I was confused when I heard the knock at the door. It was 8:41 in the morning on a Saturday. I was not expecting a guest, and none of my roommates seemed to be home. I opened the door a crack and saw Jane and Darrell Lusk, my aunt and uncle. I knew they would be in Jeromeville today, so it was not entirely surprising that they would come to my apartment, although I thought the plan was to meet them later.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hi, Greg!” Aunt Jane replied, giving me a hug. Uncle Darrell vigorously shook my hand with a tight grip.
“How was your trip?” I asked. “I thought I was going to meet you later, at the track.”
“We were,” Aunt Jane explained. “But we got off the freeway, and we saw the sign for Maple Drive, so we came by the apartment. Your mother wouldn’t have let me hear the end of it if she found out we saw Maple Drive and didn’t come by your apartment.”
“Good point,” I said.
“We should have gotten off on the exit before, not on Fifth Street,” Uncle Darrell added. “I asked, ‘What’s Greg’s address on Maple Drive?’ and she said, ‘2601.’ I’m looking around, and all the addresses are in the five hundreds, and I go, ‘We’ll be driving for a while.’ Your aunt never was good with directions.”
“I didn’t know we’d be coming here!” Aunt Jane retorted. “I was going straight to the track.”
“Aunt Jane is right,” I said. “You should have taken Fifth if you were going to campus.”
“See?” Aunt Jane said. “Anyway, how are you?”
“I’m good. Just doing school. I’m going to have a lot of work to do tomorrow, since I’ll be at the Spring Picnic most of the day.”
“Yeah! I didn’t know you were having a picnic! Rick told me something about it when he called from the hotel last night.”
“Yes! The annual Spring Picnic is more than just a picnic. It started early in UJ’s history, when there were only a hundred students here, and they had a picnic to share their research for the year. But now it’s grown into a huge festival with all kinds of exhibits and activities and performances.”
“I’ll be walking around campus all day, checking stuff out. What time is Rick running?”
“His first race is the 400, that starts at 1, and then he’ll be in the 4-by-100 relay at 2:30.”
“Sounds good. I’ll head over to the track by 1.”
“Great! We’ll see you there! And now I can tell your mother I saw the apartment.”
“Yeah. See you in a while!”
One noteworthy thing about the University of Jeromeville’s annual Spring Picnic is that, with so much going on simultaneously, it is not possible to see everything every year. Although it would be nice to see everything, there are always new things to see every year.
One Spring Picnic event that I had never been to was the Track & Field Invitational. This was a regular track meet, attended by athletes from a number of different university track and field teams, but it was always scheduled to coincide with the Spring Picnic. North Coast State University was one of the other schools competing at the Invitational. Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell’s son, Rick, was a freshman at North Coast State, on their track team, so I knew that the Lusks would be in Jeromeville today.
I parked my bike on campus around 9:30, near Wellington Hall on the west side of the Quad, and sat on the street reading the program of events as I waited for the parade to start. While I waited, I read through the program of events. I knew that two events from previous years were disappointingly missing from this year’s Spring Picnic. Given Jeromeville’s agricultural past, and the fascination people have with weird things, one of the most popular events at past Spring Picnics was the fistulated cow. For research purposes, cows can be fitted with a fistula, an opening connecting the stomach to the outside, so that the cow’s stomach contents can be analyzed. For years, thousands of people lined up for an exhibit where they could stick their gloved hands into a cow’s stomach and look at its contents. I walked past the line freshman year and decided it was not worth the wait, and that I would plan ahead and stick my hand in a cow some other year.
But then, a few months ago, animal rights activists got involved, and the department that ran the fistulated cow exhibit announced that they were removing it from the Spring Picnic program this year. This seemed to me the most disappointing and least fun way to handle the issue. The fistulated cow still existed, it is not possible to unfistulate a cow, and the university would still be conducting research on the contents of the fistulated cow’s stomach. So, if the university was not going to cave all the way to the animal rights activists and stop doing fistulated cow research, why bother ending the exhibit? I never did get to stick my hand in a cow’s stomach, something I still regret to this day.
