I was pretty down in the dumps during the first part of the year. Priscy was falling in love, Phil was doing his own thing in Kansas, Tim was spending his energy trying not to be an Olympic champion. I was writing a stupid book in the backwaters of Iowa. Masturbation gets boring before too long. Doing historical research gets boring even faster. Dealing with blood donor site hosts was worse. I needed a lift, and I got it from my trip to Michigan at the end of January.
Andy and Jim met me at the airport late Saturday morning. I had only hand luggage, so I was ready to go immediately, but they stalled around and didn't move. "What's going on?" I asked. "Aren't we ready to head out?"
"No. We're waiting for something."
"You going to give me a clue?"
"OK. How long do we wait?"
"About half an hour. You wait here with your bag. We'll be back in about thirty or forty minutes."
They left, giving me little choice. I sat and wondered what this was all about. I read a magazine, looked around the small Flint airport, and wondered. These kids were, I realized, capable of anything. At that moment "anything" jumped on my back and almost knocked me off my bench. It was Tom, who had arrived on a plane from Detroit not long after me.
We had quite a reunion, right there in the airport. Noise, hugging, and Tom insisted on kissing me as well. I had been embarrassed enough times by the kids to almost be ready for them. But they continued to outdo themselves. Everybody talked at once. Everybody wanted to hear everybody's stories at once. Not much detail got communicated, but a lot of love was exchanged.
Finally we were off in Jim's car for Andy's home in Alma. The plan was to have dinner and spend the night there, drive to Jim's home in Flint on Sunday, spend the night, and head to the airport early Monday morning. Parents had decided that I was more important than arriving at school on time on Monday, and Tom's parents had decided that he could forget about school that day. I agreed with their priorities! Tim would have too.
The car, relaxing at Andy's, dinner, and evening discussion was all talk, talk, talk. We spent about half our time reliving two summers at camp, especially the first, and the other half telling our stories since. I knew Tom's pretty well, but enjoyed hearing it again. It was nice to hear him give me total credit for his recovery–but I hastened to say that I was just the catalyst; the recovery came from his inner strength.
Jim and Andy were their same happy-go-lucky selves. After exploring each other at camp the previous summer, they had again decided that they were more interested in girls than each other, and both had been vigorous in those pursuits. The trouble they were finding was that the more you went looking, and the more eager you got, the easier it was to make mistakes. They had both made several. They were on the rebound now, and were thinking about each other again. It amazed me how easily they had these conversations with Tom and me present. However, they were not so open with their parents. Since neither of them considered themselves gay, they had never seen the need to have "the conversation" with their parents. They didn't talk with their parents about what they did with girls, why have the same conversation about what they did with each other?
It was the kind of sophistry that had ruled, and still ruled, my relationship with my parents. I couldn't fault them. But I had seen the power of the relationship that Tim had with his parents, and that Tom was building with his parents. I knew they could do better. But I didn't know their parents well. It takes both parties to have a good relationship, and I could make no promises to either Jim or Andy that their parents would be receptive to more open conversations.
Most of this conversation had occurred in the car heading to Alma. Our conversations at Andy's home that afternoon were mainly reminiscences–their parents dropped in and out. Dinner brought us all together, but the conversation remained casual. Following dinner we all sat around in the living room. Andy's parents seemed eager to remain part of the conversation, and the boys didn't seem to mind. I took a big risk and decided that I would be the guinea pig to sound out the parents. Andy could watch and make his own decision on what he wanted to say, after he saw their reaction to me.
It was very simple to lead the conversation around to Tom and my trip to Detroit to be with him–and my need to tell Sam and Beverly that I was a gay man. Curtis and Melanie, Andy's parents, didn't seem phased. They were immediately interested in the sleeping arrangements and the attitude of the psychiatrist towards them. Melanie was a social worker, and had worked with many disturbed children, including some who were completely normal but were dealing with trauma like Tom had been subjected to. Her remark was quite unexpected, "I wish we had the freedom to make recommendations like that. If I let a boy sleep with a man, even with pajamas on, I would get fired, sued, and maybe jailed. Yet clearly it was what Tom needed. Of course, I'll have to admit, the availability of men you can trust in that situation is limited, but in general hugging, holding, perhaps even sleeping with, is one of the best therapies available. And we're completely afraid of it."
