For those of you new to Don’t Let The Days Go By, this is a continuing story set in 1997 about a university student making his way in life. If you came here looking to read some nostalgic fiction, I’m taking a break for at least a month, but you can start here with episode 1 (set in 1993) and then keep reading up until you finish episode 134. Unless you have no life and you are a very fast reader, I’ll probably be writing new episodes again by the time you finish. If you don’t have time for all of that, I’ll be doing a Season 3 recap soon.
I decided to do something fun this week. I’ve seen other bloggers and social media personalities do this. Usually I give snarky replies when others do this, so I guess I deserve it if you guys give snarky replies, but I would like to see some real replies as well.
Here is how this works: You share your assumptions about me. Tell me in the comments some things you’ve always assumed about me, and then in a later post I will share your assumptions and reveal whether or not they are true. That’s it. I’m curious what you think about me.
But… there’s a twist. I’m writing this post in character. Today is June 15, 1997, and I just woke up at my parents’ house in Plumdale after finishing my third year at the University of Jeromeville. So you are sharing your assumptions about Greg, the character from Don’t Let The Days Go By, and I will answer them from June 1997. If you say for your assumption, for example, “You like blogging,” I will reply, “What’s blogging?” since blogging wasn’t a thing in 1997. I first heard that term in 2000 when Brody Parker had a new girlfriend (whom he married a few years later, and divorced several years after that) and she showed me her blog.
Anyway, let me know your assumptions, and I will answer next week. Also, while you’re waiting for new DLTDGB episodes, follow my other projects, Greg Out Of Character and Song of the Day, by DJ GJ-64. And if you have assumptions about adult Greg, the writer of this blog, as his life is in 2022, I’ll be doing an assumptions post on the Greg Out Of Character blog soon.
Also, just for fun, here’s a picture of me all dressed up. This was June 6, 1997, on the way to my chorus performance.
I walked to the front door of the Staff House and knocked. This time of year, it was still warm and light out at seven in the evening. Cheryl opened the door and said, “Hey, Greg! Come on in!”
“Here’s my letter,” I replied, handing Cheryl the piece of white paper in my hand. I had outlined a large letter E in black marker, and inside the E, I had printed pictures of Star Wars characters that I found on the Internet.
“Give that to Alexa,” Cheryl said. “She’s making the sign.” I walked into the living room, where a brown-haired senior girl named Alexa Lafferty sat in a chair. She stood on the chair and taped my E to the wall, about seven feet above the ground, next to a brightly colored S, with a red R some space to the left and another R below the other letters with a high jumper vaulting his body over the middle of the R. Janet McAllen, who lived in this house with the other Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff, had called me a few days ago. She explained that, for Brian’s going away party, we would be making a sign on the wall that said YOU’RE A BLESSING, BRIAN. Each guest would be assigned a letter from that phrase to draw and decorate, and the letters would be hung on the wall as we arrived. Some people, like me and whoever drew the high jumper, drew specifically Brian-themed decorations, and others just made designs or patterns.
“Hey, Greg,” Brian said, emerging from another room. He looked up at the sign, now with my letter added. “Nice!” he said. “But you know I’m gonna have to quiz you now. Who’s that?” Brian pointed at one of the characters on my letter E sign.
“Han Solo,” I replied. Although I had some knowledge of Star Wars before living with Brian for a year, I was new to being a true fan, and I had seen Return of the Jedi for the first time just three months ago.
“And him?” Brian continued pointing to characters on my sign.
“And here’s a tough one. What’s that thing Luke is riding?”
“A Tauntaun, I think it’s called. Is that right?”
“Very good. You will be a great Jedi Master someday.”
As more people trickled in, and Alexa added to the letters on the wall, Brian kept making comments out loud, trying to figure out what it spelled. Lorraine Mathews arrived with the letter O, and like me, she chose a Star Wars theme. Lorraine had drawn the O as the Death Star, with Luke Skywalker’s X-wing, Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, and a few TIE fighters flown by Darth Vader’s minions flying around it. “YEAH!” Brian shouted excitedly when he saw it.
“Dude!” Lorraine replied, high-fiving Brian.
Eddie Baker and John Harvey arrived next, bringing the I in Brian and the apostrophe in YOU’RE. “Hey, Greg,” Eddie said. “What’s up? Glad to be done with finals?”
“Yes. What about you?”
“I had a long paper to write, but it’s done. Now I’m in the middle of planning for China.”
“When do you guys leave?”
“Next Thursday. Six days. It’s exciting to see how God will move.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking forward to hearing about it.”
John spoke up, asking me, “You’re going somewhere this summer too, right? To do research, or something like that?”
“Yeah. Oregon. An undergrad research internship with the math department at Grandvale State.”
Lars Ashford had walked in during my conversation with Eddie and John. “You’re going to Oregon?” Lars asked me. “I love Oregon!”
“Where is Grandvale State?” John asked. “Like, how far from Portland? That’s all I know in Oregon.”
“About ninety miles,” I replied. “South.”
“How exactly do you do math research?” Eddie asked.
“Yeah,” Lars added. “I hear math research, and I think of something like, ‘Today we’re gonna research the number three. What else can we learn about the number three? Where does it come from? Why is it called three? And when we’re done with that, we’re gonna research the number seven.’ But what is it really?”
“Not that,” I chuckled. “I’m not really sure myself. That’s why I’m doing this, to get a feel for what grad school will be like, if I decide to go to grad school. I think math research is, like, proving new theorems.”
“What new theorems need to be proven? I remember all the math I had to take for engineering. It didn’t seem like there was a lot more to discover.”
“There are a lot of open questions to research in mathematics,” I explained. “But it mostly has to do with really advanced theoretical stuff, the kind of stuff that wouldn’t apply directly to engineering.”
“But—” Lars continued. “I don’t get it. Why research something that isn’t relevant to the real world?”
“Because you never know what connections might be made someday. I heard a good example once. The ancient Greeks knew about the reflecting properties of parabolic surfaces. But they had no idea that these same properties would be used centuries later to invent satellite dishes.”
Lars stared off in the distance. “Wow,” he finally said. “That’s deep.”
“So what exactly will you be researching this summer?” Eddie asked.
“I’m not really sure,” I explained. “I think I’ll find out when I get there. There are three professors working with the project, and the students will be put in groups to work on three different projects.”
“Is that for sure what you want to do with your degree? Math research? Weren’t you also thinking about being a teacher?”
More people arrived: Kristina Kasparian. Joe Fox. Chris, the 1997 Man of Steel. Melinda Schmidt. I noticed that the party guests mostly seemed to be juniors and seniors. This made sense, since these people knew Brian the best. Brian had graduated a year ago, so he was the same age as current fifth-year students, a year older than current seniors, and two years older than me. Also, most freshmen had probably either left Jeromeville already, or were busy packing tonight since the dorms closed tomorrow at noon. I was disappointed to realize that this meant that Carrie Valentine would probably not be at this party, and neither would Sadie Rowland.
Scott Madison and Amelia Dye walked in next. They handed Alexa two exclamation points. “I like the way you made signs for punctuation,” I told Janet.
“We already had enough people for all the letters, and more people were coming, so we had to include them too. So we made lots of exclamation points,” Janet explained.
“That works. But I wonder if there was any other punctuation you could have used. Like maybe, put it in quotes. ‘You’re a blessing, Brian,’” I said, making air quotes with my fingers.
Janet thought about this, then started laughing. “I thought you meant, like, ‘You’re a “blessing,” Brian.’” She paused and made air quotes, with a suspicious grin on her face, during the word “blessing” only.
“Greg?” Scott said after Janet and I were done laughing. “How did finals go?”
“I think I did well,” I said. “I only had two actual finals, plus a paper to write.”
“That’s a pretty easy schedule. Did your family enjoy the chorus performance?”
“Yes,” I said. “They brought Grandpa too. He really wanted to hear me sing. His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but Mom said he said we sounded really good.”
“That’s good. My family didn’t come for this one, but they’d seen other ones before.”
“How were your finals? I forget, are you graduating this year?”
“No. I’m definitely going to be here a fifth year.”
“Me too,” Amelia added.
“Well, that’s good. I get to see you guys around for another year.”
After about an hour of mingling, as more people trickled in and Brian figured out what the letters spelled, Brian, the McAllens, and Cheryl attempted to get everyone quiet for a few minutes. “Brian has a few words to say,” Cheryl announced. All the chairs and couch spaces were taken, so I sat on the floor to listen to Brian.
“So,” Brian began. “Thank you all for coming tonight.” Brian often punctuated his speech with notable pauses, then spoke his sentences quickly in between the pauses. He gave the talk at JCF a few times this year, speaking this way, and last year, when we were making plans to get an apartment together, he left a few long rambling messages like this on my answering machine. “Some of you have known me since freshman year… I was a new Christian then. And God led me to get more involved in JCF… I started leading Bible studies.
“But if my life had gone to plan… I wouldn’t be here at all right now. I took the MCAT and applied to medical school last year… and I didn’t get in. But that allowed God to open the door for me to stay here… and go on staff with JCF. And…” Brian gestured toward the letters on the wall. “Your sign says that I’m a blessing… But you have all been a blessing to me too. You’ve encouraged me when things didn’t work out the way I expected… You encouraged me to keep trying medical school. And God opened another door. So… as you know, I’m headed to New York Medical College in the fall. So thank you so much… Come visit me if you’re ever in New York. And save the date… because I’ll be out here for the New Year’s party!” A few people cheered at this. I was not sure what Brian was referring to, about the New Year’s party, but Brian told me earlier that he would be emailing all his friends periodically, so hopefully I would find out more as the end of 1997 approached.
After Brian finished speaking, Janet got back up in front of everyone and announced, “We’re gonna play a game now,” Janet explained. “We’re gonna play Telephone Charades. You’ll be in groups of five. You’re all gonna go in the other room, except for one of you. We’ll tell the first person something to act out. Then the second person will come out from the bedroom and watch the first person acting it out. Then the third person will come out of the bedroom, and the second person will act out the scene for the third person. Then the fourth person will watch the third person act out the scene. And we’ll keep going until we get to the last person. And the last person will have to act it out for Brian, and we’ll see if he can guess what you’re doing.”
Janet explained again, because someone did not understand. My group went first; I went into what appeared to be Dave and Janet’s bedroom with Alexa, Eddie, and Lars. Brian came with us, since he had to be part of every group and go last. Amelia was also in our group, but she stayed in the living room. Amelia came to the bedroom to get Lars a minute later, and after another three or four minutes or so, Lars came to get Eddie. Next, Eddie came to the bedroom to get me.
Eddie began acting his scene for me when I got back to the living room, with Amelia, Lars, and everyone not in our group watching. Eddie mimed sticking something to his shirt; I thought maybe it was a name tag. Then he sat in a chair. Suddenly he stood next to the chair, his mouth moving, and his arms extended up above him slightly at an angle. Eddie then sat back down, looking up at the place where he had stood a few seconds before. What was going on here? Was Eddie portraying someone who was sitting down and standing up every few seconds? Or was he playing two characters, the seated character looking confused at the standing character? The way Eddie held his arms while standing reminded me of the way some people stand and raise their arms while singing worship music, but I did not understand what the part about sitting in the chair meant.
Next, Eddie just sat in the chair, looking more and more bored, his eyes starting to close. Eventually he appeared to fall asleep entirely, then he jerked back and sat upright in the chair. Eddie then repeated the whole thing, as if his character nodded off a second time.
I started at Eddie after he finished. “I have no idea what I just saw,” I replied.
“Oh no,” he replied. Others watching seemed to react as well. I walked to the bedroom, feeling like I was going to let my team down, then came back out to the living room with Alexa. “I apologize in advance,” I told her.
“Uh-oh,” she replied.
I attempted to act out everything that I saw. I did the same thing Eddie did, alternating between sitting in the chair and standing next to it, moving my mouth and raising my arms. I did this a few times, then I sat in the chair and pretended to nod off and wake up.
“Okay,” Alexa replied. She then performed what she saw me doing for Lars, and Lars performed the same thing for Brian. Lars’ performance had not changed much from mine, although his portrayal of the guy standing next to the chair with his arms raised was a bit more animated than mine.
“I don’t know,” Brian said. “I’m thinking maybe I’m doing The Wave at a football game, then falling asleep because it’s a boring game?”
“No,” Janet said. “Actually, it’s Brian’s first time at JCF.” I made a note that I was correct in connecting the guy raising his hands with singing worship songs. “A lot of new people at JCF think it’s weird when people raise their hands in worship. And you told that story about the time you fell asleep because you thought the talk was boring.”
“Oh!” Brian replied. “That makes more sense.”
“Is the next group ready?” Janet asked. “The next group is Lorraine, John, Scott, Kristina, and Joe.” Lorraine stayed in the living room, and after the others went to the bedroom, Janet said, “You’re doing the scene from Star Wars where Darth Vader fights Obi-Wan, and Luke sees it.”
“Oh yeah. I got this,” Lorraine proclaimed confidently. She went to the bedroom to get John, then she began performing. Lorraine acted Obi-Wan’s part, walking into the scene, then pausing. She pantomimed switching on a lightsaber, then she swung her arms around to fight Darth Vader with it. After a few swings, she turned toward the people watching, with a knowing look on her face, making eye contact with an invisible Luke. She then raised her hands in front of her face and crumpled to the ground as the imaginary Vader struck her down. Lorraine stood back up in the place where she had looked before, now performing as Luke. She opened her mouth widely as if to scream, then began shooting an invisible blaster. After a few seconds, she paused to hear Obi-Wan speak to her from beyond the grave, then ran to the far end of the living room. Everyone cheered at her flawless acting.
As the successive contestants acted out the scene, it became corrupted and less recognizable. I was not sure if the others were unfamiliar with the scene from Star Wars, or if they just did not know the scene from memory as well as Lorraine. By the time Brian saw Joe acting, the lightsaber fight looked more like dancing, and after Joe fell to the floor, he just ran away, shooting, no longer clear that he was now a different character.
“Huh?” Brian exclaimed. “What was that?”
“Lorraine?” Janet asked. “Will you act out yours again? Because I think Brian might know it if he sees you do it.”
“Sure,” Lorraine replied. She stood up and performed exactly the same way she did earlier, and I could tell from the excited look on Brian’s face that he knew what she was acting out. When she got to the point where Luke paused and heard Obi-Wan’s voice, Brian shouted, “Run, Luke, run! That was great!”
“Yes!” Lorraine replied.
There were no more structured activities for the rest of the party. I stuck around and hung out and mingled until around 11:30. When I left, only a few guests remained besides Brian and the hosts. My plan had been to stay up late, start packing, and leave for my parents’ house early in the morning. But that did not happen; I was ready for bed when I got home from the party. Brian had driven separately, and he arrived home after I was asleep. The next day, I wasted a few hours on Internet Relay Chat and answered emails before I started packing, and I took a break and went for a bike ride before I finished. I had much more to pack than I usually do for a quick trip to my parents’ house, since I was leaving Jeromeville until late August, so I did not finish until late afternoon.
“Have a great summer, Greg,” Brian said, shaking my hand, as I was leaving. “Keep in touch. I’ll see you at New Year’s?”
“Sounds good,” I replied. “Good luck in medical school.” Turning to the other housemate who was home, I said, “Shawn, good luck with the running store.”
“Thanks,” Shawn replied. He also shook my hand. “So you’ll be back up here at the end of August to finish moving out? Is that right? We’ll clean up our parts before we leave.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Have a good summer,” Brian said.
“I will! You too!”
Brian sent mass emails periodically for the next few years to update his friends and family on his life. He eventually decided to specialize in pediatrics, and after completing medical school in 2001, he moved to California to begin his residency at a large, well-known children’s hospital. At some point a couple years into his residency, Brian got too busy to send the emails regularly, so we lost touch for about a decade. I found him on Facebook years later, when Brian was a groomsman in Shawn’s wedding. Brian does not post often, though.
To this day, I have only seen Brian in person six more times. Brian’s New Year parties were a long tradition going back to his high school years, and he continued this tradition for a few more years, when he returned to Valle Luna to visit his parents over the winter holidays. I attended three New Year parties with Brian. He also came back to Jeromeville for Scott and Amelia’s wedding. (Oops, I guess that was a spoiler… Scott and Amelia did end up getting married.) In 2002, I went on a long road trip to California and visited a few people I knew there, including Brian. And both of us were in Jeromeville in 2017 for a JCF 1990s reunion.
By the time Brian got to California, Alexa Lafferty had gotten a job not far from where Brian was. Alexa and Brian started spending more time together in person, and this eventually became a romantic relationship. They got married and had two children. And just as Brian had said years earlier, he did multiple mission trips over the years.
