May 23-25, 1997. Canceled plans and a trendy haircut. (#132)

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.”

“I will.”




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?”

“Go ahead!”

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?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“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.”

“Good luck.”

“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.

A friendly and chatty girl from the junior high group named Samantha waved at me.  I walked over to her, and she looked up at me and said, “You’re so tall.”

“I know,” I replied.  “You say that to me a lot.”

“You should shave your head!”

“No, I really shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

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.


Author’s note: Have you ever gone along with a hairstyle that was trendy for its time? Share an interesting story about that in the comments.

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March 29-April 3, 1997.  A montage of the new quarter. (#126)

“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.”

“Boz is as big of a Star Wars fan as you,” I said.

“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?”

“3263827.”

“Very good.”

“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.”

“Gilbert Taylor.”

“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.”

“That’s cool.”

“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.”

“That’s right.  Well, I’m glad you’re back.”

“Thank you.”

I walked toward the bass section and sat next to a guy I recognized from fall quarter when I was also in chorus.  “Hey,” he said.  “Welcome back.  It’s Greg, right?”

“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.


February 5, 1997. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. (#118)

I walked toward the church and entered the fellowship hall building, which was called The Lamp.  The building was quiet and empty, much different from Sunday mornings when 20/20, the college Sunday school class, met here.  A small group of people around my age sat in a circle near the middle of the group, reading what appeared to be copies of the same paper.  I recognized most, but not all, of the people in the circle from the college group.

“Greg!  You made it!” Taylor Santiago called out from the circle, motioning me over.

“Yeah,” I said.  “So what do I need to do?”

“Just hang out.  After everyone gets here, we’re going to go over the plan for the night.”

I sat in the circle in between Taylor and a girl with bushy light brown hair whom I did not know.  Taylor handed me my own copy of the paper; it said THE EDGE, 2/5/97 at the top.  Below this was a schedule for the night, along with a discussion outline for small groups at the end of the night, and a list of which students would be with which leaders in these small groups.  I noticed that one group was listed as “Taylor/Greg,” and that this group included Ted, Zac, and Danny, the three students whom I knew.  Taylor had told whomever made this schedule that I would be coming tonight.

“How’s it going, Taylor?” Noah Snyder asked.  I knew Noah from the college group; he and Taylor had been friends since their early teens, before they both came to the University of Jeromeville.  I had also seen his name in the church bulletin with the title “junior high intern”; I thought that meant that he actually got paid part time to have a leadership role with The Edge, the group for junior high school students here at Jeromeville Covenant Church.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  I was vaguely aware that someone else entered the room during our conversation, but I did not pay attention until I heard a familiar female voice say, “Greg?”

I looked up and saw a girl with straight dark blonde hair standing next to her boyfriend, a stocky, muscular guy a little bit shorter than her.  “Hey, Abby,” I said.  “Josh.”

“Greg?  Are you gonna be an Edge leader?” Josh asked.

“Maybe,” I replied.  “I’m checking it out.  I might be taking Taylor’s spot when he leaves spring quarter.”

“Well, I hope you enjoy it!”

“It’s so much fun!” Abby added.

Across from me in the circle was a tall guy who looked older than me, maybe around twenty-five.  He had short, almost buzzed hair, and a toothy grin; I knew from having been around J-Cov the last four months that this was Adam White, the youth pastor.  “You two know each other?” Adam asked when he saw Josh talking to me.

“Yeah,” I said, although the fact that Josh lived under the same roof as me, and I had no idea that he was an Edge leader, made me wonder if I really knew him at all.  I did not say this, though, because I really did feel bad that I did not know this.  I did not know that Abby was an Edge leader either, and I had known her even longer than Josh.  “He’s my roommate.”

“That roommate you never see who works weird hours?” Taylor asked.  “That’s Josh?”

“Yeah!”

“I never knew that!”

A few minutes later, after everyone had arrived, Noah gathered us to begin the night.  “We have a new leader,” he said.  “Greg, why don’t you introduce yourself?”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’m a junior, a math major.  I’ve been going to J-Cov and 20/20 since October.  But I know a lot of you from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and Taylor was in my dorm freshman year.  Three boys from The Edge decided they wanted to hang out with me a few weeks ago after church, so I’ve been getting to know them.  Taylor told me about how he’s going away for six months, and since I’ve been hanging out with those boys, he asked if I’d be interested in trying out The Edge and taking over his small group for the rest of the year.”

