It was fall of 2000 and the Sydney Olympic Games were just fading into history. Willie, that's me, had run out of excuses for not settling on a career, even though the gold medals in Australia had reversed the slowing of endorsement money that I had experienced since the 1996 games. I headed up to Tim's office to tell him what I was up to. His secretary knew me and simply waved me in, saying, "A few people around the university get the red carpet treatment, AND Olympic partners. Door's always open for Willie."
I said, "Thanks, Irene," and headed into Tim's office.
There he was, reading something as he sat behind that grand desk. He looked up and saw who it was and said, "Hi, Willie, what can I do for you?"
The desk is overwhelming. I moved over and rubbed the medals embedded in the wood along the front of the desk. He pointed to the last one and said, "That's yours. You know, I'm breaking a rule to say this, but I'm really kind of glad it's gold. The gold ones look a lot prettier than the silver or bronze."
"I have to agree. There is something really exciting about being the best in the world. I certainly wouldn't denigrate second best, and I was proud to get medals behind Greg Louganis. But who can deny liking a gold medal."
"Let's keep this conversation private. It might spoil my image. Now, Willie, why are you here?"
"I thought I should let you know that I used your name as a reference a few days ago. Under, 'How Related,' I put, 'Diving partner.' I hope that's all right?"
"Of course, but an application for what?"
"Admission to the graduate program in psychology."
"Do I sense a career decision has been made?"
"Yep. Watching all of the people I have met in my diving career has made me want to learn more about what makes them tick. Why do people do what they do? I may be barking up the wrong career tree, but it's got me interested for now."
"Are you planning to work for a Ph.D. Anything less than that in psychology is pretty useless."
"Sure. I'm hoping to finish it in three years."
"Most students take longer than that, but three years is possible. If you approach it like you do your diving, you won't have a problem."
"I'm keeping up my diving, but I'm tapering off. I don't have the commitment to keep it up the way you and Billy have. But I haven't seen much of you at the pool since we came back from Sydney."
"Well, that's partly because I have been very busy and haven't gotten there as much as I would like. But when I do make it, it is early morning, and I know you're in bed. I'll come around in the afternoon sometime soon and we can do a few dives together–for old times sake. By the way, have you looked at any schools other than UND?"
"Nope. Sally and I want to stay here; we're committed to The Lighthouse, and I figured I had enough pull around here to be pretty sure of admission."
"That's true, but you won't need it. Your undergraduate record is outstanding, and any smart graduate program would be eager to capture a big name like yours. If they weren't that smart I wouldn't have hired them. Hold out for a good fellowship."
Sally was enthusiastic about my returning to school, as was I. Our situation at the time was somewhat complicated, but the sum total of all the factors suggested that school was a good move.
We were certainly well off financially with the endorsement income that I had as a result of my Olympic success, but we both knew that wouldn't last forever, and probably not that long if I stopped all competition, which I had, in fact, done four years previously, but hadn't been able to resist the idea of competing with Tim (with, not against!). The Lighthouse was in a state of turmoil, not from any problems with the adults, but we had two toddlers (our Liam, and Hardie and Connie's Anton), two on the way (my wife Sally and Mary–Nels' wife–were pregnant and about to pop), and we expected Connie and Mary to work quickly on matching Sally's and my two. Being a student would be time consuming, but would allow flexible hours, so that I could take on some of the parental responsibilities. We all knew that Nels and Mary were heavily involved in the continuing development and management of NTAC, their sports club. The Keepers had all encouraged them in the baby department, and we all knew that others would have to help a lot with parental responsibilities. That was a significant part of the thinking when we all encouraged babies coming at about the same time.
So, I entered a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at the University of North Dakota in February of 2001. I will admit that I am not above using some personal clout from time to time. Dr. Gregory Filston, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Head of the Department, was open to our having a lengthy conversation about my future studies. To be fair, he had a well-known open-door policy and would have warmly greeted any student in my situation. But put yourself in his shoes, the guy at the door was a famous athlete AND the diving partner of the President of the University. I didn't just get quality time, I got quality advice. The key issue for an incoming graduate student, especially at the Ph.D. level is the appointment of an advisor. There is nothing in the rules, guidelines, or procedures, that says that your initial academic advisor will be your dissertation advisor. But in almost every case that turns out to be true. The reason is simple: changing advisors is traumatic and makes potential enemies. So, you want to get the right one in the first place. That involves two things: picking the right person, and getting the person you picked appointed. You have to know your people for the first, and you have to know your campus politics for the second. I needed to advance both of those causes in my meeting with Dr. Filston.
It was obvious that I stood a good chance of success when almost the first thing out of Filston's mouth was, "Mr. Carson, if you and Dr. Tim are on a first name basis, I think it would be good if you called me Greg and I called you Willie. Would that be your preference?"
I'm no fool. My response was, "I'd like to be calling you exactly what your doctoral advisees call you."
"I guess we're stuck with Dr. Filston and Mr. Carson."
"I think that's best, Dr. Filston."
"OK, Mr. Carson, what brings you to my office this afternoon?"
"To discuss the selection and appointment of my advisor."
"You know, for most new students, that is accomplished before they arrive on campus. The faculty looks over the list and they barter over who gets whom. I will have to say, that several people have seen your name on the list and have made noises about being your advisor. You are somewhat of a celebrity, you know."
