The story began simply: ‘Don’t tell Mom’
Handsome Son gave me that look. “Don’t tell Mom.” Only out of his teens by a year or two, he’d just returned from two weeks fighting forest fires in northern Quebec looking, for all the world, like a man. It was disconcerting.
He’d been fighting a fire one day when he stepped into moss. He looked down and saw something a firefighter in the woods doesn’t want to see — fire running across the toe of his boot.
The very ground he was walking on was on fire.
His training kicked in. He backed out slowly, desperately trying to avoid any soft spot in the ground because if you go in up to your hip, you’re on fire. I didn’t tell his mother. Ever.
But Norman MacLean – no relation I’m aware of – decided he had to tell the story of the Aug. 5, 1949 fire in a remote little spit of land in Montana. That day, 15 men parachuted into Mann Gulch to fight a fire. They met another volunteer on the ground.
About two hours later three were alive, two more were dying horribly from burns.
The rest were gone. The story’s famous because the team leader stopped with the runaway fire, and its 100-metre high wall of fire, just 30 seconds behind him. Wagner ‘ Wag’ Dodge lit an escape fire, dropped face first into its hot ashes, and let the main fire burn past him.
He lived. So did two of the youngest members of the team, who outran the inferno. A third man missed getting to the top of the ridge by seconds. He died a day later.
No firefighter had done what Dodge did before. How he managed to avoid panic and think his way out of certain death has been the subject of academic study ever since.
But MacLean’s book, Young Men And Fire, is not a piece of dry, academic literature. It’s a page-turning delight. Good enough to be a bestseller and to earn a National Book Critic’s Award. Oh, and the same guy wrote A River Runs Through It. Brad Pitt was in the movie.
The book is a great bet if you’re looking for a summer read, if summer ever arrives, that is. Here are a few other suggestions. Consider this part two of my summer reading suggestions. Part one was two weeks ago in this space.
• 11-23-63. Yes, that’s a book title. It’s also the day American president John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. Author Stephen King tried something different with this one, mixing his macabre sense of storytelling with historical research.
“It was really strange at first, like breaking in a new pair of shoes,” he said later of the experience.
Mix time travel, horror and King’s wonderful sense of pacing and the 849 pages just seem to whip by. No, really.
• Buy-ology: Truth And Lies About Why We Buy. Author Martin Lindstrom spent three years and $7 million hooking people up to an MRI machine to see what their brains were doing when they encountered commercials, brand names and products. Ever wonder why the ear buds for Apple’s iPods and iPhones are white? It’s not an accident. Ditto the smell of Johnson’s Baby Powder. You think you’re making up your own mind? Lindstrom begs to differ.