SAFETY FIRST (OR SECOND)
Why none of us thought to take a look at the tracks coming
out of that abandoned silver mine before this is anyone's guess.
Beck and Sal and I had stood right on top of them when we got the
bucket cars, but none of us considered the possibility that a
long section of the track might still be there, only underground.
As a matter of fact "underground" is a pretty drastic term for
what we found. The tracks were actually covered by a fairly thin
layer of drifted sand and dust. The outcrop around the
mine shaft broke the wind enough to keep the tracks clear near
the entrance, but beyond that, the rails must have been a good
place for drifting sand to pile up, and eventually cover the
rails. But Jimmy's tire iron sank no more than an inch or two
before striking metal, and we didn't so much have to DIG for the
rails as brush the sand off them. We ended up walking more than a
half mile from the mine entrance, Jimmy stopping occasionally to
stick the tire iron into the sand, and striking metal every
time. Eventually it started getting too dark to see where we were
going, so we made our way back up the slope to where the cars
were parked. I told Jimmy I'd be back bright and early the next
day to find out exactly how far the tracks ran, but Jimmy seemed
confident we'd have more than enough.
He didn't seem too confident of the Rocket Car, though.
When we got back to the cars, I found that Jimmy had me
follow him in my own car because he was going back to school
directly from the mine entrance. But there was still a matter he
wanted to discuss, that matter being the first run of the Rocket
Car. Without a good launch site the matter could wait, but since
it seemed as if we'd found one, Jimmy figured we'd better discuss
the whole thing immediately. It turned out that he was VERY
worried about the first run of the car, particularly the idea of
having a person inside when we fired it. Of course I already knew
there were plenty of things that could go wrong, since I'd built
the thing in a junkyard. But when Jimmy started to lay out the
possible ways a person inside the car could get hurt or killed,
he made it sound a little less safe than going over Niagara Falls
in a barrel. First, we were dealing with a highly volatile
chemical propellant we knew nothing about. We didn't know how old
it was, where it came from, or how it was supposed to
behave. There was actually a very real possibility that the JATO
could explode like a bomb, reducing the car to flame and shrapnel
in a split-second. But even if it DID work as expected, the
rocket was held in place by a length of water pipe welded to the
bottom half of a train car that was God only knew how old. If any
of the welds didn't hold, there was no telling what the outcome
would be. Then there was the matter of the brakes. All we had was
a setup that looked good and sounded like it might work. But if
someone inside the car found themselves going 100+ miles per and
the brakes DIDN'T work...
The way he described the whole thing made it sound like
suicidal insanity, and I started to get a little pissed off at
him. If he'd been thinking about all this shit the whole time,
why hadn't he SAID anything?
As it turned out, he wasn't suggesting that we scrap the
project outright, just that we perform a "test run" before trying
it for real. An UNMANNED test run. Rig a system to activate the
brakes at some point after the JATO had burned out, point the
Rocket Car down the tracks, and let it run pilotless the first
time. After all, it wasn't as if we needed a man at
the tiller while the car was moving. The person we'd been
referring to as the "pilot" would actually be the "passenger",
his sole duty being to hit the dump valve before the car ran out
of track. And since we had four JATOS, wasting one for the sake
of safety seemed like a prudent move.
I had to admit, he made a LOT of sense.
I pointed out that Beck would probably have a bird when he
found out we weren't going to let him drive the car on it's
maiden voyage, but we both agreed that it wouldn't be a major
problem as long as Beck got to drive it on the first MANNED run.
We'd just take a second JATO along, and if the car ran
successfully the first time, Beck could take it out the
second time. If the car ended up a twisted lump of smoking metal,
Beck would be happy we decided to take the precaution.
With these details settled, I said goodbye to Jimmy and
headed home. On the way I was thinking about how to kick in the
braking system with nobody inside the car, but since we'd only
need it for the trial run, it didn't have to be anything fancy.