"If I hadn't been able to hold Tom, and hug him, and squeeze him, but mostly just hold him tight, there would have been no point in my coming from Iowa."
Tom jumped right in, "You can't believe the effect of holding Charlie and being held by him. I just sort of melted into him. And once there, I was able to release my tensions, cry like a baby, and come through it. People said it was like magic, and that is just how I felt."
Melanie continued, "Well, that brings us to an interesting question. What are your sleeping arrangements for tonight?"
As I had hoped from the start, Andy felt comfortable taking the plunge. "Mom, Dad, there's something you need to know before we talk about that."
Curtis responded, "And that would be?"
"Jim and I, well, uh."
"You sleep together?" asked Curtis.
"Well, not really literally, but you know what we mean."
Melanie said, "I'm the social worker here. I know the value of being specific. You want to try."
Jim took his own plunge, not having been given much choice by Andy, "That first summer, after camp, we starting playing around together. We took our clothes off, played with each other, had orgasms together."
Melanie said, "Jim, it took a lot of courage to say that. I'm proud of you."
Curtis said, "We kind of thought that was what was going on, but we weren't sure. We hoped the time would come that you could talk about it. Charlie, you do seem to work magic with this group. I see why people say that."
Andy said, "We gave it up about a year ago, because we wanted to date girls. We still do. But we haven't had much luck in the girl department. So we sort of take care of each other's needs. We don't think of ourselves as gay, but we like to be 'friendly' with each other."
Curtis rather settled the matter with, "Andy, just remember, as you're trying to decide who to play around with, Jim won't get pregnant and file a paternity suit."
I laughed and laughed. "That's the best argument for gay sex that I have heard in a long time."
The ice had been broken. Everybody started talking at once. Soon there was some kissing and hugging, and it involved Tom and me as well as Curtis and Melanie. Curtis turned to me and said, "Another set of parents deeply in your debt, Charlie. Aren't you getting tired of being the hero?"
"Not when I get the satisfaction of scenes like the one I have just witnessed. You know, I didn't set this in motion without some expectation of a positive result. I have seen so much of Andy, and Jim and the others, that I was pretty sure they had been raised by solid parents. I have met several of the boys' parents now–in closer settings than just arrival and departure at camp–and none of them have disappointed me.
"OK," said Curtis, " We're going to leave the sleeping arrangements for tonight to the good judgement of all four of you, and we'll support that judgement. There're twin beds in Andy's room, a guest room with a queen size, and sleeping bags for the floor. I'm not going to say another thing."
"Nor am I," said Melanie.
We all six sat around that evening and talked. Curtis and Melanie were quite fascinating–Curtis was also a social worker, but worked within the court system with adults. Andy was, in many ways, meeting them for the first time, and vice versa. I knew things were moving well, when Melanie finally got up the nerve to ask "the question." "Andy, are you still a virgin?"
Andy let out an audible gasp, never in his wildest dreams expecting that question from his mother. But the door had been opened, and he decided for honesty. "Just barely."
"What, exactly, does that mean?"
"Mom! Some things just aren't said to your mother!"
"I thought we were getting over that. Charlie, help me out here. You talked about how Tim talks with his parents. Could he field that question?"
I wasn't sure Andy wanted me to answer that.
"Come on, Charlie. You're always pushing honestly."
"OK. Here goes. First of all, Tim's mom would never have to ask that question, because Tim tells his parents everything. I honestly don't believe some of the things he tells his parents. You know, I'm not that far from being a teenager myself, and I never had the relationship with my parents that Tim has with his, nor that Andy has now. But, second, if Tim were asked that question he'd give a perfectly straight answer. And he wouldn't spare the details if that's what his mom wanted. And she would blush before he did."
"Well, Andy?" said Melanie.
He came up with the perfect reply: "You know, this doesn't have to be a one way street. Are you and Dad going to be as honest with me as you are asking me to be with you?"
Curtis got in the act. "OK, you made your point. We all sort of have two choices: either we agree that some things are private and off limits for both generations, or else all questions are on the table. Do I summarize that correctly?"
Andy said, "Yes. Perfectly."
Melanie said, "I'm not sure the relationship between teenagers and their parents is supposed to be that of equals."
Jim jumped in, "No, its supposed to be that of total non-communication, like you all had yesterday and every day before."
