Last night my NPR station (Yellowstone Public Radio) broadcasted a speech by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Roberts, who everyone agrees is a very nice man. This was a speech at the University of Montana Law School, an endowed special honor address. In a nice compliment to the location, Roberts’ speech used Norman Maclean, celebrated and respected Montana writer, as the theme and spine of his talk.
I knew Norman Maclean, not in Montana but at the University of Chicago. In 1981 I was still so homesick for Montana that I called him up and asked if I could come visit him. He said, “You come right over here tonight and I’ll fix you supper.” He made sheepherder stew and blueberry muffins and we talked about Montana. Then he took me firmly by the arm and walked me home. I was a bit taller than he was, but he walked on the traditional curb side in case of danger. He was a gentle but very clear-eyed man, widowed at that point, but protected by a circle of friends and faculty wives.
Roberts reminded his audience how Maclean learned to write so well, how he would be assigned a topic by his minister father, who home-schooled him, would write it, and then be ordered to “cut it to half the length.” When he did that, he was again told to edit it to half THAT length. This economy of words combined with the constant presence of the King James Bible (which Roberts did NOT mention) produced Maclean’s wonderfully lyric and spare writing. (Of course, after a youth in the forest and some time fighting fires, Maclean was a professor of lyric poetry at the U of C.) Roberts compared this writing drill of the Rev. Maclean to his experience clerking with Justice Rehnquist. The first paper Roberts did came back to him with 80% of it marked in red to be deleted. He resisted this massive cut, but in the end was forced to do it and realized it was the right thing to do.
Then Roberts went on to talk about smoke jumpers, which are trained in Missoula, and Maclean’s book “Young Men in Fire.” The book is about the Mann Gulch fire in which 14 young men were killed by a “blow up” when miscalculations and bad luck engulfed them in a whirlwind of fire. Two escaped by running over the ridge -- they were the closest to the top -- and the foreman, an older man, survived by striking a match and dropping it, clearing a circle of ashes just quickly enough and big enough to survive.
Roberts drew lessons and comparisons to the law and lawyers from all this, largely ones that made the law seem grand and rather dangerous. What he didn’t know or maybe ignored was that there was quite a bit more to this book.
At the time I visited Maclean, I was making my living by typing at the University of Chicago Law School. One of the professors I transcribed (when I was really lucky) was Jim White, whose specialty was the rhetoric of the law and who therefore kept close watch on the English faculty. We sometimes gossiped and I had heard that Maclean was suspected of drinking a little too much now that he was retired and alone. But it had become clear by the opinions Maclean asked me to render (“If you were endangered by a major medical problem, would you dare go to Montana even just for the summer? Or would you feel you had to stay close to the University’s fine hospital?”) that something was up. It was not too much longer before everyone realized that he was sinking into Alzheimers.
Maclean’s preoccupation with his “Young Men in Fire” verged on the obsessive -- Roberts got that right. Jim White’s “take” on the fixation was that like “A River Runs Through It,” the death of Maclean’s brother had never been resolved in his mind and the question that still riveted him was simply “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He applied this to the young men who died.
In 1982 when I left Chicago to begin my circuit-riding ministry in Montana, I came directly to the home of the Moon family. Mr. Moon was a lifelong forestry worker and a close friend of the older foreman who escaped dying in that Mann Gulch fire. Moon had inside knowledge and strong opinions. The foreman was grilled legally over what happened, why those boys were caught and immolated, what he did or didn’t do that could have saved them. Such events demand that a culprit be found. Moon strongly defended his friend.
The crew was on a hillside covered with a sheet of flimsy weed, not just flammable but explosive. The foreman had shouted to his crew to strike a match and drop in the fire, just as he did himself, but either because they were panicked or couldn’t hear in the roaring or didn’t trust him, they didn’t obey. In the end it was decided that the burden of those deaths was enough of a punishment for whatever shortcomings that foreman had.
Chief Justice Roberts did not address this level of the story. Maybe he didn’t really know about it, though I presume he read the book unless one of his clerks composed this speech. The jokes he told were suspiciously familiar, but I WAS typing at a law school where they went around.
He did mention Maclean’s obsession with his book, but not the Alzheimers which probably became perceptible to the victim just about the time he started the book in 1976 or so. It was like a forest fire of the brain but not considered polite to mention. Alzheimers was not understood and semed almost like cancer: a punishment, a shortcoming, a failure. The impulse is to deny: a year or so ago I was on a jury in Conrad where the prosecuting lawyer clearly was an Alzheimer’s victim being coached by his legal assistants. Everyone pretended he was normal, maybe a little tired. I was glad it was just a trial about money. (That judge was not impeached, but not re-elected.)
But it bugs me that the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court should give a speech that was just short of pandering and entirely overlook the most crucial element, which is how much responsibility we have for each other and in particular the question of how much the leader should be held responsible for the rest. It’s as though he were dancing around the dilemma of the Bush administration, unable to either give it up or resolve it. I suspect that it was not a speech that would have pleased Norman Maclean or his father, either one. But it is a dilemma we all share.