Homer Hickam’s short article about his life as a young boy growing up in Coalwood, WV and aspiring to be a rocket scientist was called “The Big Creek Missile Agency” and was written for Air & Space Magazine in 1994. It received so much acclaim and interest, he was asked to write a book detailing the whole story. Rocket Boys: A Memoir was published by Delacorte Press in September 1998 and the movie based on it, October Sky premiered nationwide on his birthday February 19, 1999. The title of the paperback released at the same time was changed to the movie title, which is an ANAGRAM of Rocket Boys (take the letters of rocket boys and move them around to spell october sky!) It is also available in abridged audio book, electronic book, large print, and is a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. Homer Hickam’s short article about his life as a young boy growing up in Coalwood, WV and aspiring to be a rocket scientist was called “The Big Creek Missile Agency” and was written for Air & Space Magazine in 1994.
Rocket Boys has been translated into eight languages and has received many awards. It was selected by the New York Times as one of its Great Books of 1998 and was an alternate Book-of-the-Month selection for both the Literary Guild and Doubleday book clubs. It was also nominated by the National Book Critics Circle as best Biography of 1998.
How I Came to Write the Memoir: Rocket Boys
In 1989, while I was on vacation in the Caribbean, my father died. I didn’t know that it had happened until my return. My mother had made no attempt to contact me. By the time I got home and made my way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, she had already cremated him. I found her as I had always known her: fully in control and careful that I not be inconvenienced by my dad, even in death.
In truth, I felt an odd serenity. In the nearly thirty years since I had left the little West Virginia coal camp where I grew up, I had hardly talked to my father at all. This is not to say, during all those years, I had not seen him or heard his voice or he mine. On many trips back to West Virginia, and later to Myrtle Beach after his retirement, we had verbalized greetings, responded to desultory questions from one another, spoke of the weather or the time to drive from my home to his, and other such trite conversation, more appropriate to strangers than family. It was the way he wanted it and I complied. Such visits, in any case, were for the purposes of visiting my mother, to present myself proudly to her as the years went by for her critical inspection and approval.
I asked her about it, of course, but it did not surprise me that my mother was unwilling to share with me any details of Dad’s death. Her life had been spent in the coal fields as a miner’s daughter and then a miner’s wife. Those who died in that world were mourned intensely but briefly. To do more was a sign of weakness. She had already done her crying.
To find out what had happened to my dad, I visited the hospital where he spent his last hours. A sympathetic orderly talked to me, understanding that I wanted to be spared nothing. I had a need to know, even if the purpose of such knowledge was not evident to either of us. The answer was what I expected to hear: he had suffocated, the macroscopic coal dust that clogged his lungs finally denying him even a scintilla of air.
The orderly spoke of my father as a little man but he was not, not until his black lung had made its final assault. In a space of a few short weeks, he had shrunk, literally collapsing around his lungs as they became the entire focus of his being.
And he had struggled. The orderly, and another, had to hold him down on the emergency room gurney so that the doctor could do what little there was to be done. Dad had clawed at his throat and his chest as if to rip them open. The orderly said his eyes stayed open to the end and I could visualize those steel-blue eyes as they must have blazed, angry at the insult and embarrassment of having to die in the midst of strangers who did not understand the thing that was murdering him.
Although it was the coating of dust on his lungs that caused him to suffocate, it was his coal mine that had killed him. Dad, as all miners, knew that there was an implicit pact between him and the great, deep pit that provided all things. For most miners, the value they took from the mine was in coin. For my dad, it was his very sense of self-worth. He was the superintendent of the mine and the acknowledged leader of the little town and nothing happened in either place without his say-so. Most of the miners suffering from black lung did not suffocate to death. Before that, their hearts failed them. They fell and never rose, or went to sleep and never woke. But when the disease of the mine came for my dad, perhaps because of the greater benefit he had derived from it, it came relentlessly and without pity.
He had been alert to the end, the orderly said, fully aware that he was choking to death and there was no hope. He had been a man in control all of his life but he died out of control, trying to suck in life while death relentlessly crawled up on his body and crushed him. The moment came finally when his eyes saw no more and the heart that had pounded in his ears slammed against his wizened chest for the last time. The orderly said he had shaken his head at the last, as if refusing a helping hand. That did not surprise me. He would offer his own but never in life would Homer Hickam take the hand of a man offering assistance. I hoped he had fallen away with his mind intact and felt the warm envelopment of darkness, as if perhaps he had returned to his beloved deep mine for one last time. I hoped that the hand that had reached for him had been perhaps one of his foremen trying to bring him from the darkness into the light, and that he had recognized him and had at last reached out, took what was being offered to him.
