THE VELOCITY OF A STEAM JET

by

We continue to climb. As we blaze up the Grapevine the temperature gauge on “the Batmobile” (BZ’s pet name for the ‘71 Pontiac) slowly creeps onto the warning track. The higher the elevation the thinner the air density, the hotter the Batmobile runs.

We stop for petrol, carbohydrates and radiator water on the Gorman exit. As we gas up, I let some pent-up steam out of the radiator, gingerly easing off the cap with a couple of delicate quarter turns, a task performed with a deft touch worthy of a safe cracker. Or so I thought. The cap was really fucking hot, however, and the pressurized steam ultimately overwhelmed my sense of finesse and just as BZ set off the Junior Food Mart’s binging and bonging photocells on his way out of the store — BHHAAWHHOOSSHHH — a geyser of boiled and excited ethylene glycol baptizes the parking lot.

In the adjacent bay, a mini-van full of dapper, rather well-to-do Middle Eastern immigrants are genuinely spooked by the ferocity of the discharge, recoiling reflexively as they watch me dive for cover away from the molten volcano of anti-freeze. Theirs was a look of contempt and concern, not one of appreciation for how Nixon-era gas guzzlers such as my ‘71 Grand Prix fueled the development of a leisure class in whatever oil baron country they emigrated from in the first place.

After things cool down and the radiator is flushed, we motor onto I-5. BZ is showing some concern about the thick heat and the thin air. “You need to get the radiator re-cored on this beast. That might let it run cooler.”

“These things came out of the factory running hot… I’ve tried everything: re-coring the radiator, cleaning the water passages, a bigger fan, a smaller fan. Nothing works. This chunk of Detroit steel is always going to run hotter than a blowtorch.”

He looks dubious. Even with a dried, pasty rice milk moustache.

The windows are down and we both eye the temperature gauge with minimal conversation. I could see BZ getting rather edgy, leaning over the console and drawing a bead on how precarious the radiator situation really was. I began trying to calm him down by inserting some levity into what was a dicey situation. I knew there was no guarantee we would make our destination and could end up stranded 4000 feet up on the Grapevine.

“Let’s pretend this is a rocket car and we are monitoring the thrust.”

“What for?”

“We can just pretend that we have a hot water rocket engine under the hood, not unlike the Neptune rocket car that Walt Arfons ran back in ‘66.”

I knew that Arfons’ steam rocket had been based on the principle of water superheated and pressurized in a closed container and then flashing into vapor and escaping at the vent, which acted as a venturi and produced a supersonic flow of steam… Pressurized steam and “action and equal and opposite reaction” and all that…

“Yeah? What happened with that car?”

“They ran it once on an air strip in Akron, Ohio.”

“And?”

“Uhhh, it crashed on its only test run.”

“You might want to find a more positive example, sir.”

I thought of Max Valier. I say nothing.

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