November 1, 2000

How the Pumpkin Got on the Tower!

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Three Octobers ago, Cornell garnered a significant amount of national attention. Not because of a U.S. News ranking. Not because of a scientific breakthrough. But because of a mysterious late-night escapade that captured the imagination of all Cornellians — how could it not? All of us inevitably glance at the top of world-famous McGraw Tower at least once a day. Thus, the sudden appearance of a pumpkin speared atop its spire one morning not surprisingly became the talk of the campus.

As Cornellians began to discuss the logistics of its success, the legend of the prank only grew. The pumpkin’s placement spawned many theories, but the mystery endured until last May. That’s when former Sun Editor in Chief Farhad Manjoo ’00 first exposed the Great Pumpkin Mystery of 1997. Below is his account, reprinted from the May 2000 Graduation Issue. And no, it wasn’t President Rawlings.

Howdy — I just laughed my ass off at the article y’all published on “how the pumpkin got onto the tower.” Nice piece of fiction and speculation. Would you like to know the REAL story?

— excerpt of an e-mail sent to The Sun, Oct. 26, 1999

I salivated after reading this message. Seriously. Because even though dozens of jokers mail The Sun every day claiming something grand, and even though — as editor in chief of the paper — I’d learned to discount such conjecture, there would be no better coup for The Sun than finding the Pumpkin Prankster. And I wanted the paper to expose the fellow during my term.

You see, since the infamous gourd first appeared on the clock tower in the fall of 1997, The Sun has tried — and failed — to ascertain the identity of the prankster. The closest we or any other news organization ever got was speculation; and everyone we speculated about, from the University to certain fraternities and athletic teams, denied all involvement.

By the fall of 1999, we were obviously no longer investigating the story. But just before Halloween, we printed a light piece recapping the two-year-old mystery, a story which, in the end, said what everyone already knew about the pumpkin: That it was destined to remain an enigma, the kind of pseudo-freakish thing that is universally understood to be beyond human comprehension, like crop circles or Kid Rock.

But evidently, this light piece caught the eye of a University employee named Tom Cruise (not his real name). Indeed, it made Tom “laugh his ass off,” and apparently for good reason: he knew who really did it.

“I was a housemate of one of the three individuals involved in this prank,” he wrote, “and now that he has moved away from town I don’t see any harm in setting the record straight on how they did it. I have details on the prank that were not released by the C.U. police, and could be verified by them to corroborate the truth of what I will tell you.”

So I called Tom Cruise. And he told me the whole story: How three friends managed to captivate the campus with nothing more than some duct tape, wire cutters, some rope, and, of course, a bright orange pumpkin.

After we discuss his preliminary “demands” — that I can’t use his name, and that he won’t give me the names of the perps — he gives me his account.

He begins by describing the main characters, who I’ll call Kennedy (the ringleader), Reagan and Nixon (the helpers). Kennedy was a Cornell student — the two others were Ithacans. Tom says that Kennedy had pulled a similar prank in his hometown some years ago — something involving a squash and a church steeple.

One imagines that when he came to Cornell, Kennedy saw the clock tower and knew then that he was put on God’s green earth just to decorate its steeple. He probably became obsessed with this goal; and, Tom says, he began to look for a couple climbers to help him achieve it. He hung out at local outdoors-type stores, and after a while, he found his accomplices, Reagan and Nixon.

When Tom talks about Kennedy, it’s with unabashed awe; we should revere this guy, he thinks. Kennedy was brilliant, Tom says — and do we need mention the cojones!

“That night, he went up there early, when the chimesmasters were playing — and he hid out there,” Tom says.

Kennedy had planned the prank extensively, right down to picking the night based on anticipated wind conditions. And while he was up there, he could feel it — this night was right.

“He stayed up there for about an hour,” Tom says. “And when he left, he duct taped the door locks — there are two — on his way out, so that they wouldn’t lock. Then he left, and they all met up, and came back at midnight.”

“They came back with the pumpkin” — which was a normal pumpkin (“no preservatives”), Tom says, bought from a farm stand on the side of the road, and cored.

Their equipment: a pair of wirecutters, and rope. And when they tried the doors, they saw that Kennedy’s duct tape trick had worked –in no time, they were up there with the bells.

Tom says: “They hung out there for an hour. They figured, We’re in here, we’re safe