He went on to ask about my specific interests, whether I knew many of the psychology faculty, what preferences I had, and so forth. The question of interests soon became the focus of the conversation, and it turns out that Dr. Filston was interested in research in the area of sexual functioning and disorders. We discussed that at some length, and I shared some of my experiences being parented by very sexually liberal parents–I knew that Tim would not want the details of Gang life shared, so I limited my discussion to my parental relationships. Dr. Filston was intrigued, and a thirty minute meeting evolved to an hour and then an adjournment to the next afternoon.
By the time the meeting the next afternoon had finished, my fate was sealed. Before I heard my first lecture it was clear that I would emphasize sexual issues in my studies and that my dissertation would be in that area, under the guidance and advisorship of Distinguished Professor Gregory Filston. In the vernacular, I was in like Flynn. And, since Dr. Filston had the final say on the appointment of advisors, the matter was settled right then and there.
I should note that my advance conversation with Tim had indicated that I might want to aim to get Filston as an advisor, as Tim thought he was very good. On the other hand, areas of interest, academic loads, and other things sometimes made specific appointments impossible. And Tim, with my complete agreement, didn't want to intervene in the internal affairs of the department. However, he did say, "If you can finagle getting Greg to do it, you won't be sorry. I appointed him head of the department because I thought a lot of him. Good luck."
The first semester, the spring semester, I took some undergraduate courses that had to be completed before I could officially be admitted to the Ph.D. program, but that was just a formality, and was the case of most new graduate students. Filston wanted me to take a course each term from him, and I took Adolescent Development that spring and Infant Play the next fall. Filston didn't ignore the sexual aspects of much childhood play. He invited me to his office about once a month to talk about his ongoing research, and it was arranged that I would be one of his research fellows beginning in the fall of 2001. He had a major grant to study the effects of various sex education courses on high school age students, and I was involved in that. His research was ultimately published and became part of the almost universally ignored evidence that "abstinence only" education did not reduce unwanted pregnancies. Meanwhile we began discussing various possible research projects for my dissertation. Filston had, over the years, been fascinated by the various sexual games that kids–from early childhood through teenage, and on into college–played with each other. As my first full year went by, he had persuaded me that a dissertation that, in some way, focused on sexual game playing would be quite interesting, and quite doable.
He put considerable emphasis on the word doable. He told me that he had seen too many students get bogged down in a dissertation that wasn't sufficiently defined and that therefore never came to an end. His advice was, "A dissertation needs to be clearly defined with a starting point and an ending point, and when that ending point is reached, you're done." His other advise went something like this: There are three kinds of dissertations: First, there are the dissertations that are magnificent works; they get published as a well-reviewed book; they form the basis for your first job and a successful career. Second, there are dissertations that get you your Ph.D. They get put on a shelf and rarely read, but are sometimes cited in the literature by future Ph.D. candidates filling out their bibliographies. Third is everything in between. If you can pull off the first, wonderful, do it. If you can't then go for number two. All number threes are a waste of time. A dissertation that get published as a book may seem like an outstanding achievement, but unless it is well-reviewed and widely read by the kind of people that will be conducting your job interviews, that dissertation is just about as useless as the one by the guy in the next desk whose dissertation is gathering dust in the basement library. Filston said, "I am not going to tell you whether to aim for number one or number two, but don't mess around in the middle." Then he said, "Honestly, I don't see a dissertation on sexual games ever falling into category number one. So have a good time, don't take yourself too seriously, I'll cover your ass if you put a little sexual humor in the final product, and we'll get you out of here with a Ph.D. and a good recommendation from me in the allotted three years."
I shared that with Tim who laughed so hard I could hardly hear him when he said, "I completely agree. Charlie wrote a number one and I wrote a number two. Look where it got him, and look where mine got me. And if we had reversed dissertations, we'd be in exactly the same places."
I hope that the general subject of my dissertation, sexual games, has you intrigued. It had me intrigued. The first problem was figuring out how we were going to find out about the actual sexual games that kids played. Filston's answer was simple, "Ask them." The problem wasn't in the asking; developing a good interview protocol would be a key part of my research. The question was figuring out who to ask.
There is no point in setting up an in-depth interview with a college student, and having the answer to question one, "Have you ever played any kind of sexual games?" be, "No." We had to find a universe of young people who would be expected to answer, "Yes," to that question. We also needed to make sure that most of our interviewees had done more than play a simple game of strip poker in high school–especially if the games had ended before many clothes were lost.
After a number of conversations Filston told me that the department had, for a variety of research purposes, administered an Adolescent Sexual Inventory, to almost a thousand high school and college students over the previous half dozen years. One of about fifty questions asked if the individual had ever played any kind of sexual games. Including the question had been controversial, and the inventory contained no follow-up questions. The data was, of course, completely confidential, and I could not be given a list of respondents that had answered, "Yes," to the question. However, the department could send a letter to all that answered, "Yes," (the data was in the computer), inviting them to be part of future research on sexual games. If so, they could return a response card and their name would be provided to the researchers in the new study. They were warned that if they responded, and their names were provided for the new study, that fact that they had answered, "Yes," to the sexual games question would be clear.
It turned out that a majority of the men and a substantial minority of the women had answered, "Yes," to the question. We got a 43% positive response rate to the invitation to participate in the new study. With the knowledge that such high percentages of respondents would say that they had participated in sex games at some stage in their lives, we realized that we didn't need to pre-screen respondents for our main questionnaire, as we could expect at least a fourth of general respondents to have been game players at one time.
