December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

As I have said before, most Dennison family vacations revolved around visiting boring relatives.  The idea that a family vacation could involve going someplace to see and do things other than extended family sometimes seemed lost on my parents.  But one of the rare exceptions to this happened during winter break of my sophomore year at Jeromeville.  Around the time I first got home for winter break, Mom said, “I was thinking, maybe we should go somewhere fun for New Year’s this year, since we aren’t doing anything else.  Like Disneyland.”

“Yes!” I shouted enthusiastically.

“Do I have to?” Mark complained.

“Disneyland is fun!  You liked it the other time we went.”

“Yeah, because I was in kindergarten,” Mark said sarcastically.

“I promise, if you aren’t enjoying it, and you think of anything else you want to do on that trip, we can,” Mom said.  Mark grunted unenthusiastically.

Within the intervening twelve days, Mom booked a hotel and found someone to come over and feed the cats, and on the morning of December 30, we hit the road headed south.  Disneyland was in Orange County, California, about a six and a half hour drive from Plumdale in perfect conditions.  It took us more like eight hours, including stops for meals and all the bathroom breaks necessary when traveling with 19- and 14-year-old boys, in addition to traffic, although it was Saturday and traffic was not quite as heavy as usual.

When I was younger, road trips with the family always seemed so long and boring.  Being a roadgeek, I always enjoyed traveling roads I had not seen before, but usually I just wanted to hurry up and get where we were going.  As I got older, though, I began to appreciate road trips more, and I discovered that just looking out the window at scenery can be inherently fun.  This trip was interesting because, starting from my parents’ house in Plumdale, Disneyland is in the opposite direction of San Tomas, Bay City, Jeromeville, Bidwell, and just about everywhere else we regularly go when on road trips as a family.  I only played hand-held video games for about an hour on that trip.

There was one thing I did enjoy about road trips when I was younger compared to now, however.  Before, we all mostly agreed on each other’s choice of music.  But about three years ago, Mark discovered gangsta rap; now he listened to little else, and that often started arguments when we were all in the car together.  Mark brought headphones to listen to his own music, but Mom decided it would be fair to give him a turn to listen to his music through the car speakers.  So he got his turn to play Snoop Dogg and 2Pac in between my turns to play R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish.

“So what are you most excited to ride?” Mom asked as we waited in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru, about an hour before we would reach our hotel.

“Space Mountain!” I said.

“I hated that ride,” Mom replied.

“And Pirates of the Caribbean.  Remember, it was closed the other time we came.”

“Oh, yeah.  Did you ride it when you came here for your senior trip?”

“Yeah, but that means I’ve only been on it once.”

“There’s that new Indiana Jones ride too,” Mom said.  “That one is supposed to be good.

“I haven’t heard about that one,” I said.  “But, sure, that sounds good.  I’ve also only been on the Matterhorn once.  I didn’t ride it when we went before.”

“You didn’t?  That one is a little too fast for me too.”

“I know.”

Dad turned off the freeway when we reached the exit for our hotel.  “Maybe we’ll see someone famous at Disneyland,” Mom said.  “Sometimes you hear of people going to Disneyland and seeing famous people.”

“Maybe we’ll see O.J. Simpson at Disneyland,” I said sarcastically, trying to think of the most obnoxious, joke-worthy famous person possible.  “He’s not going to jail, you know.”

“I don’t think so,” Mom replied.

“We should go find O.J.’s house.  I remember which highways he was on when we watched the police chase in the white Bronco.”

“Yeah,” Mark said, speaking up for the first time since we left McDonald’s.  “Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’re not going to find O.J.’s house,” Mom said.

“Mom,” I said, “you told Mark that if there was anything he wanted to do to make this trip more fun for him, that we could.”

“Yeah,” Mark added.  “You said we could do something fun for me.  Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”

“We’ll see,” Mom said reluctantly.

In 1995, the Disneyland resort had only one park.  California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping area would not appear until 2001.  Those were built on land that was the Disneyland parking lot in 1995, and a giant parking garage would eventually replace these lost parking lots.  We parked and walked past the sea of cars toward the park entrance.  A large group of people was already gathered waiting to get in; we joined them, waiting until the park opened, then moving forward.  About forty minutes after we left the car, we finally walked through the entrance gate and continued through the tunnel under the Disneyland Railroad to Main Street.

The reality that I was at Disneyland hit me as I looked down Main Street, with the statue of Walt Disney at the other end and the castle behind the statue.  I had only been to Disneyland twice before.  The first time was in sixth grade, also with my family, and I enjoyed it except that I got diarrhea at one point during the day, and I hated pooping in public bathrooms.  The second time was my senior trip.  During May and June, Disneyland will close to the public early on certain days, then stay open all night specifically for senior trips.  Melissa Holmes and Kevin Liu were making a joke that night about how Anthony Tejeda always got separated from the group on marching band field trips, so one of them found a helium balloon with a string on it and used it to tie Anthony’s wrist to Renee Robertson’s wrist.  By the end of the trip, as the sun was rising, the balloon was long gone, but Renee and Anthony were still attached at the wrist, holding hands, and they were still together a year and a half later, now in a long distance relationship.  Looking back at the way all those people acted that night, I suspected that either Anthony and Renee had liked each other for some time, or that the others had been trying to set them up for some time.  But it made me feel awkward, because, if this thing between Anthony and Renee had been going on as far back as April, I never would have asked Renee to the prom, even though it was clear we were just going as friends.

We began the day riding a few of the low-speed rides.  Autopia, the ride with the miniature cars on a fixed track, was much less exciting at age 19 than it was at age 11, since now at age 19 I drove a real car all the time.  Star Tours, the spaceship simulator set in the Star Wars universe, still felt very real, even though those of us on the ride did not actually move during the ride.  The Submarine Voyage was fun once I overcame the initial claustrophobia of having to climb into the ship.  The Mad Tea Party made me feel a little bit nauseated.

“Where to next?” Mom asked after we got out of the teacups.

“I want to go on the Matterhorn,” I said.

“I don’t,” Mark said.

“Maybe we should split up,” Mom said.  “You and Dad can go on stuff together for a while, and I’ll take Mark.  Then we can meet up again in a couple hours.  Let’s say one o’clock, right here, and we can get lunch then.”

“That sounds good.”

As Dad and I waited in line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride, he asked me, “So are you having fun today?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Good,” Dad said.  Being with Dad was always much quieter than being with Mom.  Mom was much more talkative than Dad, and because of that, I have a slight discomfort with silence in the presence of others that continues to this day.

After we finished the Matterhorn, Dad and I went to Space Mountain.  This had been the first roller coaster I ever experienced when I came here the first time.  On the few occasions in which we visited amusement parks in my childhood, Mom drilled into my mind that roller coasters were scary, so I never rode them.  We all went on Space Mountain when I was 11, not knowing what it was.  I loved it, and Mom hated it.

The line was long; Dad and I waited for over half an hour.  Space Mountain is a completely dark roller coaster, with only projections of stars and flashing lights, beginning with a climb like many roller coasters, but then twisting downward with many turns instead of having a large drop.  The first time I rode it, I kept my eyes closed for most of the ride, even though it was dark, but this time my eyes were open.  “I love that ride!” I shouted to Dad as we got off and walked outside.

After we met up with Mom and Mark for lunch, we all walked over to the Adventureland section of the park and got in line for the Indiana Jones ride.  This was the newest attraction at Disneyland at the time of our visit, and unsurprisingly, we stood in line the longest for that ride, almost an hour and a half.  Much of the line was inside the ride, in corridors designed to look like an ancient temple that Indiana Jones was exploring, along with short videos in the style of 1930s newsreels, telling the story of Indiana Jones’ discovery.  The ride itself resembled the old rides based on movies, but this one had much better special effects.

After Indiana Jones, we split up with the opposite parent and child combination.  Mom and I went on the Jungle Cruise, located right next to Indiana Jones, and Dad and Mark went off by themselves.  We sat leisurely in the boat as our tour guide narrated and told bad jokes.  As we got out of the boat, I told Mom, “I really want to go on Space Mountain again.”

“You already rode that with Dad.  Make him take you again.”

“Please?” I said.  “Just give it another try.  I’ve been on it every time I’ve been to Disneyland, and nothing has ever happened to me.”

