As of my writing this, I’m about halfway through Young Men and Fire, Norm Maclean's classic account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, on which 13 firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers, perished. Smokejumpers are the kind of wildland firefighters who jump out of airplanes onto remote wildfires. And in 1949, they “were still so young,” as Maclean puts it, that “they hadn’t learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.”
It’s been a haunting, harrowing read so far, for obvious reasons. But in addition to the subject matter being inherently dramatic and graphic, I think it’s Maclean’s choices as a storyteller that make the story particularly riveting.
Over the course of the last three chapters (3-6), Maclean completes his first pass up and across the north side of the gulch, along with the young men and the fire itself, to the place where the flames caught up with the thirteen who died and where their crosses still stand in tall grass, a thousand feet above the banks of the Missouri. And the specific choices of Maclean’s that I want to talk about have been especially pronounced in these pages. Namely, his choice to repeatedly frame the young mens’ experience in terms of how big or small they felt the “world” to be in those final minutes, and his choice to describe even the most excruciating parts of this experience in the most banal, matter-of-fact language.
An example of the framing choice: in a span of three pages in Chapter 3, Maclean describes what the “world” was becoming, or how much of it was still accessible, four separate times. On the first page:
The world was getting faster, smaller, and louder, so much faster that for the first time there are random differences among the survivors about how far apart things were.
On the next page:
It was getting late for talk anyway. What could anybody hear? It roared from behind, below, and across, and the crew, inside it, was shut out from all but a small piece of the outside world.
On the page after that:
By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.
And finally, further down that third page:
It was becoming a world where thought that could be described as such was done largely by fixations. Thought consisted in repeating over and over something that had been said in a training course or at least by somebody older than you.
There are other scattered instances of “world” talk throughout these chapters. Collectively, they give the impression that Maclean is trying to probe the farthest reaches of what the young men could have been said to be conscious, or even subconscious of. He knew where their bodies had started and ended up, and the path they’d taken in between. This knowledge entered the historical, which is to say, objective record a finite number of days after the young men died. But Maclean wanted to track where their minds had gone too, which seems like the sort of knowledge he would relegate permanently to the realm of “mystery and litigation,” and yet the pursuit of which fits with one of his big-picture goals for the book:
A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to to walk the final distance to the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out by smoke.
Hard work, surely, to make a story walk that final distance, but still not as hard—and I’m positive that Maclean would agree with me here—as making a body and a mind.
As for the choice to make the terrible and awesome sound banal and matter-of-fact, this is more like a constant stylistic feature of Maclean’s writing—a subtle aftertaste permeating every turn of phrase, so that sometimes, and for whole paragraphs or pages at a time, it becomes “hard to realize that these young men would be dead within two hours after they landed from parachutes no longer made of silk but of nylon, so they would not be eaten by grasshoppers.”
That said, this aftertaste is probably least subtle in specific moments of crisis. A good example is Maclean’s account of the way one of the survivors, Robert Jansson, who was not a smokejumper but ranger of the Helena National Forest’s Canyon Ferry District, “had come close to the inside”:
At 5:30 Jansson turned back and started to get out of there quick but still walking. Then the fire began to whirl continuously. When a streamer from it swept by, he realized after a couple of whiffs that the whirl could “cook out his lungs.” He began to run. Now, he says, the whirl “was practically upright. My position was in the vortex, which was rapidly narrowing. I held my breath as I crossed the wall. There was no flame, just superheated air and gases and a lot of reflected from the crown fire. I conked out from a lack of oxygen, fell on my left elbow, causing a bursitis which later caused my arm to swell.”
When he came to, “the black creep of the fire” was only a few feet behind him. He had fallen victim for a few seconds to the two major enemies that threaten fighters of big fires—toxic gases, especially carbon monoxide, and lack of oxygen from overexertion and from hot air burning out the oxygen.
When he finally reached the boat, at 5:41, he placed himself in the bow next to Mrs. Padbury and watched the whirl for a few minutes. He thought again about the sound of men working that he imagined he had heard and again put it out of mind. Then he smelled his own vomit, apologized to Mrs. Padbury, and moved off to the side.
Read that again and ask yourself if it sounds like Maclean’s describing what he’s describing. You "begin to run" when you are you trying to catch a bus. You “hold your breath” before jumping in a swimming pool. You “cross” a threshold. You “conk out” on a long road trip. You “come to” at the gas station. I guess I can’t say from personal experience when you do or do not apologize for vomiting on yourself. But I feel like you get a pass when the situation is dire enough for you to not even realize that it’s happened.
The banal, matter-of-fact aftertaste is least subtle in a passage like this in the sense that its mismatch with the flavor of death is that much more exaggerated. But in another sense, the aftertaste is also less effective here at what it does better elsewhere—masking reality. Some realities are so undeniably, agonizingly what they are that no trick of language can hide what happened.
