Maggie Gallagher

There were lots of heroes in San Diego last week:

But John Gibbons' story is the one story of heroism that I couldn't get out of my head.

Before the San Diego wildfires broke out last week, John Gibbons' prospects for earning the grateful attention of anyone would have seemed, well, dim.

At 42, reports The San Diego Union-Tribune, he lived with his 76-year-old mother, Mantha Carter, and his 44-year-old half-brother, David Flores, in a 100-space trailer park, way up in a canyon. It is so remote that cell phones don't work, and their neighbors include many poor Mexican immigrants living there in order to keep their children in U.S. schools.

Between John and David and Mantha's shared living space, and their disparate surnames, lies a lifetime of hard knocks, heartache and -- let's be frank -- limited success at the whole American dream thing. Space 48 in the Barrett Lake Mobile Home Park may not be much, but for John, David and their mom, it was home.

So when brave firefighters, racing to the trailer park to evacuate residents, reached space 48, John's mom flatly refused all requests to leave. Eventually six firefighters forcibly evacuated her, dropping her off with her two sons in tow at a friend's house about a mile down the road. She must have been a pitiful sight, bleeding from the nose, weeping and wailing, "I have nowhere else to go."

After an hour, John Gibbons couldn't take it any longer. He persuaded his friend Evan Klaska to hop with him on a motorcycle and head back toward the flames, toward space 48.

For two days, armed with only a shovel, John raced around the perimeter with Evan, desperately shoveling dirt on tiny fires as palm trees exploded in flames beside the propane tanks around them. Two days later, 80 percent of the trailers were gone. Mom's trailer still stood.

When asked by reporters why he did it, John Gibbons said only: "Mom wanted to go home, and it's all we got. We're poor."

John Gibbons was a hero.

But it could have gone so easily the other way: A man and his buddy burned to a crisp, potentially endangering rescue workers, too, and for what? A rusty heap of metal not worth a minimum-wage worker's monthly salary.

Maybe that's why I can't get John Gibbons out of my head. Once the flames die down, and we know how the story turns out, it's easy to separate the heroes from the fools.

But what about beforehand, when men (and it's almost always men in such cases) decide to act or not to act? There's such a thin red line between valor and stupidity, with only a few unpredictable seconds of flames or a stray gust of wind separating the hero from the goat. Hero or the goat? Hero or the goat?

You never can know.

But when the woman starts crying, and it's all you have, what's a guy to do?


Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.