A roadside bomb in Afghanistan killed 23-year-old Dale Means on Sunday, just months before the Marine was due home in New Prague to join family and friends riding snowmobiles and jumping snowdrifts.
"He's my best friend and he was supposed to come back," said Brian Tupy, one of two best men who stood alongside Means when he married his high school sweetheart, Andrea, on Oct. 15, 2011. "We had so many plans -- all the snowmobile and four-wheeling we had ahead of us. This is a guy I've known for 10 years. We shared everything.
"He was a pretty big influence on my life," he said. "He made me want to better myself."
So Tupy followed in Means' footsteps and joined the Marines nearly a year ago. Means had enlisted in early 2011.
"He was in boot camp when he told me that being a Marine is such a great feeling," Tupy said. "To call ourselves a United States Marine, well, it's something almost unexplainable."
Means was part of a 15-vehicle convoy when his truck -- the second in line -- hit a roadside bomb, his sister, JoLyn Means said. Her brother, riding as a gunner, was the only Marine killed.
"I had just talked to him hours before that," said Tupy, who is stationed in Florida. "He was talking about his new truck and said he was trying to decide what kind of exhaust he wanted to put on it."
Means, a 2007 New Prague High School graduate, was a "gearhead," friends said.
"You have to understand we're from New Prague," said longtime friend Jason Haugen. "We're hillbillies. We love loud trucks, big tires and playing in the mud. We rode four-wheelers. We rode snowmobiles."
If the machine had a motor, Means was either fixing it or riding it, Haugen said.
"He was fearless on anything that had a motor in it. He was an adrenaline junkie. ... There was no hill or snowdrift that he wouldn't jump."
And if there was a machine that he could get to run faster, Means would pump it up, like the time he and his friends souped up a bunch of old riding lawnmowers.
"They worked on them for two months," Haugen said. And when a winter storm glazed a circular driveway in ice, Means and the boys hit their man-made racetrack with their modified mowers.
"They got them going 20 to 30 miles per hour," Haugen said.
Means was bright and passionate about what he did, friends said. He was funny, kind-hearted and honest.
"He had such a love for life," his sister said. "He was always off doing something that he probably shouldn't have been doing whether it was going mudding on a road you shouldn't have been on or high school pranks you got caught doing that you shouldn't have been. Maybe a little reckless at times. But he was with his friends 24/7 and that's what they did. Or, he and I were throwing parties at our house that we shouldn't have been."
Means was kind of a scrawny kid growing up, said his cousin Joey Larsen.
"He probably was 130 to 135 pounds on a good day," Larsen said. "But once he joined the Marines, he kind of thickened up."
Larsen remembers the day when Means sat and discussed joining the military with their grandfather, who was a Green Beret in the Special Forces during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"He looked up to my grandfather," Larsen said. "We all do."
The thought of being sent into war, didn't seem to worry him. "There wasn't fear in his eyes," Larsen said. "It was about honoring the Corps. Honoring the country."
It's likely he wanted to follow his grandfather into the military, Larsen said. But he didn't really talk about it. "He just did things," he said.
Means, who completed an automotive program at Dakota County Technical College, was working in an automotive repair shop when he joined the Marines, his sister said. "He said he wanted to do something important and not just the same old, same old," she said.
"I called one of my friends, crying that my brother was making a decision that would change his life, potentially take his life someday," she said.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm proud -- beyond proud. But it didn't make me any less scared."
So throughout his time in Marines, JoLyn Means kept close tabs on her brother, writing letters, sending texts, posting Facebook messages, visiting him when he was stationed in the U.S.
She and her brother were more than siblings; they were best friends.
News of his death drove her into hysterics, disbelief, and then "a lot of nothingness," she said.
Her cousin, Joey Larsen, feels that same void.
"I feel very empty inside knowing I'll never be able to share another moment with him." Larsen said. "It's tragic."
Mary Lynn Smith 612-673-4788