Remembering Kevin Woyjeck

Kevin 1I couldn’t make it to Prescott, AZ, today for the Memorial Service for Kevin Woyjeck and his 18 brothers in the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed last week. There hasn’t been an hour of the day since last Monday when I haven’t thought about Kevin’s dad, my dear friend Joe Woyjeck, Kevin’s mom, Anna, and his brother Bobby and sister Maddie.
One of the most touching gestures in a week full of them was the memorial run organized by the Prescott Fire Department. Kevin’s brother, Bobby, an NCAA scholarship track athlete, went to Prescott and ran the race in Kevin’s boots.
I plan to have my own Memorial Service for Kevin tonight. I’m gonna pop a cold beer and put on Tracy Lawrence’s “If I Don’t Make It Back.” I think the song reflects how Kevin felt, and how he would like us to remember him.
Please do the same, wherever you are.
R.I.P., Kevin. We miss you every day, and will never forget your ultimate sacrifice and dedication to duty.


Had a great weekend in Albuquerque, visiting high school friend Dave Northrop, and attending the Single Action Shooting Society’s annual world championships in tiny Edgewood, N.M. If you wanna see what it was all about, click here and watch Sage Chick, aka Sarah Harp, who racked up here second women’s all-around world championship at the tender age of 19.

Showdown at the End of the Trail
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 9, 2013

Edgewood, N.M.

If you were a young boy growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, you probably played Cowboys and Indians. If you want to do it with real guns, you can come to this small town about 25 miles east of Albuquerque.

Sage ChickThe Single Action Shooting Society exists, in the words of its website, “to preserve and promote the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting.” Its aim, in addition to having a lot of fun, is to keep alive the memory of the lifestyle and guns of the Old West: replica Colt Peacemakers, Winchester lever-action rifles, and the short, double-barreled shotguns that stage-coach drivers carried to ward off robbers.

The group has 99,000 members from around the world, according to Misty Miller, the organization’s 39-year-old chief executive officer who goes by the nom de cowgirl Misty Moonshine. These enthusiasts participate in numerous state and local competitions almost every weekend. But every year about 500 of them—including a large contingent of Germans known as the Pooley Gang—come here, to the 480-acre Founders Ranch, to participate in the End of the Trail, the SASS world championships (or, in late August, the Four Corners Regional Championship, known as Outlaw Trail).

End of Trail is actually a weeklong gathering that, in addition to the shooting matches, features costume contests, dances, stage-coach rides and poker games. It all happens in a re-created Western town complete with a saloon, stable, general store and hitching posts. Shooting competitions include pocket pistol, shotgun and mounted matches, this last involving competitors on horseback racing around barrels firing their six guns at balloons.

But the main event is the three-gun posse shoot. Competitors form posses of about 20 shooters each and compete on four different courses per day over three days. Each course requires them to shoot 10 rounds from their revolvers, 10 from their rifles and four to six shells from their shotguns, as well as to simulate train robberies, hold-ups and stand-offs.

Some of the competitors are experienced shooters who have gravitated toward this particular niche; others had never fired a gun of any kind before.

“I was between hobbies,” said 45-year-old Stephanie Logan, aka Panhandle Cowgirl, a sixth-grade history teacher from Texas. “I came to my first event six years ago with all the wrong guns, which everyone does at first,” she said, noting that many beginners simply get cowboy-looking guns but don’t understand the various nuances of the sport. “But,” she added, “I got hooked on the people.”

The competition is intense, with the best shooters firing all 24 rounds in about 15 seconds. But “99% of it is about having fun,” said Scott Love, 54, a quality-control manager from Houston known as Texas Jack Daniels. He and his wife, Shot Glass, who makes her own clothes, have been doing this for more than 20 years. Legend has it SASS was founded in 1981 by Harper Craigh, aka Judge Roy Bean, after he watched a few television westerns. The first End of Trail was held in April 1982.

I followed Texas Jack’s posse over the last day of competition, where I met Sarah Harp, a 19-year-old deadeye from Sunbury, Ohio, who calls herself Sage Chick. She’s been competing since she was 11 and is a six-time world champion (five times in her category and once, in 2010, the overall women’s champion). She shoots alongside her parents, Beth and Rod Harp, better known in these parts as Fowl Lady and Rowdy Bishop. (Mr. Harp’s moniker is perhaps more accurate than most: “I’m a bishop in our church and I’m a little bit rowdy,” he said between rounds.)

At this year’s End of Trail the Harps hadn’t missed a single target over the three-day posse shoot. Their prize: Each received a white-buffalo pin to stick on their cowboy hats.

“It’s supposed to symbolize a white buffalo, which is pretty rare,” Mr. Harp said.

While all three Harps shot perfectly, Sage Chick was the class of the field. In a standoff scenario that requires competitors fire 24 rounds at 14 targets after shouting “I’ll not pay any blood money!” she turned in the best time of 16.24 seconds. She’s particularly impressive when she fires her Winchester lever-action rifle. Standing under a yellow straw cowboy hat in her checkered shirt, blue jeans, boots and with a gun belt slung low on her hips, she works the lever-action rifle better than Chuck Connors in “The Rifleman.”

