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Finding Tim

A Fourth Alternate Reality

by Charlie
With editorial assistance from Dix and John


You have a new narrator, Herb Johnson. At Hal's suggestion-insistence really-Charlie has invited me to write this chapter of his incredible story. Charlie let me read the earlier chapters before I started to write. I see that I am always called Coach Johnson. Beginning in the sixties, about the time Hal came into my life, my students and runners started calling me Herb. But to the good students and the best runners, I was always Coach or Coach Johnson-right up to my retirement. I liked that; I have never been comfortable with teenagers calling teachers and coaches by their first names. I guess that's why old guys like me need to retire-we don't change easily.

A lot of my memories are getting vague. One student's feats blend with another. Except for one. In one of the early chapters, Charlie says something like this, "Some track coach is going to have a wet dream over having this kid on his team!" Perhaps not literally correct, but it certainly conveys the right idea. My memories of Hal are crystal clear-at least I think they are. I'll tell you right off that there are two reasons for that: First, Hal was simply the world's best distance runner of his decade, and I got to coach him for four years of high school! But more important, Hal was kind to me in many, many ways, and has continued to be from then until now. Hal is now 58; I am almost 80. How many star high school athletes shower kindnesses on their coaches forty years later? Hal is special and has always been so. And he has a special group of friends. They are all kind to me.

But that is the ending of my story. It began, as you know from Charlie's narrative, with this kid coming up to me and asking about running shoes. It would have been so easy to tell him, "Forget it, kid. You don't have enough experience to possibly qualify for the cross country team." Thank God I didn't. Well I would never have blown off a student like that. But it sure was tempting! Kids with Hal's background simply didn't have a chance in high school athletics-you have to start earlier. At least that was the conventional wisdom till Hal blew it away. However, Hal was the exception to all the rules. But exceptions to that rule are incredibly rare. The next four years are history.

As Hal's senior year came to an end Phyllis and I got this incredible invitation: Would we like to ride on the bus with Hal and his Gang as they went to Boston for him to run in the Boston Marathon? He asked it like I would be doing him a favor! I certainly don't have to tell you our answer, or tell you how long we hesitated in giving it.

I am supposed to start my story on the bus ride to Boston. I had thought that I knew Hal pretty well. He was my star runner, had been for four years. I had been welcomed into his home, and into Tim's home with him. I knew his parents. I knew Sue's and Tim's parents. I had met Charlie and the Gang. I had been to his and Tim's commitment ceremony, at which Hal had an important part. I knew this bunch, the Gang as they call themselves, were very close friends, and it was clear that they would do anything for each other. This explained this huge group on the bus to Boston. But it didn't explain the parents on the bus. Why were Franklin's parents there? Why Ronnie's? Why Tom's?

Phyllis and I started out sitting together on the bus. We knew almost everyone, but were not close to many of them. With the bus pretty full (especially with the last two rows closed off for Hal and Sue) we felt that if we split up we would force others to do so. As we watched the group, two things jumped out at us: First, the parents were fully accepted as part of the group. Teenagers just don't function like that, but these did. Each set of parents was quickly separated, as the kids made sure that the group was well mixed. It wasn't long before Tina came up to us and asked if she could sit with Phyllis. I ended up with Sue for a while. Teens and parents easily mixed, talked with each other and seemed to respect each other. If you have spent much time around high school students, that would simply blow your mind!

Second, there seemed to be a heightened sense of sexuality in this group. Their language was, in fact, cleaner than most kids, and as the trip went on I sensed that this wasn't just because there were parents present. And dirty jokes were rare. But they kissed a lot, and hugged even more. These gestures didn't seem to be affected by the gender of the individuals-certainly very rare. I saw boys kissing boys, comfortably, in public, for the first time in my life. Not just Charlie and Tim, or Franklin and Phil, but they all seemed to feel comfortable kissing or hugging anyone in the group-including the parents. When I had arrived at Hal's house for breakfast, Tim had run up to Phyllis and me and hugged and kissed us both and thanked us for coming. "It's so important for Hal," he said.

It was completely accepted that Sue and Hal would go into their "bedroom" and nobody even snickered at the idea of what they might do there-it seemed to just be accepted. As they slept the random pairing of the group continued, and people lay all over each other in ways that would likely offend in other groups. Then Phil and Sue pushed, literally pushed, Franklin into the bedroom with Hal. There was neither doubt nor offense as to what they were doing. Then there was Hal walking to the toilet in his Jockey shorts at night-in a bus filled with parents and girls-and someone whistling as he went back to Sue.