So here is what happened: Robert Jansson passed out in the middle of a tornado made of smoke, flame, toxic gas, and wind heated to well above the ignition point of the grass and timber burning all around him, woke up alive, stumbled back down to the banks of the Missouri, and threw up on himself somewhere on along the way. That’s what is ultimately undeniable, no matter how much the language makes it seem like Robert Jansson went out to pick up some milk.
Still, being unable to deny the fact of something isn’t the same as ever having experienced it for yourself. You can acknowledge that something happened and still have no idea what it was truly like. Maclean says as much:
Dodge later told Early Cooley that, when the fire went over him, he was lifted off the ground two or three times.
“This lasted approximately five minutes,” he concludes in his testimony, and you and I are left to guess what “this” was like.
Here is another thing that happened: Wag Dodge, crew foreman for the smokejumpers, with a ridge-top 200 yards ahead of him and a wall of flame 30 seconds behind him, struck a match in tall grass, let the resulting escape fire burn a little ways uphill, and lay down in its hot but survivable ashes seconds before the main fire reached its edge, along with the wind that lifted him off the ground two or three times.
Is “this” what “lasted approximately five minutes”—being lifted off the ground two or three times? Is five minutes the total amount of time Dodge spent airborne? Or is it simply the amount of time that elapsed between the moment he was first lifted off the ground and the moment he was deposited back on it for the last time? Not only are you and I left to guess what “this” was like. We still don’t have a clear picture of what “this” even is—of what we could deny or not deny the fact of, even if we’d never experienced it ourselves.
I guess “this” belongs to the category of “what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew,” and as such is something that Maclean, a storyteller duty-bound to follow compassion, wanted to “bear witness to.”
I think these are the kinds of choices you have to make when you are bearing witness to something unknown or unknowable, or if known, perhaps unspeakable. Some experiences are probably destined to be wholly or at least partially ineffable, even if the fact of them can be reported literally. And if compassion or duty or curiosity or some combination thereof still compels you to make an attempt at saying what can’t be said, then probably the best you can do is pick one good extended metaphor or framing device (so as to set readers off on the right foot), and say the rest in language as plain and spare as you can make it (so as to let the reality speak for itself, to whatever extent possible). Maclean knew all this too (italics are mine):
So this story is a test of its own belief—that in this cockeyed world there are shapes and designs, if only we have some curiosity, training, and compassion and take care not to lie or be sentimental. It would be a start to a story if this catastrophe were found to have circled around out there somewhere until it could return to itself with explanations of its own mysteries and with the grief it left behind, not removed, because grief has its own place at or near the end of things, but altered somewhat by the addition of something like wonder…
We ought not to be sentimental for the same reason we ought not to lie: we will misrepresent reality by making it seem as if there exists language that is equivalent to it, when there is in fact none. We will be suggesting that the story exists primarily to satisfy the sensibilities and wishful thinking of the living, when its real purpose is to accompany the dead and “find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts.” And in doing so, we will just be lying in a different way, and insulting those who actually had the experience and are privy to the truth of it—who alone, if we are being perfectly honest with ourselves, have earned the right to speak to it. That readers might be able to willfully forget or deny or misunderstand this truth because we have declined to sentimentalize it is just the chance we take.
And what of the readers? Haven’t they some responsibility to try to avoid this outcome and to pull their own imaginative and empathic weight?
Maybe the best thing readers can do is read with the knowledge that their understanding or fulfillment is not always the measure of a story’s success or purpose. In the case of Young Men and Fire, it was more important to Maclean that the story try to keep up with the young men as they climbed up and across the north side of Mann Gulch. Better that “[i]f now the dead of this fire should awaken and [Maclean] should be stopped beside a cross,” he should know the answer to “the first and last question of life, How did it happen?” than be stuck waiting for the reader to catch up.
It’s not the reader’s fault. Few could be expected to keep up with the young men. Even among them, only two actually beat the fire up and over the ridge-top: Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey. (Jansson survived down by the river and Dodge in the ashes of his own escape fire, mid-slope. The smokejumpers’ second-in-command, William Hellman, made it to the ridge-top at the same time as the flames, was burned badly there, and died the next day at a hospital in Helena.) And decades after they did so, Maclean accompanied both back to Mann Gulch and heard from them the sort of conclusion that only the intervening years would have allowed them to make:
Sallee talks so often about everything happening in a matter of seconds after he and Rumsey left Dodge’s fire that at first it seems just a manner of speaking. But if you combine the known facts with your imagination and are a mountain climber and try to accompany Rumsey and Sallee to the top, you will know that to have lived you had to be young and tough and lucky.
