Episode 204 - Fall
I asked Hal whether he wanted to write this episode, or whether he wanted me to. He responded, "Do we really have to write it?"
"Yes, Hal, we do. Your fall was an important event in the life of the Gang."
"You're right, and if it's going to be written it had better be written by me."
Here is Hal's story:
Years ago. Gee, just how many years had it been between that day in the woods at Camp White Elk and the day of the fall? Well, that first summer (for me) at Camp White Elk was 1961. I was fourteen years old. The fall was in the spring of 2005, almost forty-four years later. Could that many years have gone by? Where did they go? We all ask those questions as we move into our senior years. But my fall in 2005 brought them all rushing to the surface.
Can we go back a few minutes to that summer of 1961? Specifically to the scene in the woods when Tom, Tim, and Franklin began the process of creating a new Hal. First thing, they made me take my clothes off. There I stood in my boxer shorts, shoes, and socks. I was told to take off my shoes and socks, and I started to sit down on the ground to do it. Immediately Franklin told me to stand up while I took off my shoes; it would teach me balance. Try it; it isn't easy. Well, it is for me, because I've been doing it for years, but it wasn't easy that day for me, and it isn't easy for most people. I think that's the first thing that I was asked to accomplish on the road to the new Hal. And by God, I did it. And ever since, I've stood up to put on or take off my shoes. Even if I'm sitting down, I'll stand up to take off my shoes. By now it's a habit.
I get a lot of strange looks, usually in places like a swimming pool change room. People say things like, "Hal, sit down to take off your shoes, you'll fall on this concrete floor."
I never fall.
Well, that used to be true. It was spring of 2005. Jody and I were out running, just the two of us. That's unusual, because we regularly had a small collection of friends and students that ran with us–often for just a part of our run. But this particular morning it was just the two of us. We were enjoying brisk, cool weather, and almost no wind–unusual for North Dakota. We enjoyed a chance to just be alone together as we ran. We didn't talk much, because you really can't talk and run at the same time.
Then Jody got a rock or something in his shoe. He stopped and said, "I have to get something out of my shoe; it hurts." He sat down and slipped off his shoe, brushed off his sock and started to put his shoe back on. The power of suggestion being what it is, I decided that I had something in my left shoe as well, and I bent my left knee and reached down to untie my shoe. Something distracted me, and I lost my balance. There I was, standing on my right leg, waving my hands and left foot trying to restore my balance. All efforts failed, and down I went on the running trail.
Jody watched all of this and laughed a little. He asked, "You OK?" in a tone of voice that indicated that he certainly thought that I was. Clearly it was funnier than it was damaging. At least to him. And as I thought about it, I had to agree.
I responded, "Sure. Nothing broken." I rolled over on my butt, took off my shoe, decided that there really wasn't anything in it that was bothering my running, put the shoe back on, and we headed off for the rest of our run.
Nothing about the incident suggested that it was a life-changing event. And medically it wasn't. I suffered no physical injury in the fall–not to my foot, or any other part of me.
As Jody and I ran on, I reflected on what had just happened. I got to thinking about that time in the woods when I first put on shoes while standing up. And of the fact that in the more than four decades since, I'd never put on a shoe while sitting down. Not a shoe. Not a boot. Not a galosh. Not a Sorel (snow boot with felt liner). But that was no longer true. I'd fallen down taking off the running shoe on my left foot, and I'd stayed sitting to finish taking it off and to put it on again.
OK, it's not a big deal, is it? Not until you remember that the only Hal that ever sat down to put on a shoe was the old Hal. The new Hal never did. So who was running down the street? The new Hal or the old Hal?
Shit, was I so insecure that one lost balance was going to shake my faith in myself? All I had to do was take a look at all those Olympic medals–they were clearly not the accomplishment of the old Hal. Was I so insecure that I needed to drag out a bunch of medals to confirm who I was? Was the old Hal returning? I did recognize that the main difference between the old Hal and the new Hal was state of mind, an attitude. And my thinking for the rest of that run was in the old Hal mode. Or so I began to tell myself.
That night I called Jody and said, "I'd like to run a full marathon tomorrow. Would you join me? Say at noon?"
"Sure. What's up with the formal invitation?"
"Nothing, see you at noon."
