In 2002, John Force shared with NHRA.com writer Rob Geiger the memories of his best Christmas ever, 1955, when he was 6 years old and wanted nothing more from Santa than a toy logging truck like the one operated by his dad, Harold. But times were hard in the Force household back in those days, and it took some real Christmas magic to make a little boy's dreams come true. Every couple of years, fan demand for the republishing of this tale swells as they, too, remember little Johnny's most special Christmas. It's our holiday gift to you. Enjoy!
The year was 1955 and the man who would become drag racing's greatest driver was just 6 years old. Like most boys that age, little Johnny Force desperately wanted Santa Claus to bring him a favored toy on Christmas Day. Problem was, the Force family was struggling to make ends meet, and as young Johnny addressed his letter to the North Pole he had no way of knowing his parents were praying for a way to simply feed their five kids a Christmas dinner.
It was that year, as a chilling wind blew a thick blanket of snow across Northern California's logging district, that John Force's family came together and helped him realize the true meaning of Christmas.
"I'm going to tell you a story that really matters," Force said. "It was a moment of a family coming together and doing a great thing. Three brothers and a sister, you think they don't care about you, but that year the little kid with the runny nose had his Christmas in a way I never would have expected. That's when I learned what Christmas meant."
It had been another tough year for the Force family. John's father, Harold, was a logger, but a heavier than normal snowfall had closed the local mill sooner than anyone expected. Like the rest of the men on the crew, Harold was given an $80 allowance to carry him through the winter until the mill reopened in early spring.
Force's mother, Betty Ruth, was of Indian descent, so the family took advantage of her heritage and found a small house and barn on the Hoopa Indian Reservation, which they rented for $55 a month. The place was in a small town called Redwood Creek, just north of Eureka, Calif.
"We lived on the reservation, but we didn't live in teepees," Force said. "It wasn't like that. It was just a small house, but it was home. I went back there a few weeks ago, and it was very emotional. The house is pretty much gone, but the barn out back was still there, and it's still full of bats. No one knew my mother was an Indian, from Broken Arrow, Okla., but back then it sure helped because we were able to stay on the reservation, and it was right by where my dad was working."
The inspiration for Force's Christmas wish came from the logging truck operated by his father, Harold.
The object of Force's desires.
At his age, lil' Johnny didn't understand the financial ramifications of the logging off-season, and the belt-tightening his family was experiencing never seemed like a big deal.
"We were eating bologna sandwiches with no bologna," Force said. "They were really just mustard sandwiches, and we had potatoes. Believe it or not, that's still my favorite food. I was asked that once by a reporter, and I said right away, 'Bologna sandwiches without bologna, just the mustard.' You know why? Because when I sat down with Dad and he would reach over and wipe a little mustard off my chin and tell me he loved me, that's all I needed. I'm about to cry right now just thinking about it."
As Christmas approached, Johnny finished up his handwritten letter to Santa Claus, confident his wish would be answered.
"All I wanted was a toy logging truck," Force said. "It was a real nice truck, all cast metal. It was one of those good toys that last forever. The kind they don't make anymore. Well, I found out the truck cost $18, even back then. That's a lot of money now, so you can imagine how much it was to us in 1955. It was just too big a deal to even consider."
Any hope Johnny had for last-minute magic from the jolly red elf was quickly dashed by his mother, who told him with tears in her eyes that Santa wouldn't be by that year.
"It's snowing a lot, like a blizzard, and it's three days before Christmas," Force said. "Mom sits me down and convinces me that Santa wasn't going to make it. She told me he couldn't get his sleigh in there. I argued that he flies in from above, that it shouldn't be a problem. But she said it wasn't gonna happen. I was crushed, and so was she."
The bad news didn't stop there. Earlier in the year, Force had a found a puppy that followed him everywhere, but the young dog was a little too rambunctious and had become a bit of a nuisance, not to mention a small but persistent drain on the family finances.
"My dad said Flicker – that was my dog's name – had to go," Force said. "We couldn't afford to feed him plus he kept chasing the horse through the corn, so he was killing the little bit of stuff we had to eat. I cried all the way to the pound in Eureka, but my dad said it was for the best because a good family would get him. He said Flicker would probably be some rich kid's Christmas present.
