HOLDEN, Mass. — In the months leading up to Assistant Fire Chief Alexander Belisle Jr.'s retirement, a clock from his daughter sat on his desk, ticking away the hours, minutes and seconds to his last day on the Holden Fire Department. On Sept. 28, the countdown ended. After 46 years of dedicated service to Holden, Belisle is looking forward to making up for lost time with his children and grandchildren.
Firefighting has always been in Belisle's blood. His long and storied career started when he was just a child watching his hero — Alexander Belisle Sr. — fight fires in Holden.
"I became a firefighter at 7 years of age," he said. "I remember it distinctly, like it was yesterday. I was going to the store with him, and a firetruck went by, so he followed it up to Mixter Road. So he parked the car on the side of the road, and I just sat there watching him until he was done. Then we finished our errands, and I've been hooked ever since."
With a passion for firefighting, Belisle grew from the little kid crawling through the big firetrucks at the old station behind the Town Hall, to a teenager helping to drag hose during brush fires.
Though already a firefighter at heart, it was not until Halloween 1966 that the 18-year-old Belisle was officially voted into the department. After the young man was recommended by three firefighters, the whole department met in the station, and a gray box was passed around for a silent vote. Each firefighter could drop in a white ball to signify their approval, but if even a single black ball was cast, Belisle's hopes would be dashed.
"That's how they used to do it. As long as you didn't get a black ball, you were voted in," said Belisle. "I made it on the first pass, mostly because I had so many relatives and my father was on the department."
Back then, firefighter training was a different experience than it is now.
"At my first structure fire, an officer told me to put on this air pack and go help these guys out. I remember going, 'what?'" he recalled. "But that was my first structure fire, working with an experienced crew and doing suppression and search and rescue. My initial training was on the job."
Belisle continued training with veteran firefighters until the day he became a veteran, which brought with it a career full of memories and experiences.
Yet for a firefighter, sometimes the most memorable events are also the most tragic. Belisle vividly remembers his first fatal car accident.
A vehicle careened into a bridge abutment and burst into flames. It was the first time Belisle had ever seen someone who had been burned. It was a gruesome scene but an unavoidable part of a job.
"Back then, you didn't have people that took care of post-traumatic stress, so we had to relieve stress through humor. ... If you took everything personally, it would be a nightmare," he said.
One of his first big fires was the Preston Manor Nursing Home fire. "It was mutual aid to Princeton, and we just about sent everything we had out there. We had to go up and help evacuate the residents that couldn't get out of the building," Belisle said.
He was only a teenager when he fought that fire, and in the chaos, but Belisle remembers living for the moment.
"But once the teenage years started to wear off, and maturity started to set in, I decided to start taking classes to better myself in the fire service," he said.
Belisle took leadership and strategy classes and soon worked up the ranks. From 1983 to 1994, he was a firefighter in the Federal Fire Service. First at Fort Devins, he served as a lieutenant and then captain, and in 1995 he served out of the submarine base in Groton. He was also fire chief in Princeton for three years.
Throughout this, Belisle continued to serve on the Holden Fire Department, where he rose to the rank of assistant chief.
Though Belisle will miss being on the department, after 46 years he said he's ready to go.
"Let the young kids take over. I'm through chasing them through buildings and the fire ground," he joked. "It's a young guy's sport. I find myself a little shorter of breath than I was at 18. And that's the nature of the beast — you have to breath a little smoke."
As a dedicated smoke-eater, though, Belisle was always ready to head out the door when the tones went off for a fire, even at the most inopportune times.
"Even in high school, I got invited to somebody's senior prom, and about five hours before it started, the tones went off. It ended up being a fire call, so she wasn't a happy camper," he said. "That's the only bad part, you have to be available 24 hours a day. You never know."
Belisle also saw how this put a strain on important relationships.
"When I worked for the Federal Fire Service, I couldn't do a lot of things with my daughter," he said. "In this job, you get called out nights, holidays, weekends, graduations and birthdays, and I always felt that when you start picking and choosing your calls, then it's time to resign."
Now Belisle hopes to make up for lost opportunities by spending days with his granddaughters, who are 5 and 9.
"It's doing stuff I never got to do with my daughter," he said. "One of the things my granddaughter wants to do is go see what she calls 'The Presidents' — Mount Rushmore — so we're going to rent a motor home and take the girls and travel to all the places we didn't get to go before. I want the kids to remember, after I'm long gone, the time Papa did this with them."