We met at noon the next day and immediately set out on the most difficult of several marathon routes that started near my house and which I had measured accurately. Most difficult simply meant that it had the longest, steepest hill, with a difficultly level I estimated to be about that of Boston. I ran a fast pace, and Jody easily kept up. He could've moved ahead and set the pace, but he understood that this was my race and he left me in charge. We finished at about 2:24:30, a very fast pace, but no record setter. We came in standing up and able to talk. Jody spoke first: "OK, Hal, what's up? This is not the Hal I'm used to."
He couldn't have phrased it worse, but he had no way of knowing. He was simply reflecting on my mood, but I was back in the new Hal/old Hal questioning mode. I said, "That's what scares me. I'm slipping. I'm getting old. I'm afraid of slipping back into the 'old Hal' mold."
Jody's no fool, and he picked up on my thinking immediately. He responded, "I never met the old Hal, and I'm quite certain that I'm not meeting him now. The old Hal couldn't run around the block, and you just ran a marathon at a speed that very few humans on this earth can match. But you fell down yesterday. If you'd fallen flat on your face at full running speed, broken your nose and God knows what else, it would've affected you less than falling down while you were tying your shoe. What's so God-damned important about tying your shoelaces?"
"I don't know. It just is. It separates me from a past that I don't want to return to."
"So don't return to it. The old Hal was a state of mind, not a physical state. You only go back if you decide to, and it's clear to me that you have no intention of going back there."
"You're right, Jody, but that fall shook me."
"Well, I know one thing: Don't bottle it up. You have to share this with Sue and at least the original eight Gang members. They're your support group, and it wouldn't be fair to them not to share."
Jody was right, and I did share. That evening with Sue, and with the others over the next few days. I don't know whether it was good or bad, but it got all of us thinking about our mortality. Charlie is the oldest, and he was sixty-four at the time. Tim and the rest of us are five or six years younger. We're all senior citizens (using the euphemism of the day) and facing our retirement years. None of us was ready to face that. Hell, Tim had just come home from the Olympics an international superstar.
I'll depart from my story a little bit to talk about Tim, Billy, and Willie's return to Grand Forks from Athens. The press was all over them; the morning and late night shows wanted them as guests, and a visit to the White House was inevitable. The three of them knew they had to put politics aside in the White House, though they all found the visit very awkward. It was simply impossible to put the Iraq war, with all of its death and violence, out of mind when meeting George W. Bush. But Tim always insisted that the Olympics had to be above politics and international rivalry, and he smiled with the rest for the White House cameras.
Tim would've loved to have missed the talk shows, but it wasn't fair to Billy, and especially Willie, to skip them. They did "Today" and Letterman, and that was enough. This involved a lot of back and forth between North Dakota and both coasts, but they survived.
Their first arrival on campus was spectacular. But the campus had turned out many times before for its returning hero, and this time wasn't very different–except that it was summer and thus the crowds were smaller. The most touching moment was actually very private. After being greeted on the common outside Twamley by virtually everyone on campus, Tim, Charlie, Billy, and Willie headed to Tim's office. Most of the Gang had gathered in the outer office, and they were led inside by Irene, his secretary of so many years.
Inside were Lars and Hardie. I never did know Lars' last name; it was never used. But he was a master carpenter above all master carpenters, and had been in charge of the carpentry shop for years, if not decades. Four years ago he had stood in front of Tim and Charlie and presented them with their magnificent desks, with Olympic rings and medals inlaid in them. Now Lars was standing in front of Tim's desk and inviting him to look at it. When he did he saw that four Olympic gold medals had been added to the desk. These represented the four gold medals that Tim had won in Athens, and they were at the far right of the strip of wood that held the medals, but all had been centered.
Tim was flabbergasted. "Lars how did you do this so quickly? Where did you get the wood–I'm sure that you couldn't have removed the original strip of wood and managed to use it–besides, to center these medals they all had to be moved. How did you get a new piece; those woods are difficult to get?"
Lars just smiled, and Hardie looked a little uncomfortable. He whispered to Lars, "You can tell him."