The final event of the week was the Top Gun Showcase. It featured the 16 best shooters in a head-to-head, single-elimination three-gun target competition that was more for bragging rights than anything else. Sage Chick easily made the field and defeated Panhandle Cowgirl. But in the finals, the youngster came up against Holy Terror, the cowgirl name for Randi Rogers, a 10-time women’s world champion from Houston. Sage Chick did her best, but lost by about one-tenth of a second. (Holy Terror was later defeated by men’s winner Badlands Bud—real name: Steven Rubert—a multitime champion from San Diego, in the final shoot-off of the day.)

But Sage Chick got her due at the closing ceremonies, when the results of the main posse shoot were announced. She finished third overall but, more importantly, earned her second women’s world championship, beating Holy Terror by nearly 20 seconds over the three days of competition. As for losing the Top Gun Showcase?

“We used the wrong load,” Mr. Harp said, referring to the amount of gun powder in Sage Chick’s bullets. “But we’ll be back.”

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

The Spy Who F***ed

Here’s my latest book review in The Wall Street Journal. It’s a great book about Christine Granville, one of the greatest counter-espionage agents in World War II. I’d never heard anything about her before picking up this book, which is a great read. We hear so much about the French Resistance, that we forget that agents risked their lives all over the world. The title is a bit of a euphemism. She used her good looks and guile to seduce men, both good and bad, to get what she wanted out of them. But the ends somewhat justified the means and it’s a great read about a mostly heretofore unknown part of the war.

The Divine Amateur
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 6, 2013

Nearly seven decades after the Allies invaded Normandy, there are many vivid images of World War II in the collective American psyche: of paratroopers landing behind enemy lines, of ferocious battles on land Spyand sea. But the war was fought in other ways as well, not least in a shadowy world of duplicity and covert stratagems. The shadow war was often fought by brave individuals whose names may be lost to history.

At least one such name will be better known now. In “The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville,” Clare Mulley describes one of the Allies’ most effective counterespionage agents. One lesson of this well-written and thoroughly researched book is that government officials ensconced in ministerial offices can be a hindrance to chameleon-like secret agents out in the field.

“Christine Granville” was actually a name given to her—along with phony papers—when she was being secreted out of Eastern Europe in the trunk of a British legation car ahead of the advancing Nazis. She was born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek, the daughter of a Polish count and a Jewish mother. She was a fixture at debutante balls and bohemian salons in 1930s Warsaw and spent winters skiing in Zakopane, Poland, the Carpathian equivalent of Gstaad.

When Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in September 1939, she was in Africa with her husband, a Polish diplomat. They soon took a ship to Britain. He chose to continue his diplomatic work in London; she used her upper-crust connections to volunteer her services to the anti-Nazi cause, tapping into the old-boy network that was forming the backbone of what would become Britain’s clandestine force, the Special Operations Executive. According to British records, a “flaming Polish patriot . . . expert skier and great adventuress” proposed a bold plan in late 1939 to ski over the Carpathians into Poland and set up an intelligence network.

This is where she ran into her first cock-up (as the British would say) with Allied bureaucracies. She was delayed for months because the Polish government-in-exile in London worried that she was “an amateur, and ‘in the pay of the English.’ ” As Ms. Mulley reminds us, British and Polish officials, eager to control policy and assets, treated each other with a sense of rivalry. Once cleared, Granville proved to be anything but a liability.

Working with Granville was Andrzej Kowerski, another well-to-do Pole who risked life and limb for the Allied cause and who was, according to the author, the only man who ever really knew Granville. In the course of her espionage work, she was more than willing to use her guile and aristocratic good looks to seduce men as circumstances required. Indeed, the title of “The Spy Who Loved” can feel, at times, euphemistic.

Christine and Andrzej, as lovers and fellow freedom fighters, set up a vast network over the Carpathians that took weapons and portable radios past roving border patrols and into Nazi-occupied Poland. Their couriers, on returns trips, brought out intelligence on German troop movements that helped the Allies to anticipate Hitler’s move against Stalin and to recover Allied pilots shot down on raids over Poland. It proved to be one of the Allies’ most important underground networks and yielded reams of intelligence. Christine’s own movements on behalf of the network put her into contact—intimate contact—with a Polish count. (“At night they slept together, . . . satisfying the desire that had grown with the fear of the last few weeks.”)

Much of the popular history of World War II espionage has centered on the French Resistance. In addition to telling us Granville’s story, Ms. Mulley reminds us of the intelligence work that took place in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, where the population “lived in constant fear of arrest, torture, transportation and extermination.”

Despite her success, Granville was again stymied by her handlers. When it became impossible for her to continue working in Eastern Europe (she had become too widely known), she spent time in Egypt as London decided what to do with her. Both the British and Polish investigated her loyalties, even wondering if she might be a double agent. The problem had more to do with infighting between administrative factions, Ms. Mulley explains, than with any real doubt about which side Granville was on.

