I, Nels, son of Carl, son of Norman, third generation Gang member, feel quite honored to be the first of my generation to be invited by Charlie to write one of his episodes. As you can tell from the title, I'm going to tell of the adventures of the nine Cavers you met in the last episode. I was fourteen at the time this story begins, the youngest of that group, and proud as punch that they were so willing to completely accept me as one of them. Of course, I'm thirty-four as I write this. I look back at the times I'm about to describe and can only marvel that they were as wonderful as they were. Every teenage boy deserves an adolescence like mine, but few are that fortunate.
In late August Marty took the nine Cavers to a gymnastics meet in Minneapolis. It was a regional club meet, so it had no age limitations, though there was an under-15 junior section. High school and college students competed together, since high school students in the top clubs were often as good or better than their college counterparts. Gymnastics was a sport for youth.
Anticipating the August event, Marty had asked Tim and Fred about using IT to take the group to Minneapolis. They both thought that was a great use for IT, and Marty was told to take bus-driving lessons and get an appropriate license to drive IT. So on the last weekend before Labor Day the nine Cavers, Marty, Fred, Tim and Charlie set out for Minneapolis. The parents had been invited, but they decided that they'd let their kids be on their own. There'd be plenty of other meets for the parents to attend. Tim arranged to have IT park in the parking lot of Southwest High School, his alma mater. That worked fine since IT was completely self-contained.
We arrived Friday night, and went looking for a steak house called The Western that Tim and Charlie wanted to take us to. Alas, The Western was no more, replaced up the block by something called The Outback Steakhouse. Charlie and Tim, especially Tim, were crushed, but the rest of us were very happy with the Outback. We got good steaks at reasonable prices and some of the best soup you can imagine-it was a creamy onion soup which they called Walkabout Soup, a sort of pseudo-Australian name. (As an aside, they have since switched to a creamy potato soup and a French onion soup, neither of which is as good as the original.) We finished dinner and got back into IT and drove to the school lot. We were welcomed by the new principal who seemed quite enthusiastic to welcome back their most famous alumnus. He told Tim that next time he was to come during the school day so that he could be introduced to present day students at an assembly. Tim agreed.
For any group like this, that didn't have the background of the Gang and the Cave, sleeping arrangements would've been complicated. For us it was no big deal. Tim, Charlie, Marty and Fred simply headed to the back bedroom, and the nine of us took the main room-where I'd slept as a kid on Tim and Charlie's Grand Adventure. We slept as couples and the only question, really, was whose invitation to join them would Connie accept. That first night she slept with Mary and me. Gee it was fun to burrow down into a warm sleeping bag between two girls! Both of them were willing to play a little handsies with me, but it didn't go further than that.
Because I know you're curious, I'll tell you that we all slept nude. We'd discussed that in the Cave before the trip and decided that we'd all do the same. We took a vote. We even did it by secret ballot so that nobody could be called a prude for voting for pajamas. The vote was eight to one for nude. We agreed to vote again, and if the one person was really going to feel uncomfortable nude, we'd all use pajamas. The next vote was nine to zero for nude. As I look back on that I was quite proud of the Cavers. They really were willing to respect the hesitancy of any one of us. When I told Mom and Dad about the vote, they simply said that it proved that we were worthy of their trust.
Another thing happened that night. Just after we'd all settled down, after a succession of trips to the bathroom, Evan spoke up. He said that he and Nick had an announcement. We were all pretty sure what was coming, but we let them tell us in their own way. Nick continued, "I don't think this'll surprise anybody, but Evan and I are a couple. We're in love. We haven't tried to keep it a secret, but it's time to be open and frank about it. And we're going to start telling kids at school, as it seems appropriate. So we aren't asking you to keep it any kind of secret." Well, it wasn't news, but we were glad that it was officially public. We all expressed our congratulations, and then we slowly drifted off to sleep.
The next day we drove in IT to the site of the meet. It was held at the gymnastics club that Tim had been a part of before he moved to the St. Paul Gymnastics Club. All of the faces had changed, including the owner and the coach, so that none of Tim's unfavorable memories surfaced. Ten clubs would be competing, including six from the Twin Cities and four others, including us, from around the Northern Tier. The St. Paul Gymnastics Club, with John still owner and coach, was one of the ten. It was the Marty Center's first team venture into competition outside of North Dakota. Previously he'd only had sufficient depth to take kids to individual competitions.
Much to the shock of the top teams in Minneapolis, the Marty Center team was far and away the best of the lot. Seth took top man all around, and Janice and Connie were neck and neck for top woman, with Connie just barely beating out Janice with a really spectacular final vault. John came over to Tim and asked, "Where have you been hiding these kids?"
Tim said, "Marty won an Olympic gold medal in wrestling; he has very high standards. He, and the entire club, has me as a model. I work with Frank a lot. His idea of how good a team should be before they start traveling around to competitions is higher than average. Also, these kids made enormous strides this summer as a result of a new facility Marty built in a new club basement. It was built just for these nine kids. They virtually lived there this summer."