Also missing from this year’s program was the band Lawsuit. A couple months into freshman year, I met this cute sophomore girl named Megan McCauley, whom I very much wanted to get to know better. Later that year, a few days before Spring Picnic freshman year, Megan told me about this band called Lawsuit that would be performing. Their show blew me away. Lawsuit was like no other band I had ever heard, a mix of rock, reggae, jazz, and something that Megan called “ska,” the first time I had ever heard that word. I saw Lawsuit three more times, signing up for their mailing list, where I would get a postcard in the mail every month telling about upcoming shows. They broke up a few months ago, with their last show being on New Year’s Eve, when I had already made plans in another state. Since my first memory of Lawsuit was tied to Spring Picnic, I expected this year’s event to feel incomplete without seeing Lawsuit.
I looked through the program, trying to figure out what I had time to see. The Chemistry Club did a popular show every year with flashy chemistry demonstrations. And right near there, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student club would be making ice cream using liquid nitrogen. Both of those sounded worth checking out.
There was nothing in the parade that I was waiting for in particular. I watched various student and community groups pass by slowly. I waved to local politicians, I heard marching bands, I saw floats. After about an hour, a little more than halfway through the parade, I got bored and headed toward the chemistry building. A long line of people was entering the building, and I could see that they held tickets. Presumably these people were being let in for the 11:00 show.
“Are there tickets left for the 12:00 show?” I asked someone at a table near the entrance.
“We’re all out,” he replied. “We ran out quite a while ago for all of the shows.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll have to remember to get here early next year. I’ve never been to this before, and I’ve heard it’s really good.”
“Yeah. That sounds like a good idea.”
With the chemistry show out of the question, I walked around the corner of the chemistry building, toward Ross Hall and Baynes Hall, where the chemical engineers had set up their liquid nitrogen ice cream. Two long lines of about fifty people each snaked toward me. I was not excited about more waiting, but I had nothing else in particular to do, and after missing out on a chance to tell people that I stuck my hand in a cow, I did not want to miss the chance to tell people that I had eaten liquid nitrogen ice cream. “This is the line for liquid nitrogen ice cream?” I asked the middle-aged man in front of me in the slightly shorter line.
“Yeah,” he said. “This line is for vanilla, and that line over there is for chocolate.”
“Vanilla is fine,” I said. I continued looking through the program of events as I waited in line. It was so hard to choose exactly what I wanted to see among so many options. The line began moving quickly a few minutes after I got there, but then stopped again with around ten people in front of me. It appeared that they needed to make another batch every few minutes, adding liquid nitrogen on top of the edible ingredients as they stirred continuously. The liquid nitrogen all boiled away as it quickly lowered the temperature of the ingredients.
Megan, the girl who told me about Lawsuit, was a chemical engineering major. I kept an eye out for her the whole time I was in line, but she did not appear to be here at the exhibit table. Part of me hoped she would be; she was a good friend up through the beginning of my sophomore year, and I missed just talking about things with her. But part of me was glad not to see her. We grew apart naturally because of life, but after we started to grow, I saw her kissing a woman. I was embarrassed to know that the crush I had on her for a year was all for nothing, if she was not into guys in the first place.
I reached the front of the line about ten minutes after the students started making the next batch. One of them spooned a clump of slushy vanilla ice cream into a small paper cup, stuck a small plastic spoon in it, and handed it to me. I stepped out of the way and began eating. It tasted just like homemade ice cream that had been frozen the conventional way, with ice and rock salt. It probably could have been frozen a little longer, but with the line as long as it was, they probably needed to make it quickly in order to keep up with demand. “This is really good,” I told the student who served me.
“Thanks!” she replied.
I stopped by the Math Club’s presentation next. I had decided not to work this year’s presentation, and I only stayed for about ten minutes, since it was pretty much the exact same presentation as last year’s. I knew some of the students working, though, and I talked to them for a bit. After that, I was getting hungry, so I walked toward to the Quad and waited in a long line for carne asada tacos made by a Latino cultural club.