And young and tough they were. In all weather Sallee had walked four country miles each way to school, and a lot of those eight miles he ran. He and Rumsey had been on tough projects all summer. They gave it everything they had, and everything was more, they said, than ever before or after.
Consider again that last sentence: They gave it everything they had, and everything was more, they said, than ever before or after. This is simple, spare language that does as much as it possibly can to leave the truth unobscured, but still doesn’t come close to telling the half of it.
To begin to understand, you have to wrestle with this question: What is the maximum effort you are humanly capable of? What is the absolute limit of your combined mental and physical capacity, beyond which no situation, no matter how urgent, could compel any further exertion? If you want a concrete way to think about this, think about one of the dead, Jim Harrison, who also was not a smokejumper, but a recreation guard, primarily responsible that summer for overseeing Meriwether Landing, the campground at the mouth of neighboring Meriwether Canyon. Because of this, “he couldn’t have been in shape to keep up with the jumpers,” though it would be a giant understatement to say that he tried:
Just a little further on, Rumsey and Sallee passed the recreation guard, Jim Harrison, who, having been on the fire all afternoon, was now exhausted. He was sitting with his heavy pack on and was making no effort to take it off, and Rumsey and Sallee wondered numbly why he didn’t but no one stopped to suggest he get on his feet or gave him a hand to help him up. It was even too late to pray for him.
So the question is, at what point would you, like Harrison, sit down with your heavy pack on and turn to face the flames?
It’s impossible to say, right? You can only look back and say, as Sallee and Rumsey did, whether what you gave was more than, less than, or on par with ever before or after. Or in other words, “maximum effort” exists only retrospectively and in comparison, and not as a quantifiable, predictable absolute, because the situation that could make you give more than you’ve ever given is by definition one that you haven’t experienced yet.
As it turns out, Harrison did have more to give. The next day, as Jansson, Sallee, and the rest of the rescue crew picked their way across the remnants of a situation that had probably made all the young men give more than ever before (and for 13 of them, ever after) they found Harrison farther uphill from where Rumsey and Sallee had left him:
While they continued downhill, Jansson continued to be puzzled about why Harrison’s body had been found so close to Sylvia. He had heard from both Sallee and Rumsey that Harrison had given out from exhaustion, so Jansson had expected to find his body much lower on the hillside and farther back than any of the others. That he got up and climbed to where he did is as much a monument to his courage as the cross they put there afterwards.
I wonder if Harrison thought that he might actually make it to the ridge-top, or if he knew that “it was even too late to pray for him” and still found it within himself to get up and climb a little farther for the sake of climbing a little farther. I wonder if it was truly the fire itself that willed him past what seemed like the point of complete and utter depletion, or if it was actually some other invisible stimulus. After all, he had already turned to face death. And for at least a little while, watching death approach was all he thought he was equal to.
I wonder if he had yet more to give, and just couldn’t muster it at the rate he would have needed to survive. I wonder if there was anything at all that could have gotten him to stay on the heels of Rumsey and Sallee.
Above all else, I wonder what it must have been like—where he must have gone in mind, body, and spirit, once he’d reached the edge of his known world. What lay beyond the fringes of the map?
Maclean says that if, in addition to combining the “known facts” with your “imagination” and making a deliberate attempt to “accompany Rumsey and Sallee to the top,” you were also “a mountain climber,” then you might just realize that “to have lived you had to be young and tough and lucky.” Or, said differently, a little bit of personal experience on top of empathy and imagination will go a long way in helping any reader know what the young men went through.
Even so, I don’t think there’s any substitute for having ventured off the map yourself. And I don’t think Maclean thought there was either. Which is why he still tried so hard to provide us with his own descriptions of terra incognita—with descriptions of worlds “where thought that could be described as such was done largely by fixations” and “where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.” It’s why he calls this a “story of the outside world and the inside world with a fire in between” and takes special care to distinguish the two—to place the young men on a separate, nearly inaccessible plane of existence from the well-intentioned, but ultimately impotent:
When at approximately four o’clock that afternoon the parachute on the radio had failed to open, the world had been immediately reduced to a two-and-a-half-mile gulch, and of this small, steep world sixty acres had been occupied by fire. Now, a little less than two hours later, the world was drastically reduced from that—to the 150 yards between the Smokejumpers and the fire that in minutes would catch up to them, to the roar below them that was all there was left of the bottom of the gulch, and to the head of the gulch that at the moment was smoke about to roar.
Somewhere beyond thought, however, there was an outside world with some good men in it. There were a lot more men sitting in bars who were out of drinking money and also out of shape and had never been on a fire before they found themselves on this one. There are also times, especially as the world is blowing up, when even good men land at the mouth of the wrong gulch, forget to bring litters even though they are a rescue team, and, after having gone back to get some blankets, show up with only one for all those who would be cold that night from burns and suffering.
