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In 1999, Robert Sallee marked the 50th anniversary of the fire, paying tribute to his 13 fallen colleagues.

Lessons of youthful fascination

10-year-old’s obsessions shape a philosophy of life

Robert Sallee made only a few more jumps as a U.S. Forestry Service smoke jumper after the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, which killed 13 fellow jumpers.

Robert Sallee passed away on May 26. His name may not be familiar to you, but it is a name that stirs my soul, floods me with memories of my father and causes me to reflect on the quiet strength Sallee exemplified.

When you are 10 years old the world is a huge, fascinating place full of energy and possibility. Ten-year-old children are fully engaged in the process of measuring themselves against it. They swim, run, climb, experiment with the laws of physics and get dirty exploring all that God has provided just for them. The intensity brought to bear in these activities is due to an unconscious awareness in the back of their minds of writer Ernest Becker’s famous quote, “to live fully is to live with the awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” The world is never bigger than it is to a 10-year-old and, when the rumble of terror reveals itself, the lessons it teaches them are intense and can capture their imaginations for their entire lives.

My father and I both spent our childhood summers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and, in our respective 10th years, the rumble of terror captured our imaginations and continued to haunt and teach us.

For me, it was the 1975 wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There are few little boys who are not fascinated by the legend of Big Fitz. That I have seen third grade art projects, lovingly created with Gordon Lightfoot’s commemorative song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” playing on a loop as background music testifies to the visceral attraction of nature’s fury and the emotional shock of mankind’s failure to overcome it. The mysteries conjured by that November night never let go of the children who hear their siren calls. My son played a cassette tape of Lightfoot’s classic song until it broke. For my son, how the cassette broke is yet another mystery grown out of a fateful night. But not for me.

In 1949, a small fire in Montana near the Gates of the Rockies turned into an inferno within minutes, killed 13 elite smoke jumpers, scarred the lives of three others, and radically changed the study and practice of fighting forest fires. This was the Mann Gulch fire – and my father’s rumble of terror.

When I was 27, Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” was posthumously published. My father rushed out and bought two copies of the book, one for him and one for me. The book is a fabulous telling of the Mann Gulch fire, part history, part science, part philosophy and part mystery novel. We read the book together and had long discussions about it: Maclean’s fantastic prose, the beauty of the terrain, the romance of the smoke jumpers, the terrifying accounts of the fire, the fascinating science. We were 10 years old again.

The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said we can discover meaning in our lives in three different ways: by creating a work or performing a task; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Ten-year-old boys don’t spend much time thinking about finding meaning in their lives. But 27-year-old men with two children are forced into it. The obsession of my father’s youth began to gnaw at me in ways very different from my Big Fitz fascination. Ten-year-old boys view the disaster as the main character. I now found people’s reactions to the disaster as the main focus.

Sallee was 17 at the time of the Mann Gulch fire. He was a member of the elite smoke jumpers of the United States Forest Service. The smoke jumpers’ job was to parachute into fires in remote areas and contain them before they could grow into major fires. They were first-class, top-notch, incredibly tough woodsmen. Unlike other firefighting outfits, they were trained to think on their feet and to improvise. They were the John Coltrane of the firefighting world. They were the best. For a boy spending summers in the woods of the Upper Peninsula, they were the ideal of what a guy was supposed to be – either that or a player for the Detroit Tigers; preferably both.

In what must have been a horrific 10 minutes, the small fire they had jumped on blew up into a fire that consumed the entire gulch. As the fire chased the smoke jumpers up Mann Gulch, Wag Dodge, the leader of the smoke jumpers, in a moment of desperate improvisation, lit a fire ahead of himself and tried to get his teammates to lie down in the ashes with him as the big fire passed around. The rest of the team, driven by terror, continued to run up the very steep gulch. Sallee and another smoke jumper named Walter Rumsey were cut off by Dodge’s escape fire and had to turn to their left. They were able to reach a rocky ridge and slide through a crack in the rock to safety. The three were the only smoke jumpers to survive: one through gut instinct and the other two by blind luck. Once the fire was out, Sallee helped to remove his brother smoke jumpers from the gulch.

How was he able to do that? How did he deal with the controversy and attacks on his character in the inevitable post-tragedy finger-pointing?

Sallee made a few more jumps and then left the smoke jumpers to work in the paper industry. He went to college and worked his way up in the industry. He got married and had a son. In 1978, Norman Maclean talked him into a return trip to Mann Gulch as Maclean was working on the book. After the Storm Mountain fire in 1994, Sallee began to publicly speak about the Mann Gulch fire and became a soft-spoken advocate for firefighter safety.

I never knew him, but Sallee’s quiet strength, his toughness, his pursuit of meaning in the life he was given on that slope in 1949 in the face of unspeakable horror are an example to me.

We don’t need to be giant figures on the pages of a history book to be heroes. All we are to do is to jump out of a figurative airplane into the smoke of our lives, improvise in pursuit of a purpose or meaning, and hopefully watch our children experience the excitement of this beautiful world as they measure themselves against it and learn its lessons.

Phil Downs is associate superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.