It has been fifteen years since the Marty Center opened for business. With Marty's talent and personality, Fred's money, Tim's support, and the Gang's love there was never any doubt that the venture would be a success. Tim had created an enthusiasm for gymnastics among both the parents and kids of Grand Forks, and the only program available below the college level was Marty's. The Y had had a little beginner program before Marty opened the Marty Center, but it was beyond their capability to run a complete program, and they'd been glad to defer to Marty. So it was a success from the beginning.
That is, it was a success as far as the numbers and finances went. Marty, of course, like all good Gang members, dreamed Olympic sized dreams, and he was eager to coach Olympians. But Olympians don't just sprout where they're planted. They need to be nurtured and developed, and in gymnastics that means from a very early age. Marty's own gymnastics training had begun in third grade, but he was convinced that was really too late. His program accepted kids on their third birthday! At that age they were really just tumbling, but it got them started. If they were going to start that young, it meant it took anywhere from ten to fifteen years to create an Olympian.
1976, the year after the Marty Center opened, was a landmark year for gymnastics. Nadia Comneci took the Montreal Olympics, and the entire world, by storm. At age 14 she had five years of international competition behind her, and had moved from success to success. Her unprecedented multiple 10.0 scores, winning smile, and diminutive size won her admirers around the globe. It rocked the gymnastics world in two ways: first, little kids by the bizillions wanted to be gymnasts, and it paved the way for younger and younger gymnasts at the highest levels of competition. A sport that was almost exclusively a college level sport at the top levels now opened for younger gymnasts. It was true that a lot of people thought that Nadia was too young for the Olympics at age 14, and the age level was advanced to 16 for Olympic gymnastics, but it nevertheless moved the general age for competitors down. (The Olympic age change was really only a year and a half, because the original rule was 14 by the first day of the Olympics, and the new rule was 16 by the first day of the Olympic year.)
The impact of this on Marty's program was startling. There was a surge of enrollment (which didn't last forever, but was welcome while it lasted), and a realization among kids approached junior and senior high that they could really compete at the top of their sport. Marty reported that the effort level noticeably increased for many of the kids in those age brackets.
Nevertheless, Marty's Olympic dreams had to stay on hold for quite a while. This didn't mean that there weren't moments of excellence among his students. A number of individuals did very well. The evidence-beyond some regional and national medals-came from a few high school students that had started with him as junior high students shortly after he opened. Several did quite well in regional and national junior meets and scored scholarships at a few large universities. Meanwhile, with Tim's backing and Frank's coaching, the gymnastics program at UND was developing and Marty was supplying a good number of solid gymnasts to that program.
By the late 1980's there was a cadre of nine kids, five boys and four girls, that had been with Marty since about kindergarten. They were all quite talented, hard working, and he had dreams that some of them would be world class gymnasts. It created a problem that had never occurred to him back in 1975 when he and Carl were working on the design for the Marty Center: the Marty Center wasn't big enough. It could easily accommodate all of his classes, but now he had nine students that were looking for practice schedules close to Tim's. His space couldn't accommodate the nine kids and a coach working four or five hours after school as well as regular classes. Marty had made do by encouraging the top kids to come in before school for a couple of hours and then having the advanced classes the last in the day, with open practice afterwards. But he soon realized that wasn't a sufficient solution.
Marty, Fred and Tim put their heads together and considered the problem. Tim noted that university facilities could be made available, but adding nine junior or senior high school students looking for intense gym time would soon create conflicts in university facilities. They considered renting an old church gym on the edge of town, but the distant location would make it impossible for Marty to supervise the top kids and his regular programs. There wasn't any real estate available near the Marty Center. Fred called in Carl, explained the problem, and asked if he had any suggestions.
Carl was upset with himself that one of his plans had become inadequate in just fifteen years. "I guess I wasn't thinking big enough back then."
"Neither was I," commented Marty.
"Look," interjected Fred, "we aren't here to beat up on ourselves. We're here to solve a problem."
Carl said, "Oh, in that case, consider it solved. I just don't like the idea of having to do the building twice."
Fred said, "What do you have in mind, tearing it down and rebuilding it bigger?"
"No, let's just add a basement."
"You're going to add a basement under an existing building?"
"Sure. Look at what we've got. The Marty Center has a huge open space with all the support coming from the sides. It's all open. On the north side is a lobby with glass walls on both sides, so you can see right in from the street. We simply remove those walls-that's easy; rip up the floor-we'll be able to save a lot of the expensive wood and can use it for the new basement floor; bring in a couple of backhoes and dig out a deep basement; put in steel beams to hold up the new first floor; lay a new floor; and you're ready to go. The new practice area doesn't have to accommodate an audience, nor large class groups, so it can been quite a bit smaller than the current first floor open space-allowing us to drop in the basement without disturbing the walls. Piece of cake."
Fred said, "That's my line."
Carl smiled and said, "We've all been learning."
Marty asked, "How long would all of that take?"
Carl thought for a while and then said, "Six weeks."
"Six weeks? It sounds like a year-long job."
"I can stretch it out if you want. But I thought you'd like to lose your facility for a minimum amount of time."
Fred asked, "How are you going to do it in six weeks?"
