Old Men and Words

I spent last week without looking at a computer screen once.  I think it’s what old hymn writers referred to as “a foretaste of glory divine.”  Seriously.  In place of the screen, I read a book; no, not a Kindle, a book – Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. 

The book’s heart is the Mann Gulch fire of August 5, 1949.  Fifteen of our nation’s best smokejumpers stepped into the Montana sky that day; all but three of our best perished.  The catastrophe was over in less than two hours.  The book’s eyes are those of Maclean.  What the man with a river running through him came to see overwhelmed the last fourteen years of his life. 

Norman Maclean searched for “the carefully measured grains of consolation needed to transform catastrophe into tragedy.”  Tragedy - what Maclean regarded as “the most composed art form.” 

I fit the numerous impressions this story had on me in my mind’s Yahtzee cup, gave it a swirl, and rolled a 2:

1)    1)Maclean wrote the words in a different time zone: slow time.  Authors these days complete a manuscript in six to nine months; often, these days, it shows.  Maclean’s language is redolent; the smell of allowing words and phrases to audition for fourteen years and in the end, only the best took the stage.  I read Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, written immediately upon descending from catastrophe on Everest.  Krakauer wrote breathless; Maclean wrote beautiful. 

2)   2)“…catastrophe into tragedy” is now a phrase that haunts me like waters.  Be it elite smokejumpers trying to outrun a fire and losing the race or children dying daily for lack of clean water, catastrophe threatens to burn the oxygen from our lives, causing us not so much to doubt there is a God, but to doubt whether in this cockeyed world that God is good.  Can we, those of us who believe we are storytellers and poets and preachers and minstrels and dancers, can we look for those “measured grains” and take the slow time to tell those tales?  For, as the old man says, “A story that honors the dead realistically partly atones for their sufferings.”  In our victorious triumphalism, we seek to save the world.  Could it be that we are asked not so much to save the world, but to tell the world’s stories and "take care not to lie or be sentimental"?  That is a question only answered, I believe, in slow time.  


  1. So when does this book of yours come out?

  2. Norman is a great story teller. I wrote my reflections on the story, it's a significant date to do such a thing.


  3. What a lovely post to have sitting in my feed reader :) I'd nearly forgotten how much I loved Norman McLean's writing, and I think you've inspired me to go read more of it. Krakauer is lovely, too, but your description of his style is quite apt. Thanks!