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A Christmas story from long ago

The Journal of Prevarication
Wishing all our readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

The late Tuffy Peach of Camp Verde used to tell of carrying the U.S. mail from Payson to Camp Verde on horseback, a 52-mile trip that took 11 to 18 hours.

That was in the early years of the 20th Century. Peach, a native of Strawberry (I’m not kidding), was still in his teens. He was in his 70s the last time I talked to him, maybe 35 years ago.

One snowy Christmas Eve, Tuffy’s load included a package for an old cowboy named Clint, who lived a ways off his route, up a side canyon that carried a creek into the Verde Valley. The package apppeared to be a Christmas gift from Clint’s sister in Omaha.

It was against regulations, but Tuffy knew that old Clint might not make it to the Camp Verde post office for weeks. It was, after all, Christmas Eve. He would make a personal delivery.

Tuffy rode miles out of his way, hurrying his horse along. The canyon narrowed and Tuffy had to tie his horse to a tree, wade the icy creek and make his way up a steep foot trail. The package, which wasn’t much larger than a shoe box, felt heavier and heavier.

When he arrived at Clint’s cabin, huffing and puffing, he found a note on the door: “Gone to the country.”

We lived in the village of Camp Verde, right in Arizona’s midsection, in the 1940s. There was no I-17 running up the middle of the state, and no Beeline Highway to Payson. Our mail came in crossways.

One day the mail would come to Camp Verde from Globe, by way of Roosevelt, Payson and Strawberry. The delivery vehicles were called mail stages, but they were pickup trucks.

Stage drivers would swap mail at Payson and the new driver would come on through Camp Verde, ending in Prescott. The next day, the stage reversed directions.

None of the roads was paved. Just west of Strawberry, the road to the Verde Valley makes a sudden left turn and drops into Fossil Creek. The road is a narrow, unpaved switchback, with no guard rails. I have been up and down Fossil Creek hill many times, but only when someone else was driving.

Here’s what happened on Christmas Eve in 1947.

The storm clouds hang low over Payson.
It’s storming on top of the Rim.
As Hank swaps the load from Fred’s pickup,
He thinks Christmas Eve’s looking grim.

Last-minute gifts fill Hank’s camper.
He’d be better off with a sleigh,
But the pickup that folks call the mail stage
Is an old thirty-eight Chevrolet.

Two sisters at Pine get new dollies
That were ordered from Montgomery Ward’s.
There’s a hat for a man in Strawberry.
His wife gets a new Ouija board.

There’s a Cook kid lives down at Camp Verde
Who’s wanted a red bike for years.
There’s a big box in back of the mail stage.
Old Santa has ordered from Sears.

Cards and letters fill a couple of mailbags.
The stage holds a pretty good load.
It’s snowing as Hank cranks the starter
And heads up that narrow dirt road.

At Pine, Hank is into a blizzard.
By Strawberry, snow’s ankle-deep.
He crawls out to put on his tire chains
And prays that his schedule he keeps.

Now Fossil Creek Hill is a bearcat,
A narrow and rough switchback trail.
It’s a thousand feet down to the bottom.
If Hank skids, he’s hauling air mail.

But he makes it down safe to the creek bed.
He feels like he’s gone ninety miles.
At Irving he leaves an air rifle.
There’s a fruit cake for a lady at Childs.

By Towel Creek, Hank’s pretty near snow blind.
One tire chain has just come unwired.
Hank skids and plows into a bar ditch.
It looks like his schedule expired.

The Chevy is deep in a snow bank.
Its engine is letting off steam
When what to Hank’s wondering eyes should appear
But what looks like a really bad dream.

A big yellow grader is waiting,
A round man in red by its side.
Six reindeer are up on the engine,
And two more are riding inside.

Hank whispers a prayer to his maker–
He fears he is losing his mind.
But Santa attaches a tow chain,
And his face is so jolly and kind.

He climbs to the cab of the grader
And puts the old Galleon in gear.
Hank mutters, “That’s sure an odd snow sled,”
While he steers the mail truck in the rear.

It’s thirteen miles into Camp Verde.
The blade clears a road six feet wide.
Soon Blitzen joins Hank in the pickup–
He thinks he’ll be warmer inside.

It’s late when they get to Camp Verde.
The storm is beginning to clear.
At the post office, Hank leaves some mailbags
And the Cook kid’s bicycle from Sears.

As Hank ambles back to the mail stage,
The grader is nowhere in sight.
But a jolly old voice calls from somewhere,
“Merry Christmas, and have a good night.”

— Jim Cook
Official State Liar
Of Arizona

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

1 comment to A Christmas story from long ago

  • Michael Peach

    Dear Jim,

    Your posting of Dec. 19th, 2007 was forwarded to me by my dad, Bill Peach. Thanks for the Christmas story about my distant relation, Tuffy Peach. I perform living history programs for the Sedona Heritage Museum and other venues, and I do a little bit as Tuffy. I’ve been trying to track down a copy of a poem he wrote called “Crossing Over”, or something like that. If you happen to have a copy of it, or have any other Tuffy or Peach stories, I’d appreciate hearing from you.
    Thanks, and I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

    Michael Peach