“So they just decided they wanted to hang out with you?” Noah asked.  “Who are they?”

“Ted Hunter, and Zac, and Danny,” I said.  “I don’t know the others’ last names.”

“Danny Foster,” the bushy-haired girl next to me said.  “That’s my brother.”

“Oh, okay.” 

“That’s hilarious that the kids just went out and found you to be their leader,” Adam said.  “I’m Adam.  I’m the youth pastor.  Who else here do you know?”

I looked around the circle, pointing at people.  “Taylor, Noah, Martin, Courtney,” I said.  “Abby and Josh.  And James,” I added, purposely not calling him Barefoot James to his face.  I knew these people either from rom JCF or 20/20, or both, but some of them I did not know were Edge leaders.  The others introduced themselves next; Danny Foster’s sister was named Erica.  A scruffy-looking guy I had seen at 20/20 but did not know was named Brody, and a girl with long dark hair was named Kate.  Finally, a girl with short, chin-length blonde hair introduced herself as Charlotte; I had never seen her before.

“Nice to meet you guys,” I replied.

Noah then discussed the plan for the rest of the night, and when we finished this, he asked if there were any prayer requests.  “I have one,” I said.  “Pray that I will seek God’s will for my life, that I’ll know if working with The Edge is part of it.”

“That’s a good one.  Anyone else?”

Each person in the circle shared a prayer request.  Some were specific, like Taylor’s upcoming mission trip, Charlotte’s midterm, and Kate’s sick uncle; others just asked to thank God for a good week.  We each then took turns praying for the person on our left.  When my turn came, I said, “God, I thank you that Taylor has this opportunity to go to Chicago, to serve you.  I pray that all of those around him will see your love and your message of salvation through his actions and his attitude.  I pray that you will bless him with safe travel, and a good adjustment to a new living situation.”

After everyone finished praying we all looked back up.  “Go love those kids!” Noah said in a way that suggested that he said this every week at this point.

“So what do I do now?” I asked Noah.

“Just hang out.  It starts at 7, but kids will gradually trickle in, and we’ll do announcements at 7:15.  If kids ask you who you are, just tell them.”


Over the next twenty minutes, the room gradually filled with twelve- through fourteen-year-olds of all shapes and sizes.  Of the boys I knew, Ted was the first to arrive.  “Greg!” he shouted when he saw me.  “You’re here!”

“I know!  And I’m going to be in your small group with Taylor.”

“Great!”  Ted saw Danny walk in and motioned for him to come over.  “Danny!” Ted exclaimed.  “Look!  Greg’s here!”

Zac arrived a minute later, and the boys moved on to do something else a minute after that.  I walked around, trying to take in the atmosphere.  Music that I did not recognize played on the speakers, something that sounded like the typical girl-rock of that era, but this singer had a distinct voice, a little bit like that girl from the Cranberries, but not really. The lyrics, and the fact that we were at church, made me think this was a Christian singer.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Taylor.

“Sarah Masen,” he answered.  Yeah, I did not know that one.  Working with The Edge, I learned quickly that there were many, many Christian singers and bands that I did not know.

“Are you a new leader?” I heard a voice say next to me.  I turned and saw a small girl with blue eyes and brown hair looking up at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m just checking it out for now.”

“You’re tall.”

“Yeah,” I chucked.  “I know.”

“What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

“I’m Samantha.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said.

At 7:15, Adam called everyone to attention, speaking through a microphone.  Around forty students were in attendance.  “Is there anyone new here tonight?” he asked.  Two students walked up to the stage.  I saw Taylor motioning for me to follow them, so I did.

After Adam introduced the new students, he came to me.  “Greg, what’s your name?” he asked.  He had done this for the new students as well, using their names while asking for their names, and the first time, students laughed at this.

“Greg,” I said.

“Where do you go to school?”

“University of Jeromeville,” I answered.  When the new students named their schools, students from that school cheered, but for me, everyone cheered for UJ.

Adam asked the new students a silly would-you-rather question next, and I was no exception. “Would you rather wear shorts in freezing weather or long pants in hot weather?”

“Neither,” I said.  “But if I had to pick, probably long pants in hot weather.”

