I (Charlie) am going to continue the narrative, and it's somewhat unusual. As I write this the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, of course, in 2019 when this episode takes place everyone fully expected to be in Tokyo in the summer of 2020.
We'll get to the Olympics, but I have to begin by giving you an update about Simon and Frankie. Frankie did commit himself totally to table tennis. With Perry's full approval, Simon increased his weekly trips to Minneapolis to four, adding Monday and changing Tuesday to Wednesday. It was important that both of them play a wide variety of players at MTT, but the day always ended in several Simon vs. Frankie bouts. By the end of February watching those bouts was the end of the day activity for a lot of the MTT players. Smithy watched and just smiled. He thought to himself, "And I suggested that I could recommend a good beginner program!"
When Frankie had gotten back from that fateful Christmas vacation in Grand Forks he'd had a conversation with Smithy. He told Smithy that Simon was from North Dakota, and Smithy just smiled, saying, "Yes, I knew that." Frankie went on and told Smithy of Simon's goal to make the 2024 Olympics, and he got the same response from Smithy.
Then he said, "I'm going with Simon to Paris in 2024."
That broke Smithy's cool. "You're kidding me! Has Simon given you Olympic fever?"
"Yes, he has. He and a whole bunch of people in Grand Forks, who collectively have more Olympic medals than you and I ever dreamed of even seeing. What's more, I'm now officially sponsored by Fred's Sports as a competitive table tennis player."
"Just what does being sponsored by Fred's Sports mean for you? I know that for Simon it means airplane rides to Minneapolis."
Frankie had to admit that he wasn't sure just what the sponsorship would mean for him, but it made him feel very supported. (Tim would've loved to hear Frankie put it in exactly those words, well really, that word.)
Smithy said, "We can't let this be a big secret at MTT. Some people will find out and others will resent not being told. So, with your and Simon's permission, I want to call a meeting of all MTT players and spell it out–including the airplane rides."
A week later they did have that meeting. Smithy wanted it to come from the boys and not him, so he opened the meeting and let Simon begin. "First of all, the rumor that I live in Edina and go to school there, is simply that, a rumor. I live in Grand Forks, North Dakota and attend Red River High School, where I'm in tenth grade. My table tennis efforts are supported by a sponsorship from Fred's Sports, which flies me to Minneapolis three days a week for practice. I come here because there's no program in North Dakota at the level of MTT. My competitive goal is to try to make it to the 2024 Olympics in Paris. To do that I'll be entering regional competitions this spring, and hope to qualify for national competition soon after. Now here's Frankie."
Frankie spoke, "I first met Simon the first day he came to the club. Smithy had him play a game with me to see how good he was. He beat me. Not by a lot, mind you, but he beat me in that first match. We became friends, he shared his secret of commuting here by airplane, and I visited him in Grand Forks. Simon's friends of all ages in Grand Forks include the most fantastic collection of Olympic medalists you can imagine. For some reason Simon decided that I should and could try for the 2024 Olympics with him, and the people in Grand Forks accepted Simon's judgement. They urged me to make the commitment necessary to become an Olympian. It's quite a commitment in their eyes. Simon's and my whole lives for the next five years will be aiming at that goal. Fred's Sports is officially sponsoring me as a competitive table tennis player."
Smithy closed the meeting by saying, "It's been several years since MTT has had players in any national competition; Simon and Frankie are bringing new dimensions to our program. I hope that everyone will be fully supportive of the two of them."
The meeting broke into dozens of different conversations. Those that talked to the two boys were both surprised and supportive. Those that talked to Simon also wanted to know about the airplane. One of the older boys, a college student, said, "You're not making that trip in a Piper Cub. To make that trip quick enough to have a decent amount of time here you have to be flying in a little executive jet. Right?" Simon hadn't really wanted to admit he flew in a jet, but he had to admit it was true that that's what Fred's Sports flew him in. The boy continued, "With two professional pilots, right?" He did know his airplanes and Simon had to agree.
Simon wasn't sure whether that conversation was going to lead to jealousy or what. But it just seemed to add to the mystique of trying to go to the Olympics.
The first time Frankie and Simon were together after Christmas, Frankie raised the question of college. "I know you think that I need to go to UND if all this is going to work out. I knew that when I talked to Perry. So, do I just send it an application? Or what?"
"Let me talk to Tim." Simon did that and Tim told him, "We don't advertise it like we used to, but putting TTT on the top of the application puts me in the loop. Have him submit the online application. With that you can't put TTT at the top, but there's a blank at the bottom for 'Other Information.' Put the TTT as the first thing in that blank. And if Fred's Sports is sponsoring him there won't be any question about a scholarship, so leave the question about scholarships blank."
Before his next trip to Minneapolis Simon invited himself to dinner with the Piltons. This wasn't his first dinner at their home, and he was welcomed, even with the last minute self-invite. It meant his pilots would eat at a restaurant near the airport, and they would all get back to Grand Forks late.
When they were all settled at the dinner table Phil Pilton said, "You must have something on your mind, Simon, to want to come to dinner like this."
"I do. I thought you ought to hear this along with Frankie." He shared his conversation with Tim, including the comment about scholarships.
Mr. Pilton responded, "We wondered what the implications of his going to the University of North Dakota would be. Since they give Minnesotans instate tuition, it'll save us a lot of money over outstate tuition at Wisconsin or Michigan. Still, we don't have a lot of extra money, it'll take fairly hefty student loans for Frankie to go to college."
