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Young Men & Fire
By Norman Maclean
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 1972 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
IN 1949 THE SMOKEJUMPERS were not far from their origins as parachute jumpers turned stunt performers dropping from the wings of planes at county fairs just for the hell of it plus a few dollars, less hospital expenses. By this time they were also sure they were the best firefighters in the United States Forest Service, and although by now they were very good, especially against certain kinds of fires, they should have stopped to realize that they were newcomers in this ancient business of fighting forest fires. It was 1940 when the first parachute jump on a forest fire was made and a year later that the Smokejumpers were organized, so only for nine years had there been a profession with the aim of taking on at the same time three of the four elements of the universe—air, earth, and fire—and in a simple continuous act dropping out of the sky and landing in a treetop or on the face of a cliff in order to make good their boast of digging a trench around every fire they landed on by ten o'clock the next morning. In 1949 the Smokejumpers were still so young that they referred affectionately to all fires they jumped on as "ten o'clock fires," as if they already had them under control before they jumped. They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.
It is true, though, that no technical advance was to influence the Forest Service's methods of spotting and fighting wildfires as much as the airplane, which arrived early in the century about the same time as the Forest Service (1905). Two world wars hastened the union between airplanes and fire-fighting. By 1917 chief forester Henry S. Graves was conferring with the chief of the Army Air Corps about the possibility of army planes flying patrol missions over western forests. By 1925 the Forest Service itself started using planes from which fires could be spotted more quickly and thoroughly than from scattered lookouts. By 1929 planes were dropping supplies to firefighters, and it seemed that soon firefighters themselves would be dropped, but psychological difficulties and difficulties with equipment held back the development of parachute jumping on wildfires. It was only after several years of experimenting and training that the first parachute jump on a forest fire was made, one of the two jumpers being Earl Cooley, who was to be the spotter on the C-47 that carried the Smoke-jumpers to the Mann Gulch fire and, as spotter, tapped each jumper on the left calf as the signal to step into the sky over Mann Gulch.
The chief psychological roadblock holding up the acceptance of parachute jumping by the government and the public itself was the belief that most parachute jumpers were at least a little bit nuts and the high probability that a few of them were. In 1935, Evan Kelley, of the Forest Service's Region One (with headquarters in Missoula, Montana, where in a few years one of the biggest Smokejumper bases was to be established), rejected the possibility of dropping men on fires from parachutes by saying: "The best information I can get from experienced fliers is that all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy—just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn't be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking." There is no doubt that among those most visibly touched with the Icarus complex were jumpers off wings of planes at county fairs or stunt-men doing the same kind of work for movies. Only a year before Kelley had made his psychological analysis of parachute jumpers, Frank Derry, a stuntman in California and short of cash, got the idea of jumping from a plane in a parachute, dressed as Santa Claus. He made a perfect landing, pleased the local Los Angeles merchants, quit factory work for good, joined a flying circus barnstorming the West, and became one of the nine original Forest Service Smokejumpers, one of the Forest Service's finest jump instructors, and one of its best riggers, making important improvements in both the parachute and the jump suit.
Most people have a touch of the Icarus complex and, like Smokejumpers, wish to appear on earth from the sky. In my home town of Missoula, Montana, older brothers all over town trained their younger brothers to jump from garage roofs, using gunnysacks for parachutes. The older brothers argued that the younger brothers should do the jumping because, being smaller, they would take longer to reach the ground and so give their gunnysacks more time to open and soften the landing. From the start, Smokejumpers had to have a lot of what we have a little of, and one way all men are born equal is in being born at least a little bit crazy, some being more equal than others. A number of these latter were needed to get the Smokejumpers started, and a certain number more have always been needed to keep it going.
Fortunately, many of those powered by the Icarus complex, unlike Icarus, are gifted mechanically in odd ways and have long worked on problems connected with landing safely. Even the most sublime of oddballs, Leonardo da Vinci, had studied the problem of safely landing men on earth from the sky. But it wasn't until 1783 that the French physicist Louis-Sebastien Lenormand made the first successful parachute jump from a tower, and even in 1930 the parachute had many shortcomings as a means of aerial transport, some of which were eliminated or reduced by none other than Frank Derry, the Santa Claus parachute jumper who was also gifted mechanically. One of the parachute's greatest shortcomings as aerial transport had been that, being a parabolic object, it drops with a bell-like motion. As it descends, air is forced up into it and, since there are no openings in the parachute through which the air can escape, it rocks up on one side until the surplus air is released, then swings to the other side until it tips out the excess air it has accumulated on its return trip. As a result, before the parachute could be a reasonably safemeans of getting from the sky to the earth, the rocking had to be taken out of its flight and some means of steering it had to be devised so Smokejumpers and their supplies could be dropped on a designated spot near a fire instead of scattered all over the nearby mountains.