“Everyone, welcome Greg!”  The students cheered for me again..  When the room got quiet, Adam said that it was time to play a game.  “Tonight, we are going to have a giant rock-paper-scissors tournament!”  Some of the students made excited cheers, while a few groaned in disappointment.  “You just walk to someone, count one-two-three, and then make the sign for rock, paper, or scissors.”  Adam demonstrated the three hand signs, a fist for rock, all the fingers lying flat next to each other for paper, and two fingers extended for scissors.  “Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock.  If you lose, go to the back of the room.  If you win, find someone else who won, and play again.  We’ll keep playing until there are only two people left, and the winner of that final game gets…” Adam trailed off as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the grand prize.  “A five dollar gift card to Lucky!”  During our meeting earlier, I wondered aloud if students would really be motivated by a grocery store gift card; Noah assured me that, to junior high schoolers, the thought of being able to spend five dollars on junk food was major excitement.  The reaction from the crowd when Adam showed them the gift card confirmed Noah’s statement.

A few minutes of mass chaos ensued as students ran off to find opponents.  As a leader, my job was to watch for students who had lost and were trying to jump back into the game.  I noticed one, and when I told him to go sit in the back, he refused, but he lost his next match anyway.  Finally, the group had been winnowed to two: Ted Hunter and a girl named Shawna.  The rest of the students had gathered around either Ted or Shawna, with most of the boys cheering for Ted and most of the girls cheering for Shawna.

“Here we go,” Adam announced.  “This is the final game, Ted versus Shawna.  Ready?  One, two, three!”  Ted placed his hand in the rock position, and Shawna chose paper.  Paper covers rock.  Shawna made an excited exclamation, and her supporters cheered wildly as Adam presented her with the grocery store gift card.

Courtney and Brody took the stage next for announcements, most of which involved the upcoming Winter Camp.  A week from Friday, many of the students would be traveling up to the mountains for the weekend.  In addition to fun activities and Bible lessons, some of the students would visit a nearby ski resort on one of the days, with everyone else staying behind to play in the snow.  In this part of the United States, only high elevations got snow, and most of the population lived in low-lying valleys.  I did not travel to snow regularly growing up, and I had only seen snow three times.  Winter Camp sounded like fun; maybe if I was still volunteering with The Edge a year from now, I would go to Winter Camp.

Adam brought a guitar on stage next for worship, and Abby joined him, along with Courtney and Brody who were already there.  The first worship song was one that I did not recognize; it sounded much more like a children’s song than the worship songs we sang in the college group or at JCF.  Courtney and Abby got on stage to lead the students through hand motions during the refrain of the song.  Many of the students got excited to do the hand motions.  Personally, I thought the hand motions were dumb.  I stood in the back and sang without doing the hand motions.  I had never spent time around Christian youth group kids, so it was surprising to me that these students enjoyed the hand motions and did not find them corny and distracting, like me.  I was glad that they were having fun, though.

After the third song, Adam stayed on the stage, alone, with the microphone.  “How many of you have ever experienced getting picked last for a team?”  A few hands went up.  “How many of you always get picked first?”  A few other hands went up, with murmurs of arguments from some who seemed to disagree with those students’ assessments of themselves.  Adam then read from the First Book of Samuel about God sending Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem, to choose a King of Israel from among Jesse’s sons.  Samuel saw seven good-looking young men pass by, but God instead chose David, the youngest, who had not been invited to meet Samuel.

Adam then read names of students and told them which small group they were in.  I assumed that someone adjusted the list as students were arriving, since the boys Taylor and I got did not exactly match the list I received at the beginning of the night.

Taylor and I walked with Ted, Danny, Zac, and three other boys to one of the children’s Sunday school rooms, in another building closer to the parking lot.  The boys sat in small child-size chairs around a table, and Taylor sat in an adult-size chair, facing them.  I could not find another adult chair, so I sat uncomfortably in a child chair next to Taylor.

“Have any of you ever been picked last for something?” Taylor asked.

“I hate when they have students pick teams like that,” Zac replied.  “One time, in, like, fourth grade, we were playing basketball in PE, and I got picked last  But I ended up scoring the winning basket.  It was awesome.  It was my only basket too.”