"Well, they're terrific. If they stay involved in regional and national meets some of them will be serious contenders for the Olympic team."
Charlie says that it's OK to toot my own horn; in fact, he made it a requirement if I was going to write this episode. I was fourteen, eligible to compete as a junior. But I'd been around Willie too much, and I didn't want to have anything to do with being a junior. However, the rules of the meet left me no choice. You didn't register as a junior or senior, just as a gymnast. We all competed as a single group, though the juniors went first. Junior medals were awarded to the top gymnasts under age 15, and overall medals were awarded without regard to age. So, at age 14, I could win both medals.
There was one kid, from the home club, who was almost as good as I was. We each got first or second junior in every event. But I beat him in everything except vault and rings, which have never been my best events. Juniors were discouraged from competing on the high bar, so there was no junior medal for that event. However, both this kid and I competed on the high bar. I was second overall, behind Seth, and this kid was fourth. I took top overall in the floor exercises, and Nick, Evan and Seth took three of the other five event tops. The girls did almost as well. It was a complete rout.
About two thirds of the meet was on Saturday, with final rounds in most events taking place Sunday morning. Saturday night as we rode IT back to the parking lot we were shaking our heads in disbelief. So was Marty. He told us, "Kids, I owe you an apology."
"Why? This is going great."
"I mean it. I've spent too much of my time observing really top level gymnasts, like Tim. You all were good enough to start coming to meets at least a year ago, and I didn't give you enough credit. I was judging you by Olympic standards, not the standards of the clubs you were competing with today. You guys are fabulous!"
Uncle Tim spoke up, "I'm guilty of the same thing. We've been watching you every day and didn't realize just how good you were getting to be."
Marty continued, "We have to move immediately to get you all, and I mean all nine of you, competing at the national, and maybe world class, level. You're that good."
Everybody turned in great performances, but I have to mention one. I've tried the uneven parallel bars, which is only a woman's event. It sure isn't easy. It happens to be Lucy Stone's speciality. She was scored a 10.0 in the preliminary round and got a huge round of applause when she finished. Her routine was extraordinarily difficult and she handled it like a pro. Again, we hadn't realized how hard the routine was until we compared it to what the other girls were doing. Kids two and three years older weren't coming close to the difficulty level of Lucy's routine. And her execution was flawless. On Sunday morning when it was time for her final round, virtually the entire group gathered around the uneven bars to watch Lucy perform. It was extraordinary. Unexpectedly, at least for the audience, not for the Cavers, she did a completely different routine on Sunday-harder than Saturday's. Her dismount was a double somersault with one and a half twists, so she ended up facing the bars she'd dismounted from. She stuck the landing just like Tim. The shouts and applause from those assembled were deafening. Another 10.0. The coach of the home club walked over to Marty and said, "That girl is already a shoo-in for Olympic gold. Where have you been hiding her?"
Marty replied, "I guess she is. I've honestly not realized that these kids were as good as they are."
The coach looked at Marty and said, "Coach Marty, I don't think you realize that you have the top gymnastics club in the country. There isn't one anywhere that can beat this group. I know, I travel with my club a lot; we think we're pretty good. We've never met a club in your class. Get these kids out on the national circuit. You're holding them back."
John and Tim were talking later that morning. He said, "Seth will be in Frank's program, won't he?"
"Aren't most of these kids going to end up at UND? They act like they'd like to stay together."
"I think Frank'll get them all."
"Get ready for UND to dominate college gymnastics for the next few years."
"I'd love to see that."
"I'll bet you would, Mr. President."
Tim continued his conversation with John, "Your kids seem pretty good, but they didn't get many medals."
"Tim, you were always the exception in my program. I've always sold the program as recreational gymnastics: fun, good conditioning, and a great way to relate to a nice group of kids. That's exactly what my kids want, and what their parents want. You never fit my program, but you made it work for you. Frank and I were delighted to have you. But the basic club philosophy never changed. There's a place for top level competition, like the host club here, and for my approach. The amazing thing, to me, is that Marty seems to have achieved both. He has kids that are looking for fun, friendship, and exercise, and just happen to combine that with incredible talent. I'm jealous. What's his secret?"
"I think it may be sex."
"It's a long story. But as the parents and Marty allowed the kids to stretch their sexual wings, their athletic performance advanced exponentially. Join us for lunch in the bus after the meet, and we'll let the kids tell you all about it."
John did join us, and we did tell him the whole story of the rules for the Cave, including the role of our parents in guiding it. John said, "There isn't a chance in the world that I could bring the parents of my gymnasts along on that journey. You guys don't have any idea how lucky you are."
We said goodbye to John and headed back to Grand Forks. We were so pumped up you would've thought we were on drugs. As we talked, we realized that we were going to have to do a lot of rethinking of our lives. Marty listened to us for a while and then said, "OK, kids. Let me make one thing clear. There are going to be no changes in the Caver program except as you all want them. Yes, things can change a lot if you want them to. It appears you could become a major national force in gymnastics. With that as your base, you could get scholarships to just about any of the top colleges. The Olympics may be within your grasp. But you are in charge. There will be no changes unless, and until, you all decide that you want them."
