May 11-16, 1996. A montage of awkward moments.

The Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, ASUJ for short, was the organization responsible for student activities at UJ.  They held two major festivals every year.  They were less than a month apart, since both involved traditions specific to spring.  The Spring Picnic, which began decades ago as the school’s open house and grew into a major festival, was interesting and fun.  The other festival was called the Mother Earth Festival, held on Mother’s Day weekend.  It was a bunch of hippie stuff, not really my thing.

I attended the Mother Earth Festival exactly once, in 1996.  It was a Saturday afternoon, I was bored, and I decided to check it out, so I got on my bike, parked it on campus, and walked around the Quad.

The Quad was packed.  Craft and vendor booths lined the edges of the Quad, with a sea of humanity in between.  I walked along the row of booths, peeking at what was happening inside.  Face painting.  Beads.  Tie-dyeing.  Henna tattoos.  These round things with feathers on them that the sign called dreamcatchers.  At the south end of the quad, the temporary stage where I saw Lawsuit at previous Spring Picnics was set up, and two musicians were playing instruments I could not identify while some lady in a long skirt with armpit hair frolicked and pranced on the stage.  I walked up the other side of the Quad, looking at other booths, before deciding that nothing here particularly piqued my interest.  The most memorable thing I remember seeing in the fifteen minutes I spent at the Mother Earth Festival was this girl with big boobs sunbathing in a bikini.  She and her flat-chested friend were not dressed as hippies at all, and their armpits were actually shaved.  I looked at them for about five seconds, then moved on so it would not look creepy.

As I approached the place where I had parked, I walked past a bench and saw a girl named Maria who was in my Advanced Composition class last quarter, sitting on a bench looking away from me.  I took my rolled-up copy of the Mother Earth Festival schedule of events, and I tapped her on the shoulder with it.

Maria turned to look at me, except it was not Maria.  This girl had a similar build, hairstyle, and coloring, but otherwise looked nothing like Maria.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I thought you were someone else.”  I walked away before the other girl could respond.

Why did I do that?  I kept replaying the embarrassing incident in my mind as I rode my bike back home.  Maria had not been not looking at me, I had no need to go out of my way to say hi to her, and I did not really want to talk to Maria anyway.  The angry political messages on the buttons all over her backpack clearly indicated that she was not the kind of person I wanted to get to know, and I did not find her attractive.  And now some other girl probably thought I was a weirdo, all because I had decided to be friendly.


Unfortunately for me, I tended to be just as awkward around girls I actually did find attractive.  Two days later, during a break between classes, I was walking around the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I held a slice of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate and a Coca-Cola in a reusable large plastic mug.  Some division of ASUJ was handing these mugs out free a few weeks ago, to encourage people not to fill up the landfills with disposable cups.  Drinks were 25 cents less at the ASUJ Coffee House for customers bringing their own cups.  Of course, I had a disposable paper plate, but at least that was biodegradable, and bringing an actual plate to campus would be somewhat unwieldy.

I looked out the window to a courtyard-like area, which was surrounded on three sides by the building.  A large round fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, but it was dry and had been ever since I began attending UJ.  Metal tables and chairs were arranged around part of the courtyard.  I felt that familiar jolt of excitement and nervousness as I saw Haley Channing sitting at one of those tables, alone.  Finally, this might be a chance to talk to Haley one-on-one with no one else around.  I almost spilled my drink as I opened the door leading to the courtyard, but caught myself.  “Hey,” I said as I walked up to Haley.  “May I sit here?”

“Hi, Greg!” Haley replied, smiling.  “Go ahead!”

I placed my food on the table and sat down.  “How’s your day going?” I asked.

“Pretty good, except I have a paper to write.  I’m gonna be busy tonight.  You?”

“I’m good.  I have a lot of math homework, though.”

“What math class are you taking?”

“Applied Linear Algebra and Combinatorics.  Two classes.”

“I have no idea what either of those mean.”

“Linear algebra works with matrices.”

“I kind of remember matrices in high school, a little bit.”

“And combinatorics is about problems that come up with counting combinations and things like that.  If I have license plates with three letters and three numbers, and I need to figure out how many possible license plates there could be, that’s a combinatorics problem.  At least that’s what we did back in the first chapter.”

“Interesting.”

“It is.  I also really like the professor for that class.”  I looked up and saw a familiar face walking toward us; it was Claire Seaver from church.  I waved, and Claire walked over to our table.  

“Hey,” Claire said to me.  “How are you?”

“I’m doing well.  Claire, this is Haley–”

“Hi, Haley,” Claire interrupted, smiling.

“Hi,” Haley replied with a tone of recognition.

“How do you two know each other?” I asked, trying to hide my shame in not knowing this and being caught off guard.

“Chorus,” Haley replied.  “I used to do that last year.”

“I keep telling Greg he should join chorus,” Claire said.

“You should!” Haley told me.  “I’ve heard you sing.  You have a good voice.”

“Maybe,” I replied.

“How were your weekends?” Claire asked.  “Did you guys call your mothers for Mother’s Day?”

“I did,” Haley said.

“I saw this thing on the Internet the other day where you can send someone flowers by email.  You get an email, and it’s a picture of flowers with a personalized message,” I said.  “My parents just got email recently, Mom loves email, so I sent one of those to Mom.”

“That’s fun,” Claire replied.

“If I’m going to send flowers to my mother, she’s gonna get real flowers,” Haley said.  “No emails and pictures for my mother.”

“I need to get going, but I’ll see you guys later,” Claire said.  We both waved and said goodbye as she walked away.  As I took a bite of my pizza and chewed it, I kept thinking that I was probably blowing it with Haley.  I had tried to introduce herself to someone she already knew, and she disapproved of my Mother’s Day gift.  After I swallowed my pizza, I attempted to resurrect the conversation, asking, “Do you still do chorus now?”

“No.  I did last year, but I have too much going on now.”

“That makes sense.  I played piano as a kid, but I was always so self-conscious about performing for others.  But I’m starting to get over that.  This year I started singing in my church choir; that’s how I know Claire.”

“Nice!  Chorus is always looking for guys.”

“Maybe I will for next year,” I said.  We continued making small talk as we finished eating, and I hoped that she could not read disappointment in my body language.  I could not help but feel like I had embarrassed myself in front of her.


Whenever I introduce two people now, I always ask them first if they know each other; this is a direct result of that incident all those years ago when I tried to introduce Claire and Haley.  But that was still not the worst awkward moment I experienced that week.

I was back in the Memorial Union a few days later, looking for a place to study, and I saw a familiar brown-haired face sitting at a table by herself.  It was my friend Lizzie, one of those people whom I initially crossed paths with just because we knew someone in common.  Lizzie went to high school with Jack Chalmers, another math major who had been in multiple classes with me.  Last fall, Jack and I had linear algebra together, and Lizzie had a class in the same classroom right before ours.  Jack and Lizzie would say hi to each other as we waited in the hall and her class exited the room.  Jack talked a lot, and he talked fast, and sometimes he would say hi to Lizzie in the middle of a sentence with me.  He would say something like, “Hey Greg I’m totally not ready for this test and I blew off studying last night Hi Lizzie! so I hope I don’t bomb it because I totally need to keep my grades up.”  Eventually, I started saying hi to Lizzie when I saw her around campus, and we had actually had conversations beyond hello a few times.

“Hey,” I said, approaching Lizzie’s table.  “Mind if I sit here?”

“Hi!” Lizzie exclaimed enthusiastically.  “Go ahead!”

“Thanks.”

“How’s it going?”

“I’m doing okay.  Just busy with classes.  What about you?”

“Same with me.  I have a midterm tomorrow.  But the school year is almost over!”

“I know!  Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”

“Just going home and working.  I need the money.  What about you?”

“I’m staying here, taking a class.  This will be the first time I’ve been in Jeromeville for the summer.”

“I hear it gets really hot!”

“I kind of like the heat, though.”

“What class are you taking?”

“Computer Science 40,” I explained.  “I’m taking CS 30 now, it’s required for the math major, and I love it.  There’s an upper division CS class, Data Structures, that counts toward my degree in place of a math class, but it requires 30 and 40 as prerequisites.  It’s really hard to get CS classes because there are so many CS majors, and not much computer lab space, so they put a cap on how many can enroll, and CS majors have priority.  Enrollment wasn’t restricted for the summer class.”

“Smart!” Lizzie replied.  “You’re a math major, right?  That’s how you know Jack?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you major in CS, if you like it that much?”

“Because I didn’t want something fun to turn into work.  Also, my computer knowledge was several years out of date by the time I got here, and I knew I’d be competing with kids whose knowledge was much more advanced.”

“That makes sense.  So you’re just taking the one class?”

“Yeah.  First session.  I’m not taking any classes second session.  I’ll probably just hang out here and try to find something fun to do.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I’ve discovered over the last couple years that I like to write.  I’m working on a novel now, when I have time and I’m in the right mood.”

“That’s so cool!”

“Just for fun,” I said.  “I know, I’m a math guy, I’m not supposed to be a writer.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being both!  What’s your novel about?”

“There’s this guy, he’s a senior in high school, but he needs a fresh start, and he wants to leave his past behind.  So he goes away to live with relatives.  And he feels like he isn’t ready to move on to the next part of his life, so he pretends to be younger so he can have a couple more years in high school.”

“Wow,” Lizzie said.  “Where’d you get the idea for that?”

“I guess I’ve kind of wished for that myself,” I explained.  “I feel like I really grew a lot my senior year of high school, but then just as life was getting interesting, my friends and I all graduated and moved away and lost touch.  I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had another year or two to grow in that environment, if I would have gotten to experience more things I missed out on.”

“Well, I think you turned out fine.”

“Thank you,” I said.  Then, after a pause, I added, “You can read it if you want.”

“Yeah!  It sounds really good!”

“I could email you some of what I have so far.  Does that work?”

“Sure.  Let me give you my email.”  Lizzie tore off a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote on it, then passed it to me.  I opened it and read what she wrote, very confused for a few seconds, then suddenly frightened and embarrassed as I began to realize the full implications of what I read.


Lindsay’s email:
lkvandenberg@jeromeville.edu


Lindsay’s email.  I had known this girl, whom I had been calling Lizzie, for over seven months, and this whole time her name was Lindsay.  I had never seen her name in print before.  I knew her through Jack, who talks really fast, so when I heard Jack say “Hi, Lindsay,” it came out sounding like “Hi Lizzie.”  I suddenly tried to recall every time I had actually spoken to Lindsay, trying to remember if I had ever called her Lizzie to her face.  I could not remember.  I looked up at her, trying to put the name Lindsay Vandenberg to this face, and it felt weird, because she was still Lizzie to me.

“Greg?” Lindsay asked.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I was just thinking about something.  No big deal.  But I’ll send you my story.”

“Great!  I look forward to reading it!”  Lindsay looked at her watch.  “I need to get going, I have class, but I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yeah!  Have a great day!”

“You too!”

I never found out if Lindsay knew that I thought her name was Lizzie for seven months.  She was never in my inner social circle, and we did not stay in touch after we graduated, but we always said hi to each other on campus.

For some reason, I have always disliked using people’s names out loud.  It just feels uncomfortable to me, and I do not know why.  But this odd quirk may have worked to my advantage on that day, because it was entirely possible that I had never actually called Lindsay Lizzie outside of my own head.  When I saw her, I was much more likely to just say “Hi” instead of “Hi, Lizzie.”  But even if I had ever accidentally called her Lizzie, there was not much that I could do about it now.  Besides, while my realization that Lindsay’s name was not Lizzie felt awkward and embarrassing, much of that embarrassment was in my own head.  If it was unlikely that she ever heard me call her Lizzie, she would have no way of knowing that I did not know her real name for so long.

