Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa's Rocket Sleigh

I was a kid during America's "Space Age", which I would define as the period between the launch of Sputnik and the end of the Gemini space capsule launches. Anything to do with space, rockets, and astronauts was hot stuff, especially for young boys like myself. Space helmets, futuristic toy rifles and pistols, astronaut costumes, space-related games and model kits, all were popular, especially at Christmas time. Even Santa Claus joined the space age. I know because I took a ride in Santa's Rocket Sleigh.

It was a few days before Christmas in 1964, and my dad announced that Santa's Rocket Sleigh was coming to the new Greenwood shopping center on Indianapolis' south side. My brother and sisters and I put on our winter coats, piled into Dad's big old Buick, and headed out for a rather strange space-age holiday adventure. It was a cold sunny day, but there had been snow earlier so there were big melting "ice bergs" in the corners of the shopping center parking lot, deposited by the snow plows.

Santa's Rocket Sleigh was parked in the northeast corner of the gigantic parking lot. It was actually a customized bus with a white aircraft-like body, red trim, and big rocket tail fins. The front hatch opened like an old-style airplane entrance, hinged at the bottom so that it folded out-and-down to make a small stairstep entry. I think Santa was somewhere behind the rear of the rocket having a cigarette when I boarded the wierd craft. A woman in a very short Santa's helper dress guided us inside. The "cockpit" was pretty much like that of any city bus, and I remember there were porthole-style windows along both rows of seats.

Without fanfare, Santa entered the rocket, waved HI, and proceeded to drive us around the shopping center parking lot, past the grimy ice bergs of melting snow. The rocket's suspension showed its age, because I remember the ride was bumpy and rough, but I enjoyed it all the same.

After some research I discovered that the rocket sleighs were a travelling attraction in many parts of the United States during those years, even in Alaska. But, sadly, I've not been able to find any photos of this space-age holiday oddity like the one I rode in 1964. The Alaskan version has two booster rockets up top, almost like the space shuttle's, but the rocket sleigh in Indiana was much more streamlined. I did find a photo of the remains of another version, rusting in a junkyard, located by another grown-up rocket sleigh rider who remembers it like I do.

My home state of Indiana has another link to Santa's Rocket Sleigh. The late rockabilly singer Bobby Helms, who lived in Martinsville, Indiana, for most of his life, recorded this odd space-age Christmas song: CAPTAIN SANTA CLAUS AND HIS REINDEER SPACE PATROL. It would have been a great soundtrack for a rocket sleigh full of happy children, eagerly looking forward to the magic of Christmas day.

I wish everyone a very Merry Space-Age Christmas, and a prosperous, safe, and Happy New Year!


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