Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 6


Before I go on, I think I should take a minute to explain
why this whole story is getting so lengthy. Actually, my wife
says I should issue a formal apology for inflicting such a
long-winded pile of shit on anyone who reads this. And I halfway
agree with her. But I want to make you aware of one thing: I did
NOT plan it this way. When I decided to write down the story of
the Rocket Car, I figured it would take all of two pages, maybe
three. Four at the outside. That's because I was working from a
set of 20-year-old recollections, and a lot of the details were
missing. I didn't realize that once I started dredging up these
old memories, all SORTS of bits and pieces would start to fill
themselves in, whether I wanted them to or not. Four pages became
five, then six, etc. etc. I originally planned to have the whole
thing done by the beginning of April, so that it would be ready
to go on the 20th anniversary of the first (and last) run of
our Rocket Car, but April came and went, and I was still hunting
and pecking. So did May, then June.

Nothing I can do about it now.

Besides the miscellaneous details that came flooding back
when I started to write this story down, the technical details of
the whole project turned out to be more involved than I
remembered when I started writing. When I began, I remembered a
simple 1-2-3 process that took place over the course of a few
weeks, and seemed fairly simple. But as the story progressed, I
realized I had to supply a LOT more detail than I
originally intended, just to keep it from sounding completely
stupid. And I'm still not sure I've accomplished the
not-sounding-stupid part. Even though the project was executed
one step at a time, it had a goofy, ill-planned,
Li'l Rascals feel to it, and no amount of explaining is going to
change that. Because basically it WAS a Li'l Rascals undertaking.
The only thing missing was a sign saying "He-Man Rocket Kar Klub"
over a treehouse door. But I'm not going to lie about the facts
or try to make the whole thing sound less silly than it actually
was. If someone had been hurt or killed, or even we'd been caught
trying to run a homemade rocket car through the desert, I'm sure
we'd all have ended up in the pokey. Even if a judge were willing
to overlook the instances of theft and trespassing
and illegal possession of military fireworks, we'd have probably
been charged with SOMETHING, just on general principal.
Conspiracy To Commit Flagrant Stupidity, maybe. If Beck had
gotten his way, a charge of attempted suicide would've been a
sure thing.

But nothing like this ever happened.

Having said that, I'd now like to issue a formal apology
for inflicting such a long-winded pile of shit on you.

Sorry about that. It won't happen again.

There you go, Lily. I did it. Happy?


The idea of the Rocket Car sitting on cinderblocks in the
scrapyard, just waiting for a place to run it, was driving Beck
crazy. I have to admit, I was getting anxious to take it for a
test run myself, but Beck was really going nuts. I didn't hear
anything from him for the rest of the week, and I assumed it was
because he hadn't found a suitable launch site. It
was actually because his Dad had taken the four-wheel drive out
for one of his mysterious desert jaunts, and was gone for the
rest of the week. That left Beck and Sal with only one option,
driving Sal's beat-to-shit Ford Falcon, a car that barely held
it's own on pavement, never mind in the desert.

Meanwhile, the Rocket Car waited in the field.

I tried to think about it as little as possible, since I
didn't want to end up afflicted with the mania had gotten hold of
Beck. I worked at the scrapyard, just as I always had, trying to
avoid the far corner of the lot where the Rocket Car was. More
than once I thought about what I'd do if my Dad suddenly got a
buyer for that 1959 Chevy Impala, but there was really no point
worrying about such things. If it happened, I was simply screwed.
No way to explain my way out of a situation like THAT.

So I simply waited.

Actually, I did get ONE minor detail taken care of during
the delay, building igniters for the JATOs. I removed all the
taillights and turn-signal lights from the Impala (no matter what
became of the Rocket Car, signaling for a turn wouldn't be an
issue) and soldered two wires to each bulb. Next I carefully
cracked the glass on each bulb, leaving the filaments intact. The
bare filaments would heat to white-hot when connected to
car battery, but simply laying a hot filament inside the JATO
nozzle didn't seem like it would do the trick. Maybe it would
have, but since Beck and Sal still hadn't found a place to use
for a launch site, I had time to come up with something better.
So I pulled a dozen of the blank M-60 rounds from the ammo belt
my father kept in his office as a decoration, tore off the
skinny end of each shell, and dumped out the powder inside. I
poured a little of the powder into each of seven squares of
newspaper, folded the newspaper squares into packets around the
filaments of the light bulbs, and trussed each one up with
masking tape. When I connected one of them to a battery to test
the idea, it made an impressive little flare.

Surely enough to light the JATO. I hoped.

When Sal and Beck STILL hadn't reported finding a launch
site by Friday morning, I even went through the trouble of
putting an old car battery on the charger at the shop, installing
it in the Rocket Car, and wiring it to a switch on the dashboard.
I considered painting the switch bright red, with the word
IGNITION! underneath, just because I had the time. In retrospect
I'm glad I didn't go through the trouble, since we never used the
switch anyway. But at that point I realized that if Beck and Sal
didn't find a good spot soon, I might end up hauling the car out
to the nearest set of tracks and trying it out myself.

Jimmy came back from college again that weekend, just
about the same time Beck's father came back from who-knows-where
with the four-wheel-drive. During the week I had high hopes that
we'd be able to launch over the weekend, but when everyone
gathered at the scrapyard on Saturday afternoon, I knew it wasn't
going to happen. Jimmy took a look at the sprinkler system
and pronounced it workable, although I could tell he still had
some grave misgivings about how well a couple of pissing garden
hoses would cool down the brake runners. I had the same
misgivings myself, but the amount of heat generated would depend
on so many unknown factors that is wasn't something we
could really plan for. We didn't have any idea how fast the car
would actually go, what shape the tracks would be in, or even how
much the car weighed. From my point of view, the sprinklers were
there for only one reason: To keep the runners from burning up
like matchsticks when they hit the rails. After all, they WERE
made from wood. If the sprinklers could keep the runners from
turning into torches, they'd fulfill my expectations.

