McKean Minute: My Father’s Shirts

I inherited my mother’s left-handedness, my father’s nose, and my great-grandfather’s love of lever-action rifles.

If you inspect your own various anatomical and behavioral preferences, I’m guessing you can see shadows of your own kin, whether they’ve passed on to a happy hunting ground or are still on the sunny side of the sod.

There are some less fortunate attributes that I’ve inherited, too. I recognize my father’s intolerance for dim-witted people in my personality. I’ve gone as far as mimicking my father’s term for an enemy, whether it’s someone who cut him off in traffic or a neighbor who has been trying to bilk us out of our land for decades. He calls these folks “Friends,” as in “Thanks, friend, for being a wretched driver.” As a young kid, I recognized that my father’s use of the term “friend” meant pretty much exactly the opposite. I can only hope my own kids—who have well-endowed senses of irony—recognize my similar use of the term.

My maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, passed on to me a love of soggy bottomlands and the life they hold, including secluded duck holes in the stinking black timber. My paternal grandmother gave me a love of bourbon on the rocks. And a whole wave of paternal relatives gave me an abiding love of the wide-open West, that empire of drought-parched range, spindly vegetation, and wind-blasted homesteads where they left their mark, at least temporarily.

But my mother gave me her stature. My mom is tiny, and seems to decrease in volume every year. I recall when I was a freshman in high school, and weighed right around 100 pounds, that my mon and I made a bet about which of us would be unable to give blood. At the time, my mom packed 98 pounds into her 5-foot, 1-inch frame. I won, though I also passed out on the blood-draw gurney.

On the other side of the genetic ledger, my dad stood an imposing 6-foot, 3-inches, and he probably weighed 180 pounds at his fighting weight. He also gave blood, and he dressed in Wrangler jeans (or sometimes khaki trousers when he needed to dress up) and a rustic button-down shirt (always with an undershirt beneath) in either twill or chambray. I have a few of his old shirts, handed down to me after his death a decade ago. Some have stains, from bar oil or gear grease, but all have a comfortable, homey, rumpled hand.

My dad and I have similar taste in shirts—and in undershirts. I’d love to wear his old, work-worn shirts, to strike the same heroic pose he did when I was a kid, and transport me back to fixing fence or roping calves or baling hay.

But I buy my clothes—when I buy new clothes—on the Youth Large rack. I’m a small man, only slightly larger than my mom at her fighting weight. I could probably fit two of my statures inside one of my late dad’s shirts. Still, they hang in my closet, waiting for the next right-sized heir to heave into them, and then to swing an ax or a hammer, to shoulder a vintage rifle, or to coax a corner post into place. It’s what passes for inheritance in my family.

McKean Minute: A Dog Named Sue

I recently wrote in this space about the untimely passing of my best friend. I may have mentioned Scott’s incomparable personality, an infectious mixture of mischief and malarkey sprinkled with equal parts responsibility and get-er-doneness. Scott was the person in my life most likely to show up unannounced with a six-pack, and also to write my own mother on her birthday.

I was asked to say a few words at Scott’s memorial service earlier this month, and I regret to say that my remarks were hurried and unformed, partly out of grief, partly out of my inability to believe that he was really dead, such a vibrant person undeservedly plucked from the living.

I started my remarks talking, as I often do, about my dog. Her name is now Nellie, but for the first couple weeks in our house, she didn’t have a name. We were trying to define her personality, and would hang a name on her only after we got a sense of her dogness. I didn’t tell my family at the time, but I nearly named her Scott.

The first reason was high irony. Scott’s favorite song, and one he belted out at the top of his voice on long road trips with me, was “A Boy Named Sue,” the Johnny Cash version. He would gravel his voice for the part about “the mud and the blood and the beer.” I thought how funny it would be to name my own female dog “Scott” as a sort of homage to Johnny’s Sue.

The more I considered the name, the more it fit. Our dog is a charming, maddening, delightful, aggravating mix of rascality, loyalty, spontaneity, and surprise. While she’s unlikely to ever write my mother on any occasion, she otherwise is a pretty good incarnation of Scott. I mentioned all this at the funeral service, but I may have overly stressed the more unfortunate traits of my dog. She’s a delinquent and an opportunistic petty criminal, more likely to retrieve a rotting deer leg than the stick I just threw her, and incapable of walking away from something putrid, the more stinky and skanky the more likely she is to roll in it.

