One man's home brightens up low-income neighborhood with holiday lights

mdunham@adn.comDecember 22, 2012 

There aren't a lot of Christmas lights in Fairview, the neighborhood of plain-front townhomes, apartments, subsidized housing and businesses that fills downtown Anchorage from Cordova Street to Merrill Field. Except at the home of Stephen Fields and Becky Gagnon.

In the yard of an older one-story house, rented from Fields' brother and tucked behind the oldest grocery store in town, is a caucus of illuminated Santas. Santa in a chimney. Santa operating a crane. Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Mickey and Minnie Mouse Santas. A Geico gecko Santa -- a surprise gift from Gangon to Fields.

"She knows how much I like the Geico commercials," said Fields.

An oversized, stylized angel blows a trumpet on one side of the yard. A candy-cane imitation mailbox stands by the gate. An illuminated deer bobs its head by the front door.

A lot of these items move, like the two life-size dancing Santas positioned near windows in the living room. "Mr. Santa. He's all around," said Fields. The room also hosts a 10-foot tree with hundreds of lights, bumping its top against the ceiling.

More colored lights run the length of the chain-link fence. And around the roof line. ALL the way around.

"I wanted to give something to the people who walk in the alley," Fields explained.

Of all the splashy holiday displays in Anchorage, Fields may have the most pedestrian traffic.

"There are a lot of walkers in this neighborhood," he said. And his admittedly old-school approach is as eye-catching in the day, when most people are walking, as it is at night.

He's using more modern LED lights than in the past, he said. But, although he admires the computer-synchronized displays that deliver light shows accompanied by radio-broadcast holiday tunes. "It's really cool. I just prefer to be more traditional," he said. And part of that is having a daytime-friendly display. The light-show extravaganzas can be dazzling, he said, but when the lights go off you can't see anything.

Born and raised in Anchorage, Fields retired this year from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, where duties previously included putting up the airport's Christmas decorations and sometimes dressing up as Santa Claus himself. About seven years ago, he said, he started setting up lights at his own house -- even though balancing on a ladder in the cold and dark isn't his idea of fun.

"It does take a lot of patience," he said. "But once you actually get into the process, it's contagious. The juices get flowing."

It's been a glitch-free year, he said, the first since he started going in for decorating in a big way. "Last year we kept blowing fuses. I went through everything. It finally came down to be one extension cord."

And what goes up must come down. He'll dig out every snowed-in Santa and head back up on the ladder to take down the lights after Christmas. "Leaving them up all year would be taking the easy way out," he said.

Off-season, the items are stored in his crawl space and backyard shed. Gagnon has her own storage unit where more stuff goes. And more keeps coming in.

"I'm a clean hoarder, if there is such a thing," she said. Of Athabascan stock from Ruby and Galena area, she maintains the old-time Alaskan habit of never throwing away anything.

"Her gift is collecting," said Fields. "When you meet someone and they say, 'I have a conex full stuff,' it's hard to get your head around it. But she does."

"I never had kids," said Gagnon. "I never got into Christmas until I started hanging out with him." That was about two years ago. "After that I kinda went crazy."

Crazy, but not stupid. She's put her collector instincts to work in chasing down coveted Christmas pieces in after-Christmas sales.

"We go to Lowes, Home Depot, Bed, Bath and Beyond when the prices drop," said Fields. "I've never seen anyone so strategic about it."

"I got the pig, hippo, Mickey and Minnie at Sears," Gagnon said. "I think I paid $10."

After retiring, Fields said he considered taking the holidays off. "I almost talked myself out of it," he said. "But people kept asking. They'd walk by in the summer and talk about how much they enjoyed the lights last year. They'd say, 'Thank you for doing this.' They'd say, 'You going to do lights this year?' There was a little guilt."

"If you don't do it, nobody else will," Gagnon told him.

"I guess I'm always in the Christmas mood," said Fields. "The lights brighten people's spirits and brighten up the neighborhood."

The payoff is watching the reaction of people who drive by slowly or freeze in their tracks on the sidewalk.

"When people drive by, he's just like a little kid," said Gagnon. "He gets the biggest smile."

Fields' friend Claude Anderson stopped by with his nephew, James Dow. "When we walked up to the house, he got very excited," Anderson said. "I think he thought Santa Claus was in there."

"When you're a kid, Christmas is the most exciting thing there is," Fields said. "Kids believe in Santa. Then, over the years, that sort of fades away.

"I guess I still have the little boy in me."

 

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.Q

CHRISTMAS LIGHTS at the home of Stephen Fields and Becky Gagnon, 513 E. 14th Ave., one block north of 15th and one block west of Fairbanks Street. Fields usually keeps the lights on until midnight, later on weekends.

 

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