Most guys have had their share of awkward moments around girls; and, of course, this statement applied to other combinations of genders and orientations as well.  I always felt particularly prone to awkward moments, mostly because I had never had a girlfriend, and I seemed to lack successful non-awkward experience with girls.  Over the years, I would have many more experiences of getting someone’s name wrong, or saying something that was misinterpreted.  But I have seen enough over the years now to know that I certainly was not alone in this.  And many others have had awkward moments that primarily happened in their own heads, unnoticed by those around them.  I just had to accept the fact that I was not perfect, and the right people in my life would accept me, flaws and all.

April 20, 1996. Working a table at the Spring Picnic.

I biked to campus full of anticipation on that cool, cloudy Saturday morning.  Today was the Spring Picnic.  In the last three months, I had made a new group of friends and taken an overnight trip with them, and I had discovered my purpose in life, but if this year’s Spring Picnic was anything like last year’s, it would rival those days as one of the best days of the year. (I should point out that I had no idea in 1996 of the fact that today’s date, April 20, meant something to marijuana users. My day had nothing to do with marijuana.)

Last year, I had heard some older students say that it always seems to rain in Jeromeville on the day of the Spring Picnic, but the weather last year was perfect.  Today rain looked a bit more likely, but I was determined that even the ominous sky would not ruin this day for me.

I arrived early, parking at a bike rack next to Wellington Hall a little after nine o’clock.  I had stopped to pick up a schedule of events on the way in.  I turned the pages to see what was happening this early, and to my dismay, there was not much.  The alumni breakfast was for alumni only and required a ticket purchase.  The Chemistry Club show was later in the day, but people were lining up for distribution of tickets already.  I had heard good things about that, but spending a long time in line to get a ticket did not appeal to me enough to actually do it, at least not this year.  Other than that, not much was happening this early.  The opening ceremony was at 9:30 not far from here, which led into the parade; maybe I could find a good seat for that.

I walked north to the end of the block, where a grandstand had been set up just around the corner from the Quad.  It was full, but not completely full, so I found an empty seat and looked through the schedule again as I waited.  I read the article on the history of the Spring Picnic, about how in 1909, the small group of professors and the newly founded university’s student body of about a hundred invited the public to a picnic, so they could display their research and show off a new building.  Thousands of guests flooded the campus, and a new tradition was born, growing into a major open house event for the university.

Many musicians, bands, and performing groups play the Spring Picnic every year, and last year I had discovered a band called Lawsuit, with some members who had roots here in Jeromeville.  I read an article in the Daily Colt this week about highlights of this year’s Spring Picnic, and it specifically said that Lawsuit would be playing on the Quad Stage at 3:30.  I looked in the schedule to confirm this and found it quickly.  That was definitely the one part of today that I did not want to miss.  I would be busy for part of today, though, and I specifically scheduled that so as to be finished by 3:30.

At 9:30, someone came on stage and took a few minutes to introduce the grand marshal of the parade, gushing on and on about this woman’s academic accomplishments, whoever she was.  The grand marshal spoke next, talking about passing on traditions, and history, and also finding a way to work in a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo. Go figure.

The parade began after that, and I followed along in the schedule of events to see who the groups were.  The Spring Picnic parade featured numerous student clubs, academic departments, and fraternities and sororities, as well as local businesses, community organizations, and a few high school bands from all over the state.  Parades are inherently fun, but part of the fun of the Spring Picnic parade is looking to see who all the different groups are and where they come from, like the giant cow on the float I saw approaching now.  I looked in the schedule; it was Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students.

About half an hour into the parade, the Campus Tour Guides marched through, walking backward.  That made me laugh; walking backward is an important part of being a tour guide after all.  Haley Channing, the girl from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship whom I secretly had a crush on, was a tour guide; I spotted her walking backward in the side of the group farthest from me.  I called out to her and waved, but she did not see or hear me.

The Interdisciplinary Honors Program marched in the parade this year, carrying a sign and wearing graduation caps.  I wondered how this year’s IHP got into the parade, because I was in the IHP last year and no one ever talked about being in the parade.  I knew one of this year’s IHP students, a girl named Yesenia; she was easy to spot, with hair almost all the way down her back.  I had better luck getting her attention than I did with Haley, because she was walking closer to me.  “Yesenia!” I called out as she passed by.  She looked up, saw me waving, and pointed at me.  “Greg!” she shouted, waving back.  I smiled and continued waving.

By 11:00, I had been watching the parade for an hour, and I decided to go do something else.  I wandered down the west end of the Quad, following the parade route, crossing Shelley Avenue at the south end of the Quad and entering the library.  The library’s Spring Picnic exhibit was always something out of the Special Collections; this year it was photographs from the early days of the University.  The campus had changed so much since the early twentieth century; I only recognized one building in the pictures.

I left the library a bit later walking in the opposite direction from where I came.  The art building was open with a sign out front, so I walked in.  The lobby and a hallway were lined with paintings and sculptures made by students.  Some of them were fairly recognizable, like portraits of human beings and landscapes.  Others were much more abstract: lumps of clay that made no recognizable shape, multicolored lines crossing and intersecting across a canvas, and splashes of color that looked like something that someone dropped a bunch of paint on a white piece of fabric but was still considered art, probably because of the statement they made or something like that.  It was still interesting to look at everything.

I had somewhere to be at noon.  I had about twenty minutes to walk back to the Quad, eat, then head to the walkway between Wellington and Kerry to the table I would be working.  The east side of the Quad was full of student organizations selling food; many were cultural organizations selling food from their parts of the world.  I got in line for the Filipino Club’s lumpia table, but the line moved so slowly that it soon became apparent that I would not get my lumpia in time.  By 11:55, there were still seven people ahead of me, so I left the line and walked back across the Quad toward the table where I was working a shift.

Four long folding tables had been arranged in a line next to the entrance to Kerry Hall.  A handmade sign on poster board that said MATH CLUB AT UJ stood propped up on one of the tables.  The tables held various math puzzles and games.

“Hey, Brandon?” I asked a tall blond guy standing behind one of the tables.  “I’m here.  What do I do?”

“Just pick a table and talk to people.  If you need solutions to any of the puzzles, if you can’t figure out how to explain it to someone, it’s in that box there.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked to the table on the end farthest from the Quad, with a cardboard model of the Monty Hall problem and a Towers of Hanoi puzzle.  I had studied the mathematics of both of these puzzles extensively and felt qualified to explain them to passersby.

“Hey, Greg,” a junior girl named Susan said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good.  I didn’t do much today.  Saw the parade, and the old pictures in the library, and the art department exhibit.  What have you done so far?”

“I went to the Chemistry Club show.”

“What’s that like?” I asked.  “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never been.  I don’t want to stand in line to get tickets.”

“It’s so worth it!  You should!  Lots of cool demonstrations.”

“Maybe next year.”

I started attending Math Club meetings off and on last year, although I have not been very active in the club.  I knew Brandon and Susan and some of the others to say hi to, and some of the younger people in Math Club I had been in classes with, but I was not particularly close with any of them.

“Hi,” I said as a boy walked up to my table, looking at the Monty Hall problem poster.  “What’s this?”

“The Monty Hall problem,” I said.  “Have you heard of this?”

“I don’t think so.”

I set up the game, putting a card representing a new car behind door number 2.  “Suppose you’re on a game show.  Behind one of these three doors is a new car, and the other two have a goat.  You choose one.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah.”

He thought for a few seconds, then said, “Number three.”

“So before we say where the car is, I’m going to open door number 1,” I said.  I showed him the goat behind the door.  “Now, do you want to stick with your answer of door number 3, or switch to door number 2?”

“Hmm,” the guy replied.  “I’m going to stick with my original choice.  Door number 3.”  I opened door number 3 to show the goat.  “Aww,” he said, as I revealed the car behind door number 2.  I wrote the results of his game on a scoresheet we had made for that purpose.  “What’s that?” he asked.

“We’re keeping track of everyone who plays today, whether or not you switched doors, and whether or not you won.  Mathematically, you actually have a better chance of winning if you switch doors.”

“Really,” he said.  “How does that work?”

I had a small poster explaining the problem mathematically that I was instructed to keep covered until after the contestant had played; I showed it to him now.  “Basically,” I said, “you had a 1 in 3 chance of being right when you said door number 3.  I opened a door that I know is wrong, but that doesn’t change your 1 in 3 chance of being right.  So if you switched, knowing that door number 1 was not the prize, you would have a 2 in 3 chance of being right.  At the end of the day, you can come back and look at the score sheet, to see if the people who switched were actually right more often than the people who didn’t.”

“Interesting,” the guy said.  “Why is this called the Monty Hall problem?”

“He was the host of Let’s Make A Deal.”  The guy gave me a blank stare, so I added, “That was a classic TV game show that inspired this problem.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I remember when it stirred up controversy in Marilyn Vos Savant’s column.  Do you know about that?”  He shook his head no, so I continued explaining.  “Marilyn has one of the highest known IQs of anyone, and she writes a newspaper column.  She wrote about this problem a few years ago, and all sorts of people, some of them claiming to have math degrees, wrote to her telling her that she was wrong.  But she wasn’t.”

“Whoa,” the guy said, looking unimpressed.

“Enjoy your Spring Picnic!” I said as he walked away.  I had learned more and more these days that my peers just did not read news in print like I did, nor did they grow up watching game shows.

“Greg!” a familiar voice said a while later.  I looked up to see Sarah Winters, whom I had known since my first week at UJ.

“Hi, Sarah.  How are you?”

“I’m good!  How are you?  Did I tell you I’m changing my major to math?”

“No!  When did this happen?”

“I want to be a teacher, I’ve known that for a long time.  I decided that math is what I like teaching best.”

“Nice!  Maybe we’ll have some classes together someday.”

“Yeah!  What’s this thing?” Sarah asked, pointing to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.

“You have to move all five discs on this spindle to one of the other two spindles,” I explained.  “But you can only move one at a time, and you can only put a smaller disc on top of a larger disc.”

“I see.”

“It’s significant because it’s an example of recursion.  Each time you get to the next bigger disc, you have to solve the same problem for one fewer disc.  And the number of moves you need follows a nice exponential growth pattern.”

“I see,” Sarah said, playing with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, trying to move the discs accordingly.  “So you’re part of the Math Club?”

“I go to most of the meetings,” I said.  “But this is the first time I’ve ever done anything for Math Club.”

“What kind of things do you do in Math Club?”

“Math games, outreach, talking about careers in math, stuff like that.”

“I might have to check it out sometime!”

“That would be cool!”

“What else are you doing today?” Sarah asked.

“I’m going to go see the band Lawsuit after my shift here.”

“That’ll be fun.  I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”

“You too!”


My shift ended at three o’clock, and I still had not eaten.  At one of the tables, we were giving out candy to people who could solve the puzzles, and I had been sneaking candy when no one was looking for the whole three hours I was there.  When I got back to the Quad, all the student-run food booths had shut down, but a truck with typical fair and festival type food was open on the far corner of the Quad near the library.  I went there and bought a hot dog.  Not as exciting as lumpia, but I was hungry.

I crossed to the east side of the Quad, across the street from the oldest buildings on campus, and watched a band finish playing.  I looked through the schedule of events while that band took their equipment and instruments down and Lawsuit set up, looking for something to do after their show.  Most of the events and shows would be shut down by then; the only thing going on that late was the Battle of the Bands, where the marching bands from UJ and several other universities in the region play on into the night.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone finally said on stage around 3:45, “the name of this band is Lawsuit!”  Paul Sykes, the lead singer, began rapping while the rest of the band played the background music of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” a song from the 1970s that had become popular again recently because it was in the movie Pulp Fiction.  This segued into “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” the song they had opened with when I saw them last year.

