Every weekend, all across America, small independent local bands play live music to crowds in bars and small music venues. University neighborhoods are a natural breeding ground for live music, and Jeromeville was no exception. One of the biggest such bands around here in the 90s was called Lawsuit. This band had 10 members playing all sorts of different instruments, touring up and down the western United States playing shows in clubs and bars, and at fairs and festivals. Some of the members of Lawsuit grew up right here in Jeromeville, so it was always a big deal whenever Lawsuit played a show here.
I first heard the name Lawsuit on a Thursday night in April, right after the bombing in Oklahoma City happened. In the middle of hearing about that in the national news, I kept encountering in the local news something called the Spring Picnic. Apparently this was an annual event that would be happening this coming Saturday on the University of Jeromeville campus. The Daily Colt billed the Spring Picnic as the largest student-run event in the USA, but the flyers I kept seeing were somewhat less clear on what actually happened at the Spring Picnic. It sounded kind of like a fair, from what I had read about it.
The days were getting longer that time of year. I walked from Building C to the dining hall at 6:03pm under a blue sky, the sun low on the horizon but still shining. Much of the walk was in shadow because of the three-story dormitory buildings surrounding me.
After I got my meal, I looked around the room to see if anyone I knew had an empty seat nearby. I saw Megan, the RA from Building K, sitting with a guy and a girl who I thought were other RAs from other buildings. I walked toward them.
“Hey, Greg!” Megan said as I approached.
“May I sit here?” I asked.
As I began eating, Megan asked me, “How’s your week going? Are you going to the Spring Picnic?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so. I’m still not really sure what it is, though. I had never heard of it until about a week ago.”
“You’ve never heard of the Spring Picnic?”
“I’m not from here, remember.”
“It’s so much fun! It’s like a giant open house for the university. There are exhibits for departments all over campus, and student groups have performances and food tables and stuff like that, and there’s a Battle of the Bands with marching bands from different universities. And there will be free outdoor concerts. Lawsuit is gonna be there! Have you heard Lawsuit?”
“I don’t think so.”
“They’re so good! They’ll be playing at 3:00, I think.”
“I’ll have to check them out, then.”
“Spring Picnic is fun! You’ll enjoy it.”
“Sounds like it.”
In 1995, with no social media or hashtags, student groups and organizations advertised in more low-tech ways. Groups put flyers on bulletin boards all over campus. Sometimes someone would just walk into an unlocked classroom and write an announcement for an event on the chalkboard. The class where I had math Friday morning had the words “SPRING PICNIC IS TOMORROW” written on the far right side of the board. The instructor was showing us how to calculate a vector cross product. It was a fairly involved process, which seemed somewhat arbitrary and counterintuitive at first, although I would learn soon that this had applications in physics and engineering.
When the instructor ran out of room on the board, he started to erase the Spring Picnic announcement. “You all know Spring Picnic is tomorrow, right?” he said. A few people in the class laughed. I did know that. I knew now, at least. The instructor erased the announcement and continued working on the problem.
After math, I had an hour break, then physics. I went back to my room for lunch after that, picking up a copy of the Daily Colt on the way. It seemed unusually thick today; I unfolded it to see why, and I discovered a copy of the Spring Picnic Guide inside. The guide contained a complete schedule of events, along with a campus map and parking information. I didn’t need this because I was a student and I lived on campus and knew my way around; apparently this same guide would be given to visitors from out of town who might need that information.
The schedule of events alone covered several pages. Events were grouped by type: student organizations, academic departments, animal events, performances, athletics, and the like. Everything happened simultaneously all over campus, and it would be impossible to see everything. Being that this was my first Spring Picnic, I did not have anything set in mind that I had to see, other than Lawsuit (the guide said they were playing at 3:00, just like Megan said, on the Quad Stage). One page was dedicated to listing participants in the parade and a few paragraphs about this year’s Grand Marshal of the parade. The parade started at 10:00, so that would be a good place to start my day.
I was still holding the Daily Colt and the Spring Picnic Guide when I walked into Building C. Pete, Charlie, Sarah, Danielle, and Taylor were sitting in the common room. Pete and Charlie spent so much time in the common room that quarter that they had joked about moving in there. They had taken the signs from their doors with their names on them and attached them to the wall in the entryway to the common room, and they had put duct tape in the shape of the digits “110” on the wall next to their names. The first room on the first floor, Bok’s room, was room 112, and their signs were on the same side of the building as Bok’s room, so the next even number counting down would be 110.
