Sunday, December 2, 2012
Song of the Day: “Cold Missouri Waters”
Like “Cold Missouri Waters” by James Keelaghan. Why didn’t I know that he had written a song about the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana, the subject of my all-time favorite nonfiction book, Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (left)?
It’s a song I never would have heard if not for my Ollabelle station on Pandora, which today served up the version of “Cold Missouri Waters” by Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, and Richard Shindell from their only album, “Cry, Cry, Cry.”
I’ll have to write about Young Men and Fire here at “Witness,” as I now see that I haven’t done so since leaving “Why I Am Catholic.” But you can get the idea of this great and moving book by listening to the four-minute tune on YouTube below. What you have to know is:
Wagner Dodge (narrator of the song) was the foreman of a crew of smoke jumpers, Forest Service firefighters most of whom were kids on break from college. Together fifteen men parachuted into Mann Gulch, a feeder of the Missouri, in August 1949. Thirteen died, including a park ranger who crossed the ridge to help them.
Oddly, the legend at the end of the video says there were only two survivors: Dodge, who set an “escape fire” and lay down in the ashes of his own flame (“I don’t know why, I just thought it,” the lyric says); and smoke jumper Walter Rumsey. But Rumsey’s buddy Robert Sallee ran with him and crossed over by his side to safety. In Maclean’s account, the two return with him to Mann Gulch some thirty years after the fire and retrace their steps and revision their past.
Young Men is an old man’s book. On the surface it is the story of men dying too young, but beneath that tragedy is Maclean’s 40-year obsession with the fire and ultimately his own mortality. Which is why I love it.
Here’s the song: