By Joseph Beyda
There are 109 hours before Big Game, and my ribcage is already rattling as if it were on the receiving end of a Patrick Skov hit. I’m standing a few feet from a Trancos freshman holding a cord attached to the valve of the Axe Committee’s train whistle as he yanks on it three times, just after the clock tower strikes midnight on Tuesday, his birthday. I’d heard that whistle blow hundreds of times in Stanford Stadium, but I’d never felt it before, up close and personal.
As the Trancos delegation disperses, I’m left with about a dozen AxeComm members: students from all four classes, many of them wearing their AxeComm pullovers, all of them decked out in some sort of Cardinal garb. From “the birdcage,” AxeComm’s perch overlooking White Plaza this week, they serve as one of the last bastions of a storied rivalry that, at least among Stanford students, has begun to reek of irrelevance. Between the Cardinal’s four-game winning streak in the series, Cal’s 4-20 overall record from 2012-13 and Stanford’s resurgent rivalries with USC and Oregon, few current students buy into the animosity toward that school across the Bay.
“Not enough Stanford students get excited about beating Cal, but we do our best to spread that friendly rivalry,” said Sloane Sturzenegger ’16, AxeComm’s chairman. “The way the football season has turned out, this will be the most important game of the season…It is super important, and if we do our job by counting down properly, [we’ll make] people aware.”
He’s referring to the blasting of the train whistle in White Plaza, which takes place every hour during Big Game week. This year the countdown began at 4 p.m. on Monday, 117 hours in advance of Saturday’s game, the 117th in the rivalry’s history.
From then on, AxeComm staffs the birdcage 24/7. Only a few of AxeComm’s 35 members need to be at each shift, but the group tends to gravitate toward White Plaza all week long.
“I’m just hanging out. I love you guys so much,” proclaims Lark Trumbly ’17, who stops by around 12:10 a.m. A few minutes later, she reciprocates. “I’m actually here because I’m eating crackers,” she says, a box of saltines in hand.
I planned to sit in on one three-hour shift in the early hours of Tuesday morning. I wanted to embed myself in this rare hub of Big Game frenzy, sort of, as Daily opinions editor and AxeComm member Nick Ahamed ’15 explained most eloquently to my hosts, “like a war correspondent in Afghanistan.”
The birdcage does feel a bit like an outpost in a war zone. Ropes and caution tape are strewn about, tarps stretch over the structure’s metal frame and a ladder still stands in the corner from Monday afternoon’s setup. Christmas lights — all red and white, of course — hang from above, along with a “Beat Cal” banner. There’s a mini fridge, a microwave, four couches and a few tables. Quarters are tight; it’s not long until someone’s pizza crusts are knocked onto the ground. Prominently displayed out front early in the week, hanging from a noose strung firmly around its neck, was a giant teddy bear with plush stuffing leaking out of a few tears. (It was later removed due to student complaints of lynching imagery.)
And, of course, there’s the artillery. According to Sturzenegger, Caltrain took the whistle off one of its old trains and donated it in honor of the 100th Big Game, back in 1997. That spawned the customary three blows of the whistle after the Cardinal score at Stanford Stadium, as well as the White Plaza countdown leading up to Big Game.
After the final chime of the clock tower each hour, someone announces through a megaphone, “Attention White Plaza: please cover your ears.” That’s followed by the train whistle itself, an update on how many hours are left until Big Game and a resounding, “Beat Cal!”
AxeComm keeps Nitrogen tanks close at hand to fill the whistle, as well as oil to make sure the valve doesn’t get stuck. Around 12:20 a.m., Sturzenegger, who’s not on shift, stops by to check on his crew — and the train whistle.
“Hey guys,” he says disapprovingly, “the safety’s off.”
“There are 108 hours before Big Game,” announces a representative from Casa Zapata, the dorm tasked with blowing the whistle at 1 a.m.
A few minutes later, there’s cheering: Someone reads online that fireworks from AxeComm’s Big Game Rally, which was held earlier that night, caused some students studying in the library to “hit the floor.”
It’s at about this time that the AxeComm crowd starts reaching for electric blankets and snuggies, as temperatures sneak into the low 40s. Most of the remaining students came prepared with scarves and beanies, but they also aren’t quite sure what to do with the tin of hot chocolate powder sitting in the corner; there isn’t hot water nearby, and none of their cups are microwavable. In case things get really bad, AxeComm has a few kerosene heaters at its disposal.
Time and body temperature aren’t the only things that AxeComm members have to sacrifice this week. Drinking isn’t allowed in White Plaza, per University rules. Perhaps more relevant at 1:15 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the birdcage has terrible WiFi reception, which is a problem for Luis Gardea ’17, a computer science student trying to finish up the crash reporter assignment for CS107. (“It’s okay, dude. It’s worth it,” he says as he struggles to connect to Stanford’s network file system, AFS.)
But the gig has its perks as well. Besides blowing the train whistle and keeping the Axe safe this week, AxeComm gets to watch games from the field and pump up students.
“It’s fun for me holding up a T-shirt and watching the crowd lose themselves,” said Mitch Hokanson ’16.
A political science student, Hokanson grew up in Long Beach as a Cardinal fan and the son of an alum. His first Stanford football game was the 2000 Rose Bowl loss to Wisconsin, and as a freshman 13 years later, his AxeComm responsibilities included marching in the Rose Parade and leading Stanford out onto the field for “The Granddaddy of Them All” against the Badgers. This time, the Cardinal won.