“Was that the game where you accidentally tripped Jonathan?” one of the other boys asked.

“Yeah!  And he got a bloody nose!”

“Why do you think David’s dad didn’t ask him to come meet Samuel?” Taylor asked.

Zac, whose Bible was actually open, said, “Because the rest of his family probably thought there’s no way he would be the king.”

“Yeah.  Pretty much.  David was the youngest.  They just thought he was only good for feeding the sheep.  But what did God see in him?”

None of the boys said anything, so I decided to jump in with a hint.  “It’s right there in the Bible passage we were reading.”

“The Lord looks at the heart!” Danny exclaimed excitedly, pointing at those words in his Bible.

“Good!  Now turn near the back of the Bible, to First Timothy 4:12.  Does anyone want to read?” Taylor asked.

Zac and Ted argued over who would read, then they began reading together.  “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.”

“Paul wrote this to Timothy, but he could have written it to you,” Taylor explained.  “Just because you are young, it doesn’t mean you can’t influence the world around you for Jesus. 
King David was young too, and he led the nation of Israel and wrote a bunch of the Psalms.”  

The small group met for a total of about twenty minutes.  We discussed more about God looking at what is on the inside, and young people making a difference for Christ.  We got more distracted as the night went on.  Taylor asked me at the end of the small group time if I would close the night in prayer.  I was not prepared for this, but I figured I could easily wing it.

“Jesus,” I said.  “Thank you for this opportunity to be a leader with The Edge.  Thank you for all of the wonderful students I met tonight.  I pray that all of us will realize that, even though we are young, we still have a role to play in the Kingdom of God.  I pray that we will remember this as we go through the week.  In the name of Jesus, Amen.”


The students and leaders mingled in the fellowship hall after small groups finished. Parents came to pick up students, and when the crowd had thinned significantly, we began putting things back in closets and cleaning the fellowship hall.

“So what did you think?” Courtney asked me as we moved a folding table to a closet.  “Are you gonna come back next week?”

“Yeah!” I said.  “This was a lot of fun!”

“Good!” she replied.

The events of the night replayed in my mind as I drove home, around nine o’clock, and as I worked on math homework for the rest of the night until bedtime.  If The Edge became a permanent activity for me, I would not have time to be a Bible study leader with JCF, as I had thought about doing over the last couple months.  But maybe that was a good thing.  Maybe God wanted me here, working with junior high school students and this friendly group of youth leaders at J-Cov, instead of navigating the cliques that seemed to dominate JCF.  

Since Jeromeville is a university town, many students spend all of their time there interacting almost exclusively with people affiliated with the university. But when I went to church the following Sunday, I realized that I recognized some of the students from The Edge at church.  Danny and Ted sat next to me, and as I was leaving, I saw Samantha, who told me again that I was tall.  I reminded her that she had just told me this on Tuesday, and she replied, “I know.  I’m just in awe of your height.”  I smiled.  At six-foot-four, I towered over this petite young teen by more than a foot, so I guess that was pretty impressive to her. If Samantha wanted to remember me as the tall guy, that was fine with me.  Certainly I could have been remembered for something worse.

I was looking forward to being a leader with The Edge for the rest of the school year, and possibly for longer after that.  I had only been attending Jeromeville Covenant for four months, and I was already making connections beyond the college group, on the other side of Jeromeville not associated with the university.  J-Cov was starting to feel like my new home.


Readers: Are you, or were you ever, part of a church youth group? Or any other type of youth group? What was your favorite thing about your youth group? Tell me in the comments.


April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove. (#78)

“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” the voice on the car stereo sang, followed by some other mumbling words and then guitars and more words.  At least it sounded like those were the words, although it seemed like an odd choice of lyrics for a rock song.  The song contained that exact line several more times.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.

“DC Talk,” he replied.  “I made this mixtape of Christian music for when I’m in the car.”

I nodded.  I had once seen another student at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship wearing a t-shirt that said DC Talk, but I had no idea what that meant.  Apparently DC Talk was a band that sang Christian music.  Other than stuff we sang in church, the only Christian music I was aware of was this Christian soft rock adult contemporary radio station back home in Santa Lucia County, which I never listened to.  But this Jesus Freak song was awesome.