Curtis said, "Score one for your side."
Andy said, "Let's cut to the chase. Mom, Dad, do you two have oral sex?"
I was really taken aback when Melanie matter of factly said, "OK, I started this. The answer is 'Yes, of course. It's fun'."
Andy decided to see how far he could push his luck. "Does Dad come in your mouth?"
"My God," said Curtis, clearly thrown for a loop by the bluntness of the question.
"Yes," said Melanie, waving to Curtis to not say anything. I think she perceived that they were at a critical moment with Andy, and were clearly winning his confidence in a way they had never achieved before. If it meant some blunt talk, and a conversation that most people would be startled, or offended, by–well that was someone else's problem.
Andy continued, "Well that just about sums up how far I have gone with girls. But I haven't had actual intercourse with a girl."
Jim said, "I don't believe I just witnessed this conversation."
Curtis said, "You know, that conversation went forward so fast that we really didn't realize that we had witnesses outside of the family."
I said, "Everything said here stays here, right Jim, and Tom?"
"Of course," they both said.
Melanie said, "I'm not sure that I'll be able to face you three in the morning."
I said, "Of course you will. After the shock wears off, you're going to realize that you have reached a level of communication with Andy that almost no other parent enjoys. Build on it. Don't be afraid of it. Ask him about his joys and sorrows. Not just sexual, but in school, in sports. If he can talk to you about oral sex, and you can listen, he can talk to you about anything. There'll be pain ahead as you learn more about each other. Andy needs to hear about your teenage fears, joys, sexual conquests and failures. And you need to hear about his. Without condemning. You're starting on a wonderful journey. Don't get off the train."
Andy came over to me and hugged me and said, "Thanks, Charlie."
Melanie walked over to me, hugged me tightly, kissed me square on the lips, and said, "I don't see why my kid gets all the pleasure. It seems that hugging Charlie is one of the great delights of the age." I squeezed her tight and kissed her on the cheek. "It sure is," she sighed.
"Bedtime," said Curtis, and he hugged me. "I get some too, you know." Then he and Melanie headed to their room at the back of the first floor.
The rest of us headed upstairs. The boys were wondering about the sleeping arrangements, but there was no uncertainty in my mind. To their great disappointment I said, "Look. There's no debate about the sleeping arrangements. I'm sleeping alone. You guys're all underage, and it simply isn't appropriate for me to sleep with any of you."
Tom said, "You slept with me in Detroit, and everyone knows it."
"That was a special case, and you know it. We can't let that establish a pattern. And Tom, that isn't subject to debate. Sorry."
Tom wasn't happy, but he accepted the decision. "So how do we sleep?" he asked.
"Jim and Andy seem to like to be together. We send them to the queen size bed. You and I'll sleep in the twins in Andy's room. Is that OK with everyone?"
Jim said, "Only if you promise to consider some other arrangements when I'm legally an adult."
"And out of high school," I said.
"I'm going to hold you to that," Jim said.
"Me too," said Andy.
"You guys're all going to have to deal with Tim. "
Jim and Andy headed for the bathroom. We heard the shower running and assumed that they were showering with each other. Soon they emerged, naked, and ran down the corridor to the guest room. It was clear that they weren't going to bother with pajamas, or anything else. I envied them. I think maybe Tom did too.
Tom and I used the bathroom separately. He went first, and when I came back from the bathroom, he was sitting on Andy's bed with his pants still on. I undressed, as did he, and soon we were both naked, looking at each other.
"We've been here before," said Tom.
"Yes, and we aren't going any further." I climbed into the second bed, covered myself, and watched Tom slowly do the same thing.
"Am I gay, if I like looking at you like that?"
"I don't think so, do you? You liked Julie too much to be gay. But I think everyone has a little gayness in them, if they're willing to admit it. I think you should be proud that you are willing to admit it. Just as you like it when a girl is attracted to you–even if nothing ever comes of it–I like it when a boy is attracted to me. It's natural. Don't be afraid of it. But don't let it govern your life. You're going to replace Julie, and your life'll be richer for it. And don't forget, as well, that your life was richer for the time you did have with Julie."
"Thanks, Charlie. You know, I think I may have already replaced Julie–well no one could replace Julie. But there is a girl. Her name's Nancy. God she's pretty. And nice. We have dated a couple of times. I think she likes me. It might go somewhere."
