Years ago, I watched a house fire on Chestnut Street. The second floor of the house was wrapped in swirling smoke, and flames spit out a window. A large ladder bridged a firetruck on the street to an upstairs window. A firefighter ran up the ladder with a hose over his shoulder and disappeared into the smoke. He and the other firefighters saved most of the structure.

The act of running toward danger is unnatural for humans, unless they are protecting loved ones. It takes courage, pure and cold, to voluntarily run toward danger, but this particular incident of running up the ladder and into the smoke was routine for the firefighters. And the incident gave me a simple epiphany, which was this: it is routine for firefighters to risk their lives and take action that is contrary to the natural inclination for self-protection. To run toward danger, toward potential death or serious injury, in order to help a stranger or save a stranger's property takes courage (and training) that very few of us have, besides those in the military and police.

This Sunday the annual "Santa Parade" will be held downtown. The event is emblematic of the Andover firefighters' dedication to the town. They originated the parade, have run it for 54 years, and pay for it from their own pockets, and they do it with little fanfare.

The parade started quietly. On Dec. 1, 1955, an Andover Townsman headline mentioned a scheduled parade. The story said, "...and on Saturday, an interesting Santa Claus parade will be held... It will be led by the All-Girls band and will feature Santa and his reindeer. Included in the line of march will be several floats...."

The next week's Townsman showed a picture of a group smiling youngsters sitting in a fire truck. Four years later, the December 3, 1959 Townsman said that Santa was coming to town aboard a fire truck, and he'd take up headquarters at the Fire Station. The story said that, the year before, 1000 youngsters spoke to Santa and received small gifts. Mentioned also was that the Firemen's Relief Association sponsored the event.

In addition to the parade, just before Christmas, the firefighters kept a "talking mailbox" near the old Fire Station behind the Old Town Hall. Children would call Santa from the mailbox and the fireman on telephone duty would act as Santa while speaking with the kids. Other firemen could watch the kids' joyful reaction from inside the firehouse.

The correct name for the parade originally was, "The Andover Firefighter's Christmas Parade" and that became the "Andover Firefighters Santa Parade." The firefighters don't make a big deal about the name, so it is commonly called the "Santa Parade." Fair enough, things take on their own names, but it seems to me that, when we watch the parade, we should remember who put it together and paid for it.

I'm proud to say that I'm related to three firefighters. I have two nephews on the Andover Fire Department, Bob and Mike Dalton, and my wife's sister, Valerie Roberts, is a firefighter in Long Beach, Calif. My son, Jack, is also a "blue," but in this case a police officer; he's a sergeant with the Durham, N.H. police.

I'm the grand marshal of this year's parade. I greatly appreciate the honor. However, with honesty I have to say that they - all of Andover's firefighters, past and present - are the real grand marshals. They truly deserve the honor. They help us sleep at night. They protect us, and they are good at it.

In any event, the Santa Parade is the firefighters' holiday present to the townspeople of Andover and, especially, to its kids.

Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman and can be reached at billdalton@andovertownie.com

This Week's Circulars

Recommended for you