"No loans. I don't have anything official, but if Tim said he won't need a scholarship, you can bank on it. And I don't think he'll want to live in the dorms. Even the quiet dorms are a little rowdy–not the place for a serious student and serious Olympian."
Frankie said, "What makes you think I'm a serious student?"
"You'd better be, or Tim'll skin you alive; don't even think about Shel."
Frankie's mother closed that conversation by saying, "Frankie seldom gets less than A's. But where would he live if not the dorm?"
"Only Shel knows. But he'll have some great suggestion when the time comes. There are several possibilities: living with me or a family, or in one of the houses that the Gang owns."
"Frankie tried to tell us about this Gang, but we don't really understand it."
Simon gave the briefest description possible, adding that the support that Frankie was going to get from the Gang would be crucial to his success.
Frankie submitted his application and very quickly got back an acceptance letter stating that he was admitted, that he would be charged instate tuition as a resident of Minnesota, and that Fred's Sports had advised the University that it would pay his tuition. Frankie was stunned. The next time he saw Simon he said, "You really are for real. You talk about things that I only dream about, and they come true. Look at this letter from UND."
Simon smiled and said, "You can count on Tim, and all the others. If you stay committed, so will they."
By spring they were the top two players at MTT, and traded off beating each other so that neither could claim he was better than the other. Along with several others at MTT they participated in the Twin Cities Table Tennis Championships. They came in second (Frankie) and third (Simon), behind a really good player–a college student at the University of Minnesota–from St. Paul. Next stop was regionals in Chicago. Simon asked Perry if the plane could be available for them to go to Chicago.
Perry replied, "No, that's not a good idea."
Simon was startled; it'd seemed a very reasonable request.
Perry continued, "It's not big enough. Your family, Marie and maybe her family'll want to go, Frankie's family certainly will. Shel and his bunch at The Lighhouse will be going. So will Tim and Charlie. Then the coach at MTT (Is his name Smithy?) will want to go and maybe bring along some of the top players there. And, of course, Andy and I, our families, and a few others at Fred's Sports will be going."
Simon was floored. "You know, Perry, this is our first venture into the world of real competitive table tennis. We're likely to come in a forty-first and forty-second."
"Think like that and you will. It's called a self-fulfilling prophesy. Think like Tim and Charlie and you'll be getting medals. Besides, with all those people watching, you can't fail."
"How do we get there?"
"Charter. Our transportation people will work it out. Probably one of the charter airlines, but they may not have big enough planes available. Otherwise United, they're in Chicago."
"You can't do this every time we go to a match or tournament. We'll need to be going at least once a month to be competitive."
"True. But this is your first. And we all want to be there to wish you well and watch your success."
"When Simon told Frankie and his parents, they couldn't believe it."
Frankie said, "This is our first time out, we're going to be way back in the pack."
"That's exactly what I told Perry. He told me that was a self-fulfilling prophesy, and I should get it out of my mind. I think I have."
I won't keep you in suspense. They had a wonderful trip, they all stayed in a first quality motel near the tournament site, which was not far from the airport. The boys amazed themselves, but not Perry, Shel, Tim, or me by coming in third (Simon) and fifth (Frankie). They earned places in the National Championships. They were also the talk of the town–they were the first first-time competitors to make it into the top five in the history of the tournament. They were also among the youngest players playing in the open tournament–not as Juniors. On the way home Simon said to Perry, "Nationals are in Las Vegas, and you and I both know Frankie and I aren't going to have the startling success we had in Chicago. This was a wonderful trip, and I think having everybody here probably helped with our success. But we can't take this circus to Las Vegas."
Perry smiled and said, "Fred would probably have worked very hard to get you to travel with the circus. But I understand. Here's the deal. There are six passenger seats on the plane you fly to Minneapolis in. You get one, Frankie gets one, Allie and Marie each get one, Shel gets one. The last would be for Smithy, but I've talked to him and he simply can't be away as long as this trip will be. So I'm going to take the sixth seat. Fair enough?"
Perry talked to Simon about rooming arrangements in Las Vegas. Fred's Sports would gladly have sprung for single rooms, but Perry didn't think that is what people wanted. He knew, for sure, that he and Shel would share a room–with one king sized bed. Simon told him, "You know, Frankie and Allie have slept together at our house, but I don't think the Piltons know anything about it. Let's book a room with two queen beds for the girls to share and the same for me and Frankie. Who know what trading will go on in Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, remember."
They had an exciting time. Frankie and Simon were entered in the top tournament, mens singles. There were about a hundred different tournaments under the same umbrella: doubles, womens, every possible age bracket, para-, you name it. Simon and Frankie were fascinated to watch it all. It was a new world for them. A world that they were going to have to get used to and conquer if they were going to be Olympians. They learned one thing: they weren't the young kids. The National Champion was a teenager (nineteen). They each won their first match. Simon won his second, but Frankie lost his. Simon lost his third and it was over. They were in the bottom half. Never mind. They came home winners, because it'd added coals to the fires in their bellies. Next year....
Shortly after their return Allie approached Simon and said, "We need to talk."
That evening Allie came back to Simon's "room," sat down in his comfortable chair, watched him work at his desk for a while, and then coughed to get his attention. Simon said, "OK, what do you want to talk about?"
