Astronauts, a ballsy explorer and firefighters

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe. Reading this book was a belated fulfillment of my commitment to the “One Book, One Chicago” program of Chicago Public Library. I grabbed a copy at one of their events in Grant Park a year and a half ago but just now got around to reading it. Good book, probably my favorite by the smug man in the white suit. Quite frankly, I learned a lot. I know it’s fiction, but well researched, and the relationship between the test-pilot programs with rocket planes and the space program was never really discussed in school.

Wolfe talks about some of the indignity of being an astronaut, with little control over one’s destiny and adoration from the public but not from one’s test-pilot peers. It was much cleaner than I think he would have written if he were talking about, say, anonymous college students instead of national heroes; given the rampant derision employed in his other books, it’s a shame he held back here. Maybe he was just getting his literary wings under him.

On the other hand, Wolfe writes with the same curiosity and “that could be me” spirit that most people have when they look at astronauts and jet pilots. For those who, at some point while growing up, wanted to fly to space, this is going to be an engaging and thrilling read.

The Places In Between, Rory Stewart. Speaking of people who bring out the jealousy in me, who wouldn’t want to be this man? Well educated, well reasoned, well traveled, with less than the usual complement of fear and having something to show for all of it is Rory Stewart, a Brit who, among other things, has walked across most of southern and south-east Asia. (I’m waiting for a book about his exploits in Nepal, but I would guess he has moved on to other things by now.) There is seemingly nowhere Stewart will not go in search of first-hand knowledge.

In this case, he walks across Afghanistan six months after the US invasion. In case you can’t remember back that far, it’s pretty rough. His lack of an American accent and command of several pertinent languages certainly helped, but he still narrowly slipped through more than a couple of rough spots. That aside, he is lucky and to be commended for making the journey through some potentially fatal weather. In doing, he gained (and later applied) a first-hand perspective on the people of central Afghanistan, their interactions with each other, the Taliban and the invading Western forces. 

The book is an engaging story and a series of keen observations, not an overt message about the Afghan people. There are some nuggets of policy and political criticism, such as the comments about Bush mishandling the Koran or the entire chapter about Blair misusing the Koran in his very Western way — something that went over well with the UK and US, but not so much in the Muslim world. However, the majority of the book seeks to share some of the stories, beliefs and experiences of the Afghan people that show a little bit of who they are. If you are going to read it, read it with that in mind and hope to understand a little more about the people that make up a country we still occupy.

Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, John N. Maclean. I think it helps to work for a government agency and sit through a few NIMS classes before you read this book. But, really, it’s not necessary. The story is tragic, as Maclean outlines organizational and individual errors that, uncorrected, lead to the death of 14 firefighters who could have done very little, short of having better luck, to prevent their own deaths. For me, take the smokey afternoons and evenings spent starting and then controlling planned burns in the field out back as a kid, add some steep, off-trail mountain trekking and a good bit of being handed a situation for which you were understaffed and less than fully informed, and I could feel some of the terror of being there.

As important as the story is the fact that Maclean, like his father before him (John N. Maclean helped to publish his father Norman’s Young Men and Fire after Norman’s death), wants to ensure that lessons are learned from these unfortunate and preventable deaths. When the tendency is to button everything up quickly, blame the most convenient targets, present a good story to the media and hope everyone moves on, very often the more proper course is to deliberately investigate the details until lessons can be compiled and widely disseminated. This book, or the technical report issued in the late ’90s that highlights the same themes, should be required reading for those who may find themselves in similar situations or overseeing those who are.

In an urban exercise or event, the personnel problem may not be too few people but rather how to allocate the multitude; the intelligence problem may not be too little information but too much. But on a wildfire on top of a ridged, “inaccessible” mountain, the problem is too little information; it is too few people; and in this case, it was too little command-and-control structure and too little investment of necessary resources. Good people died, and it was really easy while reading to put together the string of seemingly unimportant mistakes that brought things to that unfortunate level.

Required reading. I really think this should be required reading. After a couple of NIMS classes. There are probably other books that are just as important, including others by Maclean or his father. But this is the first I’ve read of its type, and I found it valuable.

Ironically (or perhaps this was a result of my browsing habits), the book I just picked from the stack and began yesterday features a review on its back cover claiming the book is similar to Maclean’s father’s book — but about a mountain climb instead of a forest fire. And inside that mountain book, the introductory pages mention Maclean Sr.’s forest-fire book. I hope it is as important and engaging a story as this was.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *