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First International Rocket Mail fright from U.S. to Mexico
First International Rocket Mail fright from Mexico to U.S.

Keith Rumbel was one of those prodigies that emerge from small-town America on a disproportionately freakish rate. He graduated at the age of 16 from Sharyland High School, which was in Mission, TX, a wide spot in the road a five-minute drive down route 83 from the metropolis of McAllen, TX, which then had a population of around 10,000. (Another teen in that remarkable school at the same time was future Senator Lloyd Bentsen.) He left home to attend Rice University, the Ivy League of Texas, where he was elected to membership in Phi Lambda Upsilon, the national honorary chemistry society. The next year Rice granted him a special scholarship so he could attend MIT and get his doctorate.


Keith's father, Oliver Keith, was a member of Loyal Service Post 37 of the American Legion. The Post needed money for its new building; it planned a dedication for the Fourth of July weekend after Keith's high school graduation. This was an issue. Today, the McAllen metropolitan area ranks dead last in per capita income among the 50 states. Imagine what it was like when the year was 1936 and the Great Depression had been pounding at it for half of Keith's life. Financially, small-town Texas was as flat as its dusty lands. No matter. Despite Mickey Rooney not yet starting to play Andy Hardy, the spirit of "hey kids, let's put on a show" already existed in real life. Keith had a fantastic idea for a show.


Not a musical, of course. Keith had other obsessions, namely rocketry and stamp collecting. Most of us wouldn't ever think of combining them into one event, much less a money-making one, but that's what makes Keith a prodigy. He suggested a Boy Scout project - need I add that Keith was an Eagle Scout? - that would send the first mail across an international border by rocket blast in world history.


This requires explanation and context. McAllen, TX, sits directly across the Rio Grande from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. A bridge has spanned the river there since 1926, making it a prime crossing point. Even so, mail often took days to go the few miles between town centers because of border-crossing bureaucracies. In the 1930s, visionaries around the world looked at similar situations where an obstacle - water, mountains, bad roads - impeded communication and saw that a rocket could condense a trip miserable by land into a few seconds of air travel.


Forget images of Cape Canaveral liftoffs. Most of them were overgrown fireworks with ranges in the single digits, sometimes miles, sometimes feet. Getting them up in the air was hit or miss, and that exactly described their problems with getting to their targets since guidance systems were a thing of the future. Nor did rockets have a good reputation; the "rocket's red glare" capsulized their thousand-year history as bombs. To deliver mail, inventors had to figure out how to make them not explode, to land with their payloads completely intact. Some made it, some didn’t: slightly singed envelopes became an immediate collector’s item.


Keith certainly knew about these attempts: rocket mail made regular headlines. In fact, Keith likely got the idea from a rocket mail flight at Greenwood Lake, NJ, on February 26, 1936, which had been publicized beforehand by full-page ads in stamp collecting magazines. The overambitious and undertested rocket failed ignominiously, but thousands of special stamps sold for 50 cents each, while first-day covers sold for 75 cents, with all the money coming in before the flight.

Stamps, rockets, advance money even for a failure. The symbols lined up and the bells rang. Keith proposed a rocket mail flight - not just any flight, but the first across an international border, whose stamps could be sold to collectors and the money given to his fund the Post's building. Before everybody had finished saying “aawwww,” the flights were scheduled for July 2 so that examples could be placed in the cornerstone of the new building during the dedication the next day. That gave just enough time for construction and testing, as the semi-official account relates:


The rockets used were about seven feet in length and twelve inches in circumference. There were two compartments for the mail, one constructed in the nose of the rocket and the other just back of the center to insure the proper balance. The rockets carried various loadings of about 300 covers each. They were powered by using a fuel with a high coefficient of expansion and at the same time maximum pressure. The rockets were the result of much study and experimenting by a group of the sons of the members of the Legion.


The rockets were actually somewhat less impressive than the lofty words make them out to be. They were made from laminated cardboard and fiber board. The fuel wasn't much more than the black powder used in toy fireworks at the time. Accounts differ on the number of rockets fired, naming six, ten, twelve, and fifteen in total. Details in future tellings get as garbled as a game of telephone. One insisted that the rockets were 12 inches in circumference and seven inches long, making you wonder where they stored the fuel.