Lars said, "More than four years ago, when we were assembling this desk, Hardie came to me and said that you'd be winning more medals in Athens. We had to plan to add maybe as many as four medals to the desk. I told him that would be easy, but I had to select my woods carefully. We needed to mount the medals in a light wood, and I knew we'd need a new strip of wood to add the medals, so I choose Chilean laurel to hold the medals, knowing that we had more than we needed for the original desks. So, as soon as you left for Athens we snatched your desk and got ready to remove the medal strip. We began work on a new one. Hardie assured us that you'd win four gold medals, but we actually waited until you'd won them before we cut the new strip to hold the additional medals, inserted the medals, remounted the strip, and refinished the desk top. We only got it finished yesterday."
I don't think I've ever seen Tim so flustered. Charlie agrees. Slowly what Lars had just said sank in. He turned to Hardie, "More than four years ago, Hardie?"
"You were thinking about the three of us diving in Athens BEFORE the Sydney games?"
"And you waited, and planted the seeds of all the campus commotion to get me to go to Athens at just the right moment? Is that right?"
"Well, I had to do more than plant a few seeds. A few people needed kicks in the rear, and others needed bright ideas about what might happen on campus. I also made a trip to Bloomington, Indiana, about three days before your trip."
"I didn't leave anything to chance. But let me explain something. A lot of people thought the idea was crazy, but everybody, absolutely everybody, was for it. The general reaction was, 'If they can pull that off, it would be wonderful. Do you think they can?'"
"My answer was always, I know they can, but only if they try. It's our job to get them to try. Everybody joined in."
"What about Billy and Willie? Were they in on this?"
"Only toward the end. But they were enthusiastic. Our biggest concern was that you'd be content with three medals and would try to get one of them to get four–only one of you could get four medals."
Tim turned to Charlie, "How much of this were you aware of? The truth now."
"Perhaps we should save that for pillow-talk tonight."
"From the beginning. I put Hardie in touch with Lars. This was all set in motion before your first race in Sydney. And everybody managed to keep a secret for almost five years. Unbelievable."
Tim stood there almost in a trance. Charlie walked over to him and whispered in his ear. Nobody could hear, but I knew what he'd be saying–"Buy the damn shoes."
Tim smiled and then burst out laughing. He walked over to Hardie, gave him a huge bear hug, and said, "I'll be damned." Then he walked over to Charlie and said, "I think it's one of the nicest pairs of shoes I've ever bought. Thank you all. And thank you, Hardie."
Tim made his way around the desk and sat down in his chair, with his hands rubbing the desk. "It's the most magnificent desk I've ever seen–anywhere." He tried to go on, but the tears in his eyes forced him to stop; he sat there, rubbing the desk. Then he got up, walked around the desk to where he could rub the newly added strip with all the medals, including the four new ones. He said, "I know this strip was just removed and replaced, but you can't tell. How did you do that?"
Lars said, "We didn't want to take apart the desk until you'd won at least one medal. But we cut the new strip and finished it just like the desk had been–we had records. As soon as you'd won the first medal we took out the old strip, removed the medals and mounted them in the new strip. Our new strip was enough too long so that we could center the medals later when we knew how many you'd won. When you won the fourth we could finish. We put finish over the medals to match the wood, put the new strip in the desk, cut it to center the medals, and added three new coats of varnish to the whole desk. And you're right, I don't think you can tell that a strip has been replaced. The men in my shop, and the students that work with them, only put out first class work. Otherwise it's redone. The love that was put into this project insured that it wouldn't have to be redone."
Tim remained speechless.
Charlie told us that it took Tim several days to get over the whole thing and to actually be able to sit down at the desk and do some work.
But I was telling you of the aftermath of my fall. Franklin took it upon himself to organize a gathering of the original eight one night at Gangland. It was to be an overnight talkfest, and it worked out exactly as Franklin had hoped. It started with everyone demanding that I take off my shoes and put them on again. I did, with ease, and no fall. Andy asked, "So what's all the fuss about?"
I was about to answer when Franklin said, "I think the issue is no longer just Hal and his shoes. The question before the group is really, 'How do we face the inevitable changes that are going to come with our aging. Hal's little slip isn't the point. We've all noticed that there are some things that we don't do as well or as easily as we used to. It's inevitable. But how is it going to affect our lives?"
"Should it?" someone asked.
"Should isn't the issue. We know that aging is inevitable, and it will affect us."
Ronnie said, "Tim seems determined to prove that age is irrelevant–at least to diving."
