An American hero died on Sunday. His name was Charlie Carlson, and he was my friend, a client and my hero. He came to the attention of the greater public through a tragic situation not of his own making.
On Nov. 14, 2013, he used a firearm to protect himself and his houseguest from armed intruders who had broken in to his home looking for painkillers he was taking for terminal cancer.
Unlike the Little Falls, Minn., man recently convicted of murder, Charlie, an avid hunter and strong supporter of our Second Amendment rights, legitimately and responsibly employed deadly force. Although Charlie certainly acted heroically and garnered considerable attention both locally and nationwide, his actions that tragic night did not define him as a person, nor are they why my friend was a hero.
Charlie Carlson was a hero because he was a proud veteran who honorably served his country protecting our constitutional rights. He was a businessman, a radio announcer and an agronomist. In later years, he drove a school bus and was a teacher at the community school for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, where he was widely respected by students and elders alike, especially for his work with special-needs children.
One of his passions was to get young people involved in the outdoors, especially with hunting and wildlife. Charlie was a mentor to young people and adults alike. In short, he was the greatest friend you could ever have. He was kind, honest and generous to a fault. He was a smart, energetic citizen, both intellectually and politically engaged. Although my friend and I did not always see eye to eye politically, he was open, thoughtful and respectful to those with whom he disagreed.
I first met Charlie by complete chance while on a grouse-hunting trip on public land near Finlayson, Minn. Being Sunday, my hunting companion and I had gone into Finlayson to catch some of the Vikings-Packers game. Being city folk, we did not realize the muni was closed. When we went to the local gas station to inquire why, we were met with derision. But that was when an affable, silver-haired stranger with a sly grin stepped forward and said: “You guys looking to watch the game? Follow me up the road to Rutledge, where there’s a bar with the game on, and I’ll buy you a drink.” This remarkable stranger acted as our host all afternoon, regaling us with countless stories and treating us like long-lost friends. Following the game, he invited us to his farm to hunt grouse on private land, a rare treat. Chalk one up for Minnesota Nice, one of those random acts of kindness you remember your entire life.
Out of sheer serendipity, several years later I got a call from a friend who said he had a friend who had been seriously injured in a head-on collision and needed a lawyer. I took down the name and address, and when I went to our initial meeting at the client’s residence I was overwhelmed by déjà vu as I drove up to the farmstead and out of the side door appeared the silver-haired stranger. That began a 20-year friendship that ended only Sunday with Charlie’s passing from cancer.
The one story that best sums up my friend happened about five years ago. Charlie gave permission to a young man to hunt his land, and as he always did, he put the teenager in one of his best stands and left him alone. As young hunters sometimes do, the boy got overly excited after hearing something coming through the trail in the woods. Seeing brown, the boy shot before knowing his target and killed one of Charlie’s Belgian horses (blonde Clydesdales). Most people would be understandably upset and wonder how a person could mistake something as big as a Belgian horse for a deer. But not Charlie.
I happened to be at Charlie’s the following weekend with my teenage son to hunt, and the boy who had shot the horse arrived with his father. Charlie did not mention the incident (I heard about it through our mutual friends), but rather focused on the boys, encouraging them to get out to their stands and hunt. That is why Charlie Carlson was an American hero.
James Westphal, of Minneapolis, is an attorney.