The parachute developed by Frank Derry became the standard Smokejumpers' parachute for many years and is the parachute used by the crew that dropped on the Mann Gulch fire. The rocking motion had been reduced by three openings through which air could be released—an opening in the top and two slots on opposite sides. On the outside of the chute attached to the slots were "tails," pieces of nylon that acted as rudders to guide the flow of air coming through the slots, and to them guide lines were attached so that the direction of the flight was ultimately determined by the jumper. Not a highly safe and sensitive piece of machinery, but better than Icarus had. It had a speed of seven or eight knots, and, as soon as a jumper could, he turned his face to the wind and looked over his shoulder to see, among other things, that he didn't smash into a cliff.
Frank Derry, his two brothers, and others of the early Smokejumpers not only greatly improved the parachute but soon were developing a safer jump suit, one designed especially for jumping in mountainous timber country—football helmet with heavy wire-mesh face mask, felt-lined suit, and "shock absorbers" such as ankle braces, athletic supporters, back and abdominal braces, and heavy logger boots (the White logger boots from Spokane, Washington, the best). Frank Derry's two brothers were helpful, but staying put was not part of their calling and they weren't long with the Smokejumpers. Frank, however, lasted much longer, then bought a bar nearby and became his own best customer.
So far it has all been the jump in smokejumping and nothing about the smoke or fire at the end. In 1949 a fair number of old-timers in the Forest Service still believed that God means there to be only one honest way to get to a forest fire and that is to walk your guts out. To these old-timers the Smokejumpers were from a circus sideshow, although in fact they were already on their way to becoming the best firefighting outfit in the Forest Service.
Basic movements in the history of the Forest Service had helped put the Smokejumpers by 1949 on their way to being the best. The United States Forest Service was officially established in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and Governor Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania, eastern outdoorsmen who knew and loved the earth in its wondrous ways when left to itself and given a chance. Their policy of acquiring and protecting some of the earth's most beautiful remaining parts became the Forest Service's primary purpose. Then came 1910, the most disastrous fire year on record. In western Montana and Idaho 3 million acres were left behind as charred trees and ashes that rose when you walked by, then blew away when you passed. This transformation occurred largely in two days, August 20 and 21, when thousands of people thought the world was coming to an end, and for eighty-seven people it did.
I remember these two days very well. My family was on summer vacation, camped in tents on an island between forks of the Bitterroot River. The elders in my father's church had become alarmed and had come in a wagon to rescue us. A team of the elders waded out to our island, crossed hands, and in this cradle carried my mother back to the wagon. My father and I followed, my father holding me with one hand and his fishing rod with the other and I also holding my fishing rod with my other hand. It was frightening, as what seemed to be great flakes of white snow were swirling to the ground in the heat and darkness of high noon. I was seven years old and might have cried for our tent, which we had to leave behind, except I thought my mother and our two rods would make it to the wagon.
Since 1910, much of the history of the Forest Service can be translated into a succession of efforts to get firefighters on fires as soon as possible—the sooner, the smaller the fire. If a campfire left burning can be caught soon enough, a man with a shovel can bury it. If the fire is a lightning fire burning in a dead tree, a man will need an ax to drop the burning tree and will still need the shovel to dig the shallow trench into which he is going to drop and bury it. If two Smokejumpers had reached the Mann Gulch fire the afternoon it started, they would at least have kept it under control until a larger crew arrived. Before the Mann Gulch fire was finally put under control five days later, there were 450 men on it and they didn't have as much to do with stopping it as did cliffs and rock slides.
So history went from trails and walking and pack mules to roads and trucks up every gulch to four-wheel drives where there weren't any roads to planes and now to helicopters, which can go about anywhere and do anything when they get there or on the way. The Smokejumpers are a large part of this history. Graphs prove it.
