Late October-early November, 1997. I made a movie. (#150)

These days, in the era of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, it is difficult to believe how recently it was that common people did not constantly make their own videos.  In the 1990s, doing so required a camera that cost hundreds of dollars, and was the size and weight of a medium-sized textbook, at minimum.  Also, it was necessary to record these videos onto a tape, and to make sure that there was enough room on the blank tape to record the video without erasing any existing footage.  Showing someone a homemade video required a television connected to a VCR or to the camera itself.  The Internet existed, but the processing and connection speeds of computers in that era limited most Internet uses to text and standard-definition photos and graphics.

I never had a video camera growing up.  I wanted one so badly.  I had many ideas for movies and shows I wanted to make.  My brother Mark and I, along with whatever neighborhood kids were around, would sometimes act out performances that would have made good home movies.  We had a weird variety show called The Mark Show, full of characters based on various inside jokes, and a game show called Messy Room, inspired by Double Dare and Fun House and the other kids’ game shows that briefly became popular in my preteen years.  For some of our shows, we would record the audio so we could at least listen to them later, but they were the kind of performances that would have worked much better with video.

Now, in my early 20s, my creative project was a website called Dog Crap and Vince, which I began shortly after I taught myself the basics of HTML, the code used to make websites.  Dog Crap and Vince was a series of crudely illustrated stories about the adventures of two quirky high school students, and it would have worked much better as video or animation.  I still did not have a video camera, nor did I have the money to buy one.  But I had more connections now than as a child, so when I showed Dog Crap and Vince to the boys from the youth group at church, and mentioned that it would work better as a TV show or a movie, Zac Santoro offered to ask his dad if I could borrow their video camera.  And thus one of my most involved creative endeavors of my life so far was born.

That night, we had talked about beginning the project Sunday after church, so when I walked up to Zac, Ted Hunter, and Danny Foster after church and asked if they were ready to start filming, I felt inwardly frustrated when Zac replied, “Huh?”

“The Dog Crap and Vince movie.  You said you talked to your dad about borrowing your video camera, and that we could start filming today.”

“Oh, yeah!  He said you could borrow it.”

“So, like, now?  Are we going to your house?”

“Sure.”

“I can’t,” Ted said.  “My mom said I have to come straight home.”

“We talked about this on Wednesday,” I reminded Ted.  “You said you’d be free on Sunday, and that you would play Vince.”

“I forgot.”

“Well, I can still get the camera, and maybe we can film some scenes that don’t have Vince in them.”

“Film some scenes?” a voice behind me asked.  I turned around to see Jim Herman.  I knew Jim from seeing him around church; he was older than me, I would guess in his mid-thirties, presumably single because I never saw him with any sort of family.  Everyone at church seemed to know Jim.  “What are you guys doing?” Jim asked.

“We’re making a movie,” I explained.  “I’m borrowing a camera from the Santoros.”

“You think I could go along and help out?”  Jim’s question caught me off guard, and when he saw me hesitate, he added, “That way you can all be on camera at the same time, and I can be the cameraman.”

“Sure,” I said.  “That would be helpful for scenes I’m going to be in.”


By the time we got to the Santoros’ house, we had already made a change to the script.  The boys had decided to film a scene that broke the fourth wall, in which I would knock on Zac’s door asking if Zac could come make a movie with us.  Although I had carefully worked on this script for several days, this change seemed like it would fit the quirky, offbeat nature of the Dog Crap and Vince world.

Zac, Danny, Jim, and I walked up to the front door of Zac’s house.  I knocked on the door, and Zac’s dad answered a minute later  “Hi, boys.  Hi, Greg,” he said, shaking my hand.  “Jim.”  Had I been more observant of body language and subtle cues, I might have noticed a shift in Mr. Santoro’s tone when he addressed Jim, but at the time I thought nothing of it. “Here’s the camera,” Mr. Santoro continued, handing me the camera.  “Please be careful with it.”

“I will,” I said.  “They wanted to film a scene here first.  Is that okay?”

“Sure!”

I handed Jim the camera as we filmed the new scene.  Zac’s six-year-old sister answered the door, and I asked if Zac was home.  Zac appeared a few seconds later, and I said, “Hey, Zac.  Let’s make a movie.”

“Okay!” Zac announced excitedly, acting overly dramatic in a way that I had not intended.

“Go get Danny,” I said.

Zac turned his head toward the inside of the house and called out, “Danny!  Let’s go make a movie!”  Danny ran out of the house a few seconds later, Zac following, me following both of them, and Jim following us with the camera.  “We’ll pick up Ted on the way!” I shouted, since Ted was not there.  The two boys, for reasons unknown other than the fact that they were teenage boys, jumped onto the hood of my parked car.

“Cut,” I said to Jim a few seconds later, taking the camera back after he stopped recording.

“Ow!” Danny said.  “You kicked me in the head!”

“What?” Zac asked.  I played the footage back on the camera’s small screen, and just before Jim had stopped recording, I saw Zac’s foot connect with Danny’s head as they climbed on my car.  “You have to leave that in the movie!” Zac said.  “Sorry, Danny, it was an accident.”

“It looks good,” I said.  “I think it would be hilarious to leave that part in the movie.  Especially since it was an accident.”


The leaders from The Edge, the junior high school youth group from church, would have dinner at the Parkers’ house before youth group on some Wednesdays.  The Parkers’ oldest son, Brody, was a sophomore at the University of Jeromeville and one of the Edge leaders, and their youngest, a girl named Michelle, was a student in the youth group, the same age as the boys I was making the movie with.  Michelle was playing Kim, Dog Crap’s love interest in the movie.  I had arranged with the Parkers and Michelle’s real life friend, a girl from the youth group named Shawna Foreman, to film a scene when the leaders came to the Parkers’ house for dinner.  The two girls were in Michelle’s room, talking about cute boys, when Michelle’s character, Kim, admitted that she liked Dog Crap.  I held the camera for that scene, and one take was good enough.