Tim said, "That can't go on forever. If anybody's thinking about the Beijing Olympics for me, they can forget it."
We talked long into the night and eventually fell asleep laying around the bed and the floor. We didn't even think about sex; perhaps that in itself was a sign of our aging, but I think not. It was the seriousness of the conversation that shaped the night.
The next morning we reached a sort of general conclusion. We would accept the changes thrust upon us by age with grace. And when one of our number didn't seem to be doing so, we would, as a group, let him know, because often the last person to perceive the changes is the person who's changing. This was made as a group promise, and we were determined to stick to it. And, as a group, we were determined to face aging with acceptance and dignity. We hoped that we'd be able to live up to our good intentions.
Someday, I hope, the followup to that will be, "We were." But, thank goodness, none of us have yet had to face serious enough aging that acceptance and dignity are an issue. All eight of us continue to be of sound mind and body (if not quite the bodies that we had at Camp White Elk)–at least we all think we are. Our times will come, but they haven't yet.
Tim was in his office one day in the fall of 2005 and his secretary put her head in and said, "You have a call from the Admissions Office. There are two brothers over there that wondered if it would be possible to visit you. Admissions knows your door is open, but they called to make sure that you were here and that it would be convenient."
"Who are the boys? Do you know?"
"Admissions said they're Chuck and Chet Thompson. Chet is the younger brother and is interested in being a student here."
"Where are they from?"
"I don't know. Why don't I just tell Admissions to send them over, and you can ask them yourself?"
"Good idea. Have them come right away, I'll be heading to the pool before too long."
In about fifteen minutes the two young men were shown into the office. As the two men came in Tim walked over to Chuck, shook his hand and said, "Chuck, the last time we met was halfway around the world. We were on the U.S. Olympic Diving Team together. I believe you were diving from the springboard. If I remember correctly, you got a medal. So, introduce me to your brother."
It was pure Tim. Chuck Thompson was completely flabbergasted, and managed to get out, "How did you...?" Then he realized that he was supposed to introduce his brother, and he said, "Er, Dr. Tim I'd like you to meet my brother, Chet. Chet this is Dr. Tim, President of the University."
Tim said, "My, we are formal. Chet, I'm Tim. What brings you to Grand Forks, and from where?"
"We're from Hinsdale, Illinois, sir."
"Forget the, 'Sir'."
"I'm a diver, like Chuck. And he thinks I should look at UND."
"Are you a junior or a senior?"
"Junior. I'm just beginning to look at schools."
"I won't embarrass Chet by asking him this, Chuck, but just how good a diver is he?"
"As good as me, and you seem to know my record. I'd have made it as a synchronized diver as well as an individual if it hadn't been for you and Willie Carson."
"I'm impressed. Is he telling the truth, Chet? Are you that good?"
"I hope so, sir. Chuck went to the University of Ohio, and did very well. But he wishes he'd come here, and thinks I should."
"Ohio is a diving powerhouse, and Chuck certainly did well there. Not many divers get to go to the Olympics–only the best of the best."
Chuck said, "I think it'd be fabulous to have Billy Carson as a coach, and I'm convincing Chet."
Chet said, "I don't have to be convinced. But I'll be honest, Dr. Tim...."
"I'll be honest, Tim. I'm concerned that I'd be at a Division II school. My college meets wouldn't be against the best of the best."
Author's note: During the years covered by this story the University of North Dakota moved from the NCAA Division II to Division I. This story simply ignores that fact. It would never have happened under Tim's leadership!
"Yes, they would, but you'd be competing as an individual in the NCAA meets, not part of the UND team. That's what I did, that's what Billy did; that's what Willie did. And several others that made it to the Olympics. But, I'll admit, being part of the Ohio, or IU, or any Big Ten team can feel great. It's a personal decision. Now, I'd like to see you dive, and I know Billy would. I assume that you brought a suit with you. How about you, Chuck?"
They both had suits, and all three headed for the natatorium, but not before Tim had asked Irene to alert Billy and invite Willie.
They arrived at the natatorium before the scheduled team practice and had time for all of them to show off a little. Chet was very good, and it was quite impressive to see him and his brother do synchronized dives from the springboard. Tim said, "You must be one of the top high school divers in the Chicago area."
