Monday, April 16, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 9

COVERUP


So there you go. That's the whole story of the Rocket Car,
or at least the part that I was involved with. I never went back
to the mine, and as far as I know, neither did Jimmy. We
discussed what we'd do about the wreckage while driving back to
town, but nothing we came up with seemed to make a lot of sense.
The road running past the mine wasn't very well-travelled, but we
knew that the only reason we hadn't been spotted was because
the whole thing happened so early in the morning. If we went back
to the site later that day, there was a fair chance we'd be
spotted. Of course we'd taken that chance before, especially
during the brake test the day before. But then we had the option
of rolling the car into the mine shaft and getting out of there
if anyone seemed curious. And at the very worst, we'd get nailed
for putting train wheels on a Chevy, then sticking it on an
abandoned track. I'm pretty sure there no law against THAT.

But now there was a very obvious piece of forbidden
military hardware in plain view, and no easy way to get it out of
there. The thing that kept repeating over and over in my head as
I drove back to town was that paragraph in my Dad's auction
paperwork. The one dealing with possession of controlled military
hardware. Specifically, the part detailing prison sentences
and outrageous fines. It was then that I started to think that
the best way to handle the whole thing would be to not handle it
at all. Pretend it never happened, and hope nobody connected the
car wreck to us.

And that's exactly what we did.

Actually, timing and nature lent a hand. The following day
was Easter Sunday, and there was no way Jimmy or I were going to
avoid spending it with our families. And even if we wanted to, it
wasn't a good day to be screwing around out in the desert. Late
Saturday night a windstorm kicked up, strong enough to make the
local TV stations interrupt programming with traveler's
advisories in our area. Nothing very odd about that, not in our
area in the springtime. Actually it was a pretty common
occurrence. But this time I was thrilled to hear the reports.
High winds and blowing sand could only serve to obscure the signs
of what we'd been doing in the desert that morning, and the
fewer signs, the better. When I got up on Easter morning, I saw
patches of sand that had blown around on the street in front of
the house, and was encouraged by the sight. If sand was blowing
across the streets in the middle of town, it must've really been
kicking ass in the desert. Later that morning I saw Jimmy at
church, and even though we weren't alone long enough to
talk about anything, we exchanged several Significant Looks.

And the next day, Jimmy went back to college.

I went back to work at the scrapyard, and I have no idea
what Beck and Sal did. I just spent the next few days trying to
act as normal as possible, expecting a police car to show up at
the yard any minute. But curiosity finally got the best of me,
and I called Beck on Wednesday. We met that night at the same bar
where we'd discussed brakes for the Rocket Car, and Beck told me
he HAD been out to the mine, actually a couple of times. Once he
even brought a camera and took a few pictures, because what
he saw was so damned funny.

Funny?

I couldn't figure out what he could think was funny about
the whole thing, since I was there when it happened. But he
explained it to me, and afterwards I had to agree, it WAS kind of
funny. The storm that blew through the area on Saturday night had
indeed eliminated most of the signs of what we'd been doing near
the mine over the past few days. The tire tracks made by his
Dad's pickup were completely eliminated, and the railroad tracks
themselves were almost re-buried. But the Rocket Car was still
exactly the same as it was when we left, ass end hanging out of a
pile of rubble with a rocket sticking out of it. I'd hoped Beck
was going to tell me that drifting sand had covered the remains
of the car, but it hadn't.

I was waiting for the funny part, but it didn't seem to be
coming.

Finally Beck reminded me of what the scene looked like to
a person driving TOWARD the crash site. I had to visualize it,
since I'd never actually seen it. You drive down the stretch of
road, toward a butte that used to have a mine entrance in the
side of it. But now there IS no mine shaft, just the rear end of
a car sticking out of the side of the butte.

And, of course, the twin skidmarks on the highway where
Beck's truck leaped onto the roadway. Skidmarks pointing directly
at the Rocket Car. Just like you'd see in a Roadrunner cartoon.
-----------------------------------------------------------------


AFTERMYTH


There you go.

Now, I have to admit one thing, I didn't start hearing any
Rocket Car rumors right away. Nobody did. I didn't see any
articles in the paper, the cops never came to visit anyone (not
that I'm aware of, anyway) and I never went back to see what
happened with the Rocket Car.

Explanations?

Your guess is as good as mine.

The town I've been talking about isn't a huge one, but
it's not small enough so that everyone knows each other's
business, either. The road wasn't a busy one, and although the
Rocket Car was visible to someone driving past, they could easily
miss it. All I can say for sure is that whoever discovered the
car sticking out of the butte didn't make a big fuss about it.
And I'm pretty sure someone DID discover it. I saw Beck once more
after our meeting in the bar, at a Memorial Day party a few
weeks later. He was pretty drunk at the party, wanted to talk
about the whole thing, and I had a bitch of a time getting him to
a private spot so I could listen to what he had to say. He said
he'd gone out to the crash site a few days earlier, and the
Rocket Car was gone.