The two graphs reproduced in this chapter are a part of statistical studies by Charles P. Kern, fire coordinator of the Forest Service's Region One, and assistant fire coordinator Ronald Hendrickson of the variations in number and size of forest fires in Region One from 1930 to 1975. The first graph, "Total Number of Fires per Year," shows just what an old-time woodsman who has long fought fires would expect—that there has been no significant trend either up or down in the number of wildfires during those forty-five years. There has been a bad fire year now and then, as in the late thirties and early sixties, and there probably always will be now and then, let's hope never as bad as 1910, but on a statistical curve lightning seems to be a fairly fixed feature of the universe, as does the number of people who are careless with campfires. The result is no discernible downtrend in the number of wildfires.
The graph entitled "Number of Fires Rated Class C and Larger" tells a very different story and shows clearly the coming and continuing presence of the Smokejumpers. The number of fires rated Class C (ten to ninety-nine acres) and larger in Region One, figured as a percentage of the total fires per year, plunged sharply as the Smokejumpers became an organization in the early 1940s, then made its last sharp rise to almost 9 percent with the coming of World War II when the Smokejumpers became a depleted operation, but plunged just as precipitously when the war was over and veterans filled up the crews of Smokejumpers, who again were stopping fires before they spread far. Since 1945 there has been no year when 5 percent of the fires became Class C or larger—thirty years is surely a trend, no doubt one that cannot be ascribed solely to the Smokejumpers but one that has to be a great tribute to them.
Although this trend has to be a tribute in part to the fixed theory of doing everything possible between heaven and earth to get firefighters on a fire as fast as possible, what also makes a world of difference is the kind of men who get there first. The requirements used in selecting the first crews of Smokejumpers give a rough profile of the kind of men the Forest Service thought were needed to join sky with fire, and these same requirements should have given the jumpers some idea of their life expectancy. They had to be between twenty-one and twenty-five, in perfect health, not married, and holding no job in the Forest Service as important as ranger. So basically they had to be young, tough, and in one way or another from the back country. And the Forest Service carried no insurance on them.
It is not hard to imagine why the Smokejumpers from the start have had several visible bloodlines. With their two major activities—to jump from the sky and fight fire when they land—they have always drawn professional adventurers. The three Derry brothers are good examples. They were important in giving shape and substance to the early history of the Smokejumpers, and, from the nature of things, the Smokejumpers will probably always draw their quota of adventurers. On weekends, they are likely to rent a Cessna 180 and go jumping just for the hell of it; they try to make big money in the summer and some go to Honolulu and shack up for the winter, at night passing themselves off as natives to multinational female tourists or even to female natives. Othersspend the winters as ski instructors in Colorado or Utah or Montana, colder work in the day but probably not at night.
One might assume that most Smokejumpers come from the woods and after they are finished as jumpers join up for good with the United States Forest Service or some state agency supervising public lands or some private logging company—the Smokejumper base in Missoula is a magnet for tough young guys pointed toward the woods for life. Besides being the headquarters for Region One of the Forest Service, Missoula is also the home of the University of Montana, which has a powerful school of forestry. Any summer a highly select number of forestry school students are Smokejumpers—of the thirteen firefighters who died in Mann Gulch, five were forestry students at the University of Montana and two were forestry students at the University of Minnesota. Two of the three survivors had just finished high school and were also University of Montana students. Select, very good students, trained in the woods.
At best, though, there is very little chance of a longtime future in smokejumping. To start with, you are through jumping at forty, and for those who think of lasting that long there are only a few openings ahead, administrative or maintenance. But one thing that remains with Smokejumpers, no matter where they ultimately land, is the sense of being highly select for life and of belonging for life to a highly select outfit, somewhat like the Marines, who know what they are talking about when they speak of themselves as the proud and the few. Although many Smokejumpers never see each other after they leave the outfit, they remain members of a kind of fraternal organization that also has some dim ties seemingly with religion. Just being a first-class woodsman admits you almost anywhere into an international fraternity of sorts, and although you will meet only a few of your worldwide brotherhood, you will recognize any one of them when you see him swing an ax. Going a little up the fraternal ladder is being admitted to the Forest Service, and that is like belonging to the Masons or the Knights of Columbus; making the next step is becoming a Smokejumper, and that is like being a Shriner or Knight Templar. This kind of talk is going too far but not altogether in the wrong direction. It is very important to a lot of people to make unmistakably clear to themselves and to the universe that they love the universe but are not intimidated by it and will not be shaken by it, no matter what it has in store. Moreover, they demand something from themselves early in life that can be taken ever after as a demonstration of this abiding feeling.
Excerpted from Young Men & Fire by Norman Maclean. Copyright © 1972 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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