Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

The Asphyxiation of Christmas

Soon after I settled in Fort Bragg in 1997, I had the great luck of witnessing the town’s annual Christmas Lighted-Truck Parade. I walked two blocks over to Main Street (a.k.a. the Shoreline Highway, a.k.a. Highway One) and stood with the crowd on the sidewalk waiting for the parade to begin. It was cold, just after dusk, but excitement vibrated the brisk air as kids and adults waited for the first logging semi to rumble by us.

I remember thinking, as I stood there on the sidewalk feeling the palpable excitement, what a great thing it was to live in a small town where everybody showed up to enjoy all the town’s special events, from the Paul Bunyan Days Celebration to the Lighted Truck Parade and several other festivals during the year—small towns celebrating themselves and special holidays, and always a bit quirky and bizarre.

It made sense—the lighted trucks—because lumber and logging were Fort Bragg’s biggest and only industry for many decades. The Union Lumber Company was a big name in Fort Bragg. Residents were loggers, mill workers, and train and truck operators. Plaid shirts abound, with baby-shit brown Carhartt pants and jackets, and rugged leather boots with steel toes. It was a rough and ready town, alive with the smell of wood, sawdust, exhaust fumes and a few dozen quarts of lager.

When the logging industry died out due to environmental issues, the town and shop owners cut a new direction for the town—tourism. Fort Bragg gentrified itself into a budding art community. It was a long haul competing against the well established art mecca of Mendocino, but it had one thing going for it—in those days, it was a less expensive place to live. Their new gentrified town included the Headlands Coffee place with great music and coffee. I read Bell Hooks and Anne Proulx and in 1998 I began writing my memoir while sipping cappuccino in the Headlands coffee-house. A new artist co-operative opened on Main Street and grew into a successful business, along with other art shops. Racine’s on Franklin, an old reliable art supply store had been there for years, along with other necessary shops. There was a newly formed visual arts center where I volunteered my time and where the Director made faces at people behind their backs—I knew that place wouldn’t last long with such an immature director. Restaurants served upscale California cuisine. And an ordinary hole-in-the-wall breakfast place on Main St. gained a reputation for the finest breakfasts on the Northern California coast… and boasted waiting lines to get in the door. In the late 1980’s Fort Bragg, a brief stop on the way to somewhere else, had became a destination in its own right.

That night at my first lighted-truck parade I waited in the cold. The big logging semis rumbled into town from the north as if they were coming with a load of logs on their backs, only this time they were hauling Christmas lights and decorations. As they rolled by, they pulled their deep-throated horns and everybody hollered and clapped with joy. The loud exhaust-belting diesel trucks, an incongruous sight decked out with colorful Christmas lights, captured everybody’s fantasies. Trucks of all types and sizes, fancy and plain, sponsored by various businesses, groups and organizations, rolled between the big semis all lit up in a blaze.

Back then, simple lights outlined the shape of the vehicles and their flatbed trailers. Today, like every other contemporary Christmas parade, the lights define more intricate and sophisticated store-bought holiday related themes, reindeer, Santa, Santa’s sleigh, trees, and elves. The lighted-trucks have become more like small colorful Rose Bowl floats, only made more artificial with commercial decorations and tableaux, and the ever-present advertisements for businesses, all of which removes the quality and charm from the small home-town event.

As the line of sparkle and music snaked its way south on the coast highway it turned left on a side street, rolled one block east, and turned left again onto Franklin and north to Laurel. A two-way street with two lanes, the trucks slowly rumbled up each lane and came to a halt just beyond the Laurel Street intersection. They filled up three or four blocks. When they parked, they left their engines idling to generate the lights. Parade-goers wandered in and around all the trucks for a close-up view of everything, visiting with friends, their kids scrambling for Christmas candy thrown over their heads by Santa.

I too wandered in and around the rumble. The roar of all the big semi engines in close quarters was like the loud deep rumble of motorcycles as they cross the Siuslaw River Bridge during Rhody Days in Florence, Oregon. Hundreds of bikers cruising into town, on Bay Street black bikes lined up with riders wearing black leathers and chains, sitting atop their bikes like crows on a telephone wire. The vibrations rumbled through my body from head to toe, then and now.

While wandering among the trucks, I began to feel weird. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The engines were spitting out powerful noxious diesel exhaust. The fumes, trapped on these two lanes between tall buildings had nowhere else to go. An inversion layer of smog hovered over Fort Bragg for a few hours. Among the idling engines, the air got dirtier and thicker and heavier and more blue and warmer as the minutes ticked by. I became nauseous. I developed a headache. As I walked among the lighted trucks, the carbon monoxide spewing from their tall blackened pipes was asphyxiating everybody, starving our lungs and bodies of much-needed oxygen. But nobody seemed to notice…except me.

I had to get away. I walked the two blocks back to my small apartment behind Paul Bunyan’s Thrift Store.

I thought it was funny at the time, one of those odd and bizarre funny things that happen at small town events, but now I see it as ironic. Those beautiful lighted semi-trucks were as toxic and asphyxiating as is the commercialism of Christmas today snuffing out the meaning of Christmas. Instead of the simple, beauty and majesty of tiny lights twinkling against a dark sky, instead of it being a magic celebration of community, love and giving, back then the big diesel trucks belching their exhaust were a harbinger of things to come.

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