This is Tim again. There is nothing special about this episode that needs me as the narrator instead of Charlie. Charlie just thought I might like a chance to write an episode, and he suggested this one. I took the bait.
It's strange that living in Grand Forks the Gang was almost totally focused on the summer Olympics. You would've thought that the winter Olympics would've gotten more of our attention. Even growing up in Minneapolis, my interest had always been in diving and gymnastics, not the ice or snow sports. Hal had tried speed skating for a year; I think he did pretty well. But he found that it strained muscles in a way that interfered with his running, and nothing was allowed to interfere with Hal's running.
As far as the Olympics were concerned, the winter Olympics always took place right about the time that we summer Olympians were hardest at work training, i.e. the winter before the summer games. The decision of the IOC in 1986 to move the winter games to the even year between the summer games changed all that. Beginning in 1994 with the Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the winter Olympics would have center stage for the two years that followed the summer Olympics. Then, following the winter Olympics, the summer Olympics would have center stage for two years. It was much better for all concerned. It also served to get me, and Charlie and the others, to think more about the winter games.
While North Dakota was certainly cold enough for participation in winter sports, in the flat Dakotas alpine skiing was pretty much out of the question. There were a few ski hills, but they didn't amount to much more than a joke. North Dakota is simply too flat for alpine skiing. There weren't any ski jumps, so that was out of the question. Likewise bobsled runs were lacking. That left nordic skiing and ice skating. The more Charlie and I thought about winter sports, and the winter Olympics, the more we thought of nordic skiing. There were a number of groomed cross-country trails fairly near Grand Forks, including some in the city parks in Fargo. In Minnesota, Old Mill State Park seemed to have the closest decent trails, and there were quite a few good trails in the western part of North Dakota. One weekend we set out for Old Mill State Park to pick the brain of a park ranger there that seemed, on the telephone, to be pretty knowledgeable about cross-country skiing, which Charlie and I were not. We learned a lot, but it wasn't exactly what we wanted to hear.
First and foremost we learned that cross-country skiing was in turmoil about skiing styles. Traditionally cross-country skiers kept their skis parallel to each other and slid them forward alternately. They used skins, waxes, and ski surfaces to make the skis only slide forward. Beginning in the 1970's but really only taking hold in the 1980's was the skating style of skiing. Skiers used shorter skis and worked them somewhat like ice skates: one pointed forward and the other pushed to the side gripping the snow with the edge of the ski. Racers quickly found that the skating technique was faster, but its use spoiled the trails for traditional skiers. About half of groomed trails, except those designed for race training, were designated for traditional skiing only. That was true of all of the trails at Old Mill State Park. Since Old Mill was a little over an hour away from Grand Forks, we weren't thinking of being able to have students regularly use their trails; thus the fact that they weren't open for skate skiing wasn't a problem. However, it meant that any trails constructed nearer to the university were going to run into the fact that most recreational skiers wanted traditional trails and racers wanted unrestricted trails. That meant it was going to be difficult to get outdoor enthusiasts to support trails that would generally only be liked by competitive skiers.
Then we were hit with another issue that we hadn't even dreamed of. We didn't have enough snow! It sure felt to Charlie and me that we had plenty of snow in this north country, but upon reflection, we realized that there was usually a pretty thin snow cover around Grand Forks. At Old Mill they averaged about 50" inches a year, but as you moved west it got less. While 50" sounds like a lot, it really isn't when it's spread over three and a half to four months. Good skiable trails would seldom be available without interruption through a complete winter. That would throw any kind of training routine into chaos.
We were told that Michigan Tech in Houghton, in the middle of the Keweenaw Peninsula, had one of the best cross-country ski programs in the country. Sticking out into Lake Superior, the Keweenaw got huge piles of snow, varying between 150 and 250 inches per year. They had extensive ski trails right adjoining the campus, and they could be counted on for at least three and a half months of good skiing each winter. Jocko, our very friendly and knowledgeable Minnesota State Park Ranger and cross-country ski informant, told us, "That's what you need for a quality Nordic ski program, and you just ain't got it in North Dakota. At least not in eastern North Dakota."
By this time we'd been with Jocko for about an hour and a half and it was getting on to lunch. We offered to take him to lunch on his lunch hour and he accepted, but told us, "I generally have to carry my lunch, there's no place to buy lunch near the park. But I have to head over to our administrative office in Argyle this afternoon, so I can join you for lunch there. There's a nice little diner, or a steakhouse. But the steakhouse only serves lunch in the bar. Dining room is dinner only. Let's meet at Dawn's Diner."
We did, and had a decent, but not spectacular, lunch with Jocko at Dawn's. His parting words to us were, "It'd be great to see recreational Nordic skiing at UND, but forget about competition. You ain't got the right land, and you ain't got the right weather. Oh, yeah. Thanks for lunch."
We assured him that the trip and lunch were well worth it. We were stopped dead in our tracks thinking about Nordic skiing for UND, and the sooner we got stopped the better. We wouldn't look foolish and we wouldn't waste any more time. And so, with our tails between our legs, we headed back to Grand Forks. It'd been an interesting day.
