October, 1994

Poetry

Be Sure You're Right, Then Go Ahead

Be Sure Illustration

It is doubtful that Davy Crockett “killed himself a bear when he was only three” as the song goes.   And the folklore surrounding his life was surely overstated.  He almost certainly did not ride his pet alligator up Niagara Falls.  But Davy Crockett was a real person and he died a real death at the Alamo, along with its other defenders.  All men present died defending the fort.  Only sixteen women and children lived.

As the industry gathers for the PMA convention in San Antonio, some may take the time out to walk the Paseo del Alamo, a water garden and terraced stream that links the Alamo with the Paseo del Rio, or Riverwalk.

And if you visit the Alamo you visit a piece of America’s heart.  For one of those epochal events that help shape the way a country and a people view the world happened there.  Even today, when most citizens haven’t the faintest idea of what it was all about, the phrase “Remember the Alamo” serves as a call to remember and be motivated to action by injustice.

It is hard for us today to understand the values that people once had.  Davy Crockett didn’t have to die in the Alamo.  He was a volunteer who had arrived with a group of the Tennessee Riflemen to help the Texans defend San Antonio during the war for Texas independence.

Not only was he a volunteer, but he was an ex-Congressman, widely known and liked as the “Coonskin Congressman.”  (Next time Congress wrestles with an issue of life and death, think hard about how many of our ex-Congressmen would put their own lives at risk for something they believed in, as Davy Crockett did at the Alamo.)

But Crockett’s motto, also widely known in his own lifetime throughout the country, was: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”  A spare philosophy, but one that was, and is, a particularly American way of viewing the world.

The notion that individuals had both the ability and the free will to make sure that what they were doing is right, and that those same individuals then had an obligation to proceed to do the right thing was in a certain way revolutionary.  It meant that individuals could not gain indemnity against the moral consequences of their actions or non-actions by being subservient to another authority, be it a sovereign or a religious leader.

When I travel around the world, I try to steal a few moments to visit places like the Alamo.  To walk the ground where giants walked before me.  To wonder what I can learn by having the benefit of their example.

I think the almost legendary dimension of a hero in Davy Crockett’s era is impossible to replicate in our day and age.  It is said that no man is a hero to his valet, and today, every would-be hero has to deal with his valet hawking a tell-all book on Oprah and Donahue.

So, we learn that even the mighty are weak, that even the brilliant exercise bad judgment and that even the resolute falter.  But it is a mistake to think that evidence of human imperfection proves that striving to do right is futile.  In fact, it proves the opposite: that man’s imperfections are what give us, each of us, the opportunities for self-improvement that are glorifying to human beings as a group and to each person as an individual.

For most of us, as business people in the produce trade, we will never be faced with life-and-death decisions as Davy Crockett was in his day.  But that makes it no less important that we live our lives in such a way that we are always conscious of our own obligation to figure out the right path and then stride down it forthrightly.

We don’t wear much coonskin anymore and even Davy Crockett’s famous fringed buckskin clothing would look a little odd today. But in packingsheds and on wholesale docks, in retail stores and foodservice outlets, in brokers’ offices and when sitting before a thousand computer screens, we all have to make decisions about our businesses and about our lives.

Next time you’re tempted to take the easy way out, to shade things a bit ethically, or to not take action when you know you should, just imagine yourself wearing Indian moccasins, fringed buckskin clothes with a coonskin cap and take on the role of a latterday Davy Crockett. Then say “I’m going to be sure I’m right, then I’m going to go ahead.”  If we could each take that much home out of a trip to San Antonio, it will have been a profitable convention indeed.

by Jim Prevor