I said, "Thanks, Marty. We all love you for that."
Mary and I were sharing the back pair of seats on the driver's side. Her head came over on my chest, and her hand lay gently on my groin. We both slept contentedly, and didn't awaken until we were leaving the interstate in Grand Forks.
Conversations at dinner tables in Grand Forks that night must've been something. As soon as I got home I started telling Dad about the trip, but I soon ran down and said, "Could we invite the Whites to come to dinner. I know it's short notice, but Mary and I would like to be together, and we want all of you to hear about the trip."
Mom called Maureen White and said, "I don't know what you're going to get to eat, but Nels seems to think it's important that we all have dinner together tonight. Will you all join us?"
"We're getting the same thing from Mary. Would you like to come over here?"
"Either way, but since we have Bert to feed it'd be easier to have you come over here."
Dinner was a stitch. Both Mary and I could hardly stop talking, and we were presenting little coherence to our stories. Eventually, all of our parents figured out that we'd had a remarkable success, and that the whole lot of us were evidently a whole lot better than anyone had realized, including Uncle Tim. It was too soon to speculate on the future, but that didn't stop us from trying. All we were able to conclude was that, if we wanted, things were about to change big time. Our parents were unanimous in telling us that they'd support us completely, but that we needed to be sure that we wanted things to change before we got swept along.
That was pretty much the advice that all of us got from our parents. We all agreed when we separated on Sunday that we'd skip Monday morning at the Cave. We'd all meet for a pizza lunch at noon. Marty and some staff would be upstairs so that the building would be open, but it would just be the Cavers downstairs. We all knew we had to think and talk.
The pizza was good; we knew the right place to order it. The conversation turned to IT and how much fun it'd been to ride and sleep in it. From there we turned to our amazing parents, actually allowing us to sleep together on IT. It was the furthest we'd pushed our parents with our new sexual freedom, and none seemed to have batted an eyelash. Come to think of it, they were probably wise. Not much was likely to happen with a group of nine. We were really developing a mutual trust level.
With the end of lunch we turned to THE SUBJECT. We knew we'd been avoiding it at lunch, but that we had to deal with where we were going from here. Lucy spoke first, "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but there's no way I want to trade the relationships we have here for national gymnastics success. I guess I'd love to have the successes that people are talking about for us, but not at the expense of this group."
Seth said, "That's exactly why I've enrolled at UND and not at a bigger school with a top gymnastics program."
Austin said, "However, if we all move on to UND, it's going to be a top program."
His twin said, "Watch your ego, Austin."
He replied, "I was as startled as anybody with our successes in Minneapolis. If we can't live up to the things we were told in Minneapolis we'll find out soon enough. But we're talking about making plans for the future based on Minneapolis. If we can't be realistic, we shouldn't bother to talk."
"You win, little brother."
"Little brother by 13 minutes."
I said, "I think we all agree with Lucy."
"But that shouldn't keep us from national competitions."
"Are we going to go off, each in his own direction?"
"Would that make any difference just for weekend trips? We'd still be together here at the Cave the rest of the time."
"No, if we're as good as they're saying, then trips are going to be central to our gymnastics. If we aren't together on the trips, we'll be missing the key times we need each other."
"This year Seth'll be in college; next year it'll be Seth and Janice. In four years we'll all be in college but Nels. Isn't that going to divide us?"
Seth said, "Well, to the extent the college students are involved in NCAA meets, it will. Club meets, and open regionals and nationals, don't need to divide us." The conversation continued, with little immediate resolution.
Summer of 1990 turned to fall. The biggest change for us gymnasts was that Seth had moved on to college. He was now a UND gymnast, with Frank Kesserling as his coach. He very quickly proved to be their best gymnast as well, having started at a far younger age than any of the other UND students. Seth decided that he'd maintain his membership at the Marty Center and remain a Caver. Yes, Caver. Sometime that summer we'd started using that term to describe ourselves and it stuck. Marty used it in his literature, speaking of the Cavers as the top program of the club, enrollment by invitation only.
I shouldn't need to remind you that school-based high school gymnastics was fairly rare in America, and kids from age three up found their programs in clubs, most quite similar to Marty's. Many moved from the clubs to college programs, but quite a few others stayed with their clubs till they were ready to move beyond gymnastics. People that kept it up through their lives, like Tim, were rare birds indeed-unless you include those that moved on to become coaches. Seth decided that he'd be a part of both programs, while entering a pre-med program at UND. He even found time to continue his romance with Janice, who was a high school senior that fall-1990. His schedule must've been very similar to Tim's when he was in college.
