The Dead and The Wounded

Last spring three soldiers from northern Minnesota's Carlton County died in Iraq in one month's time

So he comes here. In Lila's kitchen there are shots of Levi and Gordon's brother Donny Angell--who died at 49 from cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam--standing over a buck Levi shot. Levi saved up the money to buy that hunting rifle working a summer job at Dairy Queen. He rode his bike nine miles each way, and by winter the manager liked him so much he'd drive out to fetch him when it snowed.

There's another picture of Levi in his orange hunting jacket, this one of him and his cousin Jordan, Donny's son. The two boys were good buddies; Donny liked to take them hunting together. Jordan was in Bosnia with the National Guard at the same time Levi was in Iraq. He made it home just in time for Levi's funeral.

Donny's and Gordon's brother John had gone to Vietnam, too, with the Air Force. All told, four generations of Angell men have done turns of military service. Levi's great-great-uncle was in the First World War, and his grandfather, Gordon Sr., served in the Army in New Guinea in the Second. Gordon Jr. was one of two men of his generation not to enlist (Lila's fourth son, Dennis Angell, is a school teacher). He got drafted for Vietnam, and even took the bus to the Cities for his physical, but when they found out he had a baby on the way and a bride-to-be with a child from a previous marriage, they sent him home.

When Levi was a kid, he liked to go along with Gordon on the job, whatever it happened to be, and make lunch for his father and uncles on a little grill they'd take. Gordon remembers this as a time of perfect freedom. They'd stop when they were tired or hungry, start late if they needed to, or maybe find a bar and buy a couple of drinks.

Sometimes Gordon feels guilty about indulging his desire to take Levi along so much. That's where the boy came to love heavy machinery. Later, Marine Corps aptitude tests confirmed the affinity. As a result, Levi was trained to operate 17 different kinds of vehicles, including the Humvee in which he died. So there's another question: Did Gordon himself set in motion the chain of events that killed his boy?

Levi was never a great student. He thought nothing of cutting school to go deer hunting. He was the kind of kid everyone loved to have around. He had a sweet smile and good looks, but most of his magnetism came from his charm and wit. He liked to party and got away with a lot, but he was also very involved with the youth group at his church and close to his pastor.

Amy Olson met Levi in choir in the seventh grade. She's a soprano and Levi was a bass and they were both tall, so they ended up standing next to each other in the back row all the way through high school. Amy was the better singer. "He knew it, but he didn't care," she says. "Levi stuck with it because so many of our friends were in it, and the teacher was so encouraging." One time in their senior year they smuggled vodka-7s into choir in their water bottles.

Their graduating class never really divided off into cliques. "The so-called preps were friends with the drama geeks and the jocks," says Amy. "A lot of the people in our class were the middle child, like Levi and me, and we used to joke that the whole class had middle-child syndrome." Levi was particularly popular with the girls, who looked on him as a brother figure. His best friend had to work on prom night, and asked Levi to take his girlfriend for him.

He was a bit of a good old boy in the making, but he didn't care, she says. "He always had kind of shaggy hair. And right before prom our senior year, he cut it into the perfect mullet. Everyone thought it was hilarious and great, but he wouldn't have cared if they didn't. He didn't care what anyone thought."

For a while the gang of friends Levi and Amy belonged to would sneak into Jay Cooke State Park and go "cliffing," jumping into the water from an old railroad bridge or one of six cliffs. It was illegal and dangerous, and Amy couldn't bring herself to jump unless there was someone in the water below waiting for her, "just in case." And that someone was invariably Levi.

The summer between their junior and senior years, an acquaintance jumped and got tangled in some debris underwater. It took a couple of hours to locate the body. After that, park officials began patrolling more and the kids mostly stopped going.

They went once more, though, at the end of their senior year. They had been at an all-night graduation party, which wound down at 5:00 a.m. Nobody wanted the night to end, and they decided to jump one last time. "It was cold and there was steam coming off the water," says Amy. "I kept saying, 'That means the water is warmer than the air, right?'" Yes, Levi told her, now just jump.

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