On the way home we were silent for the first twenty minutes or so, and then Charlie said, "Well, Tim, that leaves ice skating if you want UND to be involved in the winter Olympics. And that's where we should've started. We're so focused on individual sports in the Gang that we forget team sports. Jimmy got a team archery medal, and you got a team gymnastics medal, but those were really individual sports."
I replied, "True. But teams compete for the United States, not North Dakota or UND."
"And that's true. But individuals come from states and universities. We both have been forgetting a University of North Dakota winter gold medalist."
"I'll be honest; I've completely forgotten him, if I ever knew who he was."
"Oh, you did. You shook his hand in congratulations."
"Hockey!" I exclaimed. " How did we, or I, forget Dave's gold medal? He was part of the Miracle on Ice in 1980 when the U.S. beat the Russians for the gold medal. But when did I congratulate him?"
"Not after the Olympics. I'm pretty sure that he turned pro right after the Miracle Game, and headed straight to one of the Canadian teams. Winnipeg, I think. But he played for UND the two previous seasons, and in 1979 UND played Minnesota in the NCAA national championship game. UND lost, but they were still heroes-especially to you, because you never knocked anybody, or any team, for being second best."
I said, "That was just after I became President. I remember. But I wasn't personally invested in the hockey team, so it didn't last in my memory. In football I found the coach and put my prestige on the line in hiring him. Our hockey success is simply that of good management in the athletics department and good coaching, both of which I inherited from Prexy."
"Right. And Dave comes from a whole family of hockey players: father, uncle and I think a brother. At least one played for UND. They all have Olympic medals."
"Where are they from? North Dakota?"
"Somewhere in northern Minnesota, I think. We can check the alumni records when we get home."
Well, the conversation did stir my interest in UND Ice Hockey. But it was already a well developed sport, and didn't need my involvement to be successful. It isn't a wise move for a university president to get involved in things that are going well. I needed to spend my time and energy on either new things or things that weren't going well. Luckily, since I had a really great predecessor, I spent most of my time on new things and not fixing broken ones.
Charlie and I eventually found time at dinner a couple of days later to continue our conversation about the winter Olympics. I said, "OK, as far as the winter Olympics are concerned, we're talking about ice skating. Hockey's fine here, but there are no individual medals. That leaves speed skating and figure skating. What're the possibilities?"
Charlie said, "Well, you have a good start here in that virtually everyone skates, and they begin very young. The big emphasis is on hockey, and then racing. Kids can race anywhere there's ice, and they don't need coaching to participate-just like running. Of course, they need good coaching and training to be any good, but not to participate. That isn't true for figure skating. Doing any kind of real figures requires a coach and practice. It's a lot like your diving and gymnastics. Like speed skating, any kid can dive, even if he needs a coach to be any good. But put a kid on parallel bars or a pommel horse and he can't do anything without a coach, just like figure skating."
I said, "So what you're saying is that if we want to see figure skating take hold here we might like to look at gymnastics as the model."
"Yeah, I think so. Gymnastics took hold in Grand Forks because of two efforts. First, you started a club at the university. Second, Marty started the Marty Center. The program at the university was somewhat successful because it managed to snag the top U.S. gymnast."
"Thanks, but I think you're inflating my ego."
"Oh, don't be silly. You were tops then; you may still be, but you don't compete anymore. And your presence made gymnastics fly at UND. But it's only now coming into its own as Marty supplies a new generation of really top gymnasts to the university program. Remove the Marty Center and you have only so-so gymnastics at UND."
I said, "All that's true, and there's a big fly in the ointment."
"Yes. Decent practice and performance equipment for gymnastics isn't cheap, but it doesn't even compare to ice. I'll bet we spend more to buy and maintain two Zambonis than the whole equipment cost of the gymnastics team."
"Yes, and making ice available for year-round practice, which would be needed for top level figure skaters would be very expensive."
I said, "Charlie, we're going to have to think a lot about this. And I suspect that we should start by including Fred in our discussions."
Fred was enthusiastic about the whole thing, but agreed that the finances were daunting. He mused, "Any winter sports program that could produce Olympians would have to operate year round. Operating a winter sports program year round is very expensive. I think your analysis of the sports other than skating is correct-North Dakota simply isn't the right place for them. Let me ponder on skating."
A few days later we got together again and he continued his thinking. "Look, we have a perfectly good performance venue in the Ralph [the Ralph Engelstad Arena-over time there were two such facilities, the original was in use at this time, the new one used today hadn't yet been dreamed of]. It's great for hockey, and could handle figure skating and racing events, as long as they were carefully scheduled around the hockey schedule. The rest of the year you don't need a performance facility, you need a practice facility. That's much cheaper. The trouble is, you need several separate rinks; just like Marty has found that one gymnastics venue wasn't enough and he built the Cave. Toss in racing, and you need at least three rinks. And you might as well factor in the demand for year round public skating. If you don't have that, you'll have no public support for the thing. Four specialized rinks; at least a half dozen pairs of locker rooms for different teams, visitors, public use, etc.; offices, storage-it won't be cheap. Let me get Carl to play with a design. Trouble is, Carl doesn't like 'cheap' to be one of his design criteria, but in this case it'll have to be, if we're going to build it."