I said "What do you mean, gone?"

But "gone" is just what he meant. He drove past the spot,
couldn't see the car from the highway, and went down the slope to
take a look. When he got there, he couldn't find any trace of the
car ever having been stuck in the mine entrance. All I could
think at the time is that the rubble-pile must have eventually
shifted to the point where it covered the car completely. Beck
seemed doubtful when I suggested it, but like I said, he
was pretty drunk at the time. He said it looked more like the car
was pulled out of the hole and taken away, but that's a bunch of
bullshit. It has to be. To start with, none of us were there long
enough for the scene to form a lasting impression. We looked at
the wreckage for maybe fifteen minutes before we were back in
Beck's truck and hauling ass out of there. Maybe Beck saw enough
so that he could tell if the car had been moved, but I wouldn't
be able to tell.

On the other hand...

Later on I started thinking about what would have happened
if the county sheriff had driven by and seen the Chevy sticking
out of a rockslide. Or even if someone had called the sheriff and
reported it. See, the abandoned mine was far enough from town so
that it probably wasn't inside the city limits, which means that
it wouldn't be the business of the city cops. And folks who don't
live in town learn real quickly who they're supposed to call when
there's trouble. So if the site was spotted by someone
who didn't live in town, chances are they'd have called the
sheriff. Of course it MIGHT have been the business of the State
Police, but I don't know anyone who'd call the State Police in a
situation like this. Most people wouldn't even know HOW to call
the State Police. Oh, I'm sure a trooper would've stopped to
check it out if he'd spotted it while driving past, but the
troopers mainly stick to the Interstates, occasionally
pulling into one of the towns along the way for donuts or coffee.
No, if some law-enforcement outfit stopped to investigate the
crash site, it almost certainly would've been the county sheriff.

So what would HE have done?

I honestly don't know. I've got no idea if they have set
procedures for dealing with stuff like this (yeah, Section 203.1
of the Civil Code, Disposal of Jet-Propelled Railroad Equipment),
but the sheriff's office wouldn't have called the city cops
unless they HAD to. My Dad always hinted that there was some
animosity between the two departments, the city cops
considering the sheriff's department a bunch of hick-assed Deputy
Dawgs, and the sheriff's department thinking the city cops were a
gang of self-important pricks. And neither group liked the State
Police, who, by all accounts, ARE self-important pricks. If
someone from the sheriff's department came along the wreckage of
the Rocket Car, I doubt like hell they'd have told any
other law-enforcement agencies unless they HAD to. And until they
found out if there was a body inside the car, there really
wouldn't BE any reason to share the info. So their next logical
step would be to find out if there was anyone inside the car.

How?

Dig through the rubble? That's about the only way it could
be accomplished. But it sure as hell isn't a job for the county
sheriff and a couple of deputies with shovels. It would take
heavy equipment and people who knew what they were doing. On the
other hand, why go through the trouble? When you see a car that
appears to be plugged directly into a mountainside, you don't
even assume that there are any survivors. I try to think of
what the sheriff would've done if he'd come across the crash
site, and it occurs to me that the first thing he'd have seen was
what appeared to be a rocket nozzle sticking out of the back end
of a car. If I were the sheriff, I'd have immediately called the
Army base where Dad and I got the JATOS in the first place. Who
else would be qualified to deal with such a thing? NASA? Evel
Knievel?

And if the Sheriff DID call the Army, and they had some
EOD people come out and take a look, anything could've happened
next. The military bomb-squad might have taken one look at the
expended rocket, told someone at the base to send out a truck
with a winch, and they may have yanked the car right out of the
rubble and taken it away. After they determined that there was no
corpse in the car, it wouldn't be the sheriff's business anymore.
Or anyone else's.

Case closed.

But I never did any serious investigation of these
possibilities, for two reasons. One, I didn't want to do any
snooping that might look suspicious. Two, I didn't hang around
town very long after that. Two weeks after the test of the Rocket
Car, I drove to.... the big-ish city I mentioned earlier, and
took the ASVAB test. That's the test they give you before
you join the military. And a few weeks after talking to Beck for
the last time, I shipped out for Navy basic training.

