Prairie Lights: A tragedy, a book, a family connection

Notes

Jack Hughes’ logbook notes, showing (in the right-hand column) how he transported 13 bodies on Aug. 6, 1949, at the site of the Mann Gulch fire.

I hope you all read Brett French’s story in the Billings Gazette last Sunday about the connections between Norman Maclean and a Billings couple, Tom Tollefson and Jane Moses, and Tom’s brother Pete Dexter.

I’d go into more detail, but you can read the story yourself. The thing is, the piece was so interesting (it helps that I know Brett, Tom and Jane and have read all of Dexter’s books) that it made me want to write about my own connections with the author of “A River Runs Through It.”

My personal attachment meant a lot to me, but it was so slight that I’m sure Maclean didn’t know it existed. It was also the source of considerable embarrassment. More on that later.

I married into the other associations. My wife, Lisa, is the daughter of the late Jack Hughes. Among other distinctions in the world of aviation, Jack was the first licensed helicopter pilot in Montana.

He was 32 years old when, on Aug. 6, 1949, he ferried out the bodies of the 13 men killed on the Mann Gulch fire, which would become the subject of Maclean’s posthumously published book, “Young Men and Fire.” The Aug. 5 fire claimed the lives of 12 smokejumpers and one national forest fire guard.

Lisa and I didn’t even know Jack had done this until hearing her older brother Dick talk about it during Jack’s funeral service in 1990. It was probably the most traumatic thing that ever happened to Jack and it was not something he talked about.

Dick told me the helicopter Jack was flying, a Bell 47D, only had wheels, no skids, meaning there was nowhere to attach a litter. As far as Dick knows, each body was placed inside the helicopter next to Jack, who flew them out one at a time from Hilger Landing at the bottom of Mann Gulch to a staging area closer to Helena.

Years later, Dick was given his father’s logbooks by another pilot, and inside an envelope, tucked into the log, were the handwritten notes that Jack kept on the day in question, tucking them into his breast pocket until they could be transferred to the logbook. (Those particular notes, though, apparently were never logged. Dick thinks his father was reluctant to revisit the horror.)

The first notation said “1 body,” followed by the flight-duration times. Under that were 12 more line items, all of them containing double quotation marks, indicating that each trip involved “1 body.”

Four or five years after the Mann Gulch fire, when Dick was 9 or 10, Jack flew Norman Maclean to the top of Mann Gulch on several occasions, free of charge. Maclean had fought fires as a young man and he wanted to walk the steep ground in hopes of understanding what had happened.

Dick said Jack and Maclean grew up a block from each other in Missoula, but Maclean was about 15 years older than Jack. Later, Maclean spent a lot of time hanging out at the old Johnson Flying Service, where Jack worked, and they became good friends.

On two of those flights to the top of Mann Gulch, Dick accompanied his father and Maclean, then a professor at the University of Chicago, squeezed in between the two men in the helicopter. The helicopter was equipped with skids by then—mechanics at Johnson Flying Service invented them after the Mann Gulch fire—so Jack dropped Maclean off at the top of the ridge and waited below.

Dick said his father asked him to walk down the gulch with Maclean, in case there were any mishaps on the steep hillsides. Dick doesn’t remember speaking at all to Maclean, who was preoccupied with his thoughts.

“I hiked down with him, but I’m not sure he knew I was there,” he said.

When Dick was 20, a smokejumper himself by then, his second jump was onto the ridge one gulch away from Mann Gulch. The crew foreman asked if anyone else wanted to hike out via Mann Gulch, site of the infamous fire 15 years earlier.

Jack

Jack Hughes, at Johnson Flying Service in the late 1970s.

Dick hadn’t been there since he’d hiked it with Maclean, so he joined the foreman and a few others for one more look at that sad, hallowed ground. I first heard some of these stories two years ago, when Dick visited with a group of West High honor students who visited Mann Gulch after reading Maclean’s book.

I felt oddly privileged to have been there at all, more or less eavesdropping on an account of one of the most dramatic incidents in Montana history.

So there’s that connection, however tenuous. It deepened, if anything could, my admiration for Maclean. I think “A River Runs Through It” is as perfect as any piece of writing I know.

I wish I could say the same thing for the first newspaper article published under my name.

On April 6, 1977, I was sitting in the typing room of the journalism school at the University of Montana, banging out a story and sweating like a pig.

The usual drill was, 10 or 12 students would go out to cover something, a city council meeting or the like, then go back to the typing room and write up our stories. The professor would give us a deadline and collect our stories, finished or not, at the appointed time.

On this particular night, we students had been hauled down to the Florence Hotel in downtown Missoula to cover an old-timer who was giving a reading on the occasion of the publication of his first book.

It was Maclean, giving his first reading in Missoula, and the ballroom was packed with people his age, many of them old Forest Service friends. We young students didn’t know what we were in for. Those two hypnotic paragraphs that end “A River Runs Through It” had most of Maclean’s listeners in tears, and I have never read them again without fighting back my own.

So there we were in our typing room, a little before 10 p.m., I think it was. An editor of the UM student newspaper, the Kaimin, burst into the room and announced that he had a hole to fill, and did anyone want to offer up a story on the old-timer’s speech? After a moment’s pause, as we all stared down at what we had written so far, I tentatively raised my hand.

“Good,” the editor said. “You’ve got 15 minutes.”

Panic descended on me like a heavy coat. I wasn’t a very fast writer in those days, so I hope I can blame the panic for the one spectacular error I inserted into that story. So help me God, I covered a speech by Norman Maclean and called the Blackfoot River the Bitterroot!

Fortunately, very few people had read the book yet, and no one ever pointed out the mistake. I didn’t discover it until a few months later, when I finally got around to reading Maclean’s book for the first time. I have read it three or four times since then and am reminded of my error every time.

I was thrilled to see my byline in the Kaimin, but nearly 40 years later, I haven’t quite gotten over the shame of that mistake. I hope the shade of Norman Maclean, remembering my father-in-law, has forgiven me.

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