I said, "The hockey team isn't going to take kindly to the rest of the skaters having a year round facility and their not having one. The Ralph is used for too much else the rest of the year to lay down ice for practice in the spring and summer. Add a hockey rink, even without stands, and you up the ante quite a bit."
Charlie said, "Not really. The public skating area you're talking about could double as a practice hockey rink if it were built right. The time demands wouldn't be so great that those two uses couldn't share. Remember, the time when public skating is most popular is winter, when we're maintaining ice in the Ralph."
Carl was glad for the opportunity for creative designing, but he told us that Dirk was really the man for the job. So Dirk and Pam-Pam Zimmerman one of the architects Carl had hired with Dirk in his first round of hires-went to work on a design. They got Franz, whose speciality was school design, involved, because he'd included rinks in a couple of the schools he'd designed. Franz was used to working with very cost conscious design committees, so the instruction to "do it cheap" didn't bother him.
The design was tricky. Obviously you needed to put the four rinks fairly close together on one floor. The question was where to put offices and locker rooms. If you put a basement under a rink, it's very expensive. If you expand your footprint for locker rooms and offices, you add to land costs on a building that's going to have a pretty big footprint just for the rinks. Their design put the locker rooms in a basement ring around the outside of the building, under the needed parking lots. We hadn't really understood this when we began, but the long track speed skating events needed a very long track, much larger than a hockey rink. In fact, Carl's final design placed the hockey rink, short track speed skating rink, and figure skating rink all inside the long track oval. Since the hockey rink was designed exclusively for practice, it was placed in the center, with the offices on a second floor centered over it. There had to be some space between the rinks for some seating, refrigeration equipment, Zamboni storage, etc. The main seating was outside the long track oval. The second floor then added a little additional seating with a narrow balcony. Four large wind turbines on the roof-well ahead of their time-generated electricity for refrigeration, which was needed all day and all night most of the year. That had been Carl's contribution to the design, and it would significantly reduce the cost of operating the facility.
So we had a lovely building design with no place to put it and no plan to raise the money to pay for it. It wasn't even clear who should own it. We considered making it another university facility, having it owned by Fred's Sports, or creating a skating club to own it. Fred suggested that we create a completely independent corporation to build and own it. Then all of the using groups, including the university, would pay rent to the corporation. It could be a non-profit, or a regular stock corporation. He pointed out, "If it's a non-profit we go and solicit gifts. But if it's a stock corporation, we sell stock and everybody that puts up money has an equity share in the building. If it's really successful, they get dividends. If not, they get the pride of ownership. And at $100 per share, a lot of little people can share in that ownership."
Fred's Sports bought the first block of shares. Every member of the Gang bought at least one share, and a number of us bought more. Fred's little investment trust that supported the Gang bought a block of shares. The university endowment bought a symbolic ten shares. That was all behind the scenes. The public sale throughout Grand Forks, the university community, and the entire state was unbelievably successful. With very little effort we had the 2.34 million dollars that covered Carl's estimate. The final bids came in within 10% of that figure, and we were off and running. It's almost boring to point out that it was on time and under budget (but by only .12 %).
It was an ass-backwards way to go about developing a skating program. Whoever heard of building a facility and only when construction had started going looking for users of the facility? We realized that we were taking the previous year's movie, Field of Dreams, as our prototype! We were accused of being just about that realistic! But events proved the phrase, "If you build it, they will come."
Finished in late summer of 1991, the building was immediately dubbed the Fred, to go along with the Ralph, which was the nickname of the hockey arena. We were pretty sure that the Fred would get heavy use by local skaters. The university hockey team was delighted to have a summer practice facility. A Grand Forks Figure Skating Club was formed to encourage young people to take up the sport in a serious way. The club got enough members to be able to hire a fairly good coach for beginning and intermediate level figure skaters. No organized racing got started, and so Fred decided that Fred's Sports would sponsor a racing league. That was slow to take off, but eventually became a major user of the Fred.
I was interested in developing Olympic skating-figure skating and racing and realized that a racing program took a critical mass of racers in order to have the competition needed for a good program. On the other hand, figure skating only took one top flight skater and one Olympic level coach to make it into the big leagues. The question was, where would we get him, her, or them? Honestly, we were going to have to steal them from some other program that couldn't offer them the same facility, sponsorship, love and support that we might offer.
I need to step back from the narrative a little and remind you of the seismic changes taking place in Olympic sports. The Olympics were in the midst of the great switch to allow professional athletes to participate. The 1992 Games in Barcelona would feature the Dream Team, made up of American professional basketball players. The changes were implemented sport by sport, as the decision was left to each individual international sports federation. By the 21st century, all sports, except boxing, permitted professional athletes to compete in the Olympics. Skating followed in step with the other sports, but the change had less immediate impact. Professional skaters were either coaches or members of touring skating shows, the most famous of which was the Ice Capades. But it wasn't possible to train for the Olympics and be on the road with the Ice Capades, so shows like that had traditionally become the home of successful amateurs after their competitive careers. That wouldn't change with the changing of Olympic rules. Of course, for the very successful competitors, endorsement money now would be available, and accepting it wouldn't disqualify you for the Olympics. However, for up and coming amateurs, endorsements were few, if not impossible. Corporations wanted to hitch their wagons to big names, and that meant already having Olympic gold or silver. That didn't mean that potential future stars didn't have their eyes on the cash prize in ways that prior Olympians never did.
