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Brian Hamilton: When it comes to decking the halls, just ask the expert

Brian Hamilton
Managing editor
Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

“What in the world is wrong with these lights?!”

Our poor pup, stirred from her nap next to the tree, stood and scurried in a hurry, obviously sensing the full scope of my frustration after about a full four hours of stringing the lights through the branches of a 10-foot silver tip only to come up with the same result.

Plugging in the works, the tree beamed with a bright display of color that brought forth thoughts of the “Hallelujah” chorus and that classic Clark Griswold moment in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” an allusion that was only more appropriate when the whole display went dark within 15 minutes.

It couldn’t have been a broken light bulb.

I’d ruled out that possibility 24 hours earlier, when after testing and replacing a dozen or so bulbs, I trashed several strings of lights after experiencing the same brown-out.

“Hon,” my wife called from the hardware store, just in case I couldn’t revive the burnt-out strand. “What kind of lights should I get? LED or the kind we have now?”

“How much do they cost?” I asked, phone pressed between my ear and shoulder as my needle-nose pliers replaced a microscopic fuse in the light strand for the seventh time that the afternoon.

“The LED are $17.99 for 300 lights,” she offered. “But they’re energy efficient.”

“How much are the others?” I countered.

“The kind we already have?”


“They’re $2.99.”

“Buy them.”

Hours later, after yanking the old strands — and quite a pile of pine needles — from the tree’s branches and replacing them with the new (yet, apparently, not improved), I again hit the switch.

And, again, the lights shone brightly, beaming Christmas back into our living room. Finally!

Satisfied we’d turned the corner, I headed to the garage for the final box of decorations that my daughters had been begging me to allow them to add to the tree. Yet knowing that a full transplant of lights might be necessary, and that my impatience would not offer much precision with the procedure, they had to wait “’til Daddy is done with the lights”.

Back up the stairs with said box in hand, I could now allow them to officially begin the tradition of trimming the tree, as Mama and I sipped on warm drinks in front of the fire with Bing Crosby and Burl Ives belting out the background music. But, just as I opened the box, alas, another brown-out.

“I need help,” I admitted, swallowing my inner Griswold.

In fact, I needed the expertise and enlightenment of someone like Gary Fosburg, who annually offers one of the most amazing display of Christmas lights to awe the greater Grass Valley community. With more than 80,000 lights burning bright and 35 inflatable decorations littering his Rattlesnake Road lawn, Fosburg’s work is a must-see for folks who enjoy taking in the top light displays. (Check out http://www.TheUnion.com/lights for a map and listing of the “best of the best” in western Nevada County).

The guy’s actually listed on the National Registry for Christmas Lights fanatics, for crying out loud.

But, instead of dialing up the guru, we called an electrician.

Certain that something must be suddenly seriously wrong with our living room’s electrical work — after all, the tree lights had worked just fine there for the better part of the past decade — I cast off any notions of operator error.

Sixty-five bucks later, I learned the solution to my shortages was to simply separate the 600 or so lights on the tree with a second extension cord, plugged into an outlet operating off another breaker.

Fosburg, though a kind 61-year-old soul, did actually laugh out loud at my humbling revelation.

Lost on neither of us in our phone conversation was the fact that the $65 would have covered the cost of those more energy-efficient LED lights, which would likely had paid for themselves in energy savings the course of a couple of years anyway.

With about $5,000 invested in his inflatable decorations and the 19 reindeer dotting his landscape, Fosburg’s home is transformed each year into “Santa’s Transportation Department,” where you’ll find Santa Claus on various modes of transport — from a surfboard to an airplane to a new 18-wheeler added this year.

Armed with dozens of extension cords, three-way plugs and an air-conditioning unit he “taps into” to provide more power, Fosburg’s 2 1/2 acres at 15756 Rattlesnake Road has four to five cars slowly rolling by to view his work every five to 10 minutes, he said.

“I had a home in Southern California that was a townhouse and then I moved to a place in Reno, which was a rental,” Fosburg said. “When we bought our own home, I wanted to put up some lights. I started with 5,000 lights … but there are things more addictive in Gold Country than gold!

“Every year, I’ve added something new. People seem to really enjoy it. For the first time, this year someone sent a card with a donation to help pay the power bill! How ’bout that?”

Fosburg figures he adds about $200 to his electric bill during the month of December. His annual endeavor was actually left on the shelf last year, as
he was working as a manufacturing consultant in China. But the return of the Rattlesnake Road display has been well-received.

“I turn the switch the day after Thanksgiving,” he said. “Seeing people come see the lights, it makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

As an inventor, Fosburg said he’s got one particular invention currently in the works that would no doubt be welcomed by the Clark Griswold’s of the world.

“I replace about 300 light bulbs every year. It’s a huge pain,” he said. “I’ve got three different light testers and none of them work very well.

“I’m an inventor and I will invent one of my own that works.”

Rest assured, he’s got one customer ready to reserve the first model off the assembly line.

Until then, Gary, I’ll keep your number handy next December.

To contact Managing Editor Brian Hamilton, email bhamilton@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4249.

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