Dex Armstrong Pt.3 Contact Dex 180-01D
July 2000

In the 1940s a lot of your fun was handbuilt.

We invented stuff.

You got ideas out of Popular Mechanics, the movies and the squirrel brains God gives kids.

Jitneys were big gravity powered four wheeled contraptions you built out of orange crates and baby buggy wheels. You used the standard steering components; a 2x4, washered and stovebolted through the bottom, to which baby buggy or kids wagon wheels were attached. It returned to center by attached screen door springs and was steered by pulling on a loop of clothesline attached to the 2x4 aft of the wheels. You never broke the sound barrier in one of the damn things. But you broke a lot of other stuff like mail box posts, fences and assorted bones -- the most popular of which was your nose.

They were ugly. They needed a steep hill and were one helluva lot of fun. You couldn't be a genuine Jitney driver without goggles and an aviator cap. We called 'em "tail gunner " caps. You got them at the war surplus store for four bits. They were brown canvas and had giant round black rubber things on each side with big holes to hear through. For fifty cents you could actually become an Indianapolis race car driver lookalike.

I had honest-to-god Dick Tracy boy cop goggles and a dish towel scarf and two nice wreck scars that impressed my little girl friend and Sunday School partner. To her I was a bonafide Commando Cody high speed daredevil. To My Mom, I was her idiot kid who was trying desperately to kill himself. And going through band-aids at a rate that was putting a dent in the family finances. I held the Shingle Road land speed record having approached the speed of light before coming to an abrupt stop against the only fire plug we had. I was the Chuck Yeager of land based flight.

I discovered The Soap Box Derby.

For those of you who never heard of The Soap Box Derby it was run by The Chevrolet dealerships. They conducted regulated gravity powered car races all over the U.S. in hundreds of cities and towns. The winners went to Akron, Ohio for the big race to decide the National Championship. Each year thousands of young American boys dreamed of "going to Akron". I had no idea where in the hell Akron was -- how much it cost -- nor how you got there -- other than you had to be the fastest kid down McCallie Avenue.

You signed up and they held a big meeting in the showroom where the old man bought our car. Some guy in a suit and tie gave a talk. All I remember was that he said we had to build our racers by ourselves. We could not have outside help. We could get sponsors to help with material expense and for that help they were allowed to paint advertising on the completed race car.

They gave us a real neat red plastic helmet and a white T-shirt. Both had the official red, white and blue Soap Box Derby insignia on them. Then they handed us a box with ball bearing wheels, axles and a can of Shell lube oil and an envelope that had a drawing of a race car with the allowable dimensions and the rules. Then the man showed a film on the previous years championships at Akron.

I went home ten feet tall. I built my racer in our garage. I had never built anything by any kind of rules. I used my moms dressmaking tape to stay in the specified limits. I learned more math and mechanical stuff making that car than I thought possible. I learned that the junk they were pounding in my thick skull at school had a practical use and served a useful purpose. I have always felt that the Derby led to my completing Basic Submarine School.

First I built the floor and mounted the rear axle, used three quarter inch plywood. Far too heavy but I had no point of reference. I put in the required spring loaded foot brake and then built the forward axle using the old 2x4 and double washered stovebolt.

Then I got creative. Took a Valvolene oil sign, a tin sign they gave me at the gas station and I beat it into shape for the forward fuselage by pounding it with a ball peen hammer using a burnt out water heater to shape the tin.

I made a dashboard by sawing out a piece from an ironing board I hauled out of the local dump. I nailed a broken alarm clock to the dash board along with a gauge off the top of a busted pressure cooker. I was a kid -- I figured a race car had to have some kind of gauges and dials. I started being stupid early.

I made a steering post out of a broom handle and a baby buggy wheel wrapped with black friction tape. I wrapped clothes line around the broom handle and nailed it in the center so it wouldn't slip when you turned the steering wheel. It took up line on one side and payed it out on the other moving the front axle, it worked both ways, allowing you to steer the fool thing.

I added a fancy dining room chair seat. Found it in the dump and sawed the legs off. Then I found that I couldn't get in it. Had to saw the back half off the chair. It looked weird -- but then the whole rattletrap looked weird. I dressed it up with two soup cans nailed on the front. It needed headlights.

The metal hood was all lumpy with hammer dents and the trailing edge of the sheet metal was sharp so I covered it with a chunk of garden hose. Then I painted it -- ten, maybe fifteen coats of red paint. And took the old man to see my technological marvel. A modern super wonder car -- with soup can, totally worthless headlights.

One great thing about dads -- they can look directly at a total piece of crap their sons create without changing expression or losing their lunch.

"What are you going to name this baby, son?"

"Name it, sir?"

"Sure, this beauty has to have a name."

"Howabout the Red Rocket?"

"Sounds good to me. The Red Rocket she is."

We laughed about the Red Rocket for years.

On race day the old man rigged a roof rack on the old green Chevy. The Red Rocket was mounted on top. The night before I screwed two screen door handles on the front and rear so we could pick the monster up. The soap Box Derby rule guys made me take them off.

The official car inspector weighed and measured my car.

"Why the clock and pressure cooker gauge, son?"

"Makes it like a real car, sir"

"That it does." He didn't make me take them off.

When I looked at the other kids cars, one thing was evident; they made mine look like a piece of garbage. Those kids had cars that looked like they made by violin makers. Thin veneer, sanded, lacquered finish, padded seats, cable and turn buckle steering. They had cars that looked like miniature sloops. They were aerodynamically perfect. If they were made by kids, I'm either a monkey's uncle or East Tennessee was crawling with fifth grade cabinet making master Jitney design engineers.

I tried to talk the old man into loading my monster up and going home.

"Jeezus son you didn't do all this work to toss in the towel now ...quitting is the easiest thing to do in life. Always do your best ...bore in. You'd be surprised how damn good you feel for having tried. Never quit son. Little men quit at the sign of the first dark cloud on the horizon. The tough sonuvabitches go down swinging. You come from a long line of bastards too tough to rollover. Let's go rip off pieces of these prima donnas."

And so we did. I got a paper number and an assigned first run elimination heat in the late afternoon. The old man and the old green Chevy disappeared. He came back in 30 minutes with a small can of white paint and a little brush. "Paint 'Red Rocket' on her son. Let's let these kids know what they're up against." When they dropped the ramp at around two in the afternoon -- and the Red Rocket took off she had her name in white uneven raggedy letters painted on the side.

The Rocket had a short racing history -- about two minutes. The clothesline broke on the right side and the bent nails holding the front axle came loose. Couldn't hold her in my lane. Rolled up against the curb and the tip of my forward axle ran along the concrete curb sending up a shower of sparks. Did this for about a half a block until she dropped her left front wheel in a gutter grate.

We hauled her home and hung her up in the garage. Mom got cancer and died. We lost the house to medical bills and that included the garage and the Rocket. Never saw her again.

But I learned a lot. And when it was over me'n the old man used to laugh a lot about that old Jitney. Those damn soup cans added just the right touch. And the old man said, "Any sonuvabitch that saw that thing a mile away knew right away you made it all by yourself without any help. All those hammer dents and that pressure gauge were a dead giveaway".

The Red Rocket should have been called the Red Bottle Rocket -- or the Shooting Star cause that's about how long she lasted. But when all was said and done, I was the only kid in school that had an official Soap Box drivers shirt, a red plastic helmet and the memory of what it felt like to go four blocks down McCallie Avenue in an aerodynamic cinderblock and end up parked in a sewer grate.

Never got to Akron.

Still don't know where the hell Akron is.