FARGO — For more than 50 years, Gary Kopperud has kept a memento of what was once a long-lost friend, an opened pack of Lucky Strikes, tucked away with other treasures in a metal cabinet. The final four cigarettes reminded him of the last time he saw Robert D. “Homer” Holm after a road trip across North Dakota in a car with a top speed of 30 mph.
“The Model A was finished and we just decided to take a road trip without a road map or a destination in mind. Some roads were gravel, some were paved. We stayed in an old hotel that was 50 cents a night on Highway 81 north of Grand Forks. We had a thermos of coffee and a few packs of Lucky Strikes,” Kopperud said.
As the trip came to a close, they sipped their coffee, smoked a Lucky, and pledged they would join the Marine Corps together under the buddy system and head to war in Vietnam.
“Never a bad word from either one of us. We agreed on everything. We laughed at the same things,” Kopperud said. “I still have that same pack of Luckies. I don’t know why I kept it.”
It was the last time they saw each other. Months later, around Christmas, Kopperud’s father received a call from Vietnam, which at that time could have only been from a satellite phone, signifying to Kopperud that his friend may have been sent on a dangerous mission. He tried calling back, but the trail was gone.
“The only way he could make that kind of phone call was with a general’s satellite phone. I doubted that he made the call, but there was no doubt my father took the call,” Kopperud said, adding that if that phone call hadn’t been made, the mystery of his friend’s whereabouts would not have haunted him for more than five decades.
When Kopperud’s draft number was called up, he was told he couldn’t join. He had a back injury he suffered in a bicycle accident.
For 56 years, Kopperud, who finished high school while on tour with musicians, never stopped looking for his friend, a 1963 Fargo Central High School graduate. His search took sometimes alarming twists with what he perceived as veiled warnings to stop looking. He even looked to Canada — perhaps his friend dodged the draft?
“I have been pursuing this now for about 56 years. We cannot find a death certificate or a marriage certificate or anything,” Kopperud said.
Kopperud, 74, now lives in Oregon, and he is no stranger to searching for people. He never met his birth parents, and he spent years trying to find them. He eventually discovered that his birth mother's husband forced her to put him up for adoption shortly after World War II after she fell in love and became pregnant with Kopperud's birth father, a local war hero.
His earliest days were spent in Fargo in the Florence Crittenton System of Homes, and later he was sent to an orphanage where he was adopted.
“There were a lot of unwanted pregnancies after the war,” Kopperud said. “I started out at Crittenton Home, which was a home of unwed mothers, so I was raised by unwed mothers for the first part of my life, then I was sent to the orphanage.”
Kopperud’s personal story is told in a book titled “One of 11” by Terrie Biggs. Later in his life Kopperud discovered he had 10 siblings.
The search for his birth parents, however, instilled in him a desire to solve the mysteries of his childhood friend. Was he still alive? Did he really go fight in Vietnam? Where was he now? He turned to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead for help tracking his friend down.
“My allegiance to wanting to know where I came from also extends to those who have walked through my life,” Kopperud said.
Forum reporter's search
As a kid, I remember my parents telling me that if we got separated, go to the place we last saw each other. The same lesson can be applied when trying to find people.
While I waited for word from Fargo Public Schools on how to check Holm’s graduation status, I dug into military records, obituary notices, social media and found nothing.
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has suspended reproduction and digitization services for birth, death and pension records, pending the end of the coronavirus pandemic. The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis will only service emergency requests for Vietnam War era service records due to the ongoing pandemic.
Holm is not listed as deceased, missing in action or as a prisoner of war in the North Dakota database of the National Archives from the Vietnam War.
Obituary searches led to many with similar names, but none that were born in 1945, or had lived in Fargo.
After I was directed to the Fargo Central High School Association, I found Christine Kloubec, the group's executive director, behind door No. 4.
And I got lucky. She still had Holm’s address in El Cajon, Calif.
“I see that he paid his dues up until 1999, and this does not show his status as deceased, but that’s not conclusive,” Kloubec said.
Before she started working for the organization, there were more than 40,000 alumni still alive from Fargo Central, a school that no longer exists. Now, there are about 1,300 left, Kloubec said.
Since the pandemic first struck North Dakota in March, she’s been receiving more than double the usual number of calls from people looking for a childhood sweetheart or an old friend. She’s even broken the news to alumni who didn’t know that a classmate had died.
Sometimes, she consoles Fargo Central alumni on the telephone until late in the night.
“Because of the pandemic, more and more people are looking for friends. It has really reached a crescendo with people wondering if their old friends are OK,” Kloubec said. “Sometimes people share the most intimate things, and I’m glad to be a part of their lives in some way. When you have someone who needs to tell you their story, you just can’t shut that down.”
Holm’s 1999 address and an expired telephone number eventually led me to a list of people with the same name, but only one was from El Cajon, a San Diego suburb. I called the first number I found.
“Hello. I’m looking for Robert D. Holm,” I said.
“I’m Robert,” the man on the other end of the line said.
“Hello, Robert, I’m a reporter with The Forum way up north of you in Fargo, N.D., and this might be a weird question, but did you ever live in Fargo? Did you know a boy named Gary Kopperud?”
“Yes, I sure did,” said Holm, now 75 years old. His breathing didn’t come easy. He said he had been hit with the defoliant chemical Agent Orange during his one tour in Vietnam. “Yeah, I remember he was a friend when I went to school. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember a whole lot.”
He left Fargo in 1969, and worked for 40 years at the San Diego Paper Box Co. He’s retired now, but said he’d take a call from his old Fargo friend.
'A four-hour talk'
To say Kopperud was shocked to learn after 56 years that his friend had been located in California would be an understatement.
“My take is that I owe him a phone call,” said Kopperud, adding that this Christmas would have marked 57 years since the cryptic telephone call his dad received.
He lit up one of the 56-year-old Lucky Strikes before dialing the number.
“It was stale and rotten, and there’s only three left,” Kopperud chuckled. “But we had about a four-hour talk, and we covered everything. His memory was pretty good. He remembered so many things, and when you talk to people and talk about things that happened long ago, triggers go off that haven’t come up in years,” Kopperud said.
“No doubt, it’s Bob. He is obviously a hero. He came back from Vietnam, and he was dusted pretty heavily with Agent Orange,” Kopperud said. “If I would have been able to have an older brother, it would have been Bob.”
Sometimes people don’t want to be found, but that wasn’t the case with Holm, Kopperud said. They shared email addresses and Holm’s Facebook page.
Holm came back from Vietnam a corporal. He married, had two children. He’s now surrounded by family and grandchildren in southern California.
“That’s what we were lacking, that final connection. I’m more than pleased that we found him, and as a military veteran. He is one that came home, and he was part of Fargo,” Kopperud said.
In a statement, Kopperud added: “I honor his service this Veterans Day as all former military should be, and I was reunited with a great friend. It was 57 years between phone calls, but all is well now.”