“All right,” Mom said begrudgingly.  We walked back across the park to Tomorrowland and got in line for Space Mountain.  “Captain EO!” Mom exclaimed as we walked past the theater next to Space Mountain.  “If you’re going to make me go on Space Mountain, then I’m going to say we’re going to Captain EO next.”

“Sure.  That’ll be fun.”

The line for Space Mountain this time was longer than it was when I came with Dad; it took almost an hour to get on the ride.  About ten feet in front of us in line, I saw a teenage girl with red hair who resembled a cute girl I had had in a few of my math classes.  This definitely was not that girl.  She wore a skimpy tank top with her pierced belly button showing, and she had torn jeans and a green dyed streak through her hair.  She was with a boy who had spiked hair, ear and nose piercings, and equally shabby jeans.  They began kissing passionately, and I looked away.

“Look at those two,” Mom said quietly, gesturing toward the teenage couple.  “I’ve been watching people today, and it seems like Disneyland is letting some rough-looking people in these days.  They wouldn’t have been allowed in back in my day.”

“Hmm,” I replied, unsure of how to respond to that.

The ride was just as thrilling as it had always been.  I enjoyed every second of it.  “See?” I said as soon as Mom and I were outside.  “You’re fine.  That was fun.”

“That was ten times worse than I remember it!” Mom shouted.  “I felt like I was going to die!  Never again!”

“If you say so.  Let’s go watch Captain EO.”

Mom and I did not have a long wait for the next showing of Captain EO.  I had only seen Captain EO once, the first time I came here with my family, and I barely remembered what it was like, so seeing Michael Jackson and his weird alien puppets defeat bad guys by turning them into backup dancers, complete with special effects in the theater, made for a nice enjoyable break from rides that move quickly.

Dad and Mark met back up with us a couple hours after Captain EO, and we rode as many rides as we had time for the rest of the day.  At 11:00 that night, after leaving the Haunted Mansion, Mom said, “We should probably go head over to where the fireworks are going to be.”

“Good idea,” Dad said.

“It’s only 11.  This early?” I asked.  “I guess it’ll probably get crowded.”

Disneyland had been getting steadily more crowded all day, and the plaza at the end of Main Street facing the castle was a solid mass of people when we arrived there.  The next hour was one of waiting, standing uncomfortably in the cold night, and sitting on a curb when it got too cold to stand.  I complained about being cold a few times, and Mark did too.  I checked my watch: still 39 minutes to go.  I stood up again.  I sat again.  I checked my watch again: 31 minutes to go.

Finally, at around 11:55, music started playing.  People turned toward the castle in anticipation of the fireworks starting.  The surrounding area got dark a few minutes later, and eventually I heard people counting down.

“Ten!  Nine!  Eight!” I shouted along with thousands of people in unison around me.  “Seven!  Six!  Five!  Four!  Three!  Two!  One!  Happy new year!”  Toward the end of the countdown, the unison broke down, and some people started cheering.  Auld Lang Syne began playing as the fireworks show started, followed by music from various Disney movies.

I loved fireworks.  We did not watch fireworks shows often when I was growing up; I am not sure why.  But there was something impressive about watching these giant explosions in the sky.  I watched every one, full of awe and excitement.

After the fireworks show ended, voices came on over speakers asking us to leave the park.  We walked, carefully among the huge crowds, down Main Street back to the parking lot.

“That was fun,” I said when we got back to the car.  “Thank you for bringing us.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Mark complained.  “It was boring!”

“We’ll be home tomorrow night,” Mom said.  “And we’re still going to go see O.J.’s house, remember.”

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

“I can’t believe we’re actually going to do it.”

The next morning, we exited Interstate 405 at Sunset Boulevard, following the route we remembered from the news.  In June of 1994, retired football player and television personality O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her male companion, and a few days later, a special report showed police chasing Simpson on the freeway, following him to his house.  The murder case dominated the news until October of 1995, when he was found not guilty.

“Star maps,” Mom said, pointing to a kiosk just off the side of the road.  “Should we get one?”

“Sure,” I said.  Dad pulled over, and Mom walked to the kiosk, paying its occupant and returning to the car with a sheet of paper.