Lawsuit was a difficult band to categorize.  Their music crossed the boundaries of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, and something called “ska” which apparently meant rock with horns.  The band had ten members, and during a long guitar and bass solo, the members of the horn section did a strange dance.  I sang along quietly, since I knew this song, and cheered loudly at the end.

Lawsuit played for almost an hour.  I knew about half the songs, since I now had a bootleg tape of their newest album that I had copied from someone in my dorm last year.  Last year I knew nothing of their music, but this year I knew around half of the songs from that tape.  The others, mostly older songs of theirs along with one that they said was from a new album coming this summer, included one about a couch and one about Einstein.  One thing I always noticed about Lawsuit was that their music felt at times like one giant inside joke that I was not in on, but I enjoyed it anyway.  I had been looking forward to this show since the moment that Lawsuit’s show at last year’s Spring Picnic ended, a year ago.

“We have one more song for you,” Paul said after they had been playing for a while.  “Before you go, make sure you sign up for our mailing list, and we also have CDs and merch.”  He then went into a song from the tape I had called “Picture Book Pretty.”  In the middle of the song, I noticed that he sang “one thousand red roses would not be quite enough,” instead of “one dozen red roses” like he says on the album.  I was not sure why he changed it.

After the show, I walked to the table in front and put my name and address on the mailing list.  This was how bands stayed in touch with their fans in 1996; there was no social media or YouTube back then, and email and websites were themselves brand new technologies just beginning to break into the mainstream.  By filling out this mailing list, I would get a postcard in the mail every month or two from Lawsuit.  They did also have an email list, though; I signed up for that too, even though the postcards and email would probably say the same thing.

“Hey, Greg,” someone said as I turned to leave the merch table.  I looked up; it was Christian Channing, a senior whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the older brother of Haley, my tour guide friend whom I wanted to be more than a friend.  “I didn’t know you liked Lawsuit.  Is this your first time hearing them?”

“I saw them at last year’s Spring Picnic.  They’re so good!”

“I know!  My little brother, he’s 15, I gave him a tape of Lawsuit last year, and now he loves them too.  Last summer we went and saw them when they played back home.”

“That’s awesome.”

“Hey, I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

I walked to the lake in the middle of the Arboretum near Marks Hall, where the Battle of the Bands was, and stayed there for about another hour.  The band visiting from Walton University always played a song that was about forty minutes long; I left around six o’clock in the middle of that song dragging on and on.  Seeing Lawsuit was great, and working the Math Club table was something new, and it did not end up raining. But despite all that, this year’s Spring Picnic felt disappointing.  Because I had volunteered three hours of my time, I missed out on my favorite part of the Spring Picnic: walking around campus looking at random exhibits.  The University of Jeromeville was so huge that no one could possibly see everything, so there would always be new things to see every year at the Spring Picnic. I got to see very little of that this year, since I spent so much time at the Math Club table.  I learned my lesson from this, though; this was the first Spring Picnic for which I volunteered for something, and it would be the last.

This was also the last Spring Picnic that Lawsuit played, although I would see Lawsuit play live again.  But that is another story for another time.


Note from the author: When I wrote about the previous year’s Spring Picnic, in December 2019, I said that I would be spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic in April.  That prediction did not age well; the 2020 and 2021 Spring Picnics were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not having the Spring Picnic for two years in a row has been difficult for me…

May 18, 1995. The Coventry Greenbelt.

I parked my bike outside of Wellington Hall, a rectangular brick building which consisted only of classrooms used for many different subjects, and headed to Room 17 in the basement for my chemistry discussion.  Chemistry 2B was a large class of around four hundred students held in 199 Stone Hall, the largest lecture hall on campus in the 1990s. Labs and discussions met in smaller groups of 24 students, all from the same lecture section, led by a teaching assistant who was a graduate student from the chemistry department.

The desks in Wellington 17, as was the case with most classrooms at UJ, were just chairs with a little retractable piece of wood that a student could pull up and use as a hard surface for writing.  I sat in a chair, pulled the desk up into place, and put my head down on it with my eyes closed. I was tired. I had been up for a while. I started class on Thursday at 10:00 in the morning, but I woke up early enough to be ready for class at 9, because every other day I had a 9:00 class.  It was now 9:57, and I was ready to go back to sleep because I had not slept well the night before.

A couple minutes later, I heard someone sit next to me and begin to speak.  “Hey, Greg! Are you okay?” I recognized the voice; it was Marissa, my lab partner.

I opened my eyes and looked up.  “I didn’t sleep well. The fire alarm went off at 2:30, and it took me almost an hour to get back to sleep.”

“What? Fire? Where?”

“My dorm.  Building C in the South Area.  We all had to evacuate.”

“What was on fire?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think anything was on fire.  There wasn’t any smoke or anything, at least I couldn’t see anything on fire.”

“So what set it off?”

“I don’t know.”

“Weird.”

“Oh yeah.  It was hilarious.  I was climbing down the stairs, and Amy, the RA from the third floor, she goes, ‘If you see or smell anything strange, let me know.’  My friend Rebekah, she’s also on the third floor, she says, ‘I see and smell Amy. Should I let you know?’”

“She actually said that?” Marissa asked, laughing.  “Oh my gosh!”

“Yeah!  She’s hilarious.  We had the same math class fall quarter, and the professor posted grades by ID number.  She figured out which one was me, because she knew what I got on all the other midterms, so she knew what I got on the final before I did.”

“No way.”

“And she told me, ‘Next quarter, I’m going to freak out just like you did, and maybe then I’ll get 99 percent just like you.’”

“That’s funny!  Did you freak out on your math final?”

“I think she just meant how I was really stressed about the final, but I probably didn’t have to be, since I did so well.  It was my first final here, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

“That makes sense.  Are we getting the chem midterm back today?”

“I think so.  I don’t think I did very well on this one.  At least not as well as I usually do.”

In Chemistry 2B, the TA passed back the midterms and took time in the discussion to answer questions about the midterm.  It was not like Physics 9A, where I had to get my own test paper off of a shelf. A few minutes after class started, the TA began passing back the midterms.  I nervously looked at mine when I got it.

86, out of 100.

Not bad like that physics midterm from a few weeks earlier, but not as well as I usually do.  I was a little disappointed in myself, but not panicking.

Marissa got her midterm back shortly after I did.  She looked through it excitedly. “This is the best I’ve ever done on a chem midterm!” she said.

“Mine was the worst for me.  But good job.”

“I got 86!  What did you get?”

My brain took a second to process what I had just heard.  This certainly put things in perspective. “86,” I said sheepishly.

“Really?” Marissa asked.  I showed her my midterm. “My best score is your worst score.  That’s kind of sad.”

“No it isn’t,” I said.  “It puts things in perspective.  Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about always being perfect.”

“You really shouldn’t.  86 isn’t bad. And you’re still going to ace the final, probably.”

“I don’t know.  We’ll see. But you’re right.  86 isn’t bad. Good job.”

“You too.”

 

I had one more class later that day, and when that was done, I got back to the dorm shortly after 2:00.  The chalkboard in the stairwell still said COMMUNITY ASSESSMENT MEETING. The resident advisers, Gurpreet and Amy, had not erased this announcement yet.  The meeting was two days ago; we had discussed how things had been going, and Gurpreet and Amy had given us information about procedures for moving out, which we would be doing in four weeks.

I sat down to check email, and I started to nod off while I was reading, so I turned off the computer and lay down for a nap.  The fire alarm and evacuation last night had thrown off my sleeping, and I had had trouble staying awake in both of my classes.  I was done for the day, though, and although I had math homework due tomorrow, I was in no shape to do it now. I closed my eyes and drifted off.

When I woke up, I could tell that I had been asleep.  I checked my watch; it was almost 4:00. The sun was out, and it was fairly warm today.  I had been wearing jeans this morning, but by now it was warm enough to wear shorts. It felt like a good day to be outside.

After I changed into shorts, I got on my bike.  I headed south toward the Arboretum and the Lodge, then I turned east toward the law school and Marks Hall.  I had done this bike ride several other times in my year at UJ. The long, narrow, park-like Arboretum, following a dry creek bed which had been converted into a very long lake, was a peaceful oasis in the middle of a busy campus.  Just past Marks Hall, a large grassy area sloped gently down to the waterway, which widened into a more lake-like shape, and I saw several students lying on the grass reading. I was not the only one who felt like being outside today, apparently.

Near the east end of the Arboretum, I turned on a path that led to the intersection of First and B Streets downtown.  I continued north on B Street, past Central Park and through an old residential neighborhood. This was all familiar territory; I had done this ride a few times before and driven parts of B Street in the car.

B Street ended at the intersection with 15th Street.  In front of me was Jeromeville Community Park, the largest park in the city, which bordered the Veterans Memorial Hall, the public library, a public pool, Jeromeville High School, an elementary school, and the Jeromeville Arts Center.  The Veterans Memorial Hall was visible in front of me along 15th Street, with a bike path to its left. I had never noticed that path before. I crossed the street and continued north on that path.

I rode past Veterans Memorial Hall and the public swimming pool on my right, with part of the parking lot for the high school on my left.  Behind this I rode past tennis courts and soccer and baseball fields. I could see ahead that this path led to an overpass crossing Coventry Boulevard.  I had driven under that overpass before, but I never knew anything about the path on top, where it came from or where it led.

On the other side of the overpass, north of Coventry Boulevard, the path led down into a park.  I saw backs of homes and yards and apartment buildings, and streets adjoining the park on the left and the right.  A number of short paths led to adjoining streets, one leading back to Coventry Boulevard. The path I rode on continued north, and I also noticed a long path to the west which, like the one I was on, continued for some distance instead of ending at a street.  A sign attached to a lamppost said “COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 8.”

I chose to continue north.  I rode past grassy areas and many different kinds of trees, past a playground and tennis courts.  The path turned to the right and then left again, outside of the park and into a very different landscape.  The path was straight, with a large vacant lot on the left, and on the right, fences separating the path from backyards and short paths branching off to the ends of culs-de-sac connected to some unseen street to the east.

After three such paths leading to other streets, the path I was on crossed a street at a crosswalk.  On the other side of the street, fenced backs of yards and paths branching to other streets now lined both sides of the path, with a thin strip of landscaping on either side of the path.  I had never seen a neighborhood like this before, with dead-end streets connecting to a continuous bicycle and pedestrian path. Jeromeville advertises itself as being a bicycle-friendly community, and apparently in Jeromeville this slogan means more than just bike lanes on major streets and parts of the university campus being closed to cars.  This part of Jeromeville, a fairly new subdivision, seemed to be constructed entirely around bicycle travel.

About a quarter mile after I crossed that street, the bicycle path entered another large park.  This one had a small playground to the left of the path, with soccer fields beyond. On my right, to the east, was a pond, with rushes and reeds and bushes growing along its shore.  A boardwalk extended about a hundred feet to the right, with some kind of informational sign at the end, probably about wildlife or plants or something like that. Straight ahead of me was another smaller pond, and the path curved to the right between the two ponds. I continued along the path as it curved northeast, then abruptly ended at a street, with the northern tip of the large pond to my right, an office building to my left, and a residential neighborhood across the street straight ahead from me.

I looked at the name on the street sign across from me.  This was the corner of Salmon Drive and Andrews Road. I knew where I was now.

Andrews Road is a major street running north-south on the UJ campus and in west-central Jeromeville, parallel to Highway 117 about half a mile east.  In the northernmost part of the city of Jeromeville, Andrews Road curves through recently constructed residential areas onto a more east-west route, ending at G Street a couple hundred feet to the right of where I was now.  I was very close to the northernmost point of the city of Jeromeville, where the geography changes from residential neighborhoods to the flat farmland that Arroyo Verde County is known for.