“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said. He was sitting next to Danielle on a couch, and Pete and Sarah were sitting together on the other couch. Charlie sat in a chair next to Pete and Sarah’s couch. Taylor and Danielle kind of looked like a couple, and so did Pete and Sarah, although these days they all spent so much time together I couldn’t tell if they were actually together or just good friends. I tend to be the last one to know when couples get together.
“Is that the schedule for the Spring Picnic?” Danielle asked, noticing the guide in my hand. “You have to come see us tomorrow. 1:00 outside the music building.”
“Who is ‘us?’” I asked.
“Sure. I don’t really know much about the Spring Picnic. I don’t have a plan. I’m just going to wander around and look for cool stuff, I guess.”
“Are you going to the chemistry magic show?” Pete asked. “I’ve heard that’s good.”
“That’s the one you have to line up for tickets, right?” I replied. “I was reading that in here. I don’t know if I feel like getting up early and standing in line. I haven’t decided yet.”
“What about lining up to stick your hand in a cow?” Taylor asked. “Are you gonna do that?”
“Ewwww!” Danielle exclaimed.
“I read about that too,” I said. “I might. It depends on how long the line is.”
Scientists can surgically attach a structure called a fistula to the side of a cow, providing a window to observe inside the cow’s stomach, for the purposes of studying and researching bovine digestion. The window can open, allowing a researcher to insert a gloved arm inside the cow and remove and analyze the contents of her stomach. I read an article in today’s Daily Colt saying that a popular Spring Picnic exhibit involved people standing in line to stick their arms into a fistulated cow. This all sounded intriguing, but I didn’t particularly feel in the mood to stand in line for a long time. I would wait and see how long the line was.
I had one more class later that afternoon, and I spent the rest of the night doing homework and reading and studying. It wasn’t exactly the most exciting Friday night of my life, but tomorrow looked like it would be a long, fun day, so I figured I would get ahead while I could. I went to bed around 11, excited to see what this Spring Picnic tomorrow would bring.
In 1905, the state legislature passed a bill calling for the establishment of an agriculture campus for University of the Bay, the state’s only public university at that time. Agriculture was, and still is, a major industry in this area, but the urban Bay campus gave students nowhere to practice what they learned in agriculture classrooms. So the University Farm was born, and the location chosen was sixty miles away from the Bay campus, in Arroyo Verde County. The University Farm would be next to a tiny town called Jeromeville, on land that had once been the ranch of the town’s namesake, the Jerome family. It took a few years for the Farm to get running, but the students eventually came.
An article in the Daily Colt explained more of the history of the Spring Picnic. In 1909, at the end of the first full school year on the University Farm, the entire 26-man faculty, and the entire student body of 112 male students, held a picnic to share what they had learned. The picnic was open to the public, to serve as an open house to present their research and show the brand new dairy barn to residents of the surrounding region. The crowd of visitors overwhelmed the campus as over two thousand people picnicked on the Quad and nearby fields. The picnic became an annual tradition, eventually being taken over by the Associated Students organization instead of being run by faculty. The Jeromeville campus grew, becoming independent of the University of the Bay in 1959, and the Spring Picnic grew with it as other departments and student organizations used it as their open house. The west half of the Quad was still designated for picnics, although picnicking was no longer the focus of the event.
I left the South Residential Area around nine-thirty Saturday morning, after showering, eating, and reading the newspaper. I had heard older students say that it always rained on the day of the Spring Picnic, but today was sunny and mild without a cloud in sight. I could already tell that it would be no ordinary day. Normally, the campus was mostly empty on a Saturday morning, but today people were walking around, and not all of the people looked like students. Many were middle-aged and older adults, and some had children with them.
I walked toward the Quad by way of the chemistry building. As I approached the building, I could see a line extending from the large lecture hall on one side all the way around the opposite side of the building. The line was not moving. I continued walking toward the Quad, ignoring the line. I would see the chemistry show some other year; I didn’t feel like standing in line today.
At the Quad, people sat and lined up all along both sides of the parade route. I had to look around for a bit before I found a place to sit on the curb. “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked a woman next to the empty spot. She had a toddler with her, a boy with bushy red hair.
“No,” she said. “Go ahead.”