"The occupants of the hotel rooms in Vegas did not match what was on the check-in register at the hotel. The four of us know it, our parents know it, Marie's parents either know it or assume it, but Frankie's parents are, as far as we know, clueless. Am I right?"
"I've talked to Frankie and told him that he has to be up front with his parents. But he really is afraid of their reaction. Can you talk to him?"
"Sure, but either way this could explode in our faces and kill Frankie's Olympic dreams. If he tells them, it could blow up; if they figure it out some other way, it could blow up. In the end it has to be Frankie's decision."
Because of his commuting, Perry was usually the last to arrive at MTT each afternoon. On his next trip to MTT, he got Frankie's attention and signaled him to come into the boys locker room with him. Simon shared Allie's concern with Frankie. Frankie responded, "Yes, I know. She's said all that to me. But, Simon, I'm really afraid of my parents reaction. In their world high school juniors don't sleep with girls. Period."
"Not even girls they're truly in love with?"
"Not even girls they're truly in love with."
Simon continued, "They know Allie and like her. Would they really be that upset?"
"I can't be sure. But it would be high risk."
Simon said, "How about this? We'll invite them up to Grand Forks so that all the parents can get to know each other. I'll switch to Friday, and we'll have a big dinner. We'll invite Marie and her parents as well. In fact, Marie likes trips in the jet; since it'll be a Friday and I have to wait till my science lab finishes, she can join us without getting off school early. Then your parents can fly back with us. Then you let my father handle it at dinner."
"What he going to say?"
"He says he'll handle it. We have to trust him."
The airplane ride, the arrival at the Chalmers, and the dinner came off as planned. Frankie was as nervous as a cat through it all, but he held up.
When dessert was on the table, Marshall spoke. "Well, Phil and Donna, I'm afraid we have a little problem with sleeping arrangements tonight. You've seen the house, we hope you'll be comfortable in a room without doors. Let me assure you that you'll have total privacy. But that's not the problem. There are three rooms available on the side where Simon and Allie have their rooms. You two will get the middle room, which we think of as the guest room. Marie will be sleeping with Simon. I hope you won't be upset if we bunk Frankie in with Allie."
Deathly silence. Frankie was trying to will himself out of the room, but it wouldn't work. Phil and Donna looked at each other for a long time. Then they started to giggle and finally burst out laughing. Nobody spoke, waiting for either Phil or Donna.
Donna broke the silence. "We wondered what this trip was all about. The way it was organized made us think there was more to it than simply seeing Simon's folks again. After all, we all traveled together to Chicago. Phil and I speculated. Phil said, 'I think they want to tell us something, and they want Allie's parents for support.' Well, it turns out we weren't quite right. Frankie didn't want you, Marshall, for support; he wanted you to do the job for him. Frankie, either you're a total wimp, or you mother and I have been too fearsome as parents. Let me just ask one simple question, Frankie. And please give me a very simply answer. When you visit the Chalmers home, what room do you sleep in?"
Frankie mustered his courage, "Allie''s."
"So our being here isn't going to change the sleeping arrangements at all, am I right?"
Phil said, "Well, now that that's behind us, let's enjoy this wonderful looking pie."
But Simon thought there was one thing to add. He spoke up and said, "I want to add something to the conversation. I think that you may be drawing an incorrect conclusion. Frankie and Allie have been sleeping together for a while. And, of course, the relationship is sexual. Many people just assume in that situation that they have intercourse when they sleep together. Just to set the record straight, these two don't."
Phil looked at Frankie and asked, "Is that true?"
Phil turned back to Simon and asked, "How can you be so sure? Do you peek around the corners of their room without doors?"
"Never. Let me explain. Allie and I grew up with a very interesting collection of kids. We've told you a little about the Gang. Well, our parents are their children. The sexual rules are fairly liberal, and a lot goes on. But the kids, including Allie and me, have established their own absolute rule. I'll put in our language. No fucking till you're out of high school. Nothing Frankie could say would get Allie to violate that rule. But I happen to know that Frankie's bought into that rule, agrees with it, and follows it. I can say, absolutely, Frankie and Allie are not fucking."
"Well, Simon, thank you for that. I'm sure that Donna and I had, or would have, drawn the wrong conclusion." Then he turned to Marie's parents, "Marshall said that Simon and Marie would be sharing his room, and you seemed unsurprised. Did you have a conversation like this with the Chalmers?"
Marie's father replied, "It was very different, and it came a little earlier in their relationship. Perhaps tomorrow we'll find time to tell you the whole story. But, yes, we are very comfortable with the kids sleeping together, and, no, they aren't fucking."
Simon and Frankie were not alone together till sometime the next morning. Frankie said, "I about died when your father started talking. But when my mom started to giggle I knew it would turn out OK. That's a happy giggle; we hear it a lot, but never when she's mad."
Simon and Frankie were on their way to the Paris Olympics, and they were right about where they expected to be in their table tennis skills. Fires burned bright in both their bellies.
But the next Olympics would be in Tokyo. It was about time for Tim to get interested in the next Olympics which were now about a year and a half away. I was right; he arranged for a dinner in The Madhouse (I still am not sure about that name) dining room, inviting Marty (of his own gym), Nels and Mary (NTAC), Willie and Billy (UND swimming and diving), Hal (self-starting runners), Max and Shel (who seemed to know everything going on in the Gang [Max] and local athletics [Shel), and Perry and Andy (who would be footing a pretty big bill, since Tokyo was both very expensive and a long distance away).
