Smokejumpers

Chauncey Loomis

  • Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
    Chicago, 301 pp, £8.75, October 1993, ISBN 0 226 50062 4

Norman Maclean was born in western Montana in 1902. There landscapes are elemental: earth, air, water and sometimes fire are distinct and imposing presences. It’s mainly open country, with high mountains but also wide valleys, and the sky seems as immense as it does in deserts, although the valleys of western Montana are not desert but upland plain. Its great sweeps of space are made palpable by winds coming down off the highlands. The forms of earth are clear to see because the flanks of the hills and mountains are not so overgrown that their shapes and textures are concealed; their underlying geology shows in their contours and outcroppings of rock. In less open country, with less broad valleys and less immense skies, such rugged earth would be looming and claustrophobic. Cutting into the slopes of the mountains, pouring down gullies and gulches into the valleys, are creeks that become Montana’s great rivers: the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Clark Fork, the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Gallatin, the Madison, the Missouri – the very essence of what running water should be. And sometimes, in summer, fire – occasionally started by human carelessness but more commonly by Montana’s ferocious lightning storms – devastates the slopes, and you can see smoke from blazes far back in the wilderness.

There Norman Maclean as a boy and young man learned from his father, a Presbyterian minister, about rectitude, pride, hard work, the doctrine of grace and the art of fly-fishing. He hiked, camped and hunted in the mountains, fished in the rivers. At 15 he began to work for the Forest Service during the summer; he cut trees and fought fires in the back-country and, minister’s son or not, with his brother Paul he fought with his fists in the streets and barrooms of Missoula. In his late teens, he went east to Dartmouth College, earned a degree, and taught for a few years after graduation. Then he briefly returned to Montana and the Forest Service before marrying and enrolling in the University of Chicago for graduate study. He remained in Chicago except for summers in Montana, for the 45 years of his career as a professor of English. He was a brilliant teacher, winning the Quantrell Prize for undergraduate teaching three times. No other faculty member at the university has won it more than once.

In spite of Chicago’s rigorous standards for publication by its faculty, however, Maclean published very little during his years there. He was well into his seventies before, in 1976, he published his first book, A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories, a collection of two novella-length stories and one short story, all openly autobiographical. The title story gradually became a cult classic of sorts, especially among fly-fishermen, before it gained general fame when Robert Redford released his film of it in 1992, two years after Maclean had died at the age of 87. At his death he had left an almost completed manuscript, Young Men and Fire, which the editors of the Chicago University Press prepared for publication.

Montana, the elements, youth, and old age looking back at youth – these are the main subjects of all that Maclean wrote in his retirement. In the lesser stories of A River Runs Through It he remembers what it was like to be young and bold, intent on proving manhood in such magnificent country as western Montana. He tells of his fierce competition with his older and tougher partner at the other end of a cross-cut saw, of sitting on a mountain top alone for days on fire watch, of fighting fires, of a marathon hike through wilderness that almost killed him, of brawls in gambling dens, of the strange mixture of love and hatred that bound together men who were impelled constantly to compete with one another. He remembers such things with affectionate bemusement and irony, wondering at his sheer hardihood as a young man and smiling at his innocent and shaky egotism.

The novella ‘A River Runs Through It’, by far the most effective piece in the collection, deals with a time when Maclean was in his early thirties, no longer a youth but still moved by his deep but strained and unspoken relationship with his younger brother Paul, a drinking and gambling hellion who was a brilliant fly-fisherman, and with his father, a Calvinist preacher who was not afraid to use the word ‘beauty’, especially when applied to fishing. The story – and Maclean, a Chicago Aristotelian, often stressed in both his talk and his writing that only by finding the shape of ‘story’ can we make sense out of life – is funny with the disengaged irony of retrospection, and sad with the sense of loss in time. At the end his brother is dead, murdered in a back alley, and his heartbroken father will soon die, but some-how looking back has been a purgation for the old man who tells the story: ‘a river runs through it’. The fishing scenes are splendid, especially the evocations of the Big Blackfoot River, which in Maclean’s youth must have been one of the most beautiful streams on earth. The concluding sentence is well earned: ‘I am haunted by waters.’

Maclean had now written about his own rugged and sometimes dangerous youth; in his last project he would write about other young men, ‘still so young that they hadn’t learned to count the odds and to sense that they might owe the universe a tragedy’ – young men who were not allowed to grow old, and whose lives ended violently, as his life might have but did not. His awareness of their early deaths and his long life gives poignancy to the uncompleted, flawed, but very moving Young Men and Fire, the most ambitious of his works.

Maclean’s subject is the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, which killed 12 of the 15 smokejumpers who parachuted into the gulch to control it; the 13th victim was another Forest Service man on the site. When the 15 smokejumpers parachuted, the fire was burning only in the forested lower south side of Mann Gulch, a two-mile long gulley carved into a mountainside in a wilderness area on the Missouri River. After landing above the fire at the head of the gulch, the men started to hike down towards it and, hoping to flank it, crossed from the more forested south side of the gulch to the grassy slope of its north side. As they approached the blaze, their foreman suddenly realised that it had jumped from the south to the north side, the side down which they were hiking, and that it was rapidly picking up speed as it moved uphill from forest to dry grass. They immediately beat a retreat, angling up the steep slope towards the crest where they knew the fire would be slowed, but in a matter of minutes the flames, towering hundreds of feet high, engulfed all but three of the men. The foreman ingeniously saved himself by lighting a fire ahead of the main fire, waiting a few minutes for it to burn an area out, then plunging into that area to lie down in the ashes just as the main fire struck. He tried to signal to his men to join him, but they either did not understand him or thought that he was insane to light another fire when fire was threatening their lives. Two other men escaped through a narrow crevice in a reef rock near the crest with only seconds to spare. The next day, search and rescue men found watches whose hands, fused by the heat, proved that the whole horror, from the time the smokejumpers turned back from their descent and fled upward, had taken under a quarter of an hour. The self-accelerating fire had run fifteen hundred yards up the gulch in less than half an hour, the last eleven hundred yards in less than fifteen minutes.

