(April 2021. Interlude, part 4, and Year 2 recap.)

If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life.  I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2.  Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.

This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2.  Last week, I did the same for Year 1.  Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up.  I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap.  As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.  If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.


I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore.  I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend.  Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice.  I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them.  I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together.  I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer.  My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around.  I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.

July 18, 1995. The day we went to Jeromeville with Rick and Miranda.

I turned 19 in August.  The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September.  Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale.  I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat.  As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town.  Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I had plenty of new experiences that fall.  I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus.  Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics.  I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me.  But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends.  I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me.  In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over.  He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life.  I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes.  As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came.  I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell.  I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me.  We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.

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

I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me.  It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend.  I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone.  I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes.  One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met.  As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself.  Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

The winter quarter was not easy academically.  My classes all had their midterms on the same day.  Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry.  Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study.  I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time.  My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system.  We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life.  The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley.  We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.

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

Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor.  I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit.  I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet.  God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year.  I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.

May 1996. Looking for a place to live.

I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play.  I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic.  I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta.  I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized.  And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.

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

I was still doing very well in classes.  Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and  started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year.  Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors.  As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker.  I did not do too well.  Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.

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

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

“Yes!” I shouted enthusiastically.

“Do I have to?” Mark complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Space Mountain!” I said.

“I hated that ride,” Mom replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“I don’t think so,” Mom replied.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see,” Mom said reluctantly.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t,” Mark said.

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

“That sounds good.”

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

“Yes,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.  That’ll be fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good idea,” Dad said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Mark replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.  “Cool!”

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

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

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

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

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

November 22-25, 1995. Thanksgiving with the Dennisons.

I stood outside 109 Wellington waiting for my math class, as I did every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Another class met in that room right before mine, and about a minute after I arrived, those students began leaving.  Jack Chalmers from my class always said hi to Lizzie, a girl from that class whom he had known back home, as she passed by, but Jack was not here now.  I saw Lizzie walk past, and I made eye contact and attempted to smile.

Lizzie noticed me making eye contact.  She was fair-skinned with dark brown hair and eyes, and she wore a dark red sweatshirt.  “Hey,” she said.

I did not expect her to actually say hi to me, considering that the few words she had said to me had all happened on days when I had been talking to Jack as her class left.  Trying to think of something to say, I blurted out, “Jack’s not here.”

“Yeah.  He was going to leave early this morning for Thanksgiving.  He has a long drive, you know.”

“That makes sense.”

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Lizzie asked me.

“We always go visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell.  Mom and Dad are picking me up tomorrow morning on their way.”

“Where are they coming from?”

“Plumdale.  That’s where I grew up.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“That sounds like fun!  I’m flying home tonight.  I could have carpooled with Jack, but I have a midterm I can’t miss later today.”

“Good luck on your midterm!  And have a great Thanksgiving!”

“You too!”

One of the best parts of being a university student was being surrounded by other people around my age at the same point in their lives as me.  That makes it so much easier to make friends, compared to adult life with its compartmentalized and isolated experiences.  And sometimes my friends would have other friends, and my friends’ friends would become my friends.  This seemed to be happening with Lizzie, now that we had had an actual conversation without Jack being there.

This Wednesday felt more like a Friday, with tomorrow being Thanksgiving.  But I was annoyed that the University of Jeromeville and its sister schools only take two days off, plus a weekend, for Thanksgiving.  This was the same as I always got in elementary school, but in high school, I had gotten three days off, and in the 21st century I know many schools that take the entire week off.  It was disappointing, not having more time off for Thanksgiving, but many real life jobs only have one day off, so it could be worse.

During math class, as Anton lectured about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, I thought about the rest of my day.  Bowling class, two more lectures, and two hours of tutoring, and I would be done for the week. ready to go see family and stuff my face with food.

I had two tutoring groups on Wednesdays after my classes.  Calculus with Yesenia and Kevin went as it always did.  But in the precalculus group after that, I sat at the table for ten minutes waiting for the four students in the group to show up.  If I waited fifteen minutes, and no one showed up, I was allowed to leave and still get paid for the fifteen minutes.  One of the students, Jennifer, arrived just as I was getting ready to go home.

“I didn’t think anyone was going to come,” I said.

“We just got a midterm back, and I have a lot of questions,” Jennifer replied.

“I wonder if everyone else left early because it’s Thanksgiving?” I wondered aloud, remembering what Lizzie had said about Jack.

“Probably.”