"First, we have everything set to go before we make the first move. All of the plans are laid out day by day. Every contractor knows exactly what he's supposed to do, and when. I won't deal with anybody I can't completely depend upon. We go around the clock. We'll start at ten o'clock at night, just after Marty closes. We send in a big crew to pull up the wood floor while another crew removes the glass walls and puts a protective covering on the lobby floor. Luckily we have enough height in the building for backhoes to operate. By afternoon of day two we'll have the backhoes digging a basement and a conveyor hauling the dirt through the lobby to a bunch of trucks. Four days. We can pour a floor and walls for the basement in ten days. Two days for the steel beam ceiling. We'll pour the new floor in three days. That's three weeks. It'll take a week to lay a new floor. Finishing, painting, cleaning, restoring the glass walls will take about ten days. Meanwhile, we have to put two locker rooms with showers and bathrooms in the basement space-they'll have to go side by side in the far end where we have length, we don't have the width to put them on the side. Add two stairways (including an emergency one to the outside in back), lay the floor downstairs (done by the same crew just after the one upstairs is laid), and presto, a new facility. Six weeks. Tops."
Marty said, "What's that going to cost?"
Carl said, "Don't ask."
Fred said, "I wouldn't dream of it. And neither will Marty. Just do it."
Carl said, "Marty, you and I have to do a lot of careful thinking. We don't want to be doing this again in another decade."
They huddled a lot in the next couple of weeks, but Marty was in love with Carl's plan and didn't want to change much at all. He surveyed his clientele and asked whether they would rather take a six week break or meet in some other facility-probably the church gym on the edge of town. Virtually everyone voted for the six week break. It was clear that they all planned to come by and watch the amazing construction. Carl got permission to close 150 feet of 6th Avenue North for three and a half weeks-enough time for the heavy hauling of dirt, cement and steel beams. The city permitting people just laughed when Carl told them what he expected to accomplish in those three and a half weeks. They were sure he'd be back to have the closure extended. The little shopping center across the street had access from the cross street, and 6th Avenue wasn't a major artery, so closing a short stretch of the street wasn't a problem. The city would get an increase in the property tax base and an expanded local business-well worth the nuisance of a short street closure.
Marty put up a small bleacher section for "sidewalk superintendents" in the closed street. Most of his gymnasts came nearly every day to watch the progress, which, of course, moved right on Carl's schedule.
The night before the reopening Marty and Carl invited three separate groups to a special unveiling. The replacing of the outer glass wall was the last thing to be done, and it was scheduled to be complete by 5:00 p.m. Marty planned to bring in his first group at 8:00, giving a little extra time to the workmen in case they were late.
Carl allowed no such leeway. At 4:45 all of the staff of Carl and Associates broke from work and walked to the Marty Center, arriving just at five as the workman were locking the door on the replaced glass wall. At just the same time Jerry and his catering staff arrived with dinner and they all went inside. As Carl took everyone for a tour of the facility, Jerry set up a buffet in the lobby. Carl received appropriate congratulations and accolades from his staff, but they'd known what to expect. They knew his reputation for being on time, and teased him that he hadn't even had a budget for this job. But they did understand that this was an extraordinary accomplishment. Carl, in turn, noted that many of them had been directly involved with the project and were the reason for its success. But then, Carl being Carl, he brought all of that quickly to a close and said, simply, "Let's eat." They were gone before Marty's group arrived at 8:00.
At that hour Marty took his nine top gymnasts down to take a look at their new practice area. The quarters weren't cramped, but they were much smaller than upstairs. There was room for all of the apparatus as well as a full size floor exercise mat. At one end, where upstairs were storage cupboards, was a row of exercise equipment. Behind that were the locker rooms which had much larger lockers and comfortable chairs instead of benches. The showers were luxurious. No high school age gymnast anywhere, and few of any age, had nicer facilities. Carl, Fred, and Marty had spared nothing. Interestingly, it was one of the boys, not the girls, that literally cried when he saw it-proving that many of our gender stereotypes are false. "Oh, Marty, this is wonderful. Thank you, thank you."
Marty said, "Kids, all I ask is that you do your best. If good facilities help, that's great. But your trying your best is all that's really important to me."
They all promised that they would.
The next group was the Gang, invited for 9:30. We arrived and got the complete tour. Carl was the hero, and Marty made sure that everyone knew it-of course we all did. Carl's response was to simply note that he was fixing his own mistake.
The grand opening was the next day at 6:00 p.m., a time selected to allow all of Marty's clientele and their parents to be there. I think that everyone of them was. As always, Carl invited selected customers of Carl and Associates as well. There were punch and cookies, tours of the basement in small groups, and introductions of Carl and Associates, and all of the contractors on the project. Each was introduced and his part in the project explained. Carl went out of his way to point out that a failure by any one of them would've upset the timing of the whole project and meant that classes could not start tomorrow, as they were now scheduled to do. Punch and cookies completed the evening, and everyone was invited back for their first class the next day or whenever they were scheduled. It was all over by 8:30. Morning practice in the basement started at 6:00 the next morning and all nine gymnasts were there!
One thing bothered Marty. "We don't have a name for the facility downstairs. We can't keep calling it 'the basement,' but that's what it'll become if we don't give it a name, soon."
While Marty was thinking about that, and trying to come up with a name he liked, the gymnasts using the space named it the Cave and it stuck. At first Marty wasn't really happy about it, but it became clear that the teens liked that name. As Marty installed the directional sign at the top of the stairs, which read "The Cave" with a down arrow, he sighed, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
We didn't know it then, but the Cave would produce some of the best gymnasts in the world. But I'm a little ahead of my story. As the Cave opened in the spring of 1990 we only had hopes-except, of course, for Tim, Fred, and Marty. For them, producing Olympic gymnasts was dead certain.
