Monday, April 16, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 9


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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
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

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.

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.

The Rocket Car Chapter 7


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.

I hoped.

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.