(Photo by Laura Johnson from 1999 Roseau High School Yearbook.)
I am 11 or 12. Josh Broten is a year younger. His family moves down the street from me. It’s a small town, so we of course already know of each other. But this is when we become friends.
Josh mows Dr. VandeWege’s five acres on a blue zero-turn riding mower. I push my dad’s Briggs and Stratton across Cecil Croaker, Agnes Queen, and Belmer Thompson’s yards. It seems we both spend much of our earnings on remote control cars from Radio Shack and BB guns from Hardware Hank. From the Broten’s front steps, we steer our cars up and down the sidewalk until the batteries die. We shoot our BB guns at the stop sign. One evening Josh shoots out the street lamp and I swear not to tell.
Junior high. Josh buys an Alvarez acoustic guitar. My grandpa Omer lends me his no-namer. Josh begins taking lessons from Bernie Wollenberg and says I should do the same. I do, and my mind opens up to the possibilities music can offer you.
High school. Josh loses interest in guitar, but whatever is lost is made up for through his love of singing. I sit next to him and Steve Haaby in Mrs. Wensloff’s choir class, the tenor section. I can’t read music so I listen closely to Josh and Steve to know the correct notes. After a song in which the tenors have a prominent part, Mrs. Wensloff says under her breath, “Ah, the tenors melt the girls’ hearts, and the basses take ‘em home.” She looks over at us and we chuckle.
I get better at guitar and begin to accompany Josh—Simon and Garfunkel style—for the “Special Music” portion of Sunday morning worship services. We sing “The Hammer Holds” by Bebo Norman at the Covenant and Baptist churches. At the Assemblies of God service, Josh invites Pastor Bob Ludwig to play the organ on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” We give him 8 bars to solo and the church smiles and claps to the beat. Ted Miller and Katherine Nelson ask us to sing in their wedding. We sing Steven Curtis Chapman’s “I Will Be Here.”
I buy a 4-track tape recorder and borrow some microphones from church. Josh and I record “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor. We bring the cassette to Mrs. Wensloff and she plays it in her office. We watch as she listens, smiling and saying how proud of us she is. I leave instilled with more confidence.
I am college roommates with Joe, Josh’s twin brother, at the University of North Dakota. Josh lives down the hallway with Devin Brandt. Whenever we visit, it seems Josh is on Instant Messenger, talking to his girlfriend Sara. On weekends, we both ride back home in Joe’s maroon sedan. Joe drives the speed limit out of personal conviction, irritating Josh and me to no end on the long desolate roads.
Josh gets me a job at a horse ranch just north of UND. We clean stalls and feed horses. One day, as I’m slowly opening the gate to the barn, an impatient hungry quarter horse barges in, throwing me about ten feet to the side. I land on my left elbow and will feel this memory there for the rest of my life. On the drives to and from work, Josh and I talk and he says he and Sara are getting more and more serious.
Josh and Sara marry and begin their next chapter in Roseau, Minnesota. I move to Denver, Colorado to try pursue a career as a singer-songwriter.
Many years pass and we mostly lose touch. Then Russia invades Ukraine and I can’t get ahold of Joe (who married a Ukrainian woman) to see if they’re ok. I text Josh. He tells me they are safe and keeps me updated. In between the updates we catch up on life. He has five kids now. They like Dude Perfect, just like my kids. He sends a photo of them at an event with the panda mascot. He leads worship at the Baptist church and plays piano now. He texts an iPhone recording of him singing. He also sends a pic of an airplane he loves to fly.
Weeks later, when my dad gives me the news of the plane crash I feel shock, and then sadness. Sadness begins to mix with gratefulness. I am grateful for the final exchanges we had. I am thankful to have known Josh, to be impacted by him. Not just as a friend but as a musician and songwriter. His affect on my journey, especially at the beginning, is undeniable.
I cry beside my wife Heidi as I listen back to the song he recently texted. I hear it completely different now.
(I Will Rise – performed by Josh Broten at First Baptist Church, Roseau, Minnesota.)
Josh, thank you for being a friend. Like many, I was blessed to have known you. My prayers and support are with Sara, the kids, and the rest of your family as they figure out the road ahead.