Finding Tim

by Charlie

Episode 221 - Music

Murray here; talking about my best friend, lover, soulmate, bedmate, etc., Toppy. I'll have to say that Toppy and I feel bad about each other's careers. He feels bad about my career as a maintenance man (his term; mine is Landscape Architect; Building Supervisor; and Maintenance Manager). I've felt bad about his pick-up jobs as a musician. Both of us are happy as pigs in shit with our jobs, but it's hard to convince a partner that feels a little guilty. Well, I had my fifteen minutes when they hung an Olympic medal around my neck, and I'm going to tell you about Toppy's more that fifteen minutes!

I'm backing up the calendar to early in the new century. Toppy had considerable success with the combination student/community symphony orchestra of Grand Forks for which he was founding conductor. He loved the combination of community members–who provided stability and continuity–and students–who provided excitement and new ideas. They never got in a rut and never moved too far from reality!

And they were noticed, along with Toppy. He was invited to be a guest conductor of both the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra and the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of North Dakota, Mandan is the twin city of Bismarck, occupying the southwest bank of the Missouri River, while Bismarck is on the northeast. Toppy's concerts were well received and he was invited back often to both podia. He was also invited to be the featured soloist on both the tuba and the trumpet at both venues.

In Grand Forks he was able to do things that were a little more off-the-wall. A case in point: He decided that he'd like to present the same tuba solo performance in Grand Forks that he had in Bismarck and Fargo, and he would conduct the orchestra as well. A tuba and a Sousaphone are the same instrument, except that in a Sousaphone the tubing is shaped to wrap around the body so that it can be "worn" instead of carried. It allows a marching band to have tubas without wearing out the players as they march with them. Wearing his Sousaphone/tuba he was able to stand and conduct the orchestra while he played.

You are, of course, thinking of the Sousaphones seen in the back rows of college and high school marching bands. But the early Sousaphones had their bells pointed up so that sound was non-directional. That was the instrument that Toppy used when he played John Williams' "Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra" in Grand Forks. Then as an encore he played the much shorter number by the same name, written by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Toppy was already known for spectacular music performances around the university and this was no exception. It brought a tremendous standing ovation, and wonderful reviews in both the student and city newspapers.

And not long after that success there was a knock on Toppy's office door in the Hughes Fine Arts Center. He yelled "Come in," assuming that it was either a student or a faculty colleague–he held a part-time faculty appointment, along with numerous music-related jobs in the community. The door opened and in walked Liddy Lidholtz.

"Hi, Toppy, how're you doing?"

"Liddy! What brings you to this part of campus? You're usually either in Alumni House or hobnobbing with the big shots in Twamley."

"You're the big shot. Today I'm hobnobbing with you."

"Tim once told me that when he visited one faculty member (he didn't say whom) he was asked what the bad news was. It was assumed that for good news Tim would invite you to his office. So, since you and Tim seem to be on the same wave length, what's the bad news."

"Well, it isn't bad news for you, personally, but it may be for the university. Tim is getting ready to retire."

"Incredible. I think everyone simply expected him to keep running forever. When is he talking about doing this dastardly deed."

"At the end of this school year [2009-2010]."

"And why are you telling me this?"

"Tim and Charlie have agreed to step aside and let others plan their retirement. I want you to take charge of that."

"Me? Why me? You want a top level administrator to do that."

"No, I want a showman. And I haven't got Tim available. You're number two on the list. Besides, I know you're a key member of that Gang of his, and I have to believe that you know him well enough to do things right and the way he'd like them done."

Toppy thought for a minute. "All we'd have time for would be a couple of big events between now and June. That won't do. You tell Tim and Charlie that they can't go until June of 2011, but that the announcement should come very soon. We'll have a 'Goodbye to Tim and Charlie Year'."

"He seems to have made up his mind about this June."

"I'll talk to him."

Toppy was in Tim's office within the hour. As soon as Tim had shut the door after ushering Toppy in, Toppy said, "It's bullshit. You can't leave this June. Not enough time for the farewell that this campus deserves. And notice I did not say that you deserve, but that the campus deserves. We, they, have put up with you and your antics for years. They have the right to say farewell in a grand and glorious manner, just as they please. They plan to take a year doing it. So, announce your retirement as soon as possible, for graduation, 2011. Not a minute sooner."