When the group was in the Cave it spent most of its time in active practice. We relaxed together over meals, and often for a few minutes to a half hour before we left in the evening. On one of those occasions I told the Cavers, "We have a big decision to make in the next few years. I've been very lucky to be able to observe two groups that have made lifelong commitments to each other. My parents are part of a big group which calls itself the Gang. I'm sure that some of you have heard it talked about. Tim and Charlie are the key to it, but it involves more than sixty people over three generations. Most, but not all of them live in Grand Forks. Only a couple are natives of Grand Forks, and they're part of the group because they married into it. The rest all moved here because they decided that they all wanted to live near each other.
"Over in the big house near campus, the place they call The Roundhouse, if you know where I mean, is a group that calls itself the Circle. There are nine of them, just like us. They all came together in the same house kind of by accident, and grew into a cohesive group. They all consider their commitment to the Circle to be lifelong.
"We're talking about each of us making college plans-one of the major decisions of our lives-based on wanting to keep the Cavers together. What kinds of post-college decisions are we going to make, and how serious are we going to be about wanting to remain a group? I can't answer that now; I don't think any of us can. But that's a question we need to keep in mind as we talk about where this group's going, and how we balance group versus individual opportunity."
"Wow, Nels. You really know how to move conversations to the next higher level."
"You don't live around my mom and dad, and Uncle Tim and Uncle Charlie, without learning to think about the big picture."
"A big issue would be how permanent our current pairings are. And Connie doesn't have a partner."
I said, "I'm not looking for answers, but I wanted you all to know that I, at least, am thinking about the long term. Oh, and Mary and I may be 9th and 10th graders, but we're damn sure life long partners."
Mary said, "He asked my father for permission to propose to me. Daddy was a little startled, but said, 'Yes.' Nels asked me, and I said, 'Yes.' We consider ourselves engaged, but we haven't set a date."
"Where's your ring?"
"At home in a wonderful little box that Nels gave me. It sits on my dresser. We all agreed that wearing it to school would raise issues that we don't want to deal with. Please keep this announcement confined to the Cavers."
Seth asked, "We haven't made any decision regarding the short term future of the Cavers, how could we make long term decisions?"
Evan said, "We still have a lot of thinking and talking to do about the short term, especially our participation in big meets. I suggest that we agree that there will be no changes in our lives for at least the next couple of weeks. We schedule no new meets, we keep up our practice. We adjust to school this fall and let Seth find out if he really can handle two gymnastics programs. There'll be plenty of time to allow our lives to change. In the meantime, we keep thinking and talking."
Nick said, "One thing we've learned: our parents aren't dumb and they're on our side. I think they may be able to be very helpful to us."
"Your parents would be startled to hear you say that, Nick."
"They would've been six months ago. I don't think so today."
"It's been an amazing six months."
"Let's get changed and hit the mat." They all headed into the changing room together. Changing together was now so routine that there was hardly any sexual element to it. However, for me at least, it wasn't completely gone. I liked looking at naked bodies, especially naked female bodies. The four female Cavers had particularly nice bodies! And then there was Mary who had the locker next to mine....
One late September evening Marty came down into the Cave and told us about a big gymnastics meet in Chicago in mid-October. It was an individual, invitational meet, and we could all get invitations based on the results of the meet in Minneapolis. He wasn't urging us to participate; he just felt it was his job to let us know where the opportunities were. We were all pretty enthusiastic about going, and told Marty to arrange for us to get invitations. When Fred heard of our plan he said, "It's a long drive, let's just charter a plane." I was used to Fred, the others weren't. Nor were their parents. The idea of a chartered plane for the Cavers was unheard of. However, Marty quickly assured everyone that Fred didn't make offers like this unless he was serious. As for the charge that Marty would have to make for participation (the club was, after all, a commercial enterprise) he would base it on the cost of a bus, not a chartered airplane!
Fred invited all the parents to go along to this meet-there was no extra cost to having them in the airplane. They decided that it was time for them to find out just how good their kids were, and so they accepted. We all stayed in a motel not far from the University of Illinois-Chicago where the meet would be held. The Cavers were registered two to a room, boys paired with boys, and girls with girls. Nels was booked in with his parents. There was a tacit understanding that actual room arrangements would be somewhat different-they roomed just as you might suspect they would. You would've been fooled, however, by the fact that Connie accepted Nick and Evan's invitation to spend the night with them. They weren't asked, and they didn't volunteer anything about what went on at night, though they spent both nights together.
Friday and Saturday, the two days of the meet, brought exciting times. The Cavers weren't able to dominate the meet as they had in Minneapolis. This was clearly higher level athletics. But they held their own very nicely. The invitations to this meet were limited to gymnasts who could compete in all events, six for the men, four for the women. That was required for team athletes in team events, so top athletes were able to do that. It eliminated those gymnasts that specialized in one or two events and thus were never part of team events. It was unusual for an individual competition like this not to invite the specialists, but that was the rule in Chicago.
All of the Cavers were able to compete in all events. Marty had stressed that from the very beginning, again not necessarily the norm for club gymnastics. All of the Cavers got at least a fourth in some event. Actually, Nick got a fourth on the pommel horse, and everybody else got at least a third in something. Lucy took top honors on the uneven bars, and I did the same in floor exercises. I was fifth on the high bar, but at age fourteen was the youngest in the top ten. Since I'd learned watching Uncle Tim, my moves were fearless and daring-for which Marty got unfairly criticized. Marty told me that all I had to do was polish my form and I was far and away better than any of them.