As the weekend continued, I tried to have a chance to talk with all of the parents, beginning with Hal's. Before I could even ask my questions Hazel grinned at me and said, "Are we being good parents when we let Hal get away with what he does in that bedroom?"

I said, "I have no doubt that you are good parents; the proof is in the pudding. But are you comfortable with all that?"

"We weren't at first. But we've been learning. Charlie has taught us a lot. God, without Charlie we would've screwed up Hal's life completely. But on the matter of sex Norman and Betsy have been our teachers. Norman continues to point out that teens today, and, in fact, teens throughout history, have had the opportunity to have sex with anyone they wished. Last generation it was a haystack in the south forty. Now it's the back seat of the automobile or the bedroom at home while both parents work. So they don't need our permission to have sex. They need our guidance and support in making the right decisions. And if we are lucky enough to have a good relationship with them, they'll tell us those decisions, and even listen to our advice. But if they know that telling us is going to have its own repercussions, they simply won't tell us. They'll still do what they decide, not what we decide. So when Hal and Sue go behind that curtain they know that we know what they are doing, that our approval isn't needed, that our disapproval would be shared only reluctantly, and that our relationship with them is strengthened through the openness and honesty. And, because of all of that I also know that, because this is Sue's fertile time of the month, they aren't having intercourse, but are having oral sex."

For Hazel to tell me that meant that Hal had to have told her, in advance, exactly what he and Sue were going to do behind the curtain-or in the bedroom in Boston. In my experience, teenagers simply don't act like that. I guess some do.

Tom's folks told me of Charlie's visit to Detroit right after Tom's girlfriend Julie died. In their case it was Tom's psychiatrist who had suggested that the sexual overtones to Tom's relationship with Charlie were healthy. I got similar stories from all the parents on the bus.

They all gave me a variant of the same answer to the question of why they had decided to come on this long, tiring trip, to see a friend of their son compete in a marathon: "The Gang's exciting. I wouldn't miss watching them in action for anything." Or: "This is where the action is."

I guess I started the trip as somewhat of a fuddy-duddy. Phyllis as well. We were a little shocked by the bedroom, and the calmness of the whole group when Hal and Sue headed there. We had gotten well past being offended by Charlie and Tim being partners, and we certainly understood the physical side to a homosexual relationship-oops, a gay relationship-we are still learning. But we were shocked to see Franklin being pushed into the bedroom! We've had a chance to reflect. I guess we have to agree with Norman and Hazel: we can't control them, we just have to guide and accept. I guess that I could easily have condemned Hal for his actions, but instead I have grown to understand that he is demonstrating a maturity far beyond his years, and a morality that, while different from mine, guides him with a strength and firmness that's missing in most of Hal's contemporaries. Hal was willing to have sex with Franklin with Sue's knowledge; at the same time he wouldn't do anything behind her back. There was, and is, total trust. Phyllis and I decided that we'll take that, any day. The divorce rate in America suggests that Hal and Sue, and the other partners in the Gang, have something very important that's missing in large measure in our society.

Well, I'll get off my soapbox. You want to know about the race. What a race! Hal's qualifying time was pretty good, so he ended up about a quarter of the way back in the pack at the start. He had decided to push himself a little at the beginning and break loose of the pack. He decided, and I encouraged him in this decision, that the energy expended would be made up by being free of the pack. But success depended on his willingness to let up as soon as he was free of the pack. By the second milepost, where I was standing for my first glimpse of him during the race, he was about three-fourths of the way back in the lead group, which had now strung out to single file. Runners were passing him as he slackened his pace, and I was pleased to see that he didn't fall to the temptation of trying to keep up. He was racing against himself and the clock, and his ability to ignore the immediate pressure of runners passing him was remarkable.

I stood at the 17 mile mark, which is where he planned to increase his pace. He knew that his endurance was his strong suit; the ability to actually speed up with just over nine miles to go was his secret weapon. As he came by me I said, "Now, Hal, go!" I could see him shift gears, and his speed noticeably increased. He would, incredibly, hold that faster pace till the end of the race.

I didn't see him again until milepost 25. But I learned from all of the reports of the Gang, which had been spread out along the course, that starting at mile 17 he began passing people, and nobody passed him. I counted and was pretty sure that by mile 25 he was in 26th place. He finished 9th. He later told me that he had had the same decision to make in the last mile of this race that he had in Elgin: push at the end and finish closer to the front, but exhausted, or follow his plan to always finish with some reserves. This race it had been an easy decision: he was certain that he couldn't have won the race no matter how hard he pushed at the end.