Once freed to resume her work, Granville distinguished herself in France and Italy ahead of the Allied invasion of Europe. Now she was “Jacqueline Armand,” a valuable courier (and the lover) of Francis Cammaerts, a Belgian-born operative in the employ of the British. He was head of operations in Vercors, the stronghold of one of France’s most successful Resistance groups. When their network was penetrated and Cammaerts captured, Granville executed what a British handler called “one of the most remarkable personal exploits of the war.”

“Christine was aware there was a price on her head, and yet she strode straight into the Gestapo offices,” Ms. Mulley writes. “It was the sort of encounter that would turn most mouths dry. But it was exactly the kind of situation in which Christine naturally flourished.” She negotiated a ransom for Cammaerts’s release, promising the officials who facilitated his escape that they would be given favorable treatment when the Allies liberated France, a promise the British reneged on.

Granville floundered after the war. With no more networks to run, her mission turned to obtaining British citizenship, something she was denied several times but very much needed since she couldn’t return to Soviet-controlled Poland. She died an ignominious death in a London boardinghouse, having seduced one too many men. One British functionary described her dispatches from the field as “good reading.” The same can be said of Ms. Mulley’s biography of this extraordinary woman.

—Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

A Family of Firefighters

Kevin 1As many of you know, I was personally devastated by the deaths of the 19 wildland firefighters in Arizona. Joe Woyjeck is a good friend of mine who is a captain on the L.A. County Fire Department and vice president of the L.A. County Fire Museum. His son Kevin, who was just 21, was killed Sunday as a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Kevin very much wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Here is my piece from Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, about the Woyjecks and how they are symbolic of firefighting families across the country.

A Family of Firefighters
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 2, 2013

Firefighting creates a kind of informal family, the way cops and soldiers bond in jobs that are more than a job and any given day could be your last. Firefighting is also often a family affair in a literal sense. Go into most any firehouse, and you’re likely to find two or three firefighters with the same last name. They’re brothers, cousins, uncles and, increasingly, sisters, aunts and daughters. And you’ll find fathers and sons.

Kevin Woyjeck’s dream was to join his father, Joe, on the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Joe Woyjeck is the captain of Station 23 in Bellflower, one of the county’s busiest engine companies. Until Sunday, Kevin was a 21-year-old part-time emergency medical technician in L.A. He was also a member of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots wildland crew based in Prescott, Ariz.

Sunday was Kevin’s last day as a firefighter. He and 18 of his fellow crew members were killed while battling a wildfire in Yavapai County, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. A calamitous wind shift caused the worst U.S. wildland firefighting loss of life in 80 years.

“As a fire captain I looked forward to the day I got to pin a Los Angeles County Firefighter badge on him,” Joe said Monday in an email, too inconsolable to talk on the phone. “Now I have to bury him.”

The Woyjecks’ story is not uncommon in the fire service. Joe Woyjeck grew up in Seal Beach, Calif., and always knew he wanted to be a Los Angeles County firefighter. Like a lot of kids in the 1970s, he watched “Emergency!,” the Jack Webb-produced television show that introduced viewers to L.A. County firefighters and chronicled the early days of paramedicine. In one of those ironic twists of fate, the Woyjecks, through Joe’s work as the vice president and driving force behind the Los Angeles County Fire Museum, became good friends with one of the stars of the TV show, Randolph Mantooth.

Kevin had known the actor since childhood, but even without that bit of glamor Kevin almost certainly would have pursued the job: He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

While he was still in high school, Kevin earned his EMT certification and began working on a private ambulance in L.A. County. Young firefighters often toil at these low-paying jobs for years while they take entrance exams or pay for training to try to improve their chances of joining a full-time department. It’s hard to find a firefighter or EMT who got into it for the money.

Over the past few years, Kevin took fire-science classes at Santa Ana College, got his Wildland Firefighting certification and worked on the Bear Mountain wildland crew in South Dakota for a season. But he eventually came back to California to pursue his dream of joining L.A. County. His father helped him pay his tuition to the El Camino College Fire Academy so Kevin would have his basic firefighting certification and maybe get a job on a part-time department while he waited to test for L.A. County.

Kevin Woyjeck joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew three months ago, on April 1. He loved wildland firefighting, one of the most dangerous and lowest-paying jobs in the fire service. And he loved the people he worked with.

“He was a kid who always had a smile on his face, and sleeping in the dirt was no big deal,” his father said.

It is unfathomable that on the day Kevin Woyjeck died, 18 other families received similar heartbreaking news. But the threat of disaster striking is the job’s constant shadow. Even during the Woyjeck family’s darkest moments in the days to come, I doubt that they have any regrets about the career that Kevin chose. Rather, I’m sure that Joe takes some solace in the fact that, in the end, Kevin was doing something he loved—just like his dad.

Mr. Yost, a former firefighter/paramedic in Highwood, Ill., is a volunteer at the West I-10 Volunteer Fire Department in Katy, Texas.