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Forest fires, terrorism, war: explorations of danger by the author of The Perfect Storm.
For readers and viewers of The Perfect Storm, opening this long-awaited new work by Sebastian Junger will be like stepping off the deck of the Andrea Gail and into the inferno of a fire burning out of control in the steep canyons of Idaho. Here is the same meticulous prose brought to bear on the inner workings of a terrifying elemental force; here is a cast...
Forest fires, terrorism, war: explorations of danger by the author of The Perfect Storm.
For readers and viewers of The Perfect Storm, opening this long-awaited new work by Sebastian Junger will be like stepping off the deck of the Andrea Gail and into the inferno of a fire burning out of control in the steep canyons of Idaho. Here is the same meticulous prose brought to bear on the inner workings of a terrifying elemental force; here is a cast of characters risking everything in an effort to bring that force under control.
Few writers have been to so many desperate corners of the globe as has Sebastian Junger; fewer still have provided such starkly memorable evocations of characters and events. From the murderous mechanics of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone to the logic of guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan and the forensics of genocide in Kosovo, this new collection of Junger's nonfiction will take you places you wouldn't dream of going to on your own.
Here is the same meticulous prose brought to bear on the inner workings of a terrifying elemental force; here is a cast of characters risking everything in an effort to bring that force under control.
Late in the afternoon of July 26, 1989, a dry lightning storm swept through the mountains north of Boise, Idaho, and lit what seemed like the whole world on fire.
A dry lightning storm is a storm where the rain never reaches the ground. It evaporates in midair, trailing down from swollen cumulus clouds in long, graceful strands called virga. The electrical charges from a dry storm do not trail off before they hit the ground, however; they rip into the mountains like artillery. On July 26, 1989, lightning was hitting the upper ridges of the Boise National Forest at the rate of a hundred strikes an hour. Automatic lightning detectors at the Boise Interagency Fire Center were registering, all over the western states, rates up around two thousand an hour. By nightfall 120 fires had caught and held north of Boise, little one-acre blazes that eventually converged into a single unstoppable, unapproachable front known as the Lowman fire.
For the first three days Lowman was simply one among hundreds of fires that were cooking slowly through the parched Idaho forests. Around four o'clock in the afternoon of July 29, however, the flames reached some dead timber in a place called Steep Creek, just east of the town of Lowman, and the fire changed radically. The timber was from a blowdown two years earlier and was so dry that when the flames touched it, the entire drainage went up. The fire created its own convection winds, making the fire burn hotter and hotter until the fire behavior spiraled completely out of control.Temperatures at the heart of the blaze reached two thousand degrees. A column of smoke and ash rose eight miles up into the atmosphere. Trees were snapped in half by the force of the convection winds.
The fire rolled across Highway 21 and right through the eastern edge of town, detonating propane tanks and burning twenty-six buildings to the ground. A pumper crew was trapped at the Haven Lodge, and they hid behind their truck and finally stumbled out of the blaze an hour later, safe but nearly blind. The fire had attained a critical mass and was reinforcing itself with its own heat and flames, a feedback loop known as a fire storm. The only thing people can do, in the face of such power, is get out of the way and hope the weather changes.
Which they did, and which it did, but not until a month later, after forty-six thousand acres of heavy timber had been turned to ash.
I saw the site of the Lowman fire in 1992, three years afterward, when the ponderosa seedlings were already greening the hillsides. A roadside plaque said that eight million ponderosa and Douglas fir would be hand-planted by the mid-1990s. The plaque went on to describe how the land had been treated with enzymes so that water and microorganisms could penetrate soil that was now seared to the consistency of hard plastic. Thousands of flame-killed trees had been dropped laterally along the slopes to keep the land from washing away, and thirty thousand acres had been planted with grass and fast-growing bitterbrush. In a hundred years, more or less, the area would again look the way it once had.
I was driving a big, painfully beautiful loop from Ketchum, Idaho, around the Sawtooth Mountains and down the South Fork of the Payette River toward Boise. It was late afternoon when I drove through the Lowman burn, and the quiet darkness of the dead valleys depressed me. The West was well into one of the worst droughts of the century, and I was out there to see the wildfires that it was sure to produce. My idea was to go to Boise—where all the fire-fighting resources were coordinated—tell them I was a writer, and hope they let me on a fire.