But 9th place! At age 18. His first Boston Marathon. Only his second competitive marathon. He got almost as much attention as the first place runner, especially since he was able to stand up and talk, and the winner was lying on the ground looking like it was doubtful he would ever run again! The winner's time was 2:15:33. Hal's time ws 2:22:32-a personal best. He thinks that by pushing he might have gotten it down between 2:19 and 2:20.

Amidst all of the questions at the end, Hal first introduced his parents, whose support, he said, had made all the difference. Then he pushed through the front row of people around him and grabbed me, pulling me to the front. "This is Coach Herb Johnson, my running coach. He coaches the cross country and track teams at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Everything I know about running I learned from Coach Johnson at Como Park."

I knew Tim well enough to know his favorite word, "Bullshit." I had taught Hal practically nothing. He was a natural born runner, and that was that. But that wasn't Hal's story there in Boston. And when I tried to say that he was a natural runner, he pointed out that before he joined my team he had accomplished exactly nothing as a runner. Well, I'll admit that my ego certainly got completely inflated. When Hal stopped, Tim started. Tim had wanted to avoid publicity, but he had been spotted toward the rear of the circle around Hal, and somebody made the connection. Tim was shoved to the front, but tried his best to keep Hal the center of attention. Susan Wilfield helped, by directing all of her questions to Hal instead of Tim. Bill helped too. Even though the other reporters liked to ignore him because he was "just a kid" Hal pointed to him for questions as often as he could get away with it.

Of course, one of the reasons that there was a group around Hal is that he was about the only runner that could stand and actually talk to the press following the race. I honestly don't know how Hal could be as calm, relaxed, and composed as he was after running a very fast marathon. Not many of the others there understood it either.

But Tim sensed that, even with replacement liquids, Hal was tiring and needed a decent meal. He took command of the situation and announced that Hal was leaving for dinner. With that he escorted Hal to his folks' rental car and they disappeared. Susan, Bill, and Mike were invited to dinner with our entire crowd, and were told that the conversation at dinner was "on the record." They each had their "scoops." With Susan present, Bill was not going to be able to sell to the Minneapolis Tribune, but on the strength of his invitation to ride the bus had gotten picked up as a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune. They had forgiven him for selling his first article to the Minneapolis Tribune. In fact, they had been able to pick it up from the AP wire at less cost than buying it from Bill-and only one day later for what was, after all, a feature story.

Charlie's folks insisted on being hosts for dinner at the dining room in their hotel. They were gracious hosts, and visited with all of the guests. I was delighted for a chance to talk to them, since they hadn't been on the bus. I asked, "Hal's one of at least a hundred of Charlie's former campers. I know Hal's part of Tim and Charlie's special Gang, but what motivated you to come all the way from Indiana, and then insist on hosting this dinner?"

Mamie had answered for them. "Coach, we had a rather distant relationship with Charlie before Tim came into his life. We had the good sense, or luck, to accept Tim into our lives as Charlie had into his. That opened doors for us that we couldn't have imagined. It isn't that Tim and Hal are future Olympians, or athletic stars now. It's that they are exciting people and they share that excitement with Charlie, and with us-if we let them. And because we've decided to let them, joy without bounds has come into our lives. We are closer to Charlie than we've ever been. And he's fun, exciting, loving, in love, scandalous, wild, wildly optimistic, and crazy all rolled into one. Tim's the same, but more so. Our lives are turned upside down; here we are ready for retirement and having the time of our lives. We envy Hal's parents, because it started for them when Hal was age 14. It started for Tim's parents when he was about age 11. We had to wait till Charlie was age 24. We are making up for lost time."

What a testimonial. I decided that it was time to really sign on to the bandwagon. I walked up to Hal where he sat with his parents on one side and Tim and Charlie on the other and I said, "Hal. Congratulations, and thank you for bringing me along on this four-year ride." Then I spoke the words that seem to be, for so many, the hardest in the English language. "I love you." And I hugged him and kissed him firmly on the lips. He hugged back, squeezed me tight, kissed me back, and, unbelievably, his tongue pushed inside and touched my tongue. I almost wilted from the power of the situation. We let go, and I could only manage to whisper, "Thank you."

He responded in his own whisper, "Coach, you made my day. Thank you."