The Parkers had two telephone lines in their house.  Adam, the youth pastor, was downstairs using one phone to call the other, so that I could record Kim answering the phone in her room.  After Shawna’s character left, the final film would cut to Dog Crap fidgeting in front of his phone, working up the courage to call Kim and ask her to a school dance.

“Hello?” Michelle said in character as Kim.  The final film would then cut to Dog Crap chickening out, awkwardly shouting into the phone, “You have the wrong number!”  I continued running the camera as Michelle got a confused look on her face and said, “Oh, sorry.”  Michelle hung up the phone.  Then she looked up and said, “Wait a minute!  How could I have the wrong number? I didn’t call anyone!”

I played the tape back on the camera’s small screen.  “It looks good,” I said.  “Thanks.  We’ll do the dance scene after The Edge tonight.”

“Sounds good!”

“Do you need me again?” Shawna asked.

“Those were your only speaking lines, but you’ll be in the background at the dance.”

“Great!  I’ll see you tonight!”


Five Iron Frenzy, a punk-ska band with a Christian background who were too edgy to get much attention on Christian radio, was very popular with the Edge kids at the time.  Ted told me that he had gotten the band’s permission to use their music in our movie; he was probably not telling the truth, but I did not bother to check.  After The Edge, I filmed the school dance scene for the end of the movie in the youth room.  Five Iron Frenzy’s “Where Zero Meets Fifteen” played while Dog Crap and Kim danced.  The others in the background danced in much sillier ways than I had imagined; I was losing control of just how quirky this movie was, but I just wanted to get it done.  And quirky was good for a project like this, I thought.

“I love this song!” Zac said in character as Dog Crap.

“Me too!” Michelle replied in character as Kim.  “It’s my boyfriend’s favorite song!”

“Boyfriend?” Dog Crap said.

“Just kidding!  Vince told me to say that.”

I wanted to imply that Vince was playing a prank on Dog Crap by telling Michelle to pretend that she had a boyfriend. I wanted Dog Crap to say something like “I’ll get him back for that,” but what Zac did instead was shout, “Vince!” and run out of the room.  At this point, I was not going to be picky; that would have to be good enough.

Kim’s comment about her boyfriend was a reference to a scene from earlier in the movie.  I had to shoot the film out of order, to accommodate everyone’s schedules, and I took careful notes of what had already been done and who was needed in each scene.  In the boyfriend scene, which we had not yet recorded, Dog Crap and Vince were at school, talking at lunch.  Dog Crap said that it is hard for him to ask a girl out because, whenever he starts talking to a girl, she will start talking about her boyfriend, so that he will not ask her out.

“That’s not true,” Vince replied encouragingly.  “There’s Christine.  Go talk to her.”

Dog Crap walked up to Christine and said, “Hey, Chrsitine.  Did you figure out that one math problem you were confused about?”

“Yeah,” Christine answered.  “My boyfriend is good at math.”

Dog Crap walked back to Vince with a look on his face as if to say I-told-you-so, and Vince said, “That was just one girl.  It’s not everyone.  There’s Samantha.  Go talk to her.”

Dog Crap walked up to Samantha and said, “Hi, Samantha.”

“My boyfriend says hi to people,” Samantha replied.

At least that was how I pictured the scene in my head.  When we recorded it a few days later, Vince said “go ask her out” instead of “go talk to her” for Christine.  That seemed out of place if the whole point of the movie was that Dog Crap wanted to ask out a different girl from these two.

Christine and Samantha each had only one line, and I recorded their parts for that scene after we finished the school dance scene.  It turned out better than I had planned.  When I first started working with The Edge last year, a girl named Samantha Willis had said some awkwardly silly things to me.  When I wrote this scene, I named this character Samantha because I had Samantha Willis in mind to play the role, and fortunately, she agreed.  “My boyfriend says hi to people a lot!” she exclaimed excitedly on camera, before adding “Bye, Dog Crap!”  It was perfect.

We filmed one more scene in the youth room.  I played Matt, the school bully, who was also trying to ask Kim to the dance despite Kim’s frequent rebuffs.  In this scene, near the end of the movie, Kim turns Matt down again.  “I’d rather go out with someone who crawled out from under this table!” Michelle exclaimed in character as Kim, lightly shoving Matt away.

Just then Zac, in character as Dog Crap, crawled out from under the table, where he had been looking for something he dropped.  Dog Crap greeted Kim, who smiled at him, and he used the opportunity to ask her to the dance.  I thought that scene was particularly brilliant writing on my part, and Zac and Michelle acted it perfectly.


On Saturday, I picked up Zac, Ted, Danny, and Michelle, as well as Jim, who did not have a car.  We went to a nearby school, with classrooms that opened directly to the outdoors with no hallway in between, to film the scenes taking place at school.  It was more common in those days for school grounds to be left unlocked, open to the public, and all of the school scenes took place outside of classrooms, so this would be good enough for my purposes.

While Dog Crap was trying to find a way to ask Kim to the dance, Vince was training for an upcoming video game tournament.  My bully character, Matt, in addition to trying to steal Kim, was also bragging that he was going to win the tournament.  Dog Crap’s cousin had told him about Fish Boy, a mysterious video game master who lived in Jeromeville.  I also played Dog Crap’s cousin; my two characters were distinguished on camera by Matt wearing a hat and Dog Crap’s cousin not wearing a hat.  Of course, though, in one scene I forgot to wear the hat as Matt, and confusion resulted when I showed the movie to people later.  I did not know how to run a costume department.

In character as Dog Crap’s cousin, I suggested that we all travel to Jeromeville to meet Fish Boy, and Ted replied as Vince with a brilliant ad-libbed rant.  “Jeromeville?” he said with a crazed look, grabbing my shoulders to get my attention.  “I’ve heard about this place!  They have frog tunnels!  And roundabouts!  And you get arrested for snoring too loud!  It scares me!”

I was not expecting this, but I stayed in character and calmly replied, “But Fish Boy is there!  You’ll win the video game contest for sure.”

Vince, instantly back to normal, said, “Oh, yeah. Let’s go!”

Later, we drove around to film scenes from the Jeromeville trip.  In character, I got lost several times and made multiple wrong turns, including getting stuck in a roundabout circling multiple times.  I took Jim and Michelle home, since I was done with their scenes, and the rest of us went to the Fosters’ house to film the scenes with Danny playing Fish Boy.

Danny’s eighteen-year-old sister Erica, a leader with The Edge, joined us as we walked a quarter mile to the nearest gas station, where the characters had to stop to ask for directions.  I had intended this scene to be a shot-for-shot parody of the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker meets Yoda, without realizing at first that the little green stranger who finds him is Yoda.  The boys wanted to go into the gas station store and get snacks.  I wanted to focus on getting my movie done, but since these boys were doing a favor for me for free, I let them.  Afterward, I reminded everyone of their lines and started the camera.

“We’re being watched!” Zac said in character as Dog Crap, noticing a girl next to them.

“No harm I mean you,” Erica replied, using her normal voice but Yoda’s characteristic syntax.  “Wondering what you are doing here, I am.”

“We’re looking for a video game master.”

“Fish Boy!  You seek Fish Boy!”

“You know Fish Boy?” Dog Crap asked.

“Take you to him, I will!”

For the next scene, we returned to the Fosters’ house.  After an awkward blooper in which Ted forgot his lines, Ted, in character as Vince, angrily spoke up about how they were wasting their time.  Luke Skywalker had done the same when Yoda took him to his house.

“I cannot teach them,” Erica said, turning away.  “They have no patience.  They are not ready.”

“I was once the same way,” Danny replied from off camera.

Dog Crap and Vince looked at Erica, wide-eyed.  “Fish Boy?” they said.  They turned to each other and added, “Fish Boy’s a girl?”

“No, silly!” Erica replied, no longer speaking like Yoda.  “I’m no good at those games!  Fish Boy’s my little brother.”

Danny emerged from his bedroom, wearing some weird mask and carrying a hockey stick.  Neither of those details was in the script, but this movie was already weird enough, so I allowed it.  I continued recording as Fish Boy showed the other two shortcuts and special techniques for the game they were playing.  After we finished, I thanked Danny’s parents for letting us their house.  I took Ted and Zac home, then went home myself.


Over the next couple weeks, when I had time, I finished recording the remaining scenes.  I edited the movie with a very unsophisticated setup of two VCRs connected to each other.  We had a watch party on the big projector screen in the youth room at church after The Edge the following week; most of the Edge leaders and some of the kids who were in the movie stuck around to watch.

By modern standards, the movie was pretty terrible.  I knew nothing of acting, directing, or editing, and with my rudimentary equipment, the video and sound quality was subpar.  The characters’ clothes inexplicably changed from one shot to the next within the same scene, and twice during the movie, my shouts of “Cut!” were audible at the end of scenes, since editing a video with two VCRs was not a precise technique.  The film was only half an hour long, too short to be considered a feature film.  But we had so much fun and made so many memories during those few weeks.

The Dog Crap and Vince movie had a lasting legacy in my life.  The boys from The Edge and I quoted lines from the movie to each other for years to come.  I watched that movie so many times with so many people that I still remember much of the dialogue by heart.  And Samantha, the boys’ classmate whose boyfriend said hi to people, became a regular character in the web series.  It was later revealed that the character’s last name was Whitehead, and years later, among my adult friends, the act of bringing up a significant other in conversation out of context became known as “pulling a Samantha Whitehead.”

Those few weeks that I spent making the Dog Crap and Vince movie also set in motion a chain of events that took a much darker turn.  I had no idea at the time that anything like that would come to pass from it, or that anything like this would happen among a Christian community such as Jeromeville Covenant Church.  Looking back, though, in that context, it makes sense now why Mr. Santoro, normally a warm and friendly man, seemed aloof when he greeted Jim Herman on the day I borrowed the camera.  But that is a story for another time.

This project was also the beginning of my realization that I prefer creative projects I can do alone over ones requiring the involvement of others.  As much as it is fun to bring others into my creative mind, coordinating everyone’s schedules and dealing with flaky people caused much frustration.  The same thing invariably happened every other time I tried to involve others in Dog Crap and Vince projects.  But for the people who did stick to their commitments, I now have a record of the role they played in my life.


Readers: Tell me in the comments about something creative that you worked on with others. Did it all go according to plan or not?

As always, the episodes featuring Dog Crap and Vince were inspired by Cow Chip & Lance, an actual creative project that some people I know have worked on for decades. It has been inactive for a couple years, but some of their material is still available for viewing (click).

Also, if you like music and aren’t following my other site yet, Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64, go follow that one.

And I updated my Greg Out Of Character blog for the first time in several months, with a post that has little to do with 1997. Go follow that one too.

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.


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December 18-26, 1996.  A time of firsts. (#112)

“What is that on the tree?” I asked, laughing, because I knew exactly what this new Christmas ornament was.

“Your brother made that,” Mom said, rolling her eyes.

Back in the 1990s, the tallest player in the National Basketball Association was seven-foot-seven-inch Gheorghe Muresan, of the team known then as the Washington Bullets.  My brother Mark loved basketball and played on the school team, and he thought Gheorghe Muresan was fascinatingly odd-looking.  Mark apparently cut a photo of Gheorghe Muresan out of a magazine, attached an ornament hook to it, and hung it on the Christmas tree.

“But why?” I asked.

“Why not?” Mark said, laughing.

“Good point.  Hey, is that a Nintendo 64?”

