My editor, when I was a young reporter, tells me to interview a mother whose son has just died in a fire in their apartment. I ask my editor why. My editor tells me to interview the family of a marine held hostage in Iran when the Desert One rescue mission crashes and burns, leaving the hostages still hostage. I ask why. What am I going to ask? How do you feel?
The crowd at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed in Arizona cheered when a speaker asked the media to stay away from the lone survivor, the young man who’d been the lookout and barely escaped.
Why do those damn reporters want to interview the survivors of tragedy? Heartless bastards. Ghouls.
Reporters capture and transmit life. And tragedy is part of life. And feeling all of life keeps us human. That’s why. But still we bitch about the reporters. While we read their work, their heartbreaking work.
The New York Times today runs a story recounting the last text messages between a Granite Mountain firefighter and his wife. He tells her he’s going in to the fire: “I think I will be down there for awhile on this one.” He tells his wife he misses her and their kids already. After awhile he texts a photo of several firefighters heading for the smoke. She asks if he’ll be there all night. There is never a reply.
National Public Radio interviews young people at an informal grief-spattered remembrance for another Granite Mountain firefighter, from California. His sister, fighting back tears, remembers him in cowboy boots lassoing her when they were both kids. Never more, she says. The dead young man’s brother says his only regret is that he wasn’t with his brother when he died. With him.
Makes you think about life’s fragility, transience, beauty, holiness. Makes you feel love for your own folks. Maybe makes you think you’d better tell them you love them, go see them, because tomorrow might be too late.
On a plane a week or so ago I thought, looking at my iPhone, what would I text Lisa if the plane were going down? I decided I’d tell her that being with her is the best part of my life. The plane didn’t go down. I texted her that anyway. We should say that stuff.
Reading about, hearing about, how people deal with tragedy, with strain, with troubles you’ve not yet had, or with troubles you have, brings our humanity up wriggling and dripping from the bland tranquilized surface of every day. We need to see and hear that stuff. Much as we sometimes want to turn away, it’s hard to, and most often we look. At the accident. We listen to the survivor. Maybe it’s “there but for the grace of god…” But mostly we are attracted to tragedy because, I think, tragedy, like joy, makes us feel the depth and power of life. And we need to feel. Deeply.
Norman Maclean, who wrote, late in his life, A River Runs Through It, also wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about firefighters killed in 1949 in a hauntingly similar way to this week’s Arizona tragedy. If you want to get inside what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, read this 1992 book.
Tell someone you love that you do. Tomorrow never knows.
– Bruce Benidt