The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car




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 cow when he found out we weren’t going to let him drive the car on its 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 care 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.

Next: “Counting Down”

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