“Yes,” Mom answered.  “It was Mark’s early Christmas present.”

“Can I get a turn when you’re done?” I asked Mark.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Whatever.”

I took my bags to my bedroom.  I had finished final exams a few days earlier, and Christmas was about a week away.  I spent a lot of time that week playing the new Super Mario game on Mark’s Nintendo 64.  The previous Mario games had been two-dimensional platform games, in which Mario moved side to side and jumped on things.  This one was three-dimensional, with a thumbstick controlling Mario from the first person, and I had more difficulty with it.  It was still fun, though.

The week went by quickly.  I got my dad a Grateful Dead calendar for Christmas, as I always did, and I got Mom the new book in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, M is for Malice.  I got Mark a calendar of NBA players, which he put on his wall and then ignored.  The calendar still displayed January 1997 well into 1999, and when I asked him about it then, he complained that he never used calendars.  I never got Mark a calendar again.

We had fewer presents to open this year. Mark had already gotten his Nintendo 64, and a few days after I got home, Mom took me shopping for my early Christmas present. We bought a jacket, a beanie, and comfortable thick socks, since I was going to be spending the week after Christmas in a colder climate. On the ride home from the mall, Mom made small talk.

“How many people do you know who will be at Urbana?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  Quite a few.  But it’s such a huge convention, and I don’t know where everyone will be.  Eddie Baker told me we might not even see each other.”

Next, Mom started naming specific school friends whose names she remembered.  “What’s Brian doing for Christmas?” Mom asked.

“Going to his parents’ house in Valle Luna, then going to Urbana.  Since he’s a staff member, he has to work there, but I don’t know what he’s doing.”

“Okay.”

“He left the apartment on Sunday.  When he left, he said, ‘I’ll see you at Urbana!’”

“What’s Eddie doing for Christmas?  Seeing his family too?”

“Yeah.  In Sunnyglen.”

“Did he tell you, ‘I won’t see you at Urbana?’”

“No,” I laughed.




Usually, the evening of December 25 was a time to relax and unwind after a long day of being around relatives.  But this year was different; Mom and I spent the evening packing.  I would need a minimum of six changes of clothes besides the clothes I would put on in the morning, so I put seven changes of clothes in my suitcase just in case.  I also packed my new jacket, beanie, and socks.  In my backpack, I put a notebook, a few pens, and my Bible.  Mom suggested that I move one change of clothes to the backpack and use it as carry-on luggage, just in case I got stranded in an airport somewhere.  I was not familiar with this concept of carry-on luggage, but I figured out what she meant.

It was close to midnight by the time I finally got to bed and set my alarm for 4:30.  Tonight was not looking like a restful night.  I was too excited and overwhelmed to fall asleep quickly, and I got less than four hours of sleep that night.  Hopefully I would be able to sleep on the plane, but since I had no concept of what an airplane trip was like, how uncomfortable or noisy it would be, I was not sure.

We left the house a little after five o’clock, which got us to the Bay City airport around seven.  The flight left at 8:30, and although going through airport security did not take nearly as long in 1996 as it does now, I still wanted to be there in plenty of time.

I did not know how to plan an airplane trip.  Tabitha Sasaki had said a few months ago that she wanted to get a few people to go in together on a flight and hotel room, and she had done all the planning; I just gave her money.  The convention did not start until the morning of the 27th, so today, the 26th, would be a travel day, ending in a stay at a hotel.

The Urbana convention, hosted by Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, was named after its location in Urbana, Illinois.  Thousands of Christian young adults would descend on Urbana this week to learn about opportunities to serve Jesus around the world.  Shuttle buses for Urbana attendees would pick up students from the airports in Chicago and Indianapolis, each about a two-hour drive from Urbana.  We were scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis in the early evening, after changing planes in St. Louis.  I had never been that far east before.  I also had no memory of ever having been in an airport, so basic airport concepts like checking bags, going through security, waiting at the gate, and showing a boarding pass were completely foreign to me.  Mom says that I was on an airplane once as a baby, but I was too young to remember that.

“Which airline are you taking?” Mom asked as she turned off the freeway to the airport entrance.  Bay City International Airport was very large, with different airlines served by different terminals.

“TWA,” I replied.  Mom followed the signs to the terminal for TWA and found a place to park in a short-term parking garage.  Mom followed me inside the terminal, then asked, “Who are you supposed to be meeting here?”

“Tabitha said to meet near check-in.  Is that there?” I asked, pointing toward the long desk and longer line of travelers waiting to check bags and get boarding passes.  As we approached, I noticed a round-faced Asian girl with chin-length black hair standing not too far off and said, “There’s Tabitha right there.”

Tabitha saw me as I walked toward her.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “We’re still waiting for Leslie and Lillian.”

“Mom, this is Tabitha,” I said.  “Tabitha, this is my mom, Peggy.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tabitha said, shaking Mom’s hand.

“You too,” Mom replied.

“Do I have to get in that line?” I asked.  “I’ve never done this before.”

“You’ve never been on an airplane?” Tabitha replied.

“Once when I was a baby.  But I don’t remember it.”

“Oh, wow!  Yeah, we’ll have to check our bags there.  I figured the line doesn’t look too long, so we can wait until everyone gets here and all stay together.  There’s Leslie.”

“Hey, guys,” Leslie said, walking toward us.  “Is everyone here?”

“We’re still waiting for Lillian,” I said.

After I introduced Mom and Leslie, Mom said, “I still have to drive all the way back to Plumdale and work today.”

“I think you can go now,” I said.  “I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure?” Mom asked.

“Yes.”  I knew that Mom was going to worry the whole time I was traveling, but she also seemed to be subtly complaining about having gotten up early.  I had found my traveling companions, though; I was ready to continue on my own.

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Call me from the hotel room when you get there.”

“I will.”  I gave Mom a hug and watched as she walked away.