“I still can’t believe we’re doing this,” Mom said again, looking at the star map.  I looked over her shoulder.  “There he is.  O.J. Simpson.  And there’s Nicole Simpson, ‘deceased.’”  Next to their names were printed their addresses, O.J. on Rockingham Avenue and Nicole on Bundy Drive, along with about a hundred other addresses of celebrities.  On the other side was a map of the area with main streets, less detailed than an actual street map from AAA.

We continued down Sunset Boulevard for about a mile, starting to wonder if we were going the wrong way.  But then Mom exclaimed in a foreboding tone of voice, “There’s Bundy!” as we crossed the street where Nicole Simpson had been found murdered in her home.

“O.J. lives on Rockingham,” I said, reading the map.  We got to Rockingham Drive about a mile later, but I noticed that several white concrete barriers were blocking the street.  “It’s blocked off,” I said.  “Probably because too many people have been doing what we’re doing.”

“Yeah,” Mom agreed.  “That was disappointing.”

Dad turned the car around and started to head back toward the freeway.  Just as we began driving east, I said, “Wait.  Take the next left, and see if we can get around to Rockingham from the next block over.  We came too far to give up now.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dad said.  He turned left on the next street over, Bristol Avenue, then left again, and as I had hoped, that street intersected Rockingham Avenue.  We turned right, watching street numbers, until we arrived at the address printed on the star map.  It was a large house on a corner, surrounded by trees and a tall stone wall, with a white wooden gate across the driveway.

“Who’s that?” Mark asked, pointing.  Someone with a camera was attempting to climb the wall.  A private security guard was running after him.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.  “Cool!”

“Not for him, once he gets caught,” Mom said.  “Come on, we’ve seen it.  Let’s go, before we get caught up in whatever else is going on.”

We returned down Bristol Avenue to Sunset Boulevard and back to the freeway to begin the long drive home.  We drove through mountains, suburbs, more mountains, and long, desolate, isolated stretches of road.  As the scenery passed outside the window, I thought of all the girls I had been talking to on the Internet in the last year.  Brittany from Texas, Molly from Pennsylvania, Mindy Jo from Georgia.  None of the three of them had ever been west of the Rockies.  I hoped someday that they might be able to visit me, so that I could welcome them to my home and show them my side of the country.  So far I had only once met a girl in person whom I had talked to on the Internet, Allison DarkSparkles, and it did not go well, but I was closer to those three than I was with Allison.  It was a new year, and maybe 1996 would bring a new opportunity like that.

The year was starting on a good note; I now had a funny story to tell, about the time I drove past O.J. Simpson’s house and saw a paparazzo trying to sneak in.  With all the sad nights I had spent alone in my little apartment toward the end of 1995, I was glad 1996 was beginning on a good note.  I had much to look forward to in the coming year.  In June, I would be halfway done with my studies at the University of Jeromeville, assuming that I graduated on time.  In August, I would finish my teenage years and begin my twenties.  And I had made a lot of new friends recently, leaving me hopeful for fun times to come.

It turned out that I would not meet any of my Internet female friends in 1996.  But some of the biggest and most lasting changes of my life would happen in 1996.  This led to a number of new experiences, including traveling farther from home than I ever had before, for a reason that was not even on my proverbial radar at all that day.  It was a new year, and it would be an unforgettable year.

Disclaimer: The Walt Disney Company was not involved in the writing of this story, and I received no compensation for it. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.

Mid-April 1995. Reading the newspaper.

When I was a kid, local newspapers would hire preteens on bikes to deliver newspapers in their neighborhoods.  Paperboys and papergirls would get a big stack of newspapers delivered to their house, and they would ride around the neighborhood with big bags attached to their bikes, tossing the newspapers to the porches of their subscribers.  Once a month, the kids would walk around the neighborhood collecting the monthly subscription fees from their subscribers. The newspaper office would then charge them for all the newspapers they delivered, at a bulk rate discount, and the paperboys and papergirls would pocket the difference.  A paperboy was a common enough sight in a neighborhood that there was even a video game called Paperboy, where the player had to shoot newspapers from a bike into mailboxes while dodging obstacles.

In 1988, I was one of those paperboys.  For nine months, I rode my bike around the neighborhood six days a week delivering newspapers to around 60 customers, and I’d get to keep around $150 every month, which was a lot of money to a kid in 1988.  Fortunately for me, this was when we lived in an old and flat neighborhood in Gabilan, shortly before we moved out of town into the hills of Plumdale. Also fortunately for me, the Gabilan News was an afternoon newspaper at the time, so I could do this after school, instead of having to get up at 5 every morning as I would if the News had been a morning paper.

