Monday, April 16, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 8


If the track had been ready on Monday, I don't think I
could've convinced Beck to let the maiden voyage of the rocket
car wait until Jimmy came in on the weekend. He was far too
anxious to get moving on the whole thing. As a matter of fact,
the only way I was able to get him to wait as long as I did was
by agreeing to start getting things ready on Friday. After my
Dad and I went home from the yard on Friday, I returned to the
yard and found Sal and Beck waiting for me. We backed the flatbed
into the weedy field where the Rocket Car was docked, set up the
ramps, and hoisted the car onto the flatbed with the winch. I
drove the flatbed out to the abandoned mine and down the slope to
tracks, scared shitless that I'd get the truck stuck in the soft
sand. But I made it down the slope okay, and we lowered
the Rocket Car onto the tracks.

It looked perfectly at home sitting on the rails. Like
that's were it was meant to be all the time.

But we didn't have time to stand around admiring the way
the Rocket Car looked on the tracks. Even though we were a
hundred yards from a fairly secluded stretch of highway, the
sight of a five-ton flatbed, a four-wheel-drive pickup, and a
rocket powered `59 Chevy on railroad wheels would've
looked pretty peculiar to anyone coming down the road. So as soon
as the car was on the rails, I climbed into the Chevy's drivers'
seat and Beck pushed me down the tracks with the pickup's bumper
until the car was close to the mine entrance. Actually, it almost
went THROUGH the boarded- up hole in the mountain. I was sitting
sitting there enjoying the ride, halfway to the mine entrance,
when I suddenly realized that hitting the dump valve would stop
the car PERMANENTLY. Or at least until we went back to the
scrapyard and snagged the portable compressor to re-inflate the
shocks. About a quarter mile from the mine entrance I started
waving out the window and screaming for Beck to stop, and when he
finally hit the brakes, I must've been doing about forty or so.
By the time the car coasted to a stop, I was no more than fifty
feet from the entrance.

Close call.

We pulled the boards from the mine entrance again, and
Beck used the pickup to ease the Chevy into the mine. Very
slowly. Once it was all the way inside, he took me back to the
flatbed, and followed me back to the yard. I parked the flatbed
where it usually spent the night, we loaded the portable
compressor into the pickup, and returned to the mine.

Since we didn't have a tow chain, we had to muscle the car
far enough out of the mine for Beck to get the truck in front of
the Chevy and push it back down the tracks. When we got the car
about a mile from the entrance, we let the car coast to a stop,
Beck got out of the pickup, and Sal slipped into the driver's
seat. Beck jumped into the Rocket Car with a maniac grin on his
face, and Sal maneuvered the pickup behind the Chevy.
Beck gave us a jaunty thumbs-up, and Sal hit the gas. We picked
up speed until we were doing about fifty, and just before I was
about to scream at Sal to stop, he hit the brakes. We watched the
rocket car pull away at goodly clip.

And keep going.

And keep going.

And just as I was wondering if the brake system might have
malfunctioned, I saw the ass end of the Chevy pitch up slightly
as Beck hit the dump lever. Sal and I both let out the breath
we'd been holding, and drove down to where the car was stopped.
When we got there, the car was resting on the runners and Beck
was sitting on the hood. Less than twenty feet from the mine

I'll say it again: Beck was a fucking maniac.

I thought he might make up an excuse for waiting so long
to stop, that the brakes didn't work or whatever, but he didn't
even bother. The runners had scraped the rust off ten feet of the
rails, and when I looked under the Rocket Car, water was still
squirting out of the hoses. When I asked what the fuck was wrong
with him, Beck said "Hey, I didn't feel like pushing this fucker
all the way to the garage, so I let it coast most of the way. You
have a problem with that?"

Actually, I didn't. The "garage" he was referring to was
actually the mine shaft, where we planned to stash the car until
the firing test the next day. Nobody wanted to go through the
bullshit of hauling the car back to the yard, so we decided to
simply push it into the mine, replace the boards, and leave it
there overnight. And after re-inflating the shocks from
the compressor in the pickup, that's exactly what we did. But
every time I looked at those two bright spots on the rails, less
than twenty feet from the boards covering that mine shaft, I
wondered if it would EVER be a good idea to let Beck drive the
thing while a rocket was pushing it.



