OK, your first book (“The Perfect Storm”) spent three years on the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a motion picture starring George Clooney; you’ve worked as a war correspondent in Africa and in Afghanistan for Vanity Fair; you wrote a much-acclaimed book (“War”) and co-produced an Academy Award nominated documentary (“Restrepo”) from the Afghanistan experience. You would think someone with that sort of success and the accompanying fanfare — scores of book signings, TV appearances, readings, even a turn on Hollywood’s red carpet — might be a little stuffy, a little jaded when dealing with admirers in a far-flung small town in the South.
Such was not the case with Sebastian Junger, the featured speaker at Mississippi University for Women’s Welty Gala Friday evening.
Junger, who the day before in New York appeared on “Morning Joe” to discuss the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, spent an hour Friday talking to MUW students and that evening to a roomful of W supporters, resplendent in their evening finery. Afterward he signed books, posed for pictures and made small talk with well-wishers. He was gracious at every turn.
In the afternoon session Junger, 49, shared with students about how he had aimlessly meandered through college, emerging with a degree in cultural anthropology. Writing came easy for him, and he tried to make it as a freelancer. He lived in New Orleans for half a year. While in the South he toured the Mississippi Delta — sleeping in his car — and wrote a piece for a literary magazine. More than 20 years later he remembers eating at Doe’s in Greenville and spending time at Booba Barnes’ Playboy Club, a juke joint several blocks up Nelson Street.
To supplement a meager income from writing, Junger returned to his native Massachusetts and went to work for a tree cutting company. Large trees in urban settings must be cut in sections from the top down and Junger, a former distance runner, was agile and fit. He did his work in the tops of trees with a chain saw.
When you’re doing something dangerous and you get comfortable with it, you’re in trouble, Junger told the students. While in the top of a tree, Junger cut his leg with the chain saw. It was a watershed event; during his convalescence, Junger turned all his energies to writing. Denied the opportunity to do dangerous work, he began writing about people who did. This led to an interest in commercial fishing, which lead to “The Perfect Storm,” the account of the 1991 disappearance of a fishing boat and its six-man crew off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Friday evening I was seated at the same table with Junger. (Devin Golden’s story on his presentation is in today’s edition.) If he’s tired of speaking about topics he’s spoken about innumerable times, he wasn’t showing it. Over the past year or so I’ve done a lot of work with a chain saw, and I told him I appreciated the cautions he shared with the students. His demeanor changed, intensified.
“You only do one thing at a time when you’re using a saw,” he said. “Make sure your feet are securely planted before you begin to cut. Only one thing at a time.”
Here’s a guy who has dodged bullets in Afghanistan, published four books and we’re sitting in a room all fancied up with nice food in front of us, and we’re talking chain saws. He gesturing with his hands, focused on me, concerned about my safety.
“I still have my stuff,” he said. “I do things for friends.”
He cautioned me not to use a saw while standing on a ladder.
“Tie the ladder to the tree, if you have to,” he said.
Junger’s collaborator on the documentary “Restrepo” was British photojournalist Tim Hetherington. The two men spent time over a 15-month period with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. While the soldiers around them were firing weapons, the two journalists shot video.
Junger’s book “War” details that experience. In April, the 40-year-old Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya, by a mortar shell.
Sebastian Junger says the death of his friend led to his decision to do no more war reporting from the front lines.
“It’s just too painful for the people you love,” he says, the memory of his recent loss fresh.
Here’s an excerpt from a piece Junger wrote for Vanity Fair about his friend Tim Hetherington. He is describing Hetherington’s funeral. Idil was the photographer’s Somali girlfriend:
“They (two soldiers) filed out of their pew carrying two folded American flags that had been sent by Sen. John McCain, himself a veteran of Vietnam. The young men presented my country’s flag to the Hetherington family and then to Idil.
“I missed most of that beautiful moment because I was crying too hard, but later I did savor one comforting thought: This may be one of the few countries in the world where a senator would see fit to present the national flag to a woman of Somali origin in honor of an Englishman killed in Libya. Whatever criticisms one might level at our country, we are sometimes capable of including the entire world in our embrace. In the midst of our painful debate about immigration, about war, and about our responsibility to other countries, it is an important thing to remember.”
Too often we forget. This is a great country we live in, a beacon for freedom and tolerance to the rest of the world.
Thank you, Sebastian Junger, for reminding us of that.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.