I biked to campus full of anticipation on that cool, cloudy Saturday morning. Today was the Spring Picnic. In the last three months, I had made a new group of friends and taken an overnight trip with them, and I had discovered my purpose in life, but if this year’s Spring Picnic was anything like last year’s, it would rival those days as one of the best days of the year. (I should point out that I had no idea in 1996 of the fact that today’s date, April 20, meant something to marijuana users. My day had nothing to do with marijuana.)
Last year, I had heard some older students say that it always seems to rain in Jeromeville on the day of the Spring Picnic, but the weather last year was perfect. Today rain looked a bit more likely, but I was determined that even the ominous sky would not ruin this day for me.
I arrived early, parking at a bike rack next to Wellington Hall a little after nine o’clock. I had stopped to pick up a schedule of events on the way in. I turned the pages to see what was happening this early, and to my dismay, there was not much. The alumni breakfast was for alumni only and required a ticket purchase. The Chemistry Club show was later in the day, but people were lining up for distribution of tickets already. I had heard good things about that, but spending a long time in line to get a ticket did not appeal to me enough to actually do it, at least not this year. Other than that, not much was happening this early. The opening ceremony was at 9:30 not far from here, which led into the parade; maybe I could find a good seat for that.
I walked north to the end of the block, where a grandstand had been set up just around the corner from the Quad. It was full, but not completely full, so I found an empty seat and looked through the schedule again as I waited. I read the article on the history of the Spring Picnic, about how in 1909, the small group of professors and the newly founded university’s student body of about a hundred invited the public to a picnic, so they could display their research and show off a new building. Thousands of guests flooded the campus, and a new tradition was born, growing into a major open house event for the university.
Many musicians, bands, and performing groups play the Spring Picnic every year, and last year I had discovered a band called Lawsuit, with some members who had roots here in Jeromeville. I read an article in the Daily Colt this week about highlights of this year’s Spring Picnic, and it specifically said that Lawsuit would be playing on the Quad Stage at 3:30. I looked in the schedule to confirm this and found it quickly. That was definitely the one part of today that I did not want to miss. I would be busy for part of today, though, and I specifically scheduled that so as to be finished by 3:30.
At 9:30, someone came on stage and took a few minutes to introduce the grand marshal of the parade, gushing on and on about this woman’s academic accomplishments, whoever she was. The grand marshal spoke next, talking about passing on traditions, and history, and also finding a way to work in a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo. Go figure.
The parade began after that, and I followed along in the schedule of events to see who the groups were. The Spring Picnic parade featured numerous student clubs, academic departments, and fraternities and sororities, as well as local businesses, community organizations, and a few high school bands from all over the state. Parades are inherently fun, but part of the fun of the Spring Picnic parade is looking to see who all the different groups are and where they come from, like the giant cow on the float I saw approaching now. I looked in the schedule; it was Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students.
About half an hour into the parade, the Campus Tour Guides marched through, walking backward. That made me laugh; walking backward is an important part of being a tour guide after all. Haley Channing, the girl from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship whom I secretly had a crush on, was a tour guide; I spotted her walking backward in the side of the group farthest from me. I called out to her and waved, but she did not see or hear me.
The Interdisciplinary Honors Program marched in the parade this year, carrying a sign and wearing graduation caps. I wondered how this year’s IHP got into the parade, because I was in the IHP last year and no one ever talked about being in the parade. I knew one of this year’s IHP students, a girl named Yesenia; she was easy to spot, with hair almost all the way down her back. I had better luck getting her attention than I did with Haley, because she was walking closer to me. “Yesenia!” I called out as she passed by. She looked up, saw me waving, and pointed at me. “Greg!” she shouted, waving back. I smiled and continued waving.
By 11:00, I had been watching the parade for an hour, and I decided to go do something else. I wandered down the west end of the Quad, following the parade route, crossing Shelley Avenue at the south end of the Quad and entering the library. The library’s Spring Picnic exhibit was always something out of the Special Collections; this year it was photographs from the early days of the University. The campus had changed so much since the early twentieth century; I only recognized one building in the pictures.
I left the library a bit later walking in the opposite direction from where I came. The art building was open with a sign out front, so I walked in. The lobby and a hallway were lined with paintings and sculptures made by students. Some of them were fairly recognizable, like portraits of human beings and landscapes. Others were much more abstract: lumps of clay that made no recognizable shape, multicolored lines crossing and intersecting across a canvas, and splashes of color that looked like something that someone dropped a bunch of paint on a white piece of fabric but was still considered art, probably because of the statement they made or something like that. It was still interesting to look at everything.
I had somewhere to be at noon. I had about twenty minutes to walk back to the Quad, eat, then head to the walkway between Wellington and Kerry to the table I would be working. The east side of the Quad was full of student organizations selling food; many were cultural organizations selling food from their parts of the world. I got in line for the Filipino Club’s lumpia table, but the line moved so slowly that it soon became apparent that I would not get my lumpia in time. By 11:55, there were still seven people ahead of me, so I left the line and walked back across the Quad toward the table where I was working a shift.