The first (and last) test run of the Rocket Car happened
on Holy Saturday, 1978. For the non-Christians in the house, Holy
Saturday is the day before Easter, a day the faithful are
supposed to spend preparing for the Easter feast and quietly
contemplating the Miracle of the Resurrection. My family has been
Catholic for about a thousand generations, so I suppose this put
me firmly among the ranks of "The Faithful". Which means the
Pope probably would've frowned on my spending the day before
Easter experimenting with illegal military ordnance and
trespassing on private property, but I'm also confident that
nothing in the Bible covers what we were doing that Saturday
morning, so I probably had some wiggle-room.

We assembled at the abandoned mine early in the morning,
just before dawn. The prefabricated story to my parents was that
Jimmy and I were driving up to.... a big city in the area (you'll
excuse me if I don't specify which one), and wanted to get an
early start. Jimmy was using the same excuse for anyone at
his house who was curious. Dad wasn't even going into the yard
on Holy Saturday, so I had the day to myself. I went to Jimmy's
house and found him waiting for me on the front porch, and we
left for the mine.

When we arrived, I was tremendously relieved to find that
Sal and Beck were already there, sitting on the hood of the
pickup, which was parked near the mine entrance. They even had
the boards pulled from the mine entrance and the car pushed out
into the open. My relief wasn't due to the fact that
they'd showed up (you couldn't have kept Beck away with a court
order) but because they were just sitting on the hood of the
pickup, patiently waiting for Jimmy and I to arrive. See, the
night before, we'd loaded two of the JATO's, the portable
compressor, and three five-gallon jerry cans of water into the
back of Beck's pickup, for convenience's sake. It was way
too much stuff to haul in my car, and we figured the gear would
be safe spending the night in Beck's truck, covered with a tarp.
What hadn't occurred to me until I got home was that Beck was in
possession of everything he needed to test the car HIMSELF, on
the sly. I even considered taking a ride past his house around
midnight to see if the truck was still there, when it occurred to
me that even though he DID have the ignition button on the
dashboard, he had no way to light the rocket. And I didn't think
he was stupid enough to set the car up and strap himself
in while Sal stuffed lit matches into the JATO, trying to get it

Sal would've done it without hesitation. But not Beck.

I'd like to say that depriving Beck of the igniters was a
piece of intelligent foresight on my part, but it was really
exactly the opposite. I'd just forgotten them. We had to stop at
the scrapyard to get the igniters and a hundred-foot roll of
field-phone wire before we went to the mine.

Anyway, I left my car parked on the shoulder of the road,
and we walked down the slope to find that Beck and Sal were
aching to get the test under way. Beck shot a look at the
igniters in my hand as he was getting into the truck, but it was
still too dark out to read his expression. If I had to guess, I'd
say it was an irritated one. Beck started the truck and
drove around to the front of the Rocket Car, then left it in low
gear as he pushed it to the opposite end of the track, with the
rest of us riding on the tailgate. It wasn't until the car was
stopped at the end of the track that Jimmy looked the car over
and asked what turned out to be a VERY important question.

He said "So why is the car pointing THIS way?"

Sal and Beck and I stared at the car for a minute, and
although I can't speak for the other two, I was trying to come up
with something to say. To be honest, I'd never given it much
thought. I suppose that when the car was brought to my Dad's
scrapyard, it was hauled onto the flatbed rear-first, because the
front end was further from the path winding through the
yard. When we loaded the car to bring it to the mine, winching it
onto the flatbed rear-first was simply the easiest thing to do,
so that's what we did. And when we got to the tracks, I'd simply
driven the flatbed to the end opposite the mine shaft and parked
facing away from the entrance. It seemed like a good way to avoid
driving the flatbed over the tracks themselves, which might have
damaged them. So when we rolled the car down the planks and onto
the tracks, it ended up facing the mine entrance. Sure,
we could've set it on the tracks facing the opposite way, but...
nobody thought of it. Actually, nobody even thought to THINK
about it. The whole process seemed simple and straightforward,
even the part where we pushed the Chevy into the mine entrance
and boarded it up. I mean, you DRIVE a car into a garage, you
don't BACK it in, right?