I pulled my copy of the Spring Picnic Guide out of my pocket, reading through the parade lineup. I heard amplified voices, unintelligible from here, in the distance on my left. I turned to look, but all I saw was a line of people sitting and standing under the tall cork oaks lining West Quad Avenue. The street was mostly empty, except for a few bicyclists riding past occasionally. The voices seemed to be coming from around the corner at the end of the street. I thought I saw something about some kind of opening ceremony at the beginning of the parade route, which is what I was probably hearing. I read through the parade lineup as I waited, then I looked through other parts of the guide, looking for other things I would want to see.
The parade began at 10:00 and reached my location around 10:10. I watched as dozens of groups and floats marched past. Student organizations and clubs, academic departments, fraternities and sororities, community organizations, children’s groups, marching bands from other colleges and high schools, and local political figures all marched and walked past. Some groups walked carrying banners, some rode on floats, some rode in fancy vehicles, and because this was Jeromeville, a few groups were on bicycles. Some sorority sisters walked past, handing out candy to little kids. The boy sitting next to me got a Tootsie Roll, and his mother said, “Can you say thank you?” The boy shyly hid his face. I wanted a Tootsie Roll too, but I didn’t make a big deal of it.
I got a good laugh out of some of the parade entries. The Associated Students Tour Guides walked through the parade backward. The MBA students from the UJ School of Management wore suits and ties over shorts that said “Cover Your Assets” across the butt. Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students, had a float shaped like a giant cow. When the group from Jeromeville College Republicans walked by, I cheered loudly, and I noticed some people nearby giving me dirty looks. They handed me a small US flag. The little boy next to me got one too, and his mother said nothing; I could sense a subtle look of disapproval on her face.
After about an hour, about three-fourths of the parade groups had passed by. There was nothing in particular I was waiting for in the rest of the parade, so I got up and walked to the path between Wellington and Kerry Halls, where the Math Club had their tables. I had attended Math Club twice so far this year, and I was on their email list.
I stopped at the first table, where a tall blond student whom I didn’t know stood in front of a wooden puzzle. The puzzle had three vertical pegs in a row. Five wooden discs of different diameters were stacked on the leftmost peg, with the largest on the bottom.
“Hi,” the blond guy said when he noticed my interest. “The object is to get all of the discs on a different peg. But you can only move one at a time, and–”
“You can’t put a larger one on a smaller one, right?”
“Yes. Have you seen this before?”
“The Towers of Hanoi puzzle,” I said. “I saw something about it in a math book. Let me see if I remember how to do it.”
“What’s your major?”
“I’m not sure,” I said as I picked up the smallest disc, and placed it on the middle peg. “I haven’t declared yet. But I’m thinking math. Maybe physics or chemistry.” I placed the next smallest disc on the right peg, and I put the smallest disc on top of this one. I had moved two discs successfully, with the middle peg empty.
“Have you been to our Math Club?” the student asked me as I put the third disc on the middle peg. If I remembered correctly, the point of this puzzle was that each step was recursive. Move the third disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first two on top of the third, since I already successfully moved two discs. Move the fourth disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first three on top of the fourth, since I already successfully moved three discs.
“I’ve been a couple times, yeah.”
“I don’t think I’ve met you. I’m Brandon.”
“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Brandon’s hand.
“Nice to meet you.”
After a few more minutes, I finished the puzzle, with all five discs now stacked on the middle peg. “You got it,” Brandon said. “Good job. You get a prize.” He handed me a fun size bag of Skittles, the size given to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. I never understood why those tiny little candies were called “fun size.” It’s no fun when you run out of Skittles so quickly.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’ll see you at the next Math Club meeting? Second Wednesday of the month in 108 Wellington?”
At the next table, Mary Heinrich, the Math Club president, stood next to three puzzles requiring separating interlocked objects that looked like they could not be separated without cutting or breaking. “I’m terrible at these,” I said.
“Hey, Greg,” Mary said. “How are you?”
“Good,” I replied. I had met Mary through Math Club, and I also knew that she had been in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program as a freshman, the same program I am in now along with everyone else in Building C. “This is my first Spring Picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
“Spring Picnic is fun! There’s so much to see!”
“I know! So far I’ve just been watching the parade.”
“Enjoy the rest of your day! Are you coming to the next Math Club meeting?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll see you then!”
After the Math Club exhibit, I walked back to West Quad Avenue and crossed it; the parade had finished by now, but the entire campus had become even more crowded. During the lunch hours, some student organizations sold food at booths on the east side of the Quad. Many of these were cultural organizations selling food from their cultures. Nu Alpha Kappa, a fraternity for Latinos, sold carne asada soft tacos; I bought two of them and took them back over to the west side of the Quad, where I sat under a tree and ate them.