It was warm as I drove west on Highway 100, the sun still a little too high in the sky to be directly in my eyes. I turned south on Highway 6 to San Tomas, where it ended and merged with Highway 11. After a week with my parents in Plumdale, I would come right back here to San Tomas to board an airplane to Oregon. I could have driven to Oregon in one long day and brought the car, but I did not particularly need it, since I would be spending most of my time on campus. Also, after finally getting to experience flying on the Urbana trip, I wanted to fly again. Airplanes were fun, and air travel was fitting for a new adventure.
Author’s Note: This is the end of Year 3, so I will be taking a break for a while. But I will have a year 3 recap post next week, and I have a few more posts I want to write before I start year 4. Make sure you are following my other projects, Greg Out Of Character and Song of the Day, by DJ GJ-64.
What was your favorite moment of Year 3? Let me know in the comments!
If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.
Disclaimer: All Star Wars properties are trademarks of Lucasfilm Ltd. LLC. Lucasfilm was not involved in the production of this story.
Eddie Baker and Raphael Stevens walked into room 170 of Evans Hall as Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s weekly meeting was about to start. “Hey, Greg,” Eddie said when he saw me. “Ready for tomorrow?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied. “I just hope I don’t do horribly like I did last year.”
“Dude,” Raphael replied. “Don’t worry about that. Just have fun.”
I mingled and said hi to more people as they arrived, and I eventually sat down when the band started playing, in a seat on the aisle. Sarah Winters and Liz Williams, whom I had been friends with since my first week at the University of Jeromeville, sat next to me a few minutes later. When the second-to-last song began, I walked up the aisle and out of the room, hoping that Sarah and Liz would not ask where I was going. I wanted this to be a surprise. I walked to the table in the lobby where Amelia Dye and Melinda Schmidt were filling out name tags. I had hidden a garment bag under their table, which I asked Amelia to retrieve for me. She handed it to me, and I took it into the bathroom and changed. The garment bag contained the only nice clothes I owned, the tuxedo I wore for chorus performances.
“You look nice,” Melinda said when I emerged from the bathroom.
“Thanks,” I replied. I stood in the lobby next to Darren Ng, Lars Ashford, and John Harvey. Darren wore a mask of Mr. Clean, the mascot from the eponymous brand of cleaning products, but his face was painted green underneath. Lars wore a tight-fitting sleeveless shirt, and John wore a suit. Someone announced, “And now it’s time for another episode of ‘What Would You Do!’” John, in his best game show host persona, walked to the front of the room and introduced the contestants, played by Todd Chevallier, Kristina Kasparian, and Autumn Davies.
“Now, let’s meet our celebrity judges,” John continued. That was my cue. “First, we have actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger!” Lars walked out in his muscle shirt as the crowd cheered. John continued, “Next, we have one of the richest businessmen in America, Donald Trump!” I walked out in my tuxedo as the crowd continued cheering. Finally, John said, “And our last judge is Mr. Clean!” Darren walked to the stage with no explanation of why his face was green under the mask.
Playing Donald Trump in a skit in 1997 did not elicit the same reaction from students at a liberal secular university as it would today, after his term as President of the United States. Back then, Mr. Trump was mostly known as a businessman, not a controversial political figure. I also had not put a lot of effort into my costume. I did not attempt to color my skin or style my hair exactly like Mr. Trump, nor did I impersonate his voice; I just wore formalwear and got introduced on stage as Donald Trump.
“It’s time for our first question!” John announced. “You are driving down the street, on the way to an important business meeting, and you see your friend stopped on the side of the road, trying to change a flat tire. He seems to be struggling with it. What would you do?”
“I’d wave and keep driving,” Todd said. “I don’t want to be late.”
“I’d pull over and help him,” Kristina said.
“Well,” Autumn explained, “I’d probably be wearing nice clothes, and I wouldn’t want to get them dirty. So I’d just let him wait for a tow truck.”
“Judges?” John asked us. “What do you think? Who gave the best answer?”
“Todd,” Lars said, imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent. “Your friend can’t change a tire? He’s a girly man.”
“I also pick Todd,” I added. “You can’t be late to a business meeting! Your million dollar deal might fall through!”
“I think Autumn gave the right answer,” Darren said, in character as Mr. Clean. “Because she wants to stay clean.” Kristina looked indignant that no one chose her answer.
This continued for two more rounds. As judges, we gave points to Todd and Autumn for ridiculous reasons. Kristina gave answers consistent with how followers of Jesus Christ should treat each other, and she got no points. As Mr. Clean agreed with Autumn that she should not lend power tools to her neighbor, because she might fall in mud in the neighbor’s yard, a loud voice in the back of the room shouted, “Zoinks! Like, that’s not Mr. Clean!”
Brian Burr, my roommate who was on staff with JCF, stood in the aisle, wearing his costume from a previous skit in which he played Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, and carrying the cardboard Mystery Machine van from that skit. The crowd cheered as Brian walked to the stage. “Like, let’s see who you really are!” Brian said, removing Darren’s Mr. Clean mask. Darren’s green painted face emerged, and long pointy cardboard ears that had been tucked out of sight now pointed outward.
“Yoda!” the three contestants gasped in unison.
“What is right, you know,” Darren said in the voice of Yoda from the Star Wars movies. “Help your friends, you must. Hmm. Show Jesus’ love, you will.”
The skit naturally led into a talk about showing Jesus’ love through serving others. I stayed in my tuxedo for the talk, since I did not want to miss it. I changed during the closing song and slipped back into my seat next to Sarah and Liz just in time.
“You did a good job as Donald Trump,” Sarah told me, laughing.
“Thanks. Brian wrote that a few days ago; I was there when he was working on it. The part with Shaggy and Yoda was so random!”
“I know!” Liz replied. “I loved that!”
“You got to be in a skit,” Sarah said. “I guess that’s a perk of living with a staff member.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“What are you up to this weekend?”
“Man of Steel is tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s right!”
“I did pretty bad last year. I’m hoping to do a little better, although I don’t think I have any chance of winning.”
“You never know,” Liz said.
“Yeah, but I’m pretty bad at Frisbee golf,” I explained.
“Maybe the wind will carry your Frisbee just right.”
“Maybe. Who knows.”
The 13th Annual Man of Steel Competition began at ten o’clock on Saturday morning, at the house where Eddie, John, and Raphael lived in south Jeromeville. When I arrived, Eddie checked off my name on a list, and I sat in the living room, waiting for further instructions. “We’ll start sending people out for Frisbee golf at around 10:30,” Eddie explained.
John, who was absent when I arrived, walked in a few minutes later carrying a large number of bags and boxes from Taco Bell. “Wow,” I said. “How many tacos is that?”
“A hundred and ten,” John announced proudly. “I hope that’s enough.”
Some time ago, a group of men from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship held an all day event called the Man of Steel Competition. The event consisted of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and games of poker. When the founders of the event graduated, they passed on the hosting duties to their younger friends, and the tradition had continued, being passed from Brian’s house last year to Eddie’s house this year.
This year’s event was slightly different. In the hamburger eating contest, competitors were given progressively less time to eat each hamburger, beginning with one minute and decreasing by five seconds with each hamburger. Last year, Mike Kozlovsky had gotten a perfect score in the eating competition, shoving a twelfth hamburger into his mouth in five seconds, then spitting out a wad of half-chewed hamburgers the size of a softball. Mike had graduated, but his thorough conquering of the eating event had prompted the change from cheap McDonald’s hamburgers to cheap Taco Bell soft tacos.
I got assigned to a group with Lars, Todd, and a guy named Chad, one of Todd’s roommates whom I did not know as well. Each group got instructions for eighteen “holes,” specifying where to begin the first throw, and where the disc had to land or hit in order to complete the hole. The first hole was to hit a garbage can in a park down the street. I waited for a car to move out of the way, then launched my disc as hard as I could throw it. It sailed straight and landed in front of the park. “Dude!” Lars shouted. “Sweet throw!”
“Thanks,” I replied. My second throw was not on target, but I managed to complete the hole with my third throw, tying Chad for the lead so far. Lars completed the hole in four throws, and Todd in five.
This park connected to the south Jeromeville Greenbelts, and the second hole was a few hundred feet down one of these trails. As the game continued, we crossed Willard Avenue to a larger park, which was also part of last year’s course. My lead did not hold; I began throwing the disc erratically more often as the day went on. But I definitely did a little better than last year. After our group returned to the house, I tried to pay attention to the others’ scores, to get an idea of whether I was in last place. I did not see every score, but I did notice that a sophomore named Rob had more throws than me.
Eating, my strongest event from last year, came next. Todd, Lars, Chad, and I gathered around the kitchen table with a big pile of tacos in the middle. The rules were the same as for last year’s hamburger competition: sixty seconds for the first taco, five seconds fewer for each successive taco, and lips must be closed when time ran out. I noticed last year that many of the serious competitors would get their hamburgers wet before eating; I suspected this strategy may not work as well with tacos, since tortillas did not absorb water as well as hamburger buns.
“Ready… Go!” Eddie announced, looking at his watch. I took large bites of the first taco and was able to finish it easily in the time limit, with plenty of time left to swallow and breathe. The challenge felt easy until the fourth taco, which I had forty-five seconds to eat. When time expired, my lips were closed, but I had not swallowed the last bite. I needed to eat faster. I finished swallowing the fifth taco just as time expired, but I was taking larger bites, and my mouth and stomach were filling up faster. From what I remembered from last year, my body reacted in a similar way to the hamburgers.
Both Todd and Lars were unable to eat the fifth taco, and Chad did not finish the sixth. I was surprised; I remembered Lars lasting much longer in the hamburger competition last year. I had outlasted the rest of my foursome, and this felt like a major accomplishment. “Taco seven, thirty seconds, go!” Eddie announced as I took large bites of a seventh taco with half of the sixth taco still in my mouth. I tried swallowing small bits of taco, but I knew that the end was near. Fortunately, though, I managed to fit all of the seventh and eighth tacos in my mouth and close my lips before the time limit. I continued trying to swallow, but it was too much. With only twenty seconds to eat the ninth taco, and a mouth full of multiple half-chewed tacos, I only managed one bite of taco number nine before time ran out. John walked up to me with a garbage can, but I shook my head. From behind the mass of unfinished taco in my mouth, I made sounds that resembled the words “I wanna finish. I’m hungry.”
“Okay,” John replied.
“Todd and Lars got four, Chad got five, and Greg jumps out to an early lead with eight,” Eddie announced. The others in the house applauded. John, Darren, Rob, and Raphael went next, eating their tacos while I finished swallowing all of my unfinished tacos. No one from that group beat my score of eight; Raphael came the closest with six. A quarter of the way through the competition, I still had the lead.
After one more group went, Eddie walked up to me. “Hey, Greg?” he asked. “We’re gonna need more tacos. Can you go get some more, since you’ve gone already?”
“Sure,” I said. I kind of wanted to watch to see if anyone would beat me, but I also liked the idea of feeling useful.
“Get as many as this will buy,” Eddie said, giving me a twenty-dollar bill.
“Sounds good. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Taco Bell was about a mile and a quarter from Eddie’s house, just off of Highway 100 at the Bruce Boulevard exit. Two people were ahead of me. When I got to the front of the line, I handed the cashier Eddie’s money and said, “Can I get as many soft tacos as this will buy?”
“Yes,” the cashier replied. She pressed some buttons on the cash register. “That’ll be twenty-three tacos. But you might have to wait a minute. We had an order this morning for a hundred and ten tacos, so we don’t have as many ready as we usually do.”
“I’m with the same group, actually,” I said. “We’re almost out of the hundred and ten.”
“Really,” the cashier replied. “What are you doing with all of those tacos?”
“An eating competition.”
“That sounds intense.”
I had to wait about twenty minutes for my tacos. By the time I returned to Eddie’s house, the taco competition had paused, with two groups left, because they were almost out of tacos. My score of eight tacos ended up being second overall; Chris, a senior who had been my Bible study leader when I stayed in Jeromeville last summer, ate nine.
We all took a break of about twenty minutes to digest our tacos, then began the final event, poker. We each started with a hundred chips and took turns dealing, with the dealer getting to choose the type of poker for each round. Anyone who ran out of chips scored zero for that round and did not play any more. I knew the mechanics of how to play poker, but I was not good at the strategy of deciding how much to bet, or whether or not to stay in the game at all.
It was my turn to deal first. “Just regular five-card draw,” I said. That was the first kind of poker I learned. I had no good cards, so I bet one; when Lars raised the bet to three, I folded. I was not happy about losing my one chip, plus the ante, but it could have been worse.
About twenty minutes in, with about half my chips gone, I had an incredible stroke of luck. Lars was dealing a hand of seven-card stud, where each player has some cards face down and some face up, with four rounds of betting as more cards appear. My two hole cards and my first two face-up cards were all clubs; I had a fair chance to get a flush. My fifth card was the nine of diamonds, not a club. I also had the nine of clubs showing face up; with a pair showing, I got to bet first that round. I pushed three chips into the pot, hoping that that would not scare anyone enough to fold. Todd folded, but Lars and Chad remained in the game.
The sixth face-up card I got was another club. I had the flush. I bet five chips this time. Chad folded, but Lars raised the bet to ten chips. I looked at Lars’ cards. Five of spades, eight of hearts, two of diamonds, and jack of clubs. It was not possible for him to have a flush, a full house, or four of a kind with those cards showing, and any other hand would lose to me. Why was he staying in the game? I raised the bet to twenty, and Lars raised again, forcing me all in. If I lost, I would be eliminated. We each received one more face down card, and then made the best hand we could from our seven cards. “Three of a kind!” Lars said, revealing his first two face-down cards to be jacks. “Jacks beat your nines, unless you have all four nines.”
“No,” I replied, “but I have a flush.” I showed him the two clubs I had face down.
“Wow,” Todd remarked. “Well played.”
“Aw, man!” Lars exclaimed as he pushed the pile of chips my way. “You started betting big after you got the nine, so I thought for sure you had a third nine down there, and my jacks beat your nines. I didn’t even think about a flush.”
My luck at poker did not continue for the rest of the afternoon, but that one big win gave me enough chips that I could go back to my typical conservative wagers and still have some left at the end of the hour. I was getting frustrated by then, but I finished with forty-two chips, and several people had lost everything. I really did think that I improved this year.
While we waited for Eddie and John to tabulate the scores, Raphael passed out this year’s T-shirt. Last year’s shirt had a sentence and image comparing Superman with Jesus, and a Bible verse, but this year’s was a much simpler design. On the front, it said “Man of Steel,” and on the back, “FRISBEE, TACOS, POKER, FAITH.” I loved that shirt, and I wore it for years until it wore out and started to tear.
Chris, the guy who ate more tacos than me, was the overall winner; he placed near the top in the other two events as well. Rob, the guy who definitely did worse than me in disc golf, finished in last place after eating only three tacos and losing all his chips in poker. Rob was given the title Weenie of Steel and an extra small T-shirt, the traditional prize for the Weenie.
“Thanks for your help with getting more tacos,” Eddie told me after the winner was announced. “I think you did better this year. You were near the middle overall.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I did too.”
“I have to be honest with you. Last year it was pretty much a toss-up between you and Dan Conway for the Weenie. We gave it to Dan, because he was a senior, and we thought he’d get a good laugh out of it. And I didn’t think you should be singled out like that.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I really appreciate that.”
“But you definitely weren’t the Weenie this year. If we had a Most Improved award, you’d be in the running for that.”
I was in a good mood as I drove home a bit later, across the overpass with trees in it. This year had been a struggle in some ways, with all the cliques I had run into at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. But at times, I also felt much more included at JCF now than I had a year ago. I had a defined job at the weekly meetings, as the worship team’s roadie. I had performed in two skits this year, as the resident director for the Scooby-Doo gang’s dorm, and as Donald Trump. And Eddie was good at making me feel included. He trusted me to get more tacos for Man of Steel, and he made sure not to humiliate me with the title of Weenie.
I had accepted the fact that I would probably not be in the running for Man of Steel, ever. I was content being near the middle of the pack overall. Hopefully, next year as a senior I would do a little better.
Next year, as a senior. Saying those words to myself just felt surreal. In two short weeks, I would be finishing my third year at the University of Jeromeville. Pretty soon I would be graduating and getting an adult job, or maybe going on to graduate school. What would my life be like then? As if on cue, this annoying but catchy song I had been hearing a lot on the radio came on. Some girl sang hard-to-understand lyrics seemingly about how things and people pass in and out of lives quickly. I could not tell if that was really the message of the song, though, since the chorus degenerated into nonsense syllables.
