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An interview with John Maclean

by Charlie Palmer |

I am in awe of John Maclean because he is the son of greatness. By knowing him, I have secretly hoped, in some way, to gain an understanding of what his famous father might have been like. In my opinion, no other writer has ever put ink to paper in quite the way that Norman Maclean did. Although not prolific in terms of what he produced, those things that he did write have impacted me in ways too profound to understand, let alone explain. Without ever cracking silk, Norman did more for the profession of smokejumping than, perhaps, any other human. Young Men and Fire, and the definitive piece about the Mann Gulch Fire will stand the test of time as two of the finest documents ever written about jumpers. I feel a powerful connection with Norman as his interests and mine are interwoven like jackstrawed lodgepole: wildfires, flyfishing, Montana, fascination with religion, and brothers with raw and powerful talents. The Meeting John and I planned to rendezvous in Boise in late March of 2000. I was to drive down from Missoula to meet him while he was in town on business. His first book, Fire on the Mountain, had just been released and he was doing some promotion work for it. I was interested in getting an exclusive interview for Smokejumper Magazine. However, my snowboard and I lost a brief, but painful, battle with a tree stump two days before our scheduled meeting. Four broken bones and a large cast on my clutch-engaging appendage effectively terminated those interview plans. My foot and I were both crushed. Time for Plan B. Only one problem, we had not devised a Plan B. Eventually, we concocted an alternative arrangement. It consisted of meeting during the early part of the summer. John was going to be out at his cabin at Seeley Lake around the first week of July. I figured I would be around at that time as well, since the injured foot and I would not yet have clearance by the doctor to resume jumping. After some back and forth e-mailing, we decided to meet on the Big Blackfoot River, the river of his father and the one exquisitely detailed in A River Runs Through It. Of course, we would fish first and interview later. Life is all about priorities, afterall. On the second day of July, I was driving east into the rising sun on Highway 200 on my way to meet John. Suddenly I was struck by the realization that today marked the anniversary of the South Canyon Fire. Six years ago today (this interview was done July 2000), a lightning storm ignited a fire that ended the lives of fourteen brave comrades, and forever changed the lives of countless others. John Macleanís life would be one of those altered. The Interview CP: You resigned from the Chicago Tribune, a place you had worked for over thirty years, to write Fire on the Mountain. What was this transition like for you? JM: Well, it was night and day. I went from being a wage slave, where I had to show up for work everyday, to being entirely on my own. I quit on April 1st and I kind of uttered a prayer that that wasnít an omen, and that it would not be a big April Fools joke. Within literally forty-eight hours I jumped in my Jeep and was on my way to Colorado. Later, I met up with the Bob and Nadine Mackey on Storm King Mountain. They were putting in the crosses at that time. Bob was digging the holes. There was a major airlift to get the ten thousand pounds of cement up there. So it was a big deal. I went strictly for that. It sounds like it was all spur of the moment, but it was not. I planned the exit from the Tribune carefully. It is also true that my agent held the auction for my book in New York that finished mid-morning and I then had about two or three hours to quit to take advantage of a buy-out. So I really cut loose. We immediately, we moved back to Washington which was chaotic. My wife was in charge of it and did a fantastic job. She also re-did the house. It was into December before our homestead of 30 years was in a place where we could sleep in it. I lived in this cabin (at Seeley Lake) until late November of that year. It was a kind of life that, in some ways, was adolescent. It was a big adventure. I put everything out on the table. I put out my relationship with my father, with writing, with money, career, with my family. And it has been very hard on them, especially my wife, for me to have been gone two to six months a year for the last five years. So, it was something you might dream about as a boy, but when you do it for real there are some fairly grim aspects to it. Itís very lonely. The rewards are extraordinary, beyond imagining. The highs are very, very high. The lows are very, very low, but I wouldnít trade it for anything. CP: If you could pick one thing that you hope readers would take with them after reading Fire on the Mountain, what would it be? JM: Fourteen faces. Those people should be remembered, and that is the way it is being taken. It has been out now for over nine months and it has given me great pleasure that it has been accepted as a fitting memorial to the fourteen people who died. CP: In an interview with the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, on November 4th of 1999, you stated, ďThere is a chapter left to be written. But I will not write it. I have no desire to write anything more about this fire.