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.
Readers: What’s the most ridiculous huge meal you’ve ever eaten? Tell me about it in the comments!