I pulled off down an old logging road and pitched my tent in a clear-cut. It seemed to get dark very quickly that night, and I cooked spaghetti on my camping stove and went to sleep listening to the weekend traffic die down on Highway 21. The Lowman fire, I'd heard, had burned so hot that Highway 21 had melted. There were places, I'd heard, where fire trucks had left their tread marks as they rushed from Boise to fight the flames.
In 1965 the U.S. government established the Boise Interagency Fire Center to coordinate the three federal agencies—the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, and what was then known as the Weather Bureau—that were engaged in fighting wildfire in America. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service were added later, and the name was ultimately changed to the National Interagency Fire Center. Two years after BIFC was established, the Northern Rockies were hit with a catastrophically bad season that culminated in the Sundance fire in northern Idaho. BIFC managed to deploy thirteen thousand men and thousands of tons of supplies, prompting a study by the Office of Civil Defense, which was trying to figure out how to handle a similar crisis in the event of a nuclear war.
BIFC is located next to the Boise airport, across the interstate, south of town. The lobby is filled with the sort of display that, were you even vaguely inclined toward a job fighting fire, would make you move out west on the spot. There is a smoke jumper mannequin in full jump gear, including a wire face mask for when the jumper goes crashing into the treetops. There is a board with everything—food, medical supplies, tools—a jumper needs for forty-eight hours on a fire. There are color photos of air tankers dropping retardant and sheets of flame rising from stands of trees. One photo shows a fire in dense forest on the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon. "The total-timber jump spot," the caption reads, "trees in this photo are between 80 and 125 feet tall. Five of six smokejumpers committed to this fire `hung up' in trees, thus the rope carried in the leg pocket for a `letdown.' The fire was stopped at a quarter-acre."
A short, powerful man named Ken Franz—one of the Boise smoke jumpers, as it turned out—spotted me loitering in the lobby and came over to investigate. I told him I was interested in wildfire, and he motioned me into a cluttered conference room and sat me down at a long table to tell me the basics. Behind Franz was a map of the western United States that covered most of one wall. There were seven red circles on it around seven towns: McCall, Idaho; Boise, Idaho; Missoula, Montana; Redmond, Oregon; Redding, California; Silver City, New Mexico; and Winthrop, Washington. Franz turned and pointed to them.
"Those are the smoke jumper bases," he said. "We are constantly getting sent from one place to another; you never know where you're going to be the next day, or the next week. They just shift resources around to wherever the hazard is greatest."
That shifting of resources, Franz explained, is what BIFC is designed for. Everything from government-issue paper sleeping bags to food to foam fire retardant to Ken Franz himself is shipped around the country, following fires, following thunderstorms, even following droughts. There are 410 smoke jumpers and perhaps 20,000 active and on-call fire fighters in the United States. Should a smoke jumper's father die, say, or his house burn down, BIFC would know what state, what fire, what division, and what 20-person crew he was on. Should an air tanker go down en route from Denver to Missoula—one of hundreds of flights during a busy day fighting fires out west—BIFC would know what route it was taking and when it was supposed to arrive. The immense task of keeping track of all these things is accomplished at the logistics center on the top floor of the main BIFC building, across the parking lot. Across one wall of the room is a huge map of the country. Cardboard cutouts representing airplanes are moved around on it; cards representing fire crews are switched from "available" to "unavailable" slots. More detailed information is stored on a computer. In late August 1987 lightning started two thousand fires across the West that burned almost a million acres. In ten days 22,500 fire fighters and forty-five tons of supplies were deployed to fight the fires. BIFC accounted for every chain saw, every hard hat, every gallon of retardant.
"Smoke jumpers are considered an initial attack force," Franz went on. "That's a generic term for the first response to a fire. The classic situation would be a lightning-struck tree in a remote area where two guys jump in, fell it, buck it up—put out what amounts to a small campfire. Basically, the whole world's a jump spot; within a mile of any fire you can usually find a very acceptable place to land in. On a big fire you have to start somewhere, so you jump a whole planeload and establish an anchor point, at the tail of the fire. You clear helispots for landing supplies, and you work your way around the sides of the fire."