So the three of us gave Jimmy a shrug, and I asked him
what difference it made. He walked around the car looking
thoughtful, and after awhile said "None. This is good" But later
on I figured out what he'd been thinking about. If something went
wrong with car (specifically the brakes), which way would we want
it to be pointing? If the brakes failed while it was heading
AWAY from the mine, the car would eventually run onto the
wide-gauge rails at the end of OUR track. And with the flatbed
back in the yard, it wasn't likely we'd be able to get the car
off the tracks if it got stuck there. But with the car pointed
TOWARD the mine, a brake failure would mean the car simply flew
into an abandoned silver mine. We could declare the experiment a
failure, nail the boards back up, and call it a day. Of course
the equation looked a lot different with a passenger on board,
but that's why we were doing a test run first.

Ah yes, the test run.

Once Jimmy was through looking the car over, I broke the
news to Beck that the first run would be unmanned. He didn't like
the sound of that a BIT, even after I explained to him that it
was in his best interest. Personally, I wouldn't have gone near
the thing unless we'd had at LEAST one trial, but Beck's mind
didn't work that way. He wanted to ride in the car on the first
run, and it took awhile to convince him that it simply
wasn't going to happen. But after a little arguing he
grudgingly accepted our logic. We took one of the JATOS out of
it's crate and loaded into the pipe at the rear of the car, then
I had Sal drive me down the tracks toward the mine. When the
odometer had ticked off exactly a mile, I made him stop while I
got out and pounded an eight-inch spike into one of
the wooden ties. The lumber was still solid enough to hold the
spike well, which was nice to see, since I had no alternative
plan to activate the brakes. We drove back to the Rocket Car and
found that Jimmy and Beck had already shoved one of my igniters
into the JATO nozzle, attached the leads to the roll of
field-phone cable with wirenuts, and were unrolling the cable
away from the tracks. I told Sal to park about fifty feet away
from the Chevy, with the broad side of the truck facing the
tracks. Jimmy had mentioned the chance of the JATO exploding like
a bomb when it was ignited, and I wanted to have the pickup truck
between me and the JATO when it was lit.

I filled the can under the Chevy's hood with water from
one of the jerry cans, closed the hood and rigged the automatic
brake. The wire stretched between the runners was only five or
six inches above the railroad ties, and it looked low enough to
catch on the spike with no problem. Beck came over to watch the
whole procedure, a little miffed that the unmanned test
had obviously been planned out well in advance. But by then it
was too late for him to raise any serious objections. If the car
ran okay, he'd get his ride. If not, he'd be grateful we made the

Once the brakes were rigged and the water can filled,
there was only one thing left to do: Light the mother and see
what happened.

We all gathered around the truck, Beck popped the hood,
and I cut the field phone wire from the roll and stripped the
ends. By then the sun had climbed over the top of the mountains,
and we had a clear view of the entire track. I wrapped one of the
field phone wires around the corroded negative post of the
truck's battery, and just as I was about to touch the other
wire to the positive, Sal yelled "Wait!"

He scared the shit out of me.

I said "What? What? What's the problem?"

Sal looked slightly embarrassed, and said "Shouldn't we
have a countdown?"

Jesus Christ.

Beck gave him a smack in the back of the head, but I told
him sure, if he wanted a countdown, we'd have a countdown. So Sal
counted down from ten, and when he reached zero, I touched the
wire to the lead of the battery.


The sequence of events that followed happened so damned
fast that I'm surprised my mind was able to record everything
that occurred. But even though parts of this story have grown
foggy over the years, the memory of the actual Flight of the
Rocket Car remains crystal-clear.

