From the series Uncle Oz Explains Things
By Rick Just
I was maybe ten when I took my first helicopter ride. It was memorable mostly because the helicopter was made out of a Buick.
Ralph Higgins was handy that way with just about anything that had a bolt. He’d found the Buick—practically new—in a junkyard over in Blackfoot. Ralph loved junkyards, because he could see the possibilities. There would be a Thunderbird that had flipped end-to-end through the lava rocks and he would hardly notice that the body looked like metal cats had clawed it. What he would notice was how perfect that one bucket seat was. New, practically. Perfect to replace the seat with on his D-9 Caterpiller.
So, Ralph was naturally drawn to this 1956 Buick Roadmaster hardtop. It was the kind with the chrome swoop on the side that would make the folks at Nike jealous, and four—FOUR!—portholes in the front fenders. It had also had fender fins. Pretty good ones, though not as good as Cadillacs about that time were sporting.
Now, you probably think I made a mistake when I said it “had also had.” That’s awkward grammar, to be sure, but it is accurate awkward grammar. The Roadmaster once had finned fenders in the rear, but that was before it, let’s say, backed into a telephone pole going about 75 miles an hour. Hit the thing square on like it was aiming to kiss wood with the trunk emblem. This had turned the back of the Buick into a U-shape that was nearly an O-shape, with the fenders about to touch tips.
Ralph saw none of that. Through his eyes this was a shiny new Roadmaster with 536 miles on the odometer, drastically reduced in price. He haggled that price down a bit, getting the guy at the yard to throw in a used rear axle that would fit the Buick, since the one it had was compromised in that the differential was full of wood splinters and dirt.
But it wasn’t just the Buick that caught Ralph’s eye that day. He also took a shine to an army helicopter that had taken what they call in the military a “hard landing.” Ralph bought the whole thing, though he had his heart set mostly on the blades and the gears and shafts that made them turn.
Now, this is all just backstory to help you understand how it came to pass that I took my first helicopter ride with Ralph.
I was in the habit of visiting the man on dull summer days because he always had something going on and it usually involved noise and sparks. Occasionally, explosions. Ralph let me putter around in his shop making useful things like a go cart that could, in a pinch, cut grass.
When I skidded to a stop on my Schwinn that morning I was most impressed with the gleam coming off the fenders that were sticking out of the front of Ralph’s shop. It was unusual for anything to gleam in that building, which itself was constructed from tarpaper and warped planks that Ralph had scavenged from rotting sheds and barns that were peacefully returning to nature before he came along.
The Buick, bright red except for the roof and the area below the aforementioned swoop on the side, the color of rich cream, was the newest machine that had ever graced the shop. This was in 1956 and the car was a 1956! I thought my heart would about stop. I thought Ralph had won the lottery, or I would have thought that, had there been one back then. This was so uncharacteristic of the man that I wondered if maybe he’d had a stroke and couldn’t keep himself from spending money on a new thing. Ralph spent a lot of money on old things and broken things and wrecked things, hoping to turn them into something better than new through the alchemy of an acetylene torch and liberally applied bailing wire, but to buy a thing when it was already new would, in Ralph’s mind, bring down the wrath of the duct tape gods.
I confess my jaw was hanging down like the tailgate of the 1937 through 1940 cut-down and pasted together almost-a-Ford that Ralph called his pickup. Then I saw Ralph, working his way forward along the driver’s door with a clean rag—an item as rare in that place as a badger in the Safeway—polishing the paint until he could see himself, which was also amazing because upon glimpsing his reflection Ralph did not startle and shriek.
I was used to the way Ralph looked, but I suspected he was not himself well acquainted with the countenance he put forward to the world. Ralph had enough of his fingers left to establish a quorum, but just. He was missing the lobe of one ear, from the base of which ran a ragged scar down along his jaw on the right hand side, which did a quick U-turn before it got quite to his chin, then meandered across his cheek to one eye, jumped the socket of same, burrowed under his eyebrow and ran out of gas halfway across his forehead. That eye, the one on the right, was the easiest of the pair to look at. It was perfect glass and sported none of the yellowing and—I swear—throbbing veins of its head mate.
Point of fact it took a fair amount of looking before one could make out these details. Ralph found “mechaniking,” as he called it, easier to do if he were thoroughly greased from his matted locks to the flapping sole on his left shoe. To say that he was dirty was to give grime too little credit. To this day I don’t even know what race Ralph was. The only color associated with his body that I could attest to was the aforementioned eye, which was red, white, and blue, and yellow, and the pink of his tongue, which sometimes appeared between the two nicotine-stained teeth that made themselves known by their jaunty angles.
So, Ralph. He noticed me and gave me his impersonation of a grin.
“’Lo, Ozzie,” he said.
“’Lo,” said I.
“You wanna go for a ride in this baby?”
I nodded that I did, just short of the moment I spotted the helicopter blade. To be fair, I would have agreed to go for a ride if I knew all about the tacked on rotor. Thanks to Ralph I had already experimented with locomotion through three of the four elements, earth, water and fire—the latter on a rocket powered sled—so air seemed like the next logical step.
Ralph slipped behind the wheel of the Buick, started it up, and drove, and drove, and drove it out of the shed. The car had acquired a tail and a tail rotor from the slightly used helicopter. Where once fins flared behind the rear whitewalls there now grew rebar braces and scab welding which indelicately mated the automobile with the stabilizing end of the aircraft. Sprouting from the roof of the Buick was the main rotor, one blade facing forward and the other facing back.
