Day 727: The Great Tree Caper Of ’98

originally published December 27, 2013

It was a crime chiseled from the musty grey stone of infamy. In its weary aftermath, a nation would rub its sweat-stung eyes, check itself in the mirror and know that nothing would ever appear the same again. The air would forever be bathed in a perpetual murk, and where once strangers could pass one another without subconsciously clenching a suspicious knobby fist, now all that remained was an atmosphere of collective mistrust.

The foolhardy among us paused mid-chortle to label this a ‘victimless crime’. Those flippant voices have grown dusty and cracked in the years since. We exist in a world of tinted light and soul-slicing angular shadows now. Our distractions have come to serve as our collective therapy. Not a tear-choked throat among us will ever forget where they were the night the Tree went missing.

The Stanford Tree. That chlorophyll-oozing bastion of our humanity that was forever desecrated by the heinous actions of the Phoenix Five. It pains me so much to relive this agony-soaked affair I must bite down on a gauze-wrapped Nerf dart just to keep from crying out in anguish as my words stab the screen. But this is how we cope. We tell the story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Stanford student body decided in 1972 to purge their sporting community of its symbolic racism by abandoning its Indian mascot and seeking something more universal and less genocide-y. The mighty Tree arose as a student body joke, mocking the administration’s lack of commitment to a new identity beyond the color ‘cardinal’. Since then the Stanford Tree has come to symbolize harmony, warmth and joyous flora. The Tree was more than a symbol – it was the very embodiment of all that was good and positive in the world.

Which is why the school’s dastardly and fiendish foes at the University of California, Berkeley, couldn’t wait to snuff it out. The rivalry between the two schools dates back to prehistoric times, when mastodons and nodosaurs would dispatch trained pterodactyls and proto-condors across the San Francisco Bay to engage in vicious aerial battles to demonstrate geographic supremacy, not unlike the annual Big Game between the U-Cal Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal today.

The Big Game dates back to 1892, and remains one of the most treasured rivalries of College Football. In the fall of 1998, Berkeley was the underdog team and also facing the prospect of losing the historic bout for a fourth consecutive year. Five brash and wicked villainous types from the Theta Chi Fraternity on the Berkeley campus decided a scheme needed to be hatched – a scheme so nefarious, so jaw-clenchingly evil it would forever alter the landscape of the rivalry.

Actually, the five young men simply found themselves on the Stanford campus on a warm October evening without a plan. They had the crunchy acidic bubbles of aspiring evil in their guts, but with no specific plot, no blueprints, no hastily-scribbled maneuvers on a crumpled-up bar napkin. They stumbled upon an opportunity when they spotted Chris Henderson, the mascot’s handler, toting the sacred Tree from an event at Maples Pavilion to a party at the Stanford Band Shak. The team knew a heist would be their next move. In true Tarantino-esque fashion, they adopted code names: Mr. Black, Mr. Green, Mr. Orange, Mr. White and Mr. Yellow.

The malevolent quintet returned to the Shak at 4:00am on October 17, employing sophisticated reconnaissance techniques (they looked in a window) to ensure no one would witness their beastly crime. After delicately extracting the reclining mascot by using their cat-like stealth physicality (they climbed through that window), the Berkeley bandits retreated to their home base with booty in tow. In one swift move the very fabric of our society was thwacked with a pointy stick.

The group named itself the Phoenix Five, after the mighty mythical bird that is symbolically linked with the Theta Chi fraternity. Their story was front-page news, at least in the school’s Daily Californian student newspaper. They promised a safe return for the Tree in time for the Big Game. A letter was purportedly penned by the abducted swab of felt topiary itself, in which it claimed relief at its liberation. A photo, showing the Tree blindfolded and secured by its captors, was published shortly thereafter.

The reaction was, as would be expected, fierce and drastic. While President Bill Clinton scrambled to ensure the very foundation of America would not crumble into puffy clouds of red, white and blue dust, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl condemned the act as “outright theft.” Tree-wrangler Chris Henderson, hopelessly distraught at being severed from his loyal and perpetually-grinning companion, pleaded with the Phoenix Five to take him instead. The police insisted this was a felony heist, and that unless the perpetrators were to return the Tree before midnight on October 28, they would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

This was a chaotic and terrifying time for our fragile world. Infuriated vigilantes combed the UC Berkeley campus, shattering civil liberties. Paranoid stock brokers, fearing an imminent implosion of every global market, raced to their windows to prepare themselves for their inevitable leap of liberating suicide. Red-headed police detectives swooshed their sunglasses on and off, delivering memorably poignant lines that even an anguished Daltrey yell couldn’t quash. And amid all this insanity, after having skipped past that October 28 deadline, the Phoenix Five brazenly paraded their trophy before news cameras in an abandoned parking lot.

But this bold splatter of cocksure hubris was superficial at best. Within the inner circle of the Phoenix Five the support beams were beginning to quiver, and the sawdust of uncertainty was drizzling from the ceiling in a cascade of impending collapse. Word of the group’s actual identity was seeping through the walls of Theta Chi. Where once they had anticipated a monumental prank that would be received in the spirit of good humor and competition, now the threat of prosecution loomed over them like a scythe.

An anonymous outsider named “Richard” carried the hostage fabric sapling into Chancellor Berdahl’s office, returning the victim in exchange for immunity for the Phoenix Five. No charges were laid, and the 1998 game carried on as planned, with Stanford wreaking a triumphant vengeance through a 10-3 win. Stanford would stretch their winning streak in the Big Game to seven over the ensuing years.

Due to the overwhelming impact of this storied heist, any air of rivalry-inspired prankery has since been siphoned and quashed. A similar swiping of the Tree was executed in 2003, but the vicious threat of drastic legal action sent the perpetrators into full scheme-reversal the following day. There would be no further spirit of jovial, non-combative rivalry between these two schools. Like the strife in the Middle East, an atmosphere of curmudgeonly tension will forever lie between these two institutions.

And what about the forgotten victim in this malicious crime? Shortly after his return the Stanford Band crammed the Tree through a wood chipper, declaring him forever contaminated through his ordeal. A new Tree mascot was unveiled afterward.

And the world will never be the same.

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