We would have a Christmas party every year, usually at the Director’s residence. The first year we wrote a little skit among the graduates for the Christmas party, and that started a tradition which as far as I know continues, what, thirty-odd years: Student plays making fun of the faculty, in what we hoped was a gentle way.
We had these Christmas skits that had some national notoriety, in fact, because they were not very respectful. For instance, one was a Christmas Pageant—the Annunciation, the traveling to Bethlehem, the giving birth to the Savior and all that, except I played the Blessed Virgin. Different students portrayed different faculty members playing different characters, so I played the part of chairman, who was Laurel Wilkening. Then the Three Wise Men following the star, and I gave birth to the savior of planetary science, who we then crucified. That’s the kind of stuff that we did.
It was a long tradition in the graduate student population. When I was there, usually we had me writing things, and when Faith Vilas finally broke down into hysterical laughter, we’d say, “Okay, now we’re getting there.”
One of the other big things we did here is that every winter we had the Christmas party. The students would always do Christmas skits, and they’d do skits about the faculty. Then we started to videotape some of the skits.
The faculty looked forward to them; everybody looked forward to them. A lot of times we would have to write these things a day or two before the Christmas skits. We’d stay up all night trying to come up with something that would be funny. But somehow we always pulled it off. A lot of my memories go back to these Christmas skits and some of the things we did. Almost all the faculty members were a great sport. If we asked them to do something, they’d be a part of it. Sometimes it would be a great embarrassment to them as well, but they always went through with it.
I think that was another thing that helped bind everybody together: The faculty members, while being very good, did not take themselves too seriously. It made things more of a family feeling here.
One of the things that I thought was absolutely delightful was the irreverent group of students that I encountered when I first got to LPL, and their Christmas skits. I quickly became involved in those, and I had a great time. When I left as a post-doc, at the University of Maryland, I tried to instigate a similar type of activity among the graduate students there, and they were terrified. They wouldn’t dare do that.
So that was definitely very pleasant. Oh, I have so many stories. One of them that comes to mind is a time when a colleague, Nick Gautier—somebody was stealing cookies from his cookie can in his office, down on the first floor of LPL. He decided that he needed to catch whoever this person was, so he set up a video camera that was rigged to the light, and whenever somebody turned on the light in his office, this video camera would start.
He eventually did catch the culprit, but in addition to the culprit, all of these interesting characters started to show up in his office. The first one was the Cookie Monster. Somebody dressed as the Cookie Monster came and went through his desk, found the cookies, tasted them and said, “Oh, these are no good,” and he had a bag of cookies, and he added cookies to Nick’s can.
This went on. So it was the Cookie Monster, the Munchkin, the Thug, the Unknown Scholar, the Flasher. All of these characters would come in the middle of the night. Then Nick put a clock right next to the wall so the camera would pick up when this was happening. However, these characters picked up on that, and they would move the clock, or come in and not turn on the light and then change the time, so things did not happen in sequence. Even though this was sequential on the videotape, the hours were all wrong.
We would gather in his office every morning to find out who the characters were. I remember that we were joking about who each character was and nobody knew. They figured out eventually that the Cookie Monster was George Rieke. I was the Flasher. George said something about how I didn’t fool anybody; the moment I walked in they knew who I was, and I didn’t have them fooled for a moment, but he had them fooled for about two days or something.
I said, “Yeah, George, but if we could only figure out who the Unknown Scholar is.” The Unknown Scholar came in dressed in a cap and gown, and he was reading Icarus. He would read Icarus and eat the cookies and all of these things.
It must have been two or three weeks that I let it go, and then I said, “George, how long was it that you had them fooled?”
He said, “Oh, like three days.”
Then I said, “Okay, I want to tell you, it’s been about three weeks. I was the Unknown Scholar.”
Anyway, Frank Low, who was Nick’s boss, would come and shoo us away from the monitor every day, because we would all gather there to see what happened the night before. Frank Low would say, “Oh, you guys are wasting time, you’ve got to work! Work!” He would come by and we would all scatter. Then as soon as Frank was gone we would all come back to watch what was going on. That went on for about two weeks, and it was a very memorable time. It had nothing to do with science, but it had to do with the camaraderie that we all had during that time.