Chuck said, "I'll speak for him. Yes, he is. Perhaps the top. And next year as a senior he'll be the top."
"Are college coaches beginning to recruit you?"
"I'll bet the University of Illinois is rather eager. They have a good program. Have they made an offer?"
"Three schools have made me offers, Dr. Tim."
"Just Tim. Are you having trouble making up your mind?"
"I was ready to sign with IU–Indiana–but Chuck insisted that I visit here first."
"I suppose they're all offering you full boat scholarships?"
"Yes, they are."
"Well, we don't give athletic scholarships. However, perhaps I can offer you a pretty good deal. How are your grades?"
"A's and B's. A few more A's than B's."
"Let's assume that your transcript confirms that. I can offer you a scholarship that provides full tuition, room and board, textbooks, and all fees paid. But it would be one of our Milson Scholarships, a regular, unconditional scholarship, not an athletic scholarship. You would be invited to be part of the diving team, but it wouldn't be a condition of the scholarship. And if you maintain a B average the scholarship renews for four years, whether you dive or not, including if you break your leg and can't dive. But I'm not trying to bribe you to come to UND. I can't make a better offer than you've received from IU. All I can do is point to the spectacular success of UND divers in the Olympics and invite you to join them. Billy, Willie, and I dive with the team fairly regularly, and the love and support that you'll get here is unmatched–provided you're willing to return that love and support to the rest of the team and school."
It was Tim's standard snow job. The beauty of it was that it appealed to exactly the young athletes that he wanted at UND. He wanted kids who valued love and support, valued their right to choose to compete or not, valued the association they'd have with himself and other Olympians, and didn't place a high value on the highly competitive programs at larger and more famous universities. Tim added: "Oh, yes. As I'm sure you know, and your brother will confirm, to rise to the top of your sport, or any other endeavor, you have to work like Hell, forgo many other pleasures, and have your friends, and sometimes your teammates, think you're crazy. And you need to enjoy doing it."
"Isn't that putting it pretty strong?"
Chuck said, "No, Chet, it isn't. It describes me perfectly. Diving after the rest of the team had quit was a drag sometimes, but I enjoyed it. I gave up a lot of weekends, and I didn't participate in other activities that I might have liked to. It earned me a trip to Sydney. The timing of the Olympics isn't bad for you. The Beijing Games will be right after your sophomore year, and the London Games will be two years after you graduate. It'll be hard to be ready for Beijing, but not impossible."
Tim said, "Don't sell your brother short. He has more than three years. If he works his tail off this year and next in high school, and then does the same his first two years of college, there's no reason he can't be ready for the Olympics. I just watched him dive. He's good. He'll get better."
Chet said, "You aren't just giving me a pile of bull, are you? You really mean it, don't you?"
"Of course. I also mean it when I talk of working your tail off."
"Everybody I've talked to said I have to put my sights on 2012. You're talking about 2008."
"Well, at least we seem to agree that you're Olympic material."
"Tim, I'd love to go to Beijing. And it looks to me like the route to China goes through Grand Forks."
"Send in a standard application, reference letters–just two, your coach and any teacher–and transcript. And this is very important. Put TTT at the top of the application–you can get the form at the Admissions Office."
"I already have."
"Write TTT at the top, right now so you don't forget. Don't bother with a scholarship application or financial forms. The application asks if you're applying for a scholarship; leave that blank."
"I have those forms, too."
"You don't need them; Billy and I have seen you dive."
Willie said, "I'm going to toss out a crazy idea."
Tim said, "I bet I know what's coming."
"Why don't you skip your senior year of high school and come here next year? Could that be worked out, Uncle Tim?"
Chuck asked, "Is Tim your uncle?"
"Not by blood, but by friendship. A lot of my contemporaries call him Uncle Tim."
Chet asked, "Is that possible?"
"Possible? Yes. The right thing to do? Maybe. If you're interested in following up on that, have one of your parents call me on the telephone. Are they supportive of your diving?"
"Very much. They were behind Chuck, and now they're behind me."
"We did something like that for Billy, but he was from Fargo and near home. Hinsdale is a long way away."
They dove some more and the team gradually assembled. Chet and Chuck were introduced, and they all swam and dove together for the two hours of team practice.
Tim got Chuck aside and asked, "How did you two come up here and where are you staying?"
"We came up on the Empire Builder and we're going home on the train day after tomorrow. We got here early this morning and checked in with the Admissions Office first thing. They were expecting us. We hope to spend tomorrow looking around the town and campus on our own. The Admissions Office asked us where we were staying, and offered to find us a place to stay on campus. Before that was done I asked about meeting you, and was sent to your office."
"I can offer you three choices: You can stay at Dakota House, that is the President's house, with Charlie (my Charlie) and me; I'm sure a couple of the team members would have room in their room for you; or you could stay with Willie and his gang; I'm sure they'd be delighted. Or, since you're going to be here two nights, you could choose two out of three of those."
"Let me ask Chet." He called Chet over and laid out the choices.
Chet didn't hesitate. "I'd love to stay at your house, Tim, if that wouldn't be too much trouble."
"No trouble at all. Willie?"
"Will you see that these two are fed a good dinner, and bring them by Dakota House by nine o'clock?"
"Take them out, or feed them at home. Send the Admissions Office a bill." The bill came from the Dakota Steak House.
The next day Willie met Chuck and Chet after breakfast and gave them a complete tour of the campus and town. He introduced them to Fred, and told them that Fred was the key to Olympic success in North Dakota. Fred and Marty took them all to Jerry's for lunch and kept them entertained with Tim and Charlie stories. They also heard about Willie's decision to go to high school in the UP, and how well that had worked out. To this Chet had commented, "No wonder you were thinking about my coming here a year early; you moved four years early."
Willie said, "If you can stand the noise of little children and the chaos that goes with a sort of group quarters which we call The Lighthouse, you two are invited to stay with us tonight. It'll be more fun than stodgy old Dakota House."
"Would it upset Tim if we didn't stay there?"
"Not in the least, as long as you're coming with us and not going to some old motel."
"Do you have room for the two of us?"
"You'll have to share a queen-size bed. We don't have a guest room, but some couple will spend the night upstairs with the kids and there'll be a bed free."
"It sounds like we'd be imposing."
"Believe me, you won't be. Besides, we don't take, 'No,' for an answer."
Chet seemed reluctant, but Chuck read the situation correctly and said, "We'd love to spend the night at The Lighthouse. Just how many people live at The Lighthouse?"
"Sixteen. Five couples and six children–my Liam at age five is the oldest."
"Yes, and considering that two of the five couples are gay, the other three have been pretty active."
Chuck said, "If I remember correctly from Sydney, you and Hardie would be one of the gay couples; am I correct?"
"Nope. You're pretty good; a lot of people thought we were a pair, or would become one, but Hardie and I have both married delightful girls. Just so you know what you're getting into, nine of the ten adults in The Lighthouse have Olympic medals in three sports: gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. The tenth is my wife, Sally, who's a great swimmer, but has a bad leg that makes athletic competition impossible."
"Is there anyplace else on earth where nine Olympians live under the same roof?"
"I doubt it, but we've never really thought about it."
"I can't believe I'm going to be spending the night under that same roof."
Their arrival at The Lighthouse in time for dinner was spectacular. Willie brought the two of them in and called for everyone to join them in the living room. As they came in Chet looked them all over carefully, seeming to recognize some of them. Sally came in from the kitchen and Chet walked up to her and said, "You must be Willie's delightful (that's his word) wife, Sally. I'm Chet Thompson and this is my brother, Chuck."
We were all baffled. How had Chet picked Sally out of the crowd? Yes, she did have a slight limp, but it was far from obvious, and she'd walked very little to get into the room. Chet quickly provided the answer. He walked over to Hardie and said, "Hardie, I'm Chet. I sure would've liked to watch you dive in Sydney, but my brother Chuck got the privilege." Then he walked over to Brian and Shel and again called them by name.
OK, he'd picked out the most famous among us, but that didn't explain how he'd picked Sally out of the three girls. Next he moved to Connie and said, "You must be Hardie's wife Connie, the gymnast. You won medals in both Barcelona and Atlanta. I've seen film of your floor exercises in Barcelona. You were really beautiful."
You could've knocked Connie over with a feather. She managed to get out, "Thank you, Chet. I must've seen your brother dive in Sydney, but honestly I don't remember. I wish now that I did."