I wandered over to the track in time to see Rick run the 400 meter event at one o’clock. Tobin Field, the University of Jeromeville stadium, always felt kind of embarrassing to me. Jeromeville was a major university, and our stadium looked like a high school stadium, with a football field surrounded by a track, and bleachers that needed a fresh coat of paint. Jeromeville was in NCAA Division II; we were not considered a premiere collegiate athletics program, and few of our student-athletes went on to careers as professional athletes. But we still could do better. Capital State, our rival school across the Drawbridge in the next county, had completed an impressive remodel of their football stadium a few years ago, and they were currently in the process of moving up to Division I.
I walked around the bleachers, sparsely populated with fans, until I saw Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell. “Hi,” I said, approaching them. “Is Rick running yet?”
“That’s the starting line for the 400 down there,” Aunt Jane said. “The first heat is about to go. Rick will be in the third heat.”
“Okay,” I said, sitting on the bleachers and watching the athletes in the distance. Pole vaulters were warming up, and the high jump was happening on the far side of the track.
“High jump,” I said, pointing in the distance. “My roommate Brian did high jump for the Jeromeville track team.”
“Oh!” Aunt Jane replied “Is he jumping today?”
“He graduated last year, but he said he would be helping out with the meet today. I don’t see him, though.”
“How was the picnic?”
“It’s been okay,” I said. “I watched the parade for a while, then I got liquid nitrogen ice cream from the Chemical Engineering Club, then I stopped by the Math Club table.”
“That sounds like fun! We were walking around earlier, and it looked like there were a lot of fun things going on. I don’t think I ever realized the campus was so big! It’s much bigger than North Coast State. Or Bidwell State.”
“Yeah. It really is. It’s fascinating.”
“I heard something about wiener dog races today. Have you ever seen those?”
“I’ve never actually watched them. I’ve seen pictures, though. It looks fun.”
“I wonder if we should enter Shooter for next year?”
“It’s worth looking into,” I said, even though I had a feeling it was not actually in fact worth looking into. Shooter, Aunt Jane and Uncle Darrell’s pet dachshund, was middle-aged and had poor vision. He probably would not fare well against more seasoned competitors.
Rick finally got to run about twenty minutes after I arrived. “I hope he does well,” Aunt Jane said. “Do you think he got enough sleep last night after the bus ride here?”
“Nothing he can do about that now,” Uncle Darrell replied.
Rick and the other racers lined up and got ready, then all began running. The 400-meter run was approximately one lap around the track, starting and ending on the side where we sat. Rick kept up fairly well with the leaders at the beginning, but on the far straightaway, a few racers pulled out ahead, leaving Rick to cross the finish line in the middle of the pack.
“That wasn’t too bad for Rick,” Aunt Jane said, watching the official timer.
“He isn’t gonna make the finals,” Uncle Darrell observed.
“It looked like he was only a second off his personal best.”
“That isn’t too bad,” I said, trying to place focus on the positive. “And he’s just a freshman. He has three more years to compete.”
“I know,” Aunt Jane said. “I don’t think Rick is gonna be happy with how he did, though. He has really been improving in the 400.”
The preliminary heats for the women’s 400 began shortly after that. Aunt Jane pointed out that a girl named Sara, who graduated from the same high school as Rick two years older, now was on Jeromeville’s track team. I remembered Aunt Jane also mentioning her when I first started at Jeromeville. “Did you say you knew Sara?” Aunt Jane asked me.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Which one is she?”
“That one.” Aunt Jane pointed at Sara. “Wow, she’s really put on weight.”
“I don’t know her,” I said.
Sara and her other competitors lined up at the starting line, and the race began a minute later. Sara fell behind early. “She used to be a lot better than this,” Aunt Jane explained. “Look at how big and jiggly her legs are! She’s a porker!” By about halfway through the race, Sara was visibly struggling, falling into last place. “My gosh! She’s a whale!” Aunt Jane exclaimed. The racers continued around the turn and down the home stretch, and as Sara plodded across the finish line in last place, three seconds behind the runner with the next slowest time, Aunt Jane repeated, “What a whale!”
