Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's . . .

It says something about the world's ability to absorb the unusual into the mundane that most people who pass Charles Trotter's yard do not stop to ask him about the jetmobile.

Even in Sulphur Springs, a quirky neighborhood that once boasted the city's only residential flying saucer, the jetmobile stands out. First of all, it's big: The top of the cockpit is as tall as a street sign. Second, it looks like a 1950s-era jet parked on top of a truck chassis.

Late in the afternoon, if you happen to be standing outside the chain-link gate of Trotter's home at Waters Avenue and Hillsboro Lane, and it occurs to you that you could travel a great many miles in this city and not see anything that remotely resembles what you're looking at, you will want to call to the man sitting in the shade of his workshop and ask him to tell you about this invention.

Trotter will invite you in. He's sociable in an old-school way and welcomes this kind of spontaneous interest.

He is tall, maybe 6 feet 3. He favors worn denim shirts and the kind of white pants that house painters wear. He has a lean face and swept-back hair, and even in paint-smeared work clothes, he has an elegant bearing. He is one of the rare people who makes smoking a cigarette look good.

It can be hard, at Trotter's house, to stay focused on the jetmobile, especially if you dawdle in the breezeway where the helitructor is parked. And you probably shouldn't ask about that, either, until you learn about the Corvette.

"I got the Corvette right after I moved here," Trotter says. "That was 15 years ago. I'd just got divorced."

Buying a sports car, you figure, is a fairly typical male reaction to the end of a 25-year marriage. But Trotter had something more in mind than just tooling around trying to recapture his hot-rod youth. He had fixed his share of bike chains, tuned his share of go-carts while his four children were growing up. He wanted to tap a long-dormant reservoir of creativity.

He installed flamethrowers in the hood.

"They'll go 17 feet. A lot of people can get the flames up 4 feet," he says. "But there's another element most people don't know about. I won't tell you what it is."

After the addition of the flamethrowers came the nitrous oxide-fueled engine, and after that the decorative studs. "Corvette means a small armored ship, so I thought it would be neat to put some rivets on it," Trotter says.

"That was about as far as I could take the Corvette. I guess that's when the helitructor took hold."

At this point on the tour, you'll probably be standing once again in front of the helitructor. Much as you might want to know about the elements of its fabrication, you might also be wondering about where Trotter gets his ideas.

"I had an uncle that was creative," Trotter says. "He used to carry snakes around inside his clothes."

With 13 grandchildren now, Trotter has become that delightfully eccentric relative, the one who rigs candy bowls to deliver mild shocks, who makes strange creatures out of welded chain, who once sculpted an alien out of trash bags and rags and installed it 30 feet up in a palm.

"One of the grandchildren seems like she has the gene I've got," Trotter says. "None of my kids got it. She's 16 now. She likes to come over and see what I'm working on."

The helitructor began life as a 1968 Ford pickup. Trotter wasn't interested in most of what gave the vehicle its truckness; he cut off the body.

"I always liked helicopters," he says, "but I've never been in one."

Over the course of a year, Trotter assembled a new body from sheet metal and plexiglass. The addition of a rotor blade completed the unique hybrid Trotter sought.

It has been registered, insured and driven, though when Trotter is on the road, he makes sure to batten down the rotor. The spinning blade wouldn't lift the vehicle into the air, but it could do a dangerous impersonation of an oversized lawn mower.

One of the final touches was the bulldog Trotter mounted on the hood. When he presses a button in the cab, the ornament pees on anyone standing in front. "That's good, clean fun," he says.

As recently as a few years ago, the jetmobile was still a 1974 Chevrolet pickup.

"I bought it from Old Joe. He's a junk man who lives down the road," Trotter says.

As with the helitructor, Trotter saw beyond the mass-produced boundaries of the truck body and cut it to bits. "I gave it all back to Joe," he says.