Chet just smiled and turned to Mary. "You have to be the better half of the team of Nels and Mary, Olympic medalists in gymnastics. He shook Mary's hand and then turned to Nels and shook his."
Mary responded, "As you know full well, since you seem to know everything about us, I'm not the better half of the team. Nels holds the gold medal, not me."
"Ah, but you are so much prettier." Mary responded to that by kissing Chet. Chuck really laughed at that.
Chet looked at Nick and Evan, the last two in the room. "You have to be Nick and Evan, gymnastic teammates, Olympic medalists, and a loving pair." He put his arm around both of them, and they all sort of had a group hug.
Willie said, "Chet, that was a remarkable performance. How did you possibly recognize all of this group?"
Chet smiled and said, "A magician never tells his secrets."
Nels said, "My Uncle Tim would've loved that show. He wasn't above enjoying walking up to people and calling them by name, especially when he had some back door means of knowing their name."
There was an almost instant bonding between the Lighthouse Keepers and the two Thompson boys. By then Chet was certain that he wanted to attend UND, the following year if possible. Nels immediately pointed out that he'd skipped his senior year of high school so that he'd be at UND when the other Cavers were.
Chet asked, "Cavers?"
Nels explained that they all had started their gymnastics at the Marty Center and then explained the Cave. Chet asked, "So do you have a high school diploma?"
"Yes. The Grand Forks schools don't encourage students seeking early admission to UND, but if they go, they can have their university transcript sent back to their high school, and credits recognized to allow graduation. I was able to graduate with my high school class at the end of my freshman year of college."
Chuck turned to Chet and said, "I think you should follow up on that."
Chet replied, "I think so, too. Tim said the first step was to have Mom or Dad call him. Do you think they'll agree?"
The conversation moved to low tones so it was private–at least they thought so. "I think so. You start by asking. I think they'll like the idea of your coming here. They were always a little upset by the feeling that diving at Ohio was like a pressure tank. I don't think this place is like that. The guys on this team are all friendly and supportive of each other. At least it seems that way. We'll see what we think of this crew as the evening goes on."
Nick eased over near them and whispered, "You're going to like this crew, believe me."
Chet and Chuck just laughed, and Nick joined them. Hardie asked, "What's so funny?"
Nick said, "Nothing."
Chet addressed the whole crowd, "I don't like making this a sort of formal announcement, but I think I should get it out on the table. I'm gay; Chuck is not. He knows; our parents know; a few kids at school know; all have been completely supportive. Given the makeup of this group, it isn't that exciting an announcement, but it's better said early. I told Tim and Charlie last night."
Evan said, "You're so lucky to have supportive parents. All of us here did, but we have some close friends that went through Hell with their parents."
Chuck said, "We know. Our high school has been OK with the few gays that have come out, but that certainly isn't true for a number of the high schools in the Chicago area. A couple of kids have been pretty seriously beaten up."
Sally said, "OK, folks, dinner's ready. Head for the kitchen, carry it in, and we can eat."
Sally and a couple of the others, knowing full well that Willie wouldn't accept a negative answer to his invitation, had prepared a feast. It was a super mixed grill with seven kinds of meat, with three vegetables and fried potatoes. Chet asked, "Do you people eat like this every night?"
Nels said, "Good God, no. Tell them about pony peckers, Sally."
Sally said, "Don't you go insulting my sausages."
Shel chimed in with, "I think they're more accurately referred to as donkey dicks."
Chuck said, "We get the idea."
Shel said, "No, you don't. You don't really get the idea until you've tried them, and we don't serve them for company–thank God."
Nels said, "Actually, other than their looks, which you've heard fairly accurately described, they taste pretty good. Think of Vienna sausages, but about three times the size."
Shel said, "Maybe we should switch the subject to human dicks."
Brian shot a serious look at Shel and said, "Shel, Chet is sixteen years old. That subject is off the table."
Shel said, "It was only conversation."
Sex didn't get discussed again in Chet or Chuck's presence.
Hardie said, "OK, guys, there's talk of Chet moving here next year. He'd be seventeen, not the best age for college dorm life. Whom might he live with?"
"Whom?" asked Nick.
Hardie said, "Whom. Don't you remember your grammar class?"
Nick said, "I try my best to forget, and then you use whom, gee."
Hardie said, "Back to the question. With whom might he live?"