When I touched the wire to battery post, we heard a little
fizz from the JATO. I knew what it was, since I'd heard it
before. The igniter going off. I didn't expect to hear it, since
I figured the rocket would light instantly. Instead, it hissed
for a second, then stopped. But before I could start to worry if
the rocket was a dud, there was a massive eruption
of orange flame from the ass of the Chevy, as if it had just laid
the worst fart in history. Along with the flame was a huge,
howling roar, something nobody had counted on. We'd all seen the
Apollo launches on TV, and we KNEW that rockets were noisy, but
nothing had prepared us for this. It sounded like.... I don't
know what. Like a solid-fuel rocket igniting, I suppose. And the
noise and smoke continued for what seemed like a long time
before the Rocket Car took off.

No, scratch that. It didn't take off, it JUMPED.

I've been trying to figure out a way to put it into words,
but the sight is almost impossible to describe. Think of this:
You know what it looks like when you shoot a paper clip with a
rubber band? One second the clip is between your fingers, and the
next it's just... gone. You can't track it with your eyes,
because it moves too fast. All you can do is hope to shift your
eyes to where it was going, so you can see where it hits.

Think of the same thing happening with a 1500-pound car.

And I remember thinking later that there was no way in
HELL I was EVER going to ride in the thing. I could only imagine
what would've happened to Beck if we'd let him ride in it. I'm
sure the seat would've been torn from it's mounts, and Beck
probably would've made a hasty exit through the back
windshield. I don't know much about G-forces or rocket
construction, but I can't think of any way a regular car seat
could've stood up to that kind of acceleration.

In the space of a second, the car jumped down the track,
heading away from us, and we were enveloped in thick,
chemical-smelling smoke. Another bit of poor planning. We all ran
up the slope to get out of the artificial fogbank, but the
roar from the rocket stopped as quickly as it started. Jimmy says
the burn time on our JATO was 2.2 seconds, but at the time it
seemed a LOT longer than that. I staggered up the slope and
looked down the tracks, to see that the Rocket Car was moving
along at a rapid pace, toward the spike I'd driven in the
railroad tie. And although it was moving damned fast, it was far
enough away so that I can't even take a guess as to how fast it
was going. My eyes were still burning from the rocket smoke, but
I did see it pass the point where I'd planted the spike, and

Something happened.

Intellectually, I know exactly what happened. The spike
caught the piano wire, pulled the stick out from under the
dump-valve lever, and the air shocks lowered the car to the
rails. I didn't actually see the car drop, but it
must have happened. Because a second later, more smoke started
pouring out of the car. Only this time it was coming from UNDER
the car, and it was steam, not smoke. The runners had heated up,
and the water shooting onto the hot brakes was turning into

But it kept going.

And going.

It didn't seem to be slowing down very much, either. It
MUST have been, since the runners were obviously pushing against
the rails hard enough to create a lot of heat. But I guess it
wasn't enough. The car kept moving, closer and closer to the
mine. The last coherent thought I had was that it had been a VERY
good move to point the car toward the mine. It was still moving
at a good clip, highway-speed at least, when it was fifty yards
from the entrance. It obviously wasn't going to stop in time,
and I remember wondering just how far into the mine it would
go before stopping.

But it never made to the entrance.

Later on, Jimmy and I had a long discussion about what
happened next, but we were too far away for anyone to have a
clear view. Maybe one of the runners burned away and got caught
in the ground. Or on the tracks. Maybe one of the old axles
finally reached it's breaking point. Or one of my welds
couldn't take the strain. Whatever it was, the Rocket Car
derailed about twenty yards from the mine entrance. It still had
plenty of inertia, and continued moving toward the mine, but the
wheels were no longer on the tracks. Actually it was straddling
one of the rails, screeching and screaming and kicking up a cloud
of sparks from the point where the frame slid along the rail.

And it was no longer aligned with the mine entrance,

Things were still moving too fast for my brain to process
the information, but when I saw the car skidding toward the mine
entrance at sixty or seventy miles an hour, and NOT firmly on the
rails, I knew that Something Bad Was About To Happen. Exactly
WHAT was still a mystery at that point, but a second later I
found out. The Chevy slid down the tracks, but instead of driving
through the mine entrance, it went in at an angle with the ass
end canted toward the road. The front end smashed into one of the
huge timbers that outlined the mine entrance, cracking it in
half. After a very short pause, the timber collapsed,
immediately followed by the overhead timber it supported. Those
timbers must have been under considerable stress, because a
second later the entire entrance to the mine collapsed on top of
the Rocket Car with a huge grinding rumble and a cloud of dust.

