Mass. fire department helps retired firefighter celebrate 104th birthday
Rocco Brienzo discussed his pride in the fire service; Lynn firefighters gave him a personalized helmet and took him for a ride in their new fire boat
By Anthony Cammalleri
Daily Item, Lynn
LYNN, Mass. — After celebrating his 104th birthday this week, Lynn's oldest firefighter Rocco Brienzo reflected on more than a century of life, faith, and service.
Brienzo served as a firefighter in the city from 1949 until 1980, when he retired at 61 as a master mechanic. On Wednesday, Lynn Fire Chief Daniel Sullivan, retired Fire Chief Stephen Archer, and a crowd of Lynn firefighters drove to Brienzo's home at Camellia Gardens in Maynard to wish him a happy birthday.
The firefighters presented Brienzo with a Lynn fire helmet that read "104." They also took him for a ride in the department's newest fire boat, "The Rocky B," which was named after him.
In an interview Friday, Brienzo said that the proudest he ever felt was when he wore his firefighter uniform.
"It was a way of serving the people, caring for the people," Brienzo said. "One day I was marching in my uniform, we were going down the street and I looked on the side and there I saw an old girlfriend of mine. I hollered 'Hey!' I was so proud to wear that uniform."
Brienzo was born in 1919 in East Boston. His parents were Italian immigrants who settled in Boston in 1912, and moved the family to Lynn in the spring of 1929 — right before the stock market crashed.
At the onset of the Great Depression, Brienzo's father lost his job after buying a house in Lynn for $8,000. By October 1929, Brienzo said the house was only worth $2,000. To continue making mortgage payments, his father sold the house to Brienzo's older sister, who was only 16-years-old and worked at the General Electric's Edison Lamp Works factory in East Boston.
"It wasn't easy during the Depression," Brienzo said. "Everybody was losing their houses because, suddenly, they couldn't afford them."
During World War II, Brienzo joined the Navy Reserves in 1942, where he served for three years as a machinist. After working in the engine room of a navy ship and traveling to Bora Bora, Fiji, and New Guinea, Brienzo returned to the United States. For a few years he worked as a diesel engine mechanic in Cleveland and South Carolina.
In 1948, Brienzo moved back to Lynn after reading in the newspaper that the fire department was hiring. Unfortunately, Brienzo missed the minimum height requirement by less than an inch and failed the physical exam. He said that he tried stretching the best he could, but to no avail.
"I did everything to get the five-foot-six," Brienzo said. "The poor guy did everything to try to help me pass, but I couldn't pass."
By 1949, Brienzo said that the fire department lowered its minimum height requirement. He re-applied, and was sworn in as a firefighter.
At his first fire, Brienzo said that the department gave him World War I — era gas masks. He said that he felt like he couldn't breathe wearing the mask, so he took it off, breathed in smoke, and went to the floor in search of oxygen.
"I'm falling on the floor, and I bumped into somebody. It was one of the older firemen. He was standing up, and he said to me 'What are you looking for, kid?'" Brienzo said.
One of the more harrowing moments in his career, Brienzo said, was during the early 1950s. He went into a tenement house on Chestnut Street to extinguish a fire, and found two dead children.
"I'll never forget that fire. It was such a nightmare, because we went down the stairs, and the door was closed, and we thought it was a rubbish alarm, but it was two little children," Brienzo said. "That was the worst one I went to."
Although Brienzo uses a walker to get around, he said he walks up the stairs without it to get to his room at Camellia Gardens at least once a day. Brienzo said that he makes the climb each day to "stay sharp."
Brienzo credits his long life to his religious faith. He said he prays multiple times a day, and almost always carries a rosary.
Additionally, Brienzo thanks God for his late wife Marguerite, with whom he shared 75 years of marriage. Together they had three children, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Brienzo met Marguerite at a dance in 1940, a week before he was supposed to ship out with the Merchant Marines. Rocco said that he tried to dance with a girl he met in Chelsea, but that the two of them were stepping all over one another. When he saw Marguerite and asked her to dance before leaving, Brienzo said his luck turned around.
"You wouldn't believe the difference. I was dancing all over the floor doing all kinds of crazy steps," he said. "I felt like Fred Astaire."
Brienzo asked Marguerite out for a movie that Saturday night, forgetting that he was supposed to ship out the day prior. When the weekend came around, he took his future wife out on a date instead of reporting for duty.
Marguerite died at the age of 99 in 2017. Brienzo said that she died of natural causes in his arms after uttering a final "I love you," to him.
"God is so good. I couldn't ask for anything better," he said. "What more can you ask for them to be in your wife's arms when she dies? It's a miracle."
When asked if he had any secrets for a long and fulfilling life, Brienzo said that he believes his faith and resilience kept him going for so long.
"If you live your faith, you don't have to worry about anything. You can enjoy life and even hardships," Brienzo said. "Life has its ups and downs, and the downs are just another part of your life. Just keep going to keep doing what your life demands. You don't ever give up. Never have a negative attitude about anything, good or bad. Cherish everything. Life is beautiful, it's definitely beautiful."
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