I turned around and headed back to the small playground on the other side of the ponds, but instead of going back the way I came, I rode to the west along the soccer fields.  A sign called this part of the path COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 3. I had seen other signs like this along the path I had ridden, the numbers changing each time. I was, and still am to this day, unsure if the numbers have a pattern or what they mean.

At the end of this path, I turned south on another path, through more numbered areas of the Coventry Greenbelt, again with fences separating me from backyards on both sides.  I crossed a street, and the greenbelt widened, with the houses on either side of me farther apart. The path curved a bit. I saw a statue of a dog near the sign saying that I was in COVENTRY GREENBELT AREA 5. I rode through grassy areas spotted with trees, continuing south.  Another path and greenbelt branched off to my right, and as I passed a playground, yet another path and greenbelt branched off to my left. I continued south, into a thick grove of pine trees, the ground covered with dead needles. I made a mental note that I had a lot more exploring to do in the future, to figure out where those other paths went.

I entered a tunnel under a street and emerged at Coventry Boulevard, where the pine trees suddenly cleared.  I knew this must be Coventry Boulevard. I was pretty sure there were no other four-lane divided streets in this part of Jeromeville.  And if this was Coventry Boulevard, the tunnel I just emerged from must have crossed under Alvarez Avenue. My apartment for next year was on Alvarez Avenue, but farther west, to my right.

I turned right on Coventry and left on Andrews Road, back toward campus.  When I got back to Building C, about ten minutes after emerging from the tunnel, I locked my bike and entered the building from the back, into the stairwell across from the lobby.  Someone had changed the announcement about the COMMUNITY ASSESSMENT MEETING by selectively erasing letters. It now said COMMUNITY ASS EETING. I laughed out loud.

“Greg!” I heard a voice say.  “What’s so funny?”

I looked down.  Sarah Winters, who had asked the question, and Krista Curtis were sitting on the stairs talking.  One of the quirks of university dormitory culture is that people can sit and socialize just about anywhere.  Sometimes that was annoying, as I discovered two months ago when I was awakened from my sleep, but other times, like now, it gave me socializing opportunities that rarely ever happened at any other point in my life.

I pointed at COMMUNITY ASS EETING on the chalkboard.  Sarah groaned, and Krista rolled her eyes.

“You’re all sweaty!” Krista said.

“I was on a bike ride.”  I looked at my watch. “I’ve been gone for about 45 minutes.”

“Wow!  Where’d you go?”

“Through the Arboretum to downtown, then up B Street to that park by the high school.  There’s a path that crosses over Coventry Boulevard and leads to a greenbelt. Like a bunch of interconnected parks behind the neighborhoods in North Jeromeville.”

“Cool!”

“I’ve heard about the greenbelts,” Sarah said.  “I’ve never been there, though. Was it nice?”

“Yeah.  And it’s a great day to be outside.  I love this weather.”

“I know!  It feels like summer!”

“I have four weeks left to enjoy this weather.  And now I have a new place to explore on my bike.”

“What do you mean, four weeks?” Krista asked.

“After that I’m going home for the summer.”

“Why can’t you enjoy summer at home?”

“Plumdale doesn’t have this weather.  We get coastal fog at night sometimes, and it doesn’t burn off until around noon.  And it doesn’t get as hot as it does here.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It’s hard to believe we’re almost done with the school year,” Sarah said.

“I know,” I replied.  “It seemed to go by fast.”

“Are you looking forward to summer?”

“I’m not sure.  I’m looking forward to no classes, but I’m going to miss all of you guys.”

“Me too!  You’ll have to write to me.”

“I will.  I hope to write a lot of letters this summer.  I’ll try to get email over the summer too.”

“I won’t have email at home,” Sarah said.

“Me either,” Krista added.

“I feel really sweaty and stinky,” I said.

“Eww!” Sarah replied, laughing jokingly.

“I’m going to go upstairs and take a shower.  I’ll see you guys later.”

“We’ll probably be going to dinner around 6.  Want to come with us?” Krista asked.

“Sure!”

 

That day changed my life, to some extent.  I went for several more bike rides in the Coventry Greenbelt and other adjacent greenbelts and parks over the next few weeks, exploring more of North Jeromeville.  I found a greenbelt in West Jeromeville about a week later, and one in South Jeromeville shortly after I moved back sophomore year. Today, a quarter-century later, I have never gotten out of the habit of exploring on my bike.  When I was in my early 30s, I once told someone about a 25-mile bike ride I had done one Saturday. My friend asked me how I got into cycling, and I said it just kind of happened by default when I lived in Jeromeville, and I never really stopped.  I did not ride my bike very far when I was growing up in Plumdale, because Plumdale is hilly and can be cold at times. This is not exactly the best environment for cycling. It turned out that the upcoming summer of 1995 was the last summer in which I would spend the majority of the time in Plumdale, although that was not entirely related to weather or cycling.

I currently live in the suburbs south of Capital City.  There are a few greenbelts around here, but not an extensive network of them like I found in Jeromeville.  (Of course, Jeromevillians pay higher property taxes as a result, so there’s that.) I still do a lot of exploring on my bicycle.  Once every year, I return to my cycling roots, riding my bike 28 miles from my house across the Drawbridge to Central Park in Jeromeville, where I take a break to eat the lunch I packed.  After resting for a while, I continue riding around Jeromeville, riding through some of the greenbelts, as well as part of the Arboretum and my happy place along Hawkins Road. By mid-afternoon, my clothes are covered in salt left behind by dried sweat, my butt hurts, and I am exhausted, so I then take my bike on a bus to Capital City and on another bus back to my own neighborhood.  My total distance for the day on one of these trips totals between 50 and 55 miles.

My bike isn’t anything fancy or expensive.  For that matter, my bike isn’t the same bike I had on that day when I first explored the Coventry Greenbelt; I got a new bike in 1999 and another one in 2008, when the previous bikes broke beyond repair.  And I’m not in great physical shape; I love junk food too much for that.  But cycling has provided hundreds of hours and thousands of miles of outdoor recreation for me over the years. I’m writing this in January of 2020; it is cold, and I haven’t been on my bike in a few days. I don’t ride much this time of year, but I really need to. Maybe I’ll get to do that this weekend.

greenbeltCoventry Greenbelt Area 5, taken in 2016 the first time I rode my bike from South Capital County to Jeromeville.

April 20-22, 1995. The Spring Picnic.

Every weekend, all across America, small independent local bands play live music to crowds in bars and small music venues.  University neighborhoods are a natural breeding ground for live music, and Jeromeville was no exception. One of the biggest such bands around here in the 90s was called Lawsuit.  This band had 10 members playing all sorts of different instruments, touring up and down the western United States playing shows in clubs and bars, and at fairs and festivals.  Some of the members of Lawsuit grew up right here in Jeromeville, so it was always a big deal whenever Lawsuit played a show here.

I first heard the name Lawsuit on a Thursday night in April, right after the bombing in Oklahoma City happened.  In the middle of hearing  about that in the national news, I kept encountering in the local news something called the Spring Picnic.  Apparently this was an annual event that would be happening this coming Saturday on the University of Jeromeville campus. The Daily Colt billed the Spring Picnic as the largest student-run event in the USA, but the flyers I kept seeing were somewhat less clear on what actually happened at the Spring Picnic.  It sounded kind of like a fair, from what I had read about it.

The days were getting longer that time of year.  I walked from Building C to the dining hall at 6:03pm under a blue sky, the sun low on the horizon but still shining.  Much of the walk was in shadow because of the three-story dormitory buildings surrounding me.

After I got my meal, I looked around the room to see if anyone I knew had an empty seat nearby.  I saw Megan, the RA from Building K, sitting with a guy and a girl who I thought were other RAs from other buildings.  I walked toward them.

“Hey, Greg!” Megan said as I approached.

“May I sit here?” I asked.

“Sure!”

As I began eating, Megan asked me, “How’s your week going?  Are you going to the Spring Picnic?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think so.  I’m still not really sure what it is, though.  I had never heard of it until about a week ago.”

“You’ve never heard of the Spring Picnic?”

“I’m not from here, remember.”

“It’s so much fun!  It’s like a giant open house for the university.  There are exhibits for departments all over campus, and student groups have performances and food tables and stuff like that, and there’s a Battle of the Bands with marching bands from different universities.  And there will be free outdoor concerts. Lawsuit is gonna be there! Have you heard Lawsuit?”

“I don’t think so.”

“They’re so good!  They’ll be playing at 3:00, I think.”

“I’ll have to check them out, then.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  You’ll enjoy it.”

“Sounds like it.”

In 1995, with no social media or hashtags, student groups and organizations advertised in more low-tech ways.  Groups put flyers on bulletin boards all over campus. Sometimes someone would just walk into an unlocked classroom and write an announcement for an event on the chalkboard.  The class where I had math Friday morning had the words “SPRING PICNIC IS TOMORROW” written on the far right side of the board. The instructor was showing us how to calculate a vector cross product.  It was a fairly involved process, which seemed somewhat arbitrary and counterintuitive at first, although I would learn soon that this had applications in physics and engineering.

When the instructor ran out of room on the board, he started to erase the Spring Picnic announcement.  “You all know Spring Picnic is tomorrow, right?” he said. A few people in the class laughed.  I did know that. I knew now, at least. The instructor erased the announcement and continued working on the problem.

After math, I had an hour break, then physics.  I went back to my room for lunch after that, picking up a copy of the Daily Colt on the way.  It seemed unusually thick today; I unfolded it to see why, and I discovered a copy of the Spring Picnic Guide inside.  The guide contained a complete schedule of events, along with a campus map and parking information. I didn’t need this because I was a student and I lived on campus and knew my way around; apparently this same guide would be given to visitors from out of town who might need that information.

The schedule of events alone covered several pages.  Events were grouped by type: student organizations, academic departments, animal events, performances, athletics, and the like.  Everything happened simultaneously all over campus, and it would be impossible to see everything. Being that this was my first Spring Picnic, I did not have anything set in mind that I had to see, other than Lawsuit (the guide said they were playing at 3:00, just like Megan said, on the Quad Stage).  One page was dedicated to listing participants in the parade and a few paragraphs about this year’s Grand Marshal of the parade. The parade started at 10:00, so that would be a good place to start my day.

I was still holding the Daily Colt and the Spring Picnic Guide when I walked into Building C.  Pete, Charlie, Sarah, Danielle, and Taylor were sitting in the common room.  Pete and Charlie spent so much time in the common room that quarter that they had joked about moving in there.  They had taken the signs from their doors with their names on them and attached them to the wall in the entryway to the common room, and they had put duct tape in the shape of the digits “110” on the wall next to their names.  The first room on the first floor, Bok’s room, was room 112, and their signs were on the same side of the building as Bok’s room, so the next even number counting down would be 110.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  He was sitting next to Danielle on a couch, and Pete and Sarah were sitting together on the other couch.  Charlie sat in a chair next to Pete and Sarah’s couch. Taylor and Danielle kind of looked like a couple, and so did Pete and Sarah, although these days they all spent so much time together I couldn’t tell if they were actually together or just good friends.  I tend to be the last one to know when couples get together.

“Is that the schedule for the Spring Picnic?” Danielle asked, noticing the guide in my hand.  “You have to come see us tomorrow. 1:00 outside the music building.”

“Who is ‘us?’” I asked.

“University Chorus.”

“Sure.  I don’t really know much about the Spring Picnic.  I don’t have a plan. I’m just going to wander around and look for cool stuff, I guess.”

“Are you going to the chemistry magic show?” Pete asked.  “I’ve heard that’s good.”

“That’s the one you have to line up for tickets, right?” I replied.  “I was reading that in here. I don’t know if I feel like getting up early and standing in line.  I haven’t decided yet.”

