“What is that on the tree?” I asked, laughing, because I knew exactly what this new Christmas ornament was.
“Your brother made that,” Mom said, rolling her eyes.
Back in the 1990s, the tallest player in the National Basketball Association was seven-foot-seven-inch Gheorghe Muresan, of the team known then as the Washington Bullets. My brother Mark loved basketball and played on the school team, and he thought Gheorghe Muresan was fascinatingly odd-looking. Mark apparently cut a photo of Gheorghe Muresan out of a magazine, attached an ornament hook to it, and hung it on the Christmas tree.
“But why?” I asked.
“Why not?” Mark said, laughing.
“Good point. Hey, is that a Nintendo 64?”
“Yes,” Mom answered. “It was Mark’s early Christmas present.”
“Can I get a turn when you’re done?” I asked Mark.
“Yeah,” he said. “Whatever.”
I took my bags to my bedroom. I had finished final exams a few days earlier, and Christmas was about a week away. I spent a lot of time that week playing the new Super Mario game on Mark’s Nintendo 64. The previous Mario games had been two-dimensional platform games, in which Mario moved side to side and jumped on things. This one was three-dimensional, with a thumbstick controlling Mario from the first person, and I had more difficulty with it. It was still fun, though.
The week went by quickly. I got my dad a Grateful Dead calendar for Christmas, as I always did, and I got Mom the new book in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, M is for Malice. I got Mark a calendar of NBA players, which he put on his wall and then ignored. The calendar still displayed January 1997 well into 1999, and when I asked him about it then, he complained that he never used calendars. I never got Mark a calendar again.
We had fewer presents to open this year. Mark had already gotten his Nintendo 64, and a few days after I got home, Mom took me shopping for my early Christmas present. We bought a jacket, a beanie, and comfortable thick socks, since I was going to be spending the week after Christmas in a colder climate. On the ride home from the mall, Mom made small talk.
“How many people do you know who will be at Urbana?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Quite a few. But it’s such a huge convention, and I don’t know where everyone will be. Eddie Baker told me we might not even see each other.”
Next, Mom started naming specific school friends whose names she remembered. “What’s Brian doing for Christmas?” Mom asked.
“Going to his parents’ house in Valle Luna, then going to Urbana. Since he’s a staff member, he has to work there, but I don’t know what he’s doing.”
“He left the apartment on Sunday. When he left, he said, ‘I’ll see you at Urbana!’”
“What’s Eddie doing for Christmas? Seeing his family too?”
“Yeah. In Sunnyglen.”
“Did he tell you, ‘I won’t see you at Urbana?’”
“No,” I laughed.
Usually, the evening of December 25 was a time to relax and unwind after a long day of being around relatives. But this year was different; Mom and I spent the evening packing. I would need a minimum of six changes of clothes besides the clothes I would put on in the morning, so I put seven changes of clothes in my suitcase just in case. I also packed my new jacket, beanie, and socks. In my backpack, I put a notebook, a few pens, and my Bible. Mom suggested that I move one change of clothes to the backpack and use it as carry-on luggage, just in case I got stranded in an airport somewhere. I was not familiar with this concept of carry-on luggage, but I figured out what she meant.
It was close to midnight by the time I finally got to bed and set my alarm for 4:30. Tonight was not looking like a restful night. I was too excited and overwhelmed to fall asleep quickly, and I got less than four hours of sleep that night. Hopefully I would be able to sleep on the plane, but since I had no concept of what an airplane trip was like, how uncomfortable or noisy it would be, I was not sure.
We left the house a little after five o’clock, which got us to the Bay City airport around seven. The flight left at 8:30, and although going through airport security did not take nearly as long in 1996 as it does now, I still wanted to be there in plenty of time.
I did not know how to plan an airplane trip. Tabitha Sasaki had said a few months ago that she wanted to get a few people to go in together on a flight and hotel room, and she had done all the planning; I just gave her money. The convention did not start until the morning of the 27th, so today, the 26th, would be a travel day, ending in a stay at a hotel.
The Urbana convention, hosted by Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, was named after its location in Urbana, Illinois. Thousands of Christian young adults would descend on Urbana this week to learn about opportunities to serve Jesus around the world. Shuttle buses for Urbana attendees would pick up students from the airports in Chicago and Indianapolis, each about a two-hour drive from Urbana. We were scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis in the early evening, after changing planes in St. Louis. I had never been that far east before. I also had no memory of ever having been in an airport, so basic airport concepts like checking bags, going through security, waiting at the gate, and showing a boarding pass were completely foreign to me. Mom says that I was on an airplane once as a baby, but I was too young to remember that.
“Which airline are you taking?” Mom asked as she turned off the freeway to the airport entrance. Bay City International Airport was very large, with different airlines served by different terminals.