Considering the higher level of competition it was as brilliant a performance as we put on in Minneapolis, and it completely confirmed the Minneapolis results. We proved that the kids from the Marty Center were a force to be reckoned with on the national scene. On the flight home we decided that it was time for us to move, as a group, into top level gymnastics. We all admitted that we looked forward to being recognized as the best in the nation or even the world!
I'll add just one note about myself. I only shared this with Mary and my parents. I determined that I was going to go to UND a year early, so that we'd have at least one year in which the nine of us would compete together on the UND team. I knew that Billy had been able to make arrangements to do that, and I was sure that I'd be able to as well.
The 1990-91 school year turned out to be quite a year. The first of the group to make the cover of Sports Illustrated was Lucy, performing on the uneven parallel bars. By February she was ranked number one in the U.S. and she confirmed that in July at the USAG (USA Gymnastics, the national gymnastics sports body) nationals. As often as not she was scored a 10.0 and the lowest she got all year was a 9.8. Her routines were spectacular, and she was acquiring Tim's reputation of always sticking her landings-not just her uneven bar landings, all landings-just like Tim. The cover picture was taken by Mike at a practice session in the Cave, and he very carefully got Tim in the background cheering her on. (Yes, it's on Tim and Charlie's dining room wall, and it's number fourteen.) Tim figured in Mick's story that went with the cover as well.
I was nationally ranked in both floor exercises and the high bar. I'd taken my routine to new heights, and even Tim got nervous as he watched. They say that teens have immortality complexes, and as I look back on it mine seems to have been more extreme than most. Marty wouldn't allow me on the high bar unless either he, Tim, or Frank was present; he said that his coaching assistants simply weren't able to deal with the risks that I took. I've looked at some of the films of me in my high school and college years and they scare me. My releases and dismounts were breathtaking. I didn't stick landings as consistently as Tim did, but I was close.
I must've been a cocky little son-of-a-bitch, but Tim, Mary, and Marty all say that I wasn't. I guess the same thing could've been said about any of the nine of us, but we all seem to have been able to stay pretty much on an even keel. I think that the most important thing was that no single one of us was dramatically better than the others. We all had our specialities, and if you paired any two of us, one would be better in some events and the other would be better in other events. By the time we finished with the big national event for club gymnastics (officially the National Gymnastics Championship of the United States Association of Independent Gymnastic Clubs [USAIGC]) it was understood that the Marty Center was the best there was. Marty was continually asked what his coaching secret was, and few were willing to accept his answer, which was always, "Love and support. I love and support these kids, and they know it. They love and support each other, and all of them are more enthusiastic about the successes of the rest of the group than their own. It really is love and support." He never got too specific about the "love"!
I'll have to admit to one way in which I was a cocky little son-of-a-bitch, at least in Tim's eyes. Or, I would've been if I'd shared my thoughts with him. As it was, I only shared them with Mary, Marty and my parents: I really wanted an Olympic gold medal, and I thought I could win one. In 1992 I would be 16 and eligible for the Olympics in Barcelona. I dreamed of winning a medal on the high bar, but I knew it couldn't be gold. Nationally I was number two-at least on my list and Marty concurred. But number one was older, and quite honestly, better. On the world scene there were at least two gymnasts that could contest the gold, and that left me at number four. I dreamed, not completely unrealistically, that I could get the bronze. That kind of thinking and dreaming was perfectly acceptable to the Gang.
But my dreams went further: I realized that all of the three people that I thought might beat me in Barcelona would be retired from the scene by 1996, when I'd be twenty, and very likely in my prime. It had just been recently announced that the 1996 Olympics would be in Atlanta, and I was bound and determined to get gold there. In thinking that, I knew I was crossing Tim's line: it was OK to dream of a medal, but not to dream of a particular color. Tim got really upset at athletes that cried over silver or bronze. Tim had 18 medals and half were gold. He was as proud of the other half as he was of the gold. He hadn't cried over one of them; rather he'd stood with pride on the silver or bronze podium and accepted his medal. I hoped that I'd be able to do that if I got silver in Atlanta, but I wasn't sure.
At the USAG Nationals the Cavers came into their own. This was the true national stage. The best of the best were competing. This is the way Mick described it in the lead to his SI story: "Never in the history of individual sports has a single organization so dominated a national event. The Cavers program of the Marty Center at Grand Forks, North Dakota, so dominated the USAG National Gymnastics Meet last weekend that about all the other programs could do was shake their heads. The five men and four women gymnasts from the frozen wastes of North Dakota took tops in five of the ten individual events, won both the men's and women's all around, and took at least one of the three top positions in every event. And it looked like they were having a relaxing picnic in the park while they were doing it." All nine of us got our picture on the cover in a montage of us in action. I was caught in midair, looking like I was floating above the high bar. All but one of the pictures in the montage were Mike's; he was as happy as we were. Marty was beside himself; he'd started the Cavers program hoping that he might develop one or two Olympic gymnasts by 1992. Now it looked seriously like all nine of us might make it to Barcelona.
