Boom goes the dynamite

The cannon blast is a heralded tradition of Cal home games. With games at AT&T Park this year, cannoneers Katie Miller and Jackson Jewett shoot confetti out of the iconic cannon.

Michael Gethers
Michael Gethers

Armed with a gas mask, a .45 caliber revolver and a treaty drafted by an Alameda County judge, Cal student Mike Lee stepped out of his car in the Castle Lanes Bowling Alley parking lot ready to resolve the damn thing. It was the eve of the 1964 Big Game, the hijinks had turned hazardous and Lee was assuming nothing but the worst from the conniving Cardinal.

As it stood, Stanford possessed the Cal victory cannon after duping a janitor in the Martin Luther King building while Cal held all of Stanford’s card stunts and a bell stolen from Hoover Tower. Both sides had no immediate plans of yielding their respective booty in the midst of rivalry week.

The Stanford infidels had successfully seized the cannon for a second time in two weeks, but this time they noticed their cards were missing, replaced only by a blue and gold calling card etched with a prodding message from the Berkeley captors.

So a meeting was arranged at Castle Lanes in Alameda. An agreement was to be authorized, the spoils were to be surrendered and any successive seizures were to be at least temporarily stopped.

That was until Stanford pulled out the tear gas.
Delightfully augmented yet hardly apocryphal, lore has it that Stanford began tear-gassing Lee’s car carrying other Cal students, so Lee threw on his gas mask and whipped out the .45. and according to current cannoneer Katie Miller, “the Stanfords scattered.”

Aided by the police, each side returned the stolen goods and in turn fanned the flames of an already historically heated rivalry.

And so the standard was set. From then on, the cannon would become a Berkeley icon to be properly protected. Elected to be the most devoted of custodians, cannoneers would be those sturdy enough to withstand any prospective plunderers.

The cannoneers were the ones to bring the gas mask and the judge.

Almost 50 years after a gas-masked Mike Lee drew a gun on a tear-gas engulfed Castle Lanes parking lot to protect the cast-iron class gift, the cannoneers, current and former, continue as a crazy cast of characters: an eccentric posse with a proclivity for pyrotechnics. But in five home games this season, there was no bang when the Bears bolted out of the tunnel or when they tore through an opposing defense for scores.

No sounds emanated from the stadium by the Bay except the quiet rumblings of the typically small crowds and only confetti shot in the air after touchdowns.

Where was the cannon fire? Who were the cannoneers?

Meet Miller and Jackson Jewett: The operators of the silent cannon. The two cannoneers in a bust year because there could be no boom.

“The first question I asked was, ‘Am I honestly even a cannoneer?’” Jewett says.

Before his final home game as a Cal player, safety Sean Cattouse said that while playing at AT&T Park finally started to feel like home, it was “nothin’ like running out of Memorial Stadium.”

Most alumni and students felt the same way about traveling across the Bay to watch Cal. The stadium never felt full in any of the five home games, the students never filled out their own section in the left field bleachers and there was no perch for any of the tightwads to view the game from afar.

But to several alumni, it wasn’t the visual ambiance that was the problem. It was the lack of the boom.

“So many people came up to us,” Miller says. “People would ask, ‘Where is the cannon? Is it even there?’ It was sad.”

Though the cannon was visibly located above the student section, Jewett and Miller dealt with disgruntled alums as well as sad ones. Despite being beacons of Cal spirit, the two fielded every question, complaint and bizarre inquiry about the iconic sound fired at home games since 1963.

“Some people asked if it was even the real cannon,” Jewett says. “It was hard to believe that some people thought we made a fake cast-iron cannon just to trick them.”

Made with wheels from a San Francisco fire truck, wood from a Napa winery and a barrel cast in a foundry for free by an alum, the cannon was a gift of the class of 1964 that debuted at the 1963 Big Game Rally. The 60s witnessed an arms race between schools seeking out cannons for school spirit, and Cal joined the fray with a $600 down payment and help from nearby volunteers and businesses. A fixture on the scenic Tightwad Hill, the notorious viewing spot perched on Strawberry Canyon above Memorial Stadium, the cannon became an icon that demanded fierce protection and a prominent symbol of school pride.

Though several schools acquired cannons in the 1960s, Cal is the only one that still maintains one as part of its tradition. This is very much a result of some careless cannoneering by the rival Cardinal.