Four long folding tables had been arranged in a line next to the entrance to Kerry Hall. A handmade sign on poster board that said MATH CLUB AT UJ stood propped up on one of the tables. The tables held various math puzzles and games.
“Hey, Brandon?” I asked a tall blond guy standing behind one of the tables. “I’m here. What do I do?”
“Just pick a table and talk to people. If you need solutions to any of the puzzles, if you can’t figure out how to explain it to someone, it’s in that box there.”
“Okay,” I said. I walked to the table on the end farthest from the Quad, with a cardboard model of the Monty Hall problem and a Towers of Hanoi puzzle. I had studied the mathematics of both of these puzzles extensively and felt qualified to explain them to passersby.
“Hey, Greg,” a junior girl named Susan said. “How are you?”
“I’m good. I didn’t do much today. Saw the parade, and the old pictures in the library, and the art department exhibit. What have you done so far?”
“I went to the Chemistry Club show.”
“What’s that like?” I asked. “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never been. I don’t want to stand in line to get tickets.”
“It’s so worth it! You should! Lots of cool demonstrations.”
“Maybe next year.”
I started attending Math Club meetings off and on last year, although I have not been very active in the club. I knew Brandon and Susan and some of the others to say hi to, and some of the younger people in Math Club I had been in classes with, but I was not particularly close with any of them.
“Hi,” I said as a boy walked up to my table, looking at the Monty Hall problem poster. “What’s this?”
“The Monty Hall problem,” I said. “Have you heard of this?”
“I don’t think so.”
I set up the game, putting a card representing a new car behind door number 2. “Suppose you’re on a game show. Behind one of these three doors is a new car, and the other two have a goat. You choose one.”
He thought for a few seconds, then said, “Number three.”
“So before we say where the car is, I’m going to open door number 1,” I said. I showed him the goat behind the door. “Now, do you want to stick with your answer of door number 3, or switch to door number 2?”
“Hmm,” the guy replied. “I’m going to stick with my original choice. Door number 3.” I opened door number 3 to show the goat. “Aww,” he said, as I revealed the car behind door number 2. I wrote the results of his game on a scoresheet we had made for that purpose. “What’s that?” he asked.
“We’re keeping track of everyone who plays today, whether or not you switched doors, and whether or not you won. Mathematically, you actually have a better chance of winning if you switch doors.”
“Really,” he said. “How does that work?”
I had a small poster explaining the problem mathematically that I was instructed to keep covered until after the contestant had played; I showed it to him now. “Basically,” I said, “you had a 1 in 3 chance of being right when you said door number 3. I opened a door that I know is wrong, but that doesn’t change your 1 in 3 chance of being right. So if you switched, knowing that door number 1 was not the prize, you would have a 2 in 3 chance of being right. At the end of the day, you can come back and look at the score sheet, to see if the people who switched were actually right more often than the people who didn’t.”
“Interesting,” the guy said. “Why is this called the Monty Hall problem?”
“He was the host of Let’s Make A Deal.” The guy gave me a blank stare, so I added, “That was a classic TV game show that inspired this problem.”
“Oh,” he said.
“I remember when it stirred up controversy in Marilyn Vos Savant’s column. Do you know about that?” He shook his head no, so I continued explaining. “Marilyn has one of the highest known IQs of anyone, and she writes a newspaper column. She wrote about this problem a few years ago, and all sorts of people, some of them claiming to have math degrees, wrote to her telling her that she was wrong. But she wasn’t.”
“Whoa,” the guy said, looking unimpressed.
“Enjoy your Spring Picnic!” I said as he walked away. I had learned more and more these days that my peers just did not read news in print like I did, nor did they grow up watching game shows.
“Greg!” a familiar voice said a while later. I looked up to see Sarah Winters, whom I had known since my first week at UJ.
“Hi, Sarah. How are you?”
“I’m good! How are you? Did I tell you I’m changing my major to math?”
“No! When did this happen?”
“I want to be a teacher, I’ve known that for a long time. I decided that math is what I like teaching best.”
“Nice! Maybe we’ll have some classes together someday.”
“Yeah! What’s this thing?” Sarah asked, pointing to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.
“You have to move all five discs on this spindle to one of the other two spindles,” I explained. “But you can only move one at a time, and you can only put a smaller disc on top of a larger disc.”
“It’s significant because it’s an example of recursion. Each time you get to the next bigger disc, you have to solve the same problem for one fewer disc. And the number of moves you need follows a nice exponential growth pattern.”
“I see,” Sarah said, playing with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, trying to move the discs accordingly. “So you’re part of the Math Club?”
“I go to most of the meetings,” I said. “But this is the first time I’ve ever done anything for Math Club.”
“What kind of things do you do in Math Club?”
“Math games, outreach, talking about careers in math, stuff like that.”
“I might have to check it out sometime!”
“That would be cool!”
“What else are you doing today?” Sarah asked.
“I’m going to go see the band Lawsuit after my shift here.”