"I didn't have the least idea what he was going to do," Joe Hewett says, stopping off briefly during a run for aluminum cans to visit with his favorite customer.

"I told you what I was going to do," Trotter says. "You just didn't believe me."

"I tell you, I was sick for two days," Hewett, 79, says before adding with some admiration, "He's a bad cat."

Trotter made the front cones of the jet turbines out of salad bowls. The landing gear was born as fence posts. The tail of the fuselage is capped by the top of a Weber grill. The mechanical lift that carries the pilot/driver to the cockpit once served as a garage door motor.

Along the fuselage, Trotter has stenciled the motto: "To Those Who Dare to Fabricate."

It is Trotter's rallying cry for a breed of garage-dwelling inventors, people for whom the height of ingenuity is solving a problem without going to Home Depot for a part. If there is such as thing as American-ness, Trotter feels it most keenly when he gets the urge to forge something for which there is no obvious demand, when he is creating for the simple reason that it feels right.

In part, Trotter's inventions have always served as inexpensive therapy. Though for what ailment, he isn't certain.

"When you get in one of those moods, then your mind starts to work on something, and pretty soon you've got a wrench or a welder or a cutting torch in your hand, and it helps," he says.

But there is part of him, too, that craves an audience even though he does nothing to advertise his work. And though he occasionally describes himself as a folk artist, he wouldn't be offended if someone came along and saw a way for him to make some money from it.

"Where would Elvis have been without the Colonel?" Trotter asks. "I'm not a business-minded person. I've never met that colonel yet.

"But I tell you, I've got things in the closet somebody's going to discover when I'm gone and make a million off of."

In the meantime, he plays the lottery. Sometimes he picks his numbers with a homemade lottery machine he crafted from an old air handler.

"I haven't won yet. I've had five numbers," he says. "I just can't get all the planets lined up."

Trotter says that if he had more money, he'd make himself a nicer workshop with a cement floor that wouldn't gum up a tool with dirt if he dropped it. He'd quit painting houses.

Having viewed the major exhibits in Trotter's collection, you will want to see the jetmobile in action. And Trotter will oblige. He'll ride through the neighborhood where the flying saucer once stood, past the defunct movie theater where his cantankerous grandfather used to be an usher.

Along the way you will experience the thrill of honking horns at stoplights and the power to make a boy stop pummeling his sister just long enough to get a good eyeful. You will be a little sad, too, to notice the people who do not glance up.

But before you see the world from inside the jetmobile, you might find yourself watching Trotter climb into the cockpit. And you might wonder what would happen to Trotter's earthy creativity if his work were done behind closed doors, if it were no longer visible to passersby. Would the infectious joyfulness of the jetmobile _ with its bullet hole decals and recorded jet sounds _ be lost if Trotter devoted himself to more practical, more marketable inventions?

The jetmobile's engine keeps conking out from the sudden cold snap, and Trotter gives it some gas to warm it up. The unmuffled rumble of the engine attracts the attention of Dwayne Lawson, who is walking home from school. The 7-year-old, book bag slung over his shoulders, stops at the fence, mesmerized.

"That go up in the sky?" he asks someone on the inside of the fence.

No, it just looks like it does.

"It broke?"

No, it works.

"Did it fly when it was new?"

No, he built it that way, so he could drive it around.

"He an artist?"

Yes. Yes, he is.

On a recent fall evening, Trotter drives his jetmobile through the streets of Tampa. One of his first experiments was a red Corvette that he outfitted with twin flamethrowers, shooting the hot stuff 17 feet.

Trotter works on the steering wheel of his jetmobile, which once was just a '74 Chevrolet pickup. By day a house painter, Trotter explores ideas that few even dream about. Even a helitructor.

Trotter, shown here talking with a fried, sees inventions as a therapy of sorts. "When you get in one of those moods, then your mind starts to work on something, and pretty soon you've got a wrench or a welder or a cutting torch in your hand, and it helps," he says.