog map which was in turn double-checked against surreptitious day-light survey of the school grounds .

I was most interested in the “airlock doors” we’d passed the night before. They were extremely hard to open and at first I thought they were bolted or secured in some manner but after getting through the first one I found there was a strong air current moving that you had to open the door against – which did nothing but pique my interest even more.  Each time we went through another door the current got stronger until we reached a small cube-shaped room with a grill in the top which lead me to believe that the tunnels were part of a ventilation system at some unknown campus location.

It was not unknown for long. I popped up through the grid in finest Whack-a-Mole fashion to find myself in the middle main hall of the student center. Formally known as the William R. Wood Center it was commonly known as the ‘Copper Center” because of the cupreous siding on the front of the building. It was brand new having just opened that semester and was mildly controversial because of the large open interior spaces and “modern” decorating motif designed to combat the long winter nights and cabin fever – conservative critics felt like all the open space was a waste of money. The design included a small platform with dining table sitting atop of an artfully designed 20 foot tall metal framework and staircase which we alternately called “The Stairway to Heaven” or ‘The Stairway to Nowhere”.

The grating I came up out of was located at the bottom of the framework, putting me in the exact middle of this large open area. I was saved by immediate discovery and apprehension only the fact that it was A) well after midnight on a holiday and B) most of the people in the area were baked so bad their eyes looked like a road-map of Los Angeles. The minute I gathered my senses I popped back down the hole and made my way back to the main tunnel, my egress all that much faster with the air currents now acting as a tailwind.

We pushed past the entrance to the clock tower and found a branch that appeared to lead us to the new classroom building being built in front of the old student center. At first we figured that as work in progress there would be no locked doors to that building but in fact the tunnel was boarded up with plywood instead. Bent but not broken  we turned down yet another side tunnel which took us directly to the library sub-basement…at which point I started to get nervous.

There was a lot of (what was for 1972) lot of hi-tech equipment stored in that area, along with large numbers of books on carts to be reshelved the next day. I thought back on the story about the students getting the ax over the stolen cameras and opted to head back to the entrance along with all but two of the party, after which I crashed for the night.

The next day was a repeat of the day before. Bernie and I walked the campus grounds measuring off distances and correcting my map. Early that evening I went to visit my Best Friend again and in typical boorish jock manner scared her with a story about being caught in the tunnels the night before and how I was awaiting expulsion. She failed to see the humor in my story but succeeded in demonstrating a surprising strong right arm when she punched my right arm in bad-joke-retaliation.

Again we assembled in our room and like soldiers on the Western Front preparing for a trench raid we secured our gear, prepared our lights and filed stealthily out to the unlocked access hatch….to find a massive brass lock sealing it securely shut. Given the substances some of the guys had been fortifying themselves with during these incursions finding the lock there was literally a buzz-kill but we had no tools and other than scrambling down the grid below the Stairway to Nowhere we knew of no other access points so we called it a night. It was just as well – it was 1:00 AM Sunday morning; the cafeteria would be back up and running for breakfast and I definitely wanted to have something before hiking back to my Best Friend’s home to catch a ride to church with her and her family.

It wasn’t until later that week that we found out what had happened. It was obvious something was up when the entire floor was blasted awake at 6:00 AM by the stereo in Tideman and Carrini’s room blasting “Lowdown” by Chicago. They were heading back to California (early) and while I was elated when they gave me their bunk-bed components I was mystified by the sudden move. It wasn’t until sometime later when I found out the real story during one of the dorm floor’s “herbal remedy” sessions. That last night when the rest of the group (including me) came home early Tideman and Carrini actually got as far as the campus fire station…and a campus fireman. The tunnel they were in made a sharp left turn into the station’s basement and before they knew where they were they had almost run over a guy. He was startled enough that they got back into the tunnels and far enough down them that they were able to get back home without being caught. Did they get away scot-free? I don’t know – but there was a short note in the campus paper soon after restating the zero-tolerance policy about the utilidors, warning dire consequences for those who may be caught down there

…though at that moment I’d have freely taken those ‘dire consequences” if it meant escape from the umber-colored laser stare that I did get from my Best Friend while reading that particular notice.

1 thought on “1972: Subterranean Spring Break

  1. Reblogged this on David R. Deitrick, Designer and commented:

    This week’s Saturday re-run. Funny story: not long after I first published this post I came across a solicitation for articles from the UAF alumni office – they’re coming up on an important milestone for the Wood Student Center and were looking for observations and memories of the building over the last fifty years. I sent them a copy of this…and never heard back.

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