A Response To Norman Maclean's 'Young Men and Fire'
For the last several years, Robert Stubblefield has invited me to talk about The Write Question with students in one of the classes he teaches at the University of Montana. We talk about specific programs, which, if students have done their homework assignments, they've listened to. Then I answer questions about the process of reading, interviewing, and creating programs for radio and the Web. I also invite each of them to send me an essay they've written in response to a writer they read during the semester.
The following essay about Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire was written by Jeremy Brooks.
With enflamed cheeks, sweat dripping through the curves of my sunglasses, heavy breathing and burning thighs I make the slow ascent. Pausing for a break, I firmly press the palms of my hands on my uphill leg to smother its screams of anguish and try to remember why in the world I was on this mountain. I remove my sunglasses, relieving my smoky vision and look around at the group of high school seniors making the climb with me. It was early May and we were invincible; classes no longer mattered, we were on a weekend camping trip with our favorite professors and there was nothing stopping us from taking this world by force, certainly not this little mountain.
We were not the first group to journey up Mann Gulch “who were young and thought to be invincible by others and [ourselves].” We knew the story; we had read Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire cover to cover and were now retracing the smokejumpers final steps. From the point they dropped their sacred gear and ran, to the crosses that mark their final resting point, we tried to recreate Norman Maclean’s relentless research that he took with him to his grave. He started writing Young Men and Fire in 1976 and at one point noted, “they were still so young they hadn’t learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.” What would he say of us? From the Eagle Scouts enjoying another weekend outdoors to the tenderfoots who had to borrow sleeping bags and were experiencing the company of a campfire for the first time, how prepared were we? We timed ourselves on the way up, two minutes to beat the imaginary wall of fire behind us. None of us made it.
On the way back down we separated, each finding a secluded spot on the hillside to journal about the day’s adventure. I tucked myself behind a large boulder, sheltering myself from the wind that was eager to remind me what it had done, what it was capable of doing. My spot overlooked one of the thirteen crosses, the opposite side of the gulch rising up in a mirror image of barren trees all in various stages of collapse. But between the markers of death grew tiny saplings, slowly enduring the Montana growing season, slowly defying the tragedy that consumed thirteen smokejumpers and one author. Earlier, as we began our ascent, I had happened upon a tuft of mountain sheep fur and stuffed it in my pocket. Now matted and pressed, I gently place it onto the boulder next to me and watch as it is carried away by the wind only to be caught on some short grass nearby. Mann Gulch refuses to yield, to be consumed by history. Norman Maclean has recorded the memory, leaving the land free to grow and burn as it always has. As it always will.
My name is Jeremy Brooks and I am studying Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana. Being from Billings I have grown up learning to love Montana and its great diversity of life and landscape that it has to offer. Though I have chosen to pursue wildlife research, writing holds a special place in my heart and while I have never been published I continue to expand my knowledge and background in hopes of someday writing about my perspectives of our natural world.