The Cave did present one problem, and Carl had warned Marty that he'd have to think about it, and deal with it immediately. Packing nine teenagers into a fairly private basement opened opportunities that had been deliberately excluded on the first floor. Even if it was constantly supervised by a coach or coaching assistant, with two locker rooms and showers, both used only by the top nine, the teens would be able to count on considerable privacy.
The nine teens were themselves an extraordinary group. Carl said that it reminded him of the Gang back when they were at Camp White Elk-except since these were all top athletes, there were no Hals to refit nor Ronnies to allow to be themselves. The youngest of the nine was Nels, Carl and Carol's older son-and the reason that Carl was so familiar with the group. That spring he was 14 years old and in eighth grade. Next, also 14 but about a half year older, was Mary White, who was very much Nel's girlfriend, even though she was a grade ahead of him in school. Then came Nick Downing and Lucy Stone, both age 14 and in ninth grade with Mary. In tenth grade were the Lenner twins, Austin and Connie, age 16 with that wonderful credential-a driver's license. In the same grade with them was Evan Dilton also a 16 year old driver. Then there was the only other romantic pair of the group, junior Janice McKesson, age 16 soon to be 17, and senior Seth Rogers, age 17 with his eighteenth birthday just days away on April 7.
This group, stretching over five grades in school, were very close and all were good friends. They did almost everything either as a group or in smaller groups of the same kids. At school they tried not to be cliquish. In fact, they made a point of always eating with no more than two or three of the gymnasts at one table. But since they left from school together to walk to the Marty Center, that became their primary grouping most of the time. They cheered each other on at the Center, and became each other's coaches when Marty and his assistants were working with other gymnasts. The five in the middle, Nick, Lucy, Austin, Connie and Evan, never seemed to get paired up, but often traveled as a group of five. They didn't seem upset over the fact that the others often paired and liked to date by themselves-when they found time for dates with their heavy practice schedules. Marty put a lot of stress on grades, and all were excellent students. Nels and the Lenner twins got straight As, and the others came close.
Those were the group that concerned Carl and Marty as they contemplated rules and procedures for the Cave. Carl told Marty, "Just the fact that they named it the Cave suggests a social as well as an athletic purpose, and it also suggests to me that they're well aware of the privacy a cave can provide."
Marty agreed and asked, "What do you suggest?"
"Well, it isn't the Gang. But let's get all of the parents together and see what we have. I know that the Whites, Nels' girlfriend Mary's parents, will be very supportive of a fairly liberal approach. As Nels started getting serious about Mary I suggested that we sit down with her parents and talk about boundaries. I recited my Dad's mantra about the back forty and the back seats of automobiles, and they bought into it. Mary was flabbergasted that her parents could be so open minded. Since then they've had some really good conversations."
"So just how much sex is going on with those two. Nels is still in junior high school."
"They cuddle up on the bed and then shower together. She's spent the night a couple of times."
"And her parents buy into that?"
"It was tough for them at first. Before the first sleepover just the four of us parents got together. I said that I didn't think age made much difference; the kids were at the age of experimentation. We could either stay in the loop or be excluded. Carol and I voted for being included. Eventually so did the Whites. That's the way my parents treated Tim and me, and we turned out well. I told the Whites that. They came around."
"You think you can bring the whole group of parents around to that kind of thinking?"
"Don't know. We're starting with a pretty special group of kids. That usually means a pretty special group of parents."
"Good luck with Jim McKesson, Janice's father. His wife died and he's very protective. Her boyfriend, Seth, says that he's pretty traditional."
"You evidently have a pretty good relationship with Seth."
"Oh, I do. Seth and Janice haven't done much other than let their hands roam, but they're both ready for more. I have to be pretty careful about what I say to Seth. Janice could have Seth in after school; only her younger brother would be home, and he certainly wouldn't say anything. But she's forbidden to have Seth in when her father isn't there, and thus far she's obeyed. I don't think that'll last much longer."
"You get all this from Seth?"
"And Janice. They like to talk, and I'm a good listener."
"Teens need that. Good for you, Marty."
"I'll invite the parents to meet in the conference room next Wednesday while their kids practice down in the Cave."
Carl thought it was a good sign that all of the parents were present for the meeting, including both of Evan's parents even though they were divorced. They were all concerned and involved parents. Marty was quite straightforward in presenting the issue. The Cave made considerable privacy available to the kids, and he needed to develop rules and procedures for its use. In particular, he needed to establish supervision rules so that he could have appropriate staff available. The basic rule would always be that the major pieces of apparatus could not be used unless a coach or coaching assistant was present. And, of course, there were always two staff of some sort present in the building when any participant was in the building. But if the kids wanted extended hours open downstairs, to relax, use the exercise machines, study, or whatever, there didn't necessarily need to be staff downstairs. Likewise, the locker rooms were pretty private and couldn't be watched by a staff person out with the equipment. With the restricted group using the Cave, that meant quite a bit of potential privacy. He needed to hear from the parents; then he would design staffing levels, and only then could he announce fees for participation in programs in the Cave.
Maureen White was the first to speak. "If you'd asked me those questions six months ago I would've had a very different set of answers than I do now. Rich and I have been through some pretty deep conversations with Nels' folks, Carl and Carol. I guess most of you know that Nels and Mary have become pretty serious in the last year."
