I read “Young Men and Fire” in 1992, shortly after Norman Maclean’s transcendent work landed on the new book shelf at Marianna Black Library in Bryson City, shortly after my return home to the mountains.
I’d just started to write professionally, if stringing for a living can be dignified to that extent. It meant living off my parents until securing a newspaper reporter’s job later in the year.
Stringers are paid by the column inch. This instilled in me a slew of bad habits. Any stringer in possession of a brain larger than a chipmunk’s quickly grasps the virtues of writing long – regardless of whether a story merits length.
Maclean’s book about the Mann Gulch tragedy helped provide a much-needed corrective.
He did not begin writing “Young Men and Fire” until 1976, at age 74, after penning “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.” Illness forced him to abandon the manuscript a few years before he died in 1990, at age 88. His children entrusted the draft to the University of Chicago Press.
Maclean’s book is a dissection of what went wrong on Aug. 5, 1949, when a group of smoke jumpers parachuted into the rugged Montana wilderness to fight fire. Thirteen of them died in Mann Gulch.
In its way, the book stands as an American masterpiece, though flawed as Maclean had feared. In a 2015 article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, his editor, Alan Thomas, wrote:
“Maclean’s overriding ambition was to find in all this some ‘carefully measured grains of consolation needed to transform catastrophe into tragedy.’ Maclean spoke often of the way our lives can assume a design, can take on the shape of art.
“Tragedy implied design, a key term, and aspiration, for Maclean. Tragedy, he writes in the book, is ‘inflamed with the disorderly’ and yet is also the ‘most composed’ of all art forms. If he could tell the story of Mann Gulch as a tragedy in something like this classical sense, the result would be catharsis and redemption.”
I’ve always meant to ask Mike Wilkins’ opinion about Maclean’s various technical conclusions, about how the fire, when the blowup happened, caught the young men as they fled. There has never been an opportunity. We typically talk when he’s fighting fire. That’s an awkward time to introduce chitchat.
I’m certain Mike, an avid student of fire science, has read “Young Men and Fire.”
Mike is district ranger for the Nantahala Ranger District. He’s now in his 36th year with the U.S. Forest Service. I met him in 1992, after moving to Franklin when I made the switch from abject poverty (stringing) to embracing vows of slightly elevated poverty (professional journalism).
I’m fond of our district ranger.
When you talk to him, or he talks to you, he has this habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet. He seems more relaxed these days than when I first met him, but the guy has a lot of energy, too much for passive engagement.
At a postmortem about last fall’s historic fire season, he joked that he’s too old, now, to scramble over mountains in pursuit of fire. He’s older, that’s true, but I don’t believe him: Mike looks as fit now as when I first interviewed him.
What people might not realize is how lucky we were, during our fall inferno when the whole world seemed on fire, when arsonists kindled blaze after blaze, when smoke cast a literal and figurative pall over our lives, to have Mike protecting us.
He is one of the best wildfire firefighters in the nation. Brent Martin, the Wilderness Society’s director for the Southern Appalachian, stated flatly that he believes Mike is the best in the United States.
That might be. Regardless, when the fires ravaged these mountains last fall, consuming 28,000 acres across Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, a single cabin burned.
Mike still feels bad about that loss. He told the owner so, during last week’s meeting, apologizing yet again.
What he failed to mention? The hundreds of homes across these mountains that he helped save.