"Next to my mom and dad dying later in my life, giving up Flicker was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. I've never told this to anyone before. I doubt anyone outside my family even knows I had a dog named Flicker.
"I was feeling sorry for myself. I fell asleep at my mama's feet on the floorboard of this old '56 Buick Dynaflow. I didn't have my dog no more, Santa wasn't coming, and I wasn't getting the logging truck. It didn't look like it was going to be much of a Christmas."
But then, as is often the case around Christmastime, some special things began to happen just as little Johnny was giving up hope.
"My brother Louie could see how upset I was when we got home," Force said. "So the next day he got up early and went out in the snow and built me this log camp with a log pond and everything. A log pond is where the trucks would unload. He spent three days out there building this deal, stripping tree branches, and putting it all together. He filled the pond with water, and it froze over right away. It was the most awesome thing. I already had a toy tractor and a bulldozer, and then I had this log camp and pond. I thought it was the greatest gift ever, even though it all washed away in the spring. I'll never forget it to this day how hard he worked. He made roads and ramps and everything. It was an area about as big as a car.
"On Christmas, my dad decided that at the very least we were going to have a good Christmas dinner. Not the usual turkey and ham, but my dad made a spear from a wooden pole and a knife tied to the end and went to the creek to get us some food. We couldn't even fish the normal way because we couldn't afford fishing line.
"So it was snowing really hard, and Dad and I were standing on the side of the creek trying to get dinner. The salmon were going upstream, and you could get them pretty easy. Well, my dad had just speared this big ol' fish when this game warden caught him. I mean, he hadn't speared that thing for more than a second when the game warden showed up.
"My dad never had any luck. If he owned a boat, it sank. Nothing ever went right for my dad. It's like my brother Louie, nothing ever seems to go right for him either. But everything seems to go right for me. God must think he's helping the wrong guy.
"Anyway, the warden's got us red-handed, but right then something happened, and all I could think was that it had something to do with Christmas. My dad didn't have a fishing permit, and he told the warden, 'If I could afford a fishing permit, I would have bought a turkey.' The warden looked at us and said, 'I'm gonna turn my back here and just walk away.' He let us go! I'll never forget that guy's face as long as I live, and I was just a kid when I saw him. He was a big, strong man. He was a country man. The kind of guy you want to grow up and be. He had power over us, but he was a good man."
It appeared the pieces were beginning to fall into place.
"We even had a Christmas tree because back then you could just walk into the forest and cut one down," Force said. "That was before Lady Bird Johnson put a ban on that kind of stuff. She did away with logging to save the birds, and now the birds are alive and the loggers have all died off.
"The point is that my brothers and sister and me, Walker, Tom, Louie, and Cindy, we really had all we needed. We had a Christmas tree, a blanket with all them different color squares in it that my mom had made, a fireplace and plenty of wood, and just like the Christmas story, real mice running around in the closet. My mom used to tell us, 'Leave the mice alone, and they'll leave you alone.' And we had the fish to eat. If you've ever seen a salmon with stuffing crammed in it's mouth, it's quite a sight, but it looked great to us because we were hungry.
"When we got done eating, we went by the fire, and there was a present under the tree, just one present. My mother had already made stuff for everyone and given it to us. Stuff you can't buy at the mall. Stuff we needed, and it was all handmade from my mom. Blankets and socks, stuff like that. That was what everyone got for Christmas. But there was this one present all wrapped up under the tree."
With tears in everyone's eyes, Betty Ruth told her son to see whose name was on the lone gift. It simply said, "To: Johnny, with love."
"It was the logging truck I wanted," Force said, still choking back the emotion 50 years after the fact. "It turns out that everyone else had told my mom and dad they didn't want a present. They just wanted for me to get that logging truck. They gave up everything for me. I have that truck to this day. It means the world to me.
"When people say Christmas, I think of that year. That one Christmas was the best. My whole family was together, we didn't have much, but we loved each other. Is there anything else you really need? To me, that's the Christmas spirit."
Little Johnny's Christmas wish came true ...