But Nellie also has the keenest senses of smell and humor of any dog I’ve encountered. Everything for her is potential fun, whether it’s a sock or a log larger than she is, she’s going to find a way to bring it to me and then make a game out of it. That’s Scott. He could find fun in the most mundane, stultifying, and tedious task, and turn it into an opportunity for mirth and mayhem. I mentioned all of that, to the knowing nods of Scott’s friends and family, at the service.

What I didn’t mention, though, is the absolute tenacious loyalty that both Nellie and Scott possess. Nellie simply won’t give up, whether it’s in pursuit of a downed rooster or a thrown ball. She’ll keep searching until I call her off or she finds it. Scott was the same way. He’d do anything for a friend, and keep on the task until it was finished or forgotten by everyone but him. Nellie is loyal to a fault. She’ll have fun with fellow dogs and visitors, but at the end of the day, she’s by my side, ready to hunt them up or hook up for the next adventure. Scott was the same way. There was no one in my life with a fiercer sense of commitment or loyalty to a friend or a mission.

So, you’ll excuse me if sometimes when I send Nellie for a long retrieve, I slip up and say “Go gettum, Scott….” Or if, when she comes back with some putrid find and looks up at me expecting praise and a pat on the head, I shake my own head and say, “Scott, yer a dumbass.” I say it all with the greatest affection and the grievous knowledge that best friends, like good dogs, don’t live nearly long enough.

McKean Minute: Define Yourself as a ‘Wildlife Trustee’

You may recall that I wrote in this space last year about my unease with our traditional term to describe those of us who hunt and fish. We’ve called ourselves “sportsmen” for the better part of a century, and while the term describes a certain type of person, it leaves some people out of the club.

I’m not the most politically correct person you’ll meet, but I do think that language matters. In this age of inclusiveness, people are hyper-sensitive being excluded by terms that seem to favor one group over others. Add to that the documented decline in traditional hunters in America. As a dwindling community we should be looking for any term that helps add to our ranks.

Last year I introduced the gender-neutral term “chaser” to describe our pursuit of wild animals. Taken deeper down the linguistic rabbithole, the term echoes the French term for hunter, which is “chasseur.”

It will be no surprise to anyone that the term didn’t exactly catch fire—maybe because of the French connotations, maybe because we hunters think ourselves as catchers more than simply chasers. Consequently, we’re still using “sportsmen” to describe our male-dominated fraternity. So, I’d like to try again, in the hopes that we can expand the parlance of our predilection.

I propose the term “trustee” to describe those of us who fund wildlife management in this country, those of us who buy hunting gear, who buy hunting licenses, and who abide by the laws—both written and unwritten—that define the proper way to chase wildlife. The term, like all terms, is loaded, but it harkens back to the essence of our role in the very American way that we manage wildlife.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the North American model of wildlife conservation (if you haven’t, then download almost any archived episode of our podcast, On Gravel, and hear Ryan Bronsen extol the virtues of this model). It establishes that wildlife is owned by everyone, and is held in trust by state and provincial wildlife agencies, who manage it according to scientific principles and democratic distribution. When we individuals buy a license, we accept our trust responsibilities to take only what we can use, to obey all other rules, and to pursue animals in an ethical and sustainable manner.

In essence, we hunters (and anglers) are trustees of this public resource. So what better term to describe our community. We are wildlife trustees, or in short, trustees. It’s a noble term, asking members to uphold high and community-minded ideals. It’s an inclusive term, not singling out a specific gender or singular type of pursuit. It’s an ambitious term. If you accept that you are a trustee, then you are required to uphold the highest and best purposes of the public resource that you’re entrusted with. And it’s expansive enough that it allows us to carve out specific definitions. Some of us might be bass trustees. Others elk trustees.

It also implies fiduciary responsibility. Just as a school district’s trustees are responsible for appropriate use of public funds, a wildlife trustee is entrusted with upholding the assets of our rich heritage, the wild animals that we share in common, but pursue with purpose as licensed, capable, appreciative protectors and beneficiaries of our public resource.

So, welcome to the club, fellow “trustee.” Now, go out and add to our ranks.