Rocket Boys: A Memoir
By Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
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Throughout the summer of 1958, explosions rocked the hills and hollows near Coalwood, West Virginia. The first blasts terrified miners and their families. Had the mine blown up? Were the Russians attacking? But when the echoes died away, folks shrugged and said, "It's just those damn rocket boys!"
Raised in Appalachian coal country, Homer H. Hickam, Jr., might well have followed his father and grandfather into the mine. But when he was 14, his life was changed by a space launch on the other side of the world. Hickam's story of how a teenage boy's handmade rockets lifted the hopes of a hardscrabble town is told in his charming memoir Rocket Boys. Filmgoers will find the tale brought to the screen in the Universal Studios new release, October Sky. The story originally appeared as a feature in Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, February/March 1995.
During the heart of the Cold War, Coalwood was an unlikely launching pad. In this "company town," where company houses were painted white only to turn gray with coal dust, the mine superintendent's son measured his days in shifts. "I ate supper after Dad saw the evening shift down the shaft," Hickam writes, "and I went to sleep to the ringing of a hammer on steel and the dry hiss of an arc welder at the little tipple machine shop during the hoot-owl shift." Playing 'miner,' boys followed their fathers up the sooty street to watch them shoulder shovels and go down into the earth. The miners, proud and tough, expected no other future for their sons.
Then in October 1957, a blip of light inched across the skies over West Virginia. Hickam, his mother and several neighbors gaped from front yards, their eyes lifted toward Sputnik. Desperate to learn how rockets were built, Hickam began studying physics and reading about rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He and a few friends formed the Big Creek Missile Agency. The countdown had begun.
The BCMA named its rockets for a flightless bird, the auk. Auk I didn't go into space, but it sent Hickam's fence skyward, in splinters. Many a parent might have put an end to such nonsense, but the Hickams became a house divided. Iron-willed Homer Sr. fought his rocket boy at every turn, insisting his son would work in the mine. Homer Jr.'s mother wanted better. "Show him you can do something," she pleaded with her son. "Build a rocket."
Launched from a flat nicknamed Cape Coalwood, Auks began roaring to a few hundred, then a few thousand feet. Meanwhile, back on earth, the town trudged into a fading future, suffering layoffs, strikes and a cave-in. The rocket boys, once ridiculed, caught Coalwood's fancy. Soon mining engineers were helping Homer shape nozzles and valves, while teachers slipped him books on calculus and the principles of rocketry.
Many a memoir has but one story to tell — the author's own. But Hickam's is the tale of a town caught between the old technology and the new. Coalwood's characters include nerdy rocket boys, football team toughs, fractured families, hardened coal bosses, and ordinary citizens who cheer at each liftoff.
In crafting this fine memoir, Hickam admits to "a certain author's license." Yet parts of the book are a little too fine. Hickam's descriptions are striking, but much of his dialogue reads as if borrowed from The Waltons. The coming-of-age saga also suffers from too many school dances and lost loves. Yet the main narrative, as inspiring as any to come out of the space age, rings like a nine-pound hammer on coal.
Ultimately, Rocket Boys is about much more than rockets. As Hickam states, "Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine."
A few decades after rockets flew over Coalwood, the town's mine was closed. But by then Homer H. Hickam, Jr., was a NASA engineer. His memoir honoring both earthbound miners and their sons who gazed into space is required reading for understanding the American Dream.
Reviewer Bruce Watson is a writer based in Leverett, Massachusetts.