"Autobiographies of great nations are written in three manuscripts – a book of deeds, a book of words, and a book of art.
Of the three, I would choose the latter as truest testimony." - Sir Kenneth Smith, Great Civilisations

"I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine." - Leo Tolstoy

I have never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think the pleasures of not writing are so
great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. - John Updike

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour
is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

R.E. Slater - Retelling the Story of Young Men and Fire (a short story and poems)

Retelling the Story
of Young Men and Fire

by R.E. Slater

Now we enter into a different kind of world, a world of slow time that accompanies grief and personal sorrow upon an inaccessible mountain marked by concrete stations of the cross. It is all that remains from the many erosions of wintry rains, snowy melts, and the slippery slides that have washed away the lonely ashes of Mann Gulch’s fiery deaths on a late summer's afternoon 0n August 5, 1949. What dramatic, devastating forces coincided to make the best of our young men as solitary, ashy bodies, burnt beyond recognition to be left unexplained in the mysteries of grief and pain? What memories ran through these young men as they raced for their lives against a fast-moving wall of heat leaving only loved ones behind to explain their catastrophe - how it came to be, the fatal choices they would make, and how it led them to their untimely deaths? How do we, as outside witnesses, transform this catastrophe into the measured grains of consolation so that we are no longer left with sorrow's tragedy? For too many times have we been held silent in our witness to death's unhallowed canvas that would prevent us from voicing our anger. Our disappointments. Or not permitted to voice out loud by a friend's mere presence or society's standards. Leaving us only with the feelings of emptiness, bereavement, deep loss, and sorrowing pain.

Dare we write this tragic story knowing that it is possible there may be no ending that can offer us consolation or absolution? That those connected with this ending may wish it lost forever in the strands of time? Lost from public inspection. Lost from scrutiny. Lost even to failing memory? But perhaps there may be an ending that can be told based upon a storyteller’s faith in seeking its truth, and in the seeking uncover its dramatic ending, so that it could be filled with a story that honors the dead. That might atone for their sufferings while adding to our own understanding at the plight these poor unfortunates found themselves cast upon on a fateful day as they raced for a hilltop that never would come. A day that when it comes would teach us immeasurable lessons through personal lost and horror.

For it was on the Missouri River, in the harshest wildlands of western Montana, that we enter into a survey of the universe’s most basic elements at work. To there discover the heavy winds of a stormy sky flowing unimpeded across the length of a mighty river’s wend till met by undaunted rocky ridges uplifted against shearing mountain cliffs. Cliffs that would cleave those winds into a dozen different down drafts flung off from the white-capped river waters far below to race headlong into unfamiliar gullies and mingling canyons, wild and alone. And there, churn into the deadly gases of hot furnace winds and towering walls of fire that would meet innocent boys intent on controlling its building rage. And though the element of water could not be used high up on those lost ridges, nor would the roiling skies above allow but one drop from its depleted rainstorms, it was here we find the willowy ranks of young men cast between the ages of 17 and 24 who would begin the hard work of flanking their relentless opponent. Who willingly shouldered their heavy iron shovels, the two-man whiplash of buck-toothed timber saws, and the fireman's resourceful Pulaski, that would soon be used to scour the earth to create the hard-won fire lines and many numerous fire breaks necessary to control a fire's rage hungry for the fuel of scrub and fallen limbs.

Bringing us to see yet another element in play here - that of the human spirit - adventurous, iron-willed, courageous, hopeful, as ever can be found in the youthful ranks of young men come of age as smokejumpers, themselves fearless and alone. Whose very lives would very soon be measured in mere minutes and seconds. Not in the days and weeks that they had once come to expect as a spreading wildfire danced through timber-dry conditions upon heavy, cleaving winds towards young men caught unawares of the seething, boiling firestorm brewing on the far slopes down below. A blowup that would shortly race through the hot, simmering canyonland, eating through its scrub and hillock as if its very walls had been set to act as a flinty chimney flue formed eons before to release its rage. Here then will we find the conflagration of five of the most basic elements of the universe - earth, wind, fire, water, and spirit - all combined in one intent and to one end.... That of the death and destruction, and imperiled will and survival, of fifteen brave young men caught unawares in a race only noble hearts may run and lose.

And so it is the task of the storyteller to search for a story that may at times not take on the form of a written work of art when remembering those spare remnant moments of life left to some tragic few. And yet it is left to him or her to uncover what a life may mean when measured out in the short arcs of pathos and struggle as it marches steady onwards towards certain death against a springtime of limericks and lyrics that would make up most of who we are, and what we have, and would have been. Is it too much to ask then of a past depleted life when inspecting his or her earlier moments lived, that it give back to us some sense of life’s final shape and design? Perhaps as proof that we inhabit a world of sublime truth fraught within a chaotic order seemingly found everywhere around and burgeoning with its insanities, sufferings and pains? That within this dark disorder we may come to find lives other-than-our-own that once sought for singular artistic expression that would draw on a mightier canvas when coloured in by life's deeper brush strokes of meanings and shades of intent? That could perhaps give significance to our meager lives when asking - or answering - the questions of “Who we are." "What we are." And the all-important, "Why we are?"