In the first half of the book, Maclean recounts the basic story, with digressions on the nature of wildfires, the history of smokejumping, the character of smokejumpers and the geological history of the terrain, as well as musings about the role of knowledge and art in making significance and tragedy out of mere catastrophe. In the second half of the book he recounts his own and others’ attempts, three decades after the event, to piece together just what had happened. He went to the gulch several times, always aware that he was an old man struggling up precipitous slopes that those young men had tried to sprint up in their time, pursued by the terrible noise, smell and sight of a wildfire blow-up. He found and brought with him on one of his visits the two middle-aged survivors who had made it through the crevice, ‘living ghosts’ as he calls them, and listened as they agreed and disagreed about what had happened when and where. ‘I thought, just as an intellectual exercise, it would be interesting to observe what real ghosts remember of the death they did not die but those only seconds behind them did.’ He searched archives for material that the Forest Service may have deliberately lost during the controversy that followed the disaster. He consulted experts on the nature of fire, including mathematicians who had made ‘models’ of wildfires. He wanted to know as much as he could know, and he wanted to be able to turn catastrophe into story – ‘the story of a tragedy, but tragedy would be only part of it, as it is of life’. He withholds until the very end his attempt ‘to follow the young men to their crosses’, the cement markers put up to mark the places of their deaths, although he anticipates it early in the book:

If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the suffering of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must he able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear a witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. The story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them.

Maclean finds that the elements combined forces with a sort of manic, inhuman determination to accomplish their blind purposes. Air currents and winds blew in the exact fatal way to make the fire jump from one side of the gulch to the other and then to blow uphill. The separate fires, ‘spot fires’ created by the main fire, depleted oxygen in the spaces between them and built up fierce temperatures in those spaces; when the winds suddenly supplied oxygen, the fires became a ‘blow-up’, exploding into ‘fire whirls’ that hurled burning pine cones and branches great distances, starting yet more fires ahead of the main fire. The contours of the earth, the steep rock-strewn slopes of the gulch, and the waist-high dry grass covering them, simultaneously sped the fire and slowed the men in their flight from it. The potentially saving element of water was tragically missing until the end of the disaster, when one of the three survivors heroically tried to make his way down to the mouth of the gulch and the Missouri River to bring water back to one of his dying comrades, who was burned beyond pain and suffering only a ghastly thirst.

American reviewers of Young Men and Fire have heard echoes of major American writers in the book. Some of the attitudes and phrasing are a little like Hemingway in his masculine and tight-lipped vein, but Maclean is also not afraid to take verbal and intellectual risks and in his meditations he sometimes makes wild metaphoric leaps that recall Thoreau and Emerson – or, in a comparison perhaps truer to the subject of the book and its medley of styles, Melville in Moby Dick. In Maclean’s journalistic mode, you can occasionally hear Mark Twain in the frontier humour of over-and understatements. But the writer I am most reminded of is Stephen Crane. Maclean’s style, like Crane’s, is sometimes awkward and strained; he makes strange verbal and intellectual connections. Like Crane, Maclean obviously is fascinated by men in action, seen sometimes as pawns of terrible and indifferent natural forces, sometimes as self-important, self-pitying and suffering human beings; like Crane, he is fascinated by the ironic difference between an individual’s total engagement in an action as it is being played out in the present, and retrospective disengagement from that action by a narrator who has not lived through it.

But the differences between Crane and Maclean are significant. Crane is like one of those youths whose early deaths haunted Maclean. He had in him the toughness, even some of the apparently callous flippancy of youth, perhaps because like many youths he did not want to admit openly how tender he was. To a degree, at least, he just played with despair as a subject of his art. (Always honest with himself, he knew that he did. One of his most effective short pieces describes his disguising himself as a homeless beggar in the streets of New York’s Bowery for a few days in order to find out what it was like to suffer such deprivation. He called it ‘An Experiment in Misery’.)

In Young Men and Fire Norman Maclean is a Stephen Crane privileged to grow old. Confronting the inhuman elements of the universe that fascinated both Crane and himself, Maclean openly gropes to find meaning, even redemption, in the spirit and intellect of man – the very spirit and intellect that impelled him to devote ten years trying to make sense and a story of the Mann Gulch fire. He finds them in the intelligence and hard work of those who studied it and formulated a policy that would prevent such disasters in the future. He finds them in the toughness and compassion of those who had to work on the devastated slopes of Mann Gulch while the ground was still hot and trees still burned. He finds them in the dignity of the survivors, and in their heroic attempts to alleviate the suffering of the victims who lived briefly after the fire had passed. Finally, he finds them in something that maybe only an old man could find them in – in the fierce ardour to live that drove those young men up that slope towards hope of life, as death consumed all behind them.