Thursday, April 08, 2010

Ralph Waldo Crankset, RIP

Ralph Waldo Crankset (standing) and Gene Leroy Jetson (kneeling) preparing their home-built rocket powered bicycle for its first test ride. Photograph 1931 courtesy of NACA.....(Notation on the back of the above photo)

We were on our usual barstools in the back of Larry's Cafe. Wally was showing a dog-eared photograph to Paulie, Larry's new barmaid.

"Yep, that's Waldo, my grandfather," Wally said. "I never met him. In fact, he disappeared just after my dad was born. Grandma talked about him a lot, though, and she kind of alternated between kind words and some other ones. That woman could cuss like a sailor, especially if she'd been drinking."

Wally held the photo in his hands, staring at it intently. He told me that one of his students found it in the university archives. It would have returned to that obscure folder if not for the handwritten note on the back.

"The way she told it, Granddad was a schemer. He always had an angle, a get-rich-quick idea, or something slightly shady going on. Oddly enough, he stayed away from the oil business here in Oklahoma, though he was certainly attracted to all the money it generated. Once, he set up a gambling operation that used some cleverly disguised electromagnets to slightly bend the laws of chance. It worked pretty well too, until a power surge caused the roulette table to burst into flames. He got out of town just ahead of a mob."

I kept my mouth shut, but I was thinking that Granddad's DNA had reasserted itself after skipping a generation.

Wally went on talking. "Lots of people blamed Gene for what happened. They built the rocket bike and used the old board track outside Broken Elbow. The first test run that Waldo piloted went very well. Each rocket lit up in sequence, and the bike accelerated up to about 65 miles per hour. It must have been one hell of a ride on that banked track! Gene was the pilot on the second run and Waldo set up the rocket pack. Gene only reached about 50 miles per hour and he blamed Waldo for it. Waldo said the brakes were burnt out and that Gene must have been riding them because he was scared. They had a bitter row in front of a bunch of witnesses, but eventually settled down to make a third attempt with the last of their rockets. Waldo was aboard the bike once again."

He paused to stare at the photo cupped in his hands and took a sip from his beer.

"It went wrong almost immediately. The first rocket fizzled and sputtered. Waldo turned to look at it, when all the rest of them went off at once! He shot down the track swerving wildly from side to side. He was screaming, "Gene! Stop this crazy thing!" when one of the rockets exploded, showering sparks and flaming debris onto the track. Waldo was still accelerating and by some miracle, still on the bike. It shot up the banking and climbed to a couple of hundred feet, finally passing out of sight out toward the swamp at the end of the lake. Waldo was screaming the whole time. Meanwhile, the board track was on fire and the small crowd of onlookers tried in vain to put it out. The track burned to the ground before the fire department arrived."

Paulie looked horrified.

"Gene slipped away in all the confusion," Wally said. "They didn't have insurance and there was no way he could pay for the loss of the track. He disappeared. They never found Waldo's body, so he's still out there in the swamp somewhere. Folks say that on a quiet, moonless night like this one, you can hear him moan."

"Why did you have to tell me that!" Paulie yelped. "I live down by the end of the lake and I have to walk home tonight! Now I'm going to be scared every step of the way."

"I can walk you home if you like," Wally said. His head tilted down as if he were looking deep into his beer glass. The tiniest of smiles played across his lips.

Whack! A sopping wet bar towel hit the back of his head! Larry was behind us. "Put the picture back in it's frame, Wally. And don't write on any of my photos again or I'll ban you from the bar!"

"What?" Paulie gasped, "It was all a fake? You just made all of it up?" She bounced away as the other barflies snickered.

But at the end of the evening, Wally still walked her home. I'll never understand women.



Blogger Steve A said...

Not a word in this post of the wonderful lugs on the bike, of the internal hub gearing, or of the helmets both people in the photo were wearing. Not to mention that elegant, sprung leather saddle.

What LBS would I go to, to purchase such a speed enhancing rig? On the ride in to work, along FM 1709, such equipment would occasionally come in handy in preference to looking back...

9:31 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home