The night before Christmas - trucker style
After 20 years, 'A Semi for a Sleigh' comes to life

By Aaron Ladage
staff writer

It was a blustery Christmas Eve night in the late 1970s when OOIDA member Mark Mendonsa first had the idea for his story.

As he traversed the foot-and-a-half of snow covering the Alaskan highways in his 1977 Kenworth, the loosened chains on his tires would occasionally catch a bare spot of pavement, sending a distinct chime back to his ears.

"I thought, 'My gosh - my chains are singing like sleigh bells ringing,' " said 56-year-old Mark, who retired from trucking four years ago.

"Then I look in my side mirrors, and I see my amber and red lights and the spray going up there, and I thought, 'That's really pretty. There's gotta be a Christmas story there somewhere.' "

For about 20 years, Mark's idea for a trucking Christmas story remained exactly that - just an idea.

But as the years - and the long hours alone in the cab - added up, Mark began to piece together the story that would eventually become "A Semi for a Sleigh," a children's book and accompanying read-along CD that was released in 2004.

By the mid-'90s, Mark had committed to memory his holiday trucking tale, but had never transferred it to paper.

"The story was more or less done, and I went to Tennessee where my folks live - my mom's been writing all her life," he said. "So, I'm reciting it to her in the car, and she listened really intently, and she said, 'This is really good - we've got to work on this. Write this down.' And I'd never written it down - it was in my head."

When he returned to Alaska, Mark took the advice of his mother, Mary, and wrote his story down. At the time, neither had a computer, so the duo sacrificed long hours and costly phone bills to co-write a story that could be transformed into a children's book.

A few holiday seasons later, the story - which, with the help of Mary's creative writing experience, was laid out in rhyming form - was ready to be made into a book. What it needed now was an illustrator, and Karen Whitworth, a young woman Mark had met at an art store at a local college, fit the bill perfectly.

"She was single at the time, and her fiance was a big Jeff Gordon fan, so she painted him a beautiful NASCAR (car)," Mark said.   

"I knew if she could do that, she could paint a truck."

Mark said he wanted the book's artwork, especially that of the 1977 Kenworth, to be completely accurate. He took photos and explained to her every detail of the rig's appearance, from the problematic windshield wipers with the snow built up on them, to the old-fashioned CB radio turned to Channel 19, to the engaged interlock for deep-snow driving. And, of course, the thermos of coffee in the center console, for filling up without stopping.

"That's the picture the older drivers just love," Mark said.

Mark and Mary Mendonsa weren't the only family members involved with the project. Mark's brother, Charles Mendonsa - a professional Nashville musician who goes by the showbiz name of Charles Victor - helped compose a musical backdrop and two original songs for the CD that is packaged with the book.

"I told Chuck I wanted a theme - not necessarily country and western, because this is Americana - that's all tied up into one," he said. "And boy, he just hit it."

The result is a book and CD that tell the story of Clutch, a tall, lanky trucking everyman whose kind heart and generosity are tested after he meets a group of needy children at a roadside cafe on the night before Christmas.

"My intent all the time was when truck drivers read this or heard it on the CD, they would know that a truck driver wrote it and a truck driver had a lot to do with this," Mark said.

Although a number of local bookstores are carrying his book, Mark said that because of the small number of travel centers in Alaska and the difficulty of being carried in the larger truck stops in the Lower 48, his biggest challenge has been distribution. However, he has plans for what he'll do after it becomes more successful.

"If this starts going well, there's a couple of different charities I'd like to get involved with," Mark said, mentioning the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Toys For Tots and the Salvation Army as future partners. "That would be my dream - to be able to use some of these profits to go out and get a real truck, put some real toys in it and give them to kids that really need them."

For more information on purchasing "A Semi for a Sleigh," you can call Mark at (907) 357-8637, or visit his publisher's Web site at publicationconsultants.com.