by Joe Campana & r & & r & Some Jumping on the Western Fire Line by Mark Matthews & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & uring World War II, when a draft board classified a prospective soldier 4E (the official designation for conscientious objectors), the conscript had the choice of performing noncombatant service in the military, doing jail time, or enlisting in the Civilian Public Service. Most petitioners from the country's three historic peace churches -- the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren -- chose the latter option. CPSers did "work of national importance": grading roads, cutting brush, building bridges and laying water lines. Paid just $2.50 a month, many found the labor boring and unfulfilling. Phil Stanley, a Quaker, called it "work of national impotence." After hearing that the Forest Service was looking to parachute men into the wilderness to fight fires, he wrote a letter seeking a transfer.
In response, the smoke-jumping camps opened 60 slots to conchies -- and that's how conscientious objectors proved themselves by discovering the moral equivalent to war in the burning forests of the Pacific Northwest from 1943 to 1945. Because while they were often accused of being yellowbellies, none of the conscientious objectors in Mark Matthews's Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line lacked courage.
To construct his tale of an overlooked part of American history, Matthews interviewed several surviving smokejumpers. He does his best to honor these tales by letting the men tell their stories in their own words, quoting from their letters and journals at length.
While Matthews pays due respect to his subjects' religious convictions, he identifies his subjects above all else as people who yearn for heroism, the same as any soldier who goes off to war. Many COs, who had suffered such atrocities as being thrown from moving trains and combed with brooms in freezing showers, just wanted their tormentors to affirm their courage. Says CO James Brunk, "I thought that if I could get into the smokejumpers there would be enough danger involved that people might realize that I was serious about my stand against war and not just some 'yellowbelly.'"
If Matthews' work has a weakness, it's only that he takes a bit too long to get his men up in the air and then down among the flames. Once there, the book becomes a page-turner. These men were first-rate. An analysis by Matthews of only three regions indicates that their work saved the Forest Service $346,000, and that one smokejumper could equal the output of eight earthbound wildland firefighters. Even desk-bound bureaucrats -- too afraid to jump into wildfires themselves -- will appreciate that kind of efficiency.