Ē Do you still feel this way, and if so, what do you think should be in this chapter if someone else were to write it? JM: I think the chapter is writing itself. It is the legacy of Storm King. Some of it is good and some of it is still horrible. There was not the kind of accountability after that fire that there should have been, and that there is now largely due to what happened on Storm King. People like Pete Blume and Winslow Robertson would not have been allowed to escape, not merely unscathed, but with pay raises and a self-congratulatory memo. That couldnít happen now. Well, it could, but it would not be what the norm. Now there is a much higher bar, much greater accountability. The person who brought accountability in and institutionalized it is Les Rosenkrance, the lead investigator on Storm King. He became Chief of Fire and Aviation for the BLM in Boise. He is retired now, but thatís his legacy. As far as the personal feeling that I was not going to write it, I felt very strongly that way at that time. Iíd had enough. In fact, Iím writing a story now about a fire that is an outgrowth of Storm King. Itís the Saddler Fire that burned near Elko, Nevada. Some of the same people were involved. The circumstances, in a way, were similar. Most of them were not, but there are some common strands. Tom Shepard, the Prineville superintendent on Storm King Mountain, was the division superintendent, where six people were trapped. Three of them wound up in the hospital with fairly minor injuries. They could have been killed very easily but were saved by a last minute wind shift. So I am writing about it, despite initially being very reluctant to do it. But time has passed, and I feel differently. I think the quotation that you read was a plea for my own sanity (laughs) at that point. I was numb, just emotionally numb after finishing Fire on the Mountain. CP: In the Acknowledgements section of A River Runs Through It, your father credits you and your sister Jean as being the ones who inspired him to begin writing his stories down. You also played a role in the posthumous publication of Young Men and Fire. Whatís it like knowing that without your influence, your fatherís beautiful stories might never have been published? JM: To be honest with you Charlie, I have not thought about it concerning A River Runs Through It. It has been years and years, so it is nice of you to mention it. I think that I would never have written this book if my father had not written Young Men and Fire. I was involved with the posthumous publication of YMF mainly by seeing that it got to the University of Chicago Press. The book was as done as most books are when you take them to a publisher. There was no major rewrite. My father has given me a wonderful gift. If he owed my sister and me, and said so, God bless him. I owe him. I owe him a life, that as I say, you can only dream about. To quit a career in my early fifties and go off and do something that I dreamed about all my life - running off to write books. And now, Iíve done it, thanks to him. It takes an awful lot. It takes energy, and dedication, and a good story. It also takes a lot of money. You have to make this transition. The book has done extremely well. I would not be as comfortable as I am today if it werenít for the fact that I worked for thirty years for a newspaper. So, gee, I hadnít remembered that quote for a long, long time. Iím glad you brought it up. But I have thought, regularly, how much I owe my dad for changing my life for the better. CP: Your fatherís stories are written in the first person, which is somewhat unique. What is your take on this? JM: Well, he didnít think that he needed to stick to the hard, cold facts, but that he could still insert himself, and organize the story around himself as the chief abiding persona. And he just did it. In The Ranger, the Cook, and the Hole in the Sky, he moves the saloon in Missoula, the Oxford, to Hamilton. He didnít want to go through the business of moving that whole crew from Hamilton to Missoula, because it would have violated some of the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. I think thatís one of the reasons he did it, or at least thatís how he justified it to himself. My father was part of a school of criticism that was known as the neo-Aristotelians. They studied Aristotle and tried to apply his philosophies to more modern literature, from Shakespeare on. It doesnít work. You canít apply Aristotle to Shakespeare. He violated everything that Aristotle talked about. But, this business of having unity of time, place, and action comes out of Aristotle. It is a big part of art. You donít want to do something clumsy just to be accurate, at least he didnít. I donít feel that way about it at all. But youíre not talking about me, youíre talking about him. So he often would have composite characters. I think that Neal in A River Runs Through It does some things and is involved in some anecdotes that actually happened to other brothers. He is mainly one brother-in-law, but there are some other things that were added to him. My father didnít give a damn. People would tell him you canít have the Oxford Saloon in Hamilton. He said, ďI did it. Itís over.Ē Life is life, and art is art. I think he was much more interested in art than he was in journalistic accuracy. He just did it that way because there was more ease and art in it for him. I donít think he made anything up, whole cloth. It all had a basis in reality. There is an Oxford, he just moved it from Missoula to Hamilton. Certainly Paul (Normanís brother, and the central character in A River Runs Through It) was about as accurate as he made him. But Paul was semi-fictionalized, too. His nicer, more beautiful side was what was emphasized. Thatís what makes him a luminous character in that book. In real life he was a very rough piece of work. A lot of people didnít feel about him the way that my father did. But, so what? It is the job of a writer to bring compassion to subjects that other people donít normally do. Thatís the job. Iím very journalistic. But thatís what I did in FOTM. A lot of people donít like the fact that I did that. I treated the fourteen people who died on a different level from anybody else in there. And I treated the people who were on that mountain, who put their lives on the line, on a different level from the ones who were sitting on their butts in Grand Junction. I did that very purposefully. I