“What about lining up to stick your hand in a cow?” Taylor asked.  “Are you gonna do that?”

“Ewwww!” Danielle exclaimed.

“I read about that too,” I said.  “I might. It depends on how long the line is.”

Scientists can surgically attach a structure called a fistula to the side of a cow, providing a window to observe inside the cow’s stomach, for the purposes of studying and researching bovine digestion.  The window can open, allowing a researcher to insert a gloved arm inside the cow and remove and analyze the contents of her stomach. I read an article in today’s Daily Colt saying that a popular Spring Picnic exhibit involved people standing in line to stick their arms into a fistulated cow.  This all sounded intriguing, but I didn’t particularly feel in the mood to stand in line for a long time. I would wait and see how long the line was.

I had one more class later that afternoon, and I spent the rest of the night doing homework and reading and studying.  It wasn’t exactly the most exciting Friday night of my life, but tomorrow looked like it would be a long, fun day, so I figured I would get ahead while I could.  I went to bed around 11, excited to see what this Spring Picnic tomorrow would bring.

In 1905, the state legislature passed a bill calling for the establishment of an agriculture campus for University of the Bay,  the state’s only public university at that time.  Agriculture was, and still is, a major industry in this area, but the urban Bay campus gave students nowhere to practice what they learned in agriculture classrooms. So the University Farm was born, and the location chosen was sixty miles away from the Bay campus, in Arroyo Verde County.  The University Farm would be next to a tiny town called Jeromeville, on land that had once been the ranch of the town’s namesake, the Jerome family. It took a few years for the Farm to get running, but the students eventually came.

An article in the Daily Colt explained more of the history of the Spring Picnic.  In 1909, at the end of the first full school year on the University Farm, the entire 26-man faculty, and the entire student body of 112 male students, held a picnic to share what they had learned.  The picnic was open to the public, to serve as an open house to present their research and show the brand new dairy barn to residents of the surrounding region. The crowd of visitors overwhelmed the campus as over two thousand people picnicked on the Quad and nearby fields.  The picnic became an annual tradition, eventually being taken over by the Associated Students organization instead of being run by faculty. The Jeromeville campus grew, becoming independent of the University of the Bay in 1959, and the Spring Picnic grew with it as other departments and student organizations used it as their open house.  The west half of the Quad was still designated for picnics, although picnicking was no longer the focus of the event.

I left the South Residential Area around nine-thirty Saturday morning, after showering, eating, and reading the newspaper.  I had heard older students say that it always rained on the day of the Spring Picnic, but today was sunny and mild without a cloud in sight. I could already tell that it would be no ordinary day.  Normally, the campus was mostly empty on a Saturday morning, but today people were walking around, and not all of the people looked like students. Many were middle-aged and older adults, and some had children with them.

I walked toward the Quad by way of the chemistry building.  As I approached the building, I could see a line extending from the large lecture hall on one side all the way around the opposite side of the building.  The line was not moving. I continued walking toward the Quad, ignoring the line. I would see the chemistry show some other year; I didn’t feel like standing in line today.

At the Quad, people sat and lined up all along both sides of the parade route. I had to look around for a bit before I found a place to sit on the curb.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked a woman next to the empty spot. She had a toddler with her, a boy with bushy red hair.

“No,” she said.  “Go ahead.”

I pulled my copy of the Spring Picnic Guide out of my pocket, reading through the parade lineup.  I heard amplified voices, unintelligible from here, in the distance on my left. I turned to look, but all I saw was a line of people sitting and standing under the tall cork oaks lining West Quad Avenue.  The street was mostly empty, except for a few bicyclists riding past occasionally. The voices seemed to be coming from around the corner at the end of the street. I thought I saw something about some kind of opening ceremony at the beginning of the parade route, which is what I was probably hearing.  I read through the parade lineup as I waited, then I looked through other parts of the guide, looking for other things I would want to see.

The parade began at 10:00 and reached my location around 10:10.  I watched as dozens of groups and floats marched past. Student organizations and clubs, academic departments, fraternities and sororities, community organizations, children’s groups, marching bands from other colleges and high schools, and local political figures all marched and walked past.  Some groups walked carrying banners, some rode on floats, some rode in fancy vehicles, and because this was Jeromeville, a few groups were on bicycles. Some sorority sisters walked past, handing out candy to little kids. The boy sitting next to me got a Tootsie Roll, and his mother said, “Can you say thank you?”  The boy shyly hid his face. I wanted a Tootsie Roll too, but I didn’t make a big deal of it.

I got a good laugh out of some of the parade entries.  The Associated Students Tour Guides walked through the parade backward.  The MBA students from the UJ School of Management wore suits and ties over shorts that said “Cover Your Assets” across the butt.  Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students, had a float shaped like a giant cow. When the group from Jeromeville College Republicans walked by, I cheered loudly, and I noticed some people nearby giving me dirty looks.  They handed me a small US flag. The little boy next to me got one too, and his mother said nothing; I could sense a subtle look of disapproval on her face.

After about an hour, about three-fourths of the parade groups had passed by.  There was nothing in particular I was waiting for in the rest of the parade, so I got up and walked to the path between Wellington and Kerry Halls, where the Math Club had their tables.  I had attended Math Club twice so far this year, and I was on their email list.

I stopped at the first table, where a tall blond student whom I didn’t know stood in front of a wooden puzzle.  The puzzle had three vertical pegs in a row. Five wooden discs of different diameters were stacked on the leftmost peg, with the largest on the bottom.

“Hi,” the blond guy said when he noticed my interest.  “The object is to get all of the discs on a different peg.  But you can only move one at a time, and–”

“You can’t put a larger one on a smaller one, right?”

“Yes.  Have you seen this before?”

“The Towers of Hanoi puzzle,” I said.  “I saw something about it in a math book.  Let me see if I remember how to do it.”

“What’s your major?”

“I’m not sure,” I said as I picked up the smallest disc, and placed it on the middle peg.  “I haven’t declared yet. But I’m thinking math. Maybe physics or chemistry.” I placed the next smallest disc on the right peg, and I put the smallest disc on top of this one.  I had moved two discs successfully, with the middle peg empty.

“Have you been to our Math Club?” the student asked me as I put the third disc on the middle peg.  If I remembered correctly, the point of this puzzle was that each step was recursive. Move the third disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first two on top of the third, since I already successfully moved two discs.  Move the fourth disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first three on top of the fourth, since I already successfully moved three discs.

“I’ve been a couple times, yeah.”

“I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Brandon.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Brandon’s hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

After a few more minutes, I finished the puzzle, with all five discs now stacked on the middle peg.  “You got it,” Brandon said. “Good job. You get a prize.” He handed me a fun size bag of Skittles, the size given to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.  I never understood why those tiny little candies were called “fun size.” It’s no fun when you run out of Skittles so quickly.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’ll see you at the next Math Club meeting?  Second Wednesday of the month in 108 Wellington?”

“Yeah.  Probably.”

At the next table, Mary Heinrich, the Math Club president, stood next to three puzzles requiring separating interlocked objects that looked like they could not be separated without cutting or breaking.  “I’m terrible at these,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Mary said.  “How are you?”

“Good,” I replied.  I had met Mary through Math Club, and I also knew that she had been in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program as a freshman, the same program I am in now along with everyone else in Building C.  “This is my first Spring Picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  There’s so much to see!”

“I know!  So far I’ve just been watching the parade.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day!  Are you coming to the next Math Club meeting?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll see you then!”

After the Math Club exhibit, I walked back to West Quad Avenue and crossed it; the parade had finished by now, but the entire campus had become even more crowded.  During the lunch hours, some student organizations sold food at booths on the east side of the Quad. Many of these were cultural organizations selling food from their cultures.  Nu Alpha Kappa, a fraternity for Latinos, sold carne asada soft tacos; I bought two of them and took them back over to the west side of the Quad, where I sat under a tree and ate them.

I had not seen anyone I knew yet that morning, other than Mary from Math Club.  I was okay with that. At events like the Spring Picnic, I could wander around alone for hours and be completely entertained.  I got to the music building shortly before the start of the performance Danielle had invited me to, where I saw people I knew for the first time since leaving Building C this morning.  Besides Danielle, Claire from church was in chorus too. The singers stood on portable risers in the patio in front of the music building. A crowd was gathering, sitting and standing around the building.  I saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Caroline, Charlie, and standing near the street, facing the chorus.

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Greg!” Taylor replied.  “Come on over.” The group moved over to make room for me.  Liz and Ramon arrived a few minutes later, just as the performance was starting.

I didn’t know the piece they were singing.  I knew very little about classical choral music in general.  I had never been to a performance like this, so I didn’t have much to compare it to, but they sounded good together.  Two people I didn’t know, a soprano and a tenor, had solos, and both of them had much better voices for this type of performance than I could ever have.  The only singing I do these days is in the car along to the radio,

The performance lasted about fifteen minutes.  After it ended, Danielle came over to all of us to say hi.

“I liked that,” I told her.  “I’ve never really seen a chorus perform like this before?”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad we sounded good.  We rehearsed it yesterday, and I didn’t think we sounded very good.”

“You probably think about that more than the audience does, since we don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like.

“Yeah.”

“What are you guys up to the rest of the day?” Liz asked.

“I have a ton of homework to do,” Caroline said.  “But I’ll probably check out a few other things first.  One of my professors wants me to go look at an exhibit with some of his research.”

“I’ve just been wandering around all day,” I said.  “And I’m enjoying it. I’m going to go see Lawsuit on the Quad Stage later.”

“I wanted to see them too,” Ramon said.  “I heard they were supposed to be good. What time is that?”

“Three.  So, like, an hour and a half from now.”

“I need to go help put the risers back inside,” Danielle said.  “I’ll see you guys maybe at dinner tonight?”

“Yeah.”

We eventually all walked off in a few different directions.  I walked toward the dairy facilities, and as soon as I found the line for the fistulated cow, I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to wait to see it and still make it back to the Quad in time for Lawsuit.  Maybe next year I’d plan ahead. 

I walked back toward the Quad looking inside any building I could find that had an open exhibit with no line.  I saw interactive exhibits about weeds, mosquitoes, and different types of soil. In the library, I saw a display of books from the special collection about the history of Jeromeville and the UJ campus.  Very interesting old pictures. Most of these buildings I walk past every day without knowing what happens inside, but today at the Spring Picnic I got to see some of the research that happens at this university.  It fascinates me to this day how large this campus is and how many different things all happen here.

I started walking toward the Quad shortly before Lawsuit was to go on stage.  A crowd had already assembled as people on stage set up musical instruments and sound equipment.  I saw Megan in the middle of the crowd with a few faces I recognized from the dining hall. Megan was still fairly easy to spot, with her short blonde hair still having traces of the green dye from a few months ago.

“Hi,” I said walking up next to Megan.

“Hey, Greg!  You made it! This is going to be a great show!”

“I know!  I keep hearing great things about this band.”

“What all have you seen today?”

“The parade, Math Club, chorus, and I walked around some displays about weeds and mosquitoes and stuff.”

“That’s the great thing about the Spring Picnic.  There are so many random things to see.”

“I know!”

“I was working a table earlier for Society of Women Engineers.  That’s about all I’ve done so far.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone on stage said as the crowd started quieting.  “The name of this band is Lawsuit!” I heard the sound of bongo drums and turned toward the stage.  Lawsuit was huge; I counted 10 members of the band, eight men and two women. This band had bongo drums, regular drums, bass and regular guitars, and a variety of horns.  The drums and bass joined the bongos, followed by a horn blast and then the vocals. The lead singer had a distinct voice, higher than most male pop and rock singers but not screeching glam rocker high.  He sang two verses, a chorus that repeated the line “thank God you’re doing fine,” and then a long instrumental section, first featuring a guitar solo and then the horns. During the instrumentals, band members who weren’t playing walked around the stage in rhythm and performed silly little dances.  The vocals returned to sing one more bridge and chorus, and the song ended with another horn-centered instrumental.