Both mail and customs authorities for the two countries needed to be consulted: working out the details involved as much bureaucracy as a trade treaty. Keith's stamps were not government issued, of course; they are what is known in the stamp world as vignettes, which legally means no more than colorful pieces of paper that are allowed to be attached to envelopes as long as real postage is used for delivery. The mail bound for Mexico had to have the actual American 16-cent airmail stamp and the mail from Mexico to the U.S. had to have 40 centavos of Mexican airmail postage. All of these were affixed before the flight, which meant they were a sunk cost that couldn't be recovered if everything went up in smoke. They wound up not selling the covers in advance, but the potential profit if all went well was sizable. The vignettes sold for 50 cents each, first day covers for a dollar, and a prize block of 4 vignettes - especially coveted by collectors - went for a hefty three dollars.

1936 Mexico to U.S. 50 cent rocket mail vignette
1936 U.S. to Mexico 50 cent rocket mail vignette

On Thursday, July 2, 1936, a group of town fathers, Legion Post muckymucks, and Customs officials from both countries  gathered on a platform on the north bank of a flood-swollen Rio Grande and posed for the cameras. The semi-official account reads:


The torch was then applied and the rocket left the quivering slipway with a hiss and a roar and zoomed far over the heads of the group of officials who were waiting its arrival on the Mexican side of the river.


Success! Or perhaps a reminder that history always calls for checking two sources. Later newspaper accounts of the historic day all agree that the first rocket blew up after flying about 100 feet into the air, scattering the envelopes across the water. One of the customs officials caught a piece of rocket shrapnel in the arm. As many of the pieces of wet mail as possible were recovered and cancelled by the postmaster, making them part of the postal history of two major countries.


Only slightly daunted, the mayor of McAllen lit the fuse on the second rocket. The river was about 1000 feet wide at this point and the rocket had no trouble at all in traversing it. Or the next 1000 feet. Which placed it in the middle of the city of the Mexican city of Reynosa, a much larger metropolis fueled by Texan and Mexican oil money and the drinking habits of the thirsty oilmen who slipped across the border for cheap thrills. In what might be called homage, the rocket made straight for the unsuspecting drinkers of the U. S. Bar. No injuries were reported, although the consternation was epic. The third rocket decided to seek out a small shack on the Mexican side, scattering the inhabitants, who didn't even have the cushion of anesthetizing beer and tequila. Again, no injuries were reported. Something must have been learned through experience; none of the other flights inspired as much drama.


The group of distinguished gentlemen (no female names are reported in any historical account) then crossed the bridge into Mexico for the return flights. Five or six rockets flew into the U.S., only one causing trouble. It landed in a corn field, setting it on fire. The group had to rush back to help it douse the fire. "It's funny now, but it wasn't so funny then," the Post Commander remembered. Somewhere around 2000 covers made it through their fiery ordeals and into the hands of collectors. Step three: profit.


How has this not been made into a movie?


Stamp collectors are among the few people in the world who pay more for mistakes, as they tend to be rare and harder to collect. Collectors rejoice: the pair of first day covers above are dandy examples. The one on top leading off the images has the U.S. airmail stamp and a cancellation of McAllen, TX. Yet the preflight stamped announcement clearly reads "Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico to McAllen, Texas, U.S.A." The cover beneath reads "McAllen, Texas, U.S.A. to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico" but it has the Mexican stamps and a Reynosa cancellation. What transforms these from cool to awesome is that both are inscribed "Keith E. Rumbel, Rocket Experimenter and Flight Chairman." He was 16, remember, and this was his big day.

