A river ran through him



By Betty Slade

The Blanco River has been a part of our family’s life since 1965. We camped, built and still depend on it for water. The river has seen many changes — water diverted from it, its own restoration, our small children growing up and playing in it, and our grandchildren splashing water in the same swimming hole.

Now my Sweet Al and I spend our early mornings drinking coffee at the river, and the water hears our words as it passes by.

Intrigued with Norman Maclean and his book, “A River Runs Through It,” I learned it is a true story about his youth in a small town in Montana in the 1920s. I’ve read his book and seen the movie several times and I identified with his family and his river.

I said to Al, “We have so much more to give today than when we were busy making it happen. But by the world’s standard, because we are growing older, we don’t have what they want. The wisdom we have is necessary for them, but doesn’t seem relevant.”

As a salesman, Al references everything to his years in sales. “You’re as good as the last sale you make. Your last sale will define you.”

Al made selling his career for 40 years and must know something I don’t. If it is true, I wonder if the people I see at ease are actually making their last sale to the world. Once movers and shakers who lived life to the fullest are seen walking their dog or watering their grass in their bathrobes.

I researched the life of Norman Maclean. His last writing — it is reported “Young Men and Fire” is his finest literary work — is a nonfiction story about the Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949, which claimed the lives of 13 young smoke jumpers.

At 77 years old, Maclean visited Mann Gulch in 120-degree weather and gathered resources. The U. S. government lost many facts due to a controversial subject. Maclean pushed beyond himself to write the story and gather evidence. The introduction in the book explains about the 13 young firefighters, “They stepped into the sky and dropped into the fire.”

Maclean writes: “I sat in my study making clear to myself, possibly even with gestures, my homespun anti-shuffleboard philosophy of what to do when I was old enough to be scripturally dead. I wanted this possible extension of life to be hard as always, but also new, something not done before, like writing stories. Sure to be hard, and to make stories fresh, I would have to find a new way of looking at things I had known nearly all my life, such as scholarship and the woods.”

He did not want to end his last days playing bingo and feeding geese. He was determined to make his greatest contribution or, as Al said, “It would be his last sale he would be known for.”

Critics raved about his remarkable narrative and a meticulous piece of reporting. In an endorsement, James R. Kincaid wrote, “Maclean remains true to the power of his own language and his own heart. It is that valiant honesty that allows it to stand against the fire and hold its own even as the flames advance over it.”

Peter Dexter wrote, “A book that tears the heart, not only for the young men who died in Mann Gulch but for the old man grabbing at dried grass on the same slope 30 years later, trying to keep himself upright long enough to get it all down.” 

Maclean writes, “The problem of self-identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. It should haunt old age and when it no longer does, it should tell you that you are dead.”

A deeper compulsion about the firefighters brought Maclean to work on this book at the age of 74. According to the publisher’s note, Maclean died in 1990 at the age of 87 and the book was unfinished. The story became a story in search of itself as a story, published posthumous.

As I push hard to submit my book to a publisher and to ensure it to be received well, I must step out into the sky and drop into my own self-made fire and hold my own against the flames. I have lived this story as I have written it. Am I living my story in search of itself as a story? Do I know the river that runs through me? I don’t know for sure, but Maclean has inspired me to keep writing. One day, I will make my last sale and it will be time to hit the send button.

Final brushstroke: The test of our words for a powerful impact is in the midst of the fire against the flames. We press hard to experience our words and live by them. Maclean felt he was searching for his identity until the end of life. He refused to quit until he laid his pen down and took his last breath. Others picked up his pen and brought a 13-year work to completion and to the world. A river runs through us all.

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