"Don't rush. But don't be afraid, either."
After a while I continued, "OK, kid, in the spirit of everybody telling everybody everything, have you gotten to first base with Nancy yet?"
"Yes, if kissing's first base. And if talking's second base, we're there. I don't think most kids talk, and I think something else is second base for them. But you're right, talking's essential."
"You have talked about sex?"
"Yes. Nancy isn't afraid to talk about it at all. Pretty specifically. And she's quite clear that sex isn't on the table for a while, but that if we find ourselves in love, she'd like to have a sexual relationship. But no fucking. She's pretty adamant about that."
"You've had all of this discussion after just a couple of dates?"
"That was the first date, at a drive-in following a movie. She opened the conversation pretty matter of factly. She said, 'Let's talk about sex.' After I caught my breath, we did."
"Why so early in the relationship?"
"She was burned a couple of times by guys who only had one interest. She decided to get it out on the table right away."
"She sounds to me like she's quite a girl."
"I think so."
"I think it's sleepy time."
"Can I come kiss you good night?"
"No, but I'd love a big hug."
I got one. So did he.
The next morning Andy announced, to his parents, Tom, and me, that he and Jim did 69 the previous night for the first time.
Curtis didn't seemed phased, but then got a little smile and very quietly asked, "Did Jim come in your mouth?"
Jim and Andy were caught in their own trap. Tom and I laughed hilariously. Melanie just grinned, and then asked, "Jim, did Andy come in your mouth?"
We all laughed again, until Curtis noted, "Everybody's laughing, but nobody's answering. Cat got your tongue boys?"
Both boys remained red as a beet, but both managed to sputter, "Yes."
Melanie really shook them with, "Taste good?"
Curtis could hardly stop laughing as he said, "I guess you don't have to answer that."
Twenty-four hours earlier this family had been unable to talk about sex at all!
After breakfast the boys headed outside to kick a soccer ball. It was cold, but dry, and they needed to get out of the house. I sat at the kitchen table with Curtis and Melanie.
Melanie said, "I simply don't believe the conversation we just had with those boys. I can't imagine talking about oral sex with my son much less his friends. When he asked about oral sex yesterday, I almost fainted."
Curtis asked, "Charlie did you put them up to that?"
"No, honest. I deliberately opened the subject of my being gay so that Andy could see how you reacted. When you indicated that it was safe, he decided to come out to you. I had hoped you would be open to it, and that he would take the opportunity. I was as startled by the oral sex question as you were. But I think it was his way of testing. If there were going to be limits, it was pretty clear that question would be beyond them. Obviously you passed the test. Then that business about 69 this morning was another test. You passed again. And you will be tested again. Andy doesn't really believe that you're willing to be as open as you are. He'll keep testing until he's convinced–presuming that you can handle that kind of conversation over time."
Melanie said, "I think we can. To know that he's comfortable telling us about him and Jim is simply wonderful. And I think–maybe it's I hope–he's right that he isn't gay. He and Jim're waiting for the right girls. Curtis, I guess you're right, casual sex with a boy is a lot safer than casual sex with a girl!"
I said, "I think you should test right back. And not just with great responses like you gave this morning–that was wonderful–but take the initiative. Don't stick with sex. Ask about cheating on tests. Ask about who takes drugs or uses alcohol. Ask if Andy does. See if Andy is really willing to be honest. But be warned, he's going to expect to get as well as give. If you can ask him if he ever drinks, he can ask you about getting drunk in college. Are you ready?"
"We're ready. Thanks, Charlie. God, do all of your visits end with people being completely in your debt? Certainly the visit in Detroit a couple of months ago ended with everyone in your debt."
"If I can help people, I'm glad."
"Charlie, one thing. You don't make much with the Red Cross. I want to pay for your plane ticket."
"Curtis, you don't have to do that. I was delighted to come. It was a trip for me, not just for the boys."
"Jim's folks provided the car. Tom had his own ticket to buy. I'm going to pay for yours. No debate. What did it cost?"
I was reluctant, but I agreed, and accepted his check with thanks.
The three boys and I were off to Flint, and a night at Jim's house. The conversation quickly turned to Jim's parents and if he thought he could safely come out to them. Jim said, "There's no way the oral sex question would go down in my house. But I think I'm ready to come out, and I don't think I need Charlie to break the ice. But I sure want you there, Charlie."