The problem was to develop a questionnaire that, first, would attempt to determine whether respondents were being honest in their replies, second, would determine the extent of their participation in such games, in order to select candidates for in-depth interviews, and, third, to survey a reasonable representative sample of young people to determine just how much, of what kind, of sexual game playing was going on.
The first of those was the trickiest. How do you tell if a respondent is lying? Of course, if he or she is a good liar, you can't. But most liars aren't good liars. They slip up. So the trick is to ask the same questions in different ways and see if their answers are consistent. For example, we would ask very early in the questionnaire, "Are you a virgin?" Later on, as we talked about definitions of terms, we'd get their definition of a virgin. There are a lot of possible definitions. It wasn't uncommon for a girl to think she had lost her virginity after engaging in any sex play with a boy. Others thought a boy giving them an orgasm made them lose their virginity. Many thought they lost their virginity by being penetrated, either in the vagina or the anus. Others defined it in terms of their hymen, and considered themselves to no longer be virgins after the hymen had been broken, by a tampon or in a variety of other possible ways. However, the most common worry for girls who defined virginity in terms of the hymen was that it would be torn by a tampon. (Hold your criticisms here. We are not talking about medical facts here, but of the opinions of various individuals–whether informed or not.) Then, later in the questionnaire, we asked about various kinds of sexual behavior. When you combine the answers to all of these questions there should be consistency. There were other such sets of questions, but we always felt that the virginity ones were the most effective. While a certain amount of inconsistency is normal, we didn't conduct further interviews with people that were not largely consistent in their answers.
Our ideal respondent had participated in sexual games at least three or more times, including changing at least one of these factors in one of the games: (1) age at time of activity, (2) whether participants were all of one sex or both, (3) the name of the games, or (4) the rules of the game.
Finally, we were able to reach some interesting conclusions about sexual game playing. Remember, we had pre-selected for participants that had played sexual games, so our conclusions only dealt with a description of the game playing, not its extent in the total population. The Adolescent Sexual Inventory had given us some idea of that.
The games themselves were incredibly varied, both their names and the nature of the games. By a huge margin the most common was Strip Poker. It had a huge number of variations that were essentially the same sexual game, but based on different non-sexual games, e.g. poker. Other games that formed the basis for a strip games included numerous card games, the most frequent ones other than poker being blackjack, various forms of rummy, and canasta. Even bridge appeared. Other games used as strip games included checkers, chess, Monopoly, Clue, Game of Life, Blockhead and many others. Interestingly, these strip games were more likely to be played in all-boy situations than in all-girl or mixed gender situations. However, that was related to age. The most common participants were pre-pubescent boys, and they tended to play only with other boys. As the ages got older, it was more likely to involve both sexes. Interestingly, while girls certainly were involved, it was at a much lower rate, and the most common players of all-girl strip games were college sorority sisters, especially at initiation time.
The various strip games could also be divided by the goal of the game. In many cases, the game ended when someone's clothes were all removed. Sometimes the last item had to be removed as sort of a strip tease, sometimes simply taken off. Different groups demanded the loser to show him or herself in various ways–some pretty embarrassing. In other games the stripping was really just foreplay for other things. The most common thing was to allow the winner (usually the person who had accumulated the most clothing, or had lost the least of his or her own, but sometimes the winner was the person who actually won the last piece of clothing from the loser) to do something to the loser. This varied widely from teasing, various forms of sexual play, to giving the loser an orgasm, to intercourse. One variant was that you didn't lose when you became naked, but when naked you lost an additional round and had no clothes to give up.
I'm not going to recite a lot of the interviews; some were quite uninteresting, but some fascinating. I'll share one:
Most of my interviews were not as revealing of the interviewees sexuality, but that person seemed pleased to have someone listen to his story who was pledged to absolutely secrecy, as he was still very much in the closet. He didn't share anything about his life after high school; presumably it did not involve games.
There were a whole set of games involving dares, beginning with the most common, Truth or Dare. Truth or Dare can, of course, be a non-sexual game, but at least one respondent told us that while the game often started non-sexually, he had yet to see a game that went on very long not involve sex, and usually either a loss of clothes or some kind of groping that would have been unacceptable outside of the game situation. An intriguing variation of a daring game was Double-Dares Go First. In this, one person issues a dare to the group. If someone is willing to do the dare, they do, and they get to issue the next dare. If no one accepts the dare, then there is a chance for double-dares. The person who double-dares names the person they are double-daring to do the dare, but must, by the title of the game, go first. After the double-darer does the dare, then the person named must also do the dare. We only had this game described by one respondent–a high school girl, but the dares described were incredibly raunchy and the game was played in a mixed high school age group of boys and girls.
Spin the Bottle appeared many times, but most descriptions involved just kissing. Some respondents considered this a sexual game and others did not. Most descriptions of the game limited it to kissing, but terms like "lots of tongue" or "hands anywhere" were sometimes used to describe the kissing. Spin the Bottle games were virtually always played with two sexes, but they divided in one interesting way. In some games same-sex kissing was part of the game, but in a majority of games the bottle was spun by a person of one sex in the middle of a circle of the opposite sex. While it was generally limited to kissing, we heard descriptions of spin the bottle leading to masturbation, oral sex, and intercourse. And, of course, there were variants of bottles, spinners, cans, bananas, shoes and other means of selecting a single person from a group in a circle. One variant was musical chairs, in which the person who didn't get a chair was the one kissed.