That experience of working with newspapers got me in the habit of reading the newspaper pretty much every day.  When I started as a student at the University of Jeromeville, one of the first things I did was look into getting a newspaper subscription.  The university newspaper, the Daily Colt, was free, but it mostly only covered campus news and local news of interest to students.  Jeromeville had a local newspaper, the Jeromeville Times, but I wanted a larger and more comprehensive newspaper that would report on state and national news as well, so I subscribed to the big city newspaper for the region, the Capital City Record.  Each of the campus residential areas had a newspaper vending machine, and students who lived there and subscribed to the paper were given a key to unlock the machine and take a paper.  It seemed like it worked on the honor system, and one could easily abuse the system and steal more than one paper, but I never had a problem with the machine running out of newspapers or anything.

One morning, about two weeks into class that quarter, I got my copy of the Record on my way out of the dining hall, and I read it in my dorm room before it was time for class to start, as was my usual routine.  The major news story that dominated my freshman year at UJ was the trial of retired football player O.J. Simpson, who had been accused of killing his ex-wife.  The media reported on every sensationalized detail of the trial. I skipped over that news on the front page. I was kind of tired of hearing about O.J. Simpson.

A few pages in, I saw a headline which rang a bell in the back of my mind.  I began reading the article, shocked once I realized why it sounded so familiar.

Repressed memory conviction overturned

San Francisco – A federal judge yesterday overturned the conviction of George Franklin, who was found guilty of murdering a young girl based on the testimony of his daughter’s repressed memories.

The concept of repressed memory, the unconscious forgetting and later remembering of uncomfortable events from one’s past, was a common subject of daytime talk shows and trashy tabloid news of the time period.  In 1969, an eight-year-old girl in California was murdered, but no one was ever charged with the crime. Twenty years later, a friend of the deceased girl now had a daughter who was around the same age as her friend had been when she was killed.  She claimed that seeing her own daughter at that age triggered memories of her father, George Franklin, having smashed her friend’s head with a rock long ago. Mr. Franklin’s murder conviction was the first time that repressed memory had been used as part of a criminal case in court.  Mr. Franklin’s story had been told by true crime writer Harry N. MacLean in a book called Once Upon A Time.

The reason I had a personal interest in this case right now is because Once Upon A Time was required reading for the Psychology and the Law class that I was taking right now.  It was a class for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, so it was only open to students in the program, all of whom lived with me in Building C.

The next time that class met, at the beginning of class, the professor, Dr. Kemp, walked in a few minutes after I got there.  As he was organizing his notes, he asked, “Did anyone see anything in the news this week that has to do with this class?”

“George Franklin got released from prison,” I said.

“Yes,” Dr. Kemp replied.  “His conviction was overturned.”

“What?” said Dan Woodward.

“That scumbag is out of prison?!” Theresa Arnold exclaimed.

“He isn’t actually out of prison yet.  But an appeals judge found that the prosecution did not present their case correctly,” Dr. Kemp explained.

“So what’s going to happen to this class now?” I asked.

“We’re still going to do everything I had planned, and we’ll talk about this new development later when it comes up.  Let’s get back to where we were last time.”

Dr. Kemp began his lecture, and I took notes.  Sticking to the plan seemed like the best possible option at this point.  Still, though, it seemed like this must have thrown off all of Dr. Kemp’s plans for the class.  I would have felt that way if I had been a teacher.

 

Sometimes, even in the days before smartphones, news traveled so fast that I would hear about something before reading it in the newspaper the next morning.  About a week after hearing that George Franklin’s murder conviction had been overturned, I sat at the dining hall during lunch one day with some of my usual friends: Liz and Ramon, Sarah, Pete, Charlie, and Krista.  They were already there when I joined their table.

“It’s so sad what happened,” Liz said.

“All those innocent people,” Sarah contemplated aloud.

“I feel really dumb for asking,” I said, “but what’s going on?”

“A terrorist blew up a government building in Oklahoma,” Pete explained.

“Wow.”