Everything after that is a blur. It was a wonderful dinner. I have never heard so many people try to say "thank you" to so many other people in so many different words. Carl finally put a stop to it by saying, "Everybody has now thanked everybody, and we understand that if it wasn't spoken, it was thought. Let's move on."

Charlie stood and finally got everyone's attention. "The press is here, and has been told that we are 'on the record.' So it's time to set the record straight. Tim will compete in the Mexico Olympic trials in diving and gymnastics. Hal will compete in the marathon trials. I will compete in the archery trials. We will qualify in all four sports, and we'll all win medals in Mexico; Tim in two sports." He continued, "Stand up here Tim." Tim stood and Charlie took his hand, kissed it, and then raised it over his head as high as Tim could reach. "Come up here, Hal." He took Hal's hand and raised it high. "Mike, Bill, get the picture. This is our announcement to Mexico: Tim and Charlie and Hal are coming, and we are coming home with medals."

Two flashes popped. Susan madly took notes for herself and Bill-who was busy trying to be his own photographer. Everyone waited for the flashes and then stood and cheered. By this time the entire dining room was watching, and some seemed to sense that this was an historic moment. The cheering extended throughout the dining room, followed by the onslaught of autograph seekers, all of whom were satisfied by the three of them. Many also sought my signature. But the ones that ended up with the best souvenir, as judged later by the resale value of the item, were the half dozen or so who carefully got the signatures of the entire Gang of eight. Right after the Olympics a dated menu with those eight signatures sold for over $1,000 at a New York auction! We learned later that the head waiter had made a good profit selling the daily menus to people needing something appropriate on which to gather autographs!

It was quite a realization for me to understand that Tim and Charlie lived with this constantly, and that Hal was moving into that same situation. Little did I realize that as Mexico approached, I would be getting some of the same attention!

Sue and Hal refused to go into the bedroom on the way home. They wouldn't even go through the curtains. They both insisted that the special arrangement for them on the way out was greatly appreciated, but that the reason for it was now gone, and it was available for others. I am not sure who put it there, but a sign soon appeared on the curtains saying, "No Sleeping Inside." If one hadn't detected the sexual tension before, it was hard to miss now. But what really blew my mind is that shortly after the appearance of the sign Norman and Betsy calmly walked to the back of the bus and disappeared behind the curtain, emerging about a half an hour later! They were followed by a silent parade, but, as far as I observed through my catnaps, they were the only ones of their generation to take advantage of the curtains. The only comments ever made as people came and went were tossed out to Phil and Franklin, in the form of "Do you think the seats are strong enough?"

Franklin responded, "Not to worry, we weigh less with our clothes off." And he started undressing as he headed for the back of the bus. Before long all of their clothes came flying out from between the curtains, and there was a murmur of speculation as to how they were going to handle their situation. We learned a little while later, when they emerged with fresh clothes that had obviously been stashed there earlier with the whole episode in mind. Franklin grinned and said, "What were you expecting? Certainly not in front of my mom!" With that he kissed her, and he and Phil sat down in the front of the bus, looking very content.

The bus had pulled out of Boston about 10 p.m. Monday night, following the race and dinner. We gained an hour moving into the Central Time Zone, but we still needed thirty hours to get home. That would have put us into St. Paul about 4:00 on Wednesday morning. We preferred an arrival that made school impossible! So we stopped for meals instead of eating on the go, finally arriving at Hal's house at about 9:30 a.m. I could image Hal going running and Tim heading to either school, diving or gymnastics practice. Both of them fooled me by announcing that they were headed for bed. Hal and Sue at his house. Tim and Charlie at their house. I think that the three sets of parents did the same thing. So did Carl and Carol, again at Tim's house. And so did Phyllis and I, at our house.

I was told later that at Tim's house they all woke up, groggily, for a carry in dinner (Charlie lost the toss and had to go get it). But by 6:00 a.m. Tim was diving and Charlie was doing laps. Like the weekend hadn't happened.

But it had happened. To this day Phyllis and I consider that weekend the experience of a lifetime. Yes, the Mexico Olympics were a thrill, but we pretty much knew what was going to happen. But Boston had been one surprise or revelation after another. One unbelievable event piled on top of other equally unbelievable events. And this loving, incredible group had taken Phyllis and me in, made us feel welcome, indeed vitally important. As we woke on Thursday morning, we hugged each other and kissed, pushing our tongues into each other as we hadn't done since we were lovers in college. We realized then that Hal, Charlie, Tim, and the whole damn bunch had changed our lives, forever.

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