First Internation Rocket Air Mail collectible booklet

Collectors also were the market for a mysterious booklet that came out at some undetermined time after the great event. First International Rocket Air Mail Flight From The United States of America To The United States of Mexico (and return) has a handsome embossed leather cover that, oddly, bears no trace of a rocket anywhere on it. Most bibliographies credit the authorship to O. K. Rumbel and give the date as 1936 though I have no idea how they might know this. The only credit on the inside is to the Foreward, which is by George W. Wentz, Jr., and he makes it clear he is not writing in 1936:


[T]he United States army is using rockets to destroy the enemy, and every school child has heard and read of the now famous "Bazooka" gun that fires rockets and has proved so successful. Then, too, we read of new rocket planes and rocket ships not to mention the countless rocket shells that are being developed. Most of these are proving exceedingly successful. Rockets are indeed on the minds of scientists.


The "Bazooka" gun originated in 1943. Mentions of rocket planes and rocket ships and rocket shells can be found earlier but they weren't everyday phrases until the V-1 and V-2 weapons took them out of speculative articles in Popular Science and Astounding Science Fiction and into the headlines. If the war were still going on it would have necessarily been mentioned. I'm guessing that the earliest date for this is 1946 and I wouldn't be surprised if evidence came in putting it into the 1950s.


As for Wentz, he was a stamp dealer and undoubtedly the originator of the volume. It contains a brief history of the day, the one I've been referring to as the semi-official account. Could Wentz have written it? Possible, even likely, although the text is better written than the Foreword. Notable is a glaring omission: Keith Rumbel's name is not mentioned at any point. Is it conceivable that his father would fail to give credit to his son, who was after all the Flight Chairman? As a collectible, though, the value lies in the stamps, which are beautifully preserved, along with copies of the blocks of four vignettes.


A day that eventful would be memorable in any small town's history, but as rockets moved from a sideshow curiosity to the front pages the memories of that day would be endlessly rehashed as the outside world caught up. In 1959, for example, the Navy stuffed a SSM-N-8 Regulus cruise missile from the submarine USS Barbero with 3,000 pieces of mail replacing the usual thermonuculear bomb and fired it 100 miles down the Atlantic Coast to land at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport, Florida. Since the Regulus missile had a state-of-the-art guidance system it landed with pinpoint accuracy, a fact that the Department of Defense trumpeted for propagandistic effect, an effect that may have been slightly dampened by their failure to announce the launch ahead of time just in case it didn't work. Nevertheless, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield issued a suitably sonorous proclamation:


This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail, is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation. Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.


The people of McAllen had something to say about this being the first official use of missiles and newspapers all over Texas carried an Associated Press article begging to disagree, the reporter's tongue firmly in cheek.


Across the swollen river, the Mexican town of Reynosa was quiet and peaceful on the warm summer afternoon. Some of the residents hadn't heard of the proposed stunt. Some were taking their afternoon siesta.


In The U.S. Bar in the Mexican City, customers lazily sipped their drinks. Some dozed.


The second rocket screamed across the river and smacked into the tavern. Reports were never clear just what happened next. Some say beer sippers took off at a speed much greater than the rocket. Other reports said many swore off drinking for life.

Those memories lit a fuse in McAllen. Two years later, the town decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of rocket mail with a new barrage of cross-border rockets. On Friday, June 30, 1961, dignitaries from Texas and Mexico took turns launching six more red, white, and blue mail rockets across the Rio Grande from the Texas side, followed by another six from Mexico.* Demand from the stamp collecting community was so great that dozens more rockets were sent off later just to hold all the requested covers.


Present among the dignitaries was Dr. Keith Rumbel. He had become ... a government rocket scientist.


Seriously, how is this story not a movie?


* Historic footnote: a 30th anniversary celebration was held in 1966, with more rockets launched and more covers. OK, the 25th anniversary cover with 30 inked over the 25. But it has the Robert Goddard airmail stamp as postage, so all is forgiven.

25th anniversary of first rocket mail souvenir booklet, 1961
First International Rocket Air Mail 25th anniversary, 1961
30th Anniversary of first rocket mail, 1966

The First International Rocket Air Mail flight has become a touchstone of McAllen history. A series of short videos made by KGBT-TV for McAllen's 100th anniversary features it prominently in the 1931-1940 segment, shown below. Rare photographs of the day's events can be seen starting at 1:10.

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