In this atmosphere I was ready to go look for future Olympians to bring to Grand Forks and be resident skaters at the Fred. The Fred had hired both a manager and a resident skating coach, a young man named Hamilton Burgess, Ham for short. Ham was a good figure skater, but never had made it to the top. But he'd also been involved in short track speed skating, which made him valuable for the Fred. Ham would be a beginning level coach for both figure skating and speed skating, but his main responsibility would be to organize a complete coaching program. While any world class coaches that we might be able to recruit would, theoretically, be part of his coaching team, he understood that prima donnas are not easily supervised, and that his role with them would be essentially to let them alone!
With all of that background, Charlie and I sat down and talked about where we might find top level skaters and coaches. He pointed out that we were at a unique juncture of the winter Olympics. The Games in Albertville in February of 1992, would be the last on the old schedule of having the winter and summer Olympics in the same year. The new schedule would begin in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. That meant that, this one time, there'd only be two years between the two Olympics, and that meant that a lot of competitors from Albertville would be planning to stick with it through 1994. Charlie said, "Tim, we head to Albertville and look over the crowd of competitors coming in 6th through 12th. Among them will be the stars of Lillehammer. Then we need to try to guess which will fit into a program that emphasizes love and support; that isn't going to appeal to everybody."
So off we went to France, to watch ice skating: racing, dancing, figure skating-Ham, Charlie, Fred and me. It was the first winter Olympics for any of us-the winter Olympics always came right in the middle of practice season for the summer Olympics, and I'd never paid much attention to them, except to watch on television. I'll have to admit that a gay man finds male figure skating to be a delight to watch, and now I was going to be seeing it in person.
We were looking for three things: people who were technically competent; had a certain "spark" that we couldn't define, but we all generally agreed we'd "know it when we saw it;" and could work within our mantra of "love and support." The last could only be determined by talking with the skaters and talking with their fellow skaters, friends, and coaches. That would be a tricky business.
We didn't feel limited to Americans. We liked the idea of foreign skaters training at the Fred, and representing their own countries in world competition, including the Olympics. On the other hand, we had real reservations about skaters who didn't have a good command of English. We felt that it'd be important for them to fit into whatever group of skaters developed around the Fred, and a language barrier would make that difficult. So, while we didn't rule out those who didn't speak English well, in all honesty we didn't look very hard at them, nor did we recruit any.
We ended up with a short list of about six racers, one dance team, a figure skating pair, and two men and two women solo figure skaters. These we'd try to get background information on before we made any approach to them about coming to Grand Forks. We learned of skaters subject to temper tantrums, depression, hostility to other skaters, estrangements from girl/boyfriends and spouses, etc. But we also learned of skaters that seemed to be, in the eyes of colleagues and friends, "salt of the earth." Our list came down to one man and one woman speed skaters, a dance pair and a figure skating pair, and one male figure skating soloist. We approached them all and told them who we were and that we'd like to talk to them about the possibility of their moving their training venue to the Fred. All were willing to talk. All but one pair came across as the kind of athletes we wanted in Grand Forks. All had heard of me, and liked the idea of being involved in a program that I was involved with. All of them raised the question of not leaving their coaches, and were assured that any offer made to them would involve an invitation to their coaches. Of course, we had no idea whether we could entice their coaches, but the Fred, with a good financial base, was willing to pay pretty good coaching salaries.
Our conversations with the two pairs are worth repeating. The dancers, a couple named Janie Barton and Jack Kozerak, were quite good. They'd come in 8th in the Olympics and looked to a bright future that certainly included Lillehammer. Ham was enthusiastic about their technical skills, and knew their coach by reputation. They trained at a facility in Buffalo, New York, and Ham thought that we might be able to entice their coach to move to Grand Forks. Charlie raised one issue: "Did you see how enthusiastic they were at the end of their folk dance? They clearly thought they'd nailed it, and were ecstatic. But they never hugged each other, much less kissed. Tim, can you imagine you and Billy scoring that kind of success in a tandem diving demonstration and not hugging each other, probably kissing?"
I said, "Charlie, I'm sure that they're worried about what people would say. One is married and the other engaged, and they feel that they ought not hug and kiss."
Charlie replied, "I'm sure that's true, but I'd like to talk to them about it, if and when we start having serious conversations about their coming to Grand Forks. We're hoping to build a cohesive group of skaters, and as far as I'm concerned the Cavers are our model. They hug and kiss. And we know that it supports their performances."
Well, we did have serious conversations with Janie and Jack about coming to Grand Forks. The deal we'd offer if both parties agreed, was that the Fred would provide a place to live, an allowance large enough to cover food and essentials, free use of the Fred and its coaching staff, including their coach who would be invited to join the staff of the Fred, at a salary considerably higher than he was now earning. Our conversations with the pair talked about their aspirations as skaters, and in life, their practice schedules, their college plans, and their relationships to each other, to their spouse and spouse to be, and to their coach. After about an hour Charlie raised the question of why the emotions expressed after their very successful program were individual, instead of together. Charlie said, "In that situation, I can't imagine not hugging my partner and almost certainly kissing him."