"Isn't Nels only in eighth grade? Isn't that a little young?"
Carl said, "It's hormones not calendar ages that move kids. Nels and Mary are clearly enjoying each other."
Rich spoke up, "What Maureen's getting at is that Carl and Carol presented us with a very different point of view than we usually hear from parents. At first we were shocked, but it made sense. I'd suggest that we all invite Carl and Carol to share with us, and that we listen with an open mind."
The twins' father, Len Lenner, spoke up, "We're all ears. We came here to talk, and the more points of view we can get on the table the better."
Carl said, "I don't claim to be an expert. However, I think that my father was. He had what almost amounted to a mantra. He would say that in the previous generation there was always the back forty acres open to the kids, and now there were the back seats of automobiles and the empty houses of working single parents and families with two working parents. Kids were able to have as much sex as they wanted, of any kind, with just about no restrictions. Whether the parents prohibited it or not really didn't have much effect on teen behavior. So what was the role of parents? Have good, honest, and open communication with their children, provide solid advice when appropriate, not condemn the kids for doing what came naturally, and take every possible step to insure the kids' safety."
Jim McKesson spoke up, "You mean give the kids permission to do what they please?"
"Not permission. They don't need permission. They're already making their own decisions, with or without permission. I mean recognize that, talk to your kids about it, support them in the decisions that they (not you) must make. Help them deal with issues of disease, pregnancy, and safety. You may not be happy that your daughter's having sex in her bedroom, but she's a lot safer there than in the back seat of a car parked in some lovers' lane. And she's more likely to have and use good protection in her own bedroom."
"Wow." It could've been said by any of several parents present."
Lucy's father, Alton Stone, asked, "Do you and Carol really live by that rule, Carl?"
"What about you and Rich, Maureen? Mary and Nels are pretty close."
Maureen asked, "Can we all agree that what's said in this room, stays here? Can we trust everyone to be discreet? Well, I don't think I mean discreet. I mean silent. We limit the conversation to just those here and our kids."
"Of course." Everyone agreed.
Maureen went on. "OK, it was a little tough at first. But Nels and Mary have had sleepovers. They shower together. They've expressed no interest in exploring intercourse, and both have said that they'll talk to us long before that becomes an issue."
"My God. Eighth and ninth grade." Someone was speaking for most of the parents present.
Alton Stone said, "Believe me, there are eighth graders fucking each other out there. There was a pregnancy in the seventh grade last year. We were all pretty shocked, but I guess we shouldn't have been. The mother of the girl had no idea that the girl was having sex. Heck, she didn't even know that the girl'd had her first period. Whatever else we say, that isn't going to happen to Mary and Nels."
Jim McKesson said, "I've forbidden Seth to be in our house unless I'm at home. There's not going to be any sex under my roof."
Carl asked, "How do you know? Sure, you've forbidden Seth to be there, but how to you check?"
"I'll just ask Janice."
"And if she says, 'Gee, Daddy, Seth visits some afternoons,' how will you respond?"
"I'll ground her. Forbid her from seeing Seth."
"Does she know that?"
"Of course, she does."
"OK. Let's suppose that Seth is visiting in the afternoon. Maybe they're having sex, maybe not. She knows that there will be serious trouble if she answers truthfully. She's already disobeyed you by having Seth visit. Why would she tell you that he's been visiting? In other words, why waste your time asking, since she's going to answer, 'No,' regardless of the facts of the matter."
"Janice wouldn't lie to me."
"If you're sure of that, then you could be sure that she wouldn't have sex with Seth if he visited. But you aren't sure of that. How can you be sure about her truthtelling."
"What're you insinuating about Janice?"
"Absolutely nothing. In fact, I have every reason to believe, from things I've been told, that Janice and Seth have respected your rules. I know them both, and they're very good kids. But look at an alternative. Suppose that Janice knows that regardless of what she tells you about what she does with Seth, she will be supported, not condemned and certainly not punished. If she really believes that, then if you ask if Seth is visiting, she'll tell you. And you can ask if he's pushing her inappropriately for sex. If that's the case, she really needs support in saying, 'No,' and you'll be able to provide that support. What if they get carried away and go too far one afternoon? If they're willing to tell you, you can get her to a doctor. If not, they're on their own just when your help is needed."
Rachel Downing, ninth grader Nick's mother, spoke for the first time. "You know, Carl's making a lot of sense. We don't have an open communication channel with Nick, and I wish we did. Carl's trying to point the way to that."
Carol said, "The main prerequisite to open communication is that the child believe that he won't get in trouble for telling the truth, no matter what the truth is. And the second is that you're willing to answer his questions just as he answers yours. Carl, tell about Charlie and Andy's parents."
"You think people are ready for that?"
"Sure we are," said Quin Dilton, Evan's father.
"You all know who Charlie is: my brother, Tim's, partner. He was a camp counselor and was talking to the parents of one of his campers. A discussion pretty much like this. Andy, the son, was present. His parents asked Andy a couple of tough questions, and he answered them honestly. Then they asked how far he'd gone with a girl. He responded by asking his parents if they had oral sex. He mother was just barely able to answer that when Andy pushed his luck and asked, 'Does Dad come in your mouth?'"
"My God," or something like that, was mumbled by two or three of the parents.
"Andy's mom had to signal her husband to be quiet, and she said, 'Yes, he does.' Andy replied, 'Well, that's how far I've gone with girls, but we haven't had intercourse.' It was tough, but Andy and his parents had opened a serious communication channel. It's still open. And because of it, they've been a part of Andy's life in a way that would make most parents jealous."