would do it again in spades. They deserve every ounce of compassion and sense that I can bring to them, far more than a normal person would. Thatís the point of writing a book. CP: What is your interpretation of the story ďBlack GhostĒ in Young Men and Fire? JM: Well, we found that story stuck in dadís papers after he died. I say we, but it was actually Alan Thomas, the editor who was going through the papers and found it. That clearly is a genesis story for Young Men and Fire. YMF went through a metamorphosis over the period of fourteen years that my dad worked on it. It started out being a journalistic account of a fire. But it didnít work at that level. My father was not a journalist. The fire had happened a long time ago. The trail was cold. It was very confused. And it was a fairly short story. My father became nearly despondent because the story wasnít working. He had people read it, and theyíd tell him, ďItís bad, just bad. Itís deeply confused, you donít have a plot line.Ē So then, it began to change. It became my fatherís story, and thatís how it came out in the end. That is the basis of its success. He inserted himself into the story. He had had this horrific experience when he was fifteen, sixteen years old on a fire, where a guy punched him in the nose and made him realize that it was up to him to get out of there and not die. Heíd had the experience of going to Mann Gulch when it had happened, and seeing the aftermath of it. He had the lingering thought that a smokejumperís life could have been his life. He worked in the Forest Service and contemplated becoming a smokejumper. YMF became the life he might have lived, then it became even larger than that. It became a death he might have died. I think that the ending of YMF isnít very good. I donít think thatís the best part of the book, in fact, I think itís wrong. He brings my mother in at the end out of no where. I donít think it ends well. He changes some things, some factual matters there, in order to have the story fit. This is not a knock, but people donít die on a fire the way he says they do. I think the proper ending of that book is his own death. In fact, thatís why he could never finish it. He was done with it as a work of art. As I said, when we took it to the publisher, it was as far along as a book is when it goes to the publisher. There were repetitions, there were facts that needed correcting, things like that. There always are. There was no major re-write. There wasnít even a minor re-write. The book is what it was. So why didnít he let it go? Why didnít he do that? I told him to do that. Laird Robinson and I at one point had him convinced to do that. But then, somebody else talked to him and he had a different idea. I think he didnít let it go because he knew what the real ending was. The real ending was his ending. When you think of it that way, that aura is around the book. People know that the book is published posthumously. This was an old manís re-examination of a whole world and a life that he might have lived, which has a natural consequence, which is death. In fact, in my fatherís case, it happened. So even if it isnít written in there, itís there. That is the real ending. CP: In the final paragraph of FOTM, you write, ďThe wind that once fanned blowups, and will again, now reaches across the years to join in comradeship those who fell. And they call out to those who follow, Let our sacrifice be enough.Ē Do you think their sacrifice will be enough? JM: I hope that at least another forty-five years pass before that happens again. The changes that I have seen from Storm King are enormous. They are more specific to Storm King than the changes that came after Mann Gulch. If you go back and trace what happened after Mann Gulch, it was tossed in with a lot of other so-called tragedy fires. From those fires, at least a half dozen of them, came Ten Standard Orders. Those Ten Standard Orders are not directly traceable to Mann Gulch and only Mann Gulch. The 1957 task force that came up with the Ten Standard Orders considered about a dozen fires, and very seriously about a half dozen. Bud Moore, who lives about 35 miles from here, was on that task force and I talked with him about that a lot. Storm King has had a profound, far-reaching effect on the culture of fighting fire. Some things are very specific. If you look at the bureaucratic changes that have been made, you are looking at an inch thick document. There are two big lessons from Storm King. The first is accountability. I think Les Rosenkrance deserves an awful lot of credit for having brought greater accountability to the fire world. This is as a direct consequence of Storm King. The second one is, ďjust say no.Ē The devolution of responsibility farther down the chain of command to reach the people who are most affected by disaster. In other words, firefighters are responsible for themselves. If a situation is dangerous, they must speak up. It still happens, people have come up and told me these things, that if you complain or say that weíre not doing it right, or weíre doing this prescribed burn under conditions that are unsafe and it might get away from us, you can still get thrown off the fireline. But the culture now is applauding people who just say no. Thatís one of the things that happened on the Saddler Fire. According to the report on that, two Hotshot crews refused an assignment. They are commended in the report for having done so. It turns out it wasnít quite that dramatic. But the point is a good one, nonetheless. In fact, there was a refusal on the Saddler Fire, an out an out, ďI will not do this!