As soon as everyone assembled in the living room and had gotten their tea, Cokes, or juice Tim asked, "Who will be our Olympians in Tokyo?"
Max said, "There will come a time when we won't have a North Dakota Olympian."
Tim said, "It'd better not be in my lifetime."
"Nor mine," chimed in Shel.
Tim continued, "OK, in Rio we competed in archery, fencing, swimming, diving, gymnastics, marathon, and sailing, seven sports if you count swimming and diving separately as I do. Can we do that well in Tokyo?"
Perry said, "Well, we have no sailors. We got Josh and Greg their well-earned gold medal. Hunter and Dan, from Australia, got silver. We were careful to have Josh and Greg's training partners non-Americans, so we wouldn't have an obligation to keep the team going. The support team had to have been getting tired, though they insist that they enjoyed the whole thing from beginning to end. We may sponsor a sailing team in the future, if the right people come around. But, remember, North Dakota isn't a likely source of sailors. Tim wasn't a serious sailor; he was just looking for a sport where he and Charlie could share space on the podium. It'll be a cold day in Hell before that comes around again."
Hal said, "There are no new marathoners coming along that I know of. However, Dink might run again. After graduating from UND he decided to go to graduate school at the University of Illinois, Chicago. We exchange emails regularly; he tells me he's keeping up with his running, with a short run every morning and a marathon every other weekend. If possible, the weekend run is an organized marathon not too far from Chicago. Otherwise he has a couple of courses laid out in the parks around the city. The times he reports are quite good. He should get his M.S. this June. Maybe he'd like to come home, spend a year getting ready for the Olympics, and maybe add another medal to his collection."
Perry said, "At this stage in life he can't live at home and expect his parents to take care of him. If he wants to come, Fred's Sports will sponsor him. If he elects to live at home, he can pay fair room and board to his parents. His sponsorship would be at the salary level he would expect in his first year out of grad school."
Hal extended the offer to Dink who grabbed it in a minute. He told Hal, "I've enjoyed Chicago and the university here, but I've missed my morning runs with you, Hal. My running years in Grand Forks, in both high school and college, are my fondest memories. To have another year of that would be fantastic. Tell Perry, 'Yes, yes, yes'."
Getting back to the dinner conversation at our house–we'd moved from the living room to the dining room where students from the University Food Service were serving a wonderful cherry-sauced pork roast. Tim said, "Well, that takes care of two sports, sailing and marathon. Mary and Nels, what've you got in your stable?"
Mary replied, "Johnny Lord came back from Rio just splitting with enthusiasm for the Olympics. He advanced twice before he was eliminated in the mens foil. Those two wins were a great shot in the arm, even though it still left him in the bottom half. But then he was part of the US Mens Foil team and got a bronze. That medal was displayed in our fencing salle for several months. It wasn't our first Olympic medal in foil; that honor went to John Mason in London, but when he came home he retired from fencing. He'd reached his goal and that was it. So he wasn't around NTAC to make a difference. However, between Johnny's medal, his enthusiasm, his continued presence at NTAC, and the clear fact that it was possible for somebody at NTAC to get an Olympic medal, participation in fencing has increased, and so has the seriousness of the fencers. I have four that should be eligible to go to the Trials next year–two men and two women, one each in foil and sabre. In addition, Johnny's hoping to return. He told me, this time around he'd like to finish in the top half. I told him not to set his sights so low. I think he'll qualify again."
Nels continued, "Our best cyclists are Owen and Jay. However, they found the extent of the competitions they'd have to enter to get space on the Olympic Cycling Team was incompatible with going to college. They decided to finish at the university before talking about the Olympics. Perry says they'll be on the Fred's Sports Cycling Team as soon as they graduate and until they head to the Olympics in Paris. So no cyclists in Tokyo."
Mary picked it up, "Archery is another matter. We have a half a dozen kids, four girls and two boys, that have a good chance of making it to the Trials, and half of them have at least a realistic shot at making the team. We'll see as they participate in competitions leading up to the Trials. At the least, Shel would have to admit they have fires in their bellies."
Marty spoke next: "The Cave is, right now, populated with seven really top gymnasts. They don't quite measure up to the original nine, but they're close. I've got a couple waiting in the wings for an invitation to join the Cave. In one case I am a little concerned that the parents my not be able to deal with the rules and ways of the Cave. Seth's working on that; it's not just whether or not that can deal with the Cave, but whether they'll respect the confidentiality of the information we need to give them in order to decide whether the Cave's right for their child. It could get messy. Up to now we've only had to exclude one gymnast, and in that case we decided that even talking to the parents was too high a risk."
Tim asked, "But you think all seven of the present Cavers'll get to the Trials?"
"I sure do."
Tim asked, "Table tennis–ping-pong, which is it."
Perry said, "It's either, though the Olympics call it table tennis. Simon and Frankie are getting better and better, but their Olympics will be Paris."
Tim turned to Billy and Willie, "Billy, how's your replacement as Director of Aquatics doing?"
Billy said, "Very well, she's a good swimming coach, but Jeff and Bess are the diving coaches–except that Bess also works with the women swimmers and will be retiring soon. Willie also functions as a diving coach, and he's good."