As you would expect, the game Doctor showed up a lot. It was nearly always played by two groups: very young–ages 5-10–mixed gender groups, and groups of college age males. Most respondents indicting participation in the latter said they were gay, and some considered Doctor as a form of, or lead in to, S&M activity. We were amazed at how many respondents said they had participated in Doctor-type games, usually in groups of two to four, around first or second grade. It was about 25% of respondents, but remember that's not 25% of the population, but 25% of respondents that had already indicated they had played sex games of some sort at some time.
A sort of variant on Doctor was a game which a few people called Strip. It simply involved two or more individuals alternately taking off articles of clothing. It's goal was exposure, exactly the same as Doctor. It simply lacked a medical or other story line to go with the removal of clothing. However, the game was more likely to be played in mixed groups of teenagers than Doctor was.
Another game that turned up more frequently that expected was Torture, almost always played by boys. Some indicated the rules simply allowed for alternately torturing the other game players, and others indicated that the torture was the punishment administered to the loser of a game (poker, dice, etc.). The tortures described ranged from quite mild–usually tickling, to quite violent: serious spanking, Indian red bellies (a mild slap is administered to the belly at slow intervals. At first it is hardly felt, but if kept up long enough it was as bad as a serious spanking), and a lot of things associated with serious S&M. Shaving the pubic hair turned up as a torture, and it was often mentioned as a consequence of losing different games.
I didn't use COGs in my study, but I did use some of the Gang. I liked using Gang members because I could be sure they would tell the truth. However, I did interview one COG–Nettie. I had heard of her playing the game Farther with Marshall. No game by that name had turned up in the survey, and I wanted to get it cataloged and its rules written down. The story, I'll have to admit is both amazing and raunchy. [Episode 155]
Quite a few other games were mentioned by only one, or sometimes two, respondents, and these varied from completely innocent (at least in my eyes, probably not in the eyes of the respondent who had participated) to extremely sexual, like Farther. I will mention one, which the female respondent called Pecker Peek. You need a hole in a wall that will allow a penis, testicles, and some of the pubic hair to go through, but not allow anyone to see any other part of the body. The boys in the group go to the room on the other side of the wall, strip down, and put their genitals through the hole one at a time. The girls may look, and each girl is allowed to touch and feel one or two of the penises–the number is limited and agreed in advance. After all of the boys have been viewed and touched, they get dressed and return to the girls. The girls then write down their guesses as to who owns which genitals. The girl who gets the most right gets her choice of boys and free reign as to what to do with him. The boy that has fooled the most girls gets to pick his choice of the remaining girls. In the case of ties, both winners get to pick. Everyone else remains a spectator. It is agreed in advance whether intercourse is allowed, and if it is, the spectators are charged with putting on the condom. The girl that told the story said that she had played it fairly often in high school, and that it nearly always led to fucking. It would be a breach of confidentiality to even tell you the location of her high school, but it must have been quite a place.
It was a general pattern with all games and respondents that by far the larger group participated in the mildest, least sexually involved forms of the games or sex play that followed. In these group situations intercourse was quite rare, and oral sex almost as rare. Most of the play did not involve orgasms. However, in a substantial majority of the games described, touching of the genitals of other participants was involved. Finally, in almost all cases whatever sex play the game led to was witnessed by all of the participants in the game. Seldom was it reported that a winner would take a loser to another room or place to do things in private. The one exception to this was games that led to a winner and a loser going on a date together in the future–with or without sexual implications for the date.
All right, I'll admit it, dealing with all of this stuff was arousing. I quickly learned to set up the interview room with a round table and three chairs: one for me, one for the respondent, and one for the witness. That way erections remained private, and believe me I got them, and I am pretty sure some of my respondents did as well. The witness was always quiet, and of the same gender as the respondent–for the protection of the respondent (who was, after all, with a stranger) and of me (from any accusations). Some of the games sounded like fun and I took some of them back to The Lighthouse and we tried them. We tried Pecker Peek using a sheet instead of cutting a hole in the wall. However, we all knew each other too well, and there wasn't a loser. It also turned out that we were far too uninhibited for Farther–we went too far too fast and soon didn't have any way to go Farther! I'm not going to describe other game-playing efforts at The Lighthouse, you readers already have decided that we are too sexy for our own good. Heck, you may be right.
As I reviewed the mass of data we had collected, my mind tried to sort out what kind of conclusions one could draw from it. We had certainly determined that sexual games were very common, and incredibly varied, but what else? I was attracted to the questions of trust and honesty that these games presented.
The most obvious trust issue for game players was confidentiality. "Don't tell," was a pretty important issue. This isn't as simple an issue as you might think. If you are playing a game that involved six people, and you didn't want your parents, classmates, teachers, minister, or whomever to know about it, you had to trust the other players not to tell. But it is inevitable that some will tell someone, so the trust issue isn't just that people won't tell, but that they will use good judgement about whom the would tell–even though it was usually understood, and often explicitly agreed, that no one would be told. In the adult world, the, "Don't tell," rule is most commonly broken in regard to spouses. In the teen world it is best friends and, "steady dates." In children's worlds it is likely to be the playmate next door or the pal that shares a lot of secrets, like a secret play place. The best defense against this kind of sharing is, of course, to include those close partners in the sex games, but they aren't always willing participants.