Jack, Janie, and their romantic partners were all present; the response came from Janie, the married one of the pair, "We've worked hard to avoid any romantic entanglement. We both are romantically involved elsewhere."
I said, "You can't help but be deeply emotionally involved in each other, even while you're romantically involved elsewhere. And I assume that your spouses know and accept that."
"And they accept that you spend hours and hours together, on a regular basis."
This time the response came from both spouses, "Of course."
"And you aren't jealous."
"Yes, we're sure. The four of us've talked about this quite a bit."
Charlie said, "You know, Tim and I are part of a long line of Olympic medalists that're connected to Grand Forks. I'd be lying to you if I tried to claim that sexual relationships haven't been a part of the success of the group. Never at the expense of spouses or partners, but reflecting deep emotional attachments of a different sort. A sort that's often part and parcel of sport. Does that shock you?"
Jack said, "No. I'll be honest, I have to control my emotions quite often or I'd grab Janie and hug and kiss her to death when things go right. And I do find myself holding her when things go wrong-which is often enough."
Charlie asked Janie's husband, Artie, if that bothered him.
"No. It sort of goes with the territory."
I turned to Jack's fiancée, Naomi, "How about you?"
I asked, "OK, let's cut to the chase. If you thought that Jack and Janie having a sexual relationship would improve their skating together, would it upset either of you?"
Naomi answered, "I don't think that a sexual relationship would improve their skating, so the question is moot."
I said, "I'm not sure about whether it would improve their skating as such. But a key to ice dancing is working as a pair. I know for a fact that my tandem diving with Billy Carson is vastly improved by the fact that we have a deeply sexual relationship. A relationship that Billy's wife, and my partner, Charlie, fully support. I can almost guarantee that their work as a pair would improve if they had an honest sexual relationship, supported by their spouses."
Artie said, "That's pretty strong stuff. Do you say stuff like that in TV interviews."
I said, "Indeed I do not. And I'm trusting you not to repeat it outside this company."
Janie said, "I'll use your idiom, let's cut to the chase. Are you telling us that if we accept your offer to skate in Grand Forks that we'd be expected to have a sexual relationship with our skating partner?"
I said, "No, certainly not. The relationship you have with your partner is your business, and if we pushed you into something you were uncomfortable with, it would be disastrous. But we'd like to think that conversations like this wouldn't be offensive to you, and that you'd think about our comments with an open mind."
Charlie added, "And not be offended if others in your group of skaters, and other athletes in Grand Forks, do explore their sexuality. We can assure you that no one will ever try to push you where you don't want to go."
Jack said, "Fair enough. And I'll have to say that you've given us food for thought. I'm not sure that any of us are ready to eat it, however."
I said, "OK, I'm ready to extend you two an invitation to join the skating team at the Fred. Ham's had a preliminary conversation with your coach, and we think he'll be willing to join the staff of the Fred and continue as your coach. Artie and Naomi can move to Grand Forks as part of the package."
The deal was quickly sealed, and the Fred had its first Olympic level skaters. They'd be moving from their homes in Buffalo in the near future.
Our conversation with the pair of figure skaters went sour almost instantly. The minute Charlie mentioned hugging, the two skaters became almost frozen. Just the idea that they might hug each other after skating together was anathema. The matter wasn't pursued, and we let the conversation come to as quick an end as we could. It was quite clear that they'd be very quickly offended by things that we take for granted in Grand Forks-at least in our circle of friends and athletes in Grand Forks.
We issued invitations to all of the others on our short list, and they all accepted. These were Jersey Newcomb, a male (in case the name didn't help you) distance speed skater from, yes, New Jersey; Merry Riley, a distance speed skater from Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Brian Bert, a figure skater from Fairbanks, Alaska, who was delighted to move to the warm clime of North Dakota. He was warned, but didn't take our warning seriously! All had placed at least mid-field in their events in Albertville. It meant that we'd be adding coaches from Buffalo, Newark, Winnipeg, and Fairbanks to the staff of the Fred.
It also meant that we had five skaters that would make up the core of the top level group of skaters at the Fred. Except as they'd met each other during the Olympics and at other competitive events, they were strangers to each other. Charlie and I knew, as did Ham and Fred, that building a strong group cohesiveness would be essential to the success of the individuals in the group. We had no experience in trying to develop a group cohesiveness in this kind of situation. The Gang were thrust together for two weeks at camp, with no expectations of the group remaining a group after the end of camp. In fact, the Gang had no sense of being a long-term group until well after their time of being Camp White Elk campers. The Circle had come together as the result of independently issued invitations to live in Charlie's and my old house. It slowly grew into the group that it had now become. The Cavers had long experience together before they thought of themselves as the Cavers. But here we were, expecting, or at least wishing for, "instant group." Upon reflection, we realized that simply wasn't going to happen. Any efforts that we made to force the creation of group cohesiveness might well backfire and work against it.
The skaters had all been promised housing in Grand Forks, and Ham told them what the maximum was that they could spend on rent. Then they were on their own to find housing, with the help of a real estate agent recommended by Fred. Jack approached Ham with what he considered to be an awkward question. "I know that you've invited Namoi, my fiancée, to come with me to Grand Forks. Are you, and the community, going to be comfortable if we share an apartment or house?"