"That's where we're heading. I'll be there."
We arrived in the early afternoon and Jim's parents, Walter and Trudi, greeted us. I think they were more worried about Jim's driving Walter's car than they were eager to greet me. But the greeting was warm, and they soon left the four of us alone to talk or decide what else to do. Jim said, "Let run some. Without Hal here we can run at a leisurely pace, get some exercise, and enjoy being outdoors together."
We went up to Jim's room to change. There wasn't any doubt that we were very conscious of being naked together, but no comments were made, and nothing unseemly happened–though it was certainly thought about by at least one of us. It gave me a chance to see the bed arrangements. Trudi had the three boys sleeping in Jim's room, two in sleeping bags on the floor. A guest room across the hall had two twin beds, one of which was turned down. It was clear that was for me. It would relieve some of the strain of the discussion and planning of sleeping arrangements that had occurred the night before.
We ran about three-fourths of an hour, at a fairly leisurely pace. Hal would have been frustrated. Running isn't very conducive to talk, so not much was said. After the run we stopped in a park and sat on a couple of benches. Andy said, "Charlie, are Jim and I kidding ourselves about sex? Are we gay and won't admit it?"
Jim said, "Or are we playing around in such a way that we're going to ruin a real love when it hits us?"
Tom said, "Charlie, this is your test. Are you really the wise sage that we all think you are?"
"Hell, I don't know. I knew a girl once who taught me that there were four kinds of sex: dangerous sex; casual sex; emotional sex; and loving sex. Dangerous sex is with strangers or people you can't be sure won't hurt you or give you disease. Casual sex is sex for sex sake, but out of the dangerous category. It can be fun, and is usually meaningless. Emotional sex is with people you know well, like a lot, maybe the word love is appropriate.
"Priscy had a test to tell casual sex from emotional sex. If most of the pleasure in the encounter comes from kissing, hugging, and lying beside each other, that's emotional sex. If most of the pleasure comes from your genitals, that's casual sex.
"Loving sex is with the person you love.
"I think that the question you guys need to ask is, are you having casual sex or emotional sex?"
They both were silent for a while; the Jim spoke, "It in between. If I try to use the test, about half the pleasure is hugging and stuff, and half is gonads."
"I agree," said Andy.
"I can't answer your question, except to speak very frankly about myself. I have had emotional sex with several people in the last couple of years. With Tim's knowledge–he has a girlfriend, did you know that?"
"No, it's true. Tina's a wonderful girl. Write him and ask about her. I wouldn't think of telling you not to have sex. You have to ask and answer your own question. But, to answer a specific question, I don't think what you're doing makes you gay, nor is it making you become gay. You are what you are. Enjoy."
"You know, Tom and I aren't going to be here long. If you want us here when the subject of sexuality comes up–if you're still planning to bring it up–you need to move this evening."
"My sister will be gone tonight–a hot date–so dinner is the time to do it. That's about the only time my parents and I find time to communicate."
Dinner was a delicious leg of lamb–which one doesn't get served as a guest very often–accompanied by pleasant, but not deep, conversation. Jim changed that pretty abruptly. "May I change the subject. There's something I need to tell you."
"True confessions?" teased Walter.
"No, I don't' consider this a confession, though some people might."
"Go ahead," said Trudi. "We'll try to be good listeners. Is this something for Andy, Tom, and Charlie?"
"Yes, definitely. It's kind of hard to know where to start, so if I don't make myself clear at first, give me time. You know I have had several girlfriends. Well, I've also had a boyfriend from time to time."
"What do you mean, boyfriend?" asked Trudi.
"I'll explain. I'm heterosexual, but I think I'm also gay–homosexual. I guess I'm both. I think I'm more heterosexual than homosexual, but I don't think that there's any doubt that I'm at least a little of both."
"Wait a minute," said Walter. "Homosexual? What makes you think so?"
"Andy and I are boyfriends. We have had a sexual relationship. We have given it up and had girlfriends, but we always seem to get back together."
"What do you mean you have had a sexual relationship?" asked Walter.
"It was physical. I can be as detailed or as graphic as you like. It might be best to leave it vague."
"Why are you telling us now?" asked Walter.
