When Tradition Awakens Trauma: The Fleming Cannon's Unintended Consequences

The firing of the Fleming Cannon is a tradition that is supposed to bring pride and joy to the hearts of students every year and mark the progression of time from the end of rotation to the end of every term. However, for many students, the sound of the Fleming Cannon carries a heavy burden, evoking memories of a past they had hoped to leave behind when they came to Caltech.

“Coming to Caltech was one of the most exciting moments of my life, but the sound of the Fleming Cannon sometimes reminds me of the murders that would happen at the park down the street [back home]. It’s a reminder that sometimes even the sweetest traditions can have a dark side.” 

- Anonymous Student

Many branches of Caltech administration, including admissions and OSE, boast of a vibrant campus life filled with unique and cherished traditions. Among them, the annual firing of the Fleming Cannon stands out as a grand centerpiece. Every tour guide has a requirement to stop at this weapon of destruction and devastation to speak of its glorious history. Caltech loves to boast about supporting peace in global conflicts, yet it fails to recognize the hypocrisy of having a piece of military equipment that has devastated countless lives as a cultural icon. 

“In my neighborhood, I grew up fearing for my life every day. Now, when I hear the cannon, it’s like reliving those terrifying nights.” - Anonymous Student

For many students, who grew up in neighborhoods marred by violence, the Fleming Cannon’s resounding boom triggers painful memories. Living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an ongoing struggle, and even non-frequent triggers can be anxiety ridden and distressing. Even with earplugs, many nearby residents will not be safe from the sound in their own rooms. Caltech claims “We seek to transform organizational culture and structures so that all community members, and importantly including those from historically excluded and historically underrepresented groups, feel a sense of belonging within the Caltech community” (in a Statement from the Board of Trustees on inclusive.caltech.edu). Places where historically excluded and underrepresented groups grow up are unfortunately some of the most common places to find gang violence, illicit gun trade, and murder. Then, people will have the audacity to tell them that if they do not wish to hear the cannon fire, they should leave, only for a day. It is not the responsibility of the underrepresented student to evict themselves from their designated homes just for the sake of tradition. How will they be given a sense of belonging when caltech perpetuates their PTSD? 

“The trauma from my past is a shadow that never truly fades. Caltech has been my refuge in many ways, but the cannon’s blast is a stark reminder of the battles I’ve fought, both within and outside these walls.” - Anonymous Student

Traditions will always hold a special place in our hearts, connecting us to our past and our community. They bring joy, nostalgia, and a sense of belonging. However, as many of these personal narratives illustrate, they can also inadvertently trigger painful memories and emotions for some individuals. Caltech’s Fleming Cannon tradition, meant to be a source of joy and celebration, has unexpectedly rekindled trauma for many students. One of the most painful results of writing this article was encountering the adamant demands for secrecy. No one wants to be labeled as a party-pooper. No one wants to be subject to retaliation just for expressing their feelings and opinions. Even if it was only one student, this discussion would still be worth having.

Especially in small communities where empathy and support are paramount, institutions like Caltech should be taking steps to ensure that no student is left to grapple with their demons alone, even in the face of tradition. Some proposed solutions include:

  1. Getting rid of the cannon
  2. Not firing it
  3. Firing it somewhere where it will not be audible from any student residences

If you want to express your opinions and arguments about the cannon, feel free to contact me at gore@caltech.edu. This is only one perspective within this discussion. I intend to follow up this article with information from different perspectives so I’d like to hear arguments from all sides and hear more solutions to the dilemma. If you have a similarly controversial opinion that you would like to have written about but wish to remain anonymous, I believe all opinions should be heard, feel free to contact me. Until the next article.

George Ore