I loved this song.  I loved this band. And I had only known them for five minutes.

The band members did not appear to be students.  I would guess they were mostly in their mid- to late 20s.  They looked and sounded nothing like any band I had ever heard before.  They had guitars and drums, but they also had horns. Some of their songs had rhythms typical of pop and rock songs, but others sounded more like jazz or swing.  I wasn’t even sure if they would be considered pop, rock, jazz, reggae or what. “What do you even call this kind of music?” I asked Megan, shouting slightly so I could be heard over the music.

“Ska,” Megan said.  “I guess.”

I had never heard the word ska before.  I would learn later that ska shared its Caribbean roots with reggae, but was usually faster.  However, I would hear much more ska music in the mainstream over the coming years, and Lawsuit did not sound much like the great ska bands of the 1990s.  Ska, like reggae, has a distinct rhythm with accents on the off beats, and many of Lawsuit’s songs did not have this. This was truly a band that defied categorization.

Another of their songs seemed to contain names of states and puns that sounded like names of states.  I heard the lead singer sing “I got a note from Michigan,” and I got a little scared, because just last night I had been talking and flirting with a girl from Michigan on IRC, and she had emailed me back this morning.  Did this singer somehow know the secrets of my online life? (He didn’t. And the actual lyric is “I got a note from Ish again,” with Ish presumably being someone’s name. This was one of the many somewhat nonsensical state name puns in the lyrics of this song, because “from Ish again” sounds like “from Michigan.”)

I could have stood here listening to this band for the rest of the night, but the show was over after about an hour.  “That was really good!” I said to Megan. “I love those guys!”

“I know!  This is the fourth time I’ve seen them!  They’re so good!”

“Thanks for telling me about them.”

“Yeah.  It was good to see you here.  What are you doing the rest of the day?”

“What else is going on?  It looks like most things close up by now.”

“The Battle of the Bands goes on into the night.”

“That’s the marching bands at the Arboretum?”

“Yeah.  I can’t watch them this year, I have to get back to my building, but I was there last year.  That was fun.”

“I’ll go check that out.”

“I’ll see you later?  Maybe at dinner?”

“Yeah.  Have a good rest of the day.”

“You too!”

I walked past the library and the music building to the adjacent section of the Arboretum, then west toward Marks Hall, the administration building, where I heard marching band music and saw a huge crowd.  The marching bands from Jeromeville and five other nearby universities were playing, taking turns one song at a time. According to the Daily Colt, they had to keep playing until they were out of songs to play.  Bands could not repeat songs, and they could not play their school fight song until they had played every other song they knew.  A band playing their fight song meant that they were giving up. Because of the crowd, I could not find a place to sit where I could actually see the bands well, so I only stayed about 45 minutes.  No one had given up by then. But many of the marching bands played pop and rock songs, and this made me laugh. The band from Walton University, the wealthy private school located in between San Tomas and Bay City, dressed in crazy costumes, and as much as I hated Walton because they rejected me, I thought their costumes were funny.  A sousaphonist from University of the Bay had painted the bell of his instrument to look like a Grateful Dead logo. I wished I had brought a camera, so I could take a picture of that to show Dad.

When I got back to Building C, around 5:30, I took a shower and ate, then spent the rest of the night unproductively.  I was tired from all that walking, and I didn’t feel like doing anything more. But it was a good day. My first Spring Picnic was so much fun, and I was already looking forward to next year’s Spring Picnic.  With so many things happening at the same time, there was no way I would be able to see everything every year, so Spring Picnic would seemingly never get old.

Starting with my first Spring Picnic in 1995, I have spent the entire day at Spring Picnic every year, with two exceptions.  In 2000, a new baseball stadium had just opened in Bay City, and tickets to games were hard to come by. Taylor got a group of us together to go to a game, but the day that worked best was the same day as the Spring Picnic.  The baseball game was in the afternoon, though, and when we got back to Jeromeville, the Battle of the Bands was still going on, and I went for about an hour. The only time I missed Spring Picnic entirely was in 2006, when I traveled 200 miles to my cousin Miranda’s wedding.  I wore a tie with Jeromeville Colts logos on it to remind her of the great sacrifice I had to make to be there. And Miranda knew of the existence of the Spring Picnic, so she could have planned better, but her special day doesn’t revolve around me and I didn’t complain. A little over four months from now, as I write this, I am planning on spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic, my 24th time.

This was also not my last time seeing Lawsuit.  I saw their CD in Liz’s room a few days later and borrowed it and made a tape of it.  I never did ask if that CD belonged to Liz or Ramon or Liz’s actual roommate, although I did ask if I could borrow it.  Years later, when I had the capability of burning CDs, I borrowed that same CD from someone else and burned a copy, and later saved it to my computer where it remains in my music collection to this day.  The band broke up long ago, that’s another story for another time, but great music never dies as long as people keep listening.

March 28-29, 1995. Back home, finding a new home, and visiting an old home.

“Remember the rule,” Mom said.  “Don’t shout out the answer until time is up, so we can have time to think about it.”

“I know,” I replied.  In our family, this was called the Malcolm X Rule.  A few years ago, the answer to the Final Jeopardy! question was Malcolm X, and Dad shouted out the answer before Mom was even done reading the question.  To this day, if Mom is watching Jeopardy! with other people in the room, she has to remind them of the Malcolm X Rule, and on those rare occasions when I am not alone while watching Jeopardy!, I tell people the rule as well.

“Did you still want to look at that apartment guide tonight?” Mom asked.

“Sure.  I’ll go get it.  We can look at it after Jeopardy! is off.”

I climbed the stairs to my room.  It was spring break, and I was back at my parents’ house in Plumdale for the week.  Tomorrow was the only day I had plans for, and I was a little nervous about that, but it would certainly make for an interesting day.

I ran down the stairs, holding the apartment guide, taking the stairs two at a time to make sure I got back to the TV before Jeopardy! came back from the commercial, but not running too loudly because Dad was asleep.  I had no place to live for next year, and I learned too late that apartments in Jeromeville fill up quickly. Jeromeville is a fairly small city with a large university, so students dominate the rental market, and most leases run from September through August.  Apartments are listed on March 1 to rent for the following September, and people had told me that most apartments are leased within the first few weeks of this process. By the time I figured out that everyone I knew was making living arrangements for next year, everyone I knew already had a roommate, and most of them had signed leases, so I was a little panicked about that.  The Associated Students organization publishes an apartment guide every year, which is what I held in my hands now, so at least that would help narrow down where I could find an appropriately sized and priced apartment, once I know whom, if anyone, I would be living with.

“Let’s see what our contestants know about Colonial America,” Alex Trebek said on the TV.  “Here is your clue: ‘President of the Continental Congress 1775-77, he was reelected in 1785 but didn’t serve due to illness.’”  The music played as the three contestants, Mom, and I thought about who this early American was.

“I don’t know,” Mom said as the song stopped and time ran out.  “I keep thinking George Washington, but I’m probably missing something.”

“I was going to say John Hancock.  His signature was first, so maybe he was President in 1776, I was thinking.”

“I bet you’re right.”

Each of the contestants revealed their answer, and Alex told them if they were correct or not.  John Hancock was correct, and two contestants got it right. Mom started looking through the apartment guide, as if to get a feel for what our options were.

“These are expensive!” she said.  That was definitely not what I needed to hear.  Of course, Mom hadn’t been in the market to rent an apartment since the early 1970s, so I don’t know if she had a good idea of how much rent was in a normal city.  I had no idea either, so I didn’t know if apartments in Jeromeville were more expensive than apartments in a normal city.

“Look at this place,” Mom said, pointing to the listing for some ritzy-sounding apartment in West Jeromeville.  “‘Includes access to Stone Park Country Club.’ You don’t need something like that.”

“I agree.”

“So what can you tell me about any of these places?”

“Central and Downtown Jeromeville are closest to campus, so that’d be an advantage to living there, but those are mostly older areas.  There’s one part of North Jeromeville with a whole lot of apartments and two grocery stores nearby, and easy bus access to campus, and those areas look pretty nice.  I’m probably most interested in those areas; the other parts of Jeromeville are getting farther away from campus, and I don’t want to be too far away.”

Mom and I continued looking at apartments; I made a mark next to the ones I wanted to look at more closely.  “How much money do we have to work with?” I asked. “What if I don’t find a roommate? Can we afford for me to live alone?”

“Don’t worry about it.  If we can’t, then you can always look for a part time job.  Or answer a roommate wanted ad.”

“You keep saying not to worry, and I appreciate it, but I need a number.  How much money? I need to know, so I can decide which places to call first, and whether or not I’ll need to get a job or room with a stranger.”

“Hmm,” Mom said, flipping through the apartment guide again.  “I think we can do $500 a month. We’ll make it work.”

With this additional parameter, I narrowed the decision to five apartment complexes that I would call and visit as soon as I got back to Jeromeville.  I had no idea if any of these apartment complexes still had vacancies. I didn’t have a timeline on how quickly Jeromeville runs out of apartments, so I didn’t know how likely these places were to have something still available.

I also felt guilty that my parents were spending that much money on me.  Some parents don’t help their children with college at all. I could have saved a lot of money by finding a roommate earlier, like everyone else did, and even though I didn’t realize I had to do this, it felt like my fault that I didn’t.  Getting my own apartment felt like a privilege I didn’t deserve, even though Mom seemed okay with it. Maybe I would look for a job for next year. I didn’t know what kind of job I was looking for, though. And this arrangement was only for one year; I’d do a better job of finding roommates for junior year when the time came.

“So what time are you meeting Melissa tomorrow?” Mom asked, changing the subject.

“Nine.”

“At the school?”

“Yes.”

“I think it’ll be fun to see all your old teachers.  Which teachers are you going to see?”

“I don’t know.  We’re going to see Mrs. Norton and Mr. Jackson for sure.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“I hope so.”

 

The next morning, I left the house in time to get to Plumdale High School at nine o’clock in the morning, just as I had planned.  Melissa Holmes had sent me an email a week ago asking if I was going to be home for spring break. She was coming home from San Angelo University and wanted to visit Plumdale High and say hi to some of our old teachers.  UJ and SAU had the same schedule, but our spring break was a different week from Plumdale High’s, so this was a regular school day for Plumdale High.

I saw Melissa’s little red Toyota Tercel in the parking lot.  I wasn’t sure exactly where to look for her, if she expected me to go to the office or to Mrs. Norton’s room or Mr. Jackson’s room or what, but as I got closer I noticed that Melissa was still sitting in the car.  I stepped outside. It was cold and overcast, with the marine fog layer hanging low overhead; I wore my sweatshirt that said JEROMEVILLE and had the university seal on it.

“Hey, Greg,” Melissa said, walking toward me and giving me a hug.  “How’s it going? How was your break?”

“Good so far.  I haven’t really done anything.  Just hung out with family. How are you?  Are you making any new friends at school? I remember we talked about that a while ago.”

“Yeah, I’ve started meeting people from classes, and from church.  It gets kind of lonely not living in a dorm.”

“But it’s cheaper for you living with your grandmother,” I said.  “And you probably also get more quiet study time than you would in a dorm.”

“Good point.”

“So does anyone know we’re coming today?”

“I had my brother tell Mrs. Norton we were coming.  Other than that, though, no.”

