We Made Uranium!: And Other True Stories from the University of Chicago's Extraordinary Scavenger Hunt

We Made Uranium!: And Other True Stories from the University of Chicago's Extraordinary Scavenger Hunt

by Leila Sales

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Overview

Item #176: A fire drill. No, not an exercise in which occupants of a building practice leaving the building safely. A drill which safely emits a bit of fire, the approximate shape and size of a drill bit.
 
Item #74: Enter a lecture class in street clothes. Receive loud phone call. Shout “I NEED TO GO, THE CITY NEEDS ME!” Remove street clothes to reveal superhero apparel. Run out for the good of the land.
 
Item #293: Hypnotizing a chicken seems easy, but if the Wikipedia article on the practice is to be believed, debate on the optimal method is heated. Do some trials on a real chicken and submit a report . . . for science of course.
 
Item #234: A walking, working, people-powered but preferably wind-powered Strandbeest.
 
Item #188: Fattest cat. Points per pound.
 
The University of Chicago’s annual Scavenger Hunt (or “Scav”) is one of the most storied college traditions in America. Every year, teams of hundreds of competitors scramble over four days to complete roughly 350 challenges. The tasks range from moments of silliness to 1,000-mile road trips, and they call on participants to fully embrace the absurd. For students it is a rite of passage, and for the surrounding community it is a chance to glimpse the lighter side of a notoriously serious university.

We Made Uranium! shares the stories behind Scav, told by participants and judges from the hunt’s more than thirty-year history. The twenty-three essays range from the shockingly successful (a genuine, if minuscule, nuclear reaction created in a dorm room) to the endearing failures (it’s hard to build a carwash for a train), and all the chicken hypnotisms and permanent tattoos in between. Taken together, they show how a scavenger hunt once meant for blowing off steam before finals has grown into one of the most outrageous annual traditions at any university. The tales told here are absurd, uplifting, hilarious, and thought-provoking—and they are all one hundred percent true.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226571980
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/16/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Leila Sales is a graduate of the University of Chicago and former Scav participant and judge. She has been an editor at Penguin Random House and is the author of six young adult novels, including This Song Will Save Your Life and If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say. Her proudest Scav Hunt memory is organizing a hundred people to play Tetris on the windows of a building.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Item 256: Simon's a Computer, Simon Has a Brain

Sarah Rosenshine 2007 Scav Hunt

My Scav Hunt team, Burton-Judson, was not "small but mighty." We were just small. The previous year, my first, we'd come in sixth place. The year before that we'd come in ninth out of nine. However, we always read the List with vigor in a not uncrowded room. And when we read the 2007 List and I heard item 256, I knew it had to be mine. On Team "BJ and the Logical Phalluses," claiming it consisted of the arduous process of announcing,"I'll do that."

256. A. A. A Four. A Four. A Four Trampoline. A Four Trampoline. A Four Trampoline Based. A Four Trampoline Based. A Four Trampoline Based Game. A Four Trampoline Based Game. A Four Trampoline Based Game of. A Four Trampoline Based Game of. A Four Trampoline Based Game of Simon. A Four Trampoline Based Game of BZZZZZZZ. [200 points]

You remember Simon, I assume. It's the handheld circular electronic game with four buttons — red, yellow, green, and blue — that light up in different combinations and then you have to remember and repeat the pattern. The item was asking for a re-creation of that kids' car backseat game — only instead of pressing buttons, you would play by jumping on trampolines.

I waited impatiently the next morning for my friend with a car to return from the Chinese class he'd had the gall to attend. We drove to Target and frantically loaded up his Mini Cooper and debit card with four small trampolines and an even smaller travel Simon game. They were out of the regular Simons, snapped up by Maxcock, our on-thenose portmanteau for the two largest teams at the time (the dorms Max Palevsky and Snell-Hitchcock). On the ride back, I read the dated slogan off the packaging.

"Simon's a computer.

Simon has a brain.

You either do what Simon says or else go down the drain."

"That's weird," I said aloud, even though I was the one riding shotgun in a green Mini Cooper with a Union Jack decal on the roof and four miniature trampolines in the back. As is always the case with Scav, weirdness is relative.

Back on campus I set to work, opening the game with the free screwdriver the university had given all Burton-Judson residents earlier that year. It came with a keychain-sized bubble level and a Snickers bar, by way of apology from the university for months of deafening daytime construction on the dorm. A fair trade.

With YouTube still in its infancy, I turned elsewhere for the very untheoretical knowledge of how circuits work. I called my dad, an inventor who had turned our cavernous basement into a workshop that usually hovers somewhere between Flubber and Frankenstein — annoyingly, since as a kid I'd always wanted to turn the basement into a rec room where I could hang out with friends. But today, an inventor father was exactly what I needed.