Tim asked, "Willie, what else are you doing these days?"
"I'm the Consulting Psychologist for Democracy House."
"Surely that isn't a full time position."
"No, I fill the rest of my time being a Lighthouse parent, helping out at the pool, and minding my own business. I've talked about setting up a private practice, but the folks at The Lighthouse won't let me. They insist that my availability to future Olympians, especially divers, is more important. I've told them that Sally and I aren't contributing our fair share to The Lighthouse kitty, but the answer's always, 'The kitty has all it needs'."
Tim said, "The university needs to be paying you as a diving coach. I'm going to talk to Liddy."
Billy said, "Is it appropriate to go over the head of the new Aquatics Director?"
Tim said, "Not unless you're the President Emeritus. I get special access."
Skipping ahead, I will note that two days later, Mabel Cross, the new Aquatics Director, asked Willie to come on staff, one-third time, to coach the divers. Nothing was ever said about what or who put that idea in Mabel's head; Willie didn't need to ask and it didn't seem politic to raise the issue.
Back to the dinner table. Tim continued with his questions: "OK, do we have swimmers and divers with Olympic possibilities? What about the twins."
Billy said, "The twins're fourteen. There's no mimimum age for swimming and its fourteen for diving, so they're eligible. However, Paris may be their Olympics. We'll see. Liam and Woody are retired, but Woody's pushing Liam for a final match. He wants them to enter just the 10-meter platform and duke it out. He told me, 'If Liam wins, then the matter's settled; Liam's the better. If I win, we may have to settle it in Paris.' I asked if it could only be settled in Olympic competition, and Woody said, 'That's right. Nothing else counts.' Given what Woody's meant to Liam, there's no doubt that he'll agree. And there's no doubt they'll qualify, be in the finals, and almost certainly come in gold, silver. That prediction you can take to Vegas. As to who is gold and who is silver, get me a ouija board."
"Several swimmers, in several events. I don't know details; ask Mabel. With Tim and three generations of William Carsons, Billy, Willie, and Liam, high school students are beginning to notice UND. We have four new divers, all from the University, that will certainly make it to the Trials, and all four have a chance to make it to Tokyo."
Tim asked, "Any other sports going to be involved?"
Billy said, "Maybe. Our divers use the trampoline to practice the form of their dives."
Tim said, "Willie never did; he did all his practice in his mind."
Billy said, "That why he has all those gold medals; he's quite exceptional. But the normal diver, including Tim and me, uses the trampoline a lot."
Tim asked, "What about Liam and Woody?"
Willie answered, "They don't know what a trampoline is. The both just dive in. They coach each other, and the rest of the world is irrelevant. I really don't understand how they do it. But however they do it, they're the best in the world. But I don't send up and coming divers to them for advice on training routines."
Tim asked again, "Am I hearing the suggestion that one of the divers might make it to the gymnastics trials in the trampoline event?"
"Yes. John Smith. And that really is his name. It's very possible that he's better on the trampoline than the diving board; and he could be a two sport Olympian."
Tim said, "This sounds exciting. Don't let anybody say that North Dakota is losing its claim on more that it's fair share of Olympic medals. I counted about thirty hopefuls; if half make it we'll continue our fantastic Olympic record."
Just as they were wrapping it up the phone rang. As I headed to answer it, Tim said, "Nobody calls us this late. I hope it isn't bad news."
I came back into the room looking, as Tim described the scene afterwards, like I'd been run over by a truck. Tim said, "It must be bad news."
I said, "Worse than bad. There's been an automobile accident. This is the university switchboard. One of the injured was John Bruder, your father, Hal. They called his home but no one was home. In his wallet they found your card, Hal. Again, nobody home. Your card says you're adjunct faculty at UND. They called UND. The switchboard couldn't locate you and had never heard of John. Sensing an emergency, they called Liddy, who told them to contact us, or several others she named. Thus the call. The man at the switchboard doesn't know anything else. Hal, head to the hospital, and use your cell to call Sue–wherever she is–and have her head to the hospital. Shel, you drive him."
I turned to Max: "Get on the phone to the local police and find out what you can."
To Billy I said: "Do the same with the state police."
I told Tim to call Liddy and see what she knew, if anything.
Max hung up his phone and said, "It's a really serious accident at Demers Avenue and the Interstate; a truck and several cars; the truck was on fire, but the cop at the desk didn't know if the fire had been put out. Multiple ambulances have been called for. No details on injuries or fatalities. According to the sergeant on duty there's a three ring circus out there, and they aren't letting anybody near it."
Tim said, "Perry, you and I are going to head to the interstate. Charlie, you head to the hospital."
Billy said into his phone, "President Tim and Perry Weeks of Fred's Sports are on the way to the accident scene. It appears they have personnel involved. Can you arrange for them to get through your barriers?" Billy looked up and said, "They confirmed what Max has told us, Demers and I-29. The officer couldn't promise, but he'd ask his captain to clear you through the barricades. He did say, 'There won't be much he can do there'."
Tim took charge and said, "Charlie you lead the group to the hospital following Hal. Take separate cars to the extent we have them here; no, go to The Roundhouse and gets keys for the Circle's cars. Then everybody will have a car and we can move in different directions if we need to. Tell the Roundhouse what you know; tell them to stay put until needed; and tell them to start calling the Gang and let them know what's going on, but say that they should stay put for now; we'll be in touch. Willie, you stand by here. When we find out where Sue is we'll let you know and you can pick her up. By then maybe we'll know where to take her. Come on Perry, let's roll."