Ē Here you have, maybe for the first time, a situation where people are trapped and a Type I overhead team is disbanded as a consequence, and people who stood up and said we shouldnít be doing it this way are commended - officially. The report is rough justice, it isnít as well done as it should be, but its heart is in the right place. That came out of Storm King. Itís a good memorial to the fourteen who died. It does what I tried to do, which is not blame them for their own deaths, but recognize that they made mistakes. These mistakes were not the kind that you condemn people for. They were the kind that the culture made. The culture said, ďdonít speak up.Ē The culture said, ďgo along with the smokejumpers because they know more than anybody does.Ē The culture said, ďif youíre put on top of a mountain, you fight a fire from the top of a mountain.Ē Now thatís changed. Not in all instances. But itís only what, six years since Storm King. Itís is a semi-military operation out there. There is a chain of command. Authority is very clear, and there isnít time for Kumbaya. So there is a need for real authority. We donít want rookie firefighters coming up to an IC on a 400-person fire and saying, ďSir, I just got here but I think youíre doing this wrong and I like to give you some suggestions.Ē Nobody needs that. You have to respect chain of command. But there is now a culture where people at that level, with a shovel or a pulaski in their hand, can and should speak up when they feel extremely uncomfortable and as though they are in a dangerous situation, and perhaps they see something that nobody else sees. There is a culture growing amongst supervisors to take account of that and not to squash it. I think that is enormous. From 1949 to the year 2000, you donít have a more influential fire than Storm King, and this is just in the last six years. I donít want Storm King to become a forgotten legacyÖI think itís going to be around and alive for quite awhile, and I think my book helps. CP: Is there anything else youíd like to say in this Interview? JM: I wish that every good author could have the kind of experience that Iíve had. My book is close to a community project. An awful lot of people helped with it. The reaction from the professional firefighting community has been overwhelmingly positive. Itís been accepted as an authentic book by someone who is not a firefighter. The judgment is that itís okay that heís not a firefighter, he got it. He figured it out. The reaction to it has far exceeded what I might have hoped for. The amount of mail that I get, the kinds of things people say to me in public presentations. I just wish that every good author could taste what I have tasted. Itís staggering, in some ways, to get that kind of reaction from a tough, intellectually alive, professional community, where their lives have all been on the line and mine has not. I accept that on behalf of the people who helped me with this book, as well as my own efforts. People are named in the Acknowledgements and itís publicly known who they are. I could not have done this without that group. I never could have gotten close to that kind of reaction without the reading and re-reading, the sticking with it, year after year, that these people did. It became a social event in Boise when I would send a chapter out to them. There is a group of about eight of them, smokejumpers and their wives, and they were fabulous. They would get together and read the chapter out loud and they would all comment on it. They wound up taping these sessions and giving the tapes to me. The chapter would also come back with written annotations. Absolutely invaluable! And it wasnít any one thing. It would be factual material sometimes, correcting mistakes. Sometimes it would be spirit. Sometimes it would be, ďyouíre just going too far here, your judgments are way off, you donít know what the hell youíre talking aboutĒ kind of stuff. And then I would send them that same chapter back, and back, and back. One of the people who was involved in that was Eric Hipke, who is the only survivor from the West Flank firelineÖ Eric wound up standing next to me while I was running my computer with the account of what happened on the West Flank fireline. We must have gone over it two dozen times, at least. It was important to him to get that right. It was very difficult to get it right because he wasnít sure at the beginning what he was thinking at the time. When the crucial moment comes and he winds up on the ground, near the top of the ridge, had he jumped? Was he pushed by the fire? We went back and recreated that whole thing. And we have it down in the book so that Eric says, ďYeah. Thatís the way it happened.Ē We bled for it, both of us. So people put out to help with this book, and the book reflects that. The quality that people react to, from the fire community, is because that kind of investment was made by a lot of different people, over and over again. ##### Epilogue As I have come to know John, and read and re-read Fire on the Mountain, I have begun to realize that literary greatness resides within him as well as his father. While his more journalistic style differs from the poetic prose of his dad, father and son share the same rare skill: the ability to balance meticulous research while simultaneously keeping two fingers on the emotional pulse of the reader. Tears stain many of the pages of my copy of FOTM, and any author who can do that earns my highest praise. Charlie Palmer was a rookie in 1995 and is now in his seventh season of jumping. He has B.A., M.A. and Ed.S. degrees from the University of Montana and is currently working on a doctoral dissertation in Educational Guidance and Counseling, with the goal of becoming a certified Sports Psychologist. His doctoral research is in the area of college student-athletes with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He worked for three years as a School Psychologist for the Colstrip (MT) Public Schools, and two years as a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Athlete Academic Services at the University of Montana. You can reach Charlie via e-mail at You can write him at 91 Campus Drive #1911,Missoula, MT 59801.