On Nov. 7, 1970, Stanford packed its cannon for a celebratory fire in a heated conference matchup against Washington, led by legendary Huskies’ quarterback Sonny Sixkiller. The students filled the cannon with black powder and stuffed it down with a ramrod. The friction of the black powder caused a spark, launching the ramrod toward the field. The ramrod fell just a few yards short of Sixkiller, an event that triggered the banning of cannons from Pac-10 stadiums. So how did Cal continue to use its cannon? Through the fine print and a little bit of innovation.

After a few years of not firing the cannon, a Cal student known only as “some guy in Bowles Hall” took his dresser and desk out of his dorm room to fashion the original cannon platform outside of the stadium. The student then dropped the cannon onto the platform with a truck, and Cal fired the cannon for several years, according to Jewett, “because it wasn’t in a Pac-10 stadium.”

“I think the cannoneers take pride in the fact that we have the only job in Rally Committee that can kill people,” says Maya Goehring-Harris, a cannoneer from 1994-95 and a licensed pyrotechnic operator. “A little bit more is expected of us to keep people alive.”

The sacredness of the cannon and canon of lore have created a strong sense of community within former cannoneers. Whether it is for the annual Big Game bonfire, the other key date for all cannoneers, or for mere support, there always seem to be a few around.

“Among Rally Committee, the cannoneers are absolutely the strongest,” Miller says. “Cannoneers are always the alumni who come back. So many come back for the bonfire to help out. For our annual banquet, we have some that fly in from Chicago.”

As a result, it wasn’t merely Miller and Jewett who fought to have the cannon fired at AT&T Park. The debate garnered the attention of former cannoneers, some of whom sought out possibilities for the cannon to play a role in 2011 home games.

But despite working feverishly with Cal Athletics, AT&T Park and even the City of San Francisco, there would be no cannon fire in the Bears’ new home.  Countless possibilities were discussed — everything from a foghorn to a water cannon to an alternate sound to a new platform— but all the options either violated sound regulations or were too expensive.

Confetti was the only option much to the disappointment of 2011 cannoneers. That meant a season without cannon fire for all.

There were barriers to be broken and lessons to be learned. Pioneers in their own right, Jewett notes that he and Miller were the first cannoneers to transport the cannon across the Bay Bridge. Miller enjoyed cannon’s improved accessibility to the audience — that kids could sit on top of it and take pictures and that fans could actually get an up-close look.

But never having fired it on a Saturday still gnaws at both of them. Jewett admits that it was “really sad” to be constantly approached by alumni inquiring about why the cannon wasn’t firing while Miller simply states that it was “different.”

It was a feeling as empty as confetti shooting out of a machine built for explosives.

Though the Jewett and Miller were the unlucky ones, they were cannoneers nonetheless. They become “formers” like their predecessors and will select their successors.

“The first rule of being a cannoneer is that you can’t be the last cannoneer,” Jewett says. “You realize that being cannoneer isn’t necessarily what skills you have. It’s more about defense of the cannon, working together as a team and making sure that you pass it on to people that are going to do the same.”

And now, the two wait until Cal’s bowl destination is announced. Vegas is an attractive destination, as is El Paso. AT&T — the site of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — is not. The cannon laws are far more lax in Nevada, and the two can finally fire the cast-iron concoction and have it crackle throughout the desert. With the baseball stadium a possible destination for its December game, Jewett and Miller will wait, hope and pray that just once they will fire the cannon like their generations of predecessors did at every home game.

Playing away from Memorial Stadium wasn’t ideal for anybody, but Miller and Jewett still maintain their pride, their passion and — as the Big Game bonfire engulfed the stories of wood in the Greek Theatre — their role as cannoneers.

Pioneers they had to be. Cannoneers they will forever be.

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  • loverspoint

    So Cals bleacher section at AT&T hasn’t been full. I wonder if that has to do with a disappointing year. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HZQXU4NS4KXROEANEL7A65ANQE TJ

    A correction if I may.  Castle Lanes was not in Alameda, it was near the Cow Palace on Geneva Avenue in San Francisco.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HZQXU4NS4KXROEANEL7A65ANQE TJ

    Great  story!  …And I was there, believe it or not.