Fully, if briefly, embodying the absent-minded inventor stereotype, my dad immediately asked why I couldn't get someone from the engineering department to help me.

"You mean from Loyola?" I asked, reminding him that the University of Chicago didn't have anything so practical as an engineering department.

Reality check complete, my dad took apart an orphaned TV remote at home and asked if the circuits matched the look of the board I had in front of me.

"They're squiggly," I reported.

"Good. This one is squiggly, too."

From there, he instructed me to straighten a paper clip and touch it to the ends of the circuit. Hardly believing it could be so simple, despite it being called a "simple circuit," I poked around blindly, touching all the parts one could conceivably call an "end" with the more obvious ends of the paper clip. When the green LED lit up, I did, too. Our captains had been encouraging (pressuring) me to figure out how to make the trampoline Simon work electrically, because doing well on showcase items was the secret to avoiding last place. I wanted to make them happy, but until that point I'd believed I was going to have to make it mechanical, with long Tim Burton-y arms that would hit the Simon buttons when a player bounced. Now I had the literal green light to make the cooler version a reality. From here, I simply needed to solder wires to either end of the circuit, connect those wires to the bottom of the trampoline, and then do that three more times. But first I had to learn how to solder, and also what solder was.

I called home again, where my dad carefully explained how to prevent overmelting by holding the iron near but not on the solder, and I thanked him for his patience by immediately covering an entire circuit with a giant blob. I called back too late that night, my circadian rhythms already replaced with Scavcadian ones, hopeful he could explain how to use wicks, the undo button of the electronics world. Instead, he told me he'd never used them before.

"Oh, because you're so perfect at soldering?" I asked, disheartened.

With time, I figured out I could hold the wick over the solder like a Band-Aid, and it would sop up the solder blood if I held the iron over it. I didn't know much about electrical wiring, but for a hypochondriac, cleaning up blood was second nature.

After more inept soldering and skillful cursing, I finally held in my hands a James Bondian device of splayed wires and exposed circuitry. I took a victory tour of the lounge, looking on as my teammates labored over our Tinkertoy Strandbeest and a fake moon-landing video and our copy of The Little Engine That Just Couldn't Quite. Scavving on a small team is like toddlers playing. Working "together" means everyone working on his or her own thing, but sharing supplies and encouragement and watching one another take naps.

After enacting an eighties movie montage of bad ideas, I tried completing the connection between the Simon game and the trampolines with aluminum foil, again barely believing it would work. That first successful bounce, in the early hours of Sunday morning, felt like the highest bounce on the largest trampoline in the world. I excitedly hugged my friends and their friends and people I would never talk to again, reveling in that strange temporary intimacy fostered by extreme situations.

The captains and I carried the game to Judgment, delicately and with great fanfare, like a monarch on a palanquin. Worried we would immediately be shown up, I babbled nervously the whole way. But when I saw my creation in the grass outside Ida with the rest of the Simons, I felt emboldened: aside from the team that smugly announced that theirs used lasers (it didn't), the others were either mechanical or looked a lot like mine.

Simon didn't share my performance anxiety. Though it was a little quiet because I hadn't had time to attach a speaker larger than the built-in one, my most vivid memory is of Judge Claire nodding happily after completing three full bounces. Our team jumped, too, from sixth to fifth that year. That joy buoyed me throughout the day, keeping me smiling even when I was covered in soda, battling bees, after modeling our Coke and Mentos jetpack. I excitedly called my dad from Judgment. He also couldn't believe the aluminum foil had been conductive enough, but he'd always believed I could make Simon work. I packed my tiny screwdriver back into the tiny toolbox, satisfied.

It didn't live there forever, though. Since that Hunt, I have watched my own office slowly turn into a room strewn with half-finished projects, old computers, and tools, with the freebie screwdriver still in rotation. It hasn't reached my dad's Frankenstein levels yet, but I'm getting there.

Horror writer Robert Bloch once said, "I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk." Well, I have the brain of a small Simon on mine, and I use it to keep me going on days when I feel my motivation slipping down the drain.

Sarah Rosenshine graduated in 2009 with a degree in English language and literature. She was a Burton-Judson team member for four years, or five if you count overnighting a box of Mallomars from New York to Chicago in 2010 (item 136). She works as a writer, where her writing has appeared in the Onion, McSweeney's, and the New Yorker, and as a software developer, where her work has appeared on the internet.

I wanted to start out this book with Sarah's essay about the four-trampoline Simon game, because it's the story of an item that actually went the way it was supposed to. Sometimes that happens, and it's great. But it is just as likely (if not more so) for an item to go horribly awry, sometimes to the point where the Judges are not only confused or disappointed, but where they wonder why they thought this whole thing would be a good idea in the first place. Sometimes this happens when a team misunderstands an item and very sweetly puts in a lot of effort toward achieving the exact wrong result. Other times this happens when a team purposefully lies or fakes an item in a desperate, low-effort grab for points.