For the first forty minutes after we left Jeromeville, headed west on Highway 100, we passed orchards and pastures and fields interrupted by a few small and medium-sized cities, Silvey, Nueces, Fairview, and La Yegua.  After Fairview, the flatlands of the Capital Valley gave way to grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks.  Eddie had offered me the front seat, since I was the tallest of the five of us; Sarah, Caroline, and Raphael were in the back.  Just past La Yegua, we crossed a bridge over the mouth of the Capital River where it empties into the Bay.  “Hey,” Sarah said when we were halfway across the bridge.  “There’s the other car.”

I looked to the left, in the direction Sarah was pointing.  A small sport-utility vehicle passed us with Tabitha looking at us through the window in the back seat, grinning, and Xander making a funny face over her shoulder.  Haley sat in the front seat, smiling and waving.  Five of the ten people on this trip were neighbors on Baron Court, and the rest of us met there to carpool.  I had hoped that I would end up in the same car as Haley, but I did not want to be too obvious about it.  Since Eddie had invited me on this trip, it had seemed more natural to be in his car.  Kristina drove the other car, and I could see a silhouette of John behind Xander in the back seat.  I waved, although I was not sure anyone could see me from the front passenger seat.

We continued driving through the hills lining the shore of the Bay, through an industrial area, then through several cities and towns that all ran into each other.  In Oaksville, Highways 100, 150, and 88 all met at the entrance to another large bridge.  Eddie drove across the bridge as we saw the lights and buildings of Bay City approaching.

“This is such a great view,” Sarah said.

“Yes,” Raphael agreed.  “One of the greatest cities in the world.”

“I’m not used to seeing it from this side,” I said.  “When we came to Bay City, we always came up 11, and usually it was for Titans games on the other side of the city.”

“Have you never seen downtown Bay City before?” Eddie asked.

“Just twice.”

“It’s pretty awesome.”

We turned onto Highway 11 north, which became a city street, Van Winkle Avenue; the freeway was never completed across the city.  About two miles up Van Winkle Avenue, Eddie pointed across the street and said “There it is.”  I saw the sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, on a building on the corner.  We found a nearby parking garage and walked to the entrance, where the group from the other car waited for us.


The Hard Rock Cafe was loud and crowded.  The walls were covered with music memorabilia, and music played loudly over speakers.  While we waited to get our seat, I read a sign on the wall telling the history of the Hard Rock Cafe.  Two Americans living in London in 1971 started the first Hard Rock Cafe as a place to serve American food and listen to great music.  Eric Clapton became a regular customer, and he hung a guitar on the wall above his favorite seat.  The restaurant incorporated this into their decor and soon opened other locations in big cities and tourist traps worldwide, with music memorabilia on the walls of all of them.

I got up to use the bathroom and took my time getting back to my seat, admiring photographs, posters, guitars, and fancy costumes on display, each with a plaque explaining whom it belonged to and its significance.  I also saw a sign saying “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed.”  I rolled my eyes… hippies.  I could not find my friends in the lobby when I returned, so I walked around the restaurant, looking to see if they had been seated and admiring more rock memorabilia as I looked for them.  When I found them, I smiled nervously at my good fortune; the seat that they had left open for me, coincidentally, was next to Haley.

“Hey,” Haley said when I sat down.  “You found us.”

“Yeah.  I was just looking at stuff on the wall.  It’s really cool.”

“Have you been here before?”

“No.  Have you?”

“Not this one.  But I’ve been to one in Hawaii, on vacation with my family.”

“Nice.  I’ve never been to Hawaii either.”

“I’ve only been once.  It’s so beautiful!”

“I can imagine,” I said.  “So how are your classes this quarter?”

“They’re definitely keeping me busy.  I’m taking a lot.”  Just then the server came and interrupted our conversation.  I ordered a cheeseburger, nothing too adventurous.

All of us talked more about life and classes and things while we waited for the food to arrive.  At one point, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on; I thought this was the Hard Rock Cafe, not the Hard Rap Cafe, but I did not complain.  Kristina started rapping along with Coolio.  “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she began.

“That’s in the Bible, you know,” Eddie said to no one in particular.  I did not know the first time I heard the song, but I did now; it was from Psalm 23, one of the more famous passages in the Bible.  The song was from the movie Dangerous Minds, and I still had a negative memory of that movie, because of what I saw a few rows in front of me when I watched it.

