(Author’s note: What follows is a nine-part Christmas tale where I explore the idea of fiction as raising consciousness and prompting action on the homeless crisis.)
Alongside a downtown avenue in the city of Coos Bay, Oregon…come look…on the day after Thanksgiving…at the Bradshaw Family Christmas Tree Village, going on its second century of selling Christmas trees, situated on a vacant lot near the Elks Club and the Steve Prefontaine mural with an immortal quote from the distance running legend, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
But what is a person’s gift? What happens if they never identify it? What happens if they never even try and identify it? At least Prefontaine knew his and gave it his all before his tragic death. How many of us can say that?
Come closer and you will see a fire pit, tool shed, a cherry 1975 GMC, red-and-white, Sierra pickup and a canned ham trailer, a Shasta model from the 1960s. Sixty-six-year old Wayne Bradshaw and his brown lab Chief resided in the Shasta on the lot during the holiday season and the tree-selling operation annually netted Wayne roughly the amount he owed in property taxes on the lot and the Bradshaw family farm past Allegheny, up the Millocoma River. Wayne always paid his tax bill, last year $2,752, in change, to piss off the county assessor.
Running the tree lot was the only job Wayne held, had ever held, and it wasn’t really a job. It was preservation.
The Bradshaw tree lot was no typical Christmas tree lot. It once was. It sold only one kind of Christmas tree: Douglas firs, hundreds of them, planted in ceramic (never plastic) pots of all sizes. There were your seven-foot beauties, your 12-inch Charlie Browns, and everything in between, all grown on the Bradshaw farm in non-plantation style and without any chemicals or irrigation. They were watered with only Oregon Coast rainwater. To restate: Only live Christmas trees, only Doug firs, Oregon’s state tree, no herbicides. Wayne wanted nothing to do with killing or poisoning of anything in nature. It almost goes without saying that none of Wayne’s trees were flocked. A Doug fir is Oregon green and Christmas trees are green and smell like pitch and pine.
Trees cost either $3, $10, $15. Wayne always extracted a promise from a buyer to plant the tree after the holiday season, in the yard, in a clearcut, it didn’t matter. Just plant and remember where you planted and visit the tree over the years. Seeing the growth of tree you planted is perhaps the greatest lesson a person can learn.
Another quirk of the lot was that every year Wayne arranged the trees in a new maze, lit it up with twinkling white lights, and only played Christmas soul music from the 60s and 70s on cassette tape through one tinny speaker. His favorite was The Temptations’ Christmas Card. He also rigged up his childhood Lionel train set under Plexiglas and the kids (and adults) went nuts for the throwback spectacle, complete with toots, whistles and a smokestack emitting tiny wisps of white as the locomotive chugged through a magical Christmas territory of cottages, elves, reindeer and snow. In other words, the holiday season on Wayne’s lot was everything Coos County 2021 Christmas was not with their Fuck Biden and His Kamala Ho signs around the area, including more than a few posted next to a nativity scene, and insulting the Salvation Army bell ringers because they were wearing masks.
It hadn’t always been so eccentric for the Bradshaw Family Christmas Tree Village, but Wayne changed the lot 45 years ago, much to Coos Bay’s displeasure. He took it over from his father who dropped dead in his boat while trying to land a coho salmon on the Umpqua River. It was the perfect sublime way for the angry son-of-a-bitch to die. Wayne defied the old man’s desire for a Christian burial in a cemetery and had him cremated instead. Then he spread the ashes on the Coos River and Wayne smiled knowing that his father had finally given back some life to a watershed he’d tried to murder his entire adult existence as a logger, miner, fisherman, farmer, hunter and landowner who dumped oil and paint right into anything that moved downstream.
It was a novelty in 1976 to offer live Christmas trees and unthinkable not to offer the popular noble firs. So be it. Doug firs. In a pot. Take it or leave it. Many chose to leave it and business dwindled for a decade until Wayne rigged up the maze, installed a fire pit for crackling, toasty fires, piped in the soul music, and dressed up his labs in cut-up, cast-off, Christmas sweaters and faux antlers.
Wayne did retain one tradition of the lot, one that his grandfather began in the 1930s: every customer had to sign a massive, Dickens-like, Bob Cratchit ledger and leave a little personal message of cheer. The current one dated from the early 1990s and all the volumes taken as a whole constituted a kind a graphology museum to the increasingly lost art of handwriting and expressing sentiment by something else besides a text message.
Over the years, merry word got out about the Bradshaw Family Christmas Tree Village and families traveled from far away as Eugene to the east, Gold Beach to the south, and Florence to the north, to visit the lot and take home a nice tree and of course, add a second Charlie Brown because every adult inherently wishes to be the person who rescues a forlorn tree from oblivion. They see a kind of allegory in that.
Wayne Bradshaw was the last of his family. His older sister had disappeared to California after graduating from high school and was never seen again. Wayne kept the lot going He prepared for it all year long and then when the time came, he towed the Shasta to town, set up the operation, and kept it going seven days a week, including Christmas Day, because there was always someone struggling on the move who happened by and Wayne knew they needed a free tree. It was sometimes an overwhelming sight to Wayne to see a homeless man carrying a potted Doug fir to some tent encampment in the willows around Coos Bay and he was seeing more of that kind of sight every passing year. He didn’t know why it was happening. He didn’t know who these people were. They seemed almost faceless to him even though he stared into their faces every Christmas, as do many Americans stare into the faces of homeless people all across the land.
What are we seeing there?