"Toppy, might I get a word in?"

"A word. And that word had better be OK."

"You don't give a guy...."

"I didn't hear 'OK'. Start over."

"OK. I know when I'm beaten."

"Good. OK, now listen up. You aren't going to like the plans for the next year, the 'Goodbye to Tim and Charlie Year.' But I know you, and you're going to love it as it happens. So will Charlie. So just stay out of the way, and come when you're told, wearing what you're told to wear, from Speedo to glorious green robe."

With that, he left. Charlie told me that when he got home that night he told Charlie of the conversation with Toppy. "Well," he said, "It wasn't exactly a conversation. Toppy talked; I listened. He allowed me one word, 'OK.' I don't know what we've gotten ourselves into, Charlie, but Toppy's off and running and there's no stopping him."

Charlie responded, "Don't you try to kid me. Not in your wildest dreams would you want to stop him, or even rein him in."

"I guess you're right, Charlie."

The announcement hit campus about a week later. Tim would retire as President of the University of North Dakota at graduation in May of 2011. Charlie would retire as Dean of Law of the University of North Dakota at the same time. Liddy Lidholtz would be acting President until Tim's successor was inaugurated. Professor Mike Freeman would be Acting Dean of Law until Charlie's successor was installed. Mike Freeman was a senior member of the law faculty, near retirement, and not a candidate to be Dean. Liddy Lidholtz was, so it was widely and correctly assumed, the obvious candidate for the Presidency.

It would be quite a year, but Charlie tells me that's for a coming episode. I've told you this much, because the first event of the "Goodbye to Tim and Charlie Year" is an essential part of my story of Toppy. That first event, in Toppy's words, 'The Kickoff Event,' was a grand and glorious concert in honor of Tim and Charlie. Toppy assembled a mass orchestra from both local high schools and the university, with invited guests from surrounding schools, Fargo, and even Bismarck. There was a total of 210 musicians, playing a vast array of instruments including the three buisines (one-valve straight trumpets) that had played the Triumphal March from Aida for Tim's inaugural march. In addition, he assembled a massed chorus of about the same size and from the same sources. Only the football stadium could hold the nearly half a thousand musicians and numerous thousands of audience. Toppy prayed for good weather the scheduled September Sunday afternoon, but had arranged a rain date for a week later if necessary. His luck, or maybe Tim's luck, or maybe Tim 'n Charlie's luck held, and the rain date wasn't needed. Tim believes that it was the football team's luck that held, because had the rain date been needed the football team would have lost it's field for a week's practice, since set up and take down for the show was too complex and too expensive to have to repeat. But Jumper, himself soon to retire, was willing if necessary.

Toppy and his huge band of merry musicians put on a wonderful show. The first half was mostly pop music (more toward the Boston "Pops" than Rock 'n Roll). It started with what had become one of Tim's, and UND's favorite songs, "They Call the Wind Mariah." And we could hear the wind off the North Dakota prairie as it was sung. Other highlights included Toppy favorite, "Dueling Banjos," with the duel set between strings and horns. Somehow Toppy seemed able to make that song spectacular, regardless of who was dueling: whole bands, dancers, orchestra sections, whatever. Later in the program came the "Battle Hymn of the Republic". It was a direct steal from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but Toppy insisted that the Tabernacle Choir singing it was one of the best choral productions ever, and he copied them mercilessly. With two hundred plus voices and even more musicians, it seemed like the whole stadium structure was beating time with the music.

A couple of weeks before the show Toppy took Charlie and Tim to lunch at the faculty club. Both Charlie and Tim knew something was in the wind, but couldn't guess what. As soon as the meal was on the table, Toppy said, "OK, here's the question. You two are famous for two different duets: 'We Kiss in a Shadow' and 'True Love.' Which one do you want to sing to close the first act of the big show?"

Charlie said, "We aren't going to sing anything. We've been invited to sit in the front row and enjoy the show. You're supposed to entertain us, and the whole campus."

"Which one do you want to sing?"

Tim joined in Charlie's protest, but it got them nowhere. Toppy simply said, "You're singing, pick your song."

They finally agreed on "True Love." Tim said, "I think we've made the point of 'We Kiss in a Shadow' on this campus. We don't have to kiss in a shadow. We'll sing 'True Love' and prove it."

They did. Toppy called them front as the first half of the show ended and they stood near him on the podium. Every light went out, including the lights on the music stands–everybody worked from memory on this one. Then brilliant spotlights lit Tim and Charlie, Toppy turned on a little penlight to direct the orchestra, and they sang. Well, their sixty-year old voices weren't what they used to be, but nobody cared. Toppy had orchestrated brilliantly and their voices and the orchestra blended perfectly. It wouldn't have mattered. Their wasn't a dry eye in the stadium, and the standing ovation thundered. The lights came on and it was intermission. Tim and Charlie and Toppy just stood and hugged for a long while; then followed the musicians for the break.

After the break Toppy completely shifted gears. He and his musicians presented Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its choral fourth movement, "Ode to Joy." This requires not only a chorus, but four soloists. Toppy got three of the top student music majors for three of the roles, and persuaded Liddy Lidholtz to sing the soprano part. She was wonderful; the students were wonderful, the chorus was equally so, as was the orchestra. The entire symphony takes just about seventy-five minutes, and Toppy performed like the drum major, that he never really ceased to be, for the whole time. The stadium was full of students, faculty, and townsfolk, only a small portion of which were fans of, or even familiar with, classical music. But virtually everyone realized that this was something special, and they were almost transfixed. Most of those present weren't really sure whether they were supposed to applaud after each movement, but each time someone started it, and everyone joined in. Later Toppy commented that the Viennese audience at the premiere did exactly the same thing. When the crowd finally quieted, someone shouted "Encore," and the chant was taken up. It'd never occurred to Toppy that after the long first half, and the longer symphonic second half, that the audience would want more, but they clearly did. They hadn't planned or rehearsed an encore, so Toppy got them back to "Mariah" and after the demand for a second encore, gave them a second dose of the "Battle Hymn." That seemed to satisfy everyone, and the audience and musicians slowly, and seemingly quite reluctantly filed out of the stadium.

Toppy was overwhelmed. He'd planned this as the first of many farewell events for Tim and Charlie, and it was. But even more, it was a magnificent triumph for Toppy himself. And it was noticed. A number of prominent musicians in the region had been present, and came up on the stage afterwards to congratulate him. The congratulations included an invitation for the next year to be a guest conductor for the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Minneapolis Symphony, and still thought of that way by many people, especially residents of Minneapolis!) A more unusual invitation came from the Baltimore Symphony. Successes like Toppy's were quickly talked about, by phone, email, Facebook, Twitter–all of the souped up communication vehicles of the twenty-first century. The Baltimore Symphony was booked way ahead with guest conductors, but sickness had just knocked out a soloist for a four-concert series in November. Baltimore had done its homework, and realized that Toppy was a magnificent tubaist. They told Toppy that they knew he'd soloed with small orchestras in North Dakota, now he should come to Baltimore and join the big time.

Toppy didn't hesitate an instant before he said, "I'd love to. I haven't got time to learn new numbers by November, but the Concerto by John Williams works well. Then, if you'll let me, and the audience asks for an encore, I'd like to direct the orchestra as I play Ralph Vaughan Williams' Concerto."

"You play the tuba and direct at the same time?"

"I use a classic Sousaphone which is played standing up and is non-directional. It makes a good show."

"I think Baltimore is in for some interesting evenings."

That it putting it mildly. The Baltimore Sun critic gushed, "Maestro Toppy, as he likes to be called–it seems to fit both his personality and his musicality–was spectacular last evening as the BSO presented a superb combination of modern and classical numbers. John Williams' 'Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra,' the Maestro's tuba solo played on a traditional tuba, was flawlessly executed with a brilliant interpretation that seemed to bring it alive before our eyes. Toppy's onstage personality, featuring smiles, winks, and even smirks as he seemed to visually comment on the music as it was played delighted the entire audience.