I wondered about that for myself. Eddie, John, Sarah, Liz, all of my friends who were also going to be seniors next year, would they still be a part of my life, or would they gradually disappear like my high school friends had? These moments at UJ would not last forever. I would finish school someday. I would perform in my final JCF skit someday. I would compete in my final Man of Steel and attend my final JCF large group meeting someday.
Of course, I had no idea how my life would turn out. Maybe some of these friends would stay in my life forever. Maybe I would go to graduate school, or maybe I would become a teacher. Maybe I would have the best Frisbee-throwing day of my life, and have a streak of amazing luck, and win Man of Steel next year. Not knowing the future is part of what makes life interesting. After all, two things from this stream of consciousness already turned out differently from how I thought: I had already performed in my final JCF skit when I played Donald Trump last night, and the person singing all of those nonsense syllables on the radio was not a girl.
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For the last few months, I had been volunteering as a leader with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church. Every year, the students go to Winter Camp over a weekend in January or February, and Adam, the youth pastor, gives them all a mixtape of Christian music from many different artists and genres. Back in 1997, there was no Spotify or YouTube for people to share their favorite music with friends. Instead, we Generation X-ers would play songs from compact discs or cassette tapes, one at a time, and record them on blank tapes. I had begun volunteering with The Edge shortly after Winter Camp that year, so I did not get a copy of Edge Mix ’97, but I borrowed it from the youth group music library and made a copy for myself. I discovered many Christian bands and musicians through Edge Mixes over the years.
One of the more intriguing songs on Edge Mix ’97 was called “Hitler’s Girlfriend,” by a band based in Bay City called the Dime Store Prophets. It was a slow rock song, with lyrics that I found a little mysterious. The chorus said, “I’m not myself until you are you, if I close my eyes, I’m killing you.” I thought the song had something to do with lamenting the un-Christlike tendency to look away when others were in need. The song also contained the line, “I feel like Hitler’s girlfriend, I’m blind to this and numb to that.” Some have suggested that Eva Braun, the real-life Hitler’s girlfriend, lived a sheltered life and did not know about the Holocaust, although other historians find this unlikely.
I played that song three times last night while I did math homework. Although it was the only Dime Store Prophets song that I knew, I wanted it to be fresh in my mind, because the Dime Store Prophets were playing a free live show right here at the University of Jeromeville today, outdoors on the Quad. University Life, the college group from a large church nearby, not the church I attended, had put this show together, and they had been promoting it at all the local churches and college ministries. Nothing was going to stop this from being the best day I had had in a long time.
Except maybe for pouring rain.
I did not expect rain this week. Last Monday had been the first day of hundred-degree heat for 1997, and it felt like the hot, sunny, dry weather of summer had arrived for good. But today was cool with heavy rain. A dramatic cooling trend in late May was rare for Jeromeville. As I rode the bus to school, and sat through my early class, the rain continued to fall, the thick gray sky showing no signs that the rain would clear up any time soon. Would I have to stand in the rain to watch the Dime Store Prophets? Was the band even coming anymore? Would the show be moved indoors? None of those sounded preferable.
After class, I walked to the Memorial Union to find a place to sit. The tables were crowded, as was usually the case on rainy days. Alaina Penn and Corinne Holt from U-Life were sitting at a table with empty seats; I walked over toward them and sat down.
“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said. “What’s the capital of Morocco?”
“Rabat,” I replied. I was about to ask why she wanted to know when I saw the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt, on the table in front of her, opened to the page with the crossword puzzle. Alaina started filling in letters in the puzzle, then paused. “How do you spell that?”
“R-A-B-A-T,” I said. “Hey, is the Dime Store Prophets show still happening? You guys were putting that on, right?”
“It’s canceled,” Corinne answered. “They canceled yesterday when they heard it would rain.”
That’s right, I thought. Some people check weather reports in advance to find out if it will rain, so they would be less surprised than I was right now. “Bummer,” I said.
“What are you up to this weekend, Greg?” Alaina asked.
“I was gonna see the Dime Store Prophets, but now that’s not happening. So just studying, I guess.” I could tell that the irritation in my voice was showing.
“JCF meets tonight, right?”
“Yeah. I’ll be there.”
“See? You are doing something. Enjoy that.”
The rain had lightened up a bit by the time I got home from campus, and it was not raining at all when I got to Evans Hall in the evening for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. The worship team was about to begin playing, and I had not yet decided where to sit, since I had been mingling and talking. I looked around and saw Carrie Valentine sitting alone not too far from me. My brain began overthinking, trying to decide if asking to sit with her was too forward, if it sent the wrong message, if I was setting myself up for disappointment. I thought about what I would say to save face if she said no. I took a deep breath, told my brain to shut up, and walked toward Carrie. “Hey,” I said.
“Greg! Hi!” Carrie replied.
“Mind if I sit here?”
Carrie was a freshman; I had seen her around JCF for much of the year. Two weeks ago, we had had a long conversation at a party after JCF, alone in someone else’s house while we waited for the rest of the partygoers to return from the grocery store.
After the opening song, announcements, and a few more songs, Liz Williams walked to the stage and mimed turning off an alarm clock. A skit. I liked skits. JCF’s skits had been unusually good this year. Liz looked at a Bible and said, “I need to read the Bible and spend time with God, but I’m gonna be late for class! What should I do? I’ll just take the Bible with me and squeeze in some time between classes.” I definitely resonated with what Liz’s character was feeling.
I got excited when Ajeet Tripathi and his roommate Darren Ng entered the stage, dressed in suits and ties with dark glasses. These were recurring characters who had appeared in several other JCF skits this year. They called themselves Angels of the Lord, but they dressed and acted more like secret agents.
“Time to help her out?” Darren asked.
“Affirmative,” Ajeet replied.
Brent Wang walked past the Angels of the Lord, carrying books and notebooks. Ajeet and Darren lightly tapped his back. Brent started coughing and said, “I’m not feeling well. I need to cancel my class.”
Liz’s character returned to the stage area and looked at the wall, as if reading a note. “My professor is sick and had to cancel class,” she said. “Now I have time to do what I’ve been meaning to do all day!” Liz searched through her backpack, but instead of getting her Bible, she pulled out a folded copy of the Daily Colt. “The crossword puzzle!” she exclaimed excitedly. The crowd chuckled at this humorous turn of events. Liz sat down looking at the newspaper, holding a pencil, as Eddie Baker walked by. Liz looked up and asked Eddie, “Hey, what’s the capital of Morocco?”
I laughed loudly, remembering my conversation with Alaina earlier, but then stopped suddenly when I realized that this quote was not as hilarious to everyone else. Carrie looked at me, wondering why I found this so funny; I wanted to explain, but I did not want to interrupt the performance. Now was not the time.
The skit continued, with Liz continuing to make excuses not to read her Bible. This led into a talk by Dave McAllen, one of the full-time staff for JCF, giving a talk about making time to be with God. He referenced Luke 5:16, in which Jesus, despite being God in the flesh, still made time to get away from the crowds and pray to his Father.
I turned to Carrie after the final song. “That was a good talk,” I said.
“I know,” Carrie replied. “It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you have to do and forget to read the Bible.”
“I’ve been doing a little at this lately, at least during the week. I take my Bible to the Arboretum every day after my first class and read and pray for a while.”
“That’s so cool! I should find a spot like that.”
“It’s a peaceful little spot in the middle of God’s creation,” I said. “But, yeah. The skits have been really funny lately. This morning, I walked up to some friends who aren’t from JCF, and one of them was doing the crossword puzzle, and when she saw me walk up, the first thing she said to me was, ‘What’s the capital of Morocco?’ So I laughed when they put that same clue in the skit tonight.”
“Oh my gosh! That’s hilarious! I don’t usually get very far when I try to do the crossword puzzle.”
“I can usually finish most of it,” I said. “But there’s usually a few letters at the end that I can’t get. I finish the puzzle maybe once every week or two.”
“Wow! That’s good!”
“Ajeet and Darren are funny when they play the Angels of the Lord.”
“I know! Remember the one where they shaved Todd’s head? I had no idea they were gonna do that!”
“Me either! That was amazing! And remember that series of skits they did at the beginning of the year, where Brian or Lorraine would interrupt and put up a sign with the night’s topic?”
“And at the end of that series, when they both started appearing with signs. I thought that was funny.”
“I think I missed that one.”
“There was one where Brian put up the sign, then a few minutes later Lorraine walked out to put up the sign, and she tore down Brian’s sign and put up her own. Then the next week, they both showed up with signs at the same time. They saw each other, and they started fighting with lightsabers.”
“Whoa,” Carrie exclaimed.
“Yeah. They were fighting, then they stopped and looked at each other, and they embraced and made out.” Carrie gave me a horrified and confused look as I said that last part, and I realized that I had misspoken. “Made up! I meant made up!” I hurriedly explained. “Like they weren’t fighting anymore!”
“Oh!” Carrie replied, laughing. “I was gonna say, this is a Christian group; they did what?”
“Wow. That was embarrassing.” I hoped that Carrie would quickly forget that part of the conversation. “What are you up to tonight?” I asked.
“I should get home,” Carrie said, slumping her shoulders. “I have so much to do. I have a paper to write this weekend, and I haven’t started it.”
“But I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Yes. Take care.” I looked into Carrie’s dark brown eyes and smiled, and she smiled back. Whatever I did tonight after JCF, it would not include Carrie, but at least we got to talk again. Hopefully my accidental statement about making out would not do lasting damage.
Head-shaving had suddenly become all the rage over the last few months. It seemed like every week or so, another one of my guy friends had shaved his head. My brother Mark started shaving his head that year. Even Lorraine had shaved her head. A few weeks ago, Ajeet and Darren’s Angels of the Lord characters had appeared in another skit. Todd Chevallier, a third roommate of theirs, played a character who knew that a girl who really liked him, but he did not like her back. Todd prayed before he went to bed that God would make that girl realize that he was not the one for her. As Todd lay supposedly sleeping, Ajeet and Darren appeared in their secret agent costumes. Todd awoke and asked, “Who are you?”
“We are Angels of the Lord,” Ajeet replied. “The Lord has heard your prayers. We have come to make you ugly.” Darren pulled out an electric razor and shaved an asymmetrical stripe across Todd’s hair as the hundred-plus students in attendance gasped and cheered. Todd’s character woke up the next morning; the girl who liked him saw him, then ran away screaming. After the talk at the end of the night, Ajeet and Darren finished shaving the rest of Todd’s head, right there in 170 Evans in front of everyone.
On Sunday at church, two days after the rained-out concert, the high school youth intern, a guy named Kevin, got up to make an announcement. “Last week, the high school group had a car wash, to raise money for a mission trip this summer. I told them that if we made two thousand dollars, they would get to shave my head. Well, guess what? We shattered that goal and raised over three thousand dollars. So you can watch a bunch of high schoolers shave my head right after the service.”
Of course, I thought. More head shaving. At least this one was for a good cause. I hoped, as a youth group volunteer with the junior high school kids, that I would not get chosen to have my head shaved at any point in the future. I had read a column once by the humor writer Dave Barry, who wrote that black guys with shaved heads looked cool, but white guys with shaved heads looked like giant thumbs. I definitely did not want to look like a giant thumb, and I had no plans to follow everyone else into this shaved head craze.
Despite that, though, I was not opposed to watching others shave their heads. I wandered into the youth room after church, where Kevin sat in a chair in the middle of the room, and four high schoolers took turns running electric razors across his head, watching random clumps of hair fall to the floor.
I had a lot of reasons why not. Instead of telling Samantha about the giant thumbs, I told her about something that had happened two months earlier. “When I went home for spring break, my brother had shaved his head, and I told my grandma about how all my friends were shaving their heads. And Grandma told me I better not shave my head.”
“Oh!” Samantha said, an understanding smile breaking out on her face. “So you have to wait until she dies!”
Wow, I thought. Out of the mouths of thirteen-year-olds… “That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” I replied. “Wow.” I turned back to watch Kevin as the kids finished shaving his head, not really sure how to follow up Samantha’s comment.
When I got home after church, I turned on music while I finished my math homework. Edge Mix ’97 was currently in the stereo; I left it in and pressed Play. The Dime Store Prophets song came on midway through the second side, and hearing that song made me feel disappointed all over again that I had not gotten to see them. The weather that led to the show’s cancellation was just strange. Two days later, the weather turned sunny and warm again, like it was at the beginning of last week.
The opportunity was not lost forever. The band rescheduled their show and came to Jeromeville in September, the first weekend after classes started, and I saw them a second time later that school year. In my late twenties, two counties away, I attended a church where one of the former band members was the worship leader. I found a box of old Dime Store Prophets CDs when I was helping him throw away old things he did not need anymore, and he let me keep one of each album.
The conversation with Samantha, about my grandmother not wanting me to shave my head, had an odd postscript. I would soon learn that my grandmother, whom Samantha had practically wished death upon, shared a birthday with Samantha, sixty-three years apart. And although I never shaved my head completely, as my brother and many of my friends had, I did start gradually getting it cut shorter as I got older. I typically would go to one of the cheap walk-in haircut places, and depending on who was available to cut my hair, some would cut it shorter than others. Once, in 2021, my hair got cut longer than I wanted, so the next time I went to get it cut, I got brave and tried having it cut with clippers. This was the closest I had ever come to shaving my head. And my grandmother died a few hours later.
I made the connection between Grandma’s death and using clippers on my hair later that week, as I was thinking about everything that had happened. Of course, it was a complete coincidence; I do not blame my grandmother’s death on my use of hair clippers or on Samantha’s statement twenty-four years earlier. My grandmother was one hundred years old, her health had been declining for quite some time, and sometimes a body just gives out after such a long life. But the coincidence still stuck out in my mind.
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My roommates Shawn Yang and Brian Burr had started a quote board for our apartment last week. I had seen quote boards at friends’ houses before. To me, a quote board appeared to be simply a list of funny things people said, often taken out of context as much as possible for humorous effect. Brian had a more strict view of quote boards; he felt that the quotes should be more sophisticated than just things that sounded dirty.
When I was young, I often saw commercials during children’s cartoons on television encouraging children to drink milk, touting the health benefits of doing so. Before the “Got Milk?” slogan spawned countless parodies for decades, the previous slogan was “Milk: it does a body good.” One day last week, Shawn got home from a run while Brian was watching television and I was eating. It was a warm day, and Shawn was wearing nothing but running shorts and shoes. “While I was out running,” Shawn told us, “this carload of girls drove past me. They rolled down their window, and one of them shouted, ‘Hey! Do you drink milk? Because it did your body good!’”
I laughed loudly. “That’s great!” I said.
“We need a quote board,” Brian announced. “Like we had at our house last year. And that needs to go on it.”
A week later, I was again eating at the dining room table around the same time of night. Shawn was making something in the kitchen, and Brian had just come downstairs. “So I was reading something the other day about this Christian astrophysicist,” Brian said. “He has this theory that the universe actually has ten dimensions, and we can’t perceive the other seven. He thinks that God and heaven exist in those other dimensions.
“The universe has ten dimensions,” I said. “Let’s see, they are…” I began counting on my fingers. “Length, width, height, time, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.”
“YES!” Brian shouted, laughing. “That’s going on the quote board!” Brian wrote my quote with a black permanent marker, underneath the random girl’s quote about Shawn’s body.
“Is Josh okay?” Shawn asked. “I haven’t seen him all week.”
“I saw him yesterday,” I replied. “He said he had to cover someone’s shift in addition to his usual night shift tonight.”
“That’s cool. Meanwhile,” Shawn explained, “I have an opportunity back home in Ashwood. One of my friends back home is opening a store to sell running shoes, and clothes, and accessories, and I’m gonna be his business partner.”
“Nice,” I said. “So you’re for sure not going into teaching?”
“Nah. I still enjoy the kids, but the master teacher I was working with this year made me realize I just can’t work with people like that. And all my classes and paperwork for teaching are done if I change my mind within the next five years.”
“That’s true,” I said. I wondered if Shawn’s thoughts on this subject would impact my future at all, now that I was considering education as a career option. I hoped that I would not end up with a master teacher that bad. I had been assisting in a math class at Jeromeville High School this quarter, and I really liked the teacher from that class, Mr. O’Rourke.
“And I’m off to New York next year,” Brian said. He had been applying to medical school, and after many rejections and a few waitlists that never materialized, he had been accepted at New York Medical College, in Westchester County just outside of New York City.