The meet had been in Iowa City and we'd gone in IT. All of our parents had come along in a second chartered bus, along with a number of Gang members, including Tim, Charlie and Fred. The trip back on Monday after the meet was a real upper. Everybody was on a high. We stopped every hour or so and traded people back and forth between the two busses. On the busses we sang, joked, and dreamed out loud of the future. As far as Marty was concerned, the sky was the limit. He told us, "I don't want to get your egos too inflated, but you guys are simply tops, unbeatable, stars, and the nicest bunch of kids I can ever imagine working with."
Our response was quite simple: "Marty, you're our coach. You get full credit, and we all are going to make sure the world knows that."
Marty replied, "You have a bunch of parents to thank. It was their philosophy of parenting that allowed you the freedom to be who you are. All of you need to take the time to thank them, loudly and often."
All of the Cavers, but only a couple of parents, were in IT when that was said. But the message was carried to every parent by every Caver, on the trip home and many times thereafter at home.
The first thing that happened on our return to Grand Forks was the telephones started to ring. College recruiters wanted to talk to all of us. We had a little private session in the Cave as soon as we realized what was happening. Austin opened the conversation, "Well, are we going to think about other colleges, or are we going to stick with UND?"
Seth said, "I'm very happy at UND. Frank is a good coach, and we can remain part of the Caver program while we're here. That's worked for me this year. But, if you all decide to go somewhere else, count me in. I think the most important thing is to stick together as a group."
Evan said, "When Michigan called me they made it plain that they'd be delighted to deal with us as a group. I think we could reach an agreement with just about any top gymnastics school we wanted."
Nick said, "Nuts. I'm sure that's true. And we could go to Frank and put pressure on him to make concessions at UND, if there are things we really wanted to push for. But I can't imagine this group going anywhere else. And I can't imagine this group not being welcomed at UND without the need to negotiate anything. I think we invite Frank over here, talk to him about our dreams, listen to his, and then make a decision. And I can't imagine any decision other than sticking with UND."
Lucy said, "Are we being fair-to ourselves and the other schools to not listen to what they're offering us?"
Seth said, "Every school is going to talk a good line; they can all paint very rosy pictures. And I think we'd do well at some, if not most, of the top schools. One thing you need to remember: we'll head off to college in different years. We aren't in the same grade. So we're going to be divided up as we migrate to any school other than UND over the next four years. On the other hand, if we choose UND, we can stay a unit at the Cave even while some are still in high school."
Austin said, "That's a key point."
I said, "Nuts to all of this. Why are we even having this conversation? We all know we want to stay as a group, stick with Marty, stick with Frank, have Tim as a mentor. It's all going to happen in Grand Forks and nowhere else. I'm glad we had this conversation, but it's going nowhere. We're going nowhere. Let's just tell the other schools that and be done with it."
Mary said, "He's right, you know."
Evan said, "Of course he is. We don't even need to bring Frank over to talk. Seth can tell us anything we need to know. But Seth's been telling us about what goes on at UND all along; there'll be no surprises."
The others agreed; it was settled. We all agreed that our standard answer to college recruiters was that we were all going to UND and the matter was settled. Those that were juniors and seniors could sign letters of intent with Frank to close off other school recruiters, but the rest of us simply needed to say, "No," and hang up the telephone. It didn't take long for the word to get out, and the phones eventually stopped ringing.
The next challenge for the Cavers came soon after that. Marty joined us one evening and said that he'd like to chat with us. He told us that there were three young gymnasts in his program that were rising to the top. They were a boy and girl in seventh grade and a girl in eighth grade. In the normal course of things they should've been part of the Caver program from the beginning of the summer, but he'd held off inviting them until he could talk to us.
Marty continued, "I know that you nine have something pretty special here. Not only have you achieved an incredible skill level, but you have a group cohesiveness that's fantastic. And we all know that you all have a special relationship with your parents that other kids coming along may not achieve. But I have to be able to move my best gymnasts up into my top program, or none of the kids coming along are going to be willing to stick with the program. I suppose that I could consider you a special group, and then create another group to absorb the next top kids coming along, but I don't have another Cave to put them in."
Seth said, "Marty, I think we have to take it as a given that we can't close the door to the Cave. It wouldn't be fair to the next kids along and it wouldn't be fair to you. Those kids are going to be separate from us in one way: they'll be too young for Barcelona. So as we open the Caver program to new kids, the nine of us will remain a special group, simply on the basis of our competing in the Olympic Trials. But we have a lot to share with the next generation of gymnasts, and we need to get started."
We all nodded or murmured our concurrence with that.
Seth went on, "But we know we have a problem, don't we? It's most visible in the locker room, but it's more than that. We've developed an openness with our parents that new kids may find hard to achieve. Our lives down here, our trips, the fact that our couples have sleepovers-all that's pretty strong stuff. Is another set of parents going to buy in?"