"I joined the chorus of demands for an encore (truth here, several of us had been coached that Toppy and the orchestra were prepared with an encore and needed the audience demand) and we were richly rewarded. Maestro Toppy was invited to the podium by Maestra Marin Alsop, who handed him her baton and gestured an introduction to the orchestra. Toppy accepted the baton, but then stepped down and picked up an instrument probably never before seen in the Meyerhof Orchestra Hall: A Sousaphone. But this was not the traditional Sousaphone that you see in the last row of every college and high school marching band. On this Sousaphone the bell points straight up, making it completely non-directional. Toppy took the microphone and explained that this configuration was, in fact, the original shape of the Sousaphone–it had been designed to be played while standing, but not while marching. He noted that it was perfect for his present use. He introduced the next number, Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra.' With the baton in his left hand and his right hand on the valves, Maestro Toppy conducted and played William's Concerto. Regrettably, only the members of the orchestra, which he faced in order to conduct, could see his wonderful facial expressions, but the smiles on the faces of some on the close-by violins indicated that he was as vibrant playing this piece as he'd been before.

"More calls for an encore (these not requested in advance) led to a consultation between Toppy and Ms. Alsop. The orchestra rose, received a rousing round of applause for a wonderful performance, and was dismissed. Toppy remained onstage and played two impossibly difficult and spectacular tuba solos. The entire evening's performance is unlikely to be surpassed at the Meyerhof in the near future, if ever.

"Maestro Toppy and the orchestra will present the same concert at the Meyerhof tonight, and next Thursday and Friday at The Music Center at Strathmore."

All of a sudden Toppy had more invitations to conduct major orchestras than he could accept, because he insisted on also fulfilling his many commitments in Grand Forks and elsewhere in North Dakota. He couldn't turn down four: the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Pops (that was a summer concert that presented no conflict for him), the National Symphony performing in the Kennedy Center in Washington, and the San Francisco Symphony. Because symphony schedules are worked out way in advance, this schedule would extend over the next five years.

Of course, the Grand Forks Symphony was delighted that its conductor was now being sought after by major symphonies around the country–and soon the world. Fargo and Bismarck were equally delighted that he was already on their guest conductor schedule for the next few years–they were, in fact, one of the commitments that he intended to fulfill even when it meant turning down prestigious invitations.

Now I have to report on two occasions when Toppy was asked to provide music and he really wished he hadn't. In 2010 the Gang lost two members for which Toppy was asked to arrange funeral music.

In June, Franklin's father, Peter, died in his sleep. It was determined to be a massive heart attack, for which he'd had no warning. His wife, Norma, took it very well. She told us, "He was eighty-eight years old, led a good life, was a wonderful husband and father, delighted in being a part of the Gang, and died peacefully. What more could he, or I, ask? Will I miss him? Of course. Will I get along without him? Of course. And, no, at eighty-seven I don't need the Gang keeping me company, sexually or otherwise. Just please don't forget me."

We never did. Toppy made it his business to call Norma every week or so. He'd just say, "Hello," and chat. But the real reason was to make sure that other members of the Gang were keeping in touch. They were, and Norma would live several more years before she died in a very similar way as Peter had.

Hardie's mother June (Hassett) Wilson died in August. Pancreatic cancer was diagnosed in May and she went downhill very rapidly. Chemotherapy was suggested, but the doctors offered little hope, and she elected to skip it–with the full support of both Harry and Hardie. Harry, Hardie, and Willie were with her at the hospital when she died. She'd spent most of her last month in the hospital, as she needed the life support which was only available there. She said, "Look, I'm not in pain, and I'm not eager to die. Let them keep me alive here while they can and while I'm not in pain. I'd love to have the entire Gang visit, one or two at a time, so that I can say goodbye. When the time comes, Harry, I want you, Hardie and Willie with me. You three have been my entire life since Phil [her first husband] had his accident." Her time came very soon, but not before all of the Gang had a heart-wrenching visit with June. She thanked us all for everything we'd done for Hardie, and we thanked her for letting us learn to know and love Hardie. She also got heart-felt thanks for being a surrogate mothers to Willie for his adventure into the UP. It was all very maudlin, would have–in fact, did–made Carl's skin itch, but it seemed to be exactly what June wanted and needed.