“Do they have a suspect?  Or do they know why?” Krista asked.

“I haven’t heard,” Pete said.

I don’t react outwardly to news of this sort.  I feel like this lack of emotion makes me some kind of inhuman monster who doesn’t care that people died.  That isn’t true. I guess it is just harder in my mind to connect with things like this that happened far away.

Something felt a little different about this news, though.  Oklahoma is far away, yes, but it isn’t the kind of place where I would have expected to hear about a terrorist attack.  These kinds of things happen in places like New York or Washington, D.C., not Oklahoma.

I didn’t usually watch TV news, but that night I did, on the tiny black-and-white TV in my room.  The bombing happened in Oklahoma City, the state capital, and there were dozens confirmed dead already, with more likely to be found as the rubble was searched.  A suspect was in custody already, and he was believed to be a radical executing a vendetta against the government.

Oklahoma City may have been far off to me, a place to watch on the news, but it hit much closer to home for someone I knew.  I discovered this when I checked my email later that night.

 


Hey… how are you?  How were your classes today?  I hope it went well.

Did you hear about the bombing in Oklahoma City?  It’s scary. That’s only a few hours away from me.  My friend’s grandma lives in Oklahoma City, but not in that part of the city.  She’s ok. Today at school they called a special assembly so they could talk to us about it.  I heard on the news that they said something like that could happen here. I hope there aren’t any more attacks any time soon.

Take care and stay safe.

Brittany


 

Brittany sounded scared, and I felt a little worried for her.  She lived in Amarillo, Texas, directly west of Oklahoma City. I had never met her personally; we met in a chat room last summer, when I first got this computer.  That was the first time I had the technology to communicate online with someone in another state, and she had stayed in touch ever since. She was a year younger than me, just finishing high school.

I wrote back later that night.

 


My day was pretty good.  I just went to classes. I had a math midterm today.  I think I did well. I’m taking vector analysis this quarter.  I’d never really heard of that before this class, but so far it seems pretty easy.

I did hear about the bombing… that’s scary.  You don’t hear about things like that happening in places like Oklahoma City.  I’m sure it’s a lot more scary for you since you’re not very far away. I hope nothing happens to you… if something did happen and you ever needed a place to go, maybe you could come stay with me.

I hope you have a better day tomorrow.

-gjd


 

I wasn’t sure why I wrote that last part.  Could Brittany really come stay with me? Probably not, because all I had was a dorm room.  And we didn’t really even know each other, although we had been exchanging emails for eight months.  But she was a girl, and I wanted to meet her, and hey, you never know. Brittany wrote back the next day and thanked me for my kind offer, although she also said she probably wouldn’t be allowed to stay in my dorm.  We never did meet in person. We lost touch sometime in the middle of sophomore year.

 

A few days after the bombing in Oklahoma City, while it was still fresh in everyone’s memory, I was sitting in Psych-Law class, waiting for Dr. Kemp to arrive.  Dan Woodward walked in about a minute after me. Dan lived on the third floor, and he was politically outspoken and involved in a number of political groups on campus.  His views mostly disagreed with mine, so I didn’t often seek out conversations with him, although I didn’t avoid him either. But I clearly remember what he said when he walked into the classroom that day.

“There was a bombing in Capital City,” Dan said.

“What?” Gina Stalteri asked loudly.

“Someone mailed a package bomb to a political group’s office, and somebody died.”

Everyone else just kind of sat in silence for a minute or so until Dr. Kemp entered the room and started class.  This news story was definitely close to home, both literally and emotionally. Oklahoma City was halfway across the country, but this bombing happened only 15 miles away.  It was just as unusual to hear of this kind of thing happening here as it was in Oklahoma City.

The next morning, reading the Capital City Record, I read more about the mail bomb.  It was the work of a well-known serial bomber who had been responsible for numerous other similar attacks off and on since the 1970s.  His most recent attack had been four months earlier in New Jersey. The FBI referred to this terrorist as “the Unabomber.” The nickname was shortened from “university airline bomber,” because many of his attacks targeted people at universities and airlines.  In 1987, he was seen planting a bomb in Utah, having concealed his face with a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses. A witness contacted a police sketch artist, and a picture of this sketch appeared here on the front page of the Record.  I noticed that my dad had a pair of sunglasses that looked very similar to the Unabomber’s sunglasses, although the rest of the picture did not look much like my dad.