Marty said, "I've been thinking about that. Carl and Jim are willing to talk to the parents of these three kids. We'll see."
Janice said, "But we have to understand this: the Caver program is essentially a gymnastics program. The stuff we've been talking about is over and above. Unless there's unanimous support, we're going to have to go back to a more traditional model. It'll simply mean that our social relationships will have to move to our homes or somewhere. I hope that doesn't happen, but Marty's program has to come first."
Marty said, "I appreciate that, Janice. But the fact is that I think that what's been achieved here in gymnastics is completely involved in the entire ethos of the Caver group. It wouldn't be in my best interests to kill that. Let's just see what can be worked out. I certainly appreciate you all being accepting of new faces."
Carl, Carol and Jim talked about their strategy in approaching the parents of the three potential Cavers. It was agreed that Carl and Carol would invite the parents of the three young gymnasts to dinner. They'd save Jim, and other parents, for the second round if needed-and it probably would be.
Bert and I had to be absent for that dinner. Dad tried to bribe us with a pizza dinner, but Bert held out for steak. We rode our bikes to the Dakota Steak House and spent dinner enjoying T-bone steaks and speculating on how Mom and Dad were making out with their assignment. We headed from dinner to the Cave. Bert was allowed in the Cave because they knew he found out at home about everything that went on in the Cave. But he wasn't allowed in the locker room. He had to use Tim's bathroom. Since we lived in a "tell-all" family, we got a full report on the dinner conversation when we got home.
Dad had begun by getting everyone to introduce themselves. There were Carroll and Denise Western, parents of Dylan in seventh grade; Brian and Laura Bryant, parents of Julia in the seventh grade; and Eric and Debra Everett, parents of Lorrie in the eighth grade. The Westerns and the Bryants knew each other, because Dylan and Laura had become very good friends through their gymnastics. The Everetts didn't know either of the others. All three knew who Mom and Dad were, but they hadn't been introduced. Dad asked, "You say you know who we are; well, just what do you know?"
Carroll Western replied, "Carl, we saw you when Marty had the opening of the new gym; you spoke, remember? Rumor has it that you two are some of the brains behind the Cavers' success. Nobody ever talks in specifics, but we've been told that you've pushed the parents pretty far. That's really all I know. I guess we're here tonight to get the same push."
Dad smiled and said, "Well, I need to start with your promise of confidentiality. I'm glad to hear that the rumors haven't included specifics; that was certainly our intention. It's nobody's business what the kids do in the privacy of the Cave, nor of their homes."
Debra Everett responded, "You can count on that from us. Am I right, everybody?"
They all nodded or said, "Yes."
"OK, here goes. Basically we have a deal with the Cavers: they make the rules for the Cave and we accept the rules they establish-though we don't relinquish the right to comment and make suggestions. This is basically in recognition of the fact that we can make all the rules we want, but we have no means of enforcing them. Kids will do what kids will do, so we've agreed to stay out of the rule making business. In return, the kids have promised us truly open communication. Of course, open communication means that they have to be confident that they won't be condemned or punished for what they tell us. And we have to be willing to answer the same kinds of questions that we ask them. It's a recognition that communication has to be two-way or it isn't really communication."
Brian said, "That doesn't sound too radical."
Mom said, "Perhaps not. But let me give you an idea of how it works out in practice. The first rule, well it isn't really a rule.... The first thing they did in the Cave was make the boys locker room a unisex locker room. That way they can use the other locker room as a study hall."
"Yes, they all change together, shower together, get dressed together. It wasn't long before the kids that were couples were asking if they could spend the night at each other's houses. We told them that they made the rules, and they decided that sleepovers were OK. Nels and Mary spend most weekend nights together. Most of the other couples do as well."
"Good grief. That's certainly way beyond the rumors."
"Good. We don't need or want the town speculating about our kids. The kids are doing fine, and where they spend the night is their own business."
"Just what do they do at night?"
"That's where the open communication comes in. I really haven't talked to the other kids or their parents about specifics, but I have with my own. Nels and Mary don't have intercourse, but they do have orgasms together and they have oral sex."
Eric said, "I'm afraid that this is a little more than I can take."
Carroll said, "Hold on, Eric. Let's listen a little more. Carl, how do you know they aren't having intercourse?"
"Well, honestly, I think that most kids would find it easier to tell their parents they were fucking than that they were into fellatio and cunnilingus, especially if they had to use more vulgar terms because those were unfamiliar to them. We are able to have that kind of conversation, and the kids have been very open about what they do. We have no reason to believe they aren't telling the truth. If they told us they were having intercourse, they'd expect that to be accepted, and they know that our response would have to do with contraception, not condemnation."
"And you'd rather have them having oral sex than intercourse?"
"Of course, wouldn't you? And, more importantly, I'd rather know exactly what they are doing than have to guess-and certainly guess wrong."
"You've got a point."
Mom asked, "OK, your two kids are sort of dating. I realize that may not be the right word for seventh graders, but they do go to movies together, right?"