One of the most egregious failed items I ever witnessed as a Judge was one team's "completion" of item 209 from the 2007 List. The item asked for a million dollars in cash, which you've got to admit would be extremely cool to see. The team told us that they had secured this, which sounded remarkable but of course not impossible, because nothing is impossible for Scavvies. They told us that the million dollars was in an armored van and that it would drive past Judgment slowly so that we could see the cash, but it would not stop. We all excitedly gathered on the sidewalk outside of Ida Noyes. A van slowly approached. The windows rolled down. And rather than show us a million dollars in the flesh, the Scavvies inside the van shot at us with water guns.

Needless to say, this received zero points.

Eventually, a word arose to describe these sorts of disappointments. Here, Adam Brozynski tells the story of how he helped define a quintessentially failed item completion.

CHAPTER 2

Item 24: The Trainwash

Adam Brozynski 2010 Scav Hunt

As Scav teams go, MacPierce was not by any stretch of the imagination what you'd call a powerhouse. We lacked for manpower and materials, and we squandered what little financial resources we had on booze. The highest compliment we'd gotten was when a Judge declared us "adorably janky." MacPierce had little chance of ever winning, but we also had little desire to do so.

It was around 11 p.m. on Saturday night of the 2010 Hunt, and our team headquarters, TANSTAAFL, was abuzz with last-minute item completions. I had just finished putting a Star Destroyer in a bottle for item 231 ("A ship in a bottle. Must be Imperial class or better. [19 BBY points]"), and I was looking for something else to work on when my friend Jasper approached me and said, "Hey, Adam. You doing anything?"

"Nope."

"Cool. I kinda want to do an item that's around twelve points and into which we can put absolutely no effort."

Sounded good to me. We consulted our team's master copy of the List: sixteen sheets of paper affixed in two uneven rows to a bare brick wall. After several abortive attempts (item 49: "Ballistic press-on nails: fingernails that can be fired from your hands to vaguely annoy attackers! [5 points]") proved to be too much of an engineering challenge to satisfy our "absolutely no effort" criterion, we came across this gem:

24. That train is looking pretty grimy. Do me a favor and ride it through a drive-through trainwash. [12 points]

Now, we might have been fourth-place contenders on a good day, but we weren't idiots. Of course it occurred to us that somewhere in the great city of Chicago there might be a location where actual trains are actually cleaned. It also occurred to us that the Judges probably wanted us to find such a location and ride a train through it. But, frankly, that's not what we were about that night. So we chose to ignore those facts. We were going to make our own train and clean it in our own way.

"How can we make something that vaguely resembles a train?" is one of those questions that you only ever find yourself asking during Scav. "How can we make something that vaguely resembles a train using only the materials within fifty feet of us?" is a question you only ever find yourself asking during Scav and less than twelve hours before Judgment. As MacPierce, naturally we had very few materials within fifty feet of us, but we did have a shopping cart.

For the benefit of my readers who have never seen a train before (and if you saw the final product of this item, you would certainly place me in that category), we settled on the following qualities as being hallmarks of a train: a train is opaque, not grated like a shopping cart; a train has a cow catcher in front; a train has wheels; a train has a smokestack. Simple enough, right?

Our first step was to cover the shopping cart in trash bags. In retrospect I'm not sure why this was necessary, but it seemed vitally important at the time. We found a half-broken crate for the cow catcher and a bucket for the smokestack. For some reason we put the smokestack at the back of the train.

As I reflect on this process, I don't recall either of us ever actually looking at a picture of a train.

Finally, we needed some wheels. Fortunately, in the same room was a fellow Scavvie working on item 84 who could spare a couple of balloons. (Item 84, for the curious: "Balloon animals are for those clowns in the social sciences! I want a balloon protein, one that both represents your chosen protein's tertiary/quaternary structure and actively demonstrates its native function. Like a real protein, your structure should be sufficiently complex and, most importantly, do something cool (none of that occludin-ß bullshit). [50 points]")

So we blew up a couple of those long balloon-animal balloons, bent them into circles, and decided that would suffice for wheels.

At that point, someone entered TANSTAAFL and asked us, "Are you guys making a train?" That was all we needed. Someone had, unprompted, positively identified our shopping cart as a train. We immediately ceased construction.

This process had exhausted us. Somehow it had taken two hours to quasi-transform a shopping cart. Now, come hell or high water, we were going to wash this train.

Having only the meager resources allotted to us by the dorm, we opted to wash our train in the communal shower. Jasper and I recruited some first years to help film this endeavor. One particularly brave individual volunteered to strip to his underwear and ride the "train" through the shower.

And so we and the train piled into the elevator and headed up to the third-floor bathroom. One of our balloon wheels popped in transit. We decided not to replace it.