It’s why Maclean says that as Rumsey and Sallee reached the ridge-top, “[t]he world compressed to a slit in rocks” and that both men saw “neither right nor left” and “only straight ahead.” And it’s why he wanted you to know, even as night fell and the blowup died down and Dodge and Sallee made their way back down to the river (How easy it is to get two men from ridge-top to riverbank in just a few words!), that they were in a “never-never land in the night and the smoke” and that they didn’t “know much about the world anymore, not even whether it was up or down.”
Because he wanted you to take even a single step in the direction of a place he knew you’d likely never go, and feel even the faintest stirring of the courage you would have needed to get there. Which, incidentally, is the same courage that got Bill Hellman through the night with his flesh hanging off of him in patches, and that made men weep when they saw him still alive.
Not far from where I live in Philomath, Oregon, there’s a street in a residential neighborhood that goes steadily uphill for about a quarter of a mile and that I run sprints up two or three times per week. According to Google Maps, the distance from the mailbox where I start to the fire hydrant where I end is 320 yards, and the elevation gain is more or less 100 feet on the nose. That comes out to an average grade of just over 10%.
By comparison, the distance from where Dodge turned his men around to where the farthest body (that of Henry Thol’s) was found is about 1000 yards, with an elevation gain of 540 feet. That’s a little more than an average grade of 17%, but unlike my hill in Philomath, the north slope of Mann Gulch does not rise at a steady rate.
See, all the other bodies (with the exception of Stanley Reba’s, who broke a leg, rolled downhill into the flames, and was found a hundred feet below the next lowest man), along with Joseph Sylvia, who also died the next day in Helena, were found scattered below Thol along a roughly 350 yard-long stretch of what is by far the steepest section of the slope. From the next body above Reba’s, which was Silas Thompson’s, to Thol’s body, is an elevation gain of 230 feet. Over 350 yards, that comes out to almost a 22% grade. The young men died as the hill stood up.
I hadn’t looked at the map or made any of these calculations by the time I stepped out the other night to go run my hill. But I had written up to the end of the last section, so the young men were very much on my mind. Usually I do 3 reps, each in 50-60 seconds. The walk back down, plus anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute or two at the bottom, count as rest. The second rest period between the second and third reps is almost always longer than the first, and I spend most of it steeling myself mentally for the final rep. On the walk back home, I often taste metal in my mouth and feel lightheaded and nauseated.
The other night went a little differently though. On the walk back down after the first rep, thinking about effort and stimuli and the relationship between the two, a thought occurred to me: I will run these hills for the young men who gave more than ever before or after. A new stimulus for me, but certainly not an original one. Jansson felt compelled by it when “[f]or instance, the year of the fire he twice returned to Mann Gulch to check his original observations of the blowup,” and “having twice walked and rerun his route with a stopwatch in hand, concluded that his present report ‘[was] within two minutes of the time [he had] shown in previous statements.’” So must have others been compelled to return to Mann Gulch to traverse the final distance:
Rod Norum, who is one of the leading specialists on fire behavior in the Forest Service and still a fine athlete, as an experiment started out where Dodge rejoined his crew and, moving as fast as possible all the way, did not get to the grave markers as fast as the bodies did. Of course, there was nothing roaring behind him.
What a difference it makes, whether the stimulus is real or not! Which is not to say that climbing hills with young men and fire in mind is not a real stimulus, or that it isn’t capable of extracting more than one is accustomed to giving. The other night, it got me to turn on my heels and go both times I reached the bottom of the hill, without taking my usual minute or two extra. The self-steeling I usually do at the mailbox, I did instead on the walk down, and it sounded something like: They had no minutes to spare, so neither will you when you reach the mailbox. And on the way back up, it sounded something like: Now imagine that Sallee and Rumsey are right in front of you and that the fire is right behind you. But the thought of a fire is not the same as a fire. Nothing roared behind me. And the mind drives a hard bargain when it senses itself and the rest of the body giving more than the usual or agreed-to amount. So at the fire hydrant, having already given over a few minutes of the rest I was accustomed to, I simply turned to face the imaginary flames.
I will not deliberately think of the young men as a stimulus for effort again—at least not until I visit Mann Gulch myself and rerun Rod Norum’s experiment so that I, as Maclean puts it, might come to “carry inside me part of the purgation of its tragedy.” It is not right that any of us should make a game or a fetish out of venturing to the edges of our known worlds, if only because I’m sure that any of the brave young dead would have traded knowledge of that place for more life.
But it can be an act of compassion to look, every once in a while, in that direction.
Heart wrenching event, story, and reflection.