Brian and Shawn both went back to their rooms a bit later. I stayed downstairs, because it was Thursday, and I hosted a small group Bible study through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at my apartment; people would be arriving soon. The group had steadily shrank over the course of the year, and one of the leaders had stepped down under mysterious circumstances. There had only been four or five of us for most of this quarter.
Evan Lundgren, the remaining leader, arrived on time and began setting up, getting out his notes and his Bible. “We might have a really small group tonight,” he said. “Jonathan told me he wasn’t coming.”
I nodded. “So do you know who is coming?”
“I know Jill has been really busy with school. And Amy hasn’t been to this group in a while. I haven’t talked to either of them this week.”
“So it might just be us two tonight?”
I sat on the couch, feeling uneasy about a Bible study of two people. Evan did not make me uncomfortable, but I had never been in a Bible study with just me and one other guy. What would we talk about? Who would answer when I did not have a good answer?
“So how are classes going?” Evan asked me.
“Good,” I said. “A lot of work. I’m only taking twelve units, but it feels like the hardest quarter I’ve ever had. The computer science class is so much work, and Foundations of Education is a lot of reading and writing. I’m a math guy; I’m not used to that much reading and writing.”
“Yeah,” Evan chuckled.
“What about your classes?”
“They’re pretty tough, about what I’m used to. I’m taking this Ancient Greek class that’s really hard.”
“Sounds like it.”
Evan and I continued making small talk for another twenty minutes or so. I thought I heard a few cars pull up during that time, but none of their drivers or occupants knocked on my door. “I don’t think anyone else is coming,” Evan said eventually.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I replied. “So what are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know. We could try going through what I had planned, but the discussion wouldn’t work very well with just two of us.”
“Or we could just cancel and hope someone shows up next week. But with everyone busy right now, I don’t know if anyone will show up next week either.”
As I thought about how disappointing this was, a thought came to me. “If you’re gonna cancel, I know Joe Fox and Lorraine’s small group meets at the same time as ours. I might just go check out their group instead.”
“You’re gonna go there tonight?” Evan asked. “Can I come with you?”
Evan and I took two cars to Lorraine’s house, since his apartment was in a different direction from mine. Taking two cars would be easier than having to take Evan back to his car at my apartment.
I had been to this house once before, but no one was supposed to know about that. Shortly after Brian and Shawn and I moved into our apartment, we had pulled a prank here, toilet-papering Lorraine’s yard while she and her friends were home, watching a movie. Brian swore me to secrecy, and I had told no one about that night. About a month ago, I mentioned that night to Brian, and he admitted that he had eventually caved and told Lorraine about his involvement, but he had not implicated me or Shawn. I found it noteworthy that I had not caved and the mastermind of the plan had. I realized as Evan and I walked up to the front door that I had just now told Evan how to get to Lorraine’s house; I hoped that it had not seemed suspicious that I knew this. Evan did not say anything about it. I knew Lorraine and some of her roommates from JCF, so I very well could have hung out there sometime before. Maybe this was not as suspicious as it seemed to me.
I knocked at the door. Lorraine opened the door a few seconds later. “Greg! Evan!” she said. “What’s up?”
“You mind if we join you?” I asked. “Our Thursday Bible study kind of fell apart.”
“Sure! Come on in! What do you mean, fell apart?”
“We’re the only two left,” Evan explained.
Evan and I followed Lorraine back to the circle of about ten people, most of whom I recognized, in the living room. There were no open seats, but some people were sitting on the floor. Evan and I sat on the floor, next to Abby Bartlett and Sean Richards.
I looked over at Abby’s Bible, open to the letter of James, chapter 4. I opened my Bible to the same place and found the verses that the others were discussing. I quickly read the verses to myself, then listened to what others were saying for a while.
“Does anyone else have any thoughts about this verse?” Joe asked. “‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you?’”
“It seems straightforward,” Abby replied. “To get the devil to flee, walk away from tempting situations. Your action of resisting makes the devil flee.”
Your action. Something about Abby’s words stuck in my mind. When I first became more serious about my faith last year, I heard a lot about how I was saved by Jesus’ death on the cross, not through anything I had done. But then I read James at one point, and the verse “faith without works is dead” seemed to contradict the idea of salvation by faith alone. Maybe these concepts were not contradictory after all. I raised my hand. “Yes, Greg?” Joe said.
“There’s that verse earlier in James that says something like ‘faith without works is dead.’ Is that right?”
“James is saying here that if you resist the devil, he will flee from you. You want the devil to flee, but you have to back that up by actively doing something to resist him. That made me think of the other thing, where if you really have faith, it has to be backed up by your actions. That’s what shows that your faith is real.”
“That’s a great point,” Joe said.
“Yeah,” Lorraine agreed. I smiled. Maybe I would fit in with this small group.
As the study continued, I contributed to the discussion a few more times, as did Evan. Evan’s group had become so small that there had not been much discussion the last few weeks. Evan had to do a lot of leading in order for us to make good points. Joe and Lorraine’s group did not seem like that at all; enough people shared openly to keep the discussion going.
After we finished discussing the Scripture, Joe and Lorraine asked for prayer requests. We took turns praying for each other, then a few people went home right away while the rest stayed in Lorraine’s living room to mingle. “Hi,” one guy I did not know said, offering his hand for me to shake. “I’m Dave.”
“I’m Greg,” I replied, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Greg will be one of my housemates for next year,” Sean explained to Dave. I noted in my head that I would be going from sharing the large bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing the large bedroom in a different house with someone named “Sean.” Interesting coincidence, probably meaningless. “What brings you guys here anyway?” Sean asked me. “Looking for a new Bible study?”
“Weren’t you in a Bible study that met at your house?” Abby asked. “I thought that’s what Josh said.” Abby’s boyfriend was Josh, my roommate who was working tonight.
“Evan led that group,” I said. “But the other leader quit, and people stopped coming, and now it’s down to just us. So we came here instead.”
“That makes sense,” Sean replied.
“Greg,” Joe said, walking up to us. “You’re gonna be in my small group next year, right?”
“Great. I’m just trying to figure out how many we’re gonna have. It looks like it’s gonna be a really big small group.”
“That’s kind of an oxymoron.”
“Yeah. But we’ll find a way to make it work. Thanks for coming tonight.”
The next day was Friday, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met in the evening. Janet McAllen, one of the full time staff from JCF, made an announcement at the beginning about small groups for next year. I did not need to sign up for one, since I had already told Joe that I would be in his group.
After the night ended, I stood up and looked around for someone to talk to. A freshman girl named Sadie, whom I had spoken to a few times before, was sitting behind me. “Hey,” I said after she made eye contact with me. She had blue eyes, which contrasted with her medium brown hair.
“Hi!” Sadie replied. “How was your week?”
“It was okay,” I said. I explained to her what happened last night with Evan’s disappearing small group, then asked, “Do you have a small group for next year?”
“Yeah! I’m gonna be in one of those groups to train future leaders, with that Greek name. I don’t remember what it’s called.”
“Yeah! That’s it.”
“I really don’t like the way they’re doing small groups. Kairos groups are invitation only, and I was never invited to be in one, and there’s gonna be something like five of them next year. And next year there are two groups just for women, and two groups just for transfer students, and one group just for Filipino students, and it feels like I don’t fit into any of those categories. There’s only one group left for the rest of us living off campus, Joe Fox and Lydia Tyler are leading that, and Joe said it’s gonna be huge. Hopefully someone will learn from that, and they’ll stop making all the groups so specific.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Sadie said.
“And something just feels wrong about that Filipino group. Next thing you know, they’ll have separate groups for Black students, and White students, and Latinos. The people who claim to be against racism seem to want to segregate people the most.”
“I know! It’s so messed up! Last summer, someone campaigning against that initiative to end affirmative action showed up at our doorstep, and my dad went off on him! Pretty sure they’re not gonna send anyone to our door ever again.”
“Good! I mean, yes, racism is an ugly part of our history, but more segregation isn’t the answer, and neither is turning it around and being racist against white people. That just creates more division, which is the last thing this world needs.”
“I saw graffiti on campus last year that said, ‘Initiative 119 = Genocide.’ How is it that the people who claim not to be racist believe that some races will die without special favors from the government?”
“Wow,” Sadie said, shaking her head.
“I’ve told people that I’m glad I didn’t do more research on Jeromeville before I came here, because if I had known how liberal it was here, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else, and I never would have met my friends here.”
“I feel the same way! But God puts us places for a reason, right?”
“Exactly,” I said. “How was your week?”
“Great! I found out I got picked to write for the Daily Colt next year!”
“Yeah! I was really hoping I’d get that.”
“What are you up to tonight?”
“I need to get home and go to bed. I have a lot of studying to do.”
I took a deep breath. That conversation could have gone badly, considering how controversial issues of race can be, but now I knew that Sadie was a safe person with whom to share my conservative leanings. It was nice having outspoken conservative friends here at a liberal secular university. I was glad she would be writing for the school newspaper next year; they definitely needed more conservatives on their staff.
Evan and I attended Joe and Lorraine’s Bible study for two more weeks. After that was the final week of classes for the year, and Evan was able to get Jonathan, Amy, and Jill to join us one more time for an end-of-year potluck. We just hung out that night and did not do any actual Bible study. Five people still seemed small compared to the ten or so that our small group had at the beginning of the year, but it was good to see the others again.
I expressed my concerns about the niche-specific small groups with several people in leadership roles with JCF. Typically, these people would respond defending the niche groups, since different people in those categories have different backgrounds that affect their spiritual walk differently. That may be the case, but I felt left out, and that I knew there were others who did not fit into the categories that the small group leaders had chosen to cater to. The others would tell me that I had nothing to worry about, because Joe and Lydia were leading a group open to all. I eventually gave up trying to have this discussion; I would just wait until next year and let these people see for themselves how unmanageably large Joe and Lydia’s group would be, because of JCF’s poor choices about running a small group ministry.
Despite all my complaints about JCF’s small groups, I was not planning on leaving the group. These people were my friends and my spiritual mentors. I tried out a new group a few times earlier this year, and I had made some new friends there. I went back to JCF, though, because I did not want to spread myself too thin and be involved in too many different things. I had a group for next year, and hopefully the small group ministry would change from the inside when people saw that the current methods were not working. I did correctly predict the eventual fragmentation of JCF into groups for specific cultures, but that happened many years later, and that is not a story for now.
Author’s note: Happy Easter/Resurrection Day! Jesus is risen!
Have you ever been part of a group that just kept getting smaller? What kind of group was it, and what happened to your group? Tell me about it in the comments.
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“So my cousin is getting married on the beach this summer,” Lars said in his usual boisterous voice as he adjusted the heights of the microphones at the front of 170 Evans Hall. “She wants everyone to wear beach clothes. That just seems weird for a wedding.”
“Yeah,” Tabitha said as she plucked strings on her guitar, paying attention to a battery-operated tuner and tightening or loosening the strings accordingly. “You don’t wear beach clothes to a wedding.”
As the worship team’s roadie, I arrived early each week to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, to help Lars, Tabitha, Brent, and the others on the worship band set up their equipment. I got this position by virtue of having a big car, a 1989 Ford Bronco, that could fit a lot of instruments and amplifiers in the back. We used to pull my car right up to the building, someone told me at the beginning of the year that it would be okay, but a few weeks ago I got a a parking ticket for having done so. Since then, I had parked in the nearest legal space, about two hundred feet away, and we had had to carry the music equipment a much farther distance. I felt annoyed every time I drove into that parking lot and paid two dollars for evening parking, because it reminded me of the time I got a ticket, so far the only ticket I had ever received.
“So are you gonna wear shorts and flip-flops to the wedding?” Brent asked.
“I don’t know,” Lars replied.
“I’m gonna ask people to wear jackets to my wedding,” I said. Brent, Lars, and Tabitha looked at me confused. “Because hell will have frozen over if I ever get married.”
After a second, the others chuckled and groaned. “Come on, dude,” Lars said. “Don’t say that.” I shrugged. These days, it certainly did feel like I would never meet anyone special. It had been five months since Haley Channing rejected me, and nothing had happened to give me hope that things would change any time soon. I had great friends, I was enjoying being a youth group leader at church, but I had not met any girls who seemed interested in me that way. The University of Jeromeville was full of cute girls; they either did not like me back, or they already had boyfriends. I saw graffiti on a bathroom wall a few days ago that said, “Jeromeville girls are like parking spaces: the good ones are either taken or handicapped.” I had never before resonated so well with bathroom graffiti.
A few hours later, after JCF ended, I was helping the worship band unload equipment to its usual storage place, Lars’ garage on J Street. Tabitha said, “Are you guys going to Dave and Janet’s tonight? They’re gonna hang out and play games.”
“I’m going,” Brent replied.
“I hadn’t heard,” I said. “But that sounds like fun. Sure, I’m in.”
“I think I’ll pass,” Lars added. “I need to be up early tomorrow. Gonna go to the Great Blue Lake with Armando for the day.”
“That sounds like fun!” I said. The Great Blue Lake attracted tourists from around the world. I was about a hundred miles away, and I had never been there or seen it. Hopefully someday.
“It looks like we’re done,” Tabitha said, looking at everything in the garage. “I’m gonna head to Dave and Janet’s now. Greg, you’re coming?”
“Sure. But I’m gonna go in and use the bathroom first.”
“All right. See you there!”
Dave and Janet McAllen were older than me, around thirtyish. They worked in full-time ministry as the lead staff of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, overseeing the campus group along with a few other recent graduates who were paid part time. In addition to their duties as leaders of an organization, part of their job also involved building relationships with university students, as a way to create a welcoming organization where students could learn about Christianity and Jesus Christ.
I talked to Xander, one of Lars’ housemates, for a few minutes before I left, then I drove to the McAllens’ house on West 15th Street. It was almost ten o’clock by the time I finally got there. I walked to the door and knocked.
After almost a minute, someone opened the door, but it was not either of the McAllens, or Tabitha, or Brent. A freshman girl named Carrie Valentine stood on the other side of the door, wearing blue denim overalls with a light purple shirt underneath. Carrie was somewhat tall, with straight brown hair extending a little past her shoulders and dark brown eyes that smiled at me. I had met Carrie a few times before, but I had not talked to her much. Music played faintly in the background.
“Hi, Greg!” Carrie said, smiling. “Come on in!”
The McAllens lived in half of a duplex with roommates, including Cheryl who was also on JCF staff; this house was commonly referred to as the Staff House by JCF students. The front door opened into a hallway, with bedrooms on the left and the living area to the right. I followed Carrie toward the living room and kitchen and looked around. The music was coming from a stereo in the living room, playing a local radio station. The house appeared empty except for Carrie and me, which surprised me. I was under the impression that a large group of people would be there. Tabitha and Brent had left Lars’ house about five minutes before me, and many others had left JCF earlier and not had to unpack music equipment. Surely they should be here by now. “Where is everyone?” I asked.
“They walked to the store to get snacks,” Carrie explained. “They just left a minute ago. I said I’d stay back in case anyone else showed up.”
“That makes sense,” I replied. “So how’s your quarter going?”
“Hard! But it’s good. I’m taking this really fun class for my major.”
“What is your major?”
“That’s cool,” I said. Carrie was the first design major I had ever met, and I was not sure exactly what that was, other than that it probably involved designing things.
“What about you?” Carrie asked. “What’s your major?”
“Eww. I was never very good at math. I take it you are?”
“Yeah. It just makes sense to me.”
“Do you know what you want to do with your major?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I said. “I always thought I didn’t want to be a teacher, but one of my professors thinks I would make a good teacher, so he set me up with an internship helping out in a high school class. I’m doing that this quarter”
“That sounds so cool! What’s it like?”
“It’s been good so far. I’m just walking around helping students when they have questions. And I’m taking notes on how the teacher teaches, because I’ll have to write a short paper at the end of the year.”
“So do you think you want to be a teacher now?”
“I don’t know. I want to look into all the options. Another professor told me about these summer research internships that other schools offer, and students from anywhere in the country can apply to, where you do research in small groups with a professor supervising.”
“So, like, math research? How does that work?”
“Proving new theorems and stuff like that, I think,” I explained. “I’ll find out. I’ll be going to Oregon for eight weeks this summer. I applied to four of these programs, I got into two of them, and I chose the one at Grandvale State University because it’s closer. And also my great-aunt and uncle live nearby.”
“That’s so cool! Oregon is nice. Are you excited?”
“I am. I’ve been to Oregon twice before, but I haven’t been to Grandvale specifically. It’ll be nice to be somewhere new. And it’ll be nice to learn more about what grad school in math will be like, to know whether or not that’s what I want to do.”
“Do you know what you want to do with your design degree?”