"You really live this, don't you, Carl. You can sit there and calmly tell me that Nels and Mary have sleepovers, in your house, and you aren't troubled."
"If anything, I'm jealous that they can get so much pleasure out of so little sex. I'm afraid that Carol and I are far beyond that. Oh, to be a teenager again. As long as you had my father and mother."
Seth's father, Carter Rogers, spoke, "So how does all of this relate to Carl's question about the Cave?"
Jacob Downing said, "If we all can buy into what we're hearing, then it seems to me that we need to sit down with the kids and ask them what kind of rules and procedures they want for the Cave. But before we ask that question, we have to convince them that we mean what we say-if we really mean it. Does that make sense?"
"Yes, it does. But are we all buying into this?"
"I'm not ready to," said Jim McKesson.
Jacob said, "Jim, does Seth have a car?"
"Sure, he's a senior."
"Does Janice go on dates with him in the car?"
"Then they can do whatever they please, whenever they please, and not even violate your visitation code. And they certainly won't tell you. I wouldn't be worried about Janice getting pregnant, both she and Seth're too smart for that. But he'll be in college next year, while she's a senior. I wouldn't bet on her being a virgin at graduation." Jacob kind of grinned as he said that.
Jim said, "She'd better be."
"And just how will you know? Ask her? Lots of luck."
"What're you suggesting? That I tell Jancie to invite Seth over for sex in the afternoon?"
Carl spoke up, "No, Jim. But how about, 'Honey, if I relaxed my rule about Seth visiting here when I'm not home, what would go on?' I'll bet you two could agree on some ground rules. And I'd be willing to bet that those rules would be obeyed provided two things: First, that you talked them through and you both agreed to them, whatever they were, and second, that they contained an agreement that you'd be willing to talk about changing the rules when they asked to have that conversation."
Jim didn't respond, but seemed to be thinking.
Carl went on, "That's exactly the conversation that I think we need to have with all nine of the kids. What ground rules can we all agree to?"
All of a sudden Jim blurted out, "By God, I'll try it. Tonight. You people are making sense."
Barb Lenner said, "If you've got Jim aboard, Carl, you have us all aboard. What's next?"
Carol said, "First, we all have to go home and talk with our kids. For some it may be a difficult talk. You have to convince your kids that they can be open and honest at our big meeting, and won't be in trouble when they get home. How much further you go will depend on each family."
Marty had said very little through all of this, but was excited by the way things seemed to be heading. He said, "I think we should move quickly. If we're going to have a meeting that involves the kids we ought to use a weekend night. How about this Saturday? We can meet downstairs in the Cave. The kids can assemble enough chairs in the main room. Why don't we have a meal. I'll order Chinese and pizza. That should make everybody happy."
There must've been some interesting dinner conversations Thursday and Friday. Janice and Seth talked with Marty a while on Friday night. Her father had, indeed, asked her how she would behave if he agreed to Seth visiting when he wasn't home. Janice had answered, "We'd follow your rules Daddy. It's your house."
Jim had said, "Are you saying that if you wanted to go further, then you'd just go somewhere else?"
"No, Daddy, that's not what I'm saying. You asked about the house. I'll obey your rules. But you can't run my entire life. We aren't talking about my entire life."
Janice said that her father sat very quietly for a long while and then said, "The rules in the house won't be any different than outside the house. Seth can visit. I'd like to think that you'll be responsible and will talk to me about what you're doing, when you're comfortable with that. I'll have to admit, Carl's right. Whatever you're doing, I'd rather it was in your bedroom than anyplace else."
"Oh, Daddy, I love you. And you can trust Seth and me. Seth's a good boy, and I really love him. I'll make you a promise."
"I'll be a virgin when I graduate."
"But you won't be by the next morning, right?"
"No, Daddy. I'm just saying that Seth and I have talked. We think that we should put off serious sex till after high school. We have no idea how much after; we aren't there yet."
"But you're ready for less serious sex, is that right?"
"Of course, Daddy. He's been beyond first base."
"I don't think I'm ready to hear all this. Maybe we can open our communication lines soon, but I'm not ready for this conversation to go further right now." He got a kiss, and silence; both of which he appreciated.
Marty told Seth and Janice to tell the story to Nels, who would certainly pass it on to his father. "You know, of course, that that's who you have to thank for all this."
"We guessed," said Seth.
The Saturday night dinner and conversation were a surprise to everyone. The food was good, and the general conversation over dinner interesting, but the main topic of the evening was avoided.
After dinner Marty gave roughly the same opening speech that he had on Wednesday, explaining his need for guidance for the Cave. Then, quite unexpectedly, Jim took the floor.
"I've appointed myself spokesperson for this group of parents because I have a reputation among you kids of being pretty strict and conservative. On Wednesday the rest of the parents convinced me that open communications with my children was more important than a bunch of rules that I couldn't enforce anyway. I think that what I'm saying here is that we parents want to try to apply that philosophy to the Cave. We'll trade open communication with you guys, honest answers both ways, for you being responsible for setting the rules for the Cave. OK, parents, did I get that right?"
Carl said, "You sure did."
Austin spoke up, "Just exactly what do you mean, we can make the rules?"
