Byline: Usha Sutliff Staff Writer

PASADENA - Caltech seniors ditched classes Friday and vanished from campus, leaving behind a series of intricate puzzles, scavenger hunts and pranks that tested the brains and brawn of the underclass students.

It was the annual Ditch Day, a rite of passage for California Institute of Technology students. The tradition dates back to the 1920s when seniors with spring fever would skip their classes, leaving ``stacks'' of books and furniture outside their dorm room doors to discourage mischievous underclassmen from entering and trashing their rooms.

Now, seniors spend weeks devising elaborate and often computerized locks for their doors. They also come up with diabolical puzzles for undergraduates to solve before they can enter the seniors' rooms and claim a ``bribe'' - usually an assortment of junk food and beverages.

The stacks of old have been replaced with a series of tasks that, ``stack up,'' or lead to the final clue and the way into the seniors' rooms or somewhere else on campus.

Ditch Day is not without its rules - or opportunities for revenge.

Seniors caught on campus after 8 a.m. are unceremoniously duct-taped to a tree, and undergraduates who aren't happy with their bribes can devise a ``counterstack'' - essentially barring the senior from his or her own room.

By about 10:30 a.m., members of the undergrad team called ``Texas Militia'' had caught and caged a couple of chickens, constructed a mock gun rack on which they hung their Super Soaker water guns and lifted a Honda onto wooden blocks in front of the Fleming House dorm.

Sophomore Garrett Heffner said their stack challenge was devised by two seniors from the Lone Star state who instructed them to start their day by watching a ``training episode'' of the ``Dukes of Hazzard'' while dining on fried chicken, mashed potatoes and grits.

Heffner and his group got into the spirit of things, donning overalls and learning more about what it meant to be a part of a maverick militia.

Sophomore Chad Young and freshman Michelle Swan, meantime, were taking part in a more low-key stack.

They wandered the perimeter of Ramo Auditorium and Baxter Lecture Hall, peering expectantly into the metal grates, hoping to find the next clue to their puzzle.

``So far, we've taken a large concrete block out of Milikan Pond and beat it until it came open and found stuff inside,'' Swan said.

Students wandered campus in groups, many of them armed with squirt guns and wearing T-shirts specially made for the day. ``Special Forces, The Stack,'' ``The T-birds'' and ``The Princess Bride'' were just some of the themes.

The stacks themselves ranged from those that challenged brains (the finesse stack) to those that tested brawn (the brute force stack). Some were racier than others.

One dorm room had photos from the movie ``Grease'' pasted on each side of a life-size paper rendering of Sandra Dee, complete with a cutout of Olivia Newton-John's face topped with a blond wig tacked to the door. Music from the 1950s blared from speakers set in the hallway.

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