“Are you going anywhere for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah. Just back home, to Pleasant Creek.  My dad is coming to pick me up tonight.”

“I’m going to visit my dad’s relatives in Bidwell.  That’ll be fun.”

Jennifer and I got a lot of work done.  We talked about every problem she missed on the midterm as well as today’s lecture, and she really did seem to understand better by the end of the hour.  After we finished, I walked to the Barn and caught the bus home, then proceeded to waste the rest of the night playing around on the computer and reading.  Before I went to bed, I threw a few changes of clothes and my personal bathroom items in a bag for the trip.

Mom and Dad and my brother Mark arrived to pick me up around 10:00 Thursday morning.  After everyone used my bathroom for their mid-trip pit stop, we left, turning north onto Highway 117.  “We made good time,” Mom said as we left Jeromeville and our surroundings abruptly changed to fields and pastures.  “We left right at 7:30, like we wanted to.  And we’ll still get to Bidwell in plenty of time to check into the motel before we eat.”

“Sounds good.”

“Oh.  You’ll like this.  We were on the phone with Aunt Carol earlier this week, talking about that time years ago when you brought your Game Boy to Bidwell and we played Tetris.  I told her I always liked Dr. Mario, and she said she didn’t know that game, but it sounded fun.  So we brought the Super Nintendo, so we can play Tetris and Dr. Mario with Aunt Carol.”

“That’ll be fun,” I said.  Tetris & Dr. Mario was a cartridge for the Super Nintendo that included both games, which had been on separate cartridges for the earlier Nintendo Entertainment System.  We had lost our Dr. Mario game when someone borrowed it and never returned it; last summer Mom had wanted to play Dr. Mario, so we got the Super Nintendo Tetris & Dr. Mario as a replacement.

The trip from Jeromeville to Bidwell took just under two hours, north on Highway 117 to where it ends, then north on Highway 9.  In most of the towns between Jeromeville and Bidwell, the highway becomes a city street, which slows the drive down a little but gives a more close-up view of life in those towns than freeway travel would.  Fields and orchards covered the land between the towns.

My great-grandmother Christine Dennison used to host Thanksgiving at her house in the hills on the outskirts of Bidwell.  Her son, my great-uncle Ted, was a cattle rancher; he had sold the land around her house some time ago but kept the house for his mother to live in.  We used to stay at her house when we came to Bidwell, and I always had so much fun exploring the old ranch land, going on long walks, even in the last few years of her life when the new owners of the land began building a country club and golf course there.

Christine had been my last great-grandparent, and this was our second Thanksgiving since she passed.  Last year, in the absence of anyone wanting to take over the cooking and hosting duties, someone had decided to hold the Dennison extended family Thanksgiving at HomeTown Buffet.  I thought that was a bit tacky at first, but having so many choices of food last year was kind of nice, so I was looking forward to it this year.

We checked into the motel and rested a bit before heading to HomeTown Buffet in mid-afternoon. “Hey, you guys,” Aunt Carol said as we approached the group of Dennison relatives waiting outside.  Her husband, Uncle Chuck, Dad’s next-youngest brother, said hi and shook all of our hands.  “Did you bring the game?” Aunt Carol asked.

“Yes, we did.  Greg is waiting to play with you guys.”

“Oh, good.”

“Greg,” an elderly bald man said, patting me on the shoulder.  “How’re you doing?  How’s Jeromeville?”

“Hi, Grandpa Harold,” I said.  “I’m doing well.  Classes are good this quarter.  And I’m working part time as a math tutor.”

“A math tutor?  That sounds perfect for you.”

“It is.”

I looked around to see who else was here.  Grandpa Harold’s wife, Grandma Nancy, saw me and waved.  I knew her as my grandmother, but she was not biologically related to me.  Grandpa Harold had been married three times, and my dad, Harold Dennison, Jr., came from the second wife, who lived out of state and died when I was in high school.  I only met Dad’s real mother twice.  My dad’s cousin Tina, whose father had had the cattle ranch, and her four daughters stood at the end of the line.  I made a note to say hi to them next.  The oldest girl was 18 and the youngest 12; they used to play with Mark and me at Great-Grandma Christine’s house when we would visit.  When Mark was around 10, he went through a phase of fascination with amphibians and reptiles, and we used to catch tadpoles in Bidwell Creek in the summer with the girls.  I overheard Tina say that her parents would not be joining us, since they were having Thanksgiving with her brother’s family.