Before you make any assumptions about my joining the Navy
to escape the repercussions of the Rocket Car incident, let me
tell you that I absolutely did NOT. Get that thought right out of
your head. I'd been thinking about it for a long time, and if the
Rocket Car had anything to do with my joining the Navy, it was
just to give me a gentle nudge in a direction I
was already heading. Hey, take a look at the situation I was in.
I was 22 years old, living with my folks, and working for my Dad
in a junkyard at the edge of a shitty little town in the desert.
Not exactly A Future With Promise. I guess college was a
possibility, but Dad didn't really make enough to pay my way, and
I didn't feel like re-paying student loans until I was 100 years
old.

Why the Navy? Well, because of that song by the Village
People, of course.

No, no, just a little joke there. Don't EVEN take
that seriously. Actually, there was never any question about
which branch of the service I wanted to join. I joined the Navy
because I wanted to get as far away from the desert as I possibly
could. Some people grow up around sand and scrub and get to like
it, they can't imagine living anywhere else. Some (like me) take
a look around and realize they've always hated it, and didn't
want to hang around for another minute. For awhile I thought I'd
be considered an oddball when the rest of the sailors found out
where I came from, but I found out it wasn't as uncommon as I
assumed. Take a look at a list of the home towns of all Navy
members, and you'll see that quite a few of the boys come from
Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and southern Texas. Joining the Navy
to get away from the desert turns out to be a pretty common
practice.

Anyway, I went home on leave whenever I got a chance, and
saw Jimmy whenever I went back. On my second visit, I found out
that Beck and Sal had hauled stakes and split for California a
few months after I'd left for boot camp. Not on foot, either.
They'd stolen their Dad's monster pickup, but rumor had it their
Dad never even swore out a complaint about the theft of
his truck. Maybe he figured it was a small price to pay to get
rid of his sons for good. Or maybe the truck wasn't empty when
they jumped in and headed west. Their Dad was still up to unknown
hanky-panky out in the desert somewhere, hanky-panky that quite
possibly involved the distribution of illegal vegetation from
Mexico. Beck and Sal may have been waited for an occasion where
Dad brought some work home with him, and headed for California
with a few bales of Columbian contraband in the bed. I wouldn't
put it past them. And if that IS what happened, I doubt Dad
would've been too anxious for the cops to collect his boys. Or
his cargo.

Whatever the case, nobody ever found out. The next update
I got on THAT situation was the following Christmas. My Dad told
me that Beck had been busted in California for God-only-knew
what,
and had died in prison. The facts were sketchy, but I didn't
press details. Dad obviously considered it a case of "good
riddance" but didn't actually say the words, because he knew Beck
was a friend of mine.

Sal was MIA, and as far as I know, nobody ever heard from
him again. But without Beck to take care of him, it's doubtful
that he came to a good end.

So that leaves Jimmy. He finished college, got his degree,
and started working for a big company, designing various kinds of
equipment. I don't want to specify the company, or even the exact
type of equipment. Let's just say that you'd recognize the
company name if I mentioned it, and Jimmy is head of the
department that builds machines for making cold things hot and
hot things cold. If that's not good enough for you, too bad.

My Dad kept the scrapyard, continued going to auctions and
making a profit, all the way up until he retired last year. He
and Mom moved to Phoenix, where they're probably the only retired
couple who don't complain about the heat. They came up to visit a
few months ago, to see Lily and I and the kids, and while they
were here I took my Dad out one night to shoot some pool. I told
him the story of the Rocket Car, not knowing what his reaction
would be. I was more than a little pleased to see that he laughed
so hard that I thought I'd end up having to call the paramedics.
Seems that over the years he HAD heard various bullshit-artists
mention a car driven into a cliff, but nobody ever provided any
specifics, so he's always dismissed it as just another stupid
story. The one important thing he had to say on the subject did
NOT please me, not even a little. When I told him about how I
built the car, I mentioned that I didn't want to take one of the
parachutes from the shed, because I knew he'd find out one was
missing.

He said "You mean there were still some parachutes left in
that shed? Shit I'd thought I'd sold them all."

Son of a bitch.

Jimmy and I drifted apart while I was in the Navy, but we
got back in touch once I got my discharge and started college. I
know 26 is a pretty ripe old age to be a freshman, but I'd taken
a bunch of courses and equivalency tests during my hitch in the
Navy, so it only took two years to finish off my degree. One
thing about living on a ship, you have plenty of time to study.
I've stayed in touch with Jimmy over the years, he's met my
family and I've met his, but beyond the occasional phone call
and Christmas card, we haven't been very close. Part of it is
that we live pretty far apart, and part of it the pressures of
family, careers, etc. But Jimmy never forgot about the Rocket
Car, and over the years he's taken great joy in tweaking my balls
about it from time to time. Every now and then I'd
get something in the mail to remind me of the whole thing,
something Jimmy thought I'd think was funny. At first it was just
the odd newspaper clipping or magazine article, but once VCR's
became popular, he started sending videotapes. And even though
there was never a note or explanation with a tape he sent, I
always knew what to look for when I watched the movie. One
was "The Right Stuff", and I laughed out loud when scenes of
the rocket-sled tests came on the screen. Another was more
recent, a Charlie Sheen flick called "Terminal Velocity". I kept
my eyes peeled for whatever it was Jimmy wanted me to see, and
sure enough, there was a scene where Charlie and some blonde
bimbo escape from the bad guys in a homemade rocket sled.