Smoke jumpers land with eighty pounds' worth of gear, including two parachutes, puncture-proof Kevlar suits, freeze-dried food, fire shelters, and a few personal effects. Following them in cardboard boxes heaved out of the airplane with cargo chutes are chain saws, shovels, ax-hoe hybrids called Pulaskis, sleeping bags, plastic cubitainers of water, and dozens of other things needed on a fire. If there's an injured jumper, a medical emergency pack comes out of the plane. If it's a fast-moving fire, the crew can call for boxes of explosives that can blast an instant fire line in the forest duff. The list of what can be thrown at a fire is endless—and expensive. A more cynical view, popular among many, is that the government puts fires out by throwing money on them until it starts to rain.
Not much of the money, however, goes to the fire crews. A jumper makes about $8.50 an hour. If the fire is uncontrolled, as, since smoke jumpers are initial attack, it almost always is, the crews get another 25 percent hazard pay. If they work overtime—again, almost a sure bet—they get time and a half. The jump itself has been ruled as simply another way of getting to the fire, like a bus or a pickup truck, so jumpers get straight pay when they leave the airplane and time and a quarter when they hit the ground. If they are injured on the jump, however, and don't make it to the fire, the hazard pay does not kick in. From fifteen hundred feet it takes about a minute and a half to reach the ground with a parachute. At $8.50 an hour, that's about 21 cents.
"In a good year you can make almost thirty thousand dollars," said Franz. (As with all fire fighters, a "good" year is a year with a lot of fires; a "good" fire is a fire that isn't brought under control too quickly.) "Under twenty thousand is more typical. That's for six months. The rest of the year we sew."
They sew everything: harnesses, fire line packs, jump bags, even little duffels with the BIFC flame logo on the side. They do it to save the government money, they do it because they're better sewers than most manufacturers, and they do it to keep themselves employed. The only thing they don't sew are the parachutes. Some jumpers are certified to make repairs, but the chutes themselves are bought from a manufacturer. The parachutes the BLM uses cost a thousand dollars apiece and are expected, with upkeep, to last at least ten years. They were of a design invented by a French kite maker in the early 1900s. They are called Quantum Q5 Ram Air parachutes.
"Ram air means there are cells that fill with air," said Franz. "They make the canopy so rigid you could walk across it. You could also put a line on it and fly it like a kite; in Alaska, jumpers fly their chutes like kites. You steer with toggles and have a forward speed of twenty miles an hour. It's a very high tech delivery system for a very low tech job; once we hit the ground we're just fire fighters. Afterward we have to pack ten miles or more, to the nearest helispot. Our gear weighs over one hundred pounds, and usually we're not even on trails; it's harder work than fighting fires. It keeps you honest."
Honest means capable of enduring a training regimen that used to weed out 30 percent of the preselected men at the training camp (overwhelmingly men, but not entirely). Rookies are considered the fittest and most perfectly trained because they have endured boot camp most recently: three hours of workouts a day, a jump simulator called the Mutilator, an array of courses and tests that virtually guarantee you'll pull your ripcord after jumping out of the plane. Overwhelmingly, it works, though not always. In 1991 a jumper in Montana was killed because he didn't reach for his ripcord until "ground rush," when it was too late. The entire thing was caught on video because it was a training jump. The consensus was he froze.
"The biggest hazard is probably the fire itself," Franz told me. "Felling burning snags, logs rolling down hillsides. Jumping is usually a relief. It's hot in the airplane, and sometimes you feel sick; then suddenly you're totally focused on what you're doing. It's a little dreamlike."
After our talk Franz took me for a quick tour of the jump loft. He showed me the rigging room where the chutes are packed, and the sewing room, and the weight room. Afterward we returned to the conference table, and he popped a short tape into the VCR. It was quick and unprofessional but highly dramatic. It showed a jump crew working a fire at night, right on the line. At one point a sawyer was cutting down a huge ponderosa, and his saw was halfway through the trunk when flames started pouring out like liquid. The tree was hollowed out by fire, it turned out, and was drawing like a chimney. The sawyer kept cutting; the flames kept spurting; eventually the tree fell.
As I left, I asked Franz—against all hope—if there were any fires around for me to see. He told me I'd just missed a good one. An older couple from Pennsylvania had been towing a car behind their RV, and the car got a flat tire; sparks started a fire front two miles wide. Six thousand acres, a million dollars to put out.
