Happy Holiday: Andy Holiday hangs his helmet after 37 years

In this Dispatch file photo Andy Holiday teachers members of the public how to use a fire extinguisher during Fire Prevention Week in October in the 1980's.

After 37 years as a Gilroy firefighter, flames were but a fraction of Andy Holiday’s occupational hazards.

From investigating massive fires that incinerated entire buildings, to prying a truck driver from the crumpled wreck of a totaled cab, to delivering newborns, to cutting a buck-naked, 7-year-old boy out of a laundry basket, a firefighter’s daily grind has its healthy hand of wildcards.

Asked about the wackiest distress call he’s ever responded to, Holiday laughs at the memory of trigger-happy 9-1-1 dialers.

“There was this young boy of about 6 or 7, and he got stuck in a wicker laundry hamper,” chuckles Holiday, sympathetically. “I remember looking at him in this basket and wondering, why is he naked?”

In a flustered attempt to free the boy, his mother managed to cut her son’s clothes off. She figured it would help him shimmy loose. It didn’t work.

“Now he’s hooked up in the thing, and totally humiliated because his 9-year-old sister is standing there, and then all of these firefighters walk in,” said Holiday, who will turn 59 on March 19. “We had to cut the basket wide open with giant shears.”

With Wednesday marking his last day on the job, Holiday’s sunsetting career signals the end of a chapter for Gilroy’s old-school firefighting guard.

“He’s done a fantastic job as a fire investigator,” said retired GFD Division Chief Dave Bozzo, 58, who worked with Holiday for almost 30 years. “Hopefully they’ll have somebody with at least a certain level of experience that can take over for him. They’ll have a huge loss when it comes to (Holiday) as an investigator, which is a very specialized field.”

Pausing to chat during a barbecue at the Chestnut Station Wednesday afternoon in Holiday’s honor, retired GFD Battalion Chief Clay Benson, 60 – whom Holiday took under his wing when Benson was hired as a paid firefighter in 1981 – noted, “ He’s a good guy. I kept wondering if and when he was ever going to go. He’s the last of the old troop.”

At 59, the blue-eyed, mustached Holiday is the last active firefighter to have worked in the rustic brick building; a place he’ll forever regard an all-American landmark signifying the “Leave it to Beaver” yesteryears of the Garlic Capital when Gilroy had but one fire station.

The edifice is now home to Station 55 Bar and Grill, but don’t call it that to Holiday’s face.

“We call it ‘The Old Fifth Street Station,’” he said, his expression wrinkling at the common misconception that the red brick building at 55 Fifth Street was called “Station 55” during its years as an operational fire station.

“The Old Station was the greatest in the world,” said Holiday, who spent about three years there. “There’s nothing like it.”

Constructed in 1916 just before the end of WWI, the Fifth Street Station shut down 62 years later when the city built the new Las Animas Fire Station in 1978. Holiday clocked some time working at Gilroy’s Chestnut Fire Station, but spent the majority of his career at Las Animas.

Home to a number of restaurants ever since – most recently Station 55 as of March 2010 – the venue at 55 Fifth Street assumes its former persona through Holiday’s lens as he perused his old stomping grounds Wednesday. He took the Dispatch for a jaunt down memory lane, pointing out to a middle window in the banquet room on the second floor. It offers a picturesque view of Fifth Street.

“This was my room,” says Holiday, indicating to an expanded dining area lined with tables and chairs where he once slept during block shifts.

When the building later reopened as a restaurant in the late 1970s, it had already seen its share of happy hours.

Holiday said off-duty firefighters would kick back and fraternize in the upstairs area, which was outfitted with a pool table and a vending machine.

“But there wasn’t any Coke in there,” grins Holiday. “It was just filled with beer.”

Now, after serving the community for almost four decades, the Aptos native is trading fire for water.

The scuba enthusiast is already entertaining his next dive to Cozumel with his wife Cheri Holiday, 55, a retired city emergency dispatcher.

“It’s kind of strange. When I kissed her good-bye this morning, I said, ‘this will be the last time,’” he muses, sitting in a swivel chair inside his office at the Gilroy Chestnut Fire Station.

