The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car

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 its 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 then…

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 steam.

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 its 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, either.

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 again.

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 was.

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.

Next: “Coverup”

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