"I suspect the government will try to collect too," he said. "Try the dispatch office; they'll know what's going on."
The dispatch office for the Boise National Forest was a trailer east of the airfield. "I just came from BIFC," I told the young woman behind the desk. "I'm a reporter. Are there any fires?"
I felt a little bad asking the question. She didn't blink. "Seven hundred acres as of midnight last night," she said, spreading a map of Idaho out on the table. "Lightning-started, wind-driven, with three helicopters and twenty-two crews. It's called the Flicker Creek fire. They've called in a type one overhead team."
A type one overhead team is called in only when a fire is really bad or is expected to get really bad. The Flicker Creek fire was in steep terrain with extremely dry fuels and strong winds. Steep slopes help a fire because uphill fuels get preheated; winds help a fire because they make it burn hotter and push it across the land. A seven-hundred-acre fire could jump to seven thousand or even seventy thousand in no time at all.
An hour later I was driving north on Highway 21 in my green fire-retardant Nomex pants and yellow fire shirt. In the back seat were a yellow plastic hard hat and a fiberglass and aluminum fire shelter. The shelter is a pup tent that comes in a small pouch with belt loops. It reflects radiant heat, reducing what would be a 1,000-degree fire to 120 degrees or so. I would be assigned a public relations person when I got to the fire camp, the ranger told me. I would be fed and I would be lodged in a tent if I didn't have one. Tomorrow morning a helicopter would take me into the fire line.
I breezed past some bored Forest Service guards and turned off Highway 21, into the hills.
Flicker Creek is one of hundreds of small creeks that cut through the steep, dry hills of the Boise National Forest. Most of the land is grass and rocks and sagebrush, with heavy stands of ponderosa on the north slopes and in the drainages. Flicker Creek empties into the North Fork of the Boise River, which quickly joins the Middle Fork and continues on to fill the Arrowrock and Lucky Peak reservoirs. The entire West was seven years into one of the worst droughts since the 1870s, so both reservoirs were severely depleted. Arrowrock had been reduced to a muddy brook that you could practically jump across.
After twenty miles of rough driving, the road leveled off along the North Fork of the Boise. There was plenty of water up here—or so it looked—and the river was fast and lined with big, open stands of ponderosa. The fire camp was in a huge meadow called Barber Flats that ran alongside the North Fork of the Boise. Hundreds of bright nylon tents were pitched in the yellowed grass. A helicopter thumped over a ridgeline, trailing a retardant bucket. Water trucks rumbled back and forth, spraying the dust down. Hotshot crews came and went, Indian file, or slept in the shade, or sharpened their tools. Some were black with dirt; others looked as if they'd just arrived. They all had on the same green and yellow Nomex that I wore and big lug-soled boots.
I parked my car between the trucks and water tankers and searched out the information desk. The public affairs people knew I was coming, and I was pointed toward a large, deep-voiced man named Frank Carroll. "You'll need boots if you want to go out on the line," he told me. "You'll need water bottles; you'll need food; you'll need gloves. I'll set you up after dinner. You can pitch your tent anywhere you like. People get going around five in the morning; make sure you're at breakfast and ready to go by then."
I thanked him and went off to get my gear set up. All around me, big, lean men and a few women went about their duties. I pitched my tent in tall grass behind a cabin that served as a command post and then wandered over toward the catering tent. Behind it was a full-size truck outfitted as a kitchen. Hotshot crews passed by it in line, taking plates of food from the young woman behind the window and then sitting down at folding tables under a canvas army tent. The woman was pretty and had a sheath knife on her belt. I tried to pretend I belonged there, and she loaded my plate up with steak and carrots and mashed potatoes and salad and two slices of white bread.
I took a seat by myself at a corner table and watched the crews come and go, talking loudly, eating fast. Most of the fire fighters were young white men, sinewy and unshaved. There was a scattering of women among them, but the women were treated—as far as I could tell—no differently from anyone else. I didn't think they would be discriminated against so much as subjected to one form of gallantry or another, but they weren't. Everyone seemed to be too tired and hungry to notice the opposite sex. (This turned out to be emphatically untrue.) Furthermore, beneath the baggy clothes and grimy faces it was hard to tell who was what.
