I spent last week near Akeley, Minn., more concerned with the rise and fall of the air pressure in my bike tires than with the ups and downs of the stock market. When the bike trail is beckoning and the loons are singing, only the biggest and baddest headlines merit attention. Like the revelation on Thursday that two Minnesotans had been among the casualties when the Taliban shot down a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan.
That news was playing in my head as I poked around the Akeley cemetery. In a town that has shrunk to about 400 people, where another storefront seems to go dark every year, the cemetery is a place of tradition and permanence. It tells the history of the town – the children who died early in the 1900s of diseases that we now regard casually; the old people who lived most of a century and saw it all.
This year, the veterans’ memorial in the cemetery struck me as especially poignant. It stands at the rear of the cemetery, as though on guard duty. Then my eye happened to fall on the tombstones of two Vietnam veterans who died within a few months of each other: James Olson, who passed away in 2005 at age 60, and John Dunham, who followed in early 2006 at age 58. Their epitaphs say “Gone fishing” and “He loved life,” which in that part of the state mean pretty much the same thing.
In a town that size you can bet they knew each other, but I wondered whether they had been friends, whether they had known each other in the Navy, whether they had lived their whole lives in Akeley or merely retired there. And I wondered about John Faas, 31, and Nick Spehar, 24, the Navy SEALS from Minnesota who were killed last week: Were they friends?
I hope they were, and I hope that all four of them – Olson and Dunham in their day, and Faas and Spehar in theirs – felt appreciated by those of us who don’t have much to worry about besides our bike tires.