The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car




There you have it.

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 Knievel?

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 old.

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 practice.

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 what, 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 me 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 missing.

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.

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