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Monday, August 20, 2012

Young Men and Fire

The story of the Mann Gulch fire is a story of adventurous young men and their collision with startling tragedy. It is a mystery story, an investigative story, a story of an older man trying to discovery and understand something from long ago, something deeply painful, something most people wanted to forget. It is a story of youth and courage, of the woods and woodsmen, of tragic loss and the suffering of loved ones.

Norman writes:
Those who knew something about the woods or about nature should soon have perceived an alarming gap between the almost sole purpose, clear but narrow, of the early Smokejumpers and the reality they were sure to confront, reality almost anywhere having inherent in it the principle that little things suddenly and literally can become big as hell, the ordinary can suddenly become monstrous, and the upgulch breeze suddenly can turn to murder. Since this principle comes about as close to being universal as a principle can, you might have thought someone in the early history and training of the Smokejumpers would have realized that something like the Mann Gulch fire would happen before long. But no one seems to have sensed this first principle because of a second principle inherent in the nature of man—namely, that generally a first principle can't be seen until after it has been written up as a tragedy and becomes a second principle.
Mann Gulch north slope a week after the fire.
Staying at his family's lake cabin in Montana during the summer break, Norman was within twenty miles at the time of the fire. A woodsmen himself who almost was caught in the Fish Creek fire when working for the Forest Service as a young man, he always felt a connection to the events that happened on Mann Gulch that hot August day. Upon his retirement, he took upon himself the job of discovering the secrets known only to those that perished in the fire. He did so to honor those that died there, to discover and share with them in their lives, their suffering and their tragedy, and in so doing shed light upon tragedy itself, a thing which in one way or another will ultimately become a part of all of our lives.

Norman Maclean is a fine man to head into the woods with. He has a dry sense of humor that is never lost, even when he is suffering through the heat of Mann Gulch in August. Of the many men we meet in our journey, I loved the character of Robert Sallee. Tough young kid and a very straightforward man. He led a very productive life, and resides in retirement today in Spokane Washington. Another favorite is Wag Dodge, the foreman, who kept his cool in the hottest of pressures, and discovered a way out, if only they would follow him to it. The responsibility of keeping those men safe weighed heavy upon him. After the fire, he stayed two more days, helping to identify the lost firefighters and remove their bodies. Dodge could never bring himself to jump again. He went up three more times, but could not go out through the door and into the unknown. His was a particularly tragic story.
Mann Gulch as it appears today, from Stanley Reba's cross.

Norman Maclean never finished Young Men and Fire. Perhaps the journey of self discovery had not reached its end by the time of his death. Perhaps the threads he attempted to weave together could not quite fit. Perhaps he tired before the fire and its tragedy, and was himself overtaken by it all. In the end it was left for his son, John Maclean, to finish the project, which he did along with the help of a number of the editors from the University of Chicago Press.

As far as the fire and escape goes, I part with Norman and stand with Bob Sallee and Walt Rumsey. There are a number of reasons I do not go along with some of the markings and artifacts created by the Forest Service: the whole area had been burned out, the points and distances between them were difficult to estimate by the men on that steep slope, and often things were closer than what they seemed to be, and the Forest Service was not a neutral third party. But the chief reason I choose the crevice and the placement of the escape fire where I do is the fact that Bob Sallee and Walter Rumsey said so. I have no doubt they were able to locate the cleft through which they escaped. Thus, I believe Dodge's escape fire was up gulch from where the Forest Service had it placed. These things can never be known in certainty, but that is where I place my trust.

Rod Benson is a Montana high school teacher who made a class project over the tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire. His "virtual field trip" to Mann Gulch is excellent, and can be found here.
"It is clear to me now that the universe in its truculence doesn't permit itself to be that well known."

- Norman Maclean
Norman's Young Men and Fire is much more than a story of a deadly forest fire. It is a story of life and tragedy. I am there with Norman heart and soul. He is a fine writer, and it was a pleasure to be able to travel along with him, though the answers we sought were elusive, and sometimes not for us to find.


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