The next day I was busy at the yard sorting through the latest
load of junk my Dad had bought at an auction over the weekend,
but I DID find time to rig the brakes for our test run. All I did
was twist a screw-eye into each brake runner, then run a length
of piano wire through the openings in each eye and up through a
hole in the Chevy's floor. I tied the ends of the wire to a short
stick, and used it to prop the brake's dump valve in the "up"
position. Then I looped a piece of rubber from a bicycle inner
tube over the lever, and tied it under the valve box. The bike
tube pulled the lever toward the "dump" position, but the lever
couldn't move due to the stick propping it up. I figured that
once we found a good section of track, all we'd have to do was
drive a spike into one of the rail-ties at the point where we
wanted the brakes to kick in. When the car passed over the spike,
the spike would snag the wire, pull out the stick, and the dump
valve would snap down, activating the brakes.
Now, if you're getting tired of hearing about all the Rube
Goldberg bullshit I was adding to this machine, take a minute to
think about how I felt while I was doing the work. By the time
Jimmy suggested that "we" rig "some sort of automatic brake
system", I was getting mighty sick of rigging and drilling and
bolting and cutting. Let's face it, despite the fact that we came
up with a few clever ways to solve pretty tough problems, the
Rocket Car was STILL just a pile of shit that I knocked
together in a junkyard. And I was tired of trying to figure out
ways to make important things happen by using other people's
garbage. I made up my mind that the auto-brake was the last piece
of work I was going to do on the car. If what I'd built at that
point wasn't good enough, I'd simply turn the whole mess over to
Beck and let him drive the fucking thing into the Mystery Mine,
or past the police station, or whatever he wanted to do.
However, there was still the matter of the launch site
preparation to take car of, so on Tuesday I called Beck and told
him to swing by the yard in his Dad's pickup and get me after
work. He and Sal both showed up, and when I took them to the
abandon mine and showed them how far from the entrance the tracks
extended, they were ecstatic. I didn't bother to explain that
Jimmy had come up with the idea two days earlier, since they'd
probably spent Monday and Tuesday driving around in the desert
looking for a decent set of tracks themselves. I brought a tire
iron along, and sat on the tailgate of the pickup while Beck
drove away from the mine entrance. Every now and then he stopped
the truck, and I plunged the tire iron into the sand where the
tracks should be. And I kept striking metal over and
over. Finally the truck stopped and stayed stopped, and when I
looked over my shoulder, I saw that we'd come to the end of the
line. Or at least the end of the usable line. Exactly 1.9 miles
from the mine entrance, the narrow-gauge tracks intersected a set
of modern, standard-gauge tracks leading into town. Which made
sense, after I'd thought about it awhile. The newer tracks were
probably laid on the bed of some old narrow-gauge tracks, and
the rails leading toward the abandoned mine were probably a
spur coming off the main tracks.
But who cared? We had two miles of narrow gauge track,
more than enough to run the Rocket Car on.
Beck was thrilled over the discovery, until I explained
that the buried rails would have to be cleared before we could
take the car out for a test run. He enthusiastically assured me
that he and Sal would have the tracks cleared the next day, but I
had my doubts. And my doubts turned out to be well-grounded. I
didn't hear anything from Beck and Sal the next day, or the
day after that. I assumed they were in the process of clearing
the tracks, and it turned out they were. And the process turned
out to be a lot harder than either of them imagined. They started
out with Beck driving the truck while Sal sat on the tailgate,
dragging a street-sweepers broom along the rails. It worked, but
not as well as they expected. After driving that two-mile stretch
of track twice, Beck came up with a much better idea. They
simply broke back into the abandoned mine, grabbed the last
bucket-car we'd found near the entrance, and pushed it down the
length of the tracks with the bumper of the pickup. Once the
wheels loosened up, the bucket car worked like a snowplow and
cleared the tracks with a single pass. I had my doubts that this
method worked as well as they claimed, but when I drove out
to the abandoned mine after work on Thursday, I saw that it had.
Two rusty metal rails poked out of the hardpan, starting at the
mine entrance and extending out into the distance. When I took a
closer look at the rails, I saw that they were indeed rusty as
hell, but still solid. When I banged one with a rock, I saw
plenty of good steel under the rust.
Best of all, they were straight as an arrow.
For me, this was the point where the whole project made
the transition from theory to reality. I squatted next to those
tracks and realized that the last obstacle had suddenly been
removed, that we really were going to run the car. And to my
surprise, it didn't feel good at all. Suddenly the whole thing
seemed stupid and insane and dangerous and illegal as hell. But
by then it was way too late to stop.