McKean Minute: Pluck vs. Grit

The old man leaned into the campfire and ejected a long, rich stream of brown tobacco juice.

“You know the difference between grit and pluck?”

I was just a punk kid, and didn’t recognize the purpose of the question, or the meaning of the moment. I allowed that they sounded like characters in a cartoon.

The man, a dozer operator my dad had hired for a pond-digging job who came back to our place later to hunt deer, didn’t acknowledge my impudence. He had asked permission to camp in a corner of our back pasture, and my dad let me walk out there one evening to check on the man, probably because he knew I’d get a dose of wisdom just like this. It occurred to me years later that this man, who lived a couple counties over, was one of the first people I encountered who was perfectly content with his own company. But he welcomed me to his fire and after an uncomfortable—at least to me—silence, he got down to the matter.

“Grit. That’s how you get through. Doesn’t matter if it’s a hard job on a hot afternoon or a lifetime of tough luck. It’s about putting your head down and enduring. Nothing worthwhile ever comes without grit.

“Now pluck is something else entirely. Pluck is a sort of electricity. It’s what you make of things, how you respond to a given moment. It might be seeing a new way to build a dam or some fleeting chance your gut tells you to take.

“Each by themselves,” the man said, and spit again into the oakwood fire, “will get you by, but only barely. Folks with only grit can be hard and humorless. They think the world owes them something. People who run on pluck are gamblers that burn like this fire.

“But you put the two together. Now there’s a person worth knowing.”

When I went back to the pasture a couple days later, the man and his fire were gone. I never learned if he had shot a deer or not. But I’ve thought about pluck and grit nearly every day since.

McKean Minute: How About National Gratitude Day?

Did you make it through Independence Day? Sunburned, sweaty, angry, and scared. Those adjectives probably define most of us in this national Summer of Discontent.

This year’s July 4 recognition was marked by heavy strains of patriotism, sure, but also another kind of strain – one that questions if the freedoms articulated in the Declaration of Independence 244 years ago extend to all Americans now. I, for one, welcome these reconsiderations of our traditions and beliefs, because I think the idea of America can endure beyond the iconography of America.

But celebrating Independence Day for me isn’t about recognizing our military might or our (diminishing) role of leader of the free world. Instead, it’s about recalling the audacious statements of the Declaration of Independence and the idea that all people are born free, and that institutions exist to celebrate and defend that freedom, not quench it.

But that’s not why I’m writing today. I’m preparing you for another national holiday whose reconsideration is long overdue. It’s Thanksgiving, and while I know it’s months in the future, I want to propose a way to square it with history, to make it widely celebrated, and to allow it to serve a purpose that’s been diluted by commercialism.

I propose we make a minor edit to the proper name of this holiday, changing Thanksgiving to Thanks Giving. It may seem inconsequential, but it would allow our November holiday to finally deliver the call to action that was intended. It would be a national day of gratitude in which we—individually and collectively—come together over this most human of impulses, to give thanks. Sure, it might still have all the trappings that have made it our national day of turkey-and-gravy consumption, and a good excuse for Thursday NFL games, but it would remind us that this is ultimately a day to remember all the good in our lives, and to thank those responsible for it.

It would also get away from the most problematic part of our current Thanksgiving, this historical lie that Native Americans were welcome hosts to their demise. The truth is much more complicated, and while I love the parts of Thanksgiving that pay homage to our collective history and heritage, if the Fourth of July can be denigrated as being oppressive, then surely the future of Thanksgiving is just as fragile. In fact, as we tear apart whole foundations of our national identity, preserving an opportunity to unite is more important than ever.

There will be calls to abolish Thanksgiving, but it would be a shame to do away with the holiday all together. Every American is in sore need of pausing a moment in gratitude to thank all the people who have created this nation, who have built our cities and homes, who deliver food and nurse our sick, who fight fires and wear uniforms of service, who keep the lights on and the roads plowed. Sure, we have our differences, but the one unifying force for good in the world is our ability to thank each other. I would hate to lose a chance to recognize that, and to throw aside a vital national holiday as a symbol of oppression.

Thanks Giving is not about that. It’s about convening around the things we have in common: our ability to say thank you to those who have improved our lives and our communities.

McKean Minute: Burying Rugged

Hunting buddies can be as easy to make as falling off a log. Some friendships are based around mutual need. Others on shared gear or simply shared space and time.

But other times, developing a friendship based around hunting or fishing can be unexpectedly hard. We outdoorsmen—and I use the masculine on purpose—are proud, private, and don’t let strangers into our lives easily. That goes double for our sporting lives, which are built around carefully curated gear, hard-won access, and traditions and rituals that don’t always translate easily to a newcomer.

But I was friends with Ron Gulbertson almost before I realized it. I had seen him around town for years, often on his Harley, his signature handlebar moustache blowing in the breeze, but I didn’t really get to know him until I joined his goose-hunting posse. It was there, in strafing winds and aching cold, lying on our backs in a frozen field waiting for geese to circle, that we became buddies.

More accurately, it was Joe Horn’s posse, and both Ron and I were deputized. Joe, a retired veteran, retired cop, and very active goose-hunting addict, invited lots of people to join his crew, but not very many became repeat participants. Partly that’s because Joe runs a tight ship, dictating where and how to hunt, how to set the decoys, and even when to take the birds as they glide into range.

Too many rules for some folks, but Ronnie seemed as happy as me to be along. I contributed decoys, a ground blind or two, and before I knew it, I was making plans most weeks to waylay big Canada geese, fresh from the north. Like any friendship, we had our rituals. Ronnie was always on the left side of our line of ground blinds, and I took the right flank. His place was earned because of his ability to make impossibly long shots. Mine because as the only lefty of the group, it was easier for me to swing to my right than to my left.

Ronnie might have weighed 100 pounds soaking wet, and as I got to know him, I learned about his long list of maladies. Replaced joints, heart operations, slow recovery from another car wreck. As much as Joe and I tried to baby him—keeping him in the pickup until the decoys were set, getting his blind ready, keeping him warm—Ronnie was more commonly right among us, doing his share to set up and take down our spread.

“Old-Timer,” Joe called him, and you could tell there was real affection between the two. I heard Ron referred to as “Rugged” by other mutual friends. But to me he was always “Ron,” or after an especially good shoot, “Ronnie.”

Ronnie died last week. His heart finally gave up. Joe called me with the news, and asked me to be a pallbearer. Joe was too torn up to help carry his casket.

“Hell, I toted Ronnie all over hell in my pickup for geese, and in my airboat for pike. I don’t think I have it in me to give him one last ride,” Joe told me. I reminded Joe that the job of pallbearer isn’t for the living; it’s a final gift to the dead. I guess that line worked, because on Friday Joe was right beside me, giving Rugged his last lift.

We buried him in a little cemetery next to a prairie church. As the pastor said a few final words, Joe’s eye caught mine. He nodded to the north. There was a wheat field, green as Ireland with heading grain now, but I knew what Joe meant. That’s a field where we had taken dozens of limits of honkers with Ronnie over the years.

Rest in peace, Rugged. I know you’ll be helping with the effort as we decoy geese over your grave come December. You take the birds on the left, especially those ones so far out they could only be yours.