The Indians and Latinos generally had their own crews. It was a reflection of demographics more than anything else: Twenty men from Browning, Montana, are likely to be Blackfeet, not white; twenty men taken off the farm crews in the Snake River valley are likely to be Latino, not Indian. It's the Indian crews, the caterer told me, that can really clean out a food truck. "They'll eat anything that's not nailed down," she said. The convicts eat sweets and spicy foods because they can't get much of that in prison. The white `shot crews are the most health-conscious: They eat a lot of fruits and vegetables; some won't even touch meat.
That was hard to imagine, because the government food contracts were defined by how much protein—meat, in other words—was provided per person per meal. Everyone gets four ounces of meat at breakfast, seven ounces at lunch, and ten to sixteen ounces at dinner. Everything else—vegetables, grains, fruit—was considered a condiment and didn't figure into the equation. It's a lot better than it used to be, though. Back in the dark ages of fire fighting—before women, before showers, before Nomex—the crews subsisted mostly on ham. Ham and eggs, ham sandwiches, fried ham. Catering trucks were essentially big meat lockers with ham hanging in them, and maybe some Wonder bread. Back in those days the hotshots wore T-shirts that said, "When forests burn, pigs die."
After dinner I sat in on the planning session. It was held under a ponderosa pine by the dirt parking area. The entire overhead team was there, identifiable by the fact that they weren't dirty and weren't wearing Nomex. They were trained together and used on the Flicker Creek fire as interchangeable parts of a network called the Incident Command System. The system is based on the idea that any person trained for a certain job—logistics chief, information officer, helibase manager—can perform that job for any agency, in any situation. Overhead teams are made up of people from a dozen different government agencies and are pulled in from all over the country. You might find an incident commander from Georgia and an air operations branch director from Colorado and a safety officer from the next town over. There are seventeen type one overhead teams in the country, and they mainly fight fires, but they have also been effective on other catastrophes: oil spills in Alaska; hurricanes in Florida; earthquakes in Mexico. An overhead team was sent to clean up the Valdez oil spill, for example, and the system worked so smoothly that it was copied by both the Exxon Corporation and the U.S. military. A fire camp with an overhead team, in fact, can put two people in the field for every one person acting as support—a ratio roughly twenty times as efficient as the military's.
I went to bed when the five hundred fire fighters did, at dark. The only noise was the continuous rumble of the generators. The planning session had brought bad news, in a way: The fire was cooperating almost too quickly. A thirty-acre spot fire had started in light fuels on the south front but had been contained by three crews. Seven type two crews—less experienced than hotshots and usually used for mopping up—had cut line all the way down to the river, farther than expected. The winds were dying down, and unless they picked up again, the fire would be contained within days.
A fire camp is never completely still. All night long I was aware of the movement of men. They walked past, packed equipment, coughed, spat. Around four in the morning the sounds were so continuous that I woke up even before my watch alarm went off. It was still dark, and the camp undulated with human forms and occasional headlamps. Crews were packing their line gear, drifting toward the catering tent, clustering around the big stand-up kerosene heaters set up at intervals in the field. It was cold, maybe in the twenties. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and pulled on several sweaters and my boots—I had to wear leather on my feet in the helicopter, for some reason—and hustled toward the lights of the tent.
The person assigned to me was Bill Casey, a type two safety officer from the Boise area. He was a strong, clear-eyed man in his late forties who directed the local Bureau of Land Management district and was also qualified to command a type two overhead team. (A type two team handles smaller fires, but operates the same way.) He had bagged thirty elk in the past thirty-two years of hunting them, he said. His father hunts with him and can still shoulder fifty pounds of elk meat, at age seventy-one. Casey is part Blackfeet; he has dead-straight gray hair and brown eyes and a handsome, open face.
"We're a little overstaffed because the fire didn't do what we expected," he admitted as we sat in his truck at the helibase.
"What did you expect the fire to do?" I asked.
"Well." He chose his words carefully. "The guys don't want to see the forests burn, but on the other hand, they want to have a good, productive summer. They like to have two to three weeks on a fire and then move on to another one. In that sense, it's disappointing to have the fire lay down so fast."