While Jimmy was inspecting the rocket car and telling us
what he'd found out about my JATO bottles (which turned out to be
very little), Sal and Beck told us about the launch locations
they'd scouted out over the week. And the news they had was grim
indeed. Within ten miles of town there were a total of three
sections of track long enough to run the rocket car on, and in my
opinion they were all dead losers. Beck and Sal knew the
area well enough to realize that most of the modern wide-gauge
tracks had been laid either directly on top of, or very close to,
the places where narrow-gauge tracks had once existed. So
naturally they started their search at the switching yard near
the city limits. There they found an excellent set of
narrow-gauge tracks roughly paralleling a shiny set of wide-gauge
rails that were probably used every day. But despite the fact
that the old-style tracks stretched for miles, they ran right
through a busy switching yard. Not a good place to test a
jet-propelled boxcar.

Another possibility was a set of rails that started in the
desert, continued for five miles or more, and ended in a soft
dirt field that would have been ideal for cushioning any crash
that might happen. Unfortunately, this set ran directly through
the middle of town, and the field at the end was the Jaycees
Softball Field, right across the street from the
police station. Even though Beck must've realized we'd never go
for THAT idea, it was obvious that he liked it. I imagine he
wanted to set the Rocket Car on the tracks across from the police
station in the dead of night, then blow the horn and scream until
a dozen cops came running out of the station to see what the
ruckus was. At that point he'd hang a moon out the window, then
light off the JATO and blaze out of town.

Or maybe this wasn't what he had in mind. But if you knew
Beck, you'd probably agree with me.

The last location Sal and Beck found was even worse than
the tracks that ran past the police station. The Mystery Mine was
a bargain-basement tourist attraction a few miles from town that
promised to show visitors the INNER WORKINGS OF AN AUTHENTIC
SILVER MINE. People who paid the $2.50 admission were loaded
aboard an ancient, rattling, mine-car and hauled through a few
hundred feet of cavern, while a tour guide in a hardhat
and goggles pointed at rusted pieces of machinery and chunks of
rock, explaining what they were. We'd all been on the Mystery
Mine tour at one time or another, and everyone agreed that the
only thing even VAGUELY interesting about it was wondering if a
cave-in would trap you in the bowels of the mine. Possibly
forcing you to eat the other tourists to survive. There was an
old song that used to play on the radio that described this
scenario, and there was a popular joke around town about being
trapped in the Mystery Mine and having to eat your way out. A
discreet sign near the mine's entrance proclaimed that it was
inspected for safety by the U.S. Bureau of Mines on a yearly
basis, but everyone knew that ancient mines tended to cave in
weather the U.S. Bureau of Mines said it was okay to or
not. Therefore, new folks in town were always advised not to take
the Mystery Mine tour without packing a sharp knife and a salt

Cannibalism and the U.S. Bureau of Mines really weren't
our problem. But the fact that the Mystery Mine was a tourist
attraction presented all SORTS of difficulties. The land around
the Mystery Mine DID have plenty of narrow-gauge track, that much
was true. More than enough to suit our needs. But it also had
lots of fences, lots of lights, a couple of security guards, and
a handful of vicious Dobermans that patrolled the grounds at
night. We all knew it, too. I think Beck and Sal really just went
out to the Mystery Mine to take the tour and kill an afternoon.
Jimmy and I wouldn't have even wasted time with the trip.

The end result was that the Rocket Car was ready to roll,
but we had no place to roll it. Beck and Sal were confident that
they'd be able to find a good spot the following week (since they
were once again desert-capable) but Jimmy and I had serious
doubts. We knew the area around town as well as anyone, and the
chances of finding a good place to run the car were starting
to look grim.

When Jimmy spent the weekend in town, he usually headed
back to the college on Sunday evening, right after dinner. So it
surprised me when I got a call from him at 6:00 Sunday evening,
asking me if I wanted to take a ride with him to "discuss a few
things". I said sure, no trouble. He told me to drive over to his
house, and when I got there, he was already in his car. He
signaled for me to follow him, and I did. I had no idea where
we were going, but I followed anyway. After a few minutes I saw
that we were heading out of town, and I wondered what he was up
to. But I stopped wondering a little while later, when he pulled
to the side of the road near the abandoned mine shaft where we'd
liberated the two ancient bucket cars. He got out of his car,
opened the trunk and took out a tire iron, then headed toward the
mine entrance without a word. When I asked what we were doing, he
held up one finger in a wait-a-minute gesture.

I shut up.

Jimmy walked down the slope and stopped in front of the
boards we'd re-nailed over the entrance. Even though the sun was
almost down, there was still plenty of light to see by. I thought
he'd brought the tire iron to pry off the boards near the
entrance, but when I reached the place he was standing, he
started walking down the tracks, away from the entrance.
Ten paces later he'd reached the point where the tracks ended,
buried in sand. He took a few more paces, then bent over and
jabbed the pointy end of the tire iron into the sand.

To my surprise, it clanked.

Jimmy looked at me with a goofy little smile on his face,
and when I realized what he was doing, I smiled myself. Probably
just as goofily. He pulled the tire iron out of the sand, walked
a few more paces, then stuck it into the ground again. No clank
this time. But when he stuck it in again, a few inches to the
left, he got the same metallic clank. He was now standing a good
fifty feet from the mine entrance, and at least twenty feet
from the spot where we all assumed the tracks terminated. He
looked up at me, with that dumb smirk still plastered across his
face, and said "So, how far out do you think these tracks
actually go?"

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