Marty said, "OK, there's one hard and fast rule that I have to make. You can't be on the major equipment, vault, high bars, parallel bars, unless there's a coach or coaching assistant present. Then the Marty Center has an inflexible rule: if there's any participant present in the building, there are two staff members in the building. Beyond that, we want to hear from you guys about rules."
Nels wasn't shy. He spoke right up, "You mean, like we could say that there couldn't be sex on the mat when people needed it for floor exercises."
Nels waited for some kind of response and realized that nobody was quite ready to respond to that. So he went on, "OK, just what are the options here? People don't seem ready for us to declare this to be a stage for sex orgies."
His mother, Carol, said, "Would you want that, Nels?"
"Of course not. But I'm trying to get some parameters. Are we talking about gymnastics rules, social rules, study rules, sex rules, what? I know that the fact that the Cave can provide excellent privacy for what some people call illicit behavior was part of the motivation for these conversations. Well, are you asking us to write a set of rules that simple provides an enforcement procedure-perhaps the honor system-for a agreement that there won't be any sex down here? Or are we talking about what are the reasonable limits in a place like this? If you just want us to police ourselves to your no sex policy, then I say hire chaperones, don't expect us to police each other."
Hattie Stone, whose daughter Lucy was only a little older than Nels' girlfriend Mary, said, "Well, Nels, can we get down to some specifics. We know that you and Mary shower together. Would you want to be able to do that here?"
"Only on one condition."
"What would that be?"
"It wouldn't offend, bother, or inconvenience any of the other seven kids in the group."
"But you don't think we should object to group showers?"
"It's not my job to tell you what to object to. You asked what rules we'd set. I can only speak for me, but I wouldn't write rules to restrict the showers."
Carl said, "How do the rest of you feel about that?"
Evan said, "I'm in tenth grade, and it's almost embarrassing to have an eighth grader pushing for more open sexual rules than I would ever have had the nerve to ask for. But Nels has the right idea. Just what are you all willing to accept? I'll toss something out. We've all been talking about this place, and we think it needs a quiet study area...."
Carl jumped in, "Oh, my God. Marty, that's something we didn't even consider. We were thinking of this place as an athletic facility, not a social club. We were very short-sighted."
Marty said, "Don't worry, Carl. This facility is great."
Evan went on. "How about this? We remove the chairs from the girls locker room and put in two big study tables and study chairs. Then we make the boys locker room a unisex room. There's room for all of us in there-it has sixteen of the large lockers."
Austin's twin sister, Connie, said, "What an idea! It solves the study room problem, but I'm not sure I'm ready to change clothes next to Nels, Nick, Evan, and Seth. Austin I could deal with."
Nels said, "The question isn't whether that's what we want. The question is whether or not we should even bother trying to decide if that's what we want, if the idea is going to be rejected out of hand."
Linda Rogers, Seth's mother, said, "That's exactly the question. And when the parents talked the other night we thought we were ready with an answer. Now that it's getting very specific; we're being told, essentially, put up or shut up."
Jim said, "If you all can tell me that I ought to let Seth and Jancie play house in my house in the afternoon when I'm not there, then you sure as Hell better not be saying something different to these kids."
Janice said, "Whoever stole my Daddy, bring him back. This guy is a complete stranger."
Carl asked, "Marty, we need to get you involved here. Can the Marty Center allow that, if the parents are willing?"
"Well, Carl, it's going to require change order number two. We'll install one of those push button locks on the door at the head of the stairs to the Cave. Only Cave members and their parents and coaches will be allowed in the Cave. And you kids would have to agree that you don't go bragging around school about the rules here. It has to be very private."
Janice said, "It looks like we're coming to a conclusion. Here's the deal, folks. We'll run the Cave sensibly and quietly, and we'll all make the same promise that I made Daddy: We'll be virgins when we graduate."
Carl said, "There are a number of conditions that have to go on that, but it sounds like a good deal to me."
Jacob said, "What conditions?"
Carl said, "First, parents have to feel comfortable coming downstairs. Whatever the rules are, if you're doing things in this room that you feel you have to hide or discontinue because parents walk in, then you're going too far. Conversely, parents will agree to stay out of the locker rooms, or room if that's the way you go. Second, whatever permissiveness you condone, it has to be unanimous. Nobody should feel pushed into anything. Third, you need to be willing to talk to your parents about what does go on down here. Fourth, gymnastics and study as top priority has to remain your rule. And last, I need to emphasize what Marty said: this stays within this group."
Mary said, "I can accept all of that. It's quite reasonable."
All of the kids agreed. Carl pushed them on the question of whether they'd share things with their parents. All agreed. Carl said, "We're going to hold you to that."
Now it was up to the parents. Carl and Carol said, "We're in."
Jim said, "I never in my wildest imagination thought I'd be saying this, but I'm in."
Eventually all of the parents agreed. Marty said, "OK, then as far as I can see there's no need for specific supervision in the Cave except for the coaching and use of the apparatus. I'll work with the kids on a schedule of when we'll need coaches and coaching assistants present. I'm going to suggest that we'll make the Cave available to Cave members, that is these nine kids, whenever the Center is open. It can be their home away from home. And I'll help with a study area. I'm also going to suggest that you might like a grouping of chairs near the mat. How about a bunch of beanbag chairs? They're easy to move; they're soft so you won't get hurt if you stumble into them. Most teens seem to like them."
Austin said, "That sounds great."
Nels said, "It's getting late. Let's the nine of us meet tomorrow morning, say at 8:00 o'clock, and talk about how we're going to use this place."
