By Matthew Weinberger
In the span of its almost 50-year tenure, Stony Brook University has taught hundreds of thousands of students in classes led by thousands of professors. With so many people coming and going, it’s no wonder that the campus community has formed its own sets of legends.
Everyone has heard at least some of the stories: the car at the bottom of Roth pond. The mutant cockroaches in the basement of Harriman Hall. The student who fell down an open manhole, back when none of them were closed.
Each of these stories have several things in common: they’re largely apocryphal, no one quite remembers hearing the story the first time, and no one knows if they’re true or not. Due to the nature of these stories, not all of them can be proven as either completely true or completely false, but it’s easy to see that most have at least a ring of truth to them.
No Cars in the Pond
Roth Pond, the artificial pond at the center of the similarly-titled quad, has perhaps more stories directly related to it than any other spot on campus. There’s one about a monster lurking in its murky depths, and another more apocryphal one about a biology graduate student that did his thesis on a new strain of bacteria he found in its water. But the most widely known—and widely believed—is the one about the car at the bottom of Roth Pond.
The story goes that a group of students were driving on the narrow Roth Quad roads back to their dorm one night. Some versions of the story have them inebriated, others claim they were perfectly sober. Either way, this legend says that in the dark, they couldn’t see the road, and drove right into the pond, cracking the plastic lining that prevents the water from seeping into the surrounding water, and making it so they have to refill the pond every spring. Most versions of this story have them getting out without a scratch. Every version of the story has the car remaining at the bottom of Roth Pond to this day.
This legend is so widespread that it even became the theme of the 2006 Roth Pond Regatta, where students build boats out of cardboard and race them across the pond. In 2005, most clubs had built boats, completely coincidentally, in the shapes of hot rods, convertibles, and, in one case, a Back to the Future-themed Delorean. So, in 2006, when it came time to make the theme, they decided something that would forbid a repeat of the previous year, and that was tied into Stony Brook legend would be best.
The 2006 Regatta theme was “No Cars in the Pond.” You can still see the T-shirts around.
Neither the Regatta nor Campus Residences were available for comment.
The basement of Harriman Hall is home to three communities: the offices of applied math and sciences (AMS) department teaching assistants, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum, and the grotesque mutant cockroaches that live off the garbage of the first two. Though no one can agree on when they first appeared down there, it is known that these insects vary anywhere from half an inch to a full two-inches in diameter, with oddly-hinged legs that they stand up on to run, as opposed to the normal cockroach that keeps their legs to the side. They are affectionately referred to by the basement’s inhabitants as “Fluffies.”
The most popular explanation for their existence, among those who have seen them, is that a Biology graduate student was performing eugenics experiments among a population of cockroaches. The result, allegedly, was a strain of roach that was stronger, faster, and tougher than the ordinary version of the pest. When Stony Brook University cut his funding, this hypothetical biology student decided to let his research subjects free. With no restrictions on their movement, they found their way to the converted fallout shelter in the bottom of Harriman where it was dark and damp, and bred with the normal cockroaches, expanding their genetic pool and resulting in further mutation.
“Of course, that’s just what I heard,” says Cory McFey, a long-time member of the Science Fiction Forum, located in the Harriman basement. “It could be totally false.”
Even the name “Fluffy” has a legend or three associated with it. The first tale says that certain members of the Forum objected to killing the cockroaches, and attempted to build sympathy for them by giving them a “cute” name. The second is similar to the first, only that those club members believed that you couldn’t truly kill something unless it has a name. The third?
“Some of the first ones had feathers,” says Alison Baldassano, assistant librarian for the Forum. “That’s the story.”
The Science Fiction Forum has been dealing with the Fluffies since they moved into Harriman Hall from the Student Activities Center, then known as Central Hall, in the mid-90’s. The insects had seemingly vanished, becoming something of a joke among club members who remembered them. In fact, the Fluffies have run—sometimes successfully—for president of the Forum several times over the last decade. The mutant insects had faded into obscurity and in-jokes until their reappearance at the beginning of this semester. Now, they’re at the forefront of club members’ minds all over again.
A University exterminator who was called in to lay down roach traps for the Fluffies recently had never before heard of them, and administration was unavailable for comment.
Sherman Raftenberg Day
For more than thirty years now, the membership of the Science Fiction Forum finishes their first meeting of February, goes to the steam vent opposite the Earth and Space Sciences parking lot and screams at the top of their lungs for eleven seconds, before dispersing to avoid the police.
This odd ritual is in memory of a freshman named Sherman Raftenberg, who in the February of 1973 fell into that same manhole before Stony Brook University decided to start covering them. These grated holes used to spew steam constantly, obscuring vision on Circle Road and injuring anyone who got too near. According to a Newsday article of the time, the campus administration was in the practice of sticking 50-gallon drums into the holes so that no one would fall in.
“[…]For an undetermined reason, the tube had been removed from the vent and was lying on its side near the hole,” Newsday wrote.
The version the Sci-Fi Forum tells is mostly congruous with the Newsday report. Raftenberg, at the start of his second semester at Stony Brook and a recent addition to the Forum’s membership, had been studying calculus until 10:30 p.m. with four other students in the Engineering building before returning at to his dorm in Kelly Quad. This is where the two versions of the story diverge: the Forum claims alcohol was involved. On their walk back, they saw the steam vent, and one of Raftenberg’s companions dared him to jump over it, and he accepted.
“[…]Witnesses reported the youth struck his head on the concrete wall when he fell and was probably unconscious when he hit,” said the Newsday reporter.
Outrage on campus was high, with most blaming the school for the tragedy.
“Last Wednesday night, Sherman Raftenberg, a freshman, was killed because of the University’s negligence,” a Statesman editorial alleged. “There is no way in which the Administration’s responsibility for this tragedy can be denied.”
The Monday following the event, classes were cancelled and a protest was held at noon. Dr. John S. Toll, president of the university at the time, told the construction and utility workers on campus to get safe or get out. Statesman reported that Raftenberg’s parents intended to sue the state for negligence.
While no newspaper picked up on the outcome of the lawsuit, the Forum has their own version. According to their lore, the actual cause of Raftenberg’s death was determined to be the scalding steam passing through the tunnels, not the fall itself. As such, the judge awarded the Raftenberg family approximately $10,000 for every second it took him to die–$110,000 total. No record of this seems to exist, but the Forum holds it as fact.
And so, to commemorate the anniversary of his death, the Forum does their annual celebration. At the conclusion of the screaming, the club members leave behind a bag of White Castle: they steam their burgers.
“We do it to stop the campus from forgetting it happened,” says Kevin Dowd, former president of the Science Fiction Forum. “And to remind the school that they are still responsible for our safety.”
These legends reveal a certain truth about how students perceive their campus: each of them includes an instance of campus being poorly maintained or flat-out unsafe. Each is told and retold to remind students of the ways in which campus continues to disappoint them. As such, it’s unlikely they’ll ever disappear.