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May 30, 2012 | Carol E. Barnwell

Interview with Mark Gwin: Fire Opens Possibilities

Mark Gwin

Mark Gwin is a member of Calvary, Bastrop. He joined fellow firefighters last year to help bring a historic wildfire under control. Gwin’s family has experienced a number of changes in the last months as well as profound grace.


CEB: Can you give us a brief snapshot of Mark Gwin?


MG: I grew up in San Antonio and have been fortunate in both upbringing and circumstance. I’ve hiked, hitchhiked, hopped a freight train, lived off my bicycle and lived on the streets for the joy and freedom of it all. I worked odd jobs along the way but that began to change when I met my Jennifer. We married and have been blessed with three beautiful boys—Oliver, 5; Lincoln, 3; and Forest, 1. They are the biggest challenge I have ever faced, but they have also carried our family through many tough patches—they make it impossible to give up. I’m currently assistant editor at the Austin American-Statesman.


CEB: Many people in the Episcopal Church didn’t start there. Where does your faith story begin?


MG: I was actually baptized in the Episcopal Church, but raised Catholic. I backed away from organized religion, though I kept some curiosity and fundamental belief about spirituality and the validity of all religions so long as they pointed to kindness, respect and thankfulness. I sometimes attended church, particularly when I was with my family and after my wife and I were married (a fun ceremony—there were three celebrants —an Episcopal priest, a Catholic monseigneur and a Grade-A hippie). We knew we wanted to raise our children in a community of faith and when Jennifer joined the choir at Calvary Episcopal Church in Bastrop, I slowly began attending services. These days I feel like something is missing if I miss Mother Lisa’s (Hines) sermon, trying to listen while corralling the children. Mother Lisa has been an incredible inspiration to me, and this was true well before the fire. Her calmness and grace gave me the freedom to explore the church and its teachings and I was confirmed in February of this year.


CEB: As a child, was there someone who helped to shape your faith? 


MG:  I was fortunate growing up in that my family lived close to my mother’s parents. Every Saturday night we had the same ritual — we would go to five o’clock mass, then go to Luby’s for dinner where I would order tapioca pudding to be just like my grandfather McD. After church, my sister and I would get to go spend the night with them and our parents would pick us up on Sunday. It was a very comforting, very safe space, and that regularity and fun forged a positive association deep in my heart, not only for church but also for family.


CEB: You are a volunteer fire fighter in Bastrop. How did that come about? 


MG: Remembering how we came to Bastrop makes it easier to feel adrift since the fire. My wife and I scoured South Central Texas for suitable farmland to rent. We would stop in small towns and pick up a newspaper and go through the listings and we found the perfect place in between Smithville and Bastrop—within six months I was working at The Times. Smithville is where I learned about community. Having grown up in a big town, I wasn’t prepared for the depth of involvement and caring that are everywhere you turn in that town. It’s an amazing place, and I learned more from that town than any school I ever went to. I became a volunteer firefighter because that’s what guys (and girls) like—cool machines, fires, adventures, etc. The fire department is an extended family, and one of the funniest and wackiest ones I’ve ever had. I’ve never been around such a diverse group of people/ideas that still managed to function so well.


CEB: What was your personal experience with last fall’s wildfires, can you share how you first heard about the fire, what you did immediately, what it was like at the height of the fire?


MG: When the first fire call came, I was asleep. Just that morning I had finished the 100-mile canoe/kayak race along the Colorado River and needed to recover from 25 hours of near-constant paddling so I looked at the page and left it to my fellow volunteers.


A second page came, and my wife and I went outside where we could see the smoke overhead, and the sun was a deep orange, like at sunset. Then we noticed a light raining of ash. We live at the end of a dead end road so we packed some necessities, diapers, a few clothes and keepsakes (though we forgot most of them) —and went to the cars. As we rounded a sharp turning in our driveway to a clearing, we could see the huge pillar of smoke and flames right there.


Jennifer took the boys to the grandparents in San Antonio while I went to evacuate neighbors. I was panicked, in a hurry—the fire was right there—and it was then I made my worst mistake. I went to each house, honking and yelling like mad. I saw two dogs looking at me, but I was already out of the driveway and onto the next house before I thought about getting them. They died in that fire because I was too hurried, too panicked. I can still remember those two faces looking at me from behind the fence.