I had not seen anyone I knew yet that morning, other than Mary from Math Club. I was okay with that. At events like the Spring Picnic, I could wander around alone for hours and be completely entertained. I got to the music building shortly before the start of the performance Danielle had invited me to, where I saw people I knew for the first time since leaving Building C this morning. Besides Danielle, Claire from church was in chorus too. The singers stood on portable risers in the patio in front of the music building. A crowd was gathering, sitting and standing around the building. I saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Caroline, Charlie, and standing near the street, facing the chorus.
“Hey, guys,” I said.
“Greg!” Taylor replied. “Come on over.” The group moved over to make room for me. Liz and Ramon arrived a few minutes later, just as the performance was starting.
I didn’t know the piece they were singing. I knew very little about classical choral music in general. I had never been to a performance like this, so I didn’t have much to compare it to, but they sounded good together. Two people I didn’t know, a soprano and a tenor, had solos, and both of them had much better voices for this type of performance than I could ever have. The only singing I do these days is in the car along to the radio,
The performance lasted about fifteen minutes. After it ended, Danielle came over to all of us to say hi.
“I liked that,” I told her. “I’ve never really seen a chorus perform like this before?”
“Really?” she asked.
“I’m glad we sounded good. We rehearsed it yesterday, and I didn’t think we sounded very good.”
“You probably think about that more than the audience does, since we don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like.
“What are you guys up to the rest of the day?” Liz asked.
“I have a ton of homework to do,” Caroline said. “But I’ll probably check out a few other things first. One of my professors wants me to go look at an exhibit with some of his research.”
“I’ve just been wandering around all day,” I said. “And I’m enjoying it. I’m going to go see Lawsuit on the Quad Stage later.”
“I wanted to see them too,” Ramon said. “I heard they were supposed to be good. What time is that?”
“Three. So, like, an hour and a half from now.”
“I need to go help put the risers back inside,” Danielle said. “I’ll see you guys maybe at dinner tonight?”
We eventually all walked off in a few different directions. I walked toward the dairy facilities, and as soon as I found the line for the fistulated cow, I realized that there was no was I was going to be able to wait to see it and still make it back to the Quad in time for Lawsuit. Maybe next year I’d plan ahead.
I walked back toward the Quad looking inside any building I could find that had an open exhibit with no line. I saw interactive exhibits about weeds, mosquitoes, and different types of soil. In the library, I saw a display of books from the special collection about the history of Jeromeville and the UJ campus. Very interesting old pictures. Most of these buildings I walk past every day without knowing what happens inside, but today at the Spring Picnic I got to see some of the research that happens at this university. It fascinates me to this day how large this campus is and how many different things all happen here.
I started walking toward the Quad shortly before Lawsuit was to go on stage. A crowd had already assembled as people on stage set up musical instruments and sound equipment. I saw Megan in the middle of the crowd with a few faces I recognized from the dining hall. Megan was still fairly easy to spot, with her short blonde hair still having traces of the green dye from a few months ago.
“Hi,” I said walking up next to Megan.
“Hey, Greg! You made it! This is going to be a great show!”
“I know! I keep hearing great things about this band.”
“What all have you seen today?”
“The parade, Math Club, chorus, and I walked around some displays about weeds and mosquitoes and stuff.”
“That’s the great thing about the Spring Picnic. There are so many random things to see.”
“I was working a table earlier for Society of Women Engineers. That’s about all I’ve done so far.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone on stage said as the crowd started quieting. “The name of this band is Lawsuit!” I heard the sound of bongo drums and turned toward the stage. Lawsuit was huge; I counted 10 members of the band, eight men and two women. This band had bongo drums, regular drums, bass and regular guitars, and a variety of horns. The drums and bass joined the bongos, followed by a horn blast and then the vocals. The lead singer had a distinct voice, higher than most male pop and rock singers but not screeching glam rocker high. He sang two verses, a chorus that repeated the line “thank God you’re doing fine,” and then a long instrumental section, first featuring a guitar solo and then the horns. During the instrumentals, band members who weren’t playing walked around the stage in rhythm and performed silly little dances. The vocals returned to sing one more bridge and chorus, and the song ended with another horn-centered instrumental.
I loved this song. I loved this band. And I had only known them for five minutes.
The band members did not appear to be students. I would guess they were mostly in their mid- to late 20s. They looked and sounded nothing like any band I had ever heard before. They had guitars and drums, but they also had horns. Some of their songs had rhythms typical of pop and rock songs, but others sounded more like jazz or swing. I wasn’t even sure if they would be considered pop, rock, jazz, reggae or what. “What do you even call this kind of music?” I asked Megan, shouting slightly so I could be heard over the music.