Shel got Hal to the hospital before Tim could reach the accident scene, so I'll continue the story there. Shel drove straight to the Emergency Room and marched in with Hal behind him. He quickly established that John Bruder wasn't there, but that Herbert Johnson (Coach) was. Shel turned the woman's computer screen so he could read it.
She grabbed it and said, "Sir, you can't do that, it's private information."
Shel had seen what he needed, turned to Hal and said, "Come on, he's in ER Room 6." They started through the door which led to the heart of the ER and were stopped by a nurse. I shouldn't say "stopped" because Shel hardly slowed.
The nurse called after him, "Are you Mr. Johnson's next of kin."
Shel answered, as he looked around for Room 6, "As close as he's got."
You've met Shel in a variety of situations. Do you ever remember a health care professional, aide, nurse, administrator, doctor, no matter how officious or pompous, that could slow Shel in this situation? Neither have I. And nobody present came close. Shel saw Room 6, pulling Hal who was trying to hide himself, and only stopped when he got to the door. He opened it very slowly, and a doctor asked, "Who are you?"
"Shel Oldfield and Hal Bruder, John's best friends; he has no family locally."
The doctor waved them in, saying, "He's still alive, but has serious internal injuries. There's nothing we can do; he doesn't have long to live. He never regained consciousness."
By this time Hal was at his side, brushing his hair aside and kissing the unconscious body. Coach was unresponsive, but Hal whispered, "Coach, I love you," over and over.
After a few minutes the doctor touched Hal's shoulder and said, "He's gone. You know, Mr. Bruder, we never know how much an unconscious person hears in a situation like that. I've seen times when an unconscious patient eventually recovers and can remember being told he was loved, would be missed, or that loved ones would be cared for. You never know."
Shel wasn't inclined to believe a word of it, but silently thanked the doctor for saying exactly the right thing at the right time. He said to the doctor, "Thank you for that. But, do you have a unidentified older female from this accident?"
The doctor told the nurse to check, and, yes, there was a woman in Room 8.
Shel said, "That could be Hazel Bruder, Hal's mother. If it's her he can identify her for you."
The doctor led them to Room 8 where they did find Hazel. She'd died a short while before. That didn't change Hal's behavior as he kissed his mother and told her that she was loved. Then Hal stood, tears in his eyes, and said, "Does anyone know anything about my father, John Bruder?" Nobody did, and there was no unidentified male that might've been a possibility.
Shel told Hal, "You need to talk to the doctor about arrangements for the bodies. I don't know if there will need to be autopsies. But ultimately they have to be released to a funeral home. Do you have one in mind?"
"I'm pretty sure that Herb used the Bostwich Funeral Home; they did a good job. I'll use them."
Shel was already on the phone to Tim, reporting what'd taken place at the hospital and asking what Tim had learned at the accident scene.
The story will head there. Perry drove Tim's car. They could've taken two cars but Tim thought that might make it more difficult to get through the police barrier. They headed out Demers and soon got to the police barricade. They drove up, Perry opened his window and Tim leaned over and said, "I'm Tim, this is Perry Weeks, I think the state police have cleared us to get in."
"I got word. I don't think the mayor could get through; you must be pretty important."
Perry drove through and parked near the covey of ambulances that were loading injured persons. As they pulled up one left, sirens blasting. Tim walked up to a state police officer who seemed to be in charge and asked, "I'm am looking for John and Hazel Bruder."
"We don't know many names at this point. Go over to those two vans, they're directing things. If anyone can help you, they can. Say, how did you get in here?"
Tim thanked him for the information and said, "Sometimes it's who you know."
The officer at the first van recognized the name of John Bruder immediately. "He was dead when the first ambulance and EMTs arrived. They were going to put him in an ambulance to transport him, letting the hospital pronounce him dead. But the senior EMT said, 'No, we've got more living injured than ambulances right now. We can't spare an ambulance for a dead body.' The body is on a stretcher in that other van."
Tim and Perry headed for the other van, and were allowed to see the body to identify it. John was in terrible condition, from face to knees. Tim could hardly stand to look. He and Perry could find out nothing about Hazel. Then Shel's call came and they traded information. Tim told Shel he'd find out about John's body and call back.
He asked the officer in charge, and was told that an ambulance was coming that wasn't needed for the living, and John Bruder's body would be taken to the hospital morgue. This information was relayed to Shel and on to Hal. Shel told Tim, "We have to get the Gang together with Hal. They aren't going to be willing to stay put in the midst of all of this–we just lost three Gang members!"
Tim said, "I'll work on it. Call you back." He told Perry to call The Roundhouse and update them, and ask them to update everybody. They were to stay put until told where to go.
Next Tim approached the state police officer who seemed to be in charge. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"We're trying to piece it all together. It seems the big truck came down the off ramp from the Interstate, never slowed, went right through the stop sign, and struck the side of a car. I'm pretty sure that that was the car that held the people you were asking about. The truck hit so hard that it knocked the car across the median in the way of oncoming traffic. Two cars hit if full on, and two others couldn't stop, but they just banged lightly into the car ahead. Meanwhile, back in the eastbound lane the truck was across the road and two cars smashed into its side. So we have a truck and seven cars involved, five of the seven cars seriously damaged. In those five cars we had eleven people, plus the truck driver–he was high enough above the cars that he may have survived. It took us a while to get twelve ambulances out here; we aren't prepared for this."
