Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
Driving my dogs to the boarding kennel ahead of Thanksgiving travel, I realized I’d left my phone at home. Without a digital voice to tell me how to get there, I was struck with the only semi-irrational concern that I might be unable to find a place I’ve been to multiple times. It’s the by-product of trying to get everywhere as rapidly as possible, by the most efficient route.
On the balance, I appreciate the surety of being able to meet a friend in the far corner of a pasture two hours before daylight so we can wade through a swamp to a duck blind. But speaking generally, I’m not sure I haven’t lost my way in the pursuit of finding it.
Before I had all the information in the world available at my thumb tips, I had to engage fully to get where I was going. I had to ask for directions, pay attention as they were given, and then be deliberate in their implementation. I studied maps, followed fingers tracing roads, and took notes. Sometimes I stopped on a back road to talk to real people who knew real things about real places.
Engaging fully when talking to one another is a rapidly dying art, something I realize all the more when I do actually take the time to do so and am reminded there are some folks that matter to you immediately. I met Cooper and Jenny Akin a year ago and realized they were those kinds of folks.
Cooper had heard me on a podcast, realized we had a fair bit in common, and reached out to me to let me know he was coming to hear me speak at the University of Virginia. I liked them both immediately, but we had only a moment before I had to speak to a room full of strangers, so Cooper and I agreed to meet early the next morning. When we did, he couldn’t eat the southern breakfast we were both raised on as he’d had cancer surgery and was working with a rebuilt tongue.
We talked about hunting together in the future, about a veteran’s continuing obligations to the nation, and about working together on behalf of our unique American public lands and every American’s right to hunt in unspoiled woods and fish in free-flowing waters. It is something Cooper felt as strongly about as I do, so much so he left the Army and a hard-won career as a Special Forces officer, to pursue a public policy graduate program with plans for law school thereafter. Even more importantly, he was able to be with Jenny and their two young children.
By the end of breakfast, I had a friend. We shook hands and promised to keep in touch. And despite my trying to get everywhere as rapidly as possible, by the most efficient route, we did. By text and email, we navigated ideas and issues bigger than both of us. Then came a path only Cooper could walk. He knew the way and wrote me, “Only way out is through at this point.”
There are people in this world you meet and know that they are someone with whom you will share moments across whatever years you both have left. I only met Cooper Akin once, and that’s how it was. That was enough for me to drive eight hours to celebrate his life with people who knew him far better than I; a young wife and two children; a mom and dad; siblings and a best friend. There were hunters and farmers, yogis and Green Berets, artists and politicians. There was wild game and foraged produce. There were stories, good music, and laughter. There was a lot of love.
I’ll miss a friend I didn’t get to know the way I thought I would. But I got to know Cooper Akin better through stories from people who did. Cooper’s young son wanted you all to know, “My dad was a really cool dad.” He certainly was.
Cool enough that I met him once and I thought you deserved to.
Russell Worth Parker