Seth said, "Great, but let's make it 9:00 o'clock."
It was agreed, and they all headed for home. On the way Carl said to Nels, "I was really proud of you back there, Son. You really pushed the conversation. If you hadn't, I don't think we would ever have gotten where we did."
"I couldn't believe Evan talked about a unisex locker room. And you guys bought it. Well, it doesn't surprise me that you and Mom bought it, but all of the parents there? That's amazing. You must've really done a snow job on them Wednesday evening, Dad."
"Mary's folks helped. I think Maureen really startled people when she talked about you and Mary having sleepovers."
"She really told them that?"
"Yes, she did."
"Wow. I picked a winner with Mary, but I didn't know I was getting parents like that in the bargain."
"Thank your lucky stars."
Sunday morning was exciting. Nels decided that he'd been the leader with the parents, now it was time for Seth, as the oldest, to take that role with the teens. He told Seth that as they came in. The conversation among the kids was basically a shared expression of unbelief that their parents had bought into the present arrangement. Connie sort of spoke for everyone when she asked, "Well, just what is the present arrangement? Are we saying it's open season for walking around and sticking our hands inside each other's pants?"
Seth said, "I certainly hope not. I think we've said that we're going to talk about a unisex locker room. That would mean unisex showers. That's likely to lead to a little play. But you never push yourself on anybody. The rule has to be, 'Talk first.' As far as I'm concerned, that ought to be the limit on the sex until we talk more as a group."
Evan said, "Well, are we up for a unisex locker room so we can make the girls locker room a study area?"
Lucy asked, "How come the girls have to move over to the boys? Why can't the boys move?"
Evan said, "Simple. Urinals. The showers are the same, but the boys bathroom has urinals."
Seth said, "I'm surprised that the showers are the same. Usually boys have a big shower room and girls have stalls."
Nels said, "I can answer that. Dad won't design different showers for girls and boys; he says its discriminatory. So for both you have a big room with four semi-private stalls off to one side. That'll be great for us, because we may have some of us who're shy about showering with the opposite sex."
"If there are, they won't be long," said Austin.
Seth asked, "Is that what we want to do? Is everybody on board?"
Nick said, "I think I am."
Seth said, "OK, let's find out. Marty said he'd come down around ten for some coaching. Girls, go get your workout clothes from your lockers and take them over to the boys locker room. We'll see how comfortable we are changing together. Better yet, let's all take showers. We'll see how that goes and then make up our minds about a unisex locker room."
Nick said, "If I can get by the first time, I'll be fine."
Nels headed for the locker room and shouted, last one undressed finishes with a strip tease. Nels was definitely not the last. He stripped almost as fast as his Uncle Tim, showing no shyness about being naked-and hard-in front of the group. Most of the others were much more hesitant, but slowly clothes came off as Nels, and soon after Mary, stood and watched. Seth and Janice were next finished, and then the twins, Connie and Austin, who clearly were used to being naked in front of each other. Evan, who had suggested the unisex lockers was next, but was very embarrassed by a very hard, and very large, penis. He stood covering it with his hand, until Seth came over and tickled his ribs, making him move his hands. Seth said, "That's better."
Lucy followed next, not having much trouble. That left Nick, who still had jeans on when all the rest were naked. Nels said, "Do a strip tease for us, Nick. It'll be fun. Nick grinned, started to unbutton his jeans, but hesitated. Then he seemed to make up his mind and started working down the buttons as he wiggled his hips a little. He pushed down his jeans, leaving a raging hard-on tenting his briefs. He let it slip out the fly and wiggled his hips, making his dick flap from side to side. Everyone cheered.
He pushed down his briefs and stepped out of them, and said, "OK, everybody satisfied?"
Seth came up, put his hands on his shoulder and said, "Are you OK?"
"Thanks. Yeah. I'm fine. I stewed about that all last night, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. I just couldn't imagine standing in front of this group with a hard-on, and I knew I'd have a hard-on."
Seth said, "It's normal. Why're people embarrassed about things that're so common?"
"I'm fine now. And I like the idea of having a study area in the other locker room."
They all went into the shower room. Most faced the wall as they soaped up. Not Nels. He proved to be an exhibitionist, soaping his dick and balls and rubbing them in front of everyone. He got a good laugh and then rinsed off. He didn't push it any further, taking a towel and going to his locker to dry off and get his jock strap, gym shorts, and tee shirt on. The rest followed quickly.
Marty was surprised by the practice session. All of the gymnasts were in good form, most performing to new levels of excellence. He told Carl later, "They all came out of the one locker room, so clearly there'd been some level of sexuality. And I think it showed in their gymnastics. Even that quickly they were moving to a new level of what Tim would call love and support. I don't think you parents knew it, but I think that you've given these kids a start to news heights of athletic prowess. We'll see."
"Tim would be delighted to hear that you said that. Keep him posted."
Not long after that Carl and Carol were invited to go to lunch with Jacob and Rachel, Nick's parents. They started off the lunch conversation by telling of Nick's report on the Sunday morning. He'd had another obligation in the afternoon, so had come home for lunch with his parents before they all went out. "He told us about undressing in front of everybody; how Nels had started it and said the last one should do a strip tease. Then he went on, 'Mom, Dad, it was so hard to do the strip tease in front of that group, but its even harder to tell you about it. But I got through it, and I was proud of myself. I was a big boy. And now I'm telling you about it, and I'm getting through that. None of the kids in my class at school could do either. Except Mary and Lucy, of course.'"
