Rocket Man

Ky Michaelson has gone 180 mph on a snowmobile, hurled men off tall buildings, and blown tons of metal into the stratosphere. Are you ready for the biggest stunt of all?

An oil portrait in the foyer sets the tone: It shows Michaelson in three-quarters profile, surrounded by smaller images of him driving dragsters, launching rockets, even doing a wing walk. Beneath it, in a flowery script, are the words: "Ky Michaelson, A Man of God-Given Talent."

Most of the time, Michaelson prefers to call himself the Rocketman. It's a handle he has been using since 1961--long before the release of the Elton John song by the same name, he points out (though, he allows, he'd like to have the tune played at his funeral).

Throughout the house--which Michaelson has been remodeling nonstop since 1968--souvenirs of fame, fortune, and rocketry crowd every corner and nook. There's the movie room, featuring a large-screen TV, a popcorn machine, and scads of carefully framed, eight-by-ten photos: Michaelson smiling with Burt Reynolds. Jodi with Burt. Michaelson with Red Skelton (and a cigar tucked into the frame, and a brass plaque that reads, "Cigar given to Ky Michaelson by Red Skelton"). Michaelson with Cathy Lee Crosby ("great lady!"). The Fonz. Jimmy Stewart. John Wayne. John Denver. Lon Chaney. And so on.

Sometimes the artifacts are arranged with a delicious sort of incongruity. In the bedroom, beside an enormous heart-shaped bed, sits a glassed-in hutch behind which Michaelson keeps a display copy of a Chuck Norris book, The Secret of My Inner Strength. The tough-guy action hero shares the space with part of the Rocketman's doll collection. Michaelson started buying the ornate, frilly toys after seeing a display at a Vegas casino. "I like things of beauty," he explains with a shrug. "My house is very manly--have you noticed that? I just think they're neat--more woman, more feminine."

As the tour proceeds, though, it becomes clear that nothing--not the locks from Marilyn Monroe's house, not the antique guns--matters as much to Michaelson as the "space stuff," a dizzying collection of mementos assembled in wee-hours online auction rampages. There's the actual toilet from the Russian space station Mir ($1,200, a scary-looking set of tubes and suction fixtures). An array of signed photos of famous American astronauts. A well-preserved brownie from one of the early Apollo launches (complete with certificate of authenticity). Replicas of famous rockets. Even a small, burnt shard from an exterior panel of the Challenger space shuttle--a relic Michaelson prizes, he says, above all his other possessions.

By the end of the tour, the Rocketman seems overwhelmed with his own vast inventory. "You know," he finally says, "when they put me in the ground, I hope this all winds up in a museum someplace."

 

Michaelson didn't always have this much stuff. Growing up in south Minneapolis, he shared a single bedroom, "no bigger than my office," with three siblings. His father Howard worked for Northwest Airlines, where he was instrumental in the development of lightning arresters for airplanes and other aeronautic gadgets.

But Howard Michaelson was also always in debt, a result of medical bills that piled up after he suffered a serious neck injury. Ever since, Michaelson says, he has had "a thing" against the airline, which he believes treated his father unfairly; it's one reason he never wanted to work for someone else. He also mistrusts the government, in part because he blames the radiation from a "top-secret" project in the Forties for his father's cancer and early death.

"My father was the smartest man I ever knew," Michaelson says ruefully. "He would come home from work, and lie in the bed, and just read, read, read. But we had some hard times. He was in traction and a lot of pain. The medical thing just kept us down, and he was never much of a businessman."

Invention, and a knack for business failures, seemed to run in the family. In the early part of the century, Ky's grandfather and great-uncles briefly manufactured a line of motorcycles. Although the operation ultimately collapsed, they managed to register some of the earliest patents on motorcycle clutch technologies.

One of those great-uncles, John, was also a locally famous daredevil: In 1905 he jumped a motorcycle some 68 feet off a giant ramp at a park on East Lake Street, a feat that made for postcard fodder. John went by the name The Great Michaels, Ky says, because he didn't want his mother to know about his risky stunts. (Years later Ky would revel in bringing The Great Michaels's feats to the attention of one Evil Knievel, who liked to brag that he was the first man to jump motorcycles. "He came here in '74 for a jump, and I showed him a picture," he laughs. "That really caught his attention.")

By contrast, Ky Michaelson hardly seemed destined for greatness. Severely dyslexic, short, and asthmatic, he hated school--hates it, he says, to this day. "I had a lot of Johnny Rebel in me. Some of the teachers were really shitty to me. One time I was reciting a poem--"Captain, Oh Captain"--and I started stuttering. My mind went blank and I was really, really embarrassed. Everybody started laughing at me. And I said to the teacher, 'Why do I got to learn this crap? I wanna race in the Indianapolis 500.'" The teacher, he says, pulled him from the classroom by his ear.

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