Lillian arrived a few minutes after Mom left, and we boarded the flight to St. Louis without incident.  We rode a very large aircraft, with ten seats in each row broken into three sections by aisles.  The four of us were all near each other, although not immediately adjacent.  We had one window seat among the four of us, on the left, and being a map and geography geek, I was quite interested in seeing the United States from thousands of feet in the air.  I reminded everyone that I had not been on an airplane in almost twenty years, and that I was too young to remember my other airplane trip, so they were willing to let me have the window seat.  I decided that I would be nice and not push for the window seat on the return trip.

We took off over the Bay, and I could see Oaksville and other sprawling suburbs spread out on the other side of the Bay against the hills.  It took only a few minutes for the airplane to fly over the hills, and by the time we reached the Valley on the other side, I could spot Jeromeville in the distance, although it was too far away to identify any landmarks.

Beyond the Valley, the land below the airplane became mountainous.  Vast stretches of this terrain was high enough in altitude to be covered with snow.  It was beautiful; I had only seen snow up close twice in my life at this point.  After we had been in the air for about forty-five minutes, a layer of clouds appeared between the airplane and the ground.  I had never seen this perspective, with clouds stretched out below like a puffy carpet, but I soon got bored at staring at the clouds, since there were no features to identify.  I began dozing; I was still tired from having awakened so early this morning.

When the clouds cleared, I could see a highway interchange on the brown land below me, but I had lost all my bearings by this point and had no idea where I was.  The land was mostly featureless, and the trip was not close to being over yet.  I still looked out the window for a long time, seeing an occasional road or building below, before nodding off again.

Our plane touched down in St. Louis in mid-afternoon, although it felt like lunch time since we lost two hours because of time zones.  “Which way are we going now?” I asked Tabitha as we emerged into the airport gate.

“Follow me,” she replied, looking at her boarding pass.  We walked down a row of gates and found the one for the next leg of our flight.  It was not far from where we were, and our next flight did not leave for an hour and a half, so we went to find overpriced fast food for lunch.

“Did you say someone else we know is going to be at our hotel?” Lillian asked.

“Yes!” Tabitha replied.  “So many people from Jeromeville will be at our hotel.  We’ll probably hang out with them later tonight.”

“That’ll be fun,” I said.  With so much around me at the moment that was unfamiliar, in light of Eddie’s comment about how we might not see anyone we know at Urbana, I definitely felt relieved that others I knew would be at the hotel.

Boarding the flight to Indianapolis was much like the experience of boarding the other flight from Bay City to St. Louis, but the inside of the airplane was much different.  This plane was smaller, with only six seats across and one aisle down the middle.  The flight itself was also much shorter, so I did not have time for a nap.  I sat in a middle seat, so my view out the window was not as clear as on the first leg of the flight, but as the plane headed east, I noticed more and more snow appearing on the ground.  By the time we landed in Indianapolis, the entire ground was covered in a few inches of snow for as far as I could see in any direction.  I wondered if the ground in Indiana and Illinois was continuously covered in snow all winter.  I mentioned to the others while we were waiting to get our luggage that I had never seen so much snow in my life.

“Really?” Leslie asked.

“We’re definitely not home anymore,” Tabitha said.

We caught a shuttle bus to the hotel.  The driver seemed completely unfazed by the snow.  I would have been panicking, driving in the snow like that, wondering if I needed to put chains on the tires, but people who lived in this climate apparently knew how to drive in snow.  There did not seem to be snow accumulating on the roads, probably because the snow was not currently falling and cars had been driving on the road all day.

I was the only guy in our travel group, so Tabitha had booked me in a separate room.  After we checked in, I went to my room and lay on the bed.  I spent the next hour or so attempting to nap again.  Although the clock said it was dinner time, I was not hungry, since I had just eaten a fairly large lunch, and my body was still on West Coast time and felt like it was earlier.

At around quarter to eight, Tabitha knocked on my door; Leslie was with her.  “We saw Scott and Amelia in the lobby earlier.  We’re all going to meet now to watch Friends.  You wanna come?”

I was not expecting to have a major quandary on this trip.  In an effort to keep from alienating myself from all of the people I had met at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had hidden from them the fact that I did not watch Friends.  Since I was on a school holiday, it had not even crossed my mind that today was Thursday, and that Friends would be on tonight.  I had never actually seen the show, so I could not really say that I hated it, but the show was extremely popular, and I got the impression from commercials and hearing people talk about the show that it was not my thing.  However, could I really have a well-formed opinion of the show without having watched it?  I also did not want to pass up an opportunity to see my actual friends here in this unfamiliar, snow-covered landscape, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure.”

I followed Tabitha and Leslie upstairs to a hallway that looked identical to the one on my floor.  They knocked on a door, and Amelia answered.  “Hey,” she said.  Then, noticing me, seeing me for the first time in two weeks, she said, “Hi, Greg!  How are you?  How was your Christmas?”

“Good,” I replied.  “Just the usual stuff with my family.  My brother got a Nintendo 64, so that was fun.  How was yours?”

“Nice.  But I spent most of yesterday packing, so I wasn’t around my family as much.”

I walked into the room, where about a dozen people had packed in on the beds and floor, including Amelia’s boyfriend Scott, Lillian from our flight, Melinda Schmidt, Joe Fox, Alyssa Kramer, Autumn Davies, Leah Eckert, and others.  I made small talk with some of the people in the room for a few minutes until the show started.

As I watched the six New Yorkers on the screen talk about their lives, careers, and sexual partners, I realized exactly why I disliked the show.  I found all of them completely unrelatable.  The show had some moments that made me chuckle, but so much of the plot revolved around relationships and sex, for which I had no frame of reference.  They reminded me of the stereotypical cool kids who excluded me and got what they wanted through morally questionable means.  I wondered why so many of my Christian friends were so attached to a show with characters behaving in a way that contradicted the Bible’s teachings about sexuality.  I hoped that the others in the room did not live like Rachel and Ross and Joey and all the annoying people on the screen.  But I kept quiet and watched the show; now was not the time to start an argument.  And now that I had watched the show, I knew for sure that I did not like it.