That brings along another key aspect of the, "Don't tell," rule. You have to tell, at least a certain amount, in order to invite new participants to the games. That means that you have to have a high trust level not only with your fellow game players but with potential game players that you invite. As we discussed this with various respondents, virtually every one that spoke of an exposure of their game playing said it was from someone invited to join in who was upset at the idea of the game, and that person telling a parent or teacher.
Another trust issue quickly arises. Most all games provide for alternate play. That is, I take off a piece of clothing and then you do. Or I do such and such and then you do. If we use strip poker as a model, I take off my clothing anticipating that when it is your turn you will do the same. Girls reported that removing their bras always presented a trust problem. Boys strip to the waist with ease. Girls do not. So any kind of rule that says we can quit when all are equal leaves a girl with her bra off in a very unequal position. We had girls report that they had felt hoodwinked by a game ending once they had exposed their breasts. Aside from that issue, there was still the more general issue of somebody quitting when things weren't even. There was also the question of playing again. In the usual strip poker game, one person ends up without any clothes. Anticipating this, players may insist that the game will be repeated, immediately or at a subsequent date, a certain number of times, until everybody has lost, or–quite commonly–someone of both sexes has lost a round. While we did get reports of players inappropriately leaving games, in general our respondents reported that their trust of other players in this regard was well-placed. We concluded that this reflected very good judgement of respondents' peers.
Truth or Dare, and some other related games, present an additional trust issue, obviously incorporated into the title word truth. If one chooses to tell the truth rather than do a dare, how do the other players decide if what is said is true? Players have few means to check the truth of statements, and are pretty much forced to accept statements at face value. Yet, most of our respondents who had played truth-telling games felt quite secure that most of what they had heard was true, and they reported generally telling the truth themselves. When faced with exposing information that they truly felt they could not reveal–either because it was embarrassing, would break a confidence, or could get them into trouble–our respondents were about equally divided on whether in that situation they would lie or simply refuse to answer. Very often the willingness to lie was in a situation where refusing to answer would, in effect, reveal the unacceptably exposed truth. For example, refusing to answer the question, "Have you fucked John?" is pretty much an admission that you have.
The bottom line is that the game players, whether little children, teens, or college age youth, had an extremely high trust level with each other and, in retrospect, felt that it was warranted. From the stories we heard, we felt that that was an accurate assessment.
So what did all this prove? Well, did you find reading these pages at all interesting? Maybe titillating? Good. Perhaps the whole thing was worth it. But what it really proved is that you can take about four pages of interesting material, turn it into about 175 pages of dull boring prose, interspersed with a few interesting anecdotes (usually quoted directly from respondents), and turn it into a Ph.D. dissertation, which then you turn into a Ph.D., a good job, and the right to use "Dr." in front of your name. The sad thing is, most Ph.D. dissertations don't start with the four interesting pages and aren't interspersed with cute anecdotes. Ah, well, such is academic life. I showed these pages to Dr. Filston and he laughed and simply said, "So true."
Author's note: The data cited here, while I believe them to fairly accurately portray the real world, were generated entirely in the world of fiction. Don't let that stop you from quoting them in your own college term paper or dissertation!
I will admit that it was great fun to have the Dean of Arts and Sciences and Tim, President of the University and my diving partner, place the Ph.D. hood over my shoulders. I wanted to grab at his balls while he was doing it, but I didn't dare. When I told him that later he replied, "Damn good thing. It would have started me laughing, and I'm not sure how I would have explained that."
So, now I faced the question of what one does with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I needed three years of clinical practice under the guidance of a licensed psychologist. Charlie suggested that the way to get that was at Democracy House–still run by Franklin, with Jerry as the staff psychologist. As well as working for Democracy House–which by this time had four resident facilities in Grand Forks, one in East Grand Forks, and two in Bismarck–I joined Jerry in his private practice, and we continue today as partners.
Sally sort of became the chief nanny for The Lighthouse. There were two other mothers in The Lighthouse–Nel's wife, Mary, and Hardie's wife, Connie. Mary was heavily involved in NTAC and Connie was working on the editorial staff of North Dakota Dreams the slick photo magazine that Tim had dreamed up soon after his appointment as Vice-President for Development. The magazine has been an outstanding success, being distributed to an extensive list of alumni and all donors. Alumni, including new graduates, may request North Dakota Dreams free for two years. At the end of that time, if they haven't become donors to the university, then they are dropped from the list. I can't tell you how many of our small donors give regularly each year just to get the magazine. It does wonderful things to the magic figure of, "Percentage of alumni that contribute."
Nick and Evan lived in The Lighthouse, but weren't parents, and the others didn't think they should be saddled with parenting responsibilities. Both Nick and Evan disagreed, enjoyed being "uncles," and pitched in. However, they had opened a used bookstore/record store not too far from the UND campus, and were heavily involved in that. Shel and Brian were head over heels into skating, spending every spare moment at the Fred. We weren't sure what they were going to do after the 2002 Olympics.
Hardie was, "finding himself." He and Connie had carefully saved his endorsement money, and they had Connie's income from North Dakota Dreams, so money wasn't an issue. We were all a little concerned about how he used his time, however. He dove; he sometimes ran with Hal; he visited the UND Library; helped out at Nick and Evan's bookstore; but didn't seem to have a real goal in life. Connie didn't seem to be in the least worried. She told me, "Willie, Hardie's happy. I'm happy. He loves me and he makes me happy. Don't go messing with his head. If he were a girl you'd be very happy that he stayed home, took care of the house, and looked after the kids. Well, don't be sexist."