He is one of several AxeComm members who hold longtime allegiances to Stanford — and enmity toward Cal — including Sturzenegger, a Burlingame native who started coming to Cardinal football games as a kid.
They understand that they’re a rare breed. When I asked whether Stanford students care about the Cal rivalry, a defining element of Cardinal football throughout its history, the birdcage responded with a resounding, “No.”
“I feel like the only people who came here with an understanding of Stanford football grew up around here or had parents who went to Stanford,” Hokanson said. “People come to Stanford for school.”
As AxeComm waits for the top of the next hour, they munch on the stash of snacks that they expect will get them through at least the first half of the week. The provisions — free for any student who visits the birdcage — are impressive. They’ve got Granny Smith and Gala apples (whole and sliced); tea (iced and bagged); Doritos, Fritos and Cheetos; Goldfish, Cheez-Its and Pirate’s Booty; potato chips, tortilla chips and guac; Chewy and Nature Valley bars; fruit snacks and juice boxes; saltines and Wheat Thins; sour worms, M&Ms, Lifesavers and marshmallows; Milano cookies and Oreos; bananas and grapes; almond butter and Pop Tarts.
The most important snack, ordered just for the occasion: a bubble-wrapped packing envelope of blue gummy bears.
There are 107 hours before Big Game, and it’s my turn to blow the whistle. Besides “celebrities” such as University Provost John Etchemendy, President John Hennessy and head coach David Shaw, AxeComm tries to involve freshman dorms, nearby offices and community centers in the countdown. (They ask Condoleezza Rice every year, but she’s always “too busy.”) No one’s signed up for the 2 a.m. slot, so I jump at the chance.
I don protective headphones as one of the AxeComm members warns White Plaza. Then I flip the safety valve, stabilize the whistle with my foot and pull the cord.
Out blasts that familiar sound, the signal of victory brought to Stanford fans oh so many times over the last few years by the Toby Gerharts, Andrew Lucks and Jordan Williamsons of the world. After about a second, I loosen the tension on the cord, but the whistle keeps blowing. One second becomes two, which becomes three. I finally reach down and flip the valve back with my hand — guess it needed some more oil.
I overcompensate on the second pull, which is far too short, before letting out another protracted blast on the third. Switching the safety back on, I turn around sheepishly, ready to apologize for butchering the distinctive sound so badly and hoping I didn’t offend Storey House, the nearby student residence that gets woken up by the whistle every now and then. Instead, I’m met with a hearty, “Beat Cal!” from AxeComm.
Quickly, AxeComm falls back into homework. At 2:15 a.m. I’m asked to explain how an op-amp works; at 2:20 a.m., after much debate regarding Taylor Swift, a streak of Johnny Cash begins to flow out of Hokanson’s speakers. Soon, three people exclaim, “My name is Sue! How do you do!” in perfect unison.
The group of eight that’s left consists of a good mix of Big Trees — returning members — and Little Trees — typically freshmen — so around 2:30 a.m., the conversation turns to majors, after-college plans and hometowns. Sitting next to me, 15-year-old Albert Zhang ’17, who skipped high school, began at Cal last year and just transferred to Stanford, works on a math problem set. Selby Sturzenegger ’18, Sloane’s sister, asks Gardea about priority queues as she types away at her CS106B assignment. In the corner, someone dozes off. (“The cool people are the people who can sleep through the train whistle,” Sloane Sturzenegger explained.)
I ask the AxeComm members why they like being there. “Chillin’,” says one; “food,” notes another.
“It reminds me of rushing,” Hokanson explains. “I went in, and it’s like, ‘I want to spend more time with these guys.’”
The birdcage is a freshman dorm lounge under the stars. It’s home to a mishmash of personalities, backgrounds, ages, food cravings and music tastes, but it’s also the kind of home that brings drowsy people together at 2:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in November with something as silly as a train whistle.
I ask the members of AxeComm if they have a least favorite thing about Cal, and suddenly, the birdcage perks up. Even the guy napping in the corner stirs. People begin to characterize the enemy student population, launching into a discussion about UC admissions standards. Someone suggests that Cal students must have no personality if they were smart enough to get into Berkeley but didn’t stand out to Stanford or the Ivies. Another AxeComm member counters that Cal certainly has its fair share of weirdos.
The only person with her mind made up is Selby Sturzenegger. “Like, all of it,” she quickly responds to my question. “Is that not an acceptable answer?”
There are 106 hours before Big Game, and nobody realizes it until the clock tower strikes 3 a.m., the proverbial air raid siren that brings the birdcage to life in a heartbeat. Sean Means ’18 tosses aside his laptop and makes a beeline for the train whistle while another AxeComm member mans his battle station at the megaphone. I begin to pack my bag and take a sip from my water bottle, which, by now, is ice cold.
The first two blasts from the whistle sound fine, but the third quickly peters out — no one had refilled the Nitrogen. Most of AxeComm laughs while one member announces the countdown to White Plaza, which has long been empty, save for the teddy bear impaled on the Claw.
I stand up to leave, tiptoeing around the fallen pizza crusts still sitting at my feet from two hours earlier. From the birdcage, its outpost on the front lines of this week’s war, AxeComm’s chapped lips issue its battle cry once again. “Beat Cal!”
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.