Ham chuckled and replied, "Nobody's going to bat an eyelash. I'm sure that that's what Fred expected when he authorized our inviting you."
We weren't providing housing to the new coaches, because they'd be getting a good salary and were expected to arrange their own housing. However, the Fred was paying moving expenses, which included the cost of searching for and buying a new house. Fred hooked them up with a different agent from the same office to help them search for houses.
They all ended up fairly close to the Fred, but spread out in different directions-all except Janie and Jack, who ended up renting both sides of a double bungalow (a duplex to those of you not from the Northern Tier). Charlie and I immediately wondered if the arrangement had sprung from our conversations about sexuality. Regardless, we were very glad to see them choosing to live close together, as we knew that it'd be vitally important for them to have a close personal relationship if they were going to continue a successful skating partnership-and we were all thinking of successful as meaning getting an Olympic medal (no color specified).
About all that we could do to enhance their group cohesiveness was to invite them to dinner from time to time as a single group consisting of the four, Janie, Artie, Jack, and Naomi, and the three individual skaters, Jersey, Merry, and Brian. As far as we could tell, they got along very well and seemed to support each other in their skating. It was too soon to expect more.
Interestingly enough, it was our foursome's youngest child, Shel, that broke the ice with this group. Fred and Fred's Sports were key players in the planning and execution of the Fred. And when Fred's Sports was involved, Andy was involved, as he was, by this time, Fred's full partner in the management of the business. Andy's family-the foursome, including their four children-got regular reports on the progress of the Fred, and none were more eager to see it completed than Shel, their youngest. Like most denizens of the Northern Tier, Shel had learned to skate at an early age. With all the talk of the Fred, and the idea of bringing Olympic level skaters to be based at the Fred, Shel decided that he'd like to become a figure skater. In the environment that he lived in, deciding to become a figure skater meant that you had designs on an Olympic medal. While everyone would've been very happy for Shel to just continue to skate casually, and maybe ask the coaches at the Fred for a few pointers on how to execute skating figures, once he decided that he really wanted to be a figure skater, it was assumed that he was going to put heart and soul into the sport.
As soon as the Fred was finished and open, Shel arranged for regular lessons from Ham and another coach on the staff, and he was off. Ham reported that he was, in Ham's words, "a natural." As soon as our Olympic skaters arrived, he was at the rink introducing himself to them.
Our new coaches-there were four-were just getting used to the procedures of the Fred when Shel thrust himself upon them. Ham explained that as a "Platinum" member of the Fred, Shel was entitled to coaching by the entire staff, but that the availability of the top level coaches depended on the demands of the skaters they'd been brought to Grand Forks to coach. But Shel was so cute, so good, so enthusiastic, and so polite, that he was able to con a great deal of coaching time from everyone.
And I do mean everyone: the Olympic figure skaters we'd invited to Grand Forks were his special targets. He very quickly started to play "monkey see, monkey do" with all of them. He'd join them at the rink during practice, and copy their moves. Brian reported to Ham that there was very little that he, Brian, could do that Shel couldn't mimic. His form needed cleaning up, but if Brian did a toe loop, so did Shel. It wasn't long before Shel was attempting doubles, and not long after that that he was connecting with his doubles. Brain reported that he worked on triples when Shel was in school, because he was afraid that Shel would attempt a triple, and it was too soon for that.
Shel had no fear of falling, and in fact seemed to bounce on the ice regularly. He'd go down and bounce up, and immediately retry whatever it was that had floored him. He did wear a light helmet and knee and elbow pads when he was pushing himself in new things-which was nearly all the time.
Shel, quite innocently, moved things along for the group. One day he was mirroring Brian by copying his moves from the opposite end of the rink. Brian did a double Axel, the hardest of the double moves, without thinking that that was beyond Shel's experience. Shel copied the move and landed the double. It was a wobbly landing, and very sloppy, but he'd done the double Axel! Brian was startled, and a little embarrassed that he'd led Shel into that hard a move. When he'd completed his Axel he'd realized what he'd done and turned to watch Shel take the inevitable fall. When he didn't fall, Brian skated over to him, lifted him up, and hugged him to share his joy in succeeding in the move. Shel, quite used to the ways of the Gang, accepted the hug, but instead of turning his head to facilitate being hugged, he aimed straight for Brian's lips and gave him a big sloppy kiss!
Shel immediately realized that Brian was outside the Gang and not really a "kissing cousin." He backed off. Brian, at first startled, found being kissed by the loveable Shel, to be a real upper. The first kiss led to a fairly quick separation, and then both seemed to rethink things, and both grabbed each other for a second kiss-which they held seemingly for ages.
Shel said, "That was nice, thanks."
Brian, a little nervously answered, "I think maybe we went a little too far."
Shel, not one to mince words, said, "As long as you leave my dick alone, we aren't going too far." Having made that announcement, he jumped up, grabbed Brian around the neck, and kissed him again. Shel continued, "You're a super teacher. Thanks."