Despite Hardie's willingness to pitch in and help as needed, Sally became the de facto nanny for the children of The Lighthouse, whose number grew to six by the end of 2001. Shortly after Sally had eased into the nanny role, Nels and Mary raised the question of paying her to be the nanny. Her response, really our response, was that no money needed to change hands, but we'd put a little less into the community pot that ran The Lighthouse. Nels responded, "That doesn't work. Connie, you are doing a job, but you aren't acquiring Social Security benefits, and you don't have the disability protection offered by Social Security. All five of the parents in The Lighthouse, including you, Willie, are going to pay you $5,000 per year, and we will see to it that it is properly reported to Social Security. We'll pay our half of the taxes, and we will withhold and pay the employee half. That is going to be very important when you reach age 65."
He was, of course, right. It was very generous, but typical of all of the arrangements of the Gang. A similar offer was made to Hardie, but he declined. "I don't know where I'm headed, but I'll get there. I'll help out with the kids because I'm the father of two of them. You won't be paying me to do that." One didn't argue with Hardie about things like that.
The children all lived in the big attic. They called it the attic, but they realized that they needed a better name for it. We considered a lot of names like playroom, barracks, dorm, but none connoted what we wanted. I don't remember who suggested it, but finally aerie was put into the pot. It was an instant choice. It suggested height, the command of an eagle, but the dictionary said it also referred to high structures–like a place for kids in an attic. With the arrival of our second child, Bobbie, we were ready to move the kids to the aerie (we decided against capitalizing it when it was written). We moved Liam's crib upstairs and put Bobbie in a Pack N' Play–a fairly new, pretty simple version of a bassinet. There was also a double bed there for two adults as long as the kids were too young to be alone on a separate floor of the house. At first Sally and I slept with the kids, but others soon volunteered to help out. Nick and Evan particularly like to sleep up with Liam, Bobbie, and others as they came along.
We had some lengthy discussions about the beds we should put in the aerie for the kids. Bunk beds would be the most efficient with space. Double beds wouldn't be far behind, but would eventually involve having kids sleep together. Hardie and Willie were quite open about their sleeping together, but that was as teenagers. Nels said that he and his brother Bert, who was four years younger than he, had separate beds, but often slept together, and he said that it was not infrequently sexual. Shel simply said that he hated to sleep alone, and that had been his rule as long as he could remember. He had grown up in the home of the foursome, with two brothers and a sister, all older than he–three to six years older. He was well aware of sex from a very early age, and had enjoyed it immensely. He didn't see why the kids in the aerie shouldn't have the same experiences.
Others were more hesitant. The hadn't grown up in the liberal atmosphere of the Gang, and had no experience of how kids might take to such an environment. It was agreed that we would buy two double beds for the aerie, and let Liam and Bobbie sleep where they wanted. New arrivals would start in Pack N' Plays or cribs, and move to beds as appropriate. They would add more beds when the doubles no longer took care of the kids needs–and those could be singles, another double, or bunks as the kids seemed to want. As this is written they range in ages from just eleven to thirteen and a half. There are six double beds in the aerie, and it is anybody's guess on any given night who will be in which bed. The kids think its great, and the parents are convinced that it is a very healthy arrangement–mental health that is. The arrangement does insure that colds are passed around all too quickly. And, yes, the kids are overtly sexual with each other, but quickly learned to keep it private–just within the aerie, the family, or the Gang. They will quickly point out that you, dear reader, are not in one of those groups, so the details of what goes on in the aerie will not be shared.
Murray came to The Lighthouse one evening in the spring of 2005 with some sad news. He had gotten a call from his mother in Ironwood, telling him that Toppy's mother had died of a sudden heart attack. He had told Toppy and Toppy had immediately called Murray's mother, Angela Saragon, back to get more information. He had asked Murray to be on an extension phone. Murray reported that when Toppy asked if he should come to Ironwood, Angela had said that he should not. She had approached Toppy's father, asking if she should contact Toppy about coming home for the funeral. His response was that he would not admit that he had a son, and would refuse to have anything to do with him. "Toppy, if you come it will be very upsetting, for you and for your father, and that would be very upsetting to your mother's friends, who have been very important for her since you left. In a little while, when she is buried, come and visit Paul and Amanda. They would love to see you, and we can all go out to the cemetery and you can say your farewell to your mother. I know it's hard, but I think that is best." Toppy had had to agree, but it was terribly upsetting for him.
The conversation gave me an idea. Toppy clearly needed comfort, which he would certainly get from Murray and all the Gang. But I thought he also needed professional counseling. Both Jerry and I were qualified, but we were probably a little too close. I knew Toppy had grown up in a church, until his realization of his sexuality had alienated him from the church, and thought that counseling in a religious framework would be good. I immediately thought of the woman pastor of the church in East Grand Forks who married Viv and Milt. She had indicated that she was very open on the question of homosexuality. I couldn't remember her name, but Viv supplied it–The Rev. Barbara Saxon, of The Community Church of East Grand Forks. I got on the internet and found out that Barbara was professionally certified as a pastoral counselor–I thought she might be exactly what Toppy needed. He didn't really know her, but at least he had met her at Viv's recent wedding.