As we left Hardie thanked us all for coming; we were amazed at how well he was holding up. When told that he always responded, "If my mom can hold up as she is, then so can I. I'll have my breakdown after her funeral." He never did; Hardie proved to be as strong mentally as he was physically. At last I understood where he got the strength to keep up with Willie and perform the feats that gathered him his Olympic medals.

It had to end. The family was ready; the Gang was ready; the undertaker was ready; Toppy and his musicians were ready; and finally so was June. For both funerals, conducted at a local funeral parlor, Toppy assembled a small string and brass group, with him on the trumpet–he didn't feel that showing off on the tuba was appropriate for a funeral. They were quiet, stayed in the background, and provided a very peaceful setting for us to say our goodbyes to Peter and June.

Charlie asked me to back up the calendar to 2007 to cover two events that were missed as the story went forward following its very jerky timeline. It was that year that Toppy was first asked to arrange music for a funeral. Jody's mother, Anna, died in August. She was taking her daily bicycle ride when she came around a curve on a country road and found herself facing an oncoming car straight on. Both she and the driver were at fault: She was much to far toward the center of the road, and the car was cutting the curve a little too much. The driver wasn't charged, but he felt terrible about the accident. Franz and Jody both went out of their way to help him past the trauma of killing someone with his car. Franz and Anna had lived their entire lives knowing that their relationship began with an accident even worse than the one that killed Anna. Franz was determined that while the physical damage to Anna was irreversible, the psychological damage to the driver could be just as bad unless he was properly cared for. To begin with, Franz had gotten Charlie, in his lawyer mode, to go with him to the police and insist that no charges be brought. He believed that the fault was mutual and that no good could come from prosecuting the driver. They recruited Jerry, the psychologist of the Gang, to meet with the driver and provide support and therapy if needed. Tim told me later that he'd watched from afar as Franz, Jody, and Jerry had acted as they did. He said, "I couldn't believe how they'd been able to extend the love of the Gang to a perfect stranger, who had in fact caused them great loss. I'll forever love them for that."

Jody asked his father whether he wanted company at night. Franz had replied, "Jody, the first couple of nights I'd like you with me. We've spent many night in the bed together, and it would be comforting for me. Do you think Gayle would mind?"

"I'm quite sure she wouldn't. She and I'll bring a little supper over about seven. We'll eat together and think about Mom."

"I'll be glad to have you with me, but it won't be the same as having your mother–or having both of you. I'm going to have to get used to a lot of changes in my life. And I know, Jody, that you and Gayle, and the entire Gang, will do everything in your power to help. But in the end, I have to deal with the loss, and I believe I can."

Other than watching, there'd never been any sex between Jody and Franz and that didn't change. Nevertheless, Franz felt comfortable with someone in the bed with him, and that continued for a few nights, but then he told Jody, "Go back to Gayle; I'm OK. And tell her thanks for the loan."

Franz declined other offers for nighttime companions until one day Max got a call. "Max, this is Franz. Rumor has it that you're the man to talk to about unfulfilled sexual dreams. Am I right?"

"You sure are. Are you calling Max the Stud, or Max the Arranger? I can fill either shoes."

"I think I'm looking for Max the Stud."

"Tonight?"

"Sure."

"I'll bring a thick steak. You furnish some veggies and the broiler and we'll have a great dinner. We'll just let things flow from there. By the way, just how gay are you, Franz. It seems to me that the last time we were together most of the play was between Anna and me and between you and Anna, not so much between you and me."

"We're going to find out, Max. Is that OK with you?"

"Sure. I can go with just about any flow."

"Thanks, Max. See you around six-thirty."

Max told me later, "Murray, Franz was up for anything. It was as if he were a changed man. Between evening, a time in the middle of the night when we found we were both awake, and the next morning there weren't many ways for two men to relate that we didn't try. He was a trip. I think he'd enjoy a night with you and Toppy and I know you'd enjoy a night with him."

