The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car




One thing that remains constant in every re-telling of the Rocket Car legend is that it reportedly took place somewhere in the southwest United States. I’ve heard versions stating that the whole thing happened in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, western Texas and southwestern California, and in each case, the location seemed to be a critical part of the plot. Which makes sense, considering the premise that the story is based on. The Rocket Car would have to be launched on a fairly long, flat stretch of road, away from prying eyes. The Mojave is an ideal place to find such a road, as anyone who’s ever driven across the desert will tell you. The Darwin Award version specifies Arizona, which is covered with roads that would be ideal for the event described in the story. But one thing that strikes me as incredibly silly about this version is the fact that the test pilot chose to test his vehicle on a road with a curve in it. The story specifies that the cliff where the car impacted was at the “apex of a curve”, and that the test pilot ran under JATO power for 2.4 miles before hitting the turn and becoming airborne.

This suggests a pretty obvious question: If you were going to test drive a rocket-powered car, what sort of road would you pick for the ride? Would you choose a section of highway less than three miles from a turn in the road that overlooked a canyon?

I don’t think I would.

Even if Jimmy hadn’t been around to talk sense into me and I had attempted to drive the rocket car, I’m sure I could’ve found a stretch of highway that didn’t include a hairpin turn. The desert contains thousands of miles of highways and dirt roads, and it would’ve been much harder to find the kind of road in the Darwin story than to find a nice level straightaway. On the other hand, when Wile E. Coyote lights the big skyrocket tied to his jalopy, he always seems to be near an unexpected turn. I guess whoever wrote the Darwin story must have assumed this was standard procedure.

Fortunately, highways aren’t the only long, straight thoroughfares through the desert. After Jimmy was through demolishing my plans to build the Rocket Car, he pointed out that the control problem could easily be overcome if the car was actually a rocket sled, running on rails rather than asphalt. Mounting the rocket on a railroad car would not only solve the problems of control and traction, but if an abandoned stretch of track was used, traffic wouldn’t even be an issue. And the Mojave is covered with abandoned railroad track, most of it the old-fashioned narrow-gauge kind used for mining trains near the turn of the century. I knew of at least three such pieces of track within five miles of town. Finding a railroad car that would actually run on the old-fashioned track was a whole nother story, but by the time Jimmy finished explaining his idea, I already had a plan in mind to deal with that part of the equation.

The following morning I found myself bouncing across the desert in a battered four-wheel drive pickup with the remaining two members of Team Rocket Car (my tongue is firmly in cheek when I use that term), Sal and Beck. Beck and I were almost as close as Jimmy and I when we were kids, but Beck had a “wild streak” that caused most of the trouble we got into from time to time. During high school his “wild streak” got out of control, Beck turned into “one of those dope-smoking degenerates” (Mom’s preferred term) and he dropped out a year shy of graduation. Sal was Beck’s junior brother, junior not only by calendar-count but by any sort of I.Q. measurement. Sal wasn’t retarded or anything, but people tended to use phrases like “not too swift” and “a few bricks short of a load”, a lot more often than usual when he was around. Just like “dope smoking degenerate” tended to pop up in conversations that involved Beck.

Okay, so they weren’t exactly Nobel Prize laureates, but I didn’t have much choice in my selection of assistants. I needed their truck.

The truck actually belonged to Beck’s father, who used it in the performance of his job. Whatever that was. Nobody knew for sure what Beck’s Dad did for a living but the truck was ugly and battered, sat on huge mud-grabber tires, and came with a massive 454 engine. Beck’s father would drive the thing out of town occasionally, sometimes staying gone for days at a time. When he returned, the truck always looked as if it had spent the entire time driving around in the desert. If Beck knew what his father did for a living, he never said. But Jimmy and I figured the man used his pickup for transporting something (ahem) back and forth from remote desert locations. Contraband vegetation arriving at an isolated airstrip was one possibility, and people desperate to become American citizens without a lot of government interference was another. The only relevant fact is that the truck was very good for cruising the desert, which is why we used it to visit an abandoned silver mine a few miles from town that morning. The mine had been out of commission and the entrance boarded over for as long as any of us could remember, but at least a few brave kids had explored the interior of the shaft. Everyone knew there was nothing of value left in the mine, with the exception of some ancient equipment that was worthless, even as scrap. Worthless to most people, anyway. That’s because very few people went into the mine looking for old mining equipment.

We did. And we found some, too.

Actually, Beck himself was one of the juvenile delinquents who’d poked around in the mine years earlier, so he knew just what to expect when we pried off the old wooden planks covering the entrance. Less than a dozen feet into the shaft was a train of ancient bucket-cars, the tiny railcars used to haul ore out of the mine while it was in use. Probably parked so close to the entrance to discourage people from going any further. I wasn’t too thrilled about entering a man-made tunnel that could cave in at any moment, but I could see from my flashlight beam that the “train” only consisted of three bucket-cars linked together. And despite the fact that they’d probably been parked for forty years or more, they seemed to be in reasonably good condition. Shit lasts forever in the desert, it really does. Beck dragged a towchain into the mine, looped it around the hitch on the last car, then used the pickup to drag the whole line of cars closer to the entrance. When the cars were nearly clear of the overhang, I went inside and used a five-pound pony-sledge to bash the connection on the last car until it came free. When Beck threw the pickup into gear and dragged the first two cars clear of the mine, and the metal wheels screeched so loud I thought it would bring the shaft down on my head. Of course the wheels were frozen with rust, but they were far from destroyed. The first thing we did when we got the bucket cars into the light of day was turn them upside-down, then slop grease onto the axles. After a few well-placed whacks with the sledge, we got the wheels to turn. A few more whacks, and we had them turning freely enough to push the bucket-cars up a ramp and into the back of the pickup. Once the bucket cars were loaded, we replaced the boards over the mine entrance, then took the cars back to the scrapyard.

The Rocket Car was off to a fine start.

Next: “Luxury At The Speed Of Sound”

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