I called Murray and he thought it was a good idea, but suggested that I talk directly to Toppy, whom he put on the line. "Toppy, how are you holding up?"
"OK, I guess."
"You don't sound great."
"Great, I'm not."
"How would you like to talk to a counselor?"
"I'm available, but I think we may be too close."
"Whom do you have in mind?"
"The Rev. Barbara Saxon, of The Community Church of East Grand Forks. She is the minister that married Milt and Viv."
"I remember her. Milt and Viv liked her a lot, didn't they?"
"Yes, they did."
"How does one approach a pastor for counseling, when you aren't even part of her church?"
"You call her up and make an appointment. But I'll make it easy for you. I'll talk to her tomorrow morning on the phone, so she'll be looking for your call in the afternoon. But you have to make the call, she can't initiate the relationship, especially since you aren't part of her congregation."
"Yes, please make the call."
I reflected a little on that conversation. Most people, especially men, were very reluctant to seek counseling. Toppy's willingness, even eagerness, either meant that he was deeply troubled by the distant loss of his mother, or it meant that he had more self-awareness than most people do. I thought about that a little, and realized that the resistance to go to counseling was often present in the people who needed it the most. I decided that Toppy really was the remarkable and mature individual that Murray and others in the Gang thought he was. Toppy was forty-four years old, but the loss of your mother at any age is difficult. In Toppy's situation it could be quite traumatic, and Toppy clearly understood that.
The next day I called Barbara Saxon, introduced myself, and told her the situation. She said, "I don't remember the gentleman; I met so many interesting people that day. But I will be glad to talk with him. After getting to know Milt and Viv, even in the little time we had together, I am eager to meet another member of your group–did Milt call it the Gang?"
"Yes, the Gang. I'm a member. We are a remarkable group. I think you'll be impressed with Toppy."
I was not a party to the conversations between Barbara and Toppy. He did give her permission to tell me that they had occurred and her general impression of his situation, but no details. I didn't want the details, but I was glad when three weeks later Barbara called and told me, "Toppy and I have talked several times. You're right, he is quite a fellow. I don't think he has any deep problems, and he's dealing with his loss pretty well. I have suggested that he should take the trip that Angela Saragon suggested, and that Murray should go along. They are going to stay with the Saragons, as well as the Weeks. I know I may be messing in where I shouldn't, but after conversations with both of them, those arrangements seemed like it would be good for both men. And, yes, I know I shouldn't have told you that I have been talking with Murray, but I am sure that he wouldn't mind."
"Barbara, you're great. Thank you."
"Hey, they are talking about coming to church. We poor pastors are always trying to add to the flock, you know. Think I could get any others in the Gang?"
"That's a very reasonable question. You know, many of us have religious backgrounds that were snuffed by the stand of most protestant churches regarding gays. That doesn't apply to me, because my parents weren't involved in church for just that reason. But it describes my grandparents. I don't think many of us are hostile to religion, just to churches that are hostile to us or our dear friends."
"I'll believe all that when I see you some Sunday morning."
"I might fool you."
"I love to be fooled."
Toppy and Murray took ten days for their trip to Ironwood. They wanted some time to themselves before they got there, so they took three days to drive only 370 miles. They started about noon on a Saturday and drove to Bemidji, going slow and getting there in time for an early dinner. They told us that they had considered looking up Sally's parents, but had decided that they really wanted to be alone on this trip. The next day the slept late (Tim wasn't along!) and drove only to Duluth. They reported that the hotel that Tim and Charlie had made famous on their early trips was gone. They had found a lovely motel on a hill overlooking the harbor. They had a quiet dinner in the motel dining room and went to bed. The next day they went to Ironwood and spent the afternoon, evening and night with Paul and Amanda. They didn't contact Murray's parents until the next day. They drove to Murray's childhood home and were greeted warmly by his mother. She took them up to the guest room, which had been Murray's room until he left–or had been thrown out. When he and Toppy were alone in the room he said, "This is the first time I have set foot in this room since that awful day when we cleared my stuff out of here. It seems smaller than I remember. Toppy, I couldn't make it through the night in this room without you to hug. Gee, Ironwood is a tough place to visit. And I know it's going to be even tougher for you."
It wasn't. Toppy made no attempt to contact his father, or even see him from a distance. He didn't go by his old house. Along with Murray's parents, they went out to the cemetery and he laid a small bouquet of flowers at his mother's grave. Then, I am sure to spite his father, he took a heavy knife out and scratched, "Love, Toppy" into the stone. He asked to be alone for a while, and Murray and his parents backed away. He hugged the stone, cried for a while, then stood up and asked Murray to join him. He hugged Murray tightly for a long while, and finally said, "Hugging a stone doesn't work. I need you Murray. Don't ever leave me."
"Thank you. I love you Murray. Let's go home; home to Paul and Amanda's house. That was our home those crucial months."
When they rejoined Paul and Amanda at their house, Toppy said, "You know, when I think of mom and dad I think of you two. Thank you for being my mom and my dad when I really needed you. I love you both."
It was quickly a hug-fest, and it lasted almost fifteen minutes. They walked to the car and drove to Murray's home in silence. When they got home Toppy said, "OK, that was tough, but it's behind us. We want to enjoy ourselves. We'll spend tonight [Wednesday] and tomorrow night with your folks. Friday we'll go back home. Saturday, let's take a little trip. Where to?"