“Interior design,” Carrie answered. “I’ve always been interested in how other people’s houses look.”
“That’s cool. I’ve never really thought about what kind of education goes into that.”
I was vaguely aware of the music still playing in the background. The song on the radio changed to a familiar-sounding song that opened with a guitar, strumming back and forth between two chords, including a note that did not usually harmonize with the other notes in those chords. A female voice began singing. Whatever this song was, I knew I had heard it before, but not in some time. “Eww, I hate this song,” Carrie said.
“What is it?” I asked. “I know I’ve heard it before, but I can’t place it.”
“‘Here’s Where The Story Ends,’ by the Sundays. Something about it just always bothered me. I can’t really explain it.”
Right after I heard Carrie name the song, I heard the girl on the radio, who I would learn years later was named Harriet Wheeler, sing the line containing the title, followed by the line “It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year.” “Okay, I remember the song now,” I said. This part sounds familiar.”
“I never liked her voice. And I could never tell what she was saying. It sounded like ‘telephone ear’ to me.”
“Telephone ear,” I said. “That’s a good one. What is she saying, anyway? ‘Terrible year?’”
“I think that’s it. Seriously, do you mind if I turn it off? I really don’t like it.”
“Okay,” I said, although now that I recognized the song, I realized that I never particularly disliked it. It was kind of catchy. Carrie turned the music off entirely. “What about you?” I asked. “Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”
“Just going home. Probably getting a job.”
“Where are you from?”
“Westridge. It’s between Bay City and San Tomas.”
“Oh, yeah, I kind of know where that is.”
“Nothing exciting like you going to Oregon, though.”
“Thanks! I hope it’s exciting. I’m kind of nervous, too.”
“Just because it’s something new. And I’ve made a lot of new friends here this year, and I won’t be around them.”
“Yeah. But you’ll make new friends there, right?”
“I hope so.”
I heard a knock at the door a minute later. “Come in!” Carrie called out. Todd Chevallier and Ajeet Tripathi walked in. Carrie said hello to them, and as all of them started talking, I felt a bit of disappointment that my time to talk to Carrie alone was over. A minute later, Dave and Janet McAllen, Cheryl, Tabitha, and several others returned carrying grocery bags full of snacks.
“We’re back,” Dave said as the group sat in the living room. “Hey, Greg,” he said, noticing that new people had arrived. “Ajeet. Todd.’
“Hi,” I said.
“So I was thinking, maybe, let’s play Pictionary first?” Janet suggested. That’s a fun, easy game. And then we can play something else later if we get tired of that.” People responded in the affirmative. Janet got the Pictionary box and placed it on the coffee table. “I need to go find pencils and scratch paper,” she said. “You guys divide into teams.”
Pictionary was a fairly simple party game in which one player would have to draw something, silently, without speaking or writing words, and that player’s teammates would have to guess what was being drawn in a certain amount of time. I looked at Carrie, since she was still standing next to me, at the same time that Tabitha and Brent looked at us. “We’re a team?” Tabitha suggested, pointing at the four of us.
“Sure,” I replied, nodding.
After Janet finished setting up the game, we rolled the die to see who would go first. The team consisting of Dave, Eddie Baker, Autumn Davies, and a freshman girl whom I had not met went first. Dave drew a stick figure with a very prominent ear; he kept circling the ear and pointing. “Ear! Earring! Ear wax! Eardrum!” others on his team shouted; none was correct. Time ran out, and Dave’s team did not get to advance on the board.
“Earlobe!” Dave said. “Come on!”
“Oh,” Autumn replied. “It looked like he was wearing hoop earrings!”
“It’s our turn,” Tabitha said. “Who’s gonna draw for us?”
We all looked at each other. Carrie’s deep brown eyes met mine, and I looked away quickly. “I’ll draw,” I said, almost immediately wondering if I would regret having spoken up. I took the pencil, drew a card, and silently read the word I had to draw. Sheep.
Brent turned the timer over, and I drew a circle for the head, then a fluffy body. “Cloud,” Brent said. As soon as I put four legs on the fluffy body, Carrie shouted, “Sheep!”
“Yes!” I said. Carrie smiled excitedly, and I gave her a high five.
“How did you two get that so fast?” Tabitha asked.
“It’s clearly a sheep!” Carrie explained, gesturing excitedly to the drawing. “It’s got all the wool, all curly like this, and it has legs!”
“Thank you!” I said, smiling. Carrie smiled back. I rolled 5 on the die and moved our piece ahead five spaces. Pictionary was not normally my best game, but our team worked together unusually well that night, and we ended up winning.
A few people left after we finished Pictionary, and not too long after that, Carrie said that she was leaving too. “I have a lot of homework to do tomorrow, and I don’t want to be up too late,” she said. “It’s already almost midnight.”
“Good luck with that,” I replied. “It was good talking to you earlier.”
“Yeah!” Carrie replied, smiling. “I’ll see you before you leave, but I hope you enjoy Oregon!”
“Thanks.” I smiled back. “Have a good weekend!”
I stayed at Dave and Janet’s house for a while after Carrie left. Janet asked me what Carrie meant when she mentioned Oregon, so I explained about my internship to the others. I had mentioned to some of them that I was applying to these programs, but I had not told everyone that I had been accepted.
Several of the people at the party would be going to China for a month this summer, on a mission trip sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. Someone asked how fundraising was going. I had received several prayer letters about this trip over the last few weeks, from many of the students going on the trip; since I knew all of them, I made one lump sum donation of $118.24. In the memo line of the check, I had written, “This is the day the Lord has made. Psalm 118:24.”
“It’s funny, Greg,” Eddie said. “At the last meeting for the China trip, we were going over fundraising totals, and every time we look at the numbers, it’s always, like, whatever dollars, and twenty-four cents.”
“Because of me,” I said, laughing.
“Yeah. I’ve never seen anyone do that before, with the Bible verse.”
“It just came to me. I was trying to decide how much to give, and I had read that verse recently.”
“That’s cool. That’s why you’re a math guy, always seeing numbers.”
I eventually said goodbye to everyone and left the party around 12:30; things seemed to be winding down by then. I had a midterm in my computer science class Monday that I needed to study for at some point over the weekend. I had the radio playing as I was driving home, but as I lay in bed, the song playing in my mind was Here’s Where The Story Ends, not anything I had heard on the drive home. I did not know every word and every sound of the song, so the same few lines I did know, like the part about the terrible year, kept playing over and over in my head. I kind of wanted to hate the song now that I knew Carrie hated the song, but I also found it too catchy to hate that much.
A lot of great things had happened this school year, but it also felt like a terrible year in some ways. Haley had rejected me, I had often been left out of the cliques at JCF, and I had come to realize that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my mathematics degree. But maybe things were turning around. I had been invited to hang out with those people tonight, so I was not completely on the outside. I was exploring options for my career. I was making new friends in different places, and maybe one of these new connections would lead to something special. Maybe it would involve Carrie. Maybe here was not where the story ends; maybe here was where the new story begins. Maybe this was not such a terrible year. Or not such a telephone ear, whatever that means.
Author’s note: What’s a song you absolutely can’t stand?
I’m not going to name mine, but I will say that there is a certain band that was very popular during the time in which DLTDGB is set which I have never mentioned once in any episode, because I really can’t stand them. I feel like their lack of existence makes DLTDGB a little inauthentic, but I justify it by saying that DLTDGB takes place in an alternate universe where this band never made it big.
The Internet was a much simpler place in 1997. For one thing, the Internet was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream and had not yet taken over every aspect of everyone’s lives. Also, most network communication was done through dial-up modems and telephone lines, which did not transfer data fast enough to make videos, high-quality sound, and large numbers of photos feasible for everyday Internet usage.
In the days before profile pictures, people would personalize their Internet experiences with email signatures. People still do this in business today, where they will end every email with their name, job title, phone extension, and website. But back in 1997, some people would add a signature to their personal email, featuring a sentence about themselves or their favorite quotes.
My email signature was usually a Bible verse, and I would change it every few months as I discovered new verses that spoke to me. Last quarter at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, Janet had delivered a talk about being patient in romantic relationships, and seeking God’s will in that. Janet organized her talk around the verse that appears three times in the Song of Solomon: “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”
I wanted a girlfriend badly, but I knew that seeking God’s will and not rushing in would be best in the long run. My recent attempts to get to know cute girls better had all ended in failure, so that talk felt like exactly what I needed to hear. I made that verse my email signature, not realizing the unintended consequences that doing so would bring.
I had been volunteering with the junior high school youth group at my church for a couple months. Last week at youth group, I was talking with Danny Foster, one of the boys I knew fairly well, telling him about Dog Crap & Vince, a silly web comic I started drawing last year. I sent him the link to my website in an email, and my email software automatically attached that Bible verse to the end, as it did with all emails.
The following Sunday, Danny sat next to me at church. As I was listening to the announcements at the beginning of the service, Danny nudged me to get my attention. He held an open Bible, and he was pointing at something inside. I read the verse he was pointing to, Song of Solomon 4:5: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.” Danny looked at me and giggled; I smiled and nodded before turning my attention back to the announcements.
“Shh,” I whispered to Danny.
Later, a few minutes into the sermon, Danny nudged me again. He was giggling, just like last time, but now he was pointing to Song of Solomon 7:7: “Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.” A few minutes later, Danny did the same thing, pointing to Song of Solomon 8:8: “We have a young sister, and her breasts are not yet grown.” Danny did have a sister, Erica, and her breasts were smaller than average, but she was older than him. I tried to suppress laughter as I pictured Erica Foster as the young sister in Song of Solomon 8:8.
The Song of Solomon describes love in a way that includes some very colorfully descriptive language of the bodies of the two lovers and the interactions between them. It is also often said to be a metaphor for God’s love for his people and Jesus Christ’s love for the Church. After the service ended, after Danny had pointed out a few other instances of the word, I asked him if this was the first time he had read Song of Solomon.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I looked up the verse you quoted in your email.”
I was suddenly horrified to realize that I had been the cause of Danny’s distraction at church today. Danny had taken it upon himself to look up a verse in the Bible, to read the Word of God, and to me, as a youth group leader, this should feel like a major victory. But I had inadvertently led Danny directly to the one part of the Bible that would make any boy in his early teens think of things that were anything but Godly. But the Song of Solomon was still part of God’s Word, and hopefully Danny would understand it eventually.
As I left, Noah, one of the other junior high group leaders, pulled me aside. “What are you doing tonight?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“It’s Erica Foster’s 18th birthday. We’re gonna prank her room tonight. She’ll be at church for teen choir practice, then high school group. Are you in?”
“Sure,” I said. I always loved a good prank. “Do I need to bring anything?”
“Bring some toilet paper.”
“I will! I’ll see you then!”
I pulled up to the Fosters’ house in west Jeromeville a little after six o’clock. I had been here a couple times before, hanging out with Danny and his friends after church and dropping him off. Erica was the youngest member of the junior high youth staff. She was graduating from Jeromeville High School this year, and she had told me that she was going to stay home and attend the University of Jeromeville next year.
The teen choir and high school youth group both met on Sunday nights, so Erica had been at church since five o’clock and would not be home until close to nine at the earliest. This gave us well over two hours to work safely; we probably would not need that much time. I knocked on the front door with one hand, precariously holding a large case of toilet paper in the other. Mrs. Foster opened the door. “Hi, Greg,” she said. “They’re in Erica’s room. Down that hall, last door on the right.”
“Looks like you’ve got a lot planned.”
“I didn’t make the plans. They just told me to bring toilet paper.”
As I turned toward the hallway, I saw Danny in the living room, playing a Nintendo 64 game I did not recognize. “Greg!” he said. “This is gonna be so cool. My sister doesn’t suspect anything.”
“Good!” I said, continuing down the hall as Danny turned his attention back to his game. Noah Snyder and Martin Rhodes were already in Erica’s room when I got there. “Hey, Greg,” Noah said. “Good, you brought more toilet paper.” Noah motioned for me to put it next to the toilet paper he already brought, about twice as much as what I had. It seemed like an excessive amount of toilet paper to decorate one bedroom, but when performing a prank of this magnitude, you can never have enough toilet paper.
Erica’s room appeared to have been the master bedroom of this house at some point, since it had an attached bathroom. I had been inside this house before, and the house appeared to have been added onto at some point in the past. The addition probably included a larger master bedroom for Mr. and Mrs. Foster, so Erica, as the oldest child, got the next largest bedroom, which also had an attached bathroom.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked.
“We’re gonna wait for Courtney and Brody,” Noah explained. “They’ll be here in a few minutes. But we’re definitely gonna TP this room as much as we can.”
“I also said we should take some piece of furniture and put it in the shower,” Martin suggested. “Like that file cabinet over there.”
“That’s awesome,” I said.
Brody and Courtney walked in just then, both sipping on fruit smoothies in plastic foam cups from a smoothie place downtown called Green Earth, giggling about something. I noted the irony of a place with an environmentally friendly sounding name using plastic foam cups. I also noticed that Courtney and Brody looked very much like a couple. I had been trying to figure out for months if those two were romantically involved, and lately it had seemed very obvious that they were. Courtney was really pretty, with long blonde hair, but I had not attempted to get to know her better as a love interest. In the fall, she and Mike Knepper had been spending a lot of time together, and I did not want to compete. I did not know that Mike was out of the picture, though, until the last couple months when I had seen Courtney and Brody together often.
“Hey, Brody,” Martin said. “Can you help me carry this file cabinet into the shower?”
“Sure,” Brody replied, laughing. “Why?”
“No reason.” Martin and Brody lifted Erica’s file cabinet and began carrying it carefully into the bathroom. Courtney and Noah had opened the toilet paper; I helped them string it through the curtain rod up and down the wall. Since I was tall, they kept handing me rolls of toilet paper to attach to things on high shelves, so that toilet paper ran across the room several feet off the ground, like streamers at a party. I used tape to anchor the toilet paper to high spots on the wall a few times.
I went to look at the file cabinet in the shower. A set of Magnetic Poetry, small magnets with words on them that could be rearranged into abstract poetry, was stuck to the cabinet. I had seen these before on others’ refrigerators. I looked to see if I could spell anything funny. Some magnets only had prefixes and suffixes, like “er,” “s,” and “ing,” intended to be added to existing words. I put the word “I” next to “er,” then found “can,” intending to cover the N in “can” with the next word, so that those three magnets would spell “Erica.” “Smell” was the first funny verb I found. After a couple minutes, I arranged the magnets to spell “er-I-ca-smell-s-like-puppy-tongue.” I was not sure what it meant that Erica smelled like puppy tongue, but I did not have a great selection of words to choose from.
“We should do something with these stuffed animals,” Noah said as I walked back to the bedroom. I was a little surprised to see stuffed animals in Erica’s room; most of my friends did not bring their stuffed animals to college. But Erica was still in high school, for another month or so, and still in her childhood bedroom at her family’s house, so it made sense that she would have stuffed animals.
Brody carefully stepped around the toilet paper, ducking so as not to make it fall to the ground. He picked up a stuffed bear and put a strip of masking tape over its mouth, then bound its wrists behind its back with masking tape. “That’s perfect,” I said as Brody taped the bear’s ankles together. I took an oversized stuffed mouse and taped it to the underside of a shelf that stuck out from the wall several feet from the ground; I had to use a lot of tape to get it to stay.
“There’s a bunch of empty plastic water bottles over here,” Martin observed from across the room. “Like thirty of them. Is she saving them or keeping them to throw away, for recycling?”
“I don’t care,” Brody replied. “But you should totally fill them up.”
“Great! I’m on it.” Martin carried the entire pile of water bottles into the bathroom; it took him three trips. I repeatedly heard water turn on and off for the next several minutes.
“Hey, Greg?” Courtney said. “Can you tape this toilet paper to the ceiling? You’re tall.”
“Sure,” I said. After doing that, I handed the toilet paper back to Courtney, who weaved it between other elevated strands of toilet paper. It was becoming very difficult to walk in here as we covered everything in toilet paper.
I heard a noise, a clear note, as if someone was blowing into a musical instrument. I looked up to see Brody playing a round pitch pipe, the harmonica-like device used by vocalists to determine what note to begin singing. He blew into the holes for several different notes, then stuck the entire pitch pipe in his mouth. I took a picture of Brody with the pitch pipe completely in his mouth. “Someone should show that picture to Erica in a few months, after she’s used the pitch pipe many more times,” I said.
“Eww!” Courtney replied as everyone laughed.
I continued using masking tape and duct tape to bind and gag some of the stuffed animals and tape others to the wall and to furniture. Martin finished filling the water bottles, reentering the bedroom just as Noah, Courtney, and Brody finished stringing the last of the toilet paper across Erica’s furniture.