Uncle Glen, Dad’s older half-brother from Grandpa Harold’s first wife, showed up about ten minutes later, and we all went inside after that.  Dad had one other brother, Uncle Jimmy, whom I never met; he died in a motorcycle accident in his 20s while Mom was pregnant with me, and I got my middle name of James from him.  Grandpa Harold had three daughters with Grandma Nancy, but they all lived out of state and did not often come for Thanksgiving.

I stuffed my face so full that day.  I ate three whole plates of actual food: turkey, ham, stuffing, fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and all sorts of bread.  Then I went back for dessert, returning with a giant ice cream sundae in a soup bowl, since the ice cream bowls were small, and two different slices of pie.  “Are you going to be able to move the rest of the night?” Mom asked when I returned to the table with dessert.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I replied, laughing.  While we ate, we all caught up, sharing everything going on in our lives.  A number of people asked me how school was, and I repeated the same thing I told Grandpa Harold outside.  Mark just kind of grunted and shrugged when they asked him that question.  I did not have the long walks around the old ranch to look forward to this year, but this was still going to be a fun holiday.

Today, many Americans associate the day after Thanksgiving with shopping.  In the 1960s, police officers fed up with rioting crowds of shoppers beginning their Christmas shopping referred to this miserable phenomenon as “Black Friday.”  By the early 2000s, stores began encouraging these rioting crowds, offering deep discounts, completely unrelated to buying gifts for others, only available early in the morning.  The retail industry even fabricated a story about the term “Black Friday” referring to profits being in the black rather than rioting and vandalism.

Black Friday was never a big deal to me, not today and certainly not in 1995.  While the rest of the world went shopping that morning, we ate a nice hotel breakfast, then went to visit Tina and the girls.  We set up the Super Nintendo to play with them while the adults talked about adult things.  After that, we stopped to see Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy for a while.  I always found their house boring when I was a kid, and this year was no exception to that, except that Grandma Nancy had homemade pumpkin pie.

In the early afternoon, we drove about 20 miles south to a town called Rio Bonito.  A few years earlier, Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol had driven past a large old house in Rio Bonito that was painted a bright yellow color.  The house had a For Sale sign outside, and Aunt Carol said that she wanted to live in that Damn Yellow House.  So they sold their house in Bidwell and bought the Damn Yellow House.  Everyone in that town of 1500 people knew the Damn Yellow House.  Someone once even sent them mail addressed to “Chuck & Carol Dennison, The Damn Yellow House, Rio Bonito,” with no street name or address, and it was delivered correctly.

We parked next to the Damn Yellow House and walked inside; I carried the Super Nintendo.  “Hello,” Aunt Carol said as we approached.  “Oh, good, you brought that game.”

“Yes.  Should I go set it up now?” I asked.

“We’re not going to play right now,” Mom said.

“That’s okay,” Aunt Carol said. “He can go plug it into the TV now, and it’ll be ready when we’re ready to play later.”

I connected the Super Nintendo to the TV while the adults caught up and talked about boring adult stuff.  Most of the family vacations I remember involve the adults sitting around talking about boring adult stuff while I had to entertain myself.  The 1989 invention of the Game Boy, Nintendo’s hand-held video game console, was a lifesaver for me on these trips, although I did not bring it this year.

After dinner, it was time to teach Aunt Carol to play Dr. Mario.  I turned the game on and started a single-player game.  “So there are three different colors of viruses,” I explained as I played the game.  “You line up the pills, and whenever you get four of the same color in a row, they disappear.  So you want to make a set of four that includes a virus.  Like, watch those red ones on the left side.”  I dropped a pill on the red virus, making a set of four; the red virus disappears.

“I see,” Aunt Carol replied.  As I dropped another pill, she asked, “What happened there?  You made a set of four that didn’t have a virus in it?”

“Yeah.  That still makes the pills disappear.  It clears space on the board.  There’s also a two-player game where you compete to see who clears the viruses first.  And whenever you get more than one set of 4 with a single pill, it drops garbage on the other player’s board.”

“That sounds like fun.  Can we do that?”

“Sure.”

I started a two-player game, putting Aunt Carol on an easier level than me since she was a beginner.  The two-player game lasts until someone wins three rounds; I won the first two rounds, but Aunt Carol had gotten the hang of it enough to win the next round.

“This is fun!” Aunt Carol said.

We spent the rest of the night taking turns playing two-player Dr. Mario.  Mom played against Aunt Carol, I played against Mom, Aunt Carol played against Uncle Chuck.  Mark did not join in; he preferred sports and fighting games to puzzle games, so he sat in the corner listening to gangsta rap on a Walkman and occasionally making sarcastic comments.