Brian ended his practice session shortly after that, heading to the locker room and showers. Almost as soon as he'd turned on his shower, Shel walked in and took the shower head next to him. After the kiss and Shel's comment, Brian was a little concerned about the implications of showering next to Shel. He thought for a minute and then said, "Shel, do you think we ought to talk a little?"
"Sure," said Shel. "And I know what about. You're concerned about the crack about my dick."
"I sure am."
"Good. That means that you clearly understand that I'm sexually off limits. But we can talk, kiss, ogle, and dream. Touching is forbidden by the rules of the society that say kids're off limits to adults. I'm a kid and you're an adult. It's too bad."
"Shel, what're you saying?"
"I'd love to suck your dick. And I'll bet you'd like it."
"Don't worry. I know the rules. My parents have been very explicit. Any playing around would end my figure skating dreams, and probably your career. So it won't happen. But we'll both be better off if we know where we stand. So, wouldn't it be fun to have me suck your dick?"
"Shel, do you think I'm gay?"
"Hell, Brian, I don't think you're gay. I'm damn sure of it."
"What makes you so sure?"
"The way your eyes follow me around. I'm right, aren't I?"
"Yes. You are."
"Well, I have no idea whether I'm gay or not; I'm too young. At least that's what my parents say. But they also believe that there's a little gay and a little straight in everybody. It's my little bit of gay that would like to suck your dick."
"This conversation is getting me hard."
"Boners go with the territory. Getting hard isn't abusing a child."
"I have the feeling that I'm talking to an older teenager, not a nine-year-old."
"I'm almost ten."
"Going on twenty."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Back to the subject at hand. Now that we both know where we stand, it should be very easy to maintain the right limits. Much as I'd like to, I won't reach over and tweak your dick, and you won't try to tickle my balls. But you can dream, and I assure you that I will."
"And you think that we can continue to skate together and not get in trouble?"
"Of course. No problem."
"I don't think we should tell people about this conversation."
"Oh, yes, we should. Starting with my parents. Secrets get you in trouble; the truth out in the open is your best protection. I don't think we need to broadcast it any further than that, but I'll share all of this with my parents tonight."
"You have that kind of conversation with your parents?"
"Sure. All of the COGs do."
"Children Of the Gang. That's what we call ourselves. But I guess you don't know what the Gang is, do you?"
"I've heard a couple of people refer to it, but without any explanation."
"Well, it's a group of men who met as boys at a camp in Michigan, and have stayed a group ever since-I guess almost thirty years. It now includes their wives, parents, and a few that have been added. The key players are Tim and Charlie, my parents, Fred and Marty. You'll get to know them all. Their children are kind of a group. We call ourselves cousins, but we aren't. COG is a term the kids use; the adults don't much."
"And you all have the kind of open communication with your parents that you're talking about?"
"Definitely. And the Gang did with their parents, after they met Charlie."
"How does he fit in?"
"He was their camp counselor. He encouraged the open communication with their parents."
"I'm over my head."
"Don't worry, you'll catch on. Just remember, that you're going to meet a lot of Gang members while you live in Grand Forks, and they're all super people. Four of the original eight were Olympic medalists-that should tell you something."
"I think we've taken a long enough shower. Shall we get dried off and get dressed?"
"Good idea." They headed for the locker area, where Shel'd managed to get a locker on the bench opposite Brian. They would be watching each other get dressed! Shel continued his conversation. "Look, Brian, sex with me is off limits. But you need some kind of sexual outlet if you're going to be a top level skater. That's true for all five of you Olympians. You need to get talking to each other."
"Out of the mouths of babes. That's sort of what Dr. Tim was telling us."
"He just wants to be called Tim."
"Is that was you call him?"
"No, to the COGs he's Uncle Tim."
"Shel, it's been quite fascinating talking with you. You're quite an exceptional young man. And you're going to be quite an exceptional skater. It'll be a privilege to be ogled by you."
"Ditto. But look out eight years from now. Sometime, when you're feeling brave, ask Tim about Billy's eighteenth birthday."
Not long after that Brian was chatting with Jack, Janie, Naomi, and Artie. He asked whether they'd thought about Tim's comments about sexuality and skating.
Jack replied, "Yeah, we have. What about you?"
Brian answered, "I assume that you've met Andy's boy, Shel. He's been skating with me, using me as a model for his own skating. He's incredible for nine years old. He pulled off a double Axel the other day."
"We know him. He skates with us from time to time. He's good. What about him?"
"He'd like to have a sexual relationship with me, except that he knows that adult-child sex is a no-no, so we'll just have to ogle each other."
"He told you that?"
"In almost those words. He picked up that I'm gay. He says that I need to find a sexual outlet, if my skating's going to be any good. He may be right. I think that that was the point Tim was trying to make."
Janie said, "In Jack's and my case it isn't that we need a sexual outlet-we both have partners-Tim thinks we need to have a sexual relationship with each other-he sees it as essential to our success as a skating pair."
"That's pretty strong. Where do you go from here?"
Naomi said, "Well, the four of us got together for dinner a couple of days ago specifically to talk about Tim's comments. It was kind of funny. Janie started by admitting that she'd never even seen Jack's dick. She had no idea whether it was big or little, circumcised or not, whether his pubic hair was light or dark, nothing. Jack stood in front of her, pulled up his tee shirt and said, 'You may take a look'."