I was still tired, but I did what I could with fellow firefighters. When you are faced with a wall of fire more than 30 feet tall, rolling through the trees at whim, you just watch in awe and disbelief. You can count on a fire to “lie down” a little at night. This one didn’t. Not Sunday night. Not Monday night. It had a forest of yaupon, pines and cedar—dried and dead from the drought—as a huge fuel.


I was a firefighter, so I was spared the agony that 1,600 families faced, wondering for weeks if their home was gone. I suspected mine was gone as we drove away Sunday, and I walked through a decimated forest to our land on Monday morning. There was nothing left. Not just for me—every neighbor on our street had lost their home. It was an odd sensation—just confirming the expected, and more in awe at the power and ferocity of the power than anything else.


CEB: How did you manage through those first weeks after the disaster? What kept you going?


MG: Keeping busy—both with the fire department and the newspapers—was helpful, trying to focus on the task at hand. I also learned the wonderful fact that our church is always unlocked. I had so many responsibilities that I wasn’t able to be with my fellow parishioners during that time, but I would go into the church from time to time. I would pray, sing the doxology, fall on my knees and cry. It was extremely cathartic, to be there and experience your small suffering in the home of the great redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ. I was free to weep, but also set free from the need to dwell in pity.


Obviously my family, and their safety, made it easy to compartmentalize the loss as a material one. I put two years of love into building that home with my own hands, but the love is still there. That it’s gone is hard, but that the love among our family has been blessed with additional time together makes everything else pale in comparison.


CEB: I understand you faced a job change in the midst of this disaster. That must have been salt to the wound. How did that compounded challenge affect you? 


MG: It’s funny, but the loss of our home has been less disruptive than the reassignment from my the newspaper company about a month after the fire. I lived and worked in the communities I loved, publishing the Bastrop and Smithville newspapers. I could walk my son to school, pick him up in the afternoon and be home for dinner most every night. 


I was fortunate to get a job at the Austin American-Statesman, and I’ve had a blast. Newspaper people remind me of firefighters – ragtag, wicked smart, suspicious of everything but with an upbeat attitude. It’s an amazing and vibrant newsroom. But it’s also a daily newspaper with late deadlines. Rare indeed are the nights when I make it home to put the boys to bed, let alone eat dinner with them. 


The loss of both home and job in the community has made the world seem wide. Our options seem so much more vast. We have more questions so we’re just praying for patience and clarity and giving ourselves a year to mull it all over. We call it our 20-minute lifestyle because every 20 minutes we have a new idea of our family’s future. It’s liberating but scary because we don’t yet feel called in any one direction—just lured and dizzy by the thoughts of a million different directions.


CEB: In the months following, how did your relationships with your neighbors/friends change or alter as a result of the disaster? 


MG: In a large sense I’ve become extremely isolated from the friends and neighbors I had before and just after the fire. Our newspapers were a family, and I rarely see my former co-workers. Because I work so late and our rental house is so far away from our old home, I don’t see my fellow firefighters much anymore. We still travel into Bastrop most every Sunday for church, which has helped anchor us. And occasionally we go out to our neighborhood to see the land and visit with our neighbors. It’s pretty amazing—they are all rebuilding—some have already moved in. Part of me is very envious of that certainty. I have new friends at work, but my main focus is trying to spend what time I do have with our family. The boys are the best entertainment ever, even if they aren’t always the most relaxing.


CEB: How did the experience change you? Did your perception of the disaster change?


MG: It seems too early to know how the disaster changed me. I know our circumstances have changed, but I can’t pretend I’ve arrived at any newfound wisdom. It has opened my eyes to the kindness of humanity, however. Having been treated so kindly by so many, both friends and strangers, it makes it easy to laugh at moments of despondency. You can’t cure everything with a bit of perspective, but it helps you not take yourself too seriously, which is important during a time like this. Our losses are so small, our abundance so overwhelming, particularly in comparison to those outside of our country, it has helped me to pray in thankfulness and pray for others to find, if not material comfort, at least God’s peace.


CEB: Did you find it different helping others and having others offer to help you?


MG: Helping others is easy—virtue is its own reward, so long as you are helping by doing something that you enjoy, which was the case in both writing about the fire and fighting the fire. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I don’t want to sum it up as good or bad. It was both—God stretched us, took us down into loss and confusion and lifted us into the abundance of human kindness. They are both hard to believe—the destruction wrought by the fire and the overflowing of grace and kindness. I’m sad, sometimes floored, by what happened, but I don’t want to regret it. I want to be in awe.