When I was in 7th grade, my civics teacher in Broken Bow, Nebraska, distributed dog-eared copies of a book called “Old Jules.” Written by Mari Sandoz, it’s the story of her father, a Swiss pioneer hell-bent on settling the Nebraska Sandhills. “And out of the East came a lone man in an open wagon, driving hard,” the story begins. The books were filthy, caked in stains and alien crusties, passed down from one class of greasy teens to the next. It was the fattest book I’d held outside of church, more than 400 pages thick, and though I wouldn’t read it critically until college – I’m not sure any of us did – that cover stands out to me still in bold relief: a sketch of Old Jules himself, skin like elephant hide, beard like steel wool, brooding eyes, a fur cap throwing shadows across his face.
Today, when I am ready to punch out, when I feel complacency creeping into my work, Old Jules taunts me, scoffs and spits tobacco juice in the dirt. “Go ahead,” he seems to say. “You’ve had a rough day.” I can hear the phlegm rattling in his throat, the patronizing timbre in his voice. I picture him staring at my hands, uncalloused; my hair, coiffed and parted to the left. Unlike Old Jules, I have not toiled in the dirt. I have not tamed the wilderness. The days have not “dragged their misery-soiled trails” over me, as they did to her father. Hell, Sandoz herself suffered debilitating snow blindness in one eye, something she developed as kid digging Jules’ cattle out from a snow bank. As a teaching assistant, I’d like to joke that a day spent grading undergraduate personal essays often borders on suffering, but even typing that feels perverse, like I’m wearing a fake mustache or walking on stilts.
It should be easy enough to discredit the “fine old Tartar,” as Sandoz once called him. He worked through wives like blue jeans or sandpaper, wearing them down and tossing them out. He spoke crassly, rarely felt guilt, worshipped pragmatism at the expense of his family’s happiness. He considered artists and writers “the maggots of society,” banned novel reading as “fit only for hired girls and trash.” Certainly there are more refined models of Nebraska’s pioneering spirit: The Great Commoner William Jennings Bryan, say, or J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. But in part, it’s the imperfections that draw me back to Old Jules time and time again, the sometimes-cumbersome truth that a regular jake like me, like you, is capable of extraordinary feats.
I believe in our debt to history. I believe in Old Jules and all those like him, the men and—god knows—the women, too, who struggled and suffered to build communities like Broken Bow, Nebraska, where kids are born in municipal hospitals and read fat books in public schools. And I believe in paying that debt forward. I believe we owe a tireless effort in whatever we do to those who came before us, and those who will come after. If nothing else, I think Old Jules expected that of us, too: on his deathbed, he asked Mari to write his story. He asked her to get it right.