The Sunday two weeks before Christmas, Dad hooked up his hunting buggy, Sputnik, to the back of the pickup. Mother packed a lunch of tuna salad sandwiches made with lots of mayonnaise and chopped onion, Fig Newton cookies, fruit and a jug of instant iced tea or lemonade. She didn’t buy soda pop.
Dad always maintained a sort of chuck box in his vehicle that held survival essentials for a picnic or stranding. The rectangular metal box usually contained a loaf of Rainbow bread, a bottle of French’s yellow mustard, an onion, a couple of cans of Spam and Hershey bars. And a pint of Canadian Club whiskey for warming emergencies. He also threw in a machete, a length of heavy tow chain with hooks on the ends and the giant jack. We would need them all at some point on our Christmas tree hunting party.
The weather was usually sunny, windy and the temperature in the fifties.
The five of us piled into the pickup’s cab and drove up to the Hualapai Mountains foothills. Dad turned off on a rutted dirt road and drove about a mile through the scruffy junipers, cactus, and scrub oak. He parked off the road and unhitched Sputnik. We loaded the gear in Sputnik’s small bed. My sister Rhonda and I rode on top of the spare tire. Dad and Mother sat on the front seat with my little brother because he got carsick in the back.
Maybe it was my praying that saved me from that miserable mal de auto my sister and brother suffered on these thrill rides. More likely I didn’t get sick because I didn’t like running behind the car. Which was my dad’s cure for car sickness. My brother could have been a marathon star for all the training miles he put in behind various vehicles during his childhood.
Dad loved driving Sputnik off road, over boulder fields and side-hilling in steep terrain, taking us where no wheeled vehicle had gone before. I preferred easing down sand washes that flowed through rock-walled canyons. The smooth ride over the sand was what I imagined riding in a horse-drawn sleigh over snow was like. I asked Dad if that were so because he knew pretty much everything.
“I don’t know. Haven’t been sledding in the snow. But I have an idea.” He stopped beside a big clump of cat’s claw bushes and ordered everyone out. Dad pulled the tow chain from the back, hooked one end to Sputnik’s spring shackle and dragged the other end to the bushes. “Stand back,” he yelled and climbed in the driver’s seat. The engine revved, wheels spun sand, the chain snapped taut and Sputnik leaped forward. A rusty boat-looking thing popped out of the cat’s claw on the chain’s hook.
“Hop on, kids,” Dad called, grinning. “Let’s go sand wash sledding.”
“No, Raymond,” Mother cried, spreading her arms to hold us back. “What is that thing? It looks dangerous!”
“It’s a 1939 DeSoto car hood,” he said proudly. “A great car.” His smile faded at her worried expression and he added, “Perfectly safe. I’ll go slow.”
And away we went on our first desert sleigh ride to the tune of Jingle Bells . . .
Baby brother, too
Dashing through a desert sand wash
On an upside down car hood
Behind a 65 horse V-8 open sleigh
On an Arizona December day.