Excerpted from FIRE by SEBASTIAN JUNGER. Copyright © 2001 by Sebastian Junger. Excerpted by permission.
|BLOWUP: WHAT WENT WRONG AT STORM KING MOUNTAIN (1994)||43|
|THE WHALE HUNTERS (1995)||57|
|ESCAPE FROM KASHMIR (1996)||73|
|KOSOVO'S VALLEY OF DEATH (1998)||95|
|DISPATCHES FROM A DEAD WAR (1999)||111|
|COLTER'S WAY (1999)||147|
|THE FORENSICS OF WAR (1999)||155|
|THE TERROR OF SIERRA LEONE (2000)||175|
|THE LION IN WINTER (2001)||199|
Barnes & Noble.com Science & Nature editor Laura Wood met Sebastian Junger at his New York City restaurant, The Half King. This interview was conducted later via email.
Barnes & Noble.com: In the introduction to Fire you make an interesting observation about humans' fascination with danger. Rather than simply a morbid fascination, you speculate that instead there is a feeling of amoral awe. Can you elaborate on that?
Sebastian Junger: Humans are curious, and I think that curiosity can be mistaken for lack of compassion. A fatal car accident or a forest fire or war -- or a human birth, for that matter -- are rare events to witness. As uncomfortable as these things can make us, in some ways we should consider ourselves lucky to have been at the right spot at the right time. We can learn a tremendous amount from these things and apply them to our lives in ways that could be very positive. The criterion I use is: Am I actually making a situation worse -- am I increasing the total amount of human suffering in the world -- by doing what I'm doing? Clearly, turning my head to see a car accident doesn't hurt anyone, but taking photographs at a private funeral might. One is immoral and the other amoral and, possibly, a source of understanding.
B&N.com: As you point out in the title essay, "Fire," smoke jumpers don't exactly make a huge salary (I love the calculation that the actual jump earns them 21 cents!), but since it's so competitive there are obviously people who would rather risk their lives than make more money sitting behind a desk.
SJ: Frankly, I can't think of something that should be less interesting to a 22-year-old than money. The 22-year-olds who have lots of money -- movie stars, heiresses, the occasional musical genius -- invariably seem to lead tragic, unfulfilled lives. That a 22-year-old would prefer -- for a few years, at least -- to jump out of airplanes and put out fires seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world. Of course, there's a time in a person's life to stop doing those things, but that comes much, much later. Ask smoke jumpers if they're happy. Then ask a 22-year-old behind a desk in an office if they're happy. Take their blood pressure. Check their pulse. Ask how much they drink or smoke, and whether they are happy with the relationship they're in. Then decide which is the richer life.
B&N.com: Physical danger is one thing, but there are other kinds of dangerous pursuits. Writing itself can be thought of as dangerous. What do you think the risks of writing are?
SJ: There are risks to writing, mainly failure. The other risk is wasting your time. Think of all the interesting things you could have been doing -- like working as a smoke jumper -- while you were at home struggling to find something interesting to say. Writing isn't an end in itself, like yoga. It's a way to express ideas. If you haven't yet acquired the ideas to express, you're risking all kinds of things by pursuing a career in writing. Get dirty and come back to it later.
Sebastian Junger Catches Fire
From the September/October 2001 issue of Book magazine.
Sebastian Junger’s bedroom -- the one in his parents’ house, where he still sleeps from time to time -- looks out on a lush, verdant landscape. Above a small desk are the bows and arrows he crafted when he used to build lean-tos in the woods to see how long he could survive in the wild. There are summer camp photos here, books about Native American tribes and aboriginal peoples, as well as one book Junger no longer needs -- about how to make a living as a professional writer.
This is where Junger grew up -- on a tree-lined lane in a Boston suburb, where SUVs careen around cul-de-sacs. Here, Junger wrote some of his first stories, in Belmont, Massachusetts, founded in 1630 and known as "the town of homes," where every house looks like a bed-and-breakfast.
It’s only a half-hour drive between Belmont and Gloucester, Massachusetts. But that distance defines the contradiction of Junger. Gloucester, America’s oldest seaport town, was founded in 1623. It is a partly quaint, partly hardscrabble village where muscular fishermen shoot pool, glug Budweiser, and listen to the Allman Brothers Band on the jukebox in a bar called the Crow’s Nest. It is the town from which the crew of the Andrea Gail set off on a fishing expedition in 1991 and never returned. That tale was chronicled in Junger’s 1997 book, The Perfect Storm. Junger, with his permanent five o’clock shadow, weatherbeaten good looks, loping gait, and vaguely punch-drunk patter, could pass for an able-bodied seaman in a Gloucester oceanside bar. Junger might have liked to come from here. But he didn’t.
