Arlie Anundson turned 72 on May 12, reaching that marker five days after our friend and classmate Lee Isensee and 15 days before me. In a Facebook birthday greeting to Arlie, I told him I expected to see him this summer and that we could make fun of Lee for being such an old man. That drew a smile emoji from Arlie, who dearly enjoyed ribbing friends.
Arlie died on July 2, and today Lee and I and other members of the Valley City High School Class of 1967 will be at his funeral.
I don’t mean to ask you, dear reader, to share in my sadness today at the loss of an old friend ... another old friend. Most of you have known such losses, or you will.
What I’m asking today, or urging, is that you tend to those early friendships that have endured, the ones that began in the clatter and tumult of schoolrooms, in the dust or grass of playgrounds, in the ominous wait after a summons to the principal’s office. Those friendships will fade with time and distance and choices, most of them. I fear I’ve lost a few that once seemed everlasting, due to ever-widening political chasms, but usually it’s the infrequency of contact, the demands and choices of life and interests – the “unbearable lightness of being” – that lead to ever-widening and separate orbits.
Arlie and I weren’t best friends in grade or high school. Several of our classmates were closer to him and had stayed close since. They are the ones who will feel this loss the greatest. They will tell the best stories of his wit, his rascality and orneriness, his stubborn refusal to take care of himself after a really tough bout with COVID-19. And they will gather at one of his favorite retreats to raise a bottle or glass to his memory. An obituary, clearly written by someone who knew and loved him, lists Arlie’s interests as “fishing and happy hour.”
I came to know and appreciate Arlie again when he and my older brother Tom became friends. One of them may have told me how that started, but I’ve forgotten. It likely was at one of those happy hours, either here in Grand Forks or in Valley City, at an American Legion or VFW outpost.
My brother served 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, working in photo reconnaissance during Vietnam, raising three children in Hawaii, then causing them to question his judgment when he brought them home to North Dakota, retiring from the base here as a chief master sergeant.
Like Tom, Arlie had enlisted in the Air Force right after high school. He served three tours in Vietnam with the Air Force Mobility Command, and he later served as commander of VFW Post 2764 in Valley City. He worked as a salesman for most of his life and came to Grand Forks regularly on business. He and Tom would go out – to the old Bronze Boot Steak House and Lounge on N. Washington Street – for steaks and a few drinks. I joined them there once.
Tom died in late 2012. Arlie and Lee drove up from Valley City for the funeral.
In the years since, Arlie and I kept in touch on Facebook, mostly by bragging on our grandchildren. We talked for a while at our 50th high school class reunion in 2017, Arlie grousing about another classmate who had swiped his portion of the vintage 1960s candies I had passed out before dinner (cherry coins and cinnamon bears, staples at Ed’s Popcorn Stand back in the day). He also complained about dinner being late. And we talked about my brother Tom.
When Arlie got sick with COVID-19, bad enough that he spent time intubated in intensive care at a Fargo hospital, we urged him to rally. When he was well enough to go home, I told him we knew he was much too ornery to give in to a virus. That struggle apparently took a lot out of him, though.
You probably knew someone like Arlie when you were young. He could seem cold, severe, in person and in photos, glaring as if to say, “I will do what I want to do, so get lost!” But his best friends knew. Ornery as he could be, he had a twinkling eye and a warm, honest smile for people he cared about. The best picture I’ve seen of him, which he made his Facebook portrait, showed him beaming as he knelt with his little granddaughters, Willa and Dora, who were beaming, too.
Call an old friend. Say hello. Even if it’s been 30, 40, 50 years since you stood together, listen to that voice on the other end, remarkably still familiar, and remember.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.