I looked out the hotel window before I went to bed that night and watched snow fall lightly on the parking lot for a few minutes.  When I woke up in the morning, the snow was clearly deeper than it had been yesterday.  I bundled up, wearing my new jacket and beanie, and met Tabitha and the others in the lobby at the time we had discussed, to wait for the shuttle bus.  After we boarded the bus, it took a little over two hours to travel west through the snow-covered rolling hills to the campus.

I was excited for what was coming.  This winter break had been a time of firsts.  Back home with my brother was my first time playing Nintendo 64.  Now, this trip was my first time being on an airplane, at least in my memory; my first time in a different time zone; and my first time in Missouri and Indiana.  This morning, as I saw a sign out the bus window that said “ILLINOIS STATE LINE,” I added a third new state to this trip.  It had also been my first time watching Friends, an experience I had no particular desire to replicate.  Once I arrived on the campus and stood in line for registration, receiving a bracelet as a convention attendee, I knew that this would be a unique experience opening my eyes to new firsts that God would show me in the upcoming years.

(To be continued…)

The actual wristband from 1996. Photo recreated using my 2021 wrist.

Author’s note:

Hi, friends! I’m back… my break from writing was a little longer than I thought it would be, mostly just because life got in the way. During the break, I started another blog (click here) to write about other things, or to write about writing, or to share other creative works besides my continuing story. I’m not planning to post there on any schedule, but you can subscribe if you want updates from me. Also, I wrote a couple of guest posts for other blogs; I will share the links here when they get published.

This Urbana trip was the farthest I had been from my home in the western US at the time, but as of 2021, the farthest I have been from home is Kittery, Maine, on the US East Coast about an hour drive north of Boston. The story of that trip will be told in Just Take The Leap, a sequel to Don’t Let The Days Go By that I plan on writing someday, years from now.

What is the farthest you have been from home?

Disclaimer: Urbana is a real event (urbana.org), but it has since moved, and is not actually held in Urbana anymore. Intervarsity was not involved in the composition of this story, and this is not a sponsored post.


Mom found the Christmas ornament and put it up this year.

December 31, 1994. Back in Plumdale for the holidays. (#17)

Winter break was more than half over.  Because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, our winter break wasn’t as long as that of most other universities.  I didn’t mind, because this schedule was all I knew; the break was at least as long as, and in some years a little longer than, the winter break I was used to at Plumdale High.

A good part of my break had been spent watching TV, following the adventures of Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Agents Mulder and Scully.  I also spent a lot of time playing Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo. I didn’t have any of my video game consoles with me in Jeromeville.  Technically they belonged to both me and Mark, and I didn’t really have a lot of time to play video games anymore now that I had a lot of studying to do.  This was a brand new game; Mark had just gotten it for Christmas. I was enjoying it so far. The Donkey Kong character was from a classic coin-operated video game from 1981, but this new game was a platform adventure that played more like the Super Mario Bros. games.  I love the game, but now that I think about it, a quarter century later I’ve still never beaten the game.

My big Christmas present was a printer, a Canon ink-jet.  I no longer would have to go down to the study lounge in the dining commons building and pay 10 cents per page, nor would I have to go across the hall with a floppy disk and nicely ask Liz if I could borrow her printer.  This was the first time I had ever had a printer with good enough resolution to look like actual printing, as opposed to those low resolution dot-matrix printers from the 80s that used the paper with the detachable holes on the sides.

I drove out toward Highway 11 with a tape of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album playing.  This had been another of my Christmas presents, on CD, and I had made a tape of it since I didn’t have a CD player in the car.  The Eagles were a frequent presence on classic rock radio, and I had come to like them since discovering classic rock in the middle of high school.  The band broke up abruptly in 1980 after a dispute between members Don Henley and Glenn Frey, both of whom had successful solo careers after that. When asked when the Eagles would get back together, Don Henley reportedly said when hell freezes over.  Earlier in 1994, the band got back together for a tour and a TV special called Hell Freezes Over.  The album contained a selection of live recordings from the TV special along with studio recordings of four brand new songs.

In high school, there was a girl in a bunch of my classes sophomore and junior year named Catherine Yaras.  She was one who always encouraged me to come out of my shell, and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch during a time when I always sat by myself.  Most of us who sat there, which also included Melissa and Renee and Kevin, sat in a hallway next to the room where all of us had English class right after lunch. I grew a lot senior year, and I definitely came out of my shell, but Catherine wasn’t there to see it up close, because she spent that year as an exchange student in Austria.  She and I wrote letters pretty much all year, and by spring she told me that I was the only school friend still writing to her. I had seen her once and talked to her a couple more times since she got back from Austria in the summer, and now I was on the way to her house for a New Year’s party.

She said to show up around 8:00, and it was almost 8:30 now.  As I started to be more social, I came to learn that most people don’t show up to events like this on time, and I was starting to follow suit.  I arrived at Catherine’s house and stood awkwardly as I knocked on the door. To this day, for some reason, I still find it awkward to knock on someone’s door and then have to wait for them to answer.  I feel like I’m always standing there uncomfortably.

“Greg!” Catherine said when she opened the door.  “It’s good to see you!” She hugged me, and I hugged back.

“You too.”

“How are you?”

“I’m doing pretty well,” I said.  “You?”