We arrived at the third-floor shower, our team's only video camera in hand. Our first year disrobed and mounted the shopping cart. I decided that the best way to convey the facts that (a) this was a train and (b) we were cleaning it would be to have the rest of us, standing off-camera, prod the shopping cart with brooms and mops and make train noises. A lengthy debate followed about how many times we should say "chugga" before each "choo-choo." (I will contend until my dying breath that eight is the proper number.) That dispute was left unresolved, so in the final filming each person just said as many "chugga"s as they thought proper. We recorded a thirty-second video punctuated by a triumphal cry of "this train is so clean!" and called it a wrap.

One of our captains that year, Rafael, presented that page to the Judges the next day. We did not tell Rafael how we had completed this particular item. We simply sent him the file and assured him it was perfect.

The look on the Judge's face upon seeing this video is best described as "crestfallen." I don't think Rafael was too impressed, either. Needless to say, we received no points.

But our completion of this item was not entirely in vain. I was elected captain of MacPierce the following year, largely on a pro-trainwash platform. It became an inside joke on our team: a "trainwashed" item was a low-effort completion that flagrantly defied the Judges' expectations. By 2015, "trainwash" had entered the broader Scav lexicon.

Two years after this incident, a friend met the trainwash Judge at a party, and the Judge shared his thoughts on the item: "You know, I really love Scav. I've never seriously thought about quitting being a Judge ... except for that one time when your team showed me that trainwash video."

In my defense, though, that train was so clean.

Adam Brozynski majored in physics and graduated in 2012. He Scavved with MacPierce and was a team captain in 2011 and 2012. He currently lives in New York City, where he works as a software engineer.

There's a line in Adam Brozynski's "trainwash" essay that could be said about the majority of what participants do for Scav Hunt: "In retrospect I'm not sure why this was necessary, but it seemed vitally important at the time."

In this way, Scav Hunt is just the nerdier version of more commonplace college traditions (like rushing a sorority or performing organized cheers at football games): out of context, this behavior is inexplicable, but within the community, no other option is imaginable. Scavvies know that they don't have to cover a shopping cart with garbage bags in the same way that fraternity members know they don't have to do a keg stand. But they go all in nonetheless, because the group is counting on them, because it's part of their identities, because it's tradition.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "We Made Uranium!"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Leila Sales.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Item 256, 2007: Simon’s a Computer, Simon Has a Brain
Sarah Rosenshine

Item 24, 2010: The Trainwash
Adam Brozynski

Item 175, 1987: The First Hunt
Diane A. Kelly

List of 12 Trivia Items That Were Challenging in the Age before Google

Item 277, 2011: The World’s Largest Scavenger Hunt
Ezra Deutsch-Feldman

List of 23 of the Highest-Pointed Scav Hunt Items of All Time

Item 240, 1999: The Homemade Breeder Reactor
Fred Niell

Item 289, 2015: The T-Shirt Cannon
Jake Eberts

Item 159, 1994: Daddy Issues
Jennifer Joos

List of 6 Items That Maybe Weren’t 100 Percent Legal

Item 161, 2010: Culture Shock
Joel Putnam

List of 11 Items Whose Answer Was “Coleslaw”

Item 42, 2003: The Forbidden Fruit
Dave Muraskin

Item 32, 2003: We Tempt the Wrath of God
Doug Diamond

List of 19 Items That Were Only Slightly Blasphemous, Honestly

Item 58, 2004: The Girl with the Infamous Tattoo
Cristina Romagnoli

Item 133, 2004: Does Their Relationship Lack Trust?
Nicolle Neulist

List of 16 Items Documenting an Increasingly Esoteric Feud with Pulitzer Prize–Winning Journalist Mike Royko

Item 229, 2013: The Final Feast
Naseem Jamnia

Item 123, 2001: We Were Survivors
Connor Coyne

List of 18 Items about Food

Item 241, 2013: Graceland, Also
William Wilcox

Item 20, 2008: ScavAir
Steven Lucy

List of 30 Pun Items

Item 293, 2015: Where There Is No Duct Tape
Erica Pohnan

List of 14 Items That Animals Could Have Done Without

Item 238, 1999: We Like to Party
Moacir P. de Sá Pereira

Item 47, 2006: A Party at the End of Days
Dave Franklin

List of 10 Items That Referred to The Simpsons and One That Didn’t

Item 23, 2002: Relite Niteline
Matthew Kellard

Items 282–83, 2005: Do That
Nora Friedman

Item 0, 2015: Seriously, This Is a Real Wedding
Christian Kammerer

List of 19 Items Dedicated to University of Chicago Faculty, Lore, and Campus Life

Item 58, 2003: ShoreTrisLand
Leila Sales

Acknowledgments
Appendix A: A List of Scav Hunt Teams
Appendix B: Key Locations

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