Regrettably, before any of that could happen, Franz suffered a serious stroke. He was shopping in a local grocery store and just fell over. An ambulance was called; he made it to the hospital; Jody and Gayle made it to the hospital before he died, but just barely. The doctor told Jody, "The stroke was extensive; he never would've fully recovered. At best he would've been a vegetable."

Jody replied, "Thanks, doc. Losing him isn't easy, but knowing that had he lived he wouldn't really be living helps a little." Jody always suspected that the doctor might've been able to keep Franz alive those first few hours, but elected not to. Judy fully approved, and he knew that his father would have as well. The Gang hadn't had a chance to say goodbye, but we shared Jody's relief that Franz hadn't lingered. It was hard for Jody to go through two funerals in one year, but somehow he managed. Gayle was wonderful support, as was the entire Gang.

Enough of death, though it is a fact of life that we cannot avoid, but are too likely to avoid even talking about when we should. I do think that the deaths of some of the Gang members pushed others to start thinking about their last days and wishes.

Owen Matthews, son of Jody and Gayle, and GrandCOGs Liam Carson and Jay Bruder attended Camp White Elk in the summer of 2009 and were planning on returning in 2010. In 2010 they'd be joined by the next younger GrandCOGs, Anton Hassett and Bobby Carson, respectively Jody's son and Liam's brother. Owen, Liam, and Jay had been best of friends for years, calling themselves the Three Musketeers–I don't think they'd read the book, so they weren't really aware that there were really four musketeers. Going off to camp together was just a logical progression for their lives together. After coming back from camp in 2009 they had decided that they wanted to be bicyclists. With their parents full support, off they went to enroll in NTAC and join the bicycle program. Nels and Mary were delighted. Well, I don't care who you are, if you were running an athletic program how would you react when the sons of three Olympic gold medalists asked to join your program? Nels could spot these three winners with his eyes closed.

The boys didn't disappoint. They fell in love with JoJo and the other Marauders and followed them like lemmings. Nels and JoJo were certain they had winners when even the North Dakota winds and snows didn't deter the boys. On most winter days the only NTAC bicyclists outside of the velodrome were the Three Musketeers and a Marauder or two to lead, and sometimes only follow them. All of the Marauders were enthusiastic outdoor cyclists year-round, but since most of the NTAC cyclists were in the velodrome in the winter, that's where their coaches had to be.

That winter, 2010-2011, the three boys and their Marauder leader stayed pretty close to Grand Forks, though the boys pushed to ride, ride, ride on the country roads leading out of town. Cell phones allowed Nels to permit much longer rides, as the leader–and the boys who all had their own phones–could easily keep in touch with the home base. However, in the springtime the boys wanted to start taking trips alone. Nels was hesitant, and certainly wasn't going to give permission without discussing it with their parents.

Well, the boys knew the story of JoJo and Als roaming all over the Willamette Valley when they were ten years old, and did they drag up that little bit of information in the discussion with their parents. Liam kind of settled the argument by pointing out that Als and JoJo didn't have cell phones and the three boys did. The parents never really thought they were going to win the argument, and gave their permission for the three boys to take day trips out of Grand Forks, both into North Dakota and into Minnesota. The boys were really good cyclists and they easily roamed fifty miles from home of a morning, and returned, preferably by an alternate route, in the afternoon.

That put Thief River Falls in Minnesota at about the farthest edge of their roaming range–it was fifty-nine miles away. If you look at a map, focus on Grand Forks and think of a circle around Grand Forks that passes through Thief River Falls, you can see their entire roaming range. And guess what? The only town of any interest in that range is Thief River Falls. And, unlike the Willamette Valley, there wasn't much interesting scenery along the way–the countryside is flat open prairie or farmland. It wasn't long before the boys wanted to extend their range. If they pedaled one direction all day they could get to much more interesting places: Devil's Lake to the west, Red Lake and the Red Lake Indian Reservation to the east, Fargo to the south, and Canada to the north–but they did understand that elementary school boys wouldn't be allowed to enter Canada on their own! Of course, any of these trips meant that some parent would need to make a two-hundred mile round trip in a car or van to pick them up and bring them home. It never occurred to Owen, Liam, or Jay that that would be a problem; nor did it occur to their parents not to offer that kind of support. As for permission to ride that kind of distance by themselves, all the parents thought it was a great idea. Helicopter parenting was unknown to the Gang; in fact, I'm not even sure they knew the term.

