Mexico and Norman Maclean

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the departure lounge of the Puerto Escondido, Mexico airport (map) waiting for my flight to Mexico City, the first of four flight segments that would eventually get me back home to South Dakota. The Puerto Escondido airport is small, having one 7,400-foot runway with no taxiways. After landing, airplanes have to make a U-turn at the end of the runway and back-taxi to the single gate at the terminal, a small one-story building 3,200 feet from the beach with a great view of the Pacific Ocean.

I enjoyed the scenery for a while, watching the ocean, looking for whales, and people watching in the terminal which was filled mostly with Mexicans and only a few tourists. I usually like to watch airplanes take off and land, but there were none to see except for the arrival of the plane I eventually boarded.

proximity suit
Example of proximity suit

I knew a plane was about to land when I saw the small fire engine pull up near the terminal. It was a pickup with a slip-in foam unit. Standing on the back was a firefighter dressed in a shiny proximity suit, looking like he was ready to wade into flames. It was a hot day, with the temperature and the humidity both near 80.  I felt sorry for the firefighter who must have been sweating profusely in that PPE.

When the occasional announcement came over the speakers, first in Spanish and then in English, I would first attempt to decipher the Spanish version, using my meager vocabulary of Spanish words, and if that failed, as it usually did, I would try to understand the English translation. Spoken with a heavy accent, the second version was only a little easier to decipher.

We would be boarding in about an hour, but I was prepared for this moment. Nearing the end of a vacation at the beach, I brought plenty of reading material… seven books, four magazines, and several newspapers. I pulled them all out of my luggage, which consisted of one carry-on bag, and held them in my hand. I was looking at a Kindle 2 electronic reading device which can store 1,500 books.

I had downloaded all of that reading material wirelessly before I left. It takes about a minute to download a book–newspapers and magazines are even quicker.

I scrolled through the publications and selected the March 30, 2009 edition of The Nation magazine. I had never read The Nation, and figured that trying out a single copy of it for $0.49 on the Kindle 2 was low risk. If I hated it, no great loss.

Not knowing what to expect, I was surprised to find an excellent article by Philip Connors about Norman Maclean. Many wildland firefighters are familiar with Mr. Maclean (1902-1990), the author of the book Young Men and Fire, an icon among books about wildfire, published posthumously in 1992. It tells the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire and how 16 smoke jumpers initial attacked the fire, but only 13 went home.

Norman Maclean is the father of John N. Maclean, another well-know author who wrote Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal, and Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire.

The only book Norman Maclean wrote that was published during his lifetime was A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, published in 1976, which was adapted into the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt.

The Connors article in The Nation mentioned another Norman Maclean book that was new to me, published in 2008, The Norman Maclean Reader, which brings together previously unpublished materials and selections from his other two books.

Two quotes in the article from the Reader got my attention, and reminded me again of the work of the word artist. He did a lot of research in the 1950s on the Battle of Little Big Horn, where General Custer met his demise.  Here is a passage about the battle, referencing warriors and smokejumpers:

“In the dry grass on both hills are white scattered markers where the bodies were found, a special cluster of them just short of the top, where red terror closed in from behind and above and from the sides. The bodies were of those who were young and thought to be invincible by others and themselves. They were the fastest the nation had in getting to where there was danger, they got there by moving in the magic realm between heaven and earth, and when they got there they almost made a game of it. None were surer they couldn’t lose than the Seventh Cavalry and the Smokejumpers.”

And this one in the Reader is originally from Young Men and Fire and is from the part of the book after the burn over, when help has arrived.

“Nearly a half a mile away the [rescue] crew could hear Hellman shouting for water. In the valley of ashes there was another sound—the occasional explosion of a dead tree that would blow to pieces when its resin became so hot it passed the point of ignition. There was little left alive to be frightened by the explosions. The rattlesnakes were dead or swimming the Missouri. The deer were also dead or swimming or euphoric. Mice and moles came out of their holes and, forgetting where their holes were, ran into the fire. Following the explosion that sent the moles and ashes running, a tree burst into flames that almost immediately died. Then the ashes settled down again to rest until they rose in clouds when the crew passed by.”

I have never seen trees explode in a fire, but moving past that, Norman Maclean can paint a picture that can bring you to the scene.

The Norman Maclean passages are reprinted here with the permission of the University of Chicago Press.

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