Redefining where we look for our heroes

October 01, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

Funny how our definition of "hero" has changed, isn't it?

Our heroes used to be guys who scored touchdowns on crisp autumn Sundays and threw down thundering dunks in NBA arenas and hit baseballs far into the night in major league stadiums.

Or they were celluloid tough-guys like Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal and Sylvester Stallone, who mowed down the bad guys and bedded the hot babe and saved all of Western civilization in those ridiculous Hollywood thrillers.

Or they were preening rock stars or scowling hip-hop artists or any of the other dubious icons of pop culture today.

Tell me something: what were we thinking ?

Then came the horrible morning of Sept. 11, and suddenly we found out what real heroes look like.

We found out they wear scoop helmets and turn-out coats and heavy gloves and rubber boots.

We found out they jump on fire trucks and rush into burning buildings with hoses in their hands and oxygen masks on their faces while everyone else is screaming and running the other way.

We found out if you wanted to see a real hero, just wait for all hell to break loose, then watch a firefighter do his or her job.

Man, you talk about a wake-up call. The firefighters at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - those who died, sure, but those who lived, too - showed us heroism in its purest, most exalted form.

Why, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, firefighters even became sex symbols!

To an adoring nation, they became walking, talking embodiments of bravery, gallantry and virility.

Here is a prediction, and I make it in all seriousness: Guys in singles bars who once tried to pass themselves off as war heroes or Olympic athletes will now be sidling up to women and spinning stories about the three-alarm hotel blaze they just fought.

Guys in high school and college who once tried to impress girls with bad poetry or a new sports car will have better luck with this line: "I'm thinking of joining the fire department."

Of course, the idea that they've become overnight heroes in the eyes of America greatly amuses firefighters, especially the older guys who've retired and are watching this new wave of hero-worship at a distance.

Bill Snyder spent 31 years in the Baltimore City Fire Department, most of it with 33 Engine on Gorsuch Avenue, and co-authored a book called The Unheralded Heroes, a history of the department.

I drove out to the Fire Museum of Maryland the other day, where he volunteers as a tour guide, and when I brought up the subject of the firefighter as the new American hero, he smiled and nodded.

After what happened in New York, said Snyder, now 74: "I think people are finally getting around to realizing what this job is all about, and how [difficult] it is."

Bob Franklin, who spent 23 years in the Baltimore County Fire Department, feels the same way.

"Those guys [in New York] are American heroes," Franklin said. "In the past, maybe people were looking at [firefighters] as pieces of machinery. But now people are seeing they're human."

The essential nature of the job, so vividly underscored in the first few minutes after the attack on the World Trade Center, hasn't changed, say Snyder and Franklin.

Saving lives is still the main reason why you put on the uniform. And it's still dangerous as hell.

"Every day when you go out" to do your job, says Snyder, "you don't know if you'll come back."

Franklin feels it's ironic that people now marvel at the hundreds of firefighters who rushed into the burning twin towers while panicked office workers streamed out of the place.

This, he says, is what firemen have done for ages.

"You get to a house fire in the middle of the night, and you see smoke puffing through the eaves - you're gonna go in there," said Franklin.

Like a lot of things in this country, this new hero-worship of our firefighters might not last too long.

We're a fickle people. Even our heroes tend to come and go.

I remember, back in the early '90s, there was this sudden spike in interest in fire-fighting when the movie Backdraft, starring Kurt Russell, William Baldwin and Robert DeNiro, came out.

Oh, it was a howler for a lot of firefighters, marred by all sorts of inaccurate details and wildly improbable scenarios, including Billy Baldwin and some babe making love on a fire truck seconds before it sped off on a call.

"It was just ridiculous," said Bill Snyder of the film. "They were running in to fight the fires with no masks on. And the flames must not have been too hot, because they were so close to them."

"You never see as many backdrafts in a lifetime as they saw in that movie," Franklin said.

Still, as you sat in a darkened theater with your overpriced Pepsi and popcorn and watched the narrative unfold, it was impossible not to think of the sheer physical courage firefighters bring to their jobs every day.

You can bet there'll be a new movie about firefighters in the wake of the tragedy on Sept. 11. Hollywood will trot out the standard-issue pretty boys for the starring roles - I see Leonardo DiCaprio in the mix somewhere, unfortunately. And the special effects people will have a field day.

But this time we know one thing: There sure won't be a happy ending. Not with more than 300 firefighters still missing in the rubble in Manhattan.

But maybe when we watch this new movie, it'll remind us again who the real heroes are in our midst.

When everyone else is screaming and leaving the building, they're the ones going in.

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