In a laudable attempt at aesthetics, Ralph had used red barn paint to tie the tail in with the color scheme of the car. He had also added a touch that I would have found charming, if I knew then what charming was. He had pried off the “Road” from the Roadmaster nameplate on the side of the car and replaced it with a word in a slightly different font. The word was “Sky,” probably borrowed from a Buick Skylark. Thus, Skymaster.
“Hop in, then,” Ralph called.
Hop I did not. Get in—cautiously, with much trepidation—I did.
Ralph revved the big V-8. It was quite a lot louder than necessary, which met with my immediate approval.
“I re-routed the exhaust pipes through them portholes in the fenders. You like?”
He revved the engine again. It backfired once when he let off the gas, shooting a little ball of flame from the passenger side fender. I liked it very much.
Now, I don’t know where the term “bucket seat” originated, and I won’t make a claim that Ralph had anything to do with it. I will point out, though, that the passenger seat in the Buick was an actual bucket, turned upside down and secured by bailing wire disappearing through holes in the carpet. Ralph’s side had a cut down kitchen chair—one of those chrome things so popular in the 50s—welded to the floorboards. This was necessary because there was little room for anything else because of the mechanism for the rotor that loomed in the center of the passenger compartment.
We rolled out onto the gravel road that ran along in front of Ralph’s place. He had the radio on because, though he didn’t go to a lot of dances, Ralph did enjoy the music of the day. The Platters, at that moment, were singing “My Prayer.”
The car moved along pretty much as any car of Ralph’s would, which is to say quickly, noisily, and with little indication of shock absorbers. We were doing about 70 when we left the gravel and hit the paved surface of the farm to market road which, I am almost certain, had not been engineered as a runway.
The speedometer needle was quivering around 90 when Ralph asked, “Are ya ready?”
I don’t recall answering, and I’m not sure what ready would have looked like. Nevertheless, Ralph reached forward and grabbed a lever I hadn’t noticed. It looked like it had spent its better years as the key feature of a dump rake. He yanked the lever back hard.
The blade that stuck out in front of the car had to that point bounced quietly up and down with the rhythm of the ruts. Now, it shot to the left and came around again before I could turn my head. By the third rotation it was just a blur. At the same time I noticed a draft fluffing up my short sleeve shirt on my left. I turned my head just enough to see that there was a mass of gears, chains, and shafts all in manic motion inches from my 75 pound body, threatening to reach out and claw me into its maw. OHSHA was years away, so there was little hope of rescue.
Ralph gave a cry that was close enough to “Yee-haw!!” for the telling of this story. It was in celebration of the nose of the Skymaster lifting off the ground. I could tell this because the ground was no longer there in front of me. I might have glimpsed it out the side window if my neck weren’t locked in place. I dared not look left because I knew what I’d see. I dared not look right because I did not know what I would see.
So, eyes straight ahead, unblinking, I joined the Platters in prayer.
“Well, dang!” Ralph shouted over the mechanical clatter between us. “I did forget that.”
I might have asked what he had forgotten, but I could see from the corner of my eye that he was spinning the wheel back and forth to no effect. Steering. He had forgotten to include some method of controlling the direction the airborne Skymaster might take.
This was of immediate importance, though from my perch atop the galvanized bucket I was not aware of it. It seems we were coming up on the bridge. It was not a noteworthy bridge in any aspect before that day. It crossed a canal, holding itself up by a grid of steel girders on either side. There was room for two cars to pass coming in opposite directions, though most people tended not to test that when they came to the bridge and another car was approaching from the other side. Depending on the age and/or maturity of the drivers, the cars would either race to see who crossed the bridge first, or slow to let the other guy pass.
We were not slowing. We were, in fact, flying, albeit low. I estimate we were at that moment about a foot off the ground. At our apogee, we might have reached the height of a horse, though Ralph would argue for many hands higher. Still, with no steering and no tires on the ground to facilitate braking, we were somewhat at the mercy of physics.
Clean living—probably my own, since I was the only possible candidate—allowed us to thread that needle. That is, the Skymaster centered on the bridge as we shot across it in the air. All things added up, this was a good thing. Ralph might argue that a few feet in any of three directions, including up, would have improved the outcome.
The whirling blade of the horizontal rotor smacked into the sides of the bridge at something like a zillion miles an hour. The bridge didn’t budge. The rotor of the Skymaster dematerialized in that memorable instant, dropping the Buick to the pavement. So, now we were going 90 miles per hour with a churning conglomeration of gears and metal shards exploding in the interior of the car with us. But, we were on the ground.
The momentum of the Skymaster blades hitting the immovable bridge supports pulled that precision mechanism out of the car like God himself had reached in and plucked it away. With it came the roof of the car, or the better part of it.
Ralph had the presence of mind, or more likely the animal instinct to stand on the brake pedal. He may even have been doing this before we hit the bridge. It was, however, to no avail. The exiting rotor mechanism that was so intimately connected to the car had pulled much of the mechanical niceties away with it, including the brake lines. The engine of the Buick stayed more-or-less in place. As we careened along, Ralph recovering from an endless series of skids by spinning the steering wheel left and right, I heard the V8 sputter to a stop. Eventually, so did we.
In the years that followed I would ride in several helicopters, sometimes hearing ominous pings of ricochet off the fuselage. At those times I would think of Ralph and my introduction to the glorious air in the Buick Skymaster and say a silent prayer of thanks that this flight was so much better.