“TWA,” I replied. Mom followed the signs to the terminal for TWA and found a place to park in a short-term parking garage. Mom followed me inside the terminal, then asked, “Who are you supposed to be meeting here?”
“Tabitha said to meet near check-in. Is that there?” I asked, pointing toward the long desk and longer line of travelers waiting to check bags and get boarding passes. As we approached, I noticed a round-faced Asian girl with chin-length black hair standing not too far off and said, “There’s Tabitha right there.”
Tabitha saw me as I walked toward her. “Hey, Greg,” she said. “We’re still waiting for Leslie and Lillian.”
“Mom, this is Tabitha,” I said. “Tabitha, this is my mom, Peggy.”
“Nice to meet you,” Tabitha said, shaking Mom’s hand.
“You too,” Mom replied.
“Do I have to get in that line?” I asked. “I’ve never done this before.”
“You’ve never been on an airplane?” Tabitha replied.
“Once when I was a baby. But I don’t remember it.”
“Oh, wow! Yeah, we’ll have to check our bags there. I figured the line doesn’t look too long, so we can wait until everyone gets here and all stay together. There’s Leslie.”
“Hey, guys,” Leslie said, walking toward us. “Is everyone here?”
“We’re still waiting for Lillian,” I said.
After I introduced Mom and Leslie, Mom said, “I still have to drive all the way back to Plumdale and work today.”
“I think you can go now,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure?” Mom asked.
“Yes.” I knew that Mom was going to worry the whole time I was traveling, but she also seemed to be subtly complaining about having gotten up early. I had found my traveling companions, though; I was ready to continue on my own.
“Okay,” Mom said. “Call me from the hotel room when you get there.”
“I will.” I gave Mom a hug and watched as she walked away.
Lillian arrived a few minutes after Mom left, and we boarded the flight to St. Louis without incident. We rode a very large aircraft, with ten seats in each row broken into three sections by aisles. The four of us were all near each other, although not immediately adjacent. We had one window seat among the four of us, on the left, and being a map and geography geek, I was quite interested in seeing the United States from thousands of feet in the air. I reminded everyone that I had not been on an airplane in almost twenty years, and that I was too young to remember my other airplane trip, so they were willing to let me have the window seat. I decided that I would be nice and not push for the window seat on the return trip.
We took off over the Bay, and I could see Oaksville and other sprawling suburbs spread out on the other side of the Bay against the hills. It took only a few minutes for the airplane to fly over the hills, and by the time we reached the Valley on the other side, I could spot Jeromeville in the distance, although it was too far away to identify any landmarks.
Beyond the Valley, the land below the airplane became mountainous. Vast stretches of this terrain was high enough in altitude to be covered with snow. It was beautiful; I had only seen snow up close twice in my life at this point. After we had been in the air for about forty-five minutes, a layer of clouds appeared between the airplane and the ground. I had never seen this perspective, with clouds stretched out below like a puffy carpet, but I soon got bored at staring at the clouds, since there were no features to identify. I began dozing; I was still tired from having awakened so early this morning.
When the clouds cleared, I could see a highway interchange on the brown land below me, but I had lost all my bearings by this point and had no idea where I was. The land was mostly featureless, and the trip was not close to being over yet. I still looked out the window for a long time, seeing an occasional road or building below, before nodding off again.
Our plane touched down in St. Louis in mid-afternoon, although it felt like lunch time since we lost two hours because of time zones. “Which way are we going now?” I asked Tabitha as we emerged into the airport gate.
“Follow me,” she replied, looking at her boarding pass. We walked down a row of gates and found the one for the next leg of our flight. It was not far from where we were, and our next flight did not leave for an hour and a half, so we went to find overpriced fast food for lunch.
“Did you say someone else we know is going to be at our hotel?” Lillian asked.
“Yes!” Tabitha replied. “So many people from Jeromeville will be at our hotel. We’ll probably hang out with them later tonight.”
“That’ll be fun,” I said. With so much around me at the moment that was unfamiliar, in light of Eddie’s comment about how we might not see anyone we know at Urbana, I definitely felt relieved that others I knew would be at the hotel.
Boarding the flight to Indianapolis was much like the experience of boarding the other flight from Bay City to St. Louis, but the inside of the airplane was much different. This plane was smaller, with only six seats across and one aisle down the middle. The flight itself was also much shorter, so I did not have time for a nap. I sat in a middle seat, so my view out the window was not as clear as on the first leg of the flight, but as the plane headed east, I noticed more and more snow appearing on the ground. By the time we landed in Indianapolis, the entire ground was covered in a few inches of snow for as far as I could see in any direction. I wondered if the ground in Indiana and Illinois was continuously covered in snow all winter. I mentioned to the others while we were waiting to get our luggage that I had never seen so much snow in my life.
“Really?” Leslie asked.
“We’re definitely not home anymore,” Tabitha said.
