Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 3


One thing that remains constant in every re-telling of the
Rocket Car legend is that it reportedly took place somewhere in
the southwest United States. I've heard versions stating that the
whole thing happened in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, western
Texas and southwestern California, and in each case, the location
seemed to be a critical part of the plot. Which makes sense,
considering the premise that the story is based on. The Rocket
Car would have to be launched on a fairly long, flat stretch of
road, away from prying eyes. The Mojave is an ideal place to find
such a road, as anyone who's ever driven across the desert will
tell you. The Darwin Award version specifies Arizona, which is
covered with roads that would be ideal for the event described in
the story. But one thing that strikes me as incredibly silly
about this version is the fact that the test pilot chose to
test his vehicle on a road with a CURVE in it. The story
specifies that the cliff where the car impacted was at the "apex
of a curve", and that the test pilot ran under JATO power for 2.4
miles before hitting the turn and becoming airborne.

This suggests a pretty obvious question: If you were going
to test drive a rocket-powered car, what sort of road would YOU
pick for the ride? Would you choose a section of highway less
than three miles from a turn in the road that overlooked a

I don't think I would.

Even if Jimmy hadn't been around to talk sense into me and
I HAD attempted to drive the rocket car, I'm sure I could've
found a stretch of highway that didn't include a hairpin turn.
The desert contains thousands of miles of highways and dirt
roads, and it would've been much harder to find the kind of road
in the Darwin story than to find a nice level straightaway. On
the other hand, when Wile E. Coyote lights the big skyrocket tied
to HIS jalopy, he ALWAYS seems to be near an unexpected turn. I
guess whoever wrote the Darwin story must have assumed this
was standard procedure.

Fortunately, highways aren't the only long, straight
thoroughfares through the desert. After Jimmy was through
demolishing my plans to build the Rocket Car, he pointed out that
the control problem could easily be overcome if the car was
actually a rocket SLED, running on rails rather than asphalt.
Mounting the rocket on a railroad car would not only solve
the problems of control and traction, but if an ABANDONED stretch
of track was used, traffic wouldn't even be an issue. And the
Mojave is covered with abandoned railroad track, most of it the
old-fashioned narrow-gauge kind used for mining trains near the
turn of the century. I knew of at least three such pieces of
track within five miles of town. Finding a railroad car that
would actually run on the old-fashioned track was a whole nother
story, but by the time Jimmy finished explaining his idea, I
already had a plan in mind to deal with that part of the

The following morning I found myself bouncing across the
desert in a battered four-wheel drive pickup with the remaining
two members of Team Rocket Car (my tongue is firmly in cheek when
I use THAT term), Sam and Beck. Beck and I were almost as close
as Jimmy and I when we were kids, but Beck had a "wild streak"
that caused most of the trouble we got into from time to time.
During high school his "wild streak" got out of control, Beck
turned into "one of those dope-smoking degenerates" (Mom's
preferred term) and he dropped out a year shy of graduation.
Sal was Beck's junior brother, junior not only by calendar-count
but by any sort of I.Q. measurement. Sal wasn't retarded or
anything, but people tended to use phrases like "not too swift"
and "a few bricks short of a load", a lot more often than usual
when he was around. Just like "dope smoking degenerate" tended to
pop up in conversations that involved Beck.

Okay, so they weren't exactly Nobel Prize laureates, but I
didn't have much choice in my selection of assistants. I needed
their truck.

The truck actually belonged to Beck's father, who used it
in the performance of his job. Whatever THAT was. Nobody knew for
sure what Beck's Dad did for a living but the truck was ugly and
battered, sat on huge mud-grabber tires, and came with a massive
454 engine. Beck's father would drive the thing out of town
occasionally, sometimes staying gone for days at a time. When he
returned, the truck always looked as if it had spent
the entire time driving around in the desert. If Beck knew what
his father did for a living, he never said. But Jimmy and I
figured the man used his pickup for transporting something (ahem)
back and forth from remote desert locations. Contraband
vegetation arriving at an isolated airstrip was
one possibility, and people desperate to become American citizens
without a lot of government interference was another. The only
relevant fact is that the truck was very good for cruising the
desert, which is why we used it to visit an abandoned silver mine
a few miles from town that morning. The mine had been out of
commission and the entrance boarded over for as long as any of us
could remember, but at least a few brave kids had explored the
interior of the shaft. Everyone knew there was nothing of value
left in the mine, with the exception of some ancient equipment
that was worthless, even as scrap. Worthless to most people,
anyway. That's because very few people went into the mine LOOKING
for old mining equipment.

We did. And we found some, too.

Actually, Beck himself was one of the juvenile delinquents
who'd poked around in the mine years earlier, so he knew just
what to expect when we pried off the old wooden planks covering
the entrance. Less than a dozen feet into the shaft was a train
of ancient bucket-cars, the tiny railcars used to haul ore out of
the mine while it was in use. Probably parked so close to the
entrance to discourage people from going any further. I wasn't
too thrilled about entering a man-made tunnel that could cave in
at any moment, but I could see from my flashlight beam that the
"train" only consisted of three bucket-cars linked together. And
despite the fact that they'd probably been parked for forty years
or more, they seemed to be in reasonably good condition. Shit
lasts forever in the desert, it really does. Beck dragged a
towchain into the mine, looped it around the hitch on the last
car, then used the pickup to drag the whole line of cars
closer to the entrance. When the cars were nearly clear of the
overhang, I went inside and used a five-pound pony-sledge to bash
the connection on the last car until it came free. When Beck
threw the pickup into gear and dragged the first two cars clear
of the mine, and the metal wheels screeched so loud I thought it
would bring the shaft down on my head. Of course the wheels were
frozen with rust, but they were far from destroyed. The
first thing we did when we got the bucket cars into the light of
day was turn them upside-down, then slop grease onto the axles.
After a few well-placed whacks with the sledge, we got the wheels
to turn. A few more whacks, and we had them turning freely enough
to push the bucket-cars up a ramp and into the back of the
pickup. Once the bucket cars were loaded, we replaced the boards
over the mine entrance, then took the cars back to
the scrapyard.

The Rocket Car was off to a fine start.


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