Chocolates and a Machete
Christmas tree hunting in the Arizona high desert was hungry work. The six Hershey bars in Dad’s chuck box tormented me with the naughty question: Who gets chocolate bar number six in a family of five?
There would be no answer to that until we stopped for lunch, which wouldn’t happen until Dad found the right spot. He was very choosy about picnic location—there had to be water. Since he didn’t carry any water on our outings that meant we’d be lunching at some stock tank with a screeching windmill again. Babbling brooks or golden ponds ideal for picnicking were not to be found in the Mohave Desert.
I once asked Dad why we didn’t have a canvas water bag hanging from our car like the tourists flowing through Kingman on Route 66.
“Don’t need it,” he said and gave me a big wink. “Besides, big boys don’t carry water.”
Years later when I asked the question again, Dad remembered when he was a little boy growing up on the Rucker ranch on the Colorado River, that his father, big brother, and men used to ride out for the work day without canteens. Hence, a little cowboy, longing to be a big one, believed that big boys don’t carry water. Because a Rucker can find it in the desert or learn to do without. About noon, Sputnik rolled into a small clearing with a big round, three foot high, metal stock tank. A tall windmill’s blades squawked leisurely around in the light breeze, pumping a trickle of water through a pipe into the top of the open tank.
Eureka! Dad’s perfect picnic spot. He let down Sputnik’s tailgate and Mother unpacked the lunch on it while we kids milled around the clearing.
“Rhonda, don’t climb on the tank,” Mother called and handed Dad a tuna sandwich. She opened the Fig Newtons and poured him a paper cup of iced tea.
“Don’t touch that!” Mother yelled at my little brother. He dropped the cow pie.
Dad set his food on the tailgate. He picked up my brother and held him over the water tank. “Wash,” he ordered. Gary splashed his little hands in the cold water.
My sister came running, “I want to wash my hands, too.” She got her turn as I stalked the Hershey bars in the open chuck box.
Everything in that box was Dad’s property, which we did not touch unless invited. Had he forgotten them? Would he share? I chewed it over as I munched my tuna sandwich.
Even in winter, when the food came out yellow jacket wasps zoomed around us, making touch and go landings on our sandwiches. Everyone knows yellow jackets prefer Chicken of the Sea, but they will just as happily take a bite out of soft, young kidskin. And they scared us kids badly.
We ran around the tank, flapping arms, screaming and dodging wasps, while Dad and Mother lunched together, chatting and laughing, on Sputnik’s front seat. Finally, Dad reached into the back and pulled out the machete. “Kids, it’s time to get your tree.” He handed me the long, sharp knife and nodded toward the biggest hill. “Head up there and pick out a tree. If you need help chopping it down, yell.”
Wooooohoooo! I got to pick out our Christmas tree and chop it down, too! I loped up the hill with the little kids running to catch up with me.
“Let’s get this one. It’s just my size,” Rhonda said, putting one hand on top of the short bush and the other on her own head.
“That’s not a Christmas tree. It’s a baby juniper,” I chided. “It’s too little, anyway. We need a really big tree.”
Higher and higher we climbed into the piñon pines and IT there stood all by itself—tall, fat, and kind of pointy at the top. The perfect Christmas tree.
For such a big tree, not much of the trunk showed beneath the low branches. I circled it, looking for the right place to start chopping. I couldn’t wait to yell, “TIMBER!”
“Stand back!” I ordered the little kids and grabbed the black electric tape-wrapped handle with both hands. I swung hard.
Bong! The blade bounced off the bark, and my stinging hands almost dropped it. The machete had barely made a mark on the trunk. I backed up and reconsidered my attack.
“Let me do it,” my sister demanded. “I know how.”
“No! I’m supposed to do it.” I swung again. And again. And again. All the machete did was make the tree mad. It shook off short needles and pinecones. And threw sticky pitch at me. I was covered with it.
“Daaaad,” I yelled down the hill.
He was leaning back, feet up on Sputnik’s dash, his tan stockman’s Stetson pulled down over his eyes. Dad sat up and jumped out. He jogged up the hill and inspected my tree. “What’s the problem?”
“I don’t think I know how to cut a tree,” I confessed and handed him the machete. Even though he hadn’t really told me how I felt like I should have been able to cut that tree down. And I was pretty sure he did, too.
He made several quick chops. The tree bent over. One more chop and it separated from the stump. Dad grabbed the tree by the thickest branch and dragged it off the hill. We ran along behind our beautiful tree and tried to help him load it in the back of Sputnik. The job got done with some crushing and cracking, especially when my sister and I sat on it for the ride back to the pickup.
When we got home, Mother herded her three pitch-covered, grimy children into the bathroom to clean up. Dad fit the tree to the stand he’d made from the steel front wheel of an old tractor. It wasn’t painted or finished, just wiped of grease and dirt, and, most important, functional, which bothered me even then. Dad and I would have discussions over the years about my “concern for appearance”, he called it. Then he would repeat his personal mantra, “Shine she may run she must.”
Of course, my perfect tree was anything but. In and out of the house it went; Dad whacking off trunk and limbs until it fit not only through the front door but in the small living room. The huge hole was turned to the back, which unfortunately was to the picture window.
Once cleaned up and in our jammies, we kids decorated the tree and each other with tinsel. Yes, we threw it. Mother was very allowing of our Christmas decorating. We made paper chains and hung them around the room and on the tree along with anything else we thought pretty enough.
Every night we’d turn on the tree lights, turn off the lamps and put a record on the hi-fi stereo. Mother and Dad loved music, big band, pop and popular singers. We sat around the glittering tree, listening to Johnny Mathis sing Chances Are, and sorted our wrapped gifts into appropriate piles. We nearly wore them out by Christmas Eve, the most magical day of the year when all wishes can come true, even in Kingman, Arizona.