Rachel took up where Jacob had left off. "Can you believe that my son was proud of his ability to take his clothes off in front of his friends, well his girl friends? And we were proud of him for it? We should've been horrified. But here he was telling us about it. How many parents can say that? And you know what came next?"
"He started asking us about what we did as teenagers."
"Were you able to answer?"
"After his story to us, how could we not answer?"
"Did you have any interesting experiences to tell about?"
Rachel said, "I didn't, but Jacob did. Tell him, Jacob."
"My parents were sunbathers-nudists. I grew up spending about a month each summer at a nudist camp on a lake in the Ozark mountains. It was supposed to be sexless, but the teenagers had other ideas. We'd slip off down the beach and get pretty raunchy. You weren't allowed to go with the older kids until, if you were a boy you could prove that you could ejaculate, and if you were a girl that you'd had your first period."
"After you got in, was there a lot of sex play?"
"No, not a lot. What there was, however, was the big kids taking advantage of the little kids. I think my parents kind of figured out what was going on, because we stopped going to the camp after I turned fifteen. It probably was a wise move. The whole thing wasn't particularly healthy. I think basically that the sunbathing or nudism movement is based on a false premise."
"That a bunch of adults, and especially teens, running around naked isn't essentially sexual. That's baloney, even if it's true for some of the participants."
"For your group of kids it was definitely not healthy sex. You told this whole story to Nick?"
"Yes, I decided he should hear it. The idea of having to masturbate in front of everyone in order to be part of the group really turned him off. But I think he respected me for telling him.
"What did he think about your being involved in all that?"
"We talked about peer pressure, and the importance of being part of a good group. He's really enthusiastic about the group of Cave gymnasts. He thinks they're all great."
"So do I. Well, good for you in your relationship with Nick. Just so you know, I think you were very brave, and very wise, to share your story with Nick. It'll help him make wise decisions. And he'll see you as very human. That's good."
"Thanks, Carl. We've wondered if we went too far."
"I don't think so."
The summer of 1990 allowed the nine gymnasts meeting down in the Cave to solidify as a group. The Cave became their clubhouse, hideout, safe haven, as well as practice gym. Most of them would arrive shortly after breakfast. They'd either walk to someplace to eat, or order in pizza or subs for lunch. The parents got together regularly and one of their joint decisions was that the kids should come home for dinner. They often went home for dinner in small groups to a few homes. After dinner they were back at the Cave until Marty, or whoever was in charge that evening decided to leave and told the receptionist to go home and threw the kids in the Cave out.
The kids were very serious about their gymnasts, paying good attention to Marty and a couple of the coaching assistants who were good enough to actually teach these kids anything. Most of the assistants were UND college gymnasts, and some were frankly not nearly as good as the kids. But as long as they didn't pretend to know more than they did, they got along well with the kids.
Tim had always been a drop in at the Marty Center. The kids loved meeting him and watching him. But he realized that when he came by instruction was likely to stop, and that didn't help the gymnasts nor Marty. However, with the top gymnasts down in the Cave it was a different story. These kids weren't at Tim's level, but they were getting there. They could learn from Tim, both by watching him and by getting his pointers. He became a fairly regular visitor to the Cave, and was honored by being given the combination to the door lock so that he could come down whenever he wanted. Tim reported to me that he was really startled by the gains that he saw over the summer. He told me, "I think we may have an 1992 Olympic gymnast or two in that group. I can't help but believe that the fantastic progress they're making is due to the relaxed sexual atmosphere down there. They aren't blatantly sexual, but they're clearly comfortable with their sexuality and don't try to hide it. I don't want to get involved with showering with them-we've talked about it and they understand that it would be inappropriate. So the unused showers behind the study area have become 'Tim's shower'."
"Just what do you mean, 'Comfortable with their sexuality'?"
"The boys will wander in in their jocks at times, or someone will change on the mat when it's convenient. And I notice that they're pretty conscious of showering with the right partners."
"So who's partnered with whom among the group?"
"Well, you know about Nels and Mary, that's seems to be a pretty stable relationship. Seth and Janice are talking marriage...someday. Nick and Evan are pretty clearly a pair. They haven't said anything specific to anybody, but Seth tells me that they don't try to hide it at all."
"That's an interesting pair. Nick was the most shy and Evan the most forward-except for Nels, I guess. Do you think that part of Nick's shyness was that he knew he was gay?"
"Oh, sure. He's a nice kid and coming to terms with it. He doesn't hide his relationship with Evan from his parents, but I'm not sure that it's been put into words yet. Then Austin, the twin, and Lucy are becoming a pair. It may be that they're just the two left over-if you assume that Austin isn't going to pair with his twin sister. Who knows how serious that may be-but they always seems to head for the showers together?"
"What about Austin's sister? Isn't it Connie?"
"Well, if you're going to have a group of nine there's bound to be an odd person out. It seems to be Connie, but she doesn't seem upset. I see the other kids being very conscious of including her. It's really a great group."
"Do you think that Frank will get them for his program at the university?"
"They all assure me that that's where they want to go. Going anywhere else would break up the group, and they don't seem interested in breaking up." Frank was delighted. (Frank is Frank Kesserling who'd been the assistant coach at the St. Paul Gymnastics Club and whom Tim had brought to UND in 1966 to coach the fledgling gymnastics program. That really is the right phrasing-Tim brought Frank to UND, even though when he did it he was a freshman!)
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