"There's always Bernie and Beverly."
That brought a lot of laughs, but someone said, "I think Beverly might like to have a foster son to mother. And Bernie isn't going to get much of a shot at fatherhood."
Chet said, "Am I missing something?"
"You sure are." And the story of Bernie and Beverly was told, as briefly as possible.
Chet said, "I'd like to meet those two."
Bernie and Beverly were invited to join the Lighthouse Keepers for dessert, and they did. After introductions, and a chance to get to know each other, Bernie said, "Chet, my marriage to Beverly isn't the strangest relationship among our friends in Grand Forks, but it pushes the envelope pretty far. If you can deal with us, you're going to fit right in with this Gang, with the UND community, and with Grand Forks." He turned to Willie and asked, "How much does he know about the Gang?"
"Nothing, until you uttered the word."
"Well, if Chet's going to move here, dive with Tim, Billy, and Willie, and live with us or the likes of us, he's going to have to learn about the Gang."
The shortened version, sans sex, took about a half-hour.
Shel said, "Let's think about who else he could live with."
Hardie said, "Well, if he wants stodgy, I'd suggest Gary and Joan or Bob and Jude. Being postmaster or a Fred's Sports manager isn't the most exciting thing on earth. But Chet may not be looking for excitement."
"If you want excitement you want Shel or Auggie. There really isn't room in this house for a long term boarder, but Auggie lives in a big house, and Sid is nearby if Auggie and Lynn are out of town."
"Like sailing in the Bahamas."
"That's behind them, but he takes pictures all over the world."
"If you want intellectual stimulation, you want to live with Kay and Cam or Kevin and Noreen."
Chuck asked, "Kay and Kevin. Are they the nuclear physicists?"
Nick said, "Yep. And you two are simply amazing. Do you know everyone in the world?"
Nels said, "If he were eighteen we could throw him into The Roundhouse. The Circle would love him."
Chet said, "I won't be eighteen, but I think I understand the implications of that. It's probably best that I'm not eighteen."
Nels said, "Your time will come."
Willie said, "Well there's always Fred and Marty. My dad lived with Fred and swears it was one of the best times of his life."
Sally commented, "There has never been a time in your dad's life that wasn't one of the best times. I think that's true for a lot of us in the Gang. Chet, you're going to have a ball in Grand Forks. It's too soon to pick a home for you, but believe me, a wonderful one will be available."
That night in the queen-size bed that Nick and Evan made available by going up into the eerie, Chuck and Chet talked long into the night. Chet asked, "Did you have any idea of what we might be getting into in North Dakota when you urged me to visit here?"
"No idea at all. I just knew that Tim was special; that he preached love and support; and seemed to be kind and loving to everyone. It seemed like a good place to check out."
"Thank goodness we did. These guys are special, but they seem to be the norm for the people surrounding Tim."
"You know, Chet, I don't think we've shared a bed in years; not since we were little kids on vacation with Mom and Dad. Recently when we've traveled we've had our own hotel room, and it's had two beds. To put it another way, I've never shared a bed with you since you came out that you were gay."
"Where is this conversation going, Chuck?"
"I don't know." But he let his hand roam over to Chet's midsection. Chet returned the favor. They both lay there quietly, thinking about their present situation. Nothing had happened. Neither was sure that he wanted anything to happen.
Chuck said, "I'm not gay, or at least I don't think I am. I certainly have had some good times with girls, and never with boys. But since you said you were gay, I've had to wonder what sex with a boy would be like."
"I've dreamed of doing things with you."
Chuck said, "We have a pretty large age difference and you're under eighteen."
"Anything that happens tonight will be completely private. We don't share a room or bed at home, and I don't want to start. But I'd like to play with your dick tonight."
It wasn't long before they'd each jacked the other off. They remembered that the bathroom had a good sized shower, and they cleaned up there, discovering that showers are sexy as well as cleansing. Nobody at The Lighthouse had any inkling of what went on in their bed, and it was years later that Chet told the story to members of the Gang. He also said that he and Chuck were true to their word, and never had another sexual liaison.
The next day Chet and Chuck had breakfast at The Lighthouse and then excused themselves. They wanted to wander the town and campus alone, and would get themselves to the Empire Builder on time.
At that time we had no idea how quickly Chet would be back.
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