Janie said, "Yes, I did. I unbuckled his belt, opened his pants and pulled them down. Then I pushed down his briefs."
Brian asked, "Well, is it big or little, cut or uncut?"
"It about average, I guess, though I'm working with a pretty small sample to base it on. If by cut you mean circumcised, yes, it is. And his hair is just the same brown as on his head."
Jack said, "I told her she could touch it, and she did."
Artie put in, "I asked Naomi (Jack's wife) if that bothered her."
"Not really," was her answer.
"What if they went further?"
"How much further?"
"I guess that's what we really want to talk about this evening. Shall we have dinner first?"
Jack said, "OK, do I pull up my pants for dinner, or do you all take yours off?"
Artie said, "Pull them up for dinner. Maybe after dinner we'll all lose our pants."
They decided to put off conversations about sex till after dinner, when they'd go up to Jack and Janie's bedroom, perhaps lose their clothes and talk about where they were headed with this. Dinner conversation was a little sparse, since they'd decided not to talk about the elephant in the room, and there wasn't much else to talk about. They did remark about the precocious Shel and the fact that he'd talked to Brian about ogling him. Naomi said, "I haven't met him. But if the nine-year-olds around here can talk about sex as Brian described, then it's no wonder that we're hearing the same sorts of things."
Artie asked, "Have we gotten ourselves into something we really weren't expecting?"
"It isn't as though the conversation with Tim didn't warn us."
Janie said, "You know, most people will admit that in America sex is thought about, acted upon, used in advertising and marketing, but seldom talked about. Sex education for kids is pathetic. Did any of our parents really have decent communication with us about sex? Probably not. These folks here don't seem to have the psychological block on the subject that we're used to. But I think it's healthy."
Jack said, "Let's get on with the meal, the dessert's getting interesting."
After dinner they went upstairs and into Jack and Naomi's bedroom, which had room for a king-size bed, a couple of chests of drawers, and not much else. Jack said, "OK, we can hem and haw around if we want, but we know we're destined to lose our clothes. Let's just get on with it." With that he took off everything and lay on his back on the bed, sporting a pretty hefty hard-on. The others followed, and soon all four were side by side on the bed.
Janie asked, "OK, what now?"
Artie said, "I think we have to deal with some questions, perhaps difficult ones."
Artie continued, "Well, we've been talking about the need for Jack and Janie to have a sexual relationship to support their skating relationship. Where does that leave Naomi and me? Another obvious question is, what're our limits? Are there any?"
Naomi answered, "Well, I'm damned sure not going to sit around and watch Jack and Janie climb in bed together, while you and I twiddle our thumbs, Artie. That dick of yours looks eager. I don't see why it shouldn't get whatever Jack's gets."
"Seems reasonable to me," said Jack, "What about you, Janie?"
"I hadn't even thought about that issue, but, of course, Naomi's right."
Artie said, "Growing up, sex and intercourse were virtually synonyms. Clearly that isn't true. I think we should be able to agree going in that we'll save intercourse for spouses. If we change our minds on that, we can talk about it. But that seems right to me, at least for now."
All the others agreed.
Jack said, "I'm a little chilly like this. I need a light cover over me and somebody to hug. I think the idea is that I'm supposed to hug Janie. Let's pair up, share the bed, turn out the light, cover up, and let nature take its course."
That's just what they did. The next morning, when they compared notes, they learned that Jack and Janie had held each other pretty tight all night, explored some with their hands, but that was it. Artie and Naomi had let their tongues roam and had given each other oral orgasms.
Artie said, "OK, let's cut to the chase. Does it bother either of you to learn that Naomi sucked my cock last night, and I gave her an orgasm with my tongue? If it does, we need to rethink. If it doesn't, then we need to ask ourselves a different question, namely, shouldn't it bother us?"
Janie said, "I think we need to remember the openness of the situation. This isn't infidelity; it's not behind the back."
Jack said, "I can't believe the experience I had just holding Janie last night. For years we've ice danced together, and we always kept a certain distance. Hugging her last night, with no need to hold back or keep a distance, changed our relationship profoundly, at least for me. We haven't yet been back out on the ice, but I can testify to the fact that there's a new closeness, and I think Tim's right that it can affect our skating together."
Janie said, "I agree with that. It was the holding, not the sex, that counted. Other than a little exploration with our hands, we didn't have sex."
Naomi said, "Last night was fine, but you two aren't going to have many nights like last night and not be frustrated at not having an orgasm."
Jack said, "You're right. I'm pretty horny now. I wouldn't want to feel that Janie was off limits. I'm just saying that it was the closeness more than the sexuality that counted last night."
Naomi said, "Janie, Jack says he's horny. Let's take care of his needs."
Janie kissed Jack's dick and started teasing it with her tongue. Naomi kissed him and tickled his nipples with her hand. Artie said, "I feel left out."
Janie told him, "That's up to you. Nobody said you couldn't join in the fun."
Artie and Janie, engaged to each other, took turns sucking Jack's dick. He came in Artie's mouth.
"Wow," said Naomi, "that adds a new dimension to all of this."
Jack said, "I think we're all going to fit into this community very well."
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