With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in September 2016.
It was written by James “Buzz” Surwilo, who unexpectedly died last week. Buzz was Kate’s uncle, Brett’s adopted uncle, and one of our best friends. Buzz taught us, and AoM readers, how to work out without a gym, fell a tree, and make maple syrup. He shared with us why spending a day at the horse races is so enjoyable, why it’s important to keep in touch with old friends, why you should always get your dog from the pound, and how truly sad it is when you have to put your faithful pooch down (a real dog-lover, one of the saddest things about Buzz’s death is contemplating how his current dog, Danni, will be waiting, forever in vain, for her faithful master to return home.) Buzz was a one-of-a-kind, salt-of-the-earth guy, an American original who never compromised his principles to join the consumeristic rat race, looked on wryly at our culture’s various weirdnesses (his review of the Tough Mudder is worth a read), and was always up for a new adventure, like volunteering to fight forest fires for the first time in his fifties.
He will be greatly missed. R.I.P., Buzz.
Justin Beebe was a 26-year-old native of Vermont, from the hardscrabble town of Bellows Falls. He was killed several weeks ago wildland firefighting in Nevada as a first-year member of the elite Lolo Interagency Hotshot Crew.
I had never met Justin, and did not know him, but first heard the news from the state’s Fire Supervisor, who I had served under. As a sometimes-wildland-firefighter and resident of VT, I felt a dual kinship. I also have a 26-year-old native Vermonter son who, like Justin, moved west to pursue his dreams, and who has, like Justin did, a girlfriend that he loves. The similarity, another reminder of the fragility of life, gnawed at me. My son Doug was just visiting Vermont from California a week ago. When he left, we said our casual goodbyes at the airport, complacent that we’d see each other at Christmas or in the spring. But hearing of Justin’s death was evidence that nothing in this world is certain, and youth is no insurance against mortality.
Out of the desire to honor a comrade, I began contemplating attending Justin’s memorial service. But you know how these things go — the internal back and forth that accompanies this kind of choice: I have no personal connection to this person, it’s an hour and a half drive, there will be plenty of other firefighters there, the grass needs mowing. Is a desire to go, well, weird?
Ultimately though, I decided to go.
The high school auditorium was packed, airless, and stifling hot, with the overflow crowd in the adjacent gymnasium. Justin’s family occupied the front and center rows, with a dozen or so of the Montana-based hotshot crew to the front and side. We other 30 or 40 wildland firefighters from four states and several federal agencies walked in single file and took seats behind the Lolo crew. Off to the side came in dozens of structural firefighters who, to their great credit, stood at attention in the oppressive heat for the hour-plus-long service.
Eight different coaches, friends, family members, and the hotshot crew leader spoke to the audience. Each one, obviously without corroboration, spoke in turn about Justin’s good-heartedness, vitality, leadership, and kindness to persons of all walks of life. Nearly every speaker affirmed Justin’s love of the outdoor world and, what especially resonated with me, his unwavering pursuit of his passions. We heard time and again that for Justin, no challenge was too great if he really wanted the objective. I know I’ve backed away from many ventures, either convincing myself of my or its unworthiness, or foolishly being dissuaded by naysayers. So it was inspirational to learn of a young man who went at life full bore, but not at the expense or exclusion of others. Nearly every speaker represented this noble tenacity as a lesson we would benefit to learn, and I surely did.
Justin’s best friend, aunt, fiancée, and mother all spoke from the heart with beautifully moving eloquence, and often laughter-producing