“Dude,” Brody said, pointing at a telephone and answering machine. “We should leave a greeting on here.”
“Yeah!” Courtney said. “And then call her from a different phone and leave a message with all of us wishing her happy birthday!”
“Yes!” Noah replied. Apparently Erica had her own phone in her room, separate from the phone line for the rest of the house. Lucky. I wanted that so badly when I was that age. I wanted to talk to friends from school, particularly girls, without worrying about my parents eavesdropping or wondering who was calling me and making a big deal of it. Mom always said no, that I rarely talked on the phone anyway, so it was pointless to spend money on a second phone line. I made the counterargument that I would use the phone more if I had that kind of privacy, but this did not win over my parents.
“We should record ourselves singing something weird, and use that as the greeting that people hear when they call Erica,” Martin suggested.
“What song?” Noah asked.
I tried to think of a song, but nothing came to mind. After a few seconds, Brody said, “I don’t know why, but I keep thinking ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.’”
“Let’s do it,” Martin said, laughing.
Brody walked over to the answering machine and looked at it, trying to figure out how to record a new greeting. “I think this is it,” he said, pressing a button. After the machine beeped and clicked, he announced, in a deadpan tone more exaggerated than his usual voice, “Hi. You’ve reached Erica’s phone. Leave a message.” Brody then motioned for us to start singing. Everyone looked around, not sure what to do; Courtney started laughing after a few seconds.
“You’re supposed to start singing!” Brody said. He recorded his announcement again, and when it was time to sing, everyone paused again. “You never close your eyes anymore,” Brody began singing.
“When I kiss your lips,” Martin joined in. The rest of us all looked at each other, and Courtney started giggling again. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was an old song, originally released in 1964 by the Righteous Brothers. Daryl Hall and John Oates famously covered the song in 1980, early in my childhood. I had heard the song before, but I only knew the chorus; apparently there was a verse before that, which Brody and Martin were singing now. Brody sighed, stopped the recording, and reminded us all of the lyrics. I did not know the tune of the verse, but I had a feeling that singing the wrong tune would be just fine for our current purposes.
I suddenly had an idea. “Before we all start singing, you should play a note on the pitch pipe,” I told Brody. “Like we’re a real choir or something.”
“Yes! I like it!” Brody pressed Record one more time, then announced, “You’ve reached Erica’s phone. Leave a message.” Brody then played a note on the pitch pipe, nowhere close to the actual note we started singing. The five of us began singing the verse to You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’; I sang quietly, since I did not know it well. But by the chorus, I belted it out along with everyone else. “You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, whoa that lovin’ feelin’, you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, now it’s gone, gone, gone, whoa-oh…” we sang.
Brody stopped the recording at that point. “I think that’s good,” he said. “Besides, we need to finish up soon, so we can get out of here in plenty of time before Erica gets home. Let’s go call her from the house phone.”
The five of us stepped carefully through the intricate web of toilet paper and walked down the hallway to the living room, where Mrs. Foster was loading the dishwasher. Brody picked up the telephone in the refrigerator and called Erica’s number; we could hear Erica’s phone ringing down the hall. After four rings, we heard ourselves singing, all five of us snickered quietly. After the beep, we all shouted into the phone, “Happy birthday, Erica!” Brody hung up.
“I heard you guys singing in there,” Mrs. Foster said. “She’ll love that.”
“Don’t tell her we changed the greeting,” I said. “She can discover that for herself.”
“Okay.” Mrs. Foster chuckled.
“Thanks for letting us do this,” Noah said.
“No problem. You guys have a good week. Drive safely.”
“We will,” I replied.
My first class the next morning, Mathematics 197, was not a class at all; I was assisting in a precalculus class at Jeromeville High School, in order to get a feel for whether or not teaching high school was a viable career option for me. After this class, I walked past Erica’s locker on the way to where my bike was parked, and Erica was usually there. Today, when she saw me, I waved, and she started laughing.
“I can’t believe what you guys did to my room last night,” she said. “That was hilarious!”
“Thanks,” I replied, chuckling. “Happy birthday.”
“What happened?” asked one of Erica’s friends standing next to her.”
“My friends from church decorated my room for my birthday,” Erica explained. “They filled up all my water bottles!”
“All those water bottles?” the other girl asked. “That must have taken forever!”
“Someone else did that while I was working on the toilet paper,” I said.
“And those poor stuffed animals!” Erica exclaimed. “I’m just going to leave them like that for a while. How did you get the file cabinet in the shower? That thing is heavy!”
“It took two people.”
“And I guess someone called me right after you left, before I got home. She left a message, laughing, and she said, who was that singing? I didn’t know what she was talking about until I called her back, and then I played your greeting. That was great! I’m gonna leave it like that for a while.”
“Perfect,” I said, laughing.
“I need to get to class. But thanks again for all the laughs.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I hope you had a great birthday! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes! Have a good one!”
Being a youth group leader had the obvious benefit of getting to be part of the lives of the children in the group. But, at least in the case of our group at Jeromeville Covenant Church specifically, the youth leaders all seemed to be close friends with each other. I had only been part of this group for a few months, but so far they had all welcomed me with metaphorical open arms.
I arrived on the UJ campus a few minutes after I left the high school, still thinking about my different overlapping circles of friends. On the periphery, I had my friends from the freshman dorm and people I knew from classes. My friends from church and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship formed a closer circle, with a few people in closer circles. I felt like the other youth leaders from church were now becoming one of those closer circles. Erica would be graduating from Jeromeville High this year, but staying in Jeromeville and attending UJ next year. I was glad she was in my circle, and I was glad I had finally found a specific ministry to be involved with.
Readers: Tell me about a prank you’ve been part of, either as the one pulling the prank or as the victim.
If you’re curious about how all these people are connected, or if you just like following every little detail of the story, I updated the Dramatis Personae. I’ve been way behind on that; there have been a lot of new characters, or characters taking on bigger roles, since the last update. I added entries for Ajeet, Autumn, Brody, Cambria, Courtney, Erica, Evan, James, Lars, and Dr. Samuels, and removed some from characters who are not important parts of the story anymore.
If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.
Also remember to check out my other projects: Greg Out Of Character – a personal blog where I post every once in a while Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64 – music every day, from many different genres and eras Cow Chip & Lance – a project by some friends of mine that was the inspiration for “Dog Crap & Vince,” mentioned in this episode. There hasn’t been much new content in a while.
I was confused when I heard the knock at the door. It was 8:41 in the morning on a Saturday. I was not expecting a guest, and none of my roommates seemed to be home. I opened the door a crack and saw Jane and Darrell Lusk, my aunt and uncle. I knew they would be in Jeromeville today, so it was not entirely surprising that they would come to my apartment, although I thought the plan was to meet them later.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hi, Greg!” Aunt Jane replied, giving me a hug. Uncle Darrell vigorously shook my hand with a tight grip.
“How was your trip?” I asked. “I thought I was going to meet you later, at the track.”
“We were,” Aunt Jane explained. “But we got off the freeway, and we saw the sign for Maple Drive, so we came by the apartment. Your mother wouldn’t have let me hear the end of it if she found out we saw Maple Drive and didn’t come by your apartment.”
“Good point,” I said.
“We should have gotten off on the exit before, not on Fifth Street,” Uncle Darrell added. “I asked, ‘What’s Greg’s address on Maple Drive?’ and she said, ‘2601.’ I’m looking around, and all the addresses are in the five hundreds, and I go, ‘We’ll be driving for a while.’ Your aunt never was good with directions.”
“I didn’t know we’d be coming here!” Aunt Jane retorted. “I was going straight to the track.”
“Aunt Jane is right,” I said. “You should have taken Fifth if you were going to campus.”
“See?” Aunt Jane said. “Anyway, how are you?”
“I’m good. Just doing school. I’m going to have a lot of work to do tomorrow, since I’ll be at the Spring Picnic most of the day.”
“Yeah! I didn’t know you were having a picnic! Rick told me something about it when he called from the hotel last night.”
“Yes! The annual Spring Picnic is more than just a picnic. It started early in UJ’s history, when there were only a hundred students here, and they had a picnic to share their research for the year. But now it’s grown into a huge festival with all kinds of exhibits and activities and performances.”
“I’ll be walking around campus all day, checking stuff out. What time is Rick running?”
“His first race is the 400, that starts at 1, and then he’ll be in the 4-by-100 relay at 2:30.”
“Sounds good. I’ll head over to the track by 1.”
“Great! We’ll see you there! And now I can tell your mother I saw the apartment.”
“Yeah. See you in a while!”
One noteworthy thing about the University of Jeromeville’s annual Spring Picnic is that, with so much going on simultaneously, it is not possible to see everything every year. Although it would be nice to see everything, there are always new things to see every year.
One Spring Picnic event that I had never been to was the Track & Field Invitational. This was a regular track meet, attended by athletes from a number of different university track and field teams, but it was always scheduled to coincide with the Spring Picnic. North Coast State University was one of the other schools competing at the Invitational. Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell’s son, Rick, was a freshman at North Coast State, on their track team, so I knew that the Lusks would be in Jeromeville today.
I parked my bike on campus around 9:30, near Wellington Hall on the west side of the Quad, and sat on the street reading the program of events as I waited for the parade to start. While I waited, I read through the program of events. I knew that two events from previous years were disappointingly missing from this year’s Spring Picnic. Given Jeromeville’s agricultural past, and the fascination people have with weird things, one of the most popular events at past Spring Picnics was the fistulated cow. For research purposes, cows can be fitted with a fistula, an opening connecting the stomach to the outside, so that the cow’s stomach contents can be analyzed. For years, thousands of people lined up for an exhibit where they could stick their gloved hands into a cow’s stomach and look at its contents. I walked past the line freshman year and decided it was not worth the wait, and that I would plan ahead and stick my hand in a cow some other year.
But then, a few months ago, animal rights activists got involved, and the department that ran the fistulated cow exhibit announced that they were removing it from the Spring Picnic program this year. This seemed to me the most disappointing and least fun way to handle the issue. The fistulated cow still existed, it is not possible to unfistulate a cow, and the university would still be conducting research on the contents of the fistulated cow’s stomach. So, if the university was not going to cave all the way to the animal rights activists and stop doing fistulated cow research, why bother ending the exhibit? I never did get to stick my hand in a cow’s stomach, something I still regret to this day.
Also missing from this year’s program was the band Lawsuit. A couple months into freshman year, I met this cute sophomore girl named Megan McCauley, whom I very much wanted to get to know better. Later that year, a few days before Spring Picnic freshman year, Megan told me about this band called Lawsuit that would be performing. Their show blew me away. Lawsuit was like no other band I had ever heard, a mix of rock, reggae, jazz, and something that Megan called “ska,” the first time I had ever heard that word. I saw Lawsuit three more times, signing up for their mailing list, where I would get a postcard in the mail every month telling about upcoming shows. They broke up a few months ago, with their last show being on New Year’s Eve, when I had already made plans in another state. Since my first memory of Lawsuit was tied to Spring Picnic, I expected this year’s event to feel incomplete without seeing Lawsuit.
I looked through the program, trying to figure out what I had time to see. The Chemistry Club did a popular show every year with flashy chemistry demonstrations. And right near there, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student club would be making ice cream using liquid nitrogen. Both of those sounded worth checking out.
There was nothing in the parade that I was waiting for in particular. I watched various student and community groups pass by slowly. I waved to local politicians, I heard marching bands, I saw floats. After about an hour, a little more than halfway through the parade, I got bored and headed toward the chemistry building. A long line of people was entering the building, and I could see that they held tickets. Presumably these people were being let in for the 11:00 show.
“Are there tickets left for the 12:00 show?” I asked someone at a table near the entrance.
“We’re all out,” he replied. “We ran out quite a while ago for all of the shows.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll have to remember to get here early next year. I’ve never been to this before, and I’ve heard it’s really good.”
“Yeah. That sounds like a good idea.”
With the chemistry show out of the question, I walked around the corner of the chemistry building, toward Ross Hall and Baynes Hall, where the chemical engineers had set up their liquid nitrogen ice cream. Two long lines of about fifty people each snaked toward me. I was not excited about more waiting, but I had nothing else in particular to do, and after missing out on a chance to tell people that I stuck my hand in a cow, I did not want to miss the chance to tell people that I had eaten liquid nitrogen ice cream. “This is the line for liquid nitrogen ice cream?” I asked the middle-aged man in front of me in the slightly shorter line.
“Yeah,” he said. “This line is for vanilla, and that line over there is for chocolate.”
“Vanilla is fine,” I said. I continued looking through the program of events as I waited in line. It was so hard to choose exactly what I wanted to see among so many options. The line began moving quickly a few minutes after I got there, but then stopped again with around ten people in front of me. It appeared that they needed to make another batch every few minutes, adding liquid nitrogen on top of the edible ingredients as they stirred continuously. The liquid nitrogen all boiled away as it quickly lowered the temperature of the ingredients.
Megan, the girl who told me about Lawsuit, was a chemical engineering major. I kept an eye out for her the whole time I was in line, but she did not appear to be here at the exhibit table. Part of me hoped she would be; she was a good friend up through the beginning of my sophomore year, and I missed just talking about things with her. But part of me was glad not to see her. We grew apart naturally because of life, but after we started to grow, I saw her kissing a woman. I was embarrassed to know that the crush I had on her for a year was all for nothing, if she was not into guys in the first place.
I reached the front of the line about ten minutes after the students started making the next batch. One of them spooned a clump of slushy vanilla ice cream into a small paper cup, stuck a small plastic spoon in it, and handed it to me. I stepped out of the way and began eating. It tasted just like homemade ice cream that had been frozen the conventional way, with ice and rock salt. It probably could have been frozen a little longer, but with the line as long as it was, they probably needed to make it quickly in order to keep up with demand. “This is really good,” I told the student who served me.
“Thanks!” she replied.
I stopped by the Math Club’s presentation next. I had decided not to work this year’s presentation, and I only stayed for about ten minutes, since it was pretty much the exact same presentation as last year’s. I knew some of the students working, though, and I talked to them for a bit. After that, I was getting hungry, so I walked toward to the Quad and waited in a long line for carne asada tacos made by a Latino cultural club.
I wandered over to the track in time to see Rick run the 400 meter event at one o’clock. Tobin Field, the University of Jeromeville stadium, always felt kind of embarrassing to me. Jeromeville was a major university, and our stadium looked like a high school stadium, with a football field surrounded by a track, and bleachers that needed a fresh coat of paint. Jeromeville was in NCAA Division II; we were not considered a premiere collegiate athletics program, and few of our student-athletes went on to careers as professional athletes. But we still could do better. Capital State, our rival school across the Drawbridge in the next county, had completed an impressive remodel of their football stadium a few years ago, and they were currently in the process of moving up to Division I.
I walked around the bleachers, sparsely populated with fans, until I saw Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell. “Hi,” I said, approaching them. “Is Rick running yet?”
“That’s the starting line for the 400 down there,” Aunt Jane said. “The first heat is about to go. Rick will be in the third heat.”
“Okay,” I said, sitting on the bleachers and watching the athletes in the distance. Pole vaulters were warming up, and the high jump was happening on the far side of the track.
“High jump,” I said, pointing in the distance. “My roommate Brian did high jump for the Jeromeville track team.”
“Oh!” Aunt Jane replied “Is he jumping today?”
“He graduated last year, but he said he would be helping out with the meet today. I don’t see him, though.”
“How was the picnic?”
“It’s been okay,” I said. “I watched the parade for a while, then I got liquid nitrogen ice cream from the Chemical Engineering Club, then I stopped by the Math Club table.”
“That sounds like fun! We were walking around earlier, and it looked like there were a lot of fun things going on. I don’t think I ever realized the campus was so big! It’s much bigger than North Coast State. Or Bidwell State.”
“Yeah. It really is. It’s fascinating.”
“I heard something about wiener dog races today. Have you ever seen those?”
“I’ve never actually watched them. I’ve seen pictures, though. It looks fun.”
“I wonder if we should enter Shooter for next year?”
“It’s worth looking into,” I said, even though I had a feeling it was not actually in fact worth looking into. Shooter, Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell’s pet dachshund, was middle-aged and had poor vision. He probably would not fare well against more seasoned competitors.
Rick finally got to run about twenty minutes after I arrived. “I hope he does well,” Aunt Jane said. “Do you think he got enough sleep last night after the bus ride here?”
“Nothing he can do about that now,” Uncle Darrell replied.
