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Column: Two tragedies bound by random, capricious forces


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Teaching is an incredible profession, but unknown by many is how little time for reading teachers have during the school year. Yes, we read textbooks, student essays, exams, and primary material related to our fields of study, but that excludes so many books that we wish we had time to read.

So, many teachers’ summers begin with digging out the list, constructed over the school year, of books we now can read for pleasure or personal enrichment. Science teachers may read fiction, teachers of literature may read books on brain theory, and religious studies professors may read military history.

My first choice for summer reading this year was affected by the fires out west that began even before the school year was over. I felt a need to reread a book that I had first read over a decade before, a true story of a Montana fire that had a tragic conclusion.

I came upon this book initially by accident. I had read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” years before the movie version appeared, and I had appreciated Maclean’s ability to write a book about fly-fishing, tragedy in an American family (the author’s own) and the emotional life of American men. I still consider this book the best I know in describing how men, who rightly consider themselves strong, are shaped by grief and regret—all handled by Maclean without an ounce of sentimentality.

Out of curiosity, I learned that Maclean had not begun writing until retiring from the faculty at the University of Chicago. I also learned that he had followed “A River Runs Through It” with a non-fiction book, “Young Men and Fire.”

I read “Young Men and Fire” the first time more than a decade ago because I wanted to hear the writing voice of Norman Maclean again. I read the book a second time this summer because I wanted to understand more about fires, particularly those in the west that seemed so destructive and so hard to control.

“Young Men and Fire” is non-fiction, but it is also a detective story. The mystery that Maclean is seeking to solve is how 13 of Montana’s finest firefighters, smokejumpers or those who parachute in to fight fires, lost their lives in a matter of minutes in Mann Gulch in the summer of 1949.

By the mid to late 1970s, when Maclean wrote most of the book, he knew that the Mann Gulch fire had changed the way forest fires were fought in this country. But Maclean was troubled that we still didn’t understand how it was that these 13 men, elite young men, the hotshots of their day, had perished so quickly in that gulch.

Maclean felt that humanity owed these men and their families an explanation for what had happened; what the men could have done, if anything, to save their lives; and why they didn’t do that.

Maclean had the proper background to investigate this tragedy. As a young man, he had worked for the U.S. Forestry Service and, in that capacity, had done some firefighting. And he knew from personal experience what it was like to try to outrun a fire.

I was about halfway through this second reading of “Young Men and Fire” when I heard the tragic news of the Yarnell fire, the fire that took the lives of 19 firefighters. As I read the newspaper accounts of this recent fire and then returned to Maclean’s book, I had the eerie feeling that I was reading different versions of the same story.

Both stories are based on the tragic intersection of other, smaller stories. There are the stories of the young men themselves and these two truths about them: that they were the best at what they did, and that they were not reckless. This was true of the victims of the Mann Gulch fire and is true of the victims of the Yarnell fire.

There is also the complex story of fire itself, what we know about fire, and what we still do not understand. Firefighters know that fires can act like living beasts, planning, changing course, and sending out advance fires. As one New York firefighter put it, fire is the devil, and that devil is devious.

And there are other inner stories to contend with. There is the story of wind, of temperatures, of drought, and how thunderstorms passing over a fire can enrage that beast. There is also the story of the terrain and the burn tendencies of certain trees, shrubs, and grass.

As we seek to understand how fire took the lives of the 19 in Arizona, it is worth remembering something Maclean wrote back in the 1970s — that our ancestors had been fighting fires long before they ever learned how to use it safely. Fire, then, has been one of our species’ most ancient enemies.

And it is worth noticing the publication date of “Young Men and Fire.” Although written in the 1970s, the manuscript was still unfinished when Maclean died in 1990.

Humanity cannot help but desire to understand the laws of nature, but nature may remain one of the ultimate mysteries, not always caring about the laws that we’ve discovered.

David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World” available in bookstores or on Amazon.com. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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