A slideshow of the couple’s travels drifts across a computer screen on Holiday’s desk. After a lifetime of thrill-seeking in the jungles of Belize, to exploring coral reefs of Hawaii, to making friends with members of the indigenous Masai tribe in Africa, the father of four and grandfather of two lights up as he talks about his idea for writing a series of children’s books inspired by his travel adventures.

If that doesn’t keep him occupied, continuing his work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium – where Holiday is a volunteer going on 15 years – will.

If you’ve ever gazed, transfixed at the aquarium’s two-story kelp forest exhibit as a scuba diver hand-feeds 5-foot-long wolf eels and engages in witty banter with ogling spectators via an oxygen mask microphone, there’s a good chance you’ve already met Holiday. He’s one of those divers.

“If you don’t feed them, the leopard sharks will say, ‘Hey! I’ve been here long enough!’ And push on you,” says Holiday, who dons a quarter-inch thick wetsuit and slips into the 50-degree water every other Tuesday. “Sharks get a bad rap for that, but they’re actually very gentle.”

At his core, Holiday is a people person. He loves to meet people; he loves to talk with people. He’ll miss that facet of his job – more than the estimated thousands of fires and emergency calls he’s responded to throughout his career.

“Hi! I’m Andy Holiday,” he says, jutting out his hand to a complete stranger while having his picture taken inside Station 55 Wednesday.

While the opportunity did arise, the social chatterbox said he didn’t want to transfer to a larger department.

Looking back on his 37-year career – not to mention the three he spent volunteering in his hometown of Aptos prior to getting hired in Gilroy – “big calls don’t stand out,” said Holiday. “It’s serving the people that you know when you’ve lived in this town.”

Not that he’ll forget the intense experiences, like getting tangled in barbed wire while trying to make his way out of a raging grass fire off Burchell Road; coming to the aid of a Gilroy Foods employee who lost an arm after getting caught in a piece of machinery; darting out from beneath a collapsing wall when Rapazzini Winery caught fire in the mid-80s; or racing the clock to extract a truck driver after a head-on collision left him near-death and trapped in a hunk of wreckage.

“It was like somebody put him in a Coke can and crushed it,” Holiday recalled. “When a person survives, it’s amazing. Those kinds of things stick out in my mind.”

On the flipside, Holiday admits all the losses he’s witnessed “are there internally, and it’s not something you can survive in this job if you don’t learn to let go.”

Luckily, none of his fire colleagues were ever claimed in the line of duty.

Today, at least, Holiday says firefighters are much better equipped to battle blazes than they were 30 years ago.

Whereas firefighters once groped around on their hands and knees inside a burning building billowing with plumes of smoke, modern thermal imaging cameras have transformed a firefighter’s ability to detect people, debris and dangerous areas.

“It’s revolutionized the way we fight fires,” Holiday explained. “We’ve had guys fall right through the floor into the basement because they couldn’t see where they were going.”

The emphasis on safety, additionally, has vastly evolved since the late 1970s when Holiday would operate noisy engine equipment without noise-muffling headphones. Today, he wears hearing aids in both ears.

As time wanes, so does Holiday’s status as Gilroy’s unofficial expert on Gilroy’s Old Station.

If you venture through a trap door in the ceiling just above the upstairs bar at Station 55, a gander through the attic reveals a litter of names dotting the roof beams. Volunteers used to scribble their names here in chalk; a small declaration of existence in place and time.

“Just like any guy, you gotta put your name on something,” laughed Holiday.

In a serendipitous stroke of chance, Holiday crossed paths with one of those old volunteers – an elderly gentleman by the name of Walden who in the early ‘80s was residing in the Gilroy Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center on Murray Avenue.  

“I went in and talked to him. It was pretty cool to see somebody’s name, and then to see that person … that’s history,” said Holiday.

Whether making friends with curious children at the aquarium or keeping in touch with old friends in Gilroy and his current hometown of Tres Pinos, Holiday’s firefighting career is coming to a close – but a flame for staying active in the community will never extinguish.

“I enjoy serving people that I know. I’ve always taken it as, ‘these are my people. This is my city.’ And that’s the way I look at it,” he said. “I don’t think I could have served the way I have this many years without thinking about it that way. It’s a privilege, but this is personal to me. This is a personal service, and I’ve enjoyed it.”

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