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.

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