"Yes," said Brian, Julia's father.
"What do they do in the movies?"
"Watch the movies."
"How do you know? Ever asked them? If you asked them, would they answer truthfully?"
"My kids don't lie."
"Suppose that you asked Julia what went on in the movies and she answered by telling you that she had her hand inside Dylan's pants, tickling his balls. At the same time Dylan had his hand inside her pants, fingering her vagina. How would you react?"
"That would be the end of their dating."
"Does Julia know that?"
"So, if she was, in fact, doing those things, and you asked, would she tell you-knowing that if she told the truth she'd have to stop seeing Dylan?"
"I doubt it," said Carroll. Kids aren't dumb, they tell their parents what the parents want to hear.
Brian said, "Maybe."
"No maybe about it. None of us have the kind of communication with our kids that Carl and Carol are talking about, and we know it."
Eric said, "I'd like to change the subject a little. We understand that there're two gay boys in the Cavers, is that right?"
"Yes, Evan and Nick. They've been fairly open about it, so I'm not talking inappropriately to tell you that."
"Does that bother you?"
"No, should it?"
"And they're undressing in the locker room right along with the others?"
"Of course, where else would they change?"
"Are they spending nights together?"
"And you aren't worried about your Nels in that atmosphere?"
"Remember, I grew up with a gay brother. It's quite normal for me. And just so you know, it wouldn't surprise me if Nick and Evan didn't play around with Nels from time to time. It's not a big deal."
Debra said, "Well, we can't say that you haven't been pretty open and honest with us."
Eric said, "Let me understand this. You're describing the atmosphere of the Cave, a place that has virtually no restrictions on sex, but that demands honesty and integrity in return. And you're saying that Marty is ready to invite our kids to join that group. I suppose the implication is that they will be invited to join the group if we can go along with your rules, that is your non-rules."
Carol answered, "Well, there are two things wrong with that characterization. First, the kids themselves place the restrictions on the sex. They're pretty adamant that there will be no intercourse while they're in high school. And that comes from them, not their parents. Second, Marty is aware that his program depends on his top gymnasts being able to be part of the Cavers. So, the Cavers will have to change if newcomers can't play by the existing rules. What would happen is that they would move the social aspects of their relationship to their homes, or someplace outside the Cave. The Cave would become just a gymnastics venue. Now it's much more than that."
Carroll said, "And our kids wouldn't be part of the social aspects of the Cavers."
Carl replied this time, "We don't like putting it in quite such stark terms. The present Cavers are really very nice people, and they'd try their best to include everyone when they could. But if you, as parents, make rules that force them to exclude your children, then they'll have to be excluded."
He continued, "Let me add one thing. I can't prove this, and you can believe it or not as you wish. But I'm absolutely convinced that the open atmosphere in the Cave, the total acceptance of each other, the lack of fear of being exposed-I mean being naked-the love and support they give each other; I'm convinced that without that they wouldn't be nationally ranked gymnasts. There is a correlation. Marty is inviting your kids on a fantastic trip. But they need your unqualified permission if they're to have a chance of reaching their destination."
"Who all is in the Cavers? I don't think I know them all."
"Nels, Mary White, Nick Downing, Lucy Stone, Austin and Connie Lenner, Evan Dilton, Janice McKesson, and Seth Rogers."
Janice McKesson, Jim McKesson's daughter? Are you telling me that Jim McKesson bought into all this?"
Mom said, "I only met Jim as we were talking about the Cavers. He was probably the most reluctant, but now he's the most enthusiastic parent. But it must've been quite a change."
Dad said, "I think Janice was the most surprised by the change in her father. But, Eric, call Jim and talk to him. I think you'll be interested in what he has to say."
Eric did call Jim, and was almost overwhelmed by Jim's reaction. As soon as Jim understood the purpose of Eric's phone call he'd said, "This isn't the stuff of phone calls. Stay where you are, I'll be right over."
Six minutes later he marched into Eric and Debra's living room and said, "The best thing in the world that ever happened to Janice is becoming a Caver. I thought that Carl and Carol were mad as hatters, but I decided to go along-the rest of the group was convinced and I wasn't going to spoil things. But the more I listened, the more Carl made sense. I was the proverbial overprotective daddy. But what I didn't realize was that Janice had to learn to protect herself, and I wasn't helping her. A year ago that sweet talking Seth could've talked his way into her pants; not today. Don't get me wrong, Seth wouldn't have done that. Janice picked a winner with Seth. She did that without me. But now she has my support, Seth's parents support, the support of the other Cavers; it's wonderful. She's grown up a decade in this year. If Lorrie has a chance to join that group, she should jump at it. And don't you two stand in the way. And learn from the other parents. It's a great group."
Eric said, "I don't believe I'm hearing this from my friend, Jim McKesson."
"You knew the old Jim McKesson. Now you're talking to the new guy. The guy that Janice says must've done away with her father and taken his body."
They laughed at that, and at that moment the way opened for the Cavers to expand, by three.
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