And if there is such a story it will take something of a storyteller to find it, to imagine it, to hear what impulses drove these young men to fight a raging fire that would very shortly turn into their own personal stories of travesty blown up with unimagined ferocity and astonishing quickness. And there perhaps find, within this tragedy, its further end-story that has lied within the bones of their ashes silently uncomposed and decomposing. He should probably be an old storyteller... at least one who is old enough to know that the problem of identity is always a problem and not just a problem of youth. And even old enough to know that the nearest anyone can ever come to finding himself at any given age is to find a story that somehow tells him about himself. What drives him. What keeps him in place. What moves his inmost being towards truth and unseen hidden beauty. For it is in the world of slow-time, beset by death and grief, that truth and art may be found as one element in the most ancient expressions of mankind's corporeal humanity. Of the what, and the why, and the who, that we are. And to which we owe our breath and existence to as we each one move in our own slow-time and steady beat towards life's finality and completion. This then is the art and the craft of the storyteller forever bound with his few salient readers in somber journey's discovery of life's ancient rhymes and prismatic mysteries considered all-the-more divine when wrapped in humanities greatest of struggles... that of fearlessness, desperation and survival.

- Adapted by R.E. Slater
December 23, 2010
rev. April 6, 2012

from Norman Maclean’s (c. 1902-1990) story,
"Young Men & Fire," Chicago Press, 1992 (pp 142-146)

@copyright R.E. Slater Publications
all rights reserved

One of thirteen Stations of the Cross

A rescue ridge too far

Two unlikely survivors who were the youngest and most inexperienced, who had raced from behind
their fellow firefighters in a maddening dash for life itself. One of the two leads the rescue team out
from Mann Gulch while the other gazes back upon the fire's horrific ravages from 12 hours before
when caught in a massive conflagration uniting all fires into one deadly cauldron.

Smokejumpers parachuting down upon a forest fire

Mann Gulch boiling in the summer airs

After reading Norman Maclean's studied tragedy of a fated crew of Smokejumpers stationed in Missoula, Montana, I knew that I must write a poem about the very thing of fire itself - but not simply of fire, but of the God of fire that speaks through holy flames to so fragile a creation formed from the bowels of mother earth in the sublimest of terms. And when I had completed this task I knew immediately that I must then write a second, much longer poem about the Mann Gulch tragedy itself so that my earlier poem could be better understood when framed in the blood, sweat, and tears of a hallowed firefighter crew's misfortune. My reasoning went along the lines of how does one write of the God of creation and expect readers to understand this God of whom you write unless it be through the flared nostrils and terrified breaths of those who have come close to the hand of God and suffered terrible tragedy? Then, and then only, did I feel that my initial poem could better reflect the inspiration that had so fully overwhelmed me when first connecting the two subject matters together as one. And in the process I had hoped to provide a final ending to those unfortunates lives that might live on with us today in some sense of poetic reflection. That reminds us of the many men and women who dedicate themselves each fire season protecting lives and properties, woods and streams, parklands and wildlife. Who have committed themselves to so deadly an occupation against the whims of so fickled a foe.

And so, when in the process of completing this secondary poem I found that I had to stop and lay down my pen for a time overcome by this horrific topic's brutish subject. I wanted to approach these young lives with a deftness of sympathy and heroism that it required as an ode to their human spirit of perseverance.  Moreover, a holistic ending needed to be found that was unlike its parts, but born from its parts, that might provide an adequate capstone of homage and requiem. Since then I have stayed away for nearly a year having not thought too much about this subject matter, allowing it to rest unresolved in my mind and heart like the furrowed gravesites that lie deeply silent in the tawny bunchgrass on a faraway hillside in Western Montana as I searched for answers that may not come. Amongst markers gathered in their solitary clusters keeping nightly watch beneath the starry heavens looking down from their evening wonders to behold the untold ruins of brave men resting as undaunted testaments to mankind's brave will forged within the hot kilns of creation's holy flames and pungent altars. Altars that no more rest than do our searching hearts, seeking acceptable sacrifices that only time eternal may someday provide as we cannot, bowed before our heavy offerings, made by human hands, broken and tearfully clasped. For no other offerings are so dear as those who are taken from us, whom we are helpless to aide in their suffering, except to give homage in lasting memorial to future generations of firefighters better equipped and trained through remembrance of the hard lessons of those who have gone on before. Courageous lives. Full lives. Lives ended too soon. That lead the way for those who survive that follow after behind their fire lines, and smoky trails, hearing upon our ear last calls echoing to one another against a tangled wilderness distantly crying "All's well."

- R.E. Slater
February 1, 2012
rev. April 6, 2012

@copyright R.E. Slater Publications

all rights reserved

The winged statue of victory stands in front of smoke from fires in the village of ancient Olympia,
near the birthplace of the Olympic games, in south-west Greece. A huge effort by firefighters,
water-dropping aircraft, and fire trucks, succeeded in keeping a raging blaze away from the
2,800-year-old site - the holiest sanctuary in ancient Greece.

An Unfinished Poem

Excerpt: Opening Lines
by R.E. Slater

Pray thee dark fire angels burning bright
Didst thou enter into redemption’s night
When glimpsing too soon creation’s fires
Then fell from earth in fervent rejoice?

At seeing the black heavens hotly ablaze

Roaring in ancient flames of heat and haze
Seething fiery whirls of immortal breath
Alit the turbulent winds of righteousness?

And didst the hot flames lure thy fearing tred

Overwhelming thy heart by jealous desire
Whilst racing to see stunning glories dred
Shaking the foundations in furious might?

And was it thy glad heart that joyfully leapt

Blazing hot from within thy bursting soul
Beholding Almighty’s hidden glories wept
Bowing rocks and hills in terrible flames?

Whose burning presence measures breath

Bringing all mortal works to ashes and ruin
Swirling His fires of destruction upon mortal sin
Destroying the days and nights of all living flesh?



- R.E. Slater
January 2011

@copyright R.E. Slater Publications
all rights reserved