We caught a shuttle bus to the hotel. The driver seemed completely unfazed by the snow. I would have been panicking, driving in the snow like that, wondering if I needed to put chains on the tires, but people who lived in this climate apparently knew how to drive in snow. There did not seem to be snow accumulating on the roads, probably because the snow was not currently falling and cars had been driving on the road all day.
I was the only guy in our travel group, so Tabitha had booked me in a separate room. After we checked in, I went to my room and lay on the bed. I spent the next hour or so attempting to nap again. Although the clock said it was dinner time, I was not hungry, since I had just eaten a fairly large lunch, and my body was still on West Coast time and felt like it was earlier.
At around quarter to eight, Tabitha knocked on my door; Leslie was with her. “We saw Scott and Amelia in the lobby earlier. We’re all going to meet now to watch Friends. You wanna come?”
I was not expecting to have a major quandary on this trip. In an effort to keep from alienating myself from all of the people I had met at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had hidden from them the fact that I did not watch Friends. Since I was on a school holiday, it had not even crossed my mind that today was Thursday, and that Friends would be on tonight. I had never actually seen the show, so I could not really say that I hated it, but the show was extremely popular, and I got the impression from commercials and hearing people talk about the show that it was not my thing. However, could I really have a well-formed opinion of the show without having watched it? I also did not want to pass up an opportunity to see my actual friends here in this unfamiliar, snow-covered landscape, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure.”
I followed Tabitha and Leslie upstairs to a hallway that looked identical to the one on my floor. They knocked on a door, and Amelia answered. “Hey,” she said. Then, noticing me, seeing me for the first time in two weeks, she said, “Hi, Greg! How are you? How was your Christmas?”
“Good,” I replied. “Just the usual stuff with my family. My brother got a Nintendo 64, so that was fun. How was yours?”
“Nice. But I spent most of yesterday packing, so I wasn’t around my family as much.”
I walked into the room, where about a dozen people had packed in on the beds and floor, including Amelia’s boyfriend Scott, Lillian from our flight, Melinda Schmidt, Joe Fox, Alyssa Kramer, Autumn Davies, Leah Eckert, and others. I made small talk with some of the people in the room for a few minutes until the show started.
As I watched the six New Yorkers on the screen talk about their lives, careers, and sexual partners, I realized exactly why I disliked the show. I found all of them completely unrelatable. The show had some moments that made me chuckle, but so much of the plot revolved around relationships and sex, for which I had no frame of reference. They reminded me of the stereotypical cool kids who excluded me and got what they wanted through morally questionable means. I wondered why so many of my Christian friends were so attached to a show with characters behaving in a way that contradicted the Bible’s teachings about sexuality. I hoped that the others in the room did not live like Rachel and Ross and Joey and all the annoying people on the screen. But I kept quiet and watched the show; now was not the time to start an argument. And now that I had watched the show, I knew for sure that I did not like it.
I looked out the hotel window before I went to bed that night and watched snow fall lightly on the parking lot for a few minutes. When I woke up in the morning, the snow was clearly deeper than it had been yesterday. I bundled up, wearing my new jacket and beanie, and met Tabitha and the others in the lobby at the time we had discussed, to wait for the shuttle bus. After we boarded the bus, it took a little over two hours to travel west through the snow-covered rolling hills to the campus.
I was excited for what was coming. This winter break had been a time of firsts. Back home with my brother was my first time playing Nintendo 64. Now, this trip was my first time being on an airplane, at least in my memory; my first time in a different time zone; and my first time in Missouri and Indiana. This morning, as I saw a sign out the bus window that said “ILLINOIS STATE LINE,” I added a third new state to this trip. It had also been my first time watching Friends, an experience I had no particular desire to replicate. Once I arrived on the campus and stood in line for registration, receiving a bracelet as a convention attendee, I knew that this would be a unique experience opening my eyes to new firsts that God would show me in the upcoming years.
(To be continued…)
Hi, friends! I’m back… my break from writing was a little longer than I thought it would be, mostly just because life got in the way. During the break, I started another blog (click here) to write about other things, or to write about writing, or to share other creative works besides my continuing story. I’m not planning to post there on any schedule, but you can subscribe if you want updates from me. Also, I wrote a couple of guest posts for other blogs; I will share the links here when they get published.
This Urbana trip was the farthest I had been from my home in the western US at the time, but as of 2021, the farthest I have been from home is Kittery, Maine, on the US East Coast about an hour drive north of Boston. The story of that trip will be told in Just Take The Leap, a sequel to Don’t Let The Days Go By that I plan on writing someday, years from now.
What is the farthest you have been from home?
Disclaimer: Urbana is a real event (urbana.org), but it has since moved, and is not actually held in Urbana anymore. Intervarsity was not involved in the composition of this story, and this is not a sponsored post.