Couple's grandson dies in sea surge
Despite profound sorrow, the faces of Larry and Arlene Holmes of Two Harbors light up when asked about the grandson they lost at sea Friday.
Larry smiles and shakes his head. "Shining light," he simply says when talking about Aaron Holmes. "He was a clown. A funster."
The 16-year-old was swimming with his father, Arlan, and younger sister, Arelia, Friday evening at a favorite spot on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, where the family lives. The three got caught in a rip current and Arlan, a 1978 graduate of Two Harbors High School, struggled to rescue his daughter and then couldn't get to his son. Arlan is married to Laurie Johannsen, who grew up in Duluth.
"He figured Aaron could make it," Arlene Holmes said at her home off Shoreview Road this week. He was young and strong. Arlan put Aralia safely on shore but couldn't find Aaron. He was gone.
"Swept out to sea," Arlene quietly says.
It was rough going with swells and undercurrents blamed on Hurricane Igor.
Arlene said her son never knew how strenuously he fought the water until the days later. He is battered and bruised and inconsolable, Arlene said.
With the help of friends, including two ministers, he had calmed enough to eat and drink earlier this week, a great relief to his parents.
Family and friends, along with search and rescue teams, worked into the night Friday to find him. It wasn't until early light Saturday morning when rescuers saw his body on shore near where the family had been swimming. Aaron was pulled from the water as his father reached the beach to start searching again.
"That's the hardest part," Arlene said. "He saw them taking him off the beach."
The couple says as heartbreaking as that seems, to have Aaron found was a blessing. "Some closure," Arlene said.
Her grandson was strong, a gifted athlete and popular student at his high school and a hard worker with his dad prepping yachts at the harbor. He was in love with the water and the weather was too nice to avoid it Friday. He was skipping soccer practice.
Arlan Holmes told his parents that the sea was calm but soon got rough, likely a remnant of Hurricane Igor that passed to the north of the islands just before the weekend. "It was the same place they went to every Sunday," Arlene said.
Arlan is blaming himself, telling his parents he should have made Aaron go to soccer. But Larry said it may not have mattered. "When it's time, it's time."
"It hard to see them go so young," Arlene said.
They know all too well. One of their four children, Larry, died in car accident in 1987 at age 22. He was reporting for duty at the Air Force base in Grand Forks.
"Double whammy," Larry said Tuesday of the two losses.
The couple remains grateful that they got to see Larry the weekend before the accident.
That hasn't been the case with Arlan. The distance only allows visits every couple of years. But when the grandkids came, it was a good chunk of quality time, Arlene said. That is, if the family wasn't spending much of the few months in the summer up in the Boundary Waters.
All five family members -- the oldest child is Arianna, a college student in St. Cloud -- came up for the last two-month visit three years ago. They lashed two canoes together and explored the wilderness as a family.
The families talk every week on the phone.
There will be a memorial service at 3 p.m. Sunday at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Two Harbors. At the same time, more than 2,600 miles away, family and friends will be at a service for Aaron on St. Croix.
Arlan met Laurie when she was attending the University of Minnesota Duluth. The couple went to St. Croix on a vacation and Laurie visited a school to ask about teaching jobs. Within months she was offered a job in St. Croix and the couple packed up their possessions and took off. That was 22 years ago.
"She had a job, he didn't," Larry said.
He soon hooked on with Gold Coast yachts, a maker of huge catamarans, cruising yachts and other ocean-going vessels.
Larry and Arlene might have thought it was another call about family goings-on from the islands late Friday night as they cruised in their motorhome.
Instead, it was the terrible news.
"He just loved the water," Larry said. "He wanted to be a fishing guide." He even told family members that when he died he wanted a Viking-style funeral - placed on a boat set aflame and cast onto the water.
Aaron won't get his wish, but Arlan plans to take some of his son's ashes and place them on one of the boats he worked on. And in the boat the father and son were restoring this year.
The grandparents manage to chuckle when remembering Aaron. One night, they were watching a polka show on television when Aaron entered the room. "He says 'What kind of music is that?'" Arlene said. He thought it was weird. The next night, he have a wry smile and asked if they were going to watch that again.
He was a prankster, Larry said. "Not mean. Just fun."
It's those small moments with Aaron that keep the couple smiling through the loss.
"He was a very special grandson," Arlene said. "He never caused anyone trouble."
"Polite," Larry said.
"Softhearted," Arlene said.
- Family and friends in Minnesota will gather at a memorial for Aaron Holmes, 16, at 3 p.m. Sunday at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Two Harbors. He died Friday while swimming off the island of St. Croix, where he lived, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The service will coincide with one on St. Croix.
- Aaron is the son of northeastern Minnesota natives Arlan and Laurie (Johannsen) Holmes and grandson of Larry and Arlene Holmes of Two Harbors. He is also survived by sisters Arelia and Arianna; aunts and uncles, Laurie and Ron Juenemann of Two Harbors, and Terri and Tom Hayes of Duluth. He has many cousins in the North Shore area.
- Send condolences to the Holmes Family, R.R. 1, Box 6782, Kings Hills, USVI, 00850.