Murray suggested Copper Harbor, at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It would be an interesting drive, staying as close to the shore of Lake Superior as the roads would allow. They could spend the night in Copper Harbor, see some of the sights on Sunday morning and drive back in the afternoon and evening. When they suggested it to Paul and Amanda, Paul said, "Sounds like a great idea, except that the roads go up the middle of the Keweenaw Peninsula, and you won't really see the lake until we get to Copper Harbor. It is a beautiful drive, thought it is a little early in the year. It won't be very green yet."
Toppy said, "I don't need green. I need to be away and relax. I really treasure the time with you, Mom and Dad, but I'd like to be out of Ironwood. I have a lot of happy memories here, but some pretty awful ones as well."
Amanda said, "We understand completely, and we are going to love the trip with you two boys. Well, we think of you as boys. You were in high school when we all met. How old are you now?"
"Forty-four. And we love being called boys, even if it is very much wishful thinking."
As they drove up the peninsula Murray raised a subject that had been bothering him as they contemplated the trip. "How many rooms are we going to get at the motel tonight?"
Amanda answered without thinking, "One. Of course."
Paul continued, "I take it that your question could have been worded, 'Are we all going to share a room tonight?' Right?"
Murray responded, "That's right, and the answer from Mom was unexpected. As I remember it, we all respected each other's privacy when we were living at your house."
Amanda said, "That's very true. You were underage, and in no legal sense were you our sons. We were treading on very thin legal ice those days until both of you reached age eighteen. By then patterns were set, and since you were still in school, where we both taught, we still had to be very circumspect. And while we know that you would have covered for us, had you been asked, we never wanted to put you in a position where you felt you had to lie."
Paul continued, "But there is another story, actually two of them, that you need to hear. We grew up with two children, and there never was an issue in the house about clothes. Our kids saw us naked and the other way around, and that continues to be true today. We have added two sons-in-law to the family–Perry's Norman and Nettie's Marshall. In both cases Amanda has gone out of her way to establish that there will be no modesty in the family, and both Norman and Marshall are OK with that. Well, tonight it's your turn. I am just surprised that it has taken more than twenty years for this situation to arise."
Amanda said, "Previous visits were too close to their being boys. When we've been in Grand Forks, we've stayed with our generation and not at The Roundhouse. Maybe we need to change our pattern."
Toppy said, "We have lots of room in The Roundhouse. You're welcome anytime."
Murray said, "I think tonight is going to be interesting."
Paul said, "More than you realize."
That night in the motel in Copper Harbor, Murray and Toppy were determined not to be outdone by Amanda and Paul. Almost as soon as they were in the room Murray said, "I need a shower," took off his clothes, and headed for the shower room. Toppy followed, after stripping, and joined Murray in the shower–it was a tub shower and they both fit.
When they got back to the room Paul and Amanda were laying on one of the queen-size beds, naked, gently stroking each other's genitals. On the return of the boys/men, Paul and Amanda stopped, kissed, and pulled up the covers, clearly headed for sleep. Amanda said, "Don't be embarrassed to do your thing in bed tonight. In fact, if we don't hear something over there we're going to conclude that your relationship is breaking down."
The light was turned out, and it sounded to Murray and Toppy like there was a blow job in process in the next bed. Toppy whispered to Murray, "Well, we need to do something. What do you suggest?"
Murray thought a minute and answered, "Fuck me." He got on his knees and made it clear that it should be doggie style. Toppy obliged.
Toppy was approaching orgasm when the light went on and Paul said, "Excuse me, I need to pee."
Toppy instantly went soft, came out of Murray's ass, and collapsed on the bed next to Murray, who had flopped on his stomach to cover the fact that he had equally lost his hard-on.
Paul and Amanda roared with laughter. Paul said, "Well, that's the third time we've pulled that trick. Marshall sputtered out. You two sputtered out. On the other hand, Norman when caught with his dick up Perry's ass finished the job in grand style. It must be that British reserve."
By this time Murray was laughing, and soon Toppy joined in. Murray asked, "You mean you set up this situation with Perry and Norman as well as Nettie and Marshall?"
"We sure did."
"I thought I had seen everything somewhere in the Gang, but I think this tops everything. Is sex with your sons up next?"
Amanda said, "No, that's over the line. But we have found that there is nothing like a little exposure to get everybody used to everybody. You know, we are going to be retiring pretty soon, and when we do we'll move to Grand Forks. We are eager to really become a part of the Gang. And then we are going to be seeing a lot more of you two. We all need to be comfortable together–but no sex."
Paul said, "I know you don't want to go to sleep frustrated. It's your choice, would you like the light on or off. Whatever you choose, we won't change it."
Murray said, "On," and proceeded to suck Toppy and roll over to get sucked right back.
When they got back to Grand Forks they sought me out. Toppy said, "Willie, the trip started as a downer. I visited my mother's grave, laid flowers, cried a lot, but slowly got over it. Then we took a trip up north, and we learned that in Amanda and Paul we truly had a wonderful set of parents. I didn't lose a mom this trip, I gained one, and so did Murray."
Then he told me the whole story, down to the very graphic details. I am still trying to figure out the implications of his scratching "Love, Toppy" into the tombstone. As for the business in the motel; well, the Gang is the Gang.
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