Back a week or so ago, John E. Jacobs was an air traffic controller. He remembers it fondly: the $37,800 salary that provided a good life, the $520 monthly mortgage paid with little trouble. For Jacobs, his wife Peggy, and their 16-month-old daughter, it was a two-car life style -- secure and suburban.

Now Jacobs is fired -- fired by the man he voted for nine months ago. And now, at 34 years old, he is trying to come to grips with his situation and his future.

Jacobs, a stocky, bright-eyed man with an auburn mustache, is one of 12,000 casualties of the air traffic controllers strike. He did not report to work last week, and Friday he received a dismissal notice from the government.

"We were prepared mentally for this, but not emotionally," he said in an interview.

For the air traffic controllers, ordinarily an imperturbable crew, the strike and subsequent mass firing have pushed many of them to the brink of bitterness. They feel betrayed by an administration they helped to elect, short-changed by media -- both print and visual -- they do not trust, and misunderstood by the public, whom they have failed to reach.

Daily picketing, meetings, picnics, and rallies sponsored by the union local provide the comfort of common experience and stave off anxiety and despair for the time being.

Nonetheless, some controllers and their families are beginning to look to themselves individually, and to wonder what the future holds.

Jacobs shares with almost all of the fired controllers at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg a strong conviction that the air traffic system cannot function effectively without them. He does not think of himself as unemployed, and does not believe that he may have to search for another job.

Many of the controllers say flatly they do not believe Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis when he says the controllers will not be rehired. And many say it will take a midair collision -- which many of them regard as inevitable -- to wake the public up to the danger of flying nowadays, with supervisors and military personnel filling in for thousands of striking controllers.

Jacobs and many of the controllers think it is only a matter of time before the system comes crumbling down, and the government is forced to negotiate a settlement with them.

"We all believe that if we hold out long enough, we'll be able to return to our normal lives," said Deirdre Collier, the wife of another Leesburg controller, Joey M. Collier.

Still, Jacobs and his wife are not sitting back waiting for the government to come crawling. Confidence has its practical limits. Jacobs is starting to think about a new job -- even though he says he does not think it will come to that.

"It's not going to be an easy thing, if I have to get a new job," he said. "But I could get a job -- I'm not worried about that." Jacobs, a business major in college, mentioned hotel management as a possible new career.

Jacobs acknowledged that leaving controlling, which he likes very much, would be a "sacrifice." But he said the loss would not be insurmountable. "I would miss the job, but I can deal with losing it," he said.

"But we're not thinking about that yet, really," said Peggy Jacobs. "The union will stick together -- we're all the same class of people, and that helps."

"There's no way we could go this alone," John Jacobs added. "This is a traumatic thing, and you need as much reinforcement as you can get."

The reinforcement is certainly there for the striking controllers. The union -- in Leesburg's case Local 204 of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization -- is by all accounts a father figure and oversoul for them. It is the union they believe and trust, the union that boosts their spirits and straight-arms creeping depression. Local 204 meetings, held in a makeshift strike hall at the Leesburg Quality Inn, are a shot of adrenaline for many of the controllers and their families who attend.

"It's a great feeling" to go to the meetings, said Joey Collier. "A lot of us probably won't feel anything like that again in years. We feel like we're winning, we feel like we're going to win."

Added Deirdre Collier: "Every time we go to those meetings, we feel better."

Group psychology has its limits. Like Joey Collier, who is starting to think about a new career in electronics, many of the controllers are asking the first hard questions about life without PATCO. Some are looking to buy gas stations, others have job offers from neighbors and relatives. But all the controllers and wives interviewed stressed that the price of starting over -- lower salary and less rewarding work -- is worth it.

"I'm not a militant person, and neither is my wife," Jacobs said. "But when you feel as strongly as we do about circumstances like these, when you feel so sure that what you are doing is right, you have to live with yourself. There's no way I could throw away that kind of a salary on a whim."