I got a chuckle out of that one, too.

The one movie he sent that I DIDN'T find very amusing came
a few years ago, at a point where I hadn't heard anything from
Jimmy in a long time. A box came in the mail, and when I opened
it up, it was a videotape, just like the others. But instead of
being a stand-alone movie, this was the third part of a
three-movie series. And although I'd seen the first one a
couple of times (it was old enough to be shown on network TV by
then), I'd never seen the second part. So I had to rent Part II
at the video store down the street, which I watched with my
family one Friday night. The next day my wife took the kids to
visit her parents, and I stayed home and put Jimmy's movie in the
VCR. And I must admit, I DID enjoy it, but
the similarities between the movie and our little adventure in
1978 were too close for comfort at some points. The part at the
beginning of the movie, where Doc Brown and Marty McFly find the
DeLorean in the abandoned mine shaft was bad enough. But toward
the end, when mounted put railroad wheels on the time-machine and
push it down the tracks with the locomotive...

Like I said, too close for comfort. And I'm really glad I
watched that movie alone. I don't know what sort of expression
was on my face while I watched, but it must've been a scary one.
As a matter of fact, when the movie was over, I got up close to
the TV and read each and every name in the credits. I didn't
think I'd actually find a name I'd recognize, but we
never DID find out what happened to Sal after he was left on his
own in California.

I guess we never will. Not for sure, anyway.

Anyway, that's my story, take it or leave it. And even if
everyone who sees it thinks it's bullshit, I'm glad I told it. If
I never decided to sit down and tell it, my wife probably never
would've given me this nifty computer last Christmas. As a
result, I not only got to write most of it from the comfort of my
own bedroom, but I've also re-established contact with
Jimmy. E-mail is a terrific way to stay in touch with people, and
as soon as I told Jimmy I was going to write this whole thing
down, he started spouting out facts and details I'd long since
forgotten. That's one of the reasons this story is running so
long. So I suppose that if an apology has to be made, it should
be a JOINT apology from Jimmy as well as I.

One last thing before I call it quits:

When I originally ran this story up the flagpole for
Jimmy, he looked around on the Web for the "Darwin Awards" I'd
told him about, and was as shocked as I was at how far and wide
the Rocket Car story had spread. But he also seemed a little
miffed about the whole thing. He seemed to think that if anyone
deserved the Darwin Award, it was US.

It's tough to tell just how serious a person is when
you're carrying on a conversation via E-mail.

I pointed out that not only was the Darwin Award
completely intellectual in nature (I doubt like hell a
gold-plated trophy exists anywhere), but it was NOT the sort of
thing a person goes out of his way to win.

Jimmy thought differently.

Have you ever seen those silver Jesus-fish emblems that
Christians decorate their bumpers with? Well, not too long ago,
someone came up with a variation on the emblem, sort of a
counterpart to the Christian fish. It's the same outline of the
fish that the Christians use, but instead of saying "Jesus" (or
whatever) inside the body of the fish, it says "Darwin". And the
fish itself has little feet on the underside. The
message (for those academic enough to grasp it) is supposed to be
a rebuttal of sorts. Evolution over creation.

Very cerebral, eh?

Well, I've seen these things around from time to time,
both the Christian version and the Darwin version. And to be
honest, neither one made much of an impression. But this past
Easter, I got yet another package from Jimmy, the first one in a
long time. I thought it was another video, but when I opened it
up, I found it wasn't. Inside was a Hallmark card congratulating
me on a happy 20th anniversary. Along with the card was one of
the fish emblems, the "Darwin" version instead of the standard
Christian model. But not EXACTLY the Darwin version. Instead of
little feet at the bottom of the fish, this one had little
wheels. And there were curly lines coming from the rear of the
fish. Lines that looked like jet exhaust, coming from a tail that
looked surprisingly like a JATO exhaust nozzle.

Maybe Jimmy had a novelty store make it up, or maybe he
made it himself. Myself, I like to think the latter. But I ran
right out to my car (a boring old Toyota Camry,
gasoline-powered), wiped down the trunk lid, and stuck it on. And
even though nobody else knows what the hell it is, I get a
chuckle every time I look at it.

It ain't a gold statue, but it's good enough for me.

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