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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Finding ‘True Grit’

It was July 4th, 1969. I had a 24-hour pass, so I headed to D.C. Thought I’d take in movie, then see the fireworks at the Washington Monument. This would be my last hurrah before the hell week of infantry school.

I had just finished reading Charles Portis’ novel, “True Grit.” His literary voice captured the iconic essence of the American frontier and through the exploits of his characters, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, the heroic nature of humanity lying dormant within the human spirit was given a semblance of hope. “True Grit” was a remarkable piece of American literature.

I bummed a ride from Quantico, Virginia to D.C. and headed to my favorite restaurant, Harvey’s, on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wore my uniform. A Marine in uniform is like an Irish Catholic Priest in Brooklyn — everyone buys you a drink.

I was working on my third shooter when I heard that a new John Wayne movie would be released that afternoon. It was “True Grit.” So I finished my steak and wobbled out the door, heading for the Lowes on Connecticut Avenue.


Many movies and books have influenced me, but the performances, the dialogue, and story line of “True Grit” was instrumental in helping me navigate the difficulties that would befall me as a Marine in 1970. The virtues professed through its characters Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross set a benchmark of who I hoped to be.

“True Grit” is a story about the vengeance of a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, as she throws in with an old one-eyed, fat, alcoholic and roguish U.S. Marshall called Rooster Cogburn and a suave Texas Ranger named La Bouef. Set in the majestic San Juan Mountains of Central Colorado, the story unfolds as the trio sets out to hunt down the Ned Pepper gang and Tom Chaney, the killer of Mattie’s father.

“They tell me you are a man of true grit,” Mattie exclaims as she confronts Marshall Cogburn, attempting to entice him into her scheme to pursue Chaney. Rooster, armed with Navy six-shot pistols, and Mattie, armed with a Colt Dragoon, set out on an adventure of a lifetime through the Indian Territory, pursuing the Ned Pepper gang.

Their chiseled virtues are the only traits of consequence because it is the moral compass that makes “True Grit” a vivid portrait of the West. A depiction of heroism defines the American myth and speaks to the best potential in all of us. True grit, the phrase, is synonymous with an unconquerable spirit, confidence and unyielding courage in the face of hardship and danger.


Grit is an interesting word. It’s easy to define, but difficult to intellectualize. Life gives us challenges, and as we rise to meet them, we define ourselves as a person of grit.

Today, the potential of adventure is receding. Individuals of grit are less common in a world of ease, pop culture and vacuous personalities. The idealized hero has turned into myth.

In the end, Rooster confronts Ned Pepper and his gang. He gives Pepper an ultimatum: surrender or die.

“That’s mighty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man,” Pepper exclaims.

“Fill your hand you son of a bitch,” screams Rooster.

He then puts the horse’s reins in his teeth, pulls his pistols, charges and guns down Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang.

It’s been 42 years, and I’m still enamored of this story. But now, I need to finish my black tea and this last paragraph. The new Coen Brothers re-make of “True Grit” premieres at 11 a.m. in Burbank. I have to go!

The secret of true grit exists in character. Understanding the adaptation of determination and grit in a story sometimes helps us find such qualities in ourselves.


JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at