Rick and the other racers lined up and got ready, then all began running. The 400-meter run was approximately one lap around the track, starting and ending on the side where we sat. Rick kept up fairly well with the leaders at the beginning, but on the far straightaway, a few racers pulled out ahead, leaving Rick to cross the finish line in the middle of the pack.
“That wasn’t too bad for Rick,” Aunt Jane said, watching the official timer.
“He isn’t gonna make the finals,” Uncle Darrell observed.
“It looked like he was only a second off his personal best.”
“That isn’t too bad,” I said, trying to place focus on the positive. “And he’s just a freshman. He has three more years to compete.”
“I know,” Aunt Jane said. “I don’t think Rick is gonna be happy with how he did, though. He has really been improving in the 400.”
The preliminary heats for the women’s 400 began shortly after that. Aunt Jane pointed out that a girl named Sara, who graduated from the same high school as Rick two years older, now was on Jeromeville’s track team. I remembered Aunt Jane also mentioning her when I first started at Jeromeville. “Did you say you knew Sara?” Aunt Jane asked me.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Which one is she?”
“That one.” Aunt Jane pointed at Sara. “Wow, she’s really put on weight.”
“I don’t know her,” I said.
Sara and her other competitors lined up at the starting line, and the race began a minute later. Sara fell behind early. “She used to be a lot better than this,” Aunt Jane explained. “Look at how big and jiggly her legs are! She’s a porker!” By about halfway through the race, Sara was visibly struggling, falling into last place. “My gosh! She’s a whale!” Aunt Jane exclaimed. The racers continued around the turn and down the home stretch, and as Sara plodded across the finish line in last place, three seconds behind the runner with the next slowest time, Aunt Jane repeated, “What a whale!”
I felt bad for Sara. I felt embarrassed that she was out there trying her best while this forty-five-year-old busybody in the crowd was tearing her down. Hopefully Sara was far enough away that she could not hear Aunt Jane’s name-calling. But this kind of behavior was just how my mother’s side of the family operated, gossiping, obsessing over people’s bodies and appearances, and tearing people down behind their backs. I always stayed out of such discussions when I was with those relatives.
A while later, Rick came over to talk to us. “Hey, Greg,” he said after greeting his parents. “What’s up?”
“Just hanging out,” I said. “You have one more race?”
“Yeah. 100 relay. We’ll be running in about half an hour.”
“I think you did pretty well in the 400,” Aunt Jane told Rick.
“Yeah, but I coulda done better.” Rick sounded a little angry.
“Just brush it off and give it your best in the relay.”
Rick continued talking to us for a bit. We made small talk about classes and comparing our university experiences. Eventually he left to prepare for his other race. He was in the second position in the relay, and his teammate was in third place when he passed the baton to Rick. Rick kept up and was still in third place when he passed the baton, but his next teammate fell behind, and the North Coast State team finished fifth.
“Rick isn’t gonna be happy with that,” Uncle Darrell said after the race ended.
“He did fine,” Aunt Jane said. “The rest of the team fell behind.”
“So that was Rick’s last race?” I asked.
“Yeah. You can go now if you have other things to do.”
“I think I will,” I said. “It was good seeing you guys, and good to watch Rick run.”
“Yes! Enjoy the rest of the picnic, Greg.” Aunt Jane gave me a hug.
“Good seein’ you,” Uncle Darrell added, shaking my hand.
“Bye!” I said.
It was after three o’clock by the time I left the track meet. The Quad was much emptier than it had been a few hours ago; all the student clubs and organizations had packed up and left. A band played on the far side of the Quad; I listened to them for the two minutes it took to walk across the Quad. They sounded louder and less fun than Lawsuit.
Although there are dozens, if not hundreds, of things happening as part of the Spring Picnic, many of them happen simultaneously in the middle of the day. By this time of day, many of the events shut down. I saw a sign for the Entomology Department’s exhibit, open until four o’clock; I walked in and looked at different kinds of bugs for a while. At the end of the Spring Picnic, I always make my way to the Arboretum, where a number of university marching bands take turns playing until they run out of songs to play. Jeromeville’s band was in the middle of playing “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” by Belinda Carlisle when I arrived; North Coast State’s band followed by playing the theme from The Legend of Zelda, one of my favorite video games.
I stayed watching the marching bands until around five-thirty. The Jeromeville band played a marching band arrangement of “Zombie” by the Cranberries as I left. I started singing along quietly as I walked back to where my bike was parked. I always found it fascinating how anything could be turned into marching band music.
The sun would not set for a couple more hours, but my day was over, and I could not help but feel a little disappointed with this Spring Picnic, like I missed a lot of fun things. I was not sure exactly what I missed, other than things like Lawsuit that weren’t options anymore, but I knew I missed something. It was good to see the Lusks, but spending two hours at the track to see Rick run for a total of less than two minutes took a big chunk out of the day. If I had seen the Lusks on another day and gotten to see more of the Spring Picnic, I would have enjoyed both experiences more. I was, however, glad that I had not volunteered to work the Math Club table; I would have missed even more that way.
Many students’ parents come to the Spring Picnic. I had not yet experienced this; maybe I could get Mom and Dad to come next year, so I could show them around. Of course, they had seen the campus before, but now that I had been here for three years, I knew more details of what was worth seeing. Whether or not that happened, the very nature of the Spring Picnic made it an event worth seeing year after year. Even long after I moved away from Jeromeville, I would keep coming back to campus every April to experience the Spring Picnic.
Readers: What’s your favorite event or festival to visit year after year? Tell me about it in the comments!
If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.
I looked up Box Elder Court on a map before I left the apartment. It was a few miles away, in east Jeromeville, just past Power Line Road. I was told that the party started at seven o’clock, but I did not leave the apartment until 7:17, and it was almost 7:30 by the time I turned onto Box Elder Court. I did not feel comfortable being the first to arrive at a party where I knew few people.
But I wanted to go. I saw Alaina and Whitney on campus a few days ago between classes, and Alaina had reminded me, “Greg, you’re coming to the coffee house party, right?” Besides, I liked this new group of friends.
In hindsight, I sometimes humorously referred to early 1997 as my Rebellious Period. Right around the same time I got frustrated with the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, I had made some friends who went to another college-age Christian group, University Life. I went to University Life a few times, although I did not stop attending Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, or my church. I had not been around U-Life enough to notice if cliques were a problem, but I did seem to notice that they were not obsessed with putting people in categories like JCF was. Everyone at JCF wanted to lead Bible studies for future student leaders, or for transfer students, or for students of a certain ethnic or cultural background, or for women, but there were no specific groups for any category I fit into. I had heard that there would only be one small group at JCF next year that was not category specific. I wondered if there were others like me who did not fit into the categories; if so that would be a very large small group. More like a medium group.
Box Elder Court was a cul-de-sac, long enough for eight houses on either side. (Every time I use the word “cul-de-sac,” I have to mention that the term literally means “bag’s ass” in French.) Both sides of the street were mostly lined with cars already, so I had to park at the opposite end of the street from the house where the party was. Either this party was going to be crowded, or many people with cars lived on Box Elder Court, or both.
I walked along the east side of the street, now in shadow. The sun had dropped below the houses on the opposite side and was just setting. Twilight was descending over the neighborhood. I approached my destination, a pale blue house with a garage protruding from the front right side, the number 1402 on the wall next to the garage door. As I walked to the left of the garage toward the front door, I could hear muffled noises suggesting a large crowd inside. A sign on the door, on a sheet of poster board of the kind typically used for school projects, said “BOX ELDER HOUSE OF JAVA – OPEN! COME ON IN!” Next to these words was a drawing of a mug of coffee.
I opened the door slowly and peeked my head in, then I quietly walked forward in the direction that most of the noise seemed to come from. The house had a small living room on the left, with couches and a television; two people I did not know sat on the couch talking. Straight ahead was a dining room area, opening to a kitchen on the left. A hallway to the right of the dining room led to what appeared to be a bathroom and at least one bedroom, and to the right, a stairway descended from what were probably more bedrooms upstairs. This house looked big for three girls; I did not know how many lived here in total.
Someone had pushed the dining room table aside and set up a bar stool with a microphone on a stand in a corner of the dining room. A sign near the stool said OPEN MIC NIGHT, keeping true to the coffee shop theme. About ten or twelve people were milling about the kitchen and dining room; a few faces looked familiar, but the only people I recognized for sure were the three girls I knew who lived here: Alaina, Whitney, and Corinne.
Whitney spotted me first. “Greg!” she said. “You made it!”
“Yeah,” I replied, looking toward the kitchen. Alaina stood over an espresso machine making some kind of drink; next to the espresso machine was a conventional coffee machine.
“Hey, Greg!” Alaina said, sounding excited to see me. “Can I get you a drink?” Alaina gestured toward a white board, on which had been written a menu of coffee drinks.
“There are other drinks in the refrigerator if you want. Help yourself.”
“Sounds good.” I opened the refrigerator and took a can of Dr Pepper. I noticed a few drawings and paintings adorning the walls around the dining room; I was no trained judge of art, but they appeared to be intentionally silly. “I love the coffee shop decorations,” I said. “Right down to the art on the walls.”
“Yeah,” Alaina replied, pointing to a piece of paper that had been profusely scribbled on with crayons. “That one is mine.”
I looked more closely; a sign next to the drawing had indicated that its title was Studying for Finals, and that Alaina was the artist. “Studying for Finals,” I said. “That’s fitting.” Next to Studying for Finals was a drawing in black charcoal of some kind of monster with large eyes, abstract amorphous spots vaguely suggesting a nose and mouth, and no limbs. This drawing had been attributed to Corinne, and its title was Alaina.
“Corinne drew you as a monster?” I asked Alaina.
“Huh?” Corinne said, overhearing me call her name.
“Your drawing,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. You know how it is, how sometimes your roommate can act like a monster.”
I chuckled at this, then noticed a sign that said PAINTINGS $5 – ALL PROCEEDS GO TO JEN’S MISSION TRIP TO BRAZIL. “These paintings are for sale?” I asked.
“Yeah!” Corinne said. “We thought this would be a fun way to help Jen raise a little money.”
“I don’t know if I know Jen,” I replied. Jen was usually short for Jennifer, the most common name for college-aged girls in the United States in 1997, so there were probably multiple girls named Jen who the girls in this house knew.
“She’s coming later,” Corinne explained. “She had something else to do today.”
“Oh, okay. I still think this is a great idea, though. Can I buy this one?” I asked, gesturing toward Corinne’s Alaina.
“You want to buy my painting? Yeah!”
“Should I give you the money?”
“Just put it in the tip jar over by Alaina. We’ll give you the painting after the party.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I walked to the tip jar and put five dollars in it.
“What’s that for?” Alaina asked.
“I’m buying Corinne’s art.”
“Really? Are you sure you don’t want to buy mine?”
“See?” Corinne told Alaina. “Greg thinks you were acting like a monster the other day too!”
“I don’t want to get involved in any drama!” I said. “I just thought it was funny.”
“We’re just messing around,” Corinne said reassuringly. “Do you and your roommates ever argue?”
“Not really that much,” I said. “Our apartment has been pretty peaceful. And I lived alone before that; this is my first time having roommates.”
“And I don’t know where I’m going to live next year. People always seem to make their housing arrangements without asking me.”
“What about your current roommates?”
“They’re older. I don’t think they’ll be in Jeromeville next year.”
“That’s too bad,” Corinne said. “But, hey, if I hear of any guys from U-Life who need a roommate, I’ll let you know.”
“No problem! I’ll be right back. Corinne left toward the bedrooms, then returned with a sticky note that said SOLD and placed it on the Alaina drawing.
I found a chair and sat and watched people for a while. Ben Lawton had arrived while I was talking to Corinne, and Carolyn Parry was just walking in now, carrying a guitar case. Corinne took Carolyn’s guitar back to the bedrooms, presumably to keep it out of the way of everyone. That made a total of five people I knew by name at this party. Carolyn looked in my direction, and I waved.
“Hey, Greg,” Carolyn said. “Good to see you here! What’s up?”
“Just the usual,” I said. “Are you singing later? Is that why you brought the guitar?”
“I’m learning them okay. I like them so far. I don’t know German at all, though, so that’ll take some practice to pronounce right.”
“Yeah. You’ll pick it up fine with practice.”
Around eight o’clock, Alaina got everyone’s attention and announced, “Make sure you sign up for the open mic! We’ll start at 8:30.” She put a clipboard on the dining room table, and when she saw that I was watching her, she said, “You’re gonna do something on the open mic, right, Greg?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Yes! Sign up! Just, like, get up there and do a math problem or something, and say it’s a poem about math. That would be hilarious!”
“You know,” I said, “I think I’ll do something like that.” I signed my name on the clipboard.
I did more people-watching and mingling until eight-thirty, at which time everyone gathered in the dining room around the microphone. Carolyn went first, with the guitar she had retrieved from the bedroom. “This is a song I wrote,” she said. “It’s about God’s love for us.” She then proceeded to play a fast rhythm on the guitar, singing from the perspective of God, calling someone who has been running away back into the love and hope that he offers. I knew how it felt to want to hide from God, and his love and truth. Carolyn was quite good as a singer, and these lyrics showed her to be just as good as a songwriter.
Next, a guy I did not know walked up to the microphone and began reciting a poem. “Once, there was this kid, who got into an accident, and couldn’t come to school,” he said. This was a dark poem, I thought. “When he finally came back, his hair had turned from black into bright white. He said that it was from when the cars had smashed so hard.” As he continued reciting words, next about a girl with an embarrassing birthmark, I realized why this poem had sounded familiar. He was reading the lyrics to a strange song that was popular a few years earlier, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies. Despite being so dark, I always thought the song was oddly catchy.
A few more performers came up, performing various types of music and poetry readings. Some were serious, others were silly, and others involved inside jokes among the U-Life crowd that went over my head. After about seven or eight performers had gone, Alaina called out, “Next up, Greg!”
Hey, that’s me, I thought. After signing up, I had prepared something according to Alaina’s advice. “This is a dramatic reading of the Pythagorean Theorem,” I said. A few in the crowd giggled, and when the giggles stopped, I began. “In a right triangle!” I shouted dramatically. “The square! Of the… hy-pot-en-use!” I continued, taking frequent breaths and carefully enunciating each syllable of “hypotenuse.” “Is equal! To the sum… of the squares! Of… the other. Two… Siiiiidessss.” I drew out that last word, pronouncing it slowly. I walked away from the microphone, and everyone applauded.
“Good job!” Corinne told me as I returned to the crowd. “That was perfect.”
“Thanks!” I smiled.
I stayed at the coffee shop party for another couple hours, until it wound down and the girls who lived there had begun cleaning up. I took Corinne’s Alaina drawing off the wall when I left and hung it up in my room at the apartment, right next to Tear Down the Wall, the painting I had made freshman year with Bok and Skeeter and some others from my dorm.
The next day was Sunday, and by mid-afternoon I was still in a good mood after having had so much fun at the party the night before. It was a beautiful day, sunny and a little on the warm side, but not hot. Josh, the roommate I did not know as well as the other two, was actually home for once, and he seemed to be the only one home. “Hey, Greg,” Josh said as I came downstairs to the kitchen for a snack. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. I’m just relaxing the rest of the day. I don’t have any homework or studying.”
“You wanna come play disc golf? I was just thinking, this is a perfect day for it.”
“Sure!” I said. I grabbed the flying disc that I had gotten from Brian on the day of last year’s Man of Steel competition and got into Josh’s car. Josh had an entire bag of discs of different shapes and sizes; he was obviously a more experienced player than I was.
We drove about a mile and a quarter south on Maple Drive and parked next to a city park near a cluster of apartments just north of campus. I followed Josh to a concrete slab marked with a number 1. “There’s the hole over there,” Josh said, pointing at a pole with chains around it, making a cage-like structure, and a tray below.
“So this is an actual disc golf course? And the goal is to get the disc in the tray there?”
“Yeah. You’ve never done disc golf here?”
“I haven’t. The only time I’ve played disc golf was last year at the Man of Steel competition, and they just made up a course where the holes were trees or poles you had to hit.”
“Aim for those chains,” Josh said. “Your disc hits the chains, they’ll slow it down, and it’ll land in that tray.”
“Cool,” I said. Josh got his disc in the hole in two throws, using a different disc for the second, shorter throw than he used for the first throw. My first throw went wildly off course, and it took me a total of five throws to make it in the hole.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” Josh said as we walked to the next tee area.
Uh-oh, I thought. This was a classic move; Josh got me alone, just him and me, because he wanted to talk to me about something serious. Maybe I was being a bad roommate, and he wanted to call me out. Maybe I was acting inappropriately in front of the youth group at church. Fortunately, it was not a bad thing at all that Josh wanted to ask.
