The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car




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 me 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 started.

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 its 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 test.

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.

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