The Unabomber sketch, which I got from Wikipedia in 2019.

The Unabomber often targeted people at universities; was Jeromeville in danger?  Could the Unabomber strike here, especially since he had struck in Capital City? The article said that one of his previous bombs, in 1985, had also been mailed to Capital City; maybe he had some connection to this area?  As scary as it was to think about, there wasn’t much I could do about anything, other than be wary of suspicious packages.

 

The Unabomber would be in the news many more times over the next year or so.  I will come back to that story another time.  George Franklin didn’t really come up a lot more in my life; in Psychology and the Law class, we didn’t really talk a whole lot about his conviction being overturned.  His case wasn’t the entire focal point of the class. We had a lot of other things to talk about.

About a decade later, I would make a personal connection with the bombing in Oklahoma City.  The site had been turned into a memorial and museum, which I eventually visited when I was traveling.  It was a moving and memorable experience. I think the connection to this place felt stronger than with most historical sites I’ve visited, because I was old enough to remember when the event happened.  (The suspect who was caught on the day of the bombing was found guilty and received the death penalty; another co-conspirator is currently serving life in prison.)

okc
The grounds of the memorial include sculptures of 168 chairs, each inscribed with the name of one of the 168 victims.  I took this picture when I was there in 2005.

My career as a paperboy lasted nine months, and the reason I quit was so typical of me.  The Gabilan News office ran a contest for its paper carriers, where over a period of three months, we would be entered into a drawing for a new Nintendo Entertainment System.  Each month, paper carriers would be entered into the contest if their number of complaints was below a certain limit. But the contest was horribly unfair, because the number of complaints each carrier was allowed was based on the average number of complaints that carrier usually received in a month.  Someone like me, who rarely got complaints, was not allowed to get any, whereas someone incompetent would be allowed up to four complaints before getting disqualified from the contest. I told my supervisor that this was unfair, and he probably assumed I was just some pretentious kid who wasn’t able to make a logical argument, so instead of leveling the playing field and taking away the disadvantage from those of us who tried to do a good job, he just told me that I would be allowed one complaint instead of none.  So as soon as I got my second complaint, disqualifying me from the contest, I gave my notice that I was quitting, and I used my money from my last month to buy my own Nintendo, which I still have, and which sometimes still works over 30 years later.

Although my middle school career as a paperboy ended poorly, I’ve still to this day always been a news reader, rather than a television news watcher.  I stopped getting a printed newspaper delivered in 2012, because money was tight and I was looking to cut expenses. I read news online now. I miss newspapers.  It hurts for me to say that the newspaper is a dying medium. Print newspapers still exist, and I suppose I could go back to having a print newspaper delivered to my house.  However, I have become used to not having a print newspaper, and honestly I never did read every article, so it would be a bit wasteful having a print newspaper every day.

I was dismayed to read in 2013 that the print edition of the University of Jeromeville’s Daily Colt newspaper had been completely discontinued, with the Daily Colt continuing to exist only as an online news site.  A few years later, though, a student referendum raised fees slightly to bring back the print edition of the Daily Colt.  The current Daily Colt is only printed weekly, despite the name.  Sometimes, when I find myself on the UJ campus these days, I’ll grab a copy of the Daily Colt, so I can keep up with what is happening on campus these days.  And just like I used to do between classes in the 1990s, I always do the crossword puzzle.

Sometimes it feels like there is so much bad news in the world that I wonder if I would be better off not following the news at all.  But as with many things in life, balance is key. I don’t need to dwell on the negative. But it is also important to know what is going on in the world.  I fear for the future sometimes when I hear people say that they don’t follow the news, and that they have not heard about important things that affect all of us.  I don’t know. I try to stay out of those kinds of arguments. Sometimes people need to know the truth, but it is so exhausting trying to argue with an angry and opinionated person.

And in hindsight, the news wasn’t all bad during this era.  The last few years had seen the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and Apartheid in South Africa.  The first state governor I had ever voted for won. And the Internet revolution was just beginning. It was an exciting time to be alive, and I had my newspapers to read about what was going on around me, to help me understand myself in relation to the rest of the world.