“Do you have a place to live next year?” Josh asked.
“No, I don’t. Why? Do you need a roommate?”
“I do, actually. You know Sean Richards, right?”
I attended Catholic Mass until about six months ago, when I got involved at Jeromeville Covenant Church instead. Sean was one of the few other Catholic students who also attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. “Yeah,” I said. “I know Sean.”
“What about Sam Hoffman? Light blond hair, physics major like me, he goes to JCF sometimes?”
“I think I know who you’re talking about.”
“Anyway, Sean knows four guys who live in a three-bedroom house, and their landlord approved Sean to take over their lease. So, Sean and Sam and I are going to live there, but we need a fourth. You would be sharing the large bedroom with Sean. But you two would have your own bathroom. Are you interested?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That sounds great!” Sharing a bedroom was not ideal, but I had been doing it all this year, so it would not be that difficult of a transition. It was somewhat amusing that I would go from sharing a bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing a bedroom with someone named “Sean.” “Where is the house?” I asked.
“It’s on Acacia Drive. Across the street from the Acacia Apartments.”
“That’s a great location!” I said. Three different groups of people from my freshman dorm lived in the Acacia Apartments sophomore year, and I used to visit them there occasionally. I knew the area. “I could walk to church from there,” I added.
“Yeah! We’re gonna take a look at the house sometime next week. I’ll let you know for sure when we do. But we’re all pretty sure we’re gonna go for it.”
“Sounds good! This certainly takes a lot of stress off of me.”
“I think we’ll be a fun group of guys. And it’ll be nice having an actual house.”
“Yeah!” I said.
Josh continued to dominate our game of disc golf. He tried to teach me to throw more straight; his pointers helped a little, but I obviously needed more practice to throw a disc straight. The Man of Steel competition, among the men of JCF, was coming up in less than two months, and I would need to throw much straighter than that if I wanted to avoid repeating my near-last-place finish. I found myself getting a little frustrated, but we were not strictly keeping score. This time was more about hanging out with Josh. He told me that he would be doing the teacher training program next year, to be a high school science teacher. I told him about my internship helping in a math class at Jeromeville High, and about the summer internships I had applied for, so I would be able to decide between teaching and graduate school. Josh also asked if I had heard that Shawn, our roommate who was currently doing teacher training for math, had become disillusioned with it and was considering leaving teaching. I told Josh that I had heard this, and that it was unfortunate.
I answered emails from a few Internet friends when I got home, and I had told each of those people that I had a great weekend. I went to a fun party with new friends, and my housing plans for the following year had fallen into place nicely. And no one seemed to care that I was part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship but hanging out with University Life people. It was okay to have multiple groups of friends. It was a good thing.
Readers: Have you ever performed at an open mic night? Tell me about it in the comments!
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“Now remember, Boz,” I said. “When Brian finds out that you’re a Star Wars fan, he’s gonna test you and ask if you know the number of the trash compactor that Luke and the others almost got smashed in.”
“I don’t remember,” Boz replied.
“It’s ‘3263827,’” I said.
“‘3263827.’ I’ll remember that.”
I had just spent four days at my parents’ house for Spring Break, returning to Jeromeville on the Saturday morning before classes started. Mom, my brother Mark, and his two best friends Boz and Cody followed me up for the day in a separate car. Mom had gotten the idea that it might be fun for the boys to come visit, and with all three of them in high school now, it was never too early to start visiting universities. We had met at McDonald’s for lunch, and now we were on our way back to my apartment.
“Hey,” Brian said when the five of us walked inside.
“This is my brother Mark, and his friends Cody and Boz,” I said to Brian. “And you’ve met my mother before.”
“Boz?” Brian asked.
“Short for Matthew Bosworth,” I explained.
“Yeah,” Boz said. “You can call me Boz. Or Matt. Either one.”
“I have a question I always ask Star Wars fans,” Brian explained, “to see if you’re a true fan. What is the number of the trash compactor on the Death Star where they were stuck?”
“I have to admit, though, Greg prepared me, because he told me you would ask that.”
“Ah,” Brian replied. “Do you have any obscure Star Wars trivia you ask people like that?”
“Sure. Who is the director of photography?”
“I don’t know that one.”
“Nice! I don’t have all the obscure credits memorized.”
“I would just leave the credits on and watch the names sometimes.”
“That’s cool how each of us pays attention to different details,” Brian said.
The rest of the day went well. I showed the boys around campus. They came back to the apartment and played basketball in the common area. I like to think that something from that day really made an impression, because Cody and Boz would both end up attending the University of Jeromeville after they finished high school. My brother did not; he went to community college for a few years and then transferred to the State University of Bay City.
Sunday was Easter, my first since I began attending Jeromeville Covenant Church. Church was more crowded than usual, but it was not as dramatic of a difference as Catholic Easter masses back home at Our Lady of Peace were compared to ordinary Sundays.
My first class Monday morning was not even on the University of Jeromeville campus. I rode my bike along my usual route as far as the intersection of Andrews Road and 15th Street, then turned left on 15th and parked at the bike rack of Jeromeville High School. I walked through the entrance to campus and found Mr. O’Rourke’s class toward the back of the school. Mr. O’Rourke had told me to just sit at the table in the back, and I could help students work on problems later in the period.
Mr. O’Rourke was an older man with short gray hair and a no-nonsense personality. After the students had arrived, he gestured toward me. “This is Greg Dennison,” he said. “He’s a student at UJ, and he’s going to help out in our class for the rest of the year.” Some of the students turned around to look at me, intrigued; I waved at them.
As Mr. O’Rourke lectured, I looked around at what I could see of the class. The class seemed very large to me; I counted forty-one students. I was used to high school classes of around 30 students at most. I would learn later that Mr. O’Rourke was semi-retired, only teaching the one class, and he was such a popular teacher that students would sometimes ask to be in his class even when it appeared full.
After Mr. O’Rourke finished explaining and demonstrating relationships between sine and cosine functions, I walked up to his desk. “So, just walk around and help students now?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “That would be good.”
My first few times up and down the rows in the classroom, no one asked me anything. This was a precalculus class, so these were mostly honor students; maybe none of them needed help. Eventually, though, I saw one student who was leaving most of the work blank on his paper. “Do you need help?” I asked. “Do you understand what to do?
“I don’t get it,” the student said.
“What do you know about sine and cosine? Can I see your notes for today?” I pointed out what he had sloppily written in his notebook and showed him what he could use to solve the problem in front of him. I could not tell how well he understood.
“Is there anything else I have to do?” I asked Mr. O’Rourke when the bell rang.
“No, not really,” he said. “At the end of the week, we’ll talk about how it’s going so far.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As I walked toward the school entrance, past a row of lockers, I heard a female voice say, “Greg!” I instinctively turned and looked, although as I did so I realized that I did not know anyone at Jeromeville High School. This girl was probably talking to some other guy named Greg. Maybe it was a student from Mr. O’Rourke’s class whom I just met this morning, but why would she need to talk to me now, outside of math class? I saw a familiar face reaching into a locker as I turned around, and I realized that I did know someone at Jeromeville High School: Erica Foster from church.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
“What are you doing here?” Erica asked.
“I’m doing a Math 197 tutoring class,” I said. “I’m TAing in Mr. O’Rourke’s first period.”
“That’s awesome! Everyone says Mr. O’Rourke is a great teacher. I never got to be in his class, though.”
“He seems like the kind of teacher I would have liked.”
“So you want to be a teacher? Is that why you’re doing this?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I said. “I’m looking at different options for the future. One of my professors asked me if I had ever thought about being a teacher, and he set this up for me.”
“What are you doing next year? You graduate this year, right?”
“Yeah! I’m going on a mission trip to Turkey for part of the summer, and then I’m still waiting to hear back from some schools, but I’m probably going to stay home and go to UJ.”
“That’s cool,” I said.
“I need to get to class, but it was good running into you.”
“Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
A few hours later, back on campus, I had Data Structures, a computer science class. A lower-division computer science class, Introduction to Programming, was a requirement for the mathematics major. In addition to the upper-division mathematics units required for my major, a small number of courses in statistics and computer science, including this Data Structures class, counted in place of upper division math units. As a kid, writing code in BASIC on a Commodore 64, I enjoyed computer programming as a hobby. I chose against majoring in computer science, though, because my computer knowledge was out of date, and I did not want a hobby to turn into work. But I wanted to take this class, so I could learn more about programming while working toward my mathematics degree.
Technology-related majors were very popular at Jeromeville, especially in 1997 with the Internet just emerging as a consumer technology. Because of this, computer science and computer engineering majors had priority to register first for most computer science classes. This was my third attempt at taking Data Structures. The first time, I was number 19 on the waiting list, and the professor said that no new spots would open up. The second time, I had moved up to first on the waiting list by the first day of classes. I was hopeful, but the professor said that they had already expanded the number of spaces in class beyond what they should have. The number of computers in the labs was too small to support this many students, so no new spots would open up. For the other computer science classes I had taken, I did most of my work at home, dialed up to the campus Internet late at night so as not to tie up the phone line. I suspected that lab space was not as much of an issue now that working from home was possible. But the department had not changed their rules.
This quarter, the professor gave the usual bit about the class already being too full, and no one else being admitted from the waiting list. But this time, it did not matter, because I already had a spot in the class. When I called in to register last month, I expected to get put on the waiting list, but it said I had successfully registered. This might have been my only chance to take the class, so I took it. I told this to Eddie from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at the retreat last week, and he said this was God opening up a door for me. Definitely.
After Data Structures, I had chorus. As I walked toward the bass section, Danielle Coronado, who lived down the hall from me freshman year, came up to me and gave me a hug. “Greg!” she said. “You’re back!”
“Yeah. I wanted to do chorus last quarter, but it was the same time as Dr. Hurt’s Writings of John class.”
“Yeah,” I replied. I did not know this guy, I thought he was a music major, and I did not know the music majors very well. I was surprised that he recognized me.
About fifteen minutes into class, after explaining some procedural matters, Dr. Jeffs, the conductor, said, “The pieces this quarter are Schubert’s Mass No. 2 and Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder. The sheet music is at the bookstore; hopefully you all have that by now. We’ll start on the Schubert today.” As he began playing and demonstrating part of Schubert’s Mass, Dr. Jeffs explained that Schubert was from Vienna, so we would be using Viennese Latin pronunciations instead of Italian Latin. When performing Schubert, the word “qui,” for example, was pronounced “kvee” instead of “kwee.” I had never heard of such a thing. The Brahms piece was also entirely in German, a language I did not know how to pronounce. I was sure I would get used to it.
The spring of 1997 was an unusual quarter for me; it was the only quarter that I did not have any actual mathematics classes. Helping in Mr. O’Rourke’s class at Jeromeville High would go on my transcript as a two-unit math class, but I did not sit in a lecture or do homework out of a textbook. Data Structures counted as a major requirement, but was not technically a math class.
This quarter was also my lightest load by number of units; I only took as many units as were required to maintain my status as a full time student. But it certainly did not feel like a light load, because the two actual classes I was taking, besides Mr. O’Rourke’s class and chorus, were both extremely difficult and time-consuming. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I had Philosophy and Social Foundations of Education. I had not made a final decision about my future, but I was now seriously considering the option of becoming a teacher, so I figured it would not hurt to start working on prerequisites for the teacher training program.
I could tell after ten minutes of class on the first Tuesday that this class would be a lot of work. As a math major, I was not used to classes with this much reading and writing. But the subject matter looked interesting, investigating some of the difficult questions about why education is important in society, and why schooling is done as it is. As a possible future teacher, it was important to answer these questions, and I had to take this class at some point if I were to become a teacher. Good thing I took it in a quarter when I had a light schedule.
Wednesday evening I had The Edge, the junior high school youth group at church, for which I was a volunteer. The staff and volunteers arrived an hour before the students, and the meeting before the kids arrived felt a little different because Taylor Santiago was not there. Taylor had been my friend since Day 1 of freshman year, and he had encouraged me to get involved with youth ministry after he noticed some boys from the youth group take a liking to me after church. He left last week for six months of inner-city ministry in Chicago; he would be back for the start of the school year in the fall.
As the students walked in, we usually had music playing, typically some Christian artist. Having only been a practicing Christian for a little over a year, I was just scratching the surface of the vast world of Christian contemporary music. Whatever this music was that played today, I found it intriguing. It sounded like rock with horns. I only knew of one other band that sounded remotely like this, although that other band was not Christian music; this was definitely not them. At the Spring Picnic freshman year, I had been told to go watch a local band called Lawsuit that played there every year. Lawsuit was a unique blend of rock with horns that some people described as “ska,” the first time I had ever heard that word. I went on to see Lawsuit play three more times in the two years since.
I was checking in students at the entrance that day, along with Erica Foster, the girl I saw at Jeromeville High after Mr. O’Rourke’s class. Her younger brother was one of the teen boys who had taken a liking to me. “What is this music?” I asked Erica.
“Five Iron Frenzy,” she said. “My brother has been listening to this a lot at home.”
“I don’t know them,” I said. “I just got excited that there’s a Chrsitian band that sounds like Lawsuit.”
“Is this what Lawsuit sounds like?” Erica asked. “I’ve heard of them but I don’t know anything about them.”
“Sounded like,” I corrected. “They broke up.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. This last New Year’s Eve was their last show.”
“That’s too bad. I heard they were good.”
“They were! They sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. But now I’m gonna have to check out this Five Iron Frenzy.”
Jeromeville had a small Christian bookstore, and I went there as soon as I was done with classes the next day to find that the Five Iron Frenzy album, called Upbeats and Beatdowns, was in stock. I brought it home and listened to it while I replied to a few emails in my inbox. In November, I was saddened to receive a flyer from Lawsuit announcing their breakup. I did not attend their final show, on December 31; I was halfway across the country at the Urbana conference on that day, and the show was for ages 21 and up, which I would not be until next August. But now I was excited to discover a Christian band that sounded like Lawsuit.
I learned a few songs into the album that I had been mistaken; Five Iron Frenzy did not sound particularly like Lawsuit, beyond being rock with horns. They had a much faster and more aggressive sound, more like punk rock with horns, a genre called ska-punk that was emerging at the time. But it was catchy, and I could hear references to Christianity in the lyrics, at least when I could understand lead vocalist Reese Roper’s high-pitched, fast singing.
A few minutes later, a song called “Anthem” came on, and I immediately began to regret my decision to buy this album. Reese called America a hollow country, and sang about how he did not care about the American notion of freedom. If the members of Five Iron Frenzy were Christians, why were they spewing this anti-American liberal crap? As far as I knew, Christians were conservatives who loved their country. Maybe this was not entirely true, I realized, as Reese sang about true freedom being from Jesus Christ. But I still loved my country and did not find patriotism inherently at odds with Christianity. Two other songs on the album besides “Anthem” directly criticized the sins of the United States and the shallow nature of the American church, but if I must be honest, these criticisms were certainly justified.
I liked most of the rest of the album. In addition to songs praising God, the album also contained some songs that were just silly, like one about the old TV show Diff’rent Strokes and one about how Jesus is better than superheroes. Other songs explored deep philosophical topics of interest to Christians living in this world, like one about colorful characters waiting for a bus.
The album did eventually grow on me, although to this day I still always skip “Anthem.” I have had a complicated relationship with Five Iron Frenzy over the years, one that has featured some very personal experiences. I sang one line on Reese Roper’s solo album in 2004, and I had an hour-long personal conversation with saxophonist Leanor Ortega-Till in 2020. And in addition to recording some of my favorite songs ever, Five Iron Frenzy has also recorded many other songs in the same vein as Anthem that I did not particularly care for.
Currently, I have mixed feelings about Five Iron Frenzy. They released an album in 2021 of all angry political music, with none of the Christian or silly songs. Ultimately, though, I have always said that Five Iron Frenzy did a great job of bringing together Christian and secular fans, liberals and conservatives, just by being real. I understand now that Christianity is not by any means limited to Americans or conservatives, and it should not be. Paul writes to the Corinthians that different people have different gifts that are all part of the body of Christ. Just as Boz and Brian had discovered their different takes on Star Wars trivia when they met a few days ago, people with different cultural and political backgrounds have different experiences with Christianity. I may not agree politically with all Christians, but we are still one in Christ, each with a role in the global Church.
Hello, readers! What’s an obscure fact about your favorite movie that you like to remember and tell people about?
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Also, the Five Iron Frenzy music video below comes from an unofficial source on YouTube. Just in case it gets taken down, I’ll include an official audio as well.