I just gawked.

I remember that part clearly, standing there looking at
the car in the distance, just before dust obscured the picture.
My Rocket Car was sitting there like a busted Tonka truck while a
mountain fell on it.

I almost cried.

A second later I became aware of voices shouting behind
me. I turned around and saw Jimmy and Sal in the bed of the
pickup, and Beck behind the wheel. They'd obviously had the sense
to get into the truck and chase down the rocket car, while I
stood there with my mouth hanging open. I jumped into the bed,
and Beck floored it toward the mine entrance. Toward
the FORMER mine entrance. During the short ride I was wondering
how we were going to haul the car out of the pile of rubble and
get it out of there, but when we got closer I saw that it was a
foolish idea. The front half of the car was crushed like a beer
can, under boulders ranging from the size of a watermelon to the
size of the car itself. Smaller pieces were still coming down
when we got there. The only way that car was ever coming out was
if someone torched off the back end and hauled it out with
a winch.

The front end was never going to see the light of day

Beck stopped the truck a safe distance from the wreckage,
and we all got out to look. But there wasn't much to look at. The
only thing NOT buried by the cave-in was the last four feet of
the car, and that was about it. The trunk lid and rear bumper
were visible, but the rest of the car was buried under boulders
and rubble. It was obvious that the car would have to stay were
it was, but after we gaped at it awhile, I decided that there WAS
one part of the Rocket Car that absolutely couldn't stay where it

The rocket itself.

Up to that point we were guilty of little more than
trespassing. Sure we'd caused a mine to cave in, but the mine had
been closed for decades, and it wasn't likely anyone would be too
upset about it. But that fucking JATO bottle was sticking out of
the wreckage in a VERY obvious way, and had to go. So I
cautiously made my way over to the remains of the Chevy,
hoping an expended JATO would be a lot lighter than the full one.

I gave it a tug, but it wouldn't budge.

Beck came over and gave me a hand, but we still couldn't
make it move. It wouldn't even wiggle. All we could figure was
that the pipe must have been twisted or squashed further in,
where we couldn't see it. After a little more grunting and
pushing, Beck went back to the pickup for his jack. We figured
that if we took some of the weight off the pipe, we might be able
to budge the rocket. But before he could get back, the pile of
rubble shifted, sending a good-sized boulder careening past me.

Suddenly jacking the car up seemed like a very poor idea.

And shortly after that, even staying in the area didn't
seem very smart. Jimmy quickly summed the situation up for us. At
that particular moment, there wasn't much we could do in the way
of damage control. The car was stuck, and there was nothing we
could do about it. The JATO was wedged in too tightly to remove
too. And if WE couldn't move it, then it was unlikely anyone else
could. Not without a major effort. Fortunately, the only thing to
show that we'd even BEEN there was the piece of field-phone
wire at the other end of the tracks, and the remains of the
Rocket Car itself. Which meant that it was an excellent time to
get the hell out of there, before someone came down the road and
wondered what was going on.

We needed no more encouragement. Beck and Sal ran for the
cab of the pickup, Jimmy and I piled into the bed, Beck pointed
the truck toward the road, and stomped the gas. I guess he didn't
have the four-wheel drive engaged, because the back wheels of the
truck threw up rooster-tails of sand as we took off up the slope,
but not the front wheels. But we didn't get stuck, which was the
one thing I was afraid of. We shot up the slope, bounced onto the
asphalt, and as soon as the rear wheels hit the asphalt they
started burning rubber. Beck steered back toward town, only
stopping long enough for Jimmy and I to bail out and run to my
car. I jumped in and started, it, but Jimmy ran back down the
slope, toward the end of the railroad track. I yelled after him,
but instead of yelling back, he stooped and grabbed something
from the ground.

The field-phone wire.

He was reeling it up in his hands as he ran back up the
slope, and when he reached the car he tossed the wad of wire in
the back seat and jumped in.

I punched the gas, spun the car around, and headed back
toward town. And that was the last I ever saw of the Rocket Car.


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