“That’ll be fun. I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”
My shift ended at three o’clock, and I still had not eaten. At one of the tables, we were giving out candy to people who could solve the puzzles, and I had been sneaking candy when no one was looking for the whole three hours I was there. When I got back to the Quad, all the student-run food booths had shut down, but a truck with typical fair and festival type food was open on the far corner of the Quad near the library. I went there and bought a hot dog. Not as exciting as lumpia, but I was hungry.
I crossed to the east side of the Quad, across the street from the oldest buildings on campus, and watched a band finish playing. I looked through the schedule of events while that band took their equipment and instruments down and Lawsuit set up, looking for something to do after their show. Most of the events and shows would be shut down by then; the only thing going on that late was the Battle of the Bands, where the marching bands from UJ and several other universities in the region play on into the night.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone finally said on stage around 3:45, “the name of this band is Lawsuit!” Paul Sykes, the lead singer, began rapping while the rest of the band played the background music of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” a song from the 1970s that had become popular again recently because it was in the movie Pulp Fiction. This segued into “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” the song they had opened with when I saw them last year.
Lawsuit was a difficult band to categorize. Their music crossed the boundaries of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, and something called “ska” which apparently meant rock with horns. The band had ten members, and during a long guitar and bass solo, the members of the horn section did a strange dance. I sang along quietly, since I knew this song, and cheered loudly at the end.
Lawsuit played for almost an hour. I knew about half the songs, since I now had a bootleg tape of their newest album that I had copied from someone in my dorm last year. Last year I knew nothing of their music, but this year I knew around half of the songs from that tape. The others, mostly older songs of theirs along with one that they said was from a new album coming this summer, included one about a couch and one about Einstein. One thing I always noticed about Lawsuit was that their music felt at times like one giant inside joke that I was not in on, but I enjoyed it anyway. I had been looking forward to this show since the moment that Lawsuit’s show at last year’s Spring Picnic ended, a year ago.
“We have one more song for you,” Paul said after they had been playing for a while. “Before you go, make sure you sign up for our mailing list, and we also have CDs and merch.” He then went into a song from the tape I had called “Picture Book Pretty.” In the middle of the song, I noticed that he sang “one thousand red roses would not be quite enough,” instead of “one dozen red roses” like he says on the album. I was not sure why he changed it.
After the show, I walked to the table in front and put my name and address on the mailing list. This was how bands stayed in touch with their fans in 1996; there was no social media or YouTube back then, and email and websites were themselves brand new technologies just beginning to break into the mainstream. By filling out this mailing list, I would get a postcard in the mail every month or two from Lawsuit. They did also have an email list, though; I signed up for that too, even though the postcards and email would probably say the same thing.
“Hey, Greg,” someone said as I turned to leave the merch table. I looked up; it was Christian Channing, a senior whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the older brother of Haley, my tour guide friend whom I wanted to be more than a friend. “I didn’t know you liked Lawsuit. Is this your first time hearing them?”
“I saw them at last year’s Spring Picnic. They’re so good!”
“I know! My little brother, he’s 15, I gave him a tape of Lawsuit last year, and now he loves them too. Last summer we went and saw them when they played back home.”
“Hey, I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”
“Yeah. Have a good one!”
I walked to the lake in the middle of the Arboretum near Marks Hall, where the Battle of the Bands was, and stayed there for about another hour. The band visiting from Walton University always played a song that was about forty minutes long; I left around six o’clock in the middle of that song dragging on and on. Seeing Lawsuit was great, and working the Math Club table was something new, and it did not end up raining. But despite all that, this year’s Spring Picnic felt disappointing. Because I had volunteered three hours of my time, I missed out on my favorite part of the Spring Picnic: walking around campus looking at random exhibits. The University of Jeromeville was so huge that no one could possibly see everything, so there would always be new things to see every year at the Spring Picnic. I got to see very little of that this year, since I spent so much time at the Math Club table. I learned my lesson from this, though; this was the first Spring Picnic for which I volunteered for something, and it would be the last.
This was also the last Spring Picnic that Lawsuit played, although I would see Lawsuit play live again. But that is another story for another time.
Note from the author: When I wrote about the previous year’s Spring Picnic, in December 2019, I said that I would be spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic in April. That prediction did not age well; the 2020 and 2021 Spring Picnics were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not having the Spring Picnic for two years in a row has been difficult for me…
17 thoughts on “April 20, 1996. Working a table at the Spring Picnic. (#79)”
I used to love puzzle problems like that! Perfect for a math teacher. And a cool song, too.
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Yes! I saw Lawsuit for the first time at the previous year’s Spring Picnic (1995). There will be more about Lawsuit later.
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Hey Greg I’m new to wordpress and your posts are cool! and please do support & follow my website….
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Wow! I loved that Monty Hall Problem. I tried it out on my boyfriend, and he chose the car on the first try without switching. Then we googled the expanded explanation to understand the theory behind it. Just fascinating!
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I know! It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true. And, I should add, it’s fun to go back to Spring Picnic as an adult and talk to someone at the Math Club table who doesn’t know me and impress them with my thorough knowledge of the problem… I’ve done that a few times :)
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