I felt bad for Sara. I felt embarrassed that she was out there trying her best while this forty-five-year-old busybody in the crowd was tearing her down. Hopefully Sara was far enough away that she could not hear Aunt Jane’s name-calling. But this kind of behavior was just how my mother’s side of the family operated, gossiping, obsessing over people’s bodies and appearances, and tearing people down behind their backs. I always stayed out of such discussions when I was with those relatives.
A while later, Rick came over to talk to us. “Hey, Greg,” he said after greeting his parents. “What’s up?”
“Just hanging out,” I said. “You have one more race?”
“Yeah. 100 relay. We’ll be running in about half an hour.”
“I think you did pretty well in the 400,” Aunt Jane told Rick.
“Yeah, but I coulda done better.” Rick sounded a little angry.
“Just brush it off and give it your best in the relay.”
Rick continued talking to us for a bit. We made small talk about classes and comparing our university experiences. Eventually he left to prepare for his other race. He was in the second position in the relay, and his teammate was in third place when he passed the baton to Rick. Rick kept up and was still in third place when he passed the baton, but his next teammate fell behind, and the North Coast State team finished fifth.
“Rick isn’t gonna be happy with that,” Uncle Darrell said after the race ended.
“He did fine,” Aunt Jane said. “The rest of the team fell behind.”
“So that was Rick’s last race?” I asked.
“Yeah. You can go now if you have other things to do.”
“I think I will,” I said. “It was good seeing you guys, and good to watch Rick run.”
“Yes! Enjoy the rest of the picnic, Greg.” Aunt Jane gave me a hug.
“Good seein’ you,” Uncle Darrell added, shaking my hand.
“Bye!” I said.
It was after three o’clock by the time I left the track meet. The Quad was much emptier than it had been a few hours ago; all the student clubs and organizations had packed up and left. A band played on the far side of the Quad; I listened to them for the two minutes it took to walk across the Quad. They sounded louder and less fun than Lawsuit.
Although there are dozens, if not hundreds, of things happening as part of the Spring Picnic, many of them happen simultaneously in the middle of the day. By this time of day, many of the events shut down. I saw a sign for the Entomology Department’s exhibit, open until four o’clock; I walked in and looked at different kinds of bugs for a while. At the end of the Spring Picnic, I always make my way to the Arboretum, where a number of university marching bands take turns playing until they run out of songs to play. Jeromeville’s band was in the middle of playing “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” by Belinda Carlisle when I arrived; North Coast State’s band followed by playing the theme from The Legend of Zelda, one of my favorite video games.
I stayed watching the marching bands until around five-thirty. The Jeromeville band played a marching band arrangement of “Zombie” by the Cranberries as I left. I started singing along quietly as I walked back to where my bike was parked. I always found it fascinating how anything could be turned into marching band music.
The sun would not set for a couple more hours, but my day was over, and I could not help but feel a little disappointed with this Spring Picnic, like I missed a lot of fun things. I was not sure exactly what I missed, other than things like Lawsuit that weren’t options anymore, but I knew I missed something. It was good to see the Lusks, but spending two hours at the track to see Rick run for a total of less than two minutes took a big chunk out of the day. If I had seen the Lusks on another day and gotten to see more of the Spring Picnic, I would have enjoyed both experiences more. I was, however, glad that I had not volunteered to work the Math Club table; I would have missed even more that way.
Many students’ parents come to the Spring Picnic. I had not yet experienced this; maybe I could get Mom and Dad to come next year, so I could show them around. Of course, they had seen the campus before, but now that I had been here for three years, I knew more details of what was worth seeing. Whether or not that happened, the very nature of the Spring Picnic made it an event worth seeing year after year. Even long after I moved away from Jeromeville, I would keep coming back to campus every April to experience the Spring Picnic.
Readers: What’s your favorite event or festival to visit year after year? Tell me about it in the comments!