“I’m great!  Come on in! I have to go check on something in the kitchen, but I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

As Catherine headed toward the kitchen, I walked into the living room and looked around.  Renee was sitting on the couch with her boyfriend Anthony. They had been part of the same friend circle ever since Renee moved to Plumdale before junior year, but they had just recently gotten together.  Apparently some combination of our mutual friends had been conspiring to set them up for a while, and I was completely oblivious to all of it. At our senior trip to Disneyland, one of the days where they open the park all night just for high school senior trips, Kevin had made a joke about tying a balloon around Anthony and Renee’s wrists, because Anthony had apparently often gotten separated from the group on field trips with the school band.  By the end of the night, the balloon was long gone, but Anthony and Renee were still holding hands. Other stuff may have been going on with them before that night, but that was the first I knew of it, because as I said, I’m always oblivious to that kind of thing.

Renee had been my senior prom date.  We were pretty much going just as friends, so I wasn’t upset at all that she and one of my guy friends were together a month later.  My grandma had a copy of our prom picture in a frame on a table in her living room for many years after that. People usually commented on the height difference, since Renee was a whole foot shorter than me.  I remember that picture, and what stands out to me is the contrast in color. I have dark, almost black, hair, and I wore a traditional black and white tuxedo, whereas Renee has bright red hair and wore a blue dress.  Sometimes I feel like my life is dark, and everyone else’s is colorful… so I guess it fits.

Renee had gotten her email set up a few weeks ago, so we had been communicating again, and she had said something suggesting that she and Anthony were still together.  I was happy for them. Anthony had moved to Ohio for school, and long distance relationships were difficult, or at least so I had heard. I didn’t have any experience with long distance relationships, at least not in the 1990s; that dumpster fire would happen in 2011, and it isn’t part of this story, so I’ll stop talking about it.

Two others whom I recognized from school but didn’t know well were sitting in chairs set up on the other side of the room from the couch.  No one else had arrived yet. I walked over to Renee and Anthony.

“Hey, Greg,” Renee said.  Anthony waved.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you guys?”

“I’m good,” Anthony said.

“How’s Ohio?” I asked.

“It’s cold!  I’m glad to be back out west.”

“I’m sure that’s an adjustment.”

“How did finals go?” Renee asked.  “Last time I talked to you, you were stressing about finals.”

“I think I did pretty well.  I know I did really well on the math final.” I told Renee and Anthony the story about Rebekah Tyler knowing what I got on the final before I did.  As I was in the middle of the story, Melissa walked in and sat near us; she must have arrived unnoticed by me as I was telling the story.

“Hey, Melissa,” I said.  

“Greg!” she replied, giving me a hug.  “This story sounds interesting.”

I finished the story.  “Rebekah sounds like one of my roommates,” Renee said.  “She’s always in everyone’s business.”

“Rebekah isn’t usually in my business,” I said.  “At least not except for this one time.”

“My roommate and I get along great.  That’s mostly because he’s never home,” Anthony explained.  “I don’t know where he goes. I think he has a girlfriend who lives off campus.”

“How are you liking dorm life, Greg?” Melissa asked.  “Did you say you don’t have a roommate?”

“That’s right,” I replied.  “I’m not sure how that happened.  I didn’t ask for a single room, but I got one.  There are only a few single rooms in my building.  But so far I’ve made a lot of friends in the dorm. It’s nice sometimes just wandering up and down the halls seeing who is around and what people are doing.”

“Lucky!” Anthony said.

“I feel like I’m missing out not being in a dorm,” Melissa said.

“You’re living with relatives, right?”

“My grandma.  And it feels like a grandma house.  I don’t have friends over, and I don’t really spend a lot of time around students.  You guys are lucky.”

“Can you get involved in any groups on campus to make friends?” I asked Melissa.

“I’m trying.  There’s a club for pre-med students that I’ve been to a few times.  I don’t really know anyone yet, though. Also, traffic is bad, so it’s hard for me to get back to campus at night.”

“That’s true.  I hadn’t thought of that.”

“The fruit salad is done,” Catherine called out from the kitchen.  Renee and Anthony got up a minute later to get food, leaving Melissa and me alone on that side of the room.

“I have to say,” Melissa said, “I’m really proud of you for adjusting to dorm life and being away from home so well.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I know this was a scary transition for you, being out on your own.  But you’re doing great. And like I said, you’re getting to do things that I’m not getting to do.”

“Thanks.  I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”

“I will.  And the bright side is I don’t have to deal with noisy neighbors living at my grandma’s house.”

“Good point.  I’ve had noisy neighbor issues.”

“Hey, Melissa,” Catherine said, walking up to Melissa and me and sitting on the couch.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” Melissa said.  “I was just telling Greg how I’m proud of the way he’s adjusted to dorm life.”

“I know!  I’m proud of you too, Greg!”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“How was your Christmas?  Did you guys go anywhere? Or were any family visiting?”

“I was at my parents’ house,” I said.  “My aunt and uncle and cousins were visiting, like they do pretty much every Christmas.”

“How was that?”

“It’s always, well, interesting to see them.  Oh — funny story. So back when were remodeling the house years ago, Mom was reading these fancy remodeling magazines, and that was the first anyone in our family had ever heard of a bidet.”

“Bidets are weird at first,” Catherine said.  “We had one at the house where I stayed in Austria.  It definitely took some getting used to!”

“I’m sure!  Anyway, next to the bathroom in the remodel is a doorway leading to the crawl space in the attic.  My brother started making jokes that that was going to be the Bidet Room. So ever since then, we’ve always called the attic the Bidet Room.  And Mom said in front of my cousins that she had to go wrap the presents that she hid in the Bidet Room.”

“I can’t picture your mom saying ‘Bidet Room,’” Melissa said.

“There’s probably a lot that my mom says that you can’t picture.  But anyway, my one cousin, Miranda, she just turned 14, and they live out in the country, so she isn’t an expert on European bathroom fixtures.  Miranda asked why we called it the Bidet Room, and I told her about Mark saying we should put a bidet in there. Then she asks, ‘What’s a bidet?’  I start to explain it in polite family-friendly terms. Her brother interrupts me and blurts out, ‘It shoots water up your ass!’”