"Andy just told his parents yesterday, and the truth telling had a very positive effect on everyone involved. I'm hoping for the same thing here. If Charlie has taught us boys one lesson, it's about telling truth. I'm trying to live that."
"I'm incredibly proud of you, Jim, just as I was of Andy yesterday," I said.
Trudi seemed thoughtful, but finally she spoke, "I guess we have a few choices on how to react to this. We could be angry. Some parents would disown you–I've heard of that. We could refuse to believe you–if you had just said you were gay we could hang our hats on thinking you were wrong, but you just said you have had sex with Andy, to disbelieve that would be calling you a liar. We could accept it, and not deal with it–sort of bury the whole thing; never talk about it. Or we could love you, like we always have, and then try to deal with what you've told us in the context of that love. Walter, where are you in this?"
Walter was caught off guard. I think he expected Trudi to choose one of her options, not leave it to him. "Jim's my son. I love him. I don't have any option but to go on loving him. How could a parent do otherwise?"
I breathed a sigh of relief. The tension in the air cleared. Andy, who had been so tense since his name had been brought into it visibly relaxed. Tom just smiled. Jim spoke, "That's all I'm asking for."
Walter asked, "Do you expect us to approve of what you and Andy're doing, whatever it is that you do?"
"That's a tough expectation."
"You don't have to approve of it for yourself, just accept that it's appropriate for me; that I have your acceptance that Andy and I have physical sex from time to time. That it isn't a sin."
"The Bible certainly says it's a sin," said Trudi.
I decided that I might be helpful at this point. "Actually the Bible speaks very little about homosexuality. Jesus never mentions it. There are a half a dozen passages that mention it, a couple fairly specifically. But there are a long list of sins in the Bible that we don't recognize as sins in the context of today: accepting interest on money loans, making images of people, divorce. And the Bible accepts slavery, polygamy, wars of conquest, and many other things we reject today. The great themes of the Bible are wonderful, and love is the most powerful, the details are always troublesome, and we tend to pick and choose. People who are personally unable to deal with the idea of homosexuality hang their hats on a few Bible passages. To me, the Bible tells me to love everyone, including homosexuals. And you should know that I'm very much a homosexual myself."
You could have heard a pin drop. Trudi finally broke the silence. "I need to think on this, and, Jim, we're going to talk a lot more. Maybe this can help us reestablish a communication channel that has been getting clogged. But right now I need to say two things: First, thank you for being honest. Second, I'm not sure I'm ready to say I approve, but I will say that I accept. You do not have to hide who you are nor what you do. Andy you're welcome in this house."
Walter said, "This is really tough for me. Jim, I hope that you can understand and accept that. But I'll second what you mother said. I accept who you are, what you do, and your honesty in telling me. I don't know whether I'll ever be able to say I approve."
Jim said, "That is more than I asked for. Thank you. You said you loved me, well, I love you both."
Andy said, "Thank you."
I said, "Thank you for letting me witness that. I see a family that's already stronger. Gook luck as you travel down a new road together."
"Thanks, Charlie," they all said.
That ended the conversation. The boys cleared the table and washed the dishes. They found us in the living room, and said, "We think we should be getting to bed. Charlie leaves fairly early tomorrow."
Walter said, "I guess there was no way that bed was not going to come up this evening was there? Can I ask..."
I interrupted him, "Walter, never ask a question unless you're prepared to hear the answer. If you would rather not hear the answer, don't ask the question."
Trudi said, "I think that's good advice. Walter, let's just say 'Good night' to the four boys–sorry, Charlie from our perspective you're still a boy–and watch them head upstairs."
Walter said, "This is going to take some getting used to. Jim, when I ask dumb questions like that in the future, always respond by asking me if I really want the answer. If I say I do, then either you're in trouble or I'm ready to move forward. You'll have to take a risk when you answer."
Jim said, "Fair enough. Good night." And the four of us headed upstairs.
I went to the guest room, and the three boys shared Jim's room across the hall. No one told me what the sleeping arrangements were.
The next morning at breakfast, Walter looked very serious. "Charlie, I did a lot of thinking last night. You know, we talked to Tom's parents as we got ready for this trip, to make arrangements for him to fly up here and stay with both boys. They made you sound like some kind of a God, the way you helped Tom. Clearly some very excellent parents really respect you. Now I'd like to follow up on something you said last night. You told us never to ask a question that we didn't want to hear the answer to. That made sense for the question that I was about to ask last night. But help me more with that idea."