"Do you know why the truck didn't slow or stop?"
"No idea. It could've been brake failure; driver could've had a heart attack or something, or he could've been drunk or on drugs. They'll check him out at the hospital; he lives we'll get his story. Obviously we'll be checking out the truck, but it burned, so that's going to take a while."
"You had the fire out by the time I got here."
"The gas tanks ruptured and the gas burned. But the cab was in the median and the car it hit was knocked beyond the median. We don't know what the cargo was, it wasn't marked hazardous, and it didn't burn. The controlled fire is the only thing good or lucky about this whole mess."
"Thank you, officer. That's been very helpful for me."
"It's already on the TV; I'm sure the web's full of it by now, probably with some gruesome pictures that the TV and newspapers won't show, and it'll be all over the Saturday paper."
Tim thought, we need a place to assembly almost 150 people, maybe more. He called Liddy and she suggested the university practice gym. "I'll get janitors to open the place up and set up chairs. I'll rouse a few people from the food service and get soft drinks and snacks over there. And I'll be there to greet you."
The Roundhouse was alerted, and soon all of the Gang were heading to the gym. Hal and Shel waited for the ambulance carrying his father to arrive. John had been pronounced dead at the scene. Hal provided the needed legal identification. Shel said, "Have you got an empty ER room? Wheel him there and let Mr. Bruder have some time alone with his father." That was agreed to and Hal had a chance to say a long, private farewell to his father.
Then he opened the door and invited Shel in. "Shel, I hope I'm strong enough to get through this. Compared to this, running an Olympic Marathon is a piece of cake."
Shel hugged him, kissed him gently, and said, "The Gang's gathering on campus. They're going to get you through this. Love and support is their speciality."
Sue'd been located visiting a friend in East Grand Forks. Willie was notified and drove straight to East Grand Forks. By this time Hal was ready to leave the hospital and Willie drove Sue straight to the gym, getting there just ahead of Hal.
Arriving just about the time Hal arrived were Junior and Louise, along with their son Jay, and Bud and Jennie, along with their son Frank. With his parents now gone, this was the extent of Hal's family. Jay and Frank were quickly surrounded by the rest of the GrandCOGs; there were lots of hugs, but it soon turned to quiet conversation off in a corner that became the GrandCOG corner. Cokes, Pepsis, and other soft drinks, along with a variety of fruit kept them occupied.
Junior and Bud hugged Hal, and all three stood together trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears. Wives joined them, with no more success at holding back the tears. Tim and I gently pushed them to a table and they got seated. Drinks, fruit and sandwiches arrived and were shared. Hal asked, "Why's food necessary at all such occasions?"
Sue replied, "It's the one concrete thing that people can do, since the one thing that everybody wants to do can't be done: delay the arrival of that truck by just ten seconds."
Tim got everyone's attention. He started by saying, "I think most of us have a sense of a God somewhere that relates to humankind, and I know that most of us, for various reasons aren't members of churches. But the sense of a God, a spirit beyond our understanding is especially important at a time like this. I called Rev. Saxon of the Unitarian Church to be with us. She'll be glad to talk to any of you that would like, especially the members of the Bruder family. Right now she's agreed to lead us in a prayer."
Rev. Saxon prayed, "Oh God, you are beyond our understanding, just as the events of this evening are beyond our understanding. Some would say that this is part of God's plan; I cannot believe that. Some will say that there's good in it; we have to look for it; I cannot believe that. I have to believe that this tragedy was unplanned, that people, machines, human or mechanical failures, somehow came together in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now we humans must deal with the results of that confluence of events. God, the unknown, the divine, the eternal spirit within us all, comfort us. Especially comfort Hal, Sue, Jody, Junior, Louise, Jay, Bud, Jennie, and Frank as well as Herb's family who haven't been able to assemble here this evening. Comfort their their friends gathered here to provide love and support when it's most needed. And above all, God our creator, help everyone here to deal with this tragedy appropriately, but then to have the strength to carry on, continue living the upright and productive lives they've been living, knowing with certainty that that is what John, Hazel, and Herb would want. Amen."
Now there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Shel turned to Tim and said, "She said exactly what the Gang needed to hear. She may not be a member of the Gang, but she sure understands us."
Tim replied, "That's why she's here."
Tim then said to the group: "We're here simply because none of us wanted to be home alone tonight. Tomorrow we're going to have to start dealing with the bureaucracy of death in America. Tonight, we deal with love and support. Thank you for coming. Hal, Sue, and their families thank for coming. Stay as long as you like; eat as much as you feel like. Talk to each other. Understand one thing: there's no way to understand what happened tonight. It just happened. We need each other to help us deal with it. And be sure of one thing: we will deal with it. Conventional wisdom would say that we'll come out stronger for it. I can't accept that. We'll come out whole human beings, as we were this afternoon. Good night everyone."
Tim organized a shifting of tables so that Hal's family table could include Rev. Saxon, Jody, and the original eight. Andy got up and brought enough Cokes for everyone. He stood, raised his bottle and said, "To the memory of John. To the memory of Hazel. To the memory of Herb. May John and Hazel find a young angel to make over into a new angel for Herb to coach to the heavenly Olympics four years from now."