In all of this adventuring out into the countryside the three had the encouragement of the Marauders, who remembered their trips in Oregon. JoJo admitted to me that all five of them got a sort of vicarious return to their youth by watching the kids. If the kids families had lived in a normal community, they would've been roundly criticized for giving their children the freedom they did. But their community centered in the Gang, and the Gang simply viewed children and freedom from a different perspective.

Overnight camping followed in about a year, allowing the boys to return home on the second day, or roam even farther before they were picked up. In the summer of 2012 Liam proposed a cross-North Dakota bicycle trip, ending at Fort Peck in Montana. By this time the boys were fourteen, just thirteen, and almost thirteen, and it was decided–after considerable discussion between the boys and their parents–that they could ride home on the Empire Builder. It was about a five hundred mile ride and would take them a week. They had enough money to spend two nights in a motel and were to try to find a place to camp the other nights. They carried emergency food, but it was planned that they'd eat at restaurants, such as there were, for most of their meals–cooking would take too much time from their riding, and would entail either carrying a heavy load or shopping frequently along the way. Since there were towns of some size just about every twenty miles or so along the way, buying their meals worked.

The first night in the motel, their second night out, the sex play started. All three had just recently "become men" and their hormones were ready for action. Given the environment in the Gang, action involving other little boys was as interesting as action involving little girls. Sex play had begun much earlier at the aerie and The Hideout, but this would push the envelope further than it has thus far been pushed. It was Liam–the youngest of the three–that started it. They'd eaten dinner at a little restaurant in Rugby (a town as well as a sport) and were now back at their little tourist cabin. When the last, Owen, got into the cabin and had shut the door, Liam called out, "Last one naked let's us watch him jack off." With a head start, Liam was definitely not the last one naked, but the others joined the race, indicating acceptance of the terms.

Jay was last, and as he took off his underpants he said, I guess you guys are going to watch me jack off. It's only been a little while that I've been able to cum, so this is pretty new for me.

Owen said, "You don't have to, Jay. I think we should think a little. This is going to lead to more stuff."

Liam spoke up, "That's the idea. I've talked to my dad, and several other COGs. They were all playing serious sex games much younger than we are."

Jay said, "You guys can talk all you want. I'm horny, hard, and ready." He lay down on one of the beds, took penis in hand, and proceeded to jack off. He very quickly shot a pretty big load almost up to his chin. He asked, "Are you guys going to follow, or what?"

Owen said, "Not follow. Let's see where this leads." He got on top of Jay, straddling his thighs, with his hands free to get at any part of Jay from his dick to his mouth, and that was clearly his intention. He played with Jay's dick a little and then started working his way up his stomach and chest, collecting cum on his fingers as he went. With cum drenched fingers he said, "Open your mouth."

Playing with the cum was new to all three of the boys. Jay hesitated a little, but then complied. In went most of Owen's fingers. "Lick them clean."

Jay did and then rubbed his hands in the remaining cum on his chest and said, "Your turn; open up."

Owen did, and licked Jay's fingers clean. He then turned to Liam, "You started this, come finish it. Lick his chest clean."

Liam had started it, and it'd moved even faster than he'd dreamed. Now he had to decide whether it was too fast for him or not. It wasn't. He came over to where Owen was on top of Jay, motioned Owen to move, straddled Jay as Owen had, leaned over, and licked him clean. Owen said, "Now you roll over and jack off." He did, and Owen made sure that all of his cum was shared approximately evenly between the three boys. Then Owen said, "Well, I guess it's my turn."

Liam jumped right in and said, "Oh, no. It isn't going to be another do it yourself job. Jay and I are going to jack you off."

Owen thought about that for a minute and said, "Think back to the sex lesson that we had from Franklin."