Melissa and I spent a few more minutes catching up in the parking lot, then we walked toward Mrs. Norton’s classroom.  Back in 1995, school security wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. Students didn’t wear ID cards on lanyards, and neither did teachers.  Visitors didn’t need passes, and many school campi didn’t even have fences around them. There was a chain link fence across the front of the PHS parking lot, with one of the full time campus supervisors stationed at the entrance to the parking lot, in a little booth, but that wasn’t an issue, because she knew me and she let me in.  She did ask if I had permission to be there, though; I said I was home on spring break, and that Mrs. Norton knew I was coming. That was good enough.

“Hey there!” Mrs. Norton said, in her distinct voice and accent, after we walked into her classroom.  Mrs. Norton was born and raised in Mississippi. “And Greg! You’re here too!” Mrs. Norton had been our teacher for AP Calculus last year, and she had been one of my favorite teachers at Plumdale High.  I also had her for the second semester of Algebra II as a sophomore.

“Hi,” I said.  “I hope that’s okay.  It sounds like you didn’t know I was going to be here.”

“Sure!”  Addressing the class, Mrs. Norton said, “Do y’all know Melissa and Greg?  They both graduated from here last year.” Mrs. Norton turned to us and explained, “This is Algebra II, so it’s mostly juniors, with some sophomores and a few seniors.”

“Right,” I said.

“So what are y’all majoring in?  Melissa, you’re pre-med, right?”

“Yes,” Melissa answered.  “Majoring in biology, specifically.”

“I’m technically undeclared,” I said.  “But right now I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.  I still like math, and I’m still good at math.”

“That’s great!” Mrs. Norton said.  “You’ll do great in math.”

Mrs. Norton finished the example she was working on, and when she gave the class a few minutes to work, she talked to us for a few more minutes, asking how we liked being away from home and things like that.  She eventually asked if we were going to visit anyone else while we were here, and Melissa said that we were going to see Mr. Jackson.

After the current period ended and the next one started, Melissa and I left for Mr. Jackson’s class, waiting until the end of the passing period in order to avoid the crowds trying to get to class on time.  Mr. Jackson was our teacher for AP English last year. He was tall and thin with curly gray hair, and he looked like he had been involved with theater at some point in his life. My mom told me once in the car on the way home that she thought he was gay, except that she used some much more inappropriate words in her description.  I didn’t care if he was or not, and it made me a little uncomfortable the way Mom talked about people behind their backs that way. I had to see and interact with Mr. Jackson every day of senior year with Mom’s inappropriate comment in the back of my head all the time.

“Melissa!” Mr. Jackson shouted enthusiastically as she walked into the classroom, with me right behind.  “Greg! You’re here too!” Mr. Jackson turned to his class of freshmen and added, “This is Melissa and Greg.  They graduated from Plumdale High last year. Melissa is at San Angelo University, and Greg is at… sorry, remind me?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Jeromeville!  That’s right. You’re wearing the sweatshirt and everything, I just noticed.  How do you guys like it?”

“I’m doing well in my classes,” Melissa said.  “And I live off campus, so it’s nice and quiet.”

“I’m in a dorm called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program,” I explained.  “I have some classes specifically for students in that program, so I know the people in my building better than if I had just been assigned a dorm randomly.  I’ve made some really good friends. And I’m still getting good grades. I’m thinking I’m going to major in math.”

“You were always good at math,” Mr. Jackson said.  “I could see that.”

Mr. Jackson got his class started on an assignment, and in between giving instructions to students, he continued catching up with us.  Melissa told him about how her family was doing, and mentioned that her brother was a sophomore at PHS currently and would probably have Mr. Jackson as a senior.  Mr. Jackson asked me more about the IHP, how it worked, and why I decided on math for my major.

After about fifteen minutes, we said our goodbyes to Mr. Jackson and his class and walked into the hallway.  “I need to get home,” Melissa told me. “I have something I need to get to. But it was good to see you, Greg.”

“You too!” I said.  “I think I’m going to stick around for a bit and say hi to a few other teachers.”

“You should!  Have a great day, and let me know who else you see.”

“I will.”

“Are there any students here who you still talk to?”

“Rachel Copeland is the only one who has really kept in touch at all.  I don’t know where she is right now, though.  She doesn’t know I’m here.”

“I don’t know either.  I’m sure you could ask.”

“Yeah.”

“Have a good one, Greg.  Take care.”

“You too.”

Melissa walked back toward the parking lot.  I walked to Mr. Peterson’s classroom. He taught economics to seniors all day, and he had also attended the University of Jeromeville, in the 1960s when it was much smaller.  His door was open, and I could hear him lecturing as I approached and quietly poked my head in the door.

“Jeromeville!  Go Colts!” he said upon seeing me and my sweatshirt, without missing a beat in his lecture at all.  “How’re you doing, Greg? It’s good to see you!”

“You too,” I said.  “I’m doing well. I really like my classes, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Do you have a few minutes?  We can talk a little more after I finish this up.”

“Sure,” I said, as my eyes scanned the room and I became more aware of my surroundings.  This was a class of exclusively seniors, as I said, and many of the honor students appeared to be in this class.  I recognized over half of them, including the girl with straight light brown hair who was now waving at me and beckoning me to sit in the empty seat next to her.

“Hi, Rachel!” I whispered as I sat in this empty seat.

“You didn’t tell me you were coming here!” Rachel whispered back.

“It was kind of last minute,” I replied; I wanted to explain about Melissa inviting me, but Mr. Peterson was talking at this point, and I also didn’t want to interrupt his class.  A few minutes later, I felt something under my desk; it was Rachel, passing me a note. I quietly unfolded it and read. Come sit with us at lunch, same spot as last year, Rachel wrote.  I replied Ok and slyly passed it back to her.

I visited a little more with Mr. Peterson when he got the chance to come talk to me; we made the usual small talk about college and classes and future plans.  Now that I had committed to being on campus at least until lunch, since I had to go sit with Rachel and her friends, I had to find things to do for another period and a half.  After I was done talking to Mr. Peterson, I walked around campus and said hi to as many teachers, administrators, and staff members as I had time to see. I had a wonderful time catching up with everyone.  Mrs. Carter, the college and career counselor who helps students with applications and scholarships and the like, asked me to fix her computer, just as she had done multiple times during my senior year. My English teacher from sophomore year, Ms. Woolery, was teaching a class of freshman with reading skills below grade level, and she asked if I had a few minutes to talk a little bit about college and answer their questions.  I wasn’t at all prepared to do something like that, but I did anyway. It is always nice to feel like I have useful knowledge and experiences to share with others; additionally, Ms. Woolery’s students, many from families in which no one has ever attended college, got an opportunity to hear about college from a peer.

I figured out at some point during my visit to Plumdale High that it was Spirit Week, and today was Beach Day.  I wasn’t wearing anything beach-appropriate, but some students had Hawaiian shirts, surfing-related t-shirts, flip-flops, things like that.  There was a giant pile of sand on the grass in front of the school, which I suspected was probably going to be used for a class competition. Several school clubs had food booths at lunch; I walked in the direction of the food, since I was hungry and Rachel wasn’t yet in the spot where she asked me to meet her.  “Hey, Will,” I said, recognizing a guy from the Computer Graphics and Video Production class I took the year before. Will was a sophomore now.

“Greg!  What’s up?  I haven’t seen you all year!”

“I’m home on spring break.  My friend and I came back to visit all of our teachers.”

Will looked confused for a second.  “Oh, yeah!” he said. “You graduated!  Where are you now?”

“Jeromeville.”

“Where’s that?”

“North.  Near Capital City.”

“Oh, ok.  It was good seeing you!  Have a good one!”

I got in line for curly fries, being sold by the marching band, to raise money for a trip to Disneyland.  I thought it was funny that Will had forgotten that I had graduated last year.

“Greg?” someone said next to me in line.  I turned and saw a sophomore named Jamie Halloran; I was friends with her older sister, Jessica, who had been in my graduating class.

“Hey, Jamie,” I said.  “How are you?”

“I’m great!  Are you on your spring break?”

“Yeah.  Melissa wanted to come say hi to some teachers, and she invited me along, but she had to leave already.”

“Did you hear Jess is in Guatemala?”

“I heard,” I said.  “Volunteering at an orphanage, something like that?”

“Yeah.  Did she write you?  I gave her your address.”

“No, not yet.”  Two weeks before I left for Jeromeville, I saw Jamie at a Plumdale High football game.  I had just learned my mailing address at the time, so I gave it to Jamie and told her to give it to Jessica, but neither of them had written me yet.  I didn’t know at the time that Jessica was going to end up in Guatemala. I don’t know if Jamie or even Jessica knew at that time yet either.

“She says it’s so different from here, but she loves it!  My mom is putting together a package to send her; I’ll write her a note and remind her to write to you.”

“Thanks.”

As I walked with my curly fries to where I expected Rachel to be, I noticed that the class competition had begun; two students from each class were competing to build the tallest sandcastle in a certain time limit.  One of the sandcastle-builders for the junior class was Annie Gambrell; I paused to watch for a few minutes, hoping that Annie would notice me, but she didn’t. This was not a good time to try to talk to her, of course, since she was in the middle of making a sandcastle.  I walked back over to where Rachel had told me to meet her; she was there now, with a few of her friends whom I didn’t know as well.

“So you just woke up and decided to come visit your high school?” Rachel asked.

“Not exactly,” I explained, telling her about Melissa’s invitation and earlier departure.

“Jeromeville is on quarters, so you’ll have new classes when you go back next week, is that right?”

“Yes.  I’m taking math, physics, chemistry, and a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law.”

“That sounds interesting.  What’s that last one about?”

“I’m not really sure, except that it’s about psychology, and the law,” I explained.  Rachel laughed. “It’s the heaviest course load I’ve had so far, but math and chemistry are pretty easy to me, and physics was always easy in high school, so I should be okay.”  (I wasn’t as okay as I thought I would be in terms of my classes, but that’s a story for later.)

“Do you need physics and chemistry for a math major?”

“Physics, yes, one year.  I was also thinking about majoring in physics, which would need chemistry; I haven’t decided for sure yet.  Chemistry, not for math, but I would if I majored in physics. Physics for science and engineering majors doesn’t start until spring quarter, so I haven’t had physics at all yet.  I’ll see how that goes before I decide for sure.”

“That makes sense,” Rachel said, nodding.  “So what does it feel like being back?”

“It’s good to see everyone.  But it’s a little weird too. It’s like, class competitions, flyers all over the place advertising the dance, those people making out behind us, all that stuff is high school stuff, and I’m not in high school anymore.”

“That makes sense.  I certainly won’t miss all that stuff when I get out of here next year.”

“Do you know where you’re going yet?  The last time we talked about it, I think you wanted to go to St. Elizabeth’s.”

“That’s still my first choice.  They should start sending out acceptance letters in about a week, they said.”

“I’ve never been there.”

“It’s such a beautiful campus.  And it’s a small school. And I’m not Catholic, but there’s something spiritual about that campus that I liked when I visited,” Rachel said.  I wasn’t sure what she meant by spiritual, her tone sounded kind of New Age-ish, but hey, whatever works.

A while later, just after the bell rang to end lunch, Rachel said, “I’m glad I got to see you today, Greg.  Will you be here the rest of the day?”

“I think I’m just going to go home.  I’ve seen everyone I wanted to say hi to, pretty much, and I’m getting tired.  But I’m glad we got to hang out.”

“Okay.  Call me any time.  And I’ll write you soon.”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.”  Rachel hugged me.

“Have a good day,” I said, turning around toward the parking lot.  I took a few steps, then turned back toward campus. I considered for a few seconds trying to figure out what class Annie Gambrell had, so I could say hi to her, since she was busy earlier.  I gave her my address at Homecoming, and she hadn’t written me; maybe she lost it. No, probably not; people just don’t write like they say they will. And she had a boyfriend, so I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up anyway.  Then again, maybe they broke up; it had been almost six months since I’d last seen Annie. No, I told myself, forget it. I kept walking toward the car.