“I want to try the one-player game for a while,” Aunt Carol said after a couple hours of multiplayer games.  “Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied.

We spent some more time just talking and catching up while Aunt Carol was playing.  Eventually Mom looked at a clock.  “Oh, my gosh, it’s already 10:00,” Mom said.  “We need to get back to the motel.”

“Are you gonna take my game away?” Aunt Carol asked.

“We don’t have to,” I suggested.  “If Aunt Carol is still playing, we can leave the Super Nintendo here and pick it up tomorrow morning on our way out of town.”

“Oh, could you?  That would be so nice.”

“Does that work, Mom?”

“Sure, if you’re okay leaving it here.  Mark, is that okay with you?”

“What?” Mark asked, taking off his headphones.

“Aunt Carol wants us to leave the Super Nintendo here so she can play until we go home tomorrow.”

“I don’t care,” Mark said indignantly.

“You don’t have to get snippy.  It’s your Super Nintendo too.”

“Have you heard me talk about the Super Nintendo once on this trip?”

“Well, it’s polite to ask.”

“I said I don’t care!”

We said our goodbyes and drove back north to the motel in Bidwell.  “Aunt Carol sure got into Dr. Mario,” Mom commented.

“I know.  That was fun.”

“It was nice of you to offer to let her borrow the Super Nintendo.”

“We’re leaving in the morning.  I wasn’t going to play any more.”

“Still, that was nice of you.”

“Thank you.”

“What are we doing in the morning?”  Mom paused, waiting for someone to answer.  “Harry?  What are we doing in the morning?”

“Sorry,” Dad replied.  “I didn’t know you were asking me.  I figured we’d stop by my dad’s on the way out of town.”

“What time do you want to be on the road?”

“I was thinking around 10 or 11.”

“Does that work for you guys?” Mom asked.  I nodded.  Mark, still listening to music on headphones, said nothing.

Dad had a nice visit with Grandpa Harold and Grandma Nancy in the morning, and by “nice” I mean that it was short enough that I did not get bored.  We left their house around 10:30 and got to the Damn Yellow House to pick up the Super Nintendo a little before 11.  I was the first one to the door, so I knocked.

Aunt Carol opened the door.  “I suppose it’s time to give you your game back,” she said.  We followed her into the living room, and I noticed that she looked disheveled and unkempt.  The game was on, paused.  “I was wondering if that special screen that shows up after levels 5, 10, 15, and 20 shows up again at 25.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’ve never gotten that high.”

“The best I got to last night was level 23.  But I had started that game at level 20.  That’s the highest you can start at, I guess.”

“Yeah, “I replied, thinking that was still very impressive for a beginner

“This was a lot of fun.  I might have to get this game.”

“You should.”

Mom and Dad said their goodbyes to Aunt Carol and Uncle Chuck as I disconnected the Super Nintendo.  I joined them in saying goodbye, and we went back to the car and continued driving south on Highway 9.

“She stayed up all night playing,” Mom said.  “Did you notice?  She was still wearing the same clothes as when we left last night.”

“I was wondering that,” Dad replied.

“I didn’t notice, but now that you mention it, you’re right.”

To this day, whenever the topic of Dr. Mario comes up, Mom always brings up the time Aunt Carol stayed up all night.  Aunt Carol passed away in late 2014; I did not attend the funeral, since she and Uncle Chuck had moved 500 miles away by then, but if I had, I would have shared the Dr. Mario story.  In 2016, my cousin Pam, Aunt Carol’s daughter, commented on a Facebook picture I had shared of me and my friends playing retro Nintendo games.  Pam said that they had an Atari when she was a kid, but her mother would always hog the controller.  I told her about the time we brought Dr. Mario for Thanksgiving and her mother stayed up all night playing, and Pam replied, “So that’s how her addiction to that game started!  She played that for years until the controllers broke.”

As a child, I loved visiting the Bidwell relatives and wanted those trips to last forever.  This trip seemed short, only two and a half days, but I was growing up, as were my cousins, and life was changing.  Uncle Chuck and Aunt Carol’s children were grown and did not live with them in the Damn Yellow House anymore.  Mark had outgrown his tadpole-catching phase.  And we didn’t have Great-Grandma Christine’s house to explore anymore; the old ranch was a gated country club now.  Life moves on, but family stays family, even when those family relationships change over the years.

In 2013, I followed someone through the gate to see what the old ranch looked like now. Notice the golf course down below.