Saturday, October 8, 2011


The story goes, in 1949, lightning hit the forest in Mann Gulch about a half an hour North of Helena, Montana.  A fire roared into life and was spotted by a local Ranger.  Calls went out for assistance and after several hours, smokejumpers were dispatched and dropped into the heart of the forest.  Leading them was a foreman named Wagner Dodge who was a seasoned veteran of fires and with the help of a local terrain expert, he assessed the situation.  Gathering up his crew as they finished eating their lunches, he instructed his 14 men to head to the ridge of the gulch and move along its edge so they could flank the presumed fire line from behind.

Dodge took a moment to sit and eat while he discussed his plan of attack with the terrain expert when he noticed smoke filling the sky had gotten much more dense and had shifted.  Sensing imminent trouble, Dodge scrambled up the sloping gulch to meet up with his crew just as they crested the peak.  What stood before them was a wall of flames filling the valley and up and over the ridge line merely a few hundred yards away and roaring towards them with tremendous ferocity.  A not-so-uncommon combination of wind, ecological circumstances, and dry heat set the table for a loud and destructive force and the only option the men had was to turn and run for their lives.

Hitting the bottom slope of the gulch and into a field, Dodge knew their efforts to get to safety were in vain but instructed the men to drop their gear and begin heading up the rocky incline of the gulch.  Looking back and seeing the flames fill the funnel-shaped valley like the barrel of a cannon, Dodge saw they were out of time.  Quickly, he lit a patch of grass to create an "escape fire" (an area of grass that is pre-burned) and as it spread outward, he yelled to the men to get face down.  But the noise, panic, and confusion of the moment prevented many of the crew from hearing their leader's instructions.

David, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), is the life-sized sculpture of David from the Bible as he was about to slay the giant, Goliath.  Breaking from the typical works of the 17th century which displayed many subjects in romantic or poetic poses, Bernini opted to do this particular commissioned piece as if David were frozen in time the very moment he was about to sling the rock.  Moreover, Bernini shows his artistic superiority through the implied psychology that is captured in David's face, body, and movement.

Examining the features of this piece, I am astounded by the realism.  The infamous story of the young man facing off against a giant is timeless and one many Christians and non-Christians are familiar with.  Worth noting is how the story is structured in I Samuel, Chapter 17 removing any doubt of David's fearless acceptance of the giant's challenge to fight.  Looking at the facial expression and body language, I can easily see that the only thought on David's mind is his determination to live up to his proclamation that the LORD would deliver Goliath into his hand.  Ultimately, Bernini has created a masterpiece that is timeless, awe-inspiring, and magnanimous--worthy of being considered one of the greatest sculptures ever created.

Of the 16 men in Mann Gulch that day in 1949, only 3 survived including Dodge.  Two men had luckily found their way through a crevasse in the steep, rocky hillside while Dodge was able to avoid certain death by lying in the escape fire's burned area.  It was later discovered that the men who perished were not overwhelmed by flames, but by the fire's incredible force of sucking the oxygen from the very air around them.  As the valley filled with flames--winds pushing the fire from behind, winds being created by the fire's massive inhale--each man who died suffocated to death before being burned.  Not long after the fire was extinguished, investigators easily located where each smokejumper had died finding body-shaped areas in the charred field where the grass was still alive.

Much like David, Dodge faced an incredible giant and was able to stay alive through confidence, determination, and quick thinking.  While fear and panic led to a terrible travesty, courage and will led to life and a story that has gone on to save countless firefighters from death.  From struggle often comes triumph.  Israel was finally able to fight back the Philistine army based upon the actions of one young man.  Countless firefighters and smokejumpers today are alive and able to confidently fight wildfires based upon the actions of Dodge.

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