By the time the food arrived, I was starving.  I ate my cheeseburger quickly.  I looked around; Haley was eating a chicken salad, and John, on my other side, had the same cheeseburger I did.  “How is it?” I asked Haley.

“It’s really good,” she said.  “You must have liked yours.  You ate it fast.”

“I did.  And I was starving.  I hadn’t eaten since noon.  It’s after nine o’clock.”

“Yeah, we’re eating late.  Do you know about this place we’re going next?”

“We’re going to sleep on the beach next, aren’t we?”

“Apparently we’re going somewhere else first,” Haley explained.  “One of the guys’ other roommates told us we have to see this thing, but Eddie said it’s a surprise.”

“He didn’t tell me.”

Eddie jumped into our conversation.  “Seriously, it’ll be worth it,” he said.

When the waiter brought our checks, he also gave us each a small button with the Hard Rock Cafe logo in flames.  “1971-1996, 25 Years of Rock,” it said.  Kristina pinned hers to the strap of her purse.  I did not know what I would do with mine; stick in a box somewhere, maybe.

And then 25 more years will pass, and I’ll write about that trip and remember exactly where I put that button.



After we finished paying for the meal, we went back to our cars.  Eddie worked his way southwest across the city, and at a red light he handed me an unfolded map.  “I need someone to help me navigate; I have to watch the road.  This is where we’re going,” he said, pointing at a green spot on the map labeled Bosque Hill Park. “Can you read maps?”

I grew up fascinated by maps, and up until that moment of my life, it had never occurred to me that some people could not read maps.  “Yeah,” I said.  It was a strange question to me.  I was reminded of those first few days of freshman year in Building C, talking about my fascination with maps.  I looked over my shoulder at Sarah in the back seat, grinning; she made eye contact with me and started laughing loudly.  I laughed too. She was thinking of the same thing.

“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.

“At the start of freshman year, the day I met Greg,” Sarah explained, “someone told me that he loved maps.  So he made me tell Greg the highways near my house, to see if Greg could guess where I was from.  And he was right, and Greg and I have been friends ever since.”

“Good job!” Eddie said.

We arrived at Bosque Hill and parked on the street.  Street parking is usually scarce in Bay City, and when Raphael saw another spot open, he suggested we stand there and save the spot for Kristina’s car.  I wondered what was so special about Bosque Hill.  I had seen it on a map, and I had read that it was the highest natural elevation in Bay City, around 1000 feet.  I guessed that the surprise would be a spectacular view of the city lights at night.

After the other car arrived, we began climbing the hill on a well-worn dirt path.  A few people carried flashlights.  The path was surrounded by trees and brush on both sides, and the chirps and buzzes of bugs intertwined with the distant dull roar of the city.  A few times, I could see sweeping views of city lights below, but that was not the surprise Eddie was showing us.

The path turned a corner, and I could see the top of the hill, where a giant cross stood, towering over us, taller than the six-story building where my mathematics professors’ offices were.  What was this?  Why was it here?  I walked closer and read a plaque, identifying this cross as a memorial to pioneers who came from around the world and settled the area.  I looked up and saw that all my friends had adopted postures of prayer, so I did the same.  I looked up at the cross and prayed silently.  Jesus Christ, I thank you for this reminder that you died on the cross to save me from my sins and bring eternal life.  I thank you for the beauty of your creation, even here in the middle of the city.  I thank you that these friends, these brothers and sisters in Christ, invited me on this trip, and I pray that we will have safe travels.  No one spoke for about ten minutes.  I wondered how long we were going to stay here, but I did not want to interrupt everyone’s prayers, so I just kept praying until I saw people start to walk downhill.

“That was pretty cool,” I said when we were back in the car.  Eddie was driving toward the coast on the west side of the city, along the open ocean.  “I had no idea it was there.”

“I was thinking on the way down,” Caroline said.  “When we’re all standing there praying to a cross, couldn’t that be considered idolatry?”

“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily idolatry,” I answered.  “We’re not praying to the cross.  We’re praying to Jesus, and the cross is a symbol reminding us of him.”

“That makes sense,” Eddie said.

“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.

“Thanks,” I replied.

The coast south of Bay City was rugged and hilly, and we drove along the road that hugs the shore for about half an hour, to a town called Moonlight Cove.  I had never been this way before.  The town must have been named on a day unlike today, because tonight it was cloudy and no moon was visible.  “How does this work?” I asked, being completely unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping outside.  “Do we just put down our sleeping bags and sleep on the beach?”

“Pretty much.”

Kristina’s car had beaten us here by a few minutes this time, and we parked next to them.  “Look,” I said as we were unloading.  “That sign over there says ‘No Camping.’  Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

“Yeah, but they never check,” Eddie explained.  “My friends and I in high school came here and slept on this beach a few times.”

“My family lives just over those hills,” Caroline added, “and we came to this beach all the time.  We never spent the night, but I don’t remember anyone patrolling the area or anything.”

“If you say so,” I said, still dreading the fact that we were doing something illegal.  After staying up talking for a bit more, someone pointed out that it was almost midnight, and we decided to go to sleep.

Today, as an adult, I recognize the value of experiences, and I have stayed up all night enough times to know that doing so will not kill me.  But in 1996, I felt like I desperately had to sleep, so when people kept talking as others drifted off to sleep, I felt a need to move somewhere out of earshot.  I quietly told them so, and I dragged my sleeping bag inland about a hundred feet to a slightly more secluded spot near some large rocks.  If the police caught us camping and hauled us off to jail, maybe they would not see me.

Even in my new spot, though, sleep eluded me.  I always had a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was uncomfortable sleeping on sand with the ocean roaring nearby and the wind blowing.  After tossing and turning for a long time, I realized that I had to pee, but there was no bathroom.  I carefully walked behind the rocks, relieved myself, and returned to the sleeping bag.  I looked at my watch; it was 1:29.  I tossed and turned as my mind raced.  I felt somehow inferior to the others since I could not sleep outside, and since my life did not include sleeping outside in any childhood experiences.  I also had homework to do at home.  I tried to think happy thoughts.  Eddie inviting me on this trip.  Sitting next to Haley at the Hard Rock Cafe.  Driving places I had never seen before.  Haley’s pretty blue eyes.  Hiking to the top of Bosque Hill.  The way Haley’s whole face lights up when she smiles.  I got up to use the rocks again at 2:11, then I began praying like I did at the top of Bosque Hill.  I thanked Jesus Christ for all he had done for me and tried to listen to see if he was speaking to me.  I closed my eyes.


The next thing I knew, it was light out.  My watch said 7:02.  I had slept for almost five hours, and given the circumstances, that was probably as good as it would get.  As I returned from using the rocks as my toilet again, I noticed that no one else seemed awake.  I lay in my sleeping bag, enjoying the view, for about forty-five minutes, until I saw Eddie clearly moving around.  I walked back out of sight of the others and changed into the other clothes I had brought, then rolled up my sleeping bag and walked to the others.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie whispered.  “You sleep well?”

“Eventually, but it took a long time to fall asleep.  I never sleep well in unfamiliar places.”

“But you did sleep.”

“I did.”

“Hey, guys,” John whispered, joining the conversation.

Everyone else woke up over the next fifteen minutes as we spoke in whispers.  Once everyone was awake and speaking at a normal volume, Sarah asked, “What’s for breakfast?”

“I was thinking we could go into town and just pick up a few things at Safeway,” Kristina suggested.  “Anyone want to come with me?”

“Sure,” Haley said, getting out of her sleeping bag.

This was my chance.  “I’ll come,” I said.

“Great!” Kristina said.  “Ready?”

As I walked with Kristina and Haley to the parking lot, I realized that I had not showered or brushed my teeth or put on deodorant.  This may not be the best time to be talking to Haley.  But, then again, she probably had not done any of that stuff either.

“I was thinking, get some bagels, and fruit, and juice.  And we need cups for the juice.  Does that work for you guys?” Kristina asked.

“Sure,” Haley said.  I nodded.

We arrived at the store, took a cart, and walked through the aisles together.  After Kristina walked forward to look at different kinds of bagels, Haley asked me, “So did you ever figure out where you’re going to live next year?”

I’m going to live with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr.  Shawn is going to be student teaching, and Brian is going to work with JCF part time and apply to medical school.”

“Oh, wow.  Older guys.  Isn’t Brian applying to medical school right now?”

“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”

“Really.”

“He’s on a waitlist at one place, so plans might change if he does get in, but right now he’s planning to live in Jeromeville another year.  And there’s a fourth guy, Josh McGraw, he’s Abby Bartlett’s boyfriend, and he commutes to Jeromeville now and wants to move into town.”

“I don’t know Josh, but Shawn and Brian are great guys.  You’ll like living with them.”

“You’re living with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr next year?” Kristina said, putting bagels in the cart.  “Awesome!  Where?”

“We don’t have a place yet.  We’re going to get together sometime soon to make plans.”

“That’s cool!”

We returned to the beach with the food a few minutes later.  This was not my usual routine of cereal in milk for breakfast, but it was food and that was the important thing.  After we finished eating, Xander walked to the parking lot and returned with a guitar.  “I’ve been learning some worship songs,” he said.  He started playing some of the songs we sang at JCF large group, as well as a few that I did not think I had heard before.  Tabitha asked for a turn with Xander’s guitar, and she played and sang a few songs too.  We all just sat there for over an hour, praising God through music and enjoying the beauty of his creation.

In the early afternoon, we packed everything up and got ready to head back to Jeromeville.  “What are we doing for lunch?” Kristina asked.

“I know this great sandwich place where I used to go with my family when we would come here,” Caroline said.  “Does that sound good?”

“Sure!”

We got back into the cars, and Caroline directed Eddie to the sandwich shop in Old Town Moonlight Cove, about two miles from the beach where we were.  The others followed in Kristina’s car.  This place was much smaller, quieter, and less flashy than the Hard Rock Cafe, unsurprisingly.  I ordered a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese; it was very, very good.

“I like this place,” I said to Caroline.  “Good suggestion.”

“So what was your favorite part of the trip, Greg?” Eddie asked me.  He had been asking everyone this.

“Probably the Hard Rock Cafe,” I said.  “I liked all the music stuff on the wall.”

“Do you play an instrument or anything?  You said you sing, right?”

“I sing at my church.  And I’ve always liked listening to music.”

“You seemed to like my mixtape too.”

“Yeah.  I haven’t really listened to a lot of Christian pop and rock music.”

“You should.  I think there’s some stuff out there that you’d like.”

After lunch, we got back in the cars and began the two hour drive back to Jeromeville.  Eddie put on a different mixtape of Christian music.  As we crossed back east over the Bay City Bridge, leaving the city, I heard familiar guitar chords coming from Eddie’s mixtape.  “Rain, rain on my face, hasn’t stopped raining for days,” the voice sang.

“Hey, I know this song,” I said.  “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”

“Jars of Clay,” Eddie replied.  “I know, I’ve heard it on 100.3.  It’s cool to hear Christian music get played on secular radio stations.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I had not listened to the lyrics closely enough to recognize it as Christian music, but it all made sense now.  “Lift me up when I’m falling.  I need you to hold me.”  

Somewhere around Nueces, Eddie’s mixtape ended, and he put on the first mixtape with Jesus Freak again.  I was definitely going to look more into this Christian music.  We arrived back at Eddie’s house in Jeromeville in the late afternoon.  Kristina’s car arrived a minute later and parked nearby, and everyone who did not live on Baron Court began unloading and moving their things to their own cars.

“Thanks for driving, Eddie,” I said.  “And thanks for inviting me.”

“Thanks for coming!” Eddie replied.  “Have a great rest of the weekend!”

“I’m glad you could make it, Greg,” I heard Haley say.  I turned to her and saw the smile I had been thinking of earlier.  She stepped forward to hug me, and we embraced.

“I’m glad you went too,” I said.  “Have a good rest of the weekend.”

After everyone said their goodbyes, I drove back to my apartment in north Jeromeville. This was the best weekend I had had in a long time.  Once I got inside with the car radio off, that Jesus Freak song started going through my head again.  This was my life now.  I was a Jesus Freak.  The despair of the past was behind me, and I was following Jesus with a supportive group of brothers and sisters in Christ.

I knew that the point of following Jesus was not about being part of the in-crowd, but it still felt good that the in-crowd was including me.  I had a group of friends who genuinely cared about me, something that I had not had for most of my life, and I was going to be living with cool older guys next year.  Of course, God had a lot to show me about how life really works over the coming years, but for now, life was good.