Feb 15, 2008
Book review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
Review By Richard Parks
7.9 out of 8 Sparkplugs
A famous Country and Western song warns mothers “don’t let your sons grow up to be cowboys.” Well, mothers of America, Ky Michaelson’s book Rocketman: My Rocket-Propelled Life and High-Octane Creations should be warning enough. If ever there was a life filled with creation, ambition, purpose and zeal, then Ky Michaelson would fit the description perfectly. Here’s a life cram full of invention, adventure, discovery, friendship, trial, tribulation and creation. I had heard rumors about the ‘Rocketman,’ more rumor than fact, until Captain Ed Ballinger handed me a copy of the book and asked me to review it. This is a man and his friends who are true hot rodders at heart. The book is simply fascinating and I found myself going back to it and rereading it over and over again. A suggestion, start with Appendix A and review the list of cars, rockets and vehicles Ky has been involved with, then as you read the book you will appreciate the depth of his inventiveness. Rocketman is a hard-cover book on waxed and glossy, high-quality photographic paper, published by Motorbooks, an MBI Publishing Company, in St Paul Minnesota. The book comes with a dust-cover jacket and is priced at a very reasonable $27.95. The dimensions of the book are 6 ¼ by 9 ¼ inches, with 240 pages of text and photographs. The book is cloth bound along the spine and not glued in as you would find with lesser quality works. The dust-cover jacket is well done and eye-catching and you should take extra care to preserve it. Far too often readers cast aside the jackets and regret it later. Collectors will tell you how valuable a jacket is to the overall worth of a fine book. There are 102 color, and 87 black and white photographs, with 6 drawings and one map in the book. Rocketman has a table of contents, acknowledgments, introduction, prologue, 27 chapters, 3 appendices, but sadly, no index. The ratio of text to photographs is excellent. The writer explains each chapter clearly and fully. The ISBN number is 13-978-0-7603-3143-9, but you should have no problem finding this book in most book stores.
When I’m asked to do a book review the first thing that I look for is the dust-cover jacket. It tells you right away whether you are dealing with a quality book or just a niche book. Self-published and niche books are not bad, they simply have a smaller and more specific audience. Some books have cross-over appeal and are meant for larger audiences. The jacket will have a drawing or photograph that tells the reader in an instant what the book is going to offer. It will also tell you the publisher, in this case it is Motorbooks, and this publisher always turns out quality books. Motorbooks has an uncanny ability to spot a quality story and they back it up with quality craftsmanship, PR and marketing. But they are a picky company and many people have tried and failed to get their work published by them. In the case of Rocketman, the publisher has chosen wisely, for the story and graphics have an appeal that crosses over to so many subjects. The tinkerer and inventor will fall in love with this book. The adventurer and traveler will find many wistful things to dream about. Rocketman involves the hot rodder, car guy, airplane fan, racing zealot and most of the male population. But it also has a great deal of interest for the distaff side as well. This is not just a man’s world that we are talking about. Rocketman also tells us the story of Paula Murphy, Kitty O’Neil and other women who have braved the seemingly impossible and those women who have worked on the projects mentioned in the book. I’ve never met or interviewed Kitty O’Neil, but I know Paula Murphy and her story is one that inspires us all to reach for greatness. She is truly one of those pacesetters and trendsetters that we look up to regardless of gender. Men predominate in the story, but more and more women are entering the ‘need for speed’ race. This book shows how one man and his friends took on the challenge and thrived.
Book reviewers, when they like a book, tend to tell too much about the storyline. Reviewers simply want the public to see what they see in a book and so we over-review. What stops me from doing this is the sheer volume and breadth of the projects that Ky Michaelson and his friends have taken on. Yes, I like the book and unabashedly tell you so, but the reason is more personal as I’ve met many of the people mentioned in Rocketman and can’t help but like and admire them. About the only failing in this work is a lack of an index and I’ll say it again, all books, except fiction, need to have an index. That said, let’s delve into Rocketman and see why it’s the book I think it is. First of all the photographs are ‘stand alone’ in their excellence, even though the captions are sometimes sparse. You can understand the story line simply by looking at the photos and reading the captions. But it is the text, often overlooked in books put out by racers and car guys, that is extraordinary. Michaelson tells his story and that of his associates with a real passion and with clarity and detail, but he doesn’t allow himself to become so technical that the average reader cannot follow along. What Michaelson does is create vehicles that go faster than most of us ever will and cause a person’s heart to pound. We might think that he takes chances, but Ky Michaelson is highly skilled and knowledgeable and his vehicles work. He takes us on a journey, that to most of us seems impossibly unreal and yet, after we see how he has crafted, created and solved his problems, becomes a reality in our eyes. Don’t ask “what kind of vehicles has Michaelson created?” Instead ask this question, “What kind of impossible vehicles has he NOT created?” The Rocketman, as he is lovingly called, propels vehicles with, yes, rockets! The propellant is usually hydrogen peroxide, the very stuff you use to clean out cuts and wounds and kill bacteria. Hydrogen peroxide is simply H2O or water with an extra oxygen atom squeezed in. If you’re not a chemist or if you did poorly in your chemistry class in high school, the point is that this extra oxygen atom really doesn’t like to be with the normal two hydrogens and one oxygen, which forms normal water. It really wants to break out of this relationship, which is why you hear the fizzing noise when you open up the bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
Michaelson uses hydrogen peroxide that is much more concentrated than the 3% solution that we use. So concentrated and powerful that one has to be licensed or authorized to use it. Rocketeers have other propellants that they use and all have the same properties of explosive power. Michaelson finds ways to package the propellants inside the cars, planes and rockets needed to safely move a human being at very fast speeds. It never fails to amaze me when the controlled reactions starts that the driver actually survives. To Michaelson and his friends, it probably rarely enters their minds. Ky uses propellant laden rockets to power drag cars, Bonneville land speed streamliners, Go-Karts, space rockets, boats, airplanes, snowmobiles, hover craft and just about anything that you want to go, and go very, very fast. Some people prefer piston powered motors that produce the power to turn drive trains, that turn the axles and then the wheels. There are lots of complex parts that could break and go wrong. Some people like to simplify all of this by using jet engines or turbines, which allows for the exhaust to exit the vehicle, pushing it forward in a simpler manner with few parts to break. Then there are the rocket people who create the body and the power plant and light the fuse. It sounds simple, but it really isn’t, or quite possibly, maybe it is. Perhaps all that we really need to do is watch the expert, Ky Michaelson, at work. Rocketman contains the story of the Sonic Challenger, Pollution Packer, Captain Ed Ballinger, Kitty O’Neil, John Paxson, Paula Murphy, Lee Taylor, the Space Shot, Gary Gabelich, Craig Breedlove, Lew Arrington, Dave Anderson, Vern Anderson, Doug Brown, Jerry Hehn, Brent Fanning, Sammy Miller, Jack McClure, Chuck Suba, John Allen Hudson, Fred Goeske, Jim Hodges, Russell Mendez, Ramon Alvarez and many more men and women who have fearlessly advanced ‘our need for speed.’ I’ve never given out a perfect rating of 8 out of 8 sparkplugs before, and the lack of an index keeps me from doing so here. Rocketman is rated a 7.9 out of a possible 8 sparkplugs. I’m saying you will love this book. I did.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.
You will have no problem finding this book in most book stores. www.amazon.com has the book for $20.40 New and $13.96 used Check it out!