I had to think a little before I answered. I was not, after all a parent, in fact I still had major issues with my own parents. But I had been a successful camp counselor–a role not unlike that of a parent, and filled with many of the same pitfalls. "Questions addressed to teenagers can be dangerous. Before you ask something, you have to be prepared to deal with whatever answer comes. For example, a lot of parents live in a rather naive world in which only other people's children are into drugs or alcohol. So they ask questions like, 'You don't do drugs, do you?' expecting their naive beliefs to be confirmed. But look what happens when this is addressed to a kid who's doing some kind of drugs. He has two choices, lie or face a certain explosion if he says, 'Yeah, Dad, I smoke reefers.'"
"So I can't ask Jim if he drank alcohol at the party last week?"
"Sure you can, provided two things: First, that you have established open communication lines based on honesty, and second, that you're prepared to deal with either answer."
"So if he answers, 'Yeah, Dad, I had a few beers, all the kids did?' I'm supposed to say, 'That's nice.'"
"No, but this is an opportunity to get closer to your son, not more distant. How about responding, 'Who drove home? Was the driver drinking?' That gives him a chance to point out that even though they were drinking, they were being responsible."
"And if he drove, and had been drinking?"
"I'd respond, 'Jim, weren't you putting your friends at risk?"
"That throws it back on him, doesn't it?"
I said, "Yes, it does, which is where it belongs. Ultimately he's going to drink or not drink, do drugs or not do drugs, screw girls or not, drive carefully or not, because of what he decides, not because of what you tell him you have decided. Your role is to give him the information and support to make good decisions, and then respect the fact that, regardless, they're going to be his decisions."
"How old are you?"
"How come you think and talk like you were twice that age?"
"Walter, I'm not delivering deep treatises. Just common sense about the realities of people, especially that special breed called teenager. I'm not that far removed from that category myself."
Jim chimed in, "That makes a lot of sense to me. Dad, I'll make a promise. If you treat me like that, you'll always get honest answers."
"Best deal in town," I said.
Tom looked at his watch and said, "We have planes to catch."
He was right, we cleared up the kitchen and headed to the airport. Jim would drop off Tom and me, and then had to drive Andy back to Alma–he had about four hours of driving to do.
On the way to the airport Tom said, "This has been quite a weekend. Charlie two more families are in your debt. Jim and Andy leapt over a major hurdle with your help, and their families are stronger for it. I still can't get over how remarkable everything is that is connected to those two weeks at camp–the eight of us. I hope that we can have a lifelong relationship."
Jim and Andy both agreed, as did I. What these kids did not realize is that I thrived upon, and was helped by, them as much as I may have helped them. In fact, they all had really great parents, who didn't really need me to figure out how to continue to be good parents. But if I helped, I was happy in doing it. And it never hurt to have one's ego stroked, as Tom just had.
Tim's February letter, number 29, arrived soon after I got back to Iowa. He had had reports from all three of the Michigan boys regarding the trip. Between the three he had most of the details. He filled me in on one detail: The night in Flint when the three boys slept in one room and I was across the hall in the guest room–all the boys had slept in the one single bed, naked as jaybirds, letting their hands roam as they liked, but not going further. I wasn't sure that I needed to know that, but it was interesting. Tim said that all three boys had filled in that detail in their letters to him!
Tim's life was as hectic as ever, but not much changed in the month. He had one great thing to look forward to: In the two weeks that he was going to be away from school, the week before and during the Olympic trials, his parents had decided that the whole family should take a trip to London. They would be gone two weeks. The school had been reluctant to let Carl go, but Norman had talked to the principal and basically said that he really didn't care what the school thought, Carl would be in London those two weeks. I thought to myself, "Does that sound like something that Tim would say or do?" It certainly did. Carl had gotten his grudging permission.
My letter in response was fairly short. I certainly did not share the extent to which I had been down in the dumps before my trip to Michigan. There wasn't much point in telling about the trip, as Tim had the whole story. I did share the boys desire that our group of eight could remain lifelong friends, and my enthusiasm for that idea. Perhaps, one day, a number of us could live near each other.
Love, kisses, and hugs ended the 29th letter, of 40.
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