Hal smiled for the first time all evening.
The next morning I was, as the Gang's only attorney, designated to help Hal wade through the bureaucracy of death: police, hospital, funeral home, cemetery, newspaper obit, Social Security, and eventually probate and the tax man.
Jody was given the task of tracking down Herb's three children. We knew that all were married with children and lived all over: Chicago, Montana, and Texas. Jody easily found their names and addresses in Herb's computer and got on the telephone to them. One, the eldest, Rodney, had died two years before. His wife, Eileen, and two children would come to Grand Forks from Chicago as soon as possible, but were content to leave arrangements in Grand Forks up to Jody. The second was Mary, whose husband Steve answered the telephone. Mary had just been admitted to the hospital with serious liver problems. They lived in Dallas, and neither of them would be able to travel to Grand Forks. They were delighted that Rodney's wife, Eileen, and their children could make it. They were also quite willing for Jody to make all arrangements in Grand Forks. The youngest was Peter. Since Phyllis'd died, he'd been divorced by his wife and estranged from his children. He lived on a remote ranch in Montana, had withdrawn from the world, and wouldn't be coming to Grand Forks for a funeral. He said, "I'll greet Dad in heaven and apologize for not getting to his funeral." He also was willing to let Jody make arrangements in Grand Forks.
Jody reported all this to Tim, Hal and me. I told Jody, you have no authority to say anything here in Grand Forks. The hospital won't release the body to the funeral home without either the signature of next of kin or a court order. Jody said, "Write up whatever you need signed. I would suppose that with Rodney dead and Mary hospitalized, Peter must be considered next of kin. I'll call him and see if he'll sign appropriate paperwork. Will a scanned copy of the signed document be accepted."
I told him that the appropriate document was a power-of-attorney for him to act on Peter's behalf in all matters related to the death of his father, Herb Johnson, for which he had authority as next of kin. I told Jody to email it to Peter, have him sign it and get it notarized, scan it and send back the scan at once, but send two originals Express Mail. Peter was reluctant, but agreed to do it rather than have to have his sister Mary do it from a hospital bed. Luckily his neighbor ran a small business out of his ranch house and had a secretary who was a notary. The paperwork was accomplished in a matter of hours. So Jody found himself acting as Herb Johnson's next of kin. Why not have asked Hal? Hal was too shaken up dealing with his parents arrangements. He gladly accepted Jody's offer to help.
Herb didn't have a lot of friends in Grand Forks other than the Gang. With more than a hundred of us, including his good friends John and Hazel, no job at which to meet people, and no church, he had little need for friends outside the Gang, but there were a few. Much the same was true for John and Hazel. Hal's friends outside the Gang were runners and his fellow teachers at both the high school and college, many of which also knew Herb. Our best estimate is that a funeral or memorial service would attract about 200, provided it wasn't broadcast throughout the marathon community–which Hal didn't want.
Sometime in the midst of all of this I got a phone call from Tim. He'd checked with the police and hospital and learned that the driver'd had a stroke just as he came down the off ramp. He was very likely unconscious when he ran the stop sign and hit the Bruder car. His body was not severly damaged in the accident, so the people at the scene thought that his injuries were minor. The stroke was diagnosed at the hospital. He died at the hospital during the night. That closed the gaping hole that everyone was dealing with, Why? And, as Tim noted many times, there was no one to blame or sue. It just happened.
Hal and Jody discussed what kind of service they would have, whether it would be for all three, and where it might take place. They quickly decided that it would be a single funeral, and that the three cremation urns would be present. Where, was another matter. Hal said, "I'd really like it to be a simple graveside service, but it's too cold in March in Grand Forks to do that. I've never liked services in funeral homes; it's too impersonal. We could use some space at the university, but none of them were really connected to the university. Jody, any ideas?"
"Yes. I think it should be in Gang space. The Hideout's too small. But there are three other spaces in town that are truly Gang spaces: the Fred, Marty's Gym, and the velodrome. The only large space at the Fred is the ice rink, and I don't think people want to sit on the ice, or be spread way out in the stands. Marty's Gym is too small. That leaves the velodrome, which would work."
It was quite a service. Toppy arranged a small orchestra; Rev. Saxon led the service in the same spirit as her prayer, the velodrome was filled with flowers and looked beautiful, 242 persons attended, and somehow Hal found the strength to speak and expressed his love and indebtedness to both his parents and Herb, who had helped him become who he was. There was no talk of the "new Hal," but those who knew the story understood just what Hal's indebtedness was. At graveside was the same group that'd been at Hal's table in the gym that horrible evening, along with Herb's daughter-in-law, Eileen, and her children. It was clear that Rodney and Eileen hadn't understood the relationship between Herb and Hal, apparently that wasn't a part of his life that Herb shared with his children. It seemed to be true, as Herb had said, that the Gang had become his family.
Regardless, Eileen and her children were well accepted and seemed to understand that Herb had spent his retirement years in loving company. She said, "You know, when Mom died, Rodney invited Dad to come live in a really nice retirement community near us in Chicago. He thanked us for the offer, but said he liked the community where he was. I think I understand."
We'd weathered a great tragedy, but we felt that we best honored the dead by moving on. The Olympics were coming, and Trials would be here even sooner.
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