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A Festival of Lights In Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg held its Holiday Lights Parade last Saturday night.

The parade wasn't a sure thing this year. As Coronavirus case numbers in Mendocino County increased rapidly through early December, a vocal chorus grew to cancel the event.

Comments sprung up on local message boards calling the beloved, decades-long tradition (previously the Lighted Truck Parade) things like “a kamikaze mission.”

That was me. Was I wrong.

The Holiday Lights Parade is normally a joyous, crowded, often bone-chilling evening in downtown Fort Bragg. Main Street is shut, the Guest House lawn becomes a free range for running kids, carolers sing, Santa appears, the tree is lit, people mingle. A lot.

Fort Bragg City Manager Tabatha Miller said Saturday, pre-parade, that City Hall and the city council had never really wavered from holding the event, but as COVID case numbers increased, anxiety about it grew.

Among those growing more anxious was Mendocino County Public Health Officer Andy Coren. Miller said she had been consulting with him for weeks about the event, and the City had his support.

But by the first weeks of December, she said, "He was starting to get nervous.”

In response, Miller said, Fort Bragg's city government planned an all-vehicle parade. Parade entries and spectators would just stay in their cars. Coren signed on. Problem solved?

Seldom do events involving at least a couple thousand people turn on a dime at the last minute and come off without a hitch. But Fort Bragg can do things like that.

An hour before parade time, there was no sign of anything scheduled for the evening. Then, parking places along Main Street started filling up. Soon cars lined the lengthened parade route from north to south through town. 

Downtown was brightly lit, but the sidewalks were nearly empty. One young married couple was getting a little air in front of the Guest House. Both grew up in Fort Bragg. They, like pretty much everybody, were leery of having their names in the paper, but they were happy to say why they came to the parade.

“For the kids. The kids need this,” both said at once.

A normal Fort Bragg fall is the busiest of seasons, they noted.

“Right now is such a big time - there's football going on, Homecoming, everything,” she said.

What would they say to those who objected to holding the parade this year?

“You’re missing a good time,” he said.

“And it's their choice to stay home,” she added. “I mean, if you can go to Safeway with 500 people, what is the difference? It’s definitely real, but we've got to make it work for everybody.”

“If we look out for each other instead of pointing fingers, we'll get through this,” he said.

Steven Tunzi stood next to the truck that won the night's grand prize, the 2020 Holiday Lights Perpetual Trophy. The rig still blazed like an ocean liner in front of Rossi's Hardware just off Main street in Fort Bragg as parade goers scattered, and the drizzle started to return. Frank Tunzi nestled in his arms, looking like he was trying to decide whether Dad needed backup, even though it was well past bedtime.

“We worked on it yesterday for a couple hours to get it washed up,” Tunzi said. “It's a brand new truck so it didn't take much washing. Then a couple hours of design work…”

The result was an eye-popping 10-ton wall of light that obviously wowed the judges.

The Tunzis are veteran entrants in Mendocino County fairs and parades of all kinds, having been in Comptche many generations now.

“We're traditional ranchers,” he said. “We have timber, a rock quarry, a cow-calf operation. It's (the truck) normally for construction and rock-hauling.”

But it was their first time in the Holiday Lights Parade, said Tunzi, who was there with an extended group of family and friends. “We usually come in and see it, but this year we had a brand new truck.”

While getting pictures taken, fielding questions and holding Frank, Tunzi cradled the venerable Perpetual Trophy, which looks like it dates from Lighted Truck Parade days past, and which he'll give back in a couple weeks.

As the evening wrapped up, he had a few thoughts:

“The times — if it don't kill us, as in literally the community, we'll be stronger,” he said. “But there are a lot of little businesses that are going to take the hit if we don't support them. All these little towns rely on tourism. If we don't have tourism, we've got each other, and that's it.”

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