Writing, Fighting Fire, and Your Pal, Jerry

Dear Readers:
I just read a review about my memoir, Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire, which I quote as it appears:
If you are going to read memoirs about fire fighters, here are the two you must start with:

Young Men and Fire by Norman McLean


Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire by Jerry D. Mathes

The first, is iconic and changed the entire trajectory of fire fighting, but often reads like a 1950’s political manifesto regarding firefighting. Which, to be fair, it was written in the 1950’s and was a draft found in the authors papers after his death. It was published with minimal editing.

The second, oh the second, was written by a wordsmith. A writer with a hard scrabble childhood, experience of a hard core laborer (firefighter, heavy equipment operator in cargo at the South Pole, deckhand in Alaska) and an MFA.

Jerry D. Mathes can tell a damn fine story.

This book reads like poetry. A hard edged, honests poem of family- the ones we are born into and the ones we create, the science of fire, the practicalities of the job of fire fighting and all the realities of being in the throes of fire, smoke, heat, and death.

I also tend to really dig people who live life out of order. Jerry D. Mathes started leaping (or rappelling) out of helicopters into fire when he was in his 40’s (he had been a ground firefighter before). Reading this story is reading of a man who made very conscious decisions regarding his career at a time when most people are already halfway done with their adulting. I find that fascinating.

‘The risks we took, we took with others. We never risked alone.'”

I don’t know this person, but I am both humbled and stunned to be included in the same breath with Norman Maclean. Young Men and Fire was one of the very first books I read on wildfire and often think of it because what he wrote still resonates in the wildland fire environment today. I taught the Mann Gulch Fire tragedy to incoming rookies and quoted extensively from Maclean’s book. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the influence of his book, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories or his collected essays in Norman Maclean (American Author Series) edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols. All influential on me as a writer and a person.
But wait. That’s not all. I am also humbled because I have read a lot of books on wildfire. Great books. Some by Norman Maclean’s son John, who I’ve had the pleasure to meet. So when a reader singles me out and puts me next to an iconic writer, I can’t help but blush. I am asked in interviews why I wrote this book. I feel like perhaps, Norman Maclean, and certainly like Apsley Cherry-Garrard – member of Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913 and author of The Worst Journey in the World, that we need to record these events to help others who come after us to know what to expect and to anticipate the adversity. To show them the struggle. Show how it can be done safely and avoid the mistakes we made and to remember the successes so as to recognize those elements in the field.
It is also to celebrate the strangers who become brothers and sisters along the way. Those hardworking folks who just wanted to do a good job, do something good for the community, for the land, pay their way for college or support their families. What’s not to celebrate? But to write about such a profession also means you write about the deaths of others so must write the elegiac. We are reminded too often how words must fail. So we do the best we know how. To write of the dead is to walk that line of romanticizing them, while trying to show the reader how they were in life. Like any of us they had moments of grace and stupidity. They were human, after all and the stupid stuff is what makes them endearing and the grace, well, you know, gives us all something to aspire to. I am sure Maclean grappled with this as he wrote about the doomed smokejumpers at Mann Gulch in the death dry Montana summer of 1949. To be sure, even with moments of endearing stupidity, they showed such moments of heroic grace to justify being romanticized a little.
Such a complexity of things as to why write and not least of which the underlying drive just to tell a story. Construct a narrative and hope it is well received. In that I have been fortunate.
As a beginning writer we look to the authors we admire and hope one day to be counted among them. To be placed next to them in the literary firmament. That has happened for me in this review. It is an exquisite joy. One I wish upon everyone who writes.
Your Pal,


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