“Ha!” Catherine laughed.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “That’s funny.”

“How was your Christmas?” I asked Melissa.

“Nothing special.  Mom and Dad and my brother drove down south and had Christmas with me and some other relatives at my grandma’s house, and I came back up to Plumdale with them a few days ago.  I’m going to fly home on Tuesday. Flights from Santa Lucia to San Angelo are cheapest on Tuesdays,” Melissa explained. I never would have thought of that, considering that I had never been on an airplane at that time.

The party was fairly calm as far as New Year’s parties go.  I spent the New Year’s a year ago with some family friends who liked to drink and watch sports, and this party wasn’t raucous and loud like that one.  It was mostly just people talking and eating and, in the case of us who were away at school, catching up. And all of that was perfectly okay with me. I got to hear some more of Catherine’s stories about her host family and school and friends in Austria.

However, Catherine’s party was not without drinking.  At one point in the night, Catherine said she was making margaritas.  I think it was margaritas. I’m not an expert on alcoholic beverages, and I knew even less then than I do now.

“Um,” I said, “doesn’t that have alcohol in it?”

“If that makes you uncomfortable, I can make you a virgin margarita.”

Virgin margarita.  Virgin margarita.  I racked my brain trying to figure out what that mean.  After a few seconds of thinking about the context clues, I figured that she must mean a margarita without alcohol.

“Everyone our age drinks alcohol in Austria,” Catherine explained, apparently noticing that I was uncomfortable.  “It’s no big deal over there, and since I’ve been back home I’ve been drinking occasionally. I’m not going to get drunk and be unsafe.  I can make you one without alcohol if you want.”

“Okay,” I said, still a little uncomfortable.

Catherine came back a few minutes later with the drinks.  I picked up my drink, hesitantly. I smelled it; it didn’t smell like alcohol, but considering I wasn’t exactly used to the smell of alcohol, I didn’t know what to expect.  “They’re exactly the same,” she said, “except yours doesn’t have alcohol and mine does.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “What if this is the wrong drink?”

“I can tell.  It’s not.”

“What if someone spiked my drink?”  I’m not entirely sure why I said that.  Maybe I wanted to look cool by demonstrating that I knew what “spiked” meant.

“Come on, Greg.  Do you trust me?”

In hindsight, I’m even less sure of why I said the words that came out of my mouth next, aside from the fact that I’d been watching TV a lot.  “I’m like Agent Mulder. I trust no one.”

“Greg,” Catherine said.  “If you can’t trust me, then are we really even friends?  I’m hurt that you would say that.”

I looked down.  “I didn’t mean it that way,” I said.  I didn’t even know how I meant it. I was just making a reference to one of my favorite TV shows.  “I’m sorry. It’s from X-Files.”

“Do you trust me, Greg?”

I picked up the class and drank a sip of the virgin margarita.  “Yes,” I said. “I trust you. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay,” Catherine replied.  “Just know that I would never give you alcohol without your permission.”

“I know.  Thank you.”

I took another sip of the virgin margarita.  After all that, I didn’t really like it, but I drank the rest of it since Catherine had been through all that to make it for me.  When I was done with the drink, I put the glass back in the kitchen and had more chips and salsa for a while. I spotted someone else I knew from school and went over to talk to her for a while.

“It’s almost midnight!” someone shouted eventually.  A television was showing one of the nationally televised New Year’s Eve broadcasts, with the countdown clock in the corner.  Someone handed me two party favors, one of those things that you blow into and it unrolls and makes a toot noise, and some plastic glasses shaped like the numbers “1995” with holes for your eyes inside the round parts of the 9s.  I put the glasses on and the other thing in my mouth.

“Ten!  Nine! Eight!” everyone started shouting.  “Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!” Some people clapped, some people made noise with whichever party favor they had, and some people holding drinks clinked their glasses together.  Even though a new year is mostly an arbitrary point in time, there is always something special about it. The new number on the calendar gives hope that maybe this year would be different.

“Greg?” Catherine said, turning her left cheek toward my face.  “New Year’s kiss?”

It appeared that 1995 would be different, for sure.  I had never had a New Year’s kiss, nor had I ever kissed anyone or been kissed at any other time of any year.  (I don’t count Grandma kissing my cheek as a kiss. That’s just what grandmothers do.) I didn’t even know in 1995 that a New Year’s kiss was a thing, because of my sheltered upbringing.  But I had made enough of a fuss about the virgin margarita, and I didn’t want Catherine to think I was afraid or being weird any more than she already did. So I puckered my lips and lightly kissed her on the cheek.  She smiled and kissed my cheek back.

“I’m glad I got to see you tonight,” Catherine said.

“Thanks.  I’m glad I came.”

“You really sound like you’re doing well at Jeromeville.  And I’m sure 1995 is going to be a great year for you.”

I started to get tired about an hour later, so I said my goodbyes and drove home, still listening to the Eagles.  I had taken a significant step tonight: I didn’t get all worked up over underage drinking. I was always bothered by the fact that some high school kids know how to get alcohol at a young age, in complete defiance of the law and of their own safety.  I even remember thinking that I ever got invited to a party where there was drinking, I would call the police on my own friends, just because they were breaking the law. Of course, no decent human being would do that unless someone’s life was clearly in danger.  This may have been the first time I had ever been in the same room as underage drinking, and I got over it and let things be. No one was hurting anyone else, and no one’s lives were in danger.

I pulled up into the driveway, quietly entered the house so as not to wake my parents or Mark, and went to bed for the first time in 1995.  I was hopeful for a good year. I had already taken some big steps in 1994, being out on my own, being a student at a university, and living in a dorm.  This new life seemed to be suiting me well so far. I looked forward to the new adventures that 1995 would bring… although, on that cloudy night in Plumdale, 150 miles from Jeromeville, I never would have guessed the exact sort of adventures that lay ahead of me.