I was not aware of smokejumping as a career until I read Phil Connors’s Fire Season a few years ago, but I was fascinated. Further, when I read Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm in 2012, I learned (in the author’s interview at the end of my audio edition) that he had originally conceived a book that would contain chapters on each of a number of highly hazardous jobs. These were to include smokejumpers as well as the swordfishermen that ended up starring in his highly regarded book.
I believe it was my friend Don who recommended this book when I raved about Fire Season. [Thanks, Don!] Jumping Fire is a memoir by the oldest smokejumper ever to work the job (at least when this book is published – I cannot swear that his record still holds, but it seems to). As the name indicates, smokejumpers are wilderness firefighters who reach their dangerous destinations in dangerous fashion: parachuting out of aircraft adapted for the purpose. Taylor was 56 when he retired after an especially hot season in 2000.
I took one overwhelming early impression from this book: these smokejumpers are crazy! We’re talking about people jumping out of airplanes into forest fires! The ways in which they can die or be maimed are myriad on their way to the ground; and assuming they get there safely, they then have to fight a forest fire and, sometimes, hike back out again. Frequently they remain onsite for days, sometimes weeks, fighting fires around the clock on very little sleep and often with few rations (food & water have to be parachuted in, as well). They breathe smoke, suffer burns, dodge falling flaming trees, steer around rocks and trees and rivers upon their descents from the clouds. On the other hand, when not jumping or fighting fires, there’s a lot of waiting: “Bob Quillin [a fellow smokejumper] once described smokejumping as ‘prolonged periods of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror.’” (I found that cute.) On top of which, the training is insane: “former marines who have become smokejumpers all agree that Alaska rookie training is tougher than anything they saw in boot camp.” So they have to really want to do this job. I am awed. I think they are nuts, without question. But it’s nice to know there are men (and women, too) out there willing to do such a crazy job. I can’t understand you, Taylor, but I take my hat off.
Taylor has rather many tales to relate of danger, injury, death and tragedy to relate; I had to close the book several times to stare into space and absorb the difficult moments. By all means, this lip-biting adrenaline rush is one of the admirable qualities of the book. But Taylor is also quite the romantic, and his love affair with a much younger woman occupies a number of pages, while his pining for her occupies still more. The firefighting/jumping remains at center stage, never fear; but there is a thread of wistful romance woven in. One is almost reminded of Abbey’s somewhat unfortunate Black Sun, although I hate to say such a thing. Taylor is rather more tasteful and less fantastic in his love affair, which is after all (if we believe him, and I have no reason not to) real. Page space is also devoted to a certain amount of (very natural) musing on human life and the wisdom of doing this hazardous work, when smokejumpers have wives and children at home who suffer when they are hurt or killed, and as Taylor ages and his knees complain about all those hard contacts with the ground. Or, on the challenges of the job:
Jumpers rarely speak openly about how they handle extreme fatigue, but when they do, they joke about it and claim to be the weakest in the bunch. At such times I just keep my mouth shut. For me, it’s always the same. Beyond the fatigue comes the sorrow and with the sorrow comes the loneliness. At the hour of my greatest exhaustion, I am lonely, emotionally frail, and at a loss to do much about it. No matter who claims to be the weakest, in the deep, dark pit of my soul, I know that it is me.
I found this a poignant consideration of his own weakness; but he also seems to acknowledge the universality of feeling inadequate, which is sort of a comment on humanity. And, of course, there’s no shortage of macho avoidance of such confessions.
Jumping Fire is the story of an absolutely fantastic, absolutely real occupation that very few of us will ever see face to face, and it is exhilarating and fascinating as such. But Taylor is also a fine writer, and contemplations of natural beauty and the tension between seeking comfort and seeking thrill and hardship are a great strength of this book, as well. I found it riveting, enjoyable, and thoughtful – recommended.