The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car




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

Meanwhile, the Rocket Car waited in the field.

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

So I simply waited.

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

Surely enough to light the JATO. I hoped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shut up.

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

To my surprise, it clanked.

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

Next: “Safety First (Or Second)

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