Straight Out of Belmont
"It was a hard place for him to be," John Vaillant says of Belmont. Vaillant has known Junger since the two were five years old (they attended grade school together). "It was really staid and suburban and prosperous and extremely quiet. He felt like a Martian there."
"He’s always had troubles with the fact that this is the suburbs, and an elegant house in the suburbs is not what he likes," says Junger’s mother, Ellen Sinclair.
In Belmont, Sinclair sits in her living room with her husband, Miguel Junger. The Junger house is filled with antiques and books. One shelf is stacked with volumes about fine artists; another contains leather-bound antique manuscripts inherited from Miguel’s family, who lived in a passel of European countries. Miguel, a retired physicist who ran a consulting company and taught at MIT, is currently reading three books in three languages (he speaks six): One, Peter Nichols’s A Voyage for Madmen, was purchased for Sebastian. Inside it, he has written the following inscription: "For Sebastian, my good shipmate. From the ancient mariner, Miguel."
"We live very, very well, very comfortably," says Sinclair, an artist whose family used to own and operate an amusement park in Canton, Ohio. "But Sebastian doesn’t like this house."
The Perfect Dorm
Sebastian Junger ("Seb" to his buddies), age 39, war reporter, bestselling author, is heading home to his Manhattan apartment to pack for Macedonia. Vanity Fair is sending him to investigate the looming conflict between the Slavic majority and the Albanian minority, as well as the human trafficking there. Loping up the stairs of his Lower East Side walk-up, Junger stops to greet a workman in a white undershirt and soiled jeans.
"You go on vacation," the man says, smiling.
"No, no," Junger says, intent on making his point. "Not vacation. I’m going on assignment."
"Vacation." The man smiles again.
"Not vacation," Junger repeats. "Work."
Junger walks with the purpose and determination of a man who thinks all eyes are upon him but will not allow himself to be distracted. He has a focus and intensity -- which clash with his predilection for self-deprecation -- suggestive of someone who recently discovered he has a secret power but is still uncertain of what it is or how he can harness it.
Arriving on the third floor, Junger slaps loudly on a door.
"Hey!" he shouts, still slapping. The apartment belongs to journalist John Falk. Junger and Falk recently co-wrote a screenplay with Scott Anderson, author of The Man Who Tried to Save the World. The screenplay, which concerns the three writers’ experiences in Bosnia when they were mistaken for CIA agents, was sold to Intermedia. The original title, Risk, has now been changed to Springtime in Sarajevo.
"He usually sleeps during the day," Junger says of Falk. "I want to freak him out."
He rings the bell a few times.
"Hey, what’s the matter? You chicken?"
"I guess he’s not there," Junger says, somewhat disappointed, and strolls over to his place. According to Junger’s agent, Stuart Krichevsky, The Perfect Storm sold more than 600,000 copies in hardcover and over 2 million in paperback; the paperback rights sold for $1.2 million, the film rights for $500,000. The Wolfgang Petersen-directed film starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Diane Lane was the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2000, raking in approximately $180 million. People has tagged Junger one of the sexiest men alive. Oprah has drooled over him. Fire, a collection of Junger’s articles -- mostly previously published -- about Idaho smoke jumpers, Afghani rebels, the Caribbean’s last whaler, and other people involved in dangerous activities in the world’s hot spots, is rolling out this fall.
"Things have gone very well and very smoothly for him," says Anderson. "Whether it’s prescience or luck, he’s repeatedly in the right place at the right time."
Nevertheless, Junger’s apartment is sparse and unassuming, more Gloucester than Belmont, more skid row than Gloucester. It’s a cozy two-bedroom (in any city other than New York, this would be called a one-bedroom), and it looks as if it’s still awaiting the next shipment of moving boxes. The living room contains three pieces of furniture -- a mushy couch the color of a very thin gravy, a chair and a table, atop which is a chessboard and a gag lighter in the shape of a bikini-clad woman (the bikini lights up when you flick it). A window is propped open with a hatchet that his sister Carlotta -- now an art director for a London publisher -- once found in the woods.