“Ska,” Megan said. “I guess.”
I had never heard the word ska before. I would learn later that ska shared its Caribbean roots with reggae, but was usually faster. However, I would hear much more ska music in the mainstream over the coming years, and Lawsuit did not sound much like the great ska bands of the 1990s. Ska, like reggae, has a distinct rhythm with accents on the off beats, and many of Lawsuit’s songs did not have this. This was truly a band that defied categorization.
Another of their songs seemed to contain names of states and puns that sounded like names of states. I heard the lead singer sing “I got a note from Michigan,” and I got a little scared, because just last night I had been talking and flirting with a girl from Michigan on IRC, and she had emailed me back this morning. Did this singer somehow know the secrets of my online life? (He didn’t. And the actual lyric is “I got a note from Ish again,” with Ish presumably being someone’s name. This was one of the many somewhat nonsensical state name puns in the lyrics of this song, because “from Ish again” sounds like “from Michigan.”)
I could have stood here listening to this band for the rest of the night, but the show was over after about an hour. “That was really good!” I said to Megan. “I love those guys!”
“I know! This is the fourth time I’ve seen them! They’re so good!”
“Thanks for telling me about them.”
“Yeah. It was good to see you here. What are you doing the rest of the day?”
“What else is going on? It looks like most things close up by now.”
“The Battle of the Bands goes on into the night.”
“That’s the marching bands at the Arboretum?”
“Yeah. I can’t watch them this year, I have to get back to my building, but I was there last year. That was fun.”
“I’ll go check that out.”
“I’ll see you later? Maybe at dinner?”
“Yeah. Have a good rest of the day.”
I walked past the library and the music building to the adjacent section of the Arboretum, then west toward Marks Hall, the administration building, where I heard marching band music and saw a huge crowd. The marching bands from Jeromeville and five other nearby universities were playing, taking turns one song at a time. According to the Daily Colt, they had to keep playing until they were out of songs to play. Bands could not repeat songs, and they could not play their school fight song until they had played every other song they knew. A band playing their fight song meant that they were giving up. Because of the crowd, I could not find a place to sit where I could actually see the bands well, so I only stayed about 45 minutes. No one had given up by then. But many of the marching bands played pop and rock songs, and this made me laugh. The band from Walton University, the wealthy private school located in between San Tomas and Bay City, dressed in crazy costumes, and as much as I hated Walton because they rejected me, I thought their costumes were funny. A sousaphonist from University of the Bay had painted the bell of his instrument to look like a Grateful Dead logo. I wished I had brought a camera, so I could take a picture of that to show Dad.
When I got back to Building C, around 5:30, I took a shower and ate, then spent the rest of the night unproductively. I was tired from all that walking, and I didn’t feel like doing anything more. But it was a good day. My first Spring Picnic was so much fun, and I was already looking forward to next year’s Spring Picnic. With so many things happening at the same time, there was no way I would be able to see everything every year, so Spring Picnic would seemingly never get old.
Starting with my first Spring Picnic in 1995, I have spent the entire day at Spring Picnic every year, with two exceptions. In 2000, a new baseball stadium had just opened in Bay City, and tickets to games were hard to come by. Taylor got a group of us together to go to a game, but the day that worked best was the same day as the Spring Picnic. The baseball game was in the afternoon, though, and when we got back to Jeromeville, the Battle of the Bands was still going on, and I went for about an hour. The only time I missed Spring Picnic entirely was in 2006, when I traveled 200 miles to my cousin Miranda’s wedding. I wore a tie with Jeromeville Colts logos on it to remind her of the great sacrifice I had to make to be there. And Miranda knew of the existence of the Spring Picnic, so she could have planned better, but her special day doesn’t revolve around me and I didn’t complain. A little over four months from now, as I write this, I am planning on spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic, my 24th time.
This was also not my last time seeing Lawsuit. I saw their CD in Liz’s room a few days later and borrowed it and made a tape of it. I never did ask if that CD belonged to Liz or Ramon or Liz’s actual roommate, although I did ask if I could borrow it. Years later, when I had the capability of burning CDs, I borrowed that same CD from someone else and burned a copy, and later saved it to my computer where it remains in my music collection to this day. The band broke up long ago, that’s another story for another time, but great music never dies as long as people keep listening.