Heroes Then and Now

You can’t tell what time of day it is, the fog and smoke are so thick. Bare branches heighten the gothic mood. The ground is mud. An overturned wheelbarrow hints at chaos. One man turns toward the mysterious glow while the others—wet, soot-streaked, slumped—look down or away, spent. The central figure, incongruously, holds a burning cigarette.

The four men had just battled an early morning house fire in a Seattle suburb when Jerry Gay, then a 27-year-old photographer with the Seattle Times, made this otherworldly portrait. Heroic imagery of firefighters is common these days, but this was October 1974, soon after the Vietnam War, a time that didn’t often exalt bravely doing one’s duty. Americans "were not seeming very honorable or very dedicated to the right principles," Gay recalls, "and here was this fireman picture that sort of spoke to a new American hero, a different kind of soldier." Titled Lull in the Battle, it won Gay a Pulitzer Prize.

Gay is now a freelance photojournalist in La Conner, Washington. His just-published book, Everyone Has a Life to Live, contains unabashedly sentimental photographs—kids, old folks, newlyweds, road signs, birds—that show, he says, how "we all share in each other’s lives."

Of the firemen, Joseph Guild tore his knee responding to a fire in 1982 and left the service; now 55, he works as a greenskeeper at a golf course. Chris Kitterman, 52, left fire fighting in 1989 after injuring his back on the job and now works for a sporting goods company. Jim Flick, 47 and a general contractor, served 19 years as a firefighter and paramedic. Tom Gudmestad, 49, is the paramedic operations chief for southern King County, Washington. The photograph hangs in his office. To Gudmestad, it has become a "touchstone of faith," he says. "I’ve been in the fire fighting business almost 30 years, and it always brings me back to what I did with that time and why."

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