I turned on the classic rock radio station as I drove home, listening to music of the 1960s and 1970s.  Fleetwood Mac. The Rolling Stones. Supertramp. High school was over. Sometimes I wished it wasn’t. I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business in high school.  I stepped pretty far out of my comfort zone during my senior year, and I made some great new friends, but then all of a sudden I graduated and lost touch with most of them, so that part of my life story never got to reach a natural conclusion.  I felt torn, wanting closure, yet also knowing that this part of my life was over, and that I was moving on. And today was the first time I started to feel like I really had moved past high school. When I was still around in the fall going to PHS football games, and when I came back for Homecoming, I felt like I still belonged at PHS.  Today, not so much.

Fittingly, this day was the last time I ever set foot on the Plumdale High campus.  I went to Mark’s graduation in 2000, but it was at the gym at Santa Lucia Community College, not at PHS.  I’ve driven past Plumdale High several times when I’ve come back home to Santa Lucia County, and I’ve taken pictures of it, but I haven’t actually gotten out of the car.  I’ve thought about going back for Homecoming at some point to see what it’s like, especially after the football field was remodeled in 2017, but it hasn’t ever been a high priority.  Also, I don’t know anyone there anymore. The school has changed, and so has the neighborhood, and so have I. Staying connected to the past is important, but not at the expense of the present.

20190615_092117.jpg
Plumdale High School, June 2019, and the little booth at the entrance to the parking lot where the campus supervisor watches everyone who enters.  The athletic fields are in the background; the school itself is to the right, off camera.  This was the best picture I could take from the car on that day.

And thanks to j-archive.com for allowing me to look up what the Final Jeopardy! clue was on March 28, 1995.  I didn’t remember off the top of my head, of course.

March 1, 1995. Exploring.

The weather for the last few days here in Jeromeville had been unusually pleasant.  It had been a wet winter, with large puddles appearing all over on campus. After almost four months of some combination of cool, cold, overcast, and rainy weather, the sun had finally come out, and temperatures approached 80 degrees.  I was sick of winter, and this felt really nice.

I walked into Building C, unlocked the door to Room 221, and put my backpack down.  I needed to work more on that paper for the South Africa class, and I had a pre-lab to write before chemistry tomorrow.  I got out my textbook and lab notebook and started reading about tomorrow’s experiment. I usually kept my window curtain closed, but today I opened it, so I could see the sunny sky outside, beyond the skyline formed by the tall trees of the Arboretum.

I wrote my name, date, and section number on the top of my lab report paper.  That was as far as I got. I didn’t belong here in this room today.

I got on my bike and started riding south toward the Arboretum.  I crossed the creek and turned right, past the Lodge and the grassy area surrounding it.  The Arboretum Lodge was an event hall-like building that held various conferences and fancy luncheons and such.  The day before classes started, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program hosted an event at the Lodge where all of us in the program got to meet some of the professors we would work with this year.  I remember meeting Dr. Dick Small, the professor for the South Africa class I was currently taking, at that event. I remember because you just don’t forget meeting someone with a name like Dr. Dick Small.

The banks of the creek became steeper, and the trail climbed and descended a few times, by about fifteen feet, as I continued west through a grove of pine trees.  Eventually the trail climbed to the top of an earthen dam, making a 180 degree turn from the south bank to the north bank. The creek running down the middle of the Arboretum was actually a very long and narrow lake, not a creek at all, collecting storm drain water in a dry creek bed that had been dammed at both ends.  Arroyo Verde Creek had been diverted a century ago, before the university existed, to direct floodwaters away from the town of Jeromeville, which at the time had a population of around 1000.

Some people say that they are bothered by the term “ATM machine,” because the M in ATM already stands for machine, so “ATM machine” actually means “automated teller machine machine.”  I felt the same way about the name Arroyo Verde Creek, which translates from Spanish as “Green Creek Creek.”

At the west end of the Arboretum, on the north bank, was a grassy park-like area with benches.  To my left was a grove of oaks, different kinds of oaks from all over the world, without the landscaping of the lawn area that I was riding through.  I stopped to look at the oak grove, which had a wild, rustic look to it, somewhat out of place on a large university campus, but in a good way. I saw giant towering valley oaks from California with moss on the bark, gnarled white oaks from the East Coast, wide spreading live oaks from the Deep South, European cork oaks with thick pockmarked and ridged bark, and many others.  Some of the oaks were types that kept their leaves through the winter; others had shed their leaves and looked like they were just beginning to sprout for the upcoming spring.

Instead of continuing east on the north bank of the Arboretum, I turned left on Thompson Drive and crossed an overpass to the west side of Highway 117.  Highway 117 runs north-south through Jeromeville below the elevation of the surrounding land, so that roads crossing the freeway become overpasses without having to climb upward.  I knew that there was an overpass here, but I had never been on Thompson Drive west of 117.

The University of Jeromeville was founded in 1905 as an extension campus of the University of the Bay, specifically for agricultural research.  The Bay campus is in the middle of an urban area, with water on one side and mountains on the other, and nowhere to actually practice farming. Agriculture was and still is a major industry on the other side of those mountains, so the university regents chose a small town called Jeromeville as the site of their new agricultural campus.  The Jeromeville campus grew over the years, eventually adding academic departments other than just agriculture and becoming an independent university within the same system as Bay, Santa Teresa, and San Angelo. The campus, as it is now ninety years later, primarily exists in the space between 117 and downtown Jeromeville, but the majority of the campus property actually lies west of 117, on three square miles of fields used for agricultural research.

This is what I saw before me now as I crossed to the other side of 117.  Despite the history of the campus, most UJ students today get degrees in subjects that are not related to agriculture, and many of these people barely know, or don’t know at all, that the part of the campus west of 117 exists.  On my right was a field of what appeared to be corn, and a patch of dirt with nothing growing and a mysterious-looking building off of a side road. On the left, the dry bed of the former creek had been fenced off and used as a sheep pasture.  The road on this side of campus was notably rougher, probably because it gets much less traffic.

A street called Environmental Lane branched off to the right, past a number of buildings with metal siding, a few buildings that resembled portable classrooms, and some kind of large radio tower.  I never did learn what those buildings were used for.

Thompson Drive then crossed the dry creek bed and turned along the south bank of the creek, making a wide gradual turn to the left following the creek.  A grape vineyard was on the left, and a bunch of very tall trees stood along the creek bed to the right. Next to a large oak tree on the left were a cluster of benches and what appeared to be those white boxes that beekeepers used.  I could see the creek bed on the right through the trees at some places, and at one place there was a pool with marshy-looking plants growing in it.

Thompson Drive ended at a T-intersection with a road called Arroyo Verde Road.  The road was gravel to the left and paved to the right. Arroyo Verde Road ran alongside the actual free-flowing Arroyo Verde Creek; where I was right now appeared to be the point where the creek was originally diverted from its original flow.  I turned right onto the paved section, crossing the dry fork of the creek for the last time today. A cluster of tall, leafy trees grew on both sides of the road, with their leaves and branches partially hanging over the road. Beyond this, on the right, was a small building with a sign that said “Aquatic Weed Research Facility.”  That would explain the marshy-looking pool.

I rode past more grape vineyards, corn fields, and fruit tree orchards on the right, and the small trees typical of a creekside riparian area on the left.  I felt very peaceful out here. Had I not known, I never would have guessed that this bucolic country lane was part of a large bustling university full of people and bicycles trying to avoid running into each other.  My unwritten paper and all the studying I had to do faded from my mind as I watched the trees and fields pass by around me.

  About half a mile ahead, Arroyo Verde Road became unpaved again, with a paved road called Hawkins Road branching off to the right, heading north.  Hawkins Road was lined with very old olive trees on each side, and pits and bits of olive flesh, remnants of years of uncultivated fruit production, had fallen along the sides of the road.  (I would read years later in the alumni magazine that the university had begun making olive oil from these olives and selling it at the campus store. That was a great idea, but it wasn’t happening yet in 1995.)

Most of the buildings on the west side of campus lie along or just off of Hawkins Road, behind the row of olive trees.  Some of them had signs indicating that they were used for very specific purposes; the signs said things like Honey Bee Research Facility, Historical Agricultural Machinery Collection, and University Plant Services.  I also saw a large group of cows and pigs at feedlots on a side road to the right.

Hawkins Road was a little over a mile long, and it ended at Davis Drive, the main east-west road on campus.  I had driven and biked on this part of Davis Drive before, but today was the first time I had seen any part of the west side of campus other than Davis Drive.  I turned right, heading east toward 117 and the main part of campus, but then I turned left on the next cross street, Olive Way. Olive Way was about ten feet wide, only open to bicycles and pedestrians, and like Hawkins Road, it was lined with olive trees on both sides and littered with remnants of fallen olives.  I headed north on Olive Way. There were no buildings on Olive Way, just fields behind the olive trees. I passed by someone running with her dog; I said hi, and she said hi back.

Olive Way ended at West Fifth Street, the northern boundary of the campus.  The street was lined with walnut trees along the south side that lined the campus agricultural area, and another bike trail ran between the walnut trees and the fields.  I turned right and followed the trail east, back across Highway 117, then turned right at Andrews Road and headed home from there.

I walked back into the building.  Taylor, Pete, and Sarah were sitting in the common room, the two boys apparently making puns with Sarah’s names.

“I’m dying!  Sarah doctor in the house?” Taylor said.

“Sarah way I could get my order to go?” Pete said, chuckling.

“Come on, guys,” Sarah said.

“My pants don’t fit.  I need a Taylor,” I said.  “What’s that? I can’t hear, because your voice Petered out.”

“Yeah,” Sarah added, glaring at the boys.  All of us started laughing.

“What are you up to?” Taylor asked.  “Just getting back from class?”

“Actually, I got back an hour ago,” I explained.  “I was on my bike, exploring the west side of campus.  I went out Thompson Drive and Arroyo Verde Road and Hawkins Road.”

“I have no idea where any of those are,” Pete said.

“What’s out there?” Taylor asked.

“Fields, and big trees, and the real Arroyo Verde Creek.  The free-flowing one, not the fake one in the Arboretum. And what looks like agricultural research facilities.  And sheep and cows,” I said.

“Interesting,” Sarah said.  “I never thought about what’s out there.  But you seem like you would. You and your maps and roads and stuff.”

“Exactly.  It’s who I am.”

“And that’s what makes you special.”

“Yeah.”

“And it’s such a nice day today!  A perfect day for a bike ride.”

“I know.  I hope the weather stays like this for a while.”

The weather did not stay like that for a while.  What I would realize over the next few years was that around late February or early March, Jeromeville and the surrounding area always experience a weather phenomenon that I’ve come to call Fake Spring.  For about a week or two, the weather turns pleasantly warm and sunny, but then it cools off again with usually a few more significant rainstorms occasionally passing through during the rest of March and April.  I always enjoyed Fake Spring while it lasted, though; it was a nice break from the cool weather, and the sunshine and lack of chill in the air always seemed to make me happier.

I sat downstairs talking to Taylor and Pete and Sarah for a while, and we all went to the dining commons together for dinner.  The sun had just set, leaving a spectacular pink-orange glow to the west, spotted with a few lines of small puffy clouds. All felt right with the world today.  I was at peace, and I had plenty of time later to deal with the lab write-up, and next week to deal with the South Africa paper, and all my life to deal with the fact that I still felt like a scared little kid with no idea how to make it in this big scary world.  But I had found a happy place. Today was a good day.

2019 hawkins road
Hawkins Road, photographed in 2019.  This is still my happy place, when I happen to be in Jeromeville with time to kill.