"What about it?"

"Think about his rules. Talk first. Don't push people beyond their comfort zone."

Jay jumped in, "Well, he did talk first. He told you what we were going to do. Are you telling me that having us jack you off is outside your comfort zone? After pushing your fingers full of cum into our mouths? I don't think so."

Liam added, "Me neither."

Owen was beaten–oh, that's a terrible pun. He was beaten, by both boys taking turns. He did say, "OK, whoever has his hand on my dick when I come licks it and me clean. OK?"

They both agreed, and just then he shot his load up onto his chest, chin, and face. His dick was in Liam's hand, and Liam didn't hesitate one bit. Owen had been licked clean almost in an instant. Then Liam was kissing him and sharing (perhaps pushing is a better word) Owen's cum with Owen, and then Jay.

Owen said, "We need to talk."

Liam asked, "Do we stay naked or get dressed."

Jay said, "It's almost bedtime; there's no reason to put our clothes on again, and we all sleep naked."

Owen said, "Stay naked. I like looking at boys' balls. But, listen, where is this heading?"

Liam said, "Sucking, fucking, you name it. I think some of the other GrandCOGs are ready to do more than just tickle each other and jack off from time to time. Anton, Bobby, Ginnie, and Cindy are just a year younger than me. I'll bet they'd be eager."

Owen said, "It'd be fun to have the girls involved."

Jay said, "Before this goes too far we have to talk to our parents." That ended the conversation for the night, and for the rest of the trip. But it didn't end the sex play which moved forward to the point that they were regularly sucking each other by the end of the trip–tents, motels, or under the stars, it didn't make any difference.

The trip was quite an adventure, but they didn't have any serious problems. One motel wouldn't take them because they were so young, but the next one down the road was glad for their cash. One evening as they were setting up camp in a grove of trees not far from the road a police car stopped so see what they were up to. The police were very nice and did tell them that it was legal for them to camp where they were. They asked where they were going and were a little surprised to learn the extent of their planned trip. On the other hand, the boys were so mature and well-spoken that I don't think it occurred to the police that they were as young as they were. In any case, in rural North Dakota rugged independence is a prized attribute, and boys biking across the state was to be admired, not condemned. A different policeman drove by the next morning to check on them, chatted a while, told them he'd been told by the evening shift that they were there, and wished them a safe trip.

I'll follow up briefly on their promised conversation with their parents about sex. I suppose that you can guess the reaction of all of their parents. It was a repetition of the "rules" and a caution about keeping it private within the Gang. Pandora's box had been opened, and things moved fairly quickly, but not faster that their parents would've wished. Another generation of the Gang was proving to be very responsible. Oh, yes, it was fun to have the girls involved, and the girls thought it was fun to have the boys involved.

In additional to their recreational trips around the countryside, the boys rode with their Marauder coaches and worked on their racing skills. About a year after their cross-state adventure Marty had a conversation with them and suggested that it was time to enter some established road races. Specifically he proposed that they were ready to apply for licenses–required for sanctioned races–from the UCI (the Union Cycliste Internationale or in English the International Cycling Union). They would then begin their sanctioned races with the North Star Grand Prix in the Twin Cities in July, 2013. The Grand Prix was a week long affair and included two day long road races. It'd be a good place for them to begin their competitive racing careers.

Their week in the Twin Cities was exciting and rewarding. The were among the youngest cyclists in the UCI sanctioned races. There was never any question of their winning one of the races, but coming in in the top third of the pack was spectacular. No once else near their ages came in in the top half. They demonstrated that they'd learned, in their practice sessions, to ride cooperatively, trading off the lead so the others could draft. They finished the two road races so close together that it wouldn't be fair for me to tell you who was first, second, and third. Let's just say that their riding careers were well launched, and they looked like they were going to be a formidable trio in bicycle racing circles in the near future.

As is very common in this story, I've gotten ahead of Charlie in the telling of this story. He might be able to simply drift by the London Olympics, but Tim would kill him. So even though we've been talking about GrandCOGs beginning competitive racing in 2013, Charlie will soon take you back in time to the London Olympics of 2012.

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