Junger divides his stereo equipment between the living room and his office; in the living room, there’s a Sony Discman, in the office, a boom box. In the living room, wooden crates house several dozen cassette tapes, most of them hand-labeled (artists include Harry Belafonte, U2, Los Lobos, Bruce Springsteen, and Portishead). CDs, some out of their cases, are stacked haphazardly on the floor. So are printouts of articles about Macedonia downloaded from the Web. There’s a smattering of artwork on the floor and the walls -- photographs and paintings by some of his friends, a couple of iron curiosities he found on the beach at Cape Cod and on the streets of New York.
The bedroom is sparser. True, the mattress is no longer on the floor (a recently purchased bed frame is a concession to his girlfriend, a science journalist). But aside from one of his mother’s paintings and a half-read copy of Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau, it’s basically the only thing in the room.
The most cluttered room is the office. A low shelf filled with reference books. A desk strewn with papers. A laptop. News clippings tacked to the walls -- an obituary of a matador, a picture of a sinking oil tanker. Here and there, other odd items: a temporary ID from Afghanistan, maps -- some on the walls, some rolled up and shoved into corners -- family pictures, snapshots with curling corners depicting Junger, arms around his buddies. (Note to burglars: The checkbooks are lying on the floor.) The window above the desk looks out onto a seedy, profoundly unspectacular New York cityscape -- a dingy Mexican restaurant, cluttered little grocery stores, wholesale clothing shops, their wares spilling onto the sidewalks. "Luxury just isn’t interesting," Junger says. "I really don’t buy expensive things. They just depress me; they always have." (Adam Langer)
Posted October 2, 2012
Posted September 16, 2002
Some of Junger's exploits are compelling, while the others drone on and on with violent and repetive prose. Junger has certainly led a dangerous life, however the drama and excitement of each treacherous voyage does not translate well in this book. He should have copied his excellent technique in "The Perfect Storm" by fleshing out the first story about firefighters to fill the whole book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 26, 2002
Sebastian Junger has covered stories that other writers don't dare to cover. Fire is another excellent example of the dangerous work that he does so well. This book should be on any readers' shelf.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 22, 2001
Not up to the focus in 'The Perfect Storm'; but I knew that going into it. This pre-9/11 work certainly helps open our eyes to a need to better understand global affairs - perhaps a few years too late. Down with the Monroe Doctrine and up with 'Seb' and authors like him for helping us 'get out of the box'.....AT LAST. Looking forward to his insights as ABC's war correspondent - especially the 'behind-the-scene' stuff.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 1, 2001
The most interesting stories were the first ones on fighting fires, the one on Sierra Leone, and the last one on Afghanistan, which provides some insight into the type of war being fought there. Junger is really an adventurous person who can bring the tension and urgency, when it exists, to the reader.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 5, 2001
Posted October 13, 2001
The book is a little interesting, but drones on documentary style of a few specific examples of extreme situations, but really leads nowhere. Usually a book is either entertaining, educational, or purely captivating in subject, and this book, in contrast to the excellent 'Perfect Storm', fails on those accounts. I unfortunately bought the tape which was also dry and dronely read. The stories came across to me as little more than an author facinated by the horrific but with little story line to follow. Perhaps a specific account of a single firefighter or a Kosovo survivor could have told the same story in a more interesting fashion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 27, 2001
I first encountered Sebastian Junger in reading the `Perfect Storm.¿ As an award winning journalist he has honed his meticulous investigative prowess and prose. At this point in history, especially American history, Junger¿s writings on Afghanistan are timely. I also found his viewpoints on the genocide in Kosovo amazing. I also recommend Brad Steiger¿s `Alien Rapture¿ which is also timely as we are on the brink of WW III, using Top Secret black technology. I read his bio on mindsurfing.com and was quite impressed. Junger does a remarkable job, both unforgettable and comprehensible, of explaining diverse human phenomena in `Fire¿ and I will surely look forward to his future non-fiction books. `Fire¿ is highly recommended by this reader.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 12, 2011
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Posted October 5, 2010
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Posted February 11, 2011
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Posted December 12, 2011
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Posted April 17, 2010
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Posted May 11, 2011
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