July 3, 2013

What makes some people run toward danger, like the Granite Mountain Hotshots? Nineteen of their elite crew died this week fighting a wildfire in Arizona. Today, the families of the dead — most of whom will now live much more of their years without their beloved husband or father than with him — begin the struggle to understand and to accept.

Read the accounts from Arizona and you can be transported to another fire in another state in another time: the 1949 Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 firefighters. These kinds of tragedies hold us in their grip because they raise the deepest issues. What is it like to be so alive one minute and dead the next? Why do some run into danger so willingly? What is it like to die when you are trying so hard to live and only have moments to contemplate your fate?

If you are interested these kinds of questions, a great American author spent years of his life doing a forensic investigation into the causes of the Mann Gulch fire which turned into a much deeper meditation on heroes, tragedy and the implications of a violent death. Norman Maclean’s “Young Man and Fire,” published after his death, is one of the most provocative and haunting books I have ever read. Here is Maclean on the last desperate moments of life of some of the Forest Service Smokejumpers who, Maclean learned, dropped down as if to die, only to rise one final time and take some further steps to fight the fire: “The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hope to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire and perhaps the sky.”

Or as a mother of one of the Hotshots put it yesterday when she called her son at the fire scene worried about his heading into the flames: “He said, ‘It’s what I do, Mom. It’s what I’m best at.’ “