But I doubted it. It wasn’t his way.
I made certain my mom was settled back into the house she loved, near the great brown strand of beach that runs along the Atlantic, and then I came home and my life kept going as if there had been no change. I was the manager responsible to train the astronauts assigned to fly on the first Japanese-American space flight in history. I had my work to do. I got busy. The months changed to years. My dad was a stray thought that occasionally surfaced, but at first not very often. I was surprised, however, that as time went by I thought of him more and more and I was troubled. Why had his death not meant anything to me? Why had I never cried? Why did I feel this odd sense of completion? What was wrong with me?
I had other work besides NASA. I had always been compelled to write. I had my own neighborhood newspaper when I was in the second grade, was writing short stories for the school paper when I was in the third, good enough that the principal read them over the intercom for the entire school. I wrote my first book when I was in Junior High School – tucked away, later to be thrown out by my dad while I was in Vietnam – and wrote a weekly column for the newspaper at the university (Virginia Polytechnic Institute) where I received my engineering degree. Since then, while I was in the Army and then with NASA, I successfully free-lanced numerous articles and short stories. I had even written a successful book, Torpedo Junction, the history of the tragic battle against the U-boats that had attacked the American Atlantic Coast during World War II.
In December, 1994, Pat Trenner, an editor at Smithsonian Air & Space magazine called me with an urgent request. The Above and Beyond section of the magazine needed an article for the next issue. I had the reputation of being a fast writer with aerospace lore at my fingertips. Could I, would I, please provide something? I like a challenge so I replied affirmatively. I glanced at a small cylindrical object I was using as a paperweight. I picked it up. It was a sophisticated but tiny rocket nozzle. Its story was only a hazy memory. As I talked to the editor, pieces of it started to come back. “You know,” I told her, “when I was a kid – growing up in a place called Coalwood, West Virginia – would you believe it? We – some boys and I – we were miner’s kids – we built rockets. We won a medal – a science fair… no, the National Science Fair medal.” Pat was silent for a moment and then said, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm – “OK, if that’s all you’ve got. Write it and fax it to me and we’ll see.” I wrote the article in three hours, the memories tumbling out of places I had not looked for decades. I didn’t remember everything but enough for the 2,000 words required. I sent in the fax and forgot about it. The next day the editor called. She loved it. Would I send pictures? The medal? Anything I had? The magazine was going with the story as a major feature.
I was surprised at her reaction but I was to be absolutely astonished when the article came out. Letters and phone calls from parents all over the country, even in England, came in a rush. They were inspired, touched in a manner most unexpected. They called me just to hear my voice and tell me how proud my little story made them and, in a couple of instances, begged me to speak to their children. There was more to come. One day a letter came in the mail from a small motion picture producer, wondering if I had sold the rights to my story. I hadn’t, of course, and naturally, as a free-lance writer always looking for new markets, I found myself intrigued by the possibility. Within a few months, I had acquired a powerful literary/film agent who sold the story as a major motion picture to Universal Studios in Hollywood. The agent said that I should write a book about those days, too, and, of course, I said I would. A book on our adventures as rocket-builders would, I thought, actually write itself. After all, it had all been so simple. We were kids of the late 1950’s. We were stuck in a coal camp and we were enthralled by the space race. Of course we built rockets. Of course, we kept building them even when they blew up. Of course, we kept working and learning until we had designed sophisticated rocket engines, capable of flying for miles into the sky. Of course, we had won the Gold and Silver Award at the National Science Fair, 1960. And then there was also something about John Kennedy being there with us… Didn’t I, I realized, tell him while he was still a Senator that if he ever got to be President he should take the country to the Moon?
Maybe the story wasn’t so simple, after all.
Something had happened once in my life, something so very special that 35 years after it had been done, and I had nearly forgotten it, it had been brought back to me to relive. I sat down and began to write. I wrote of the boys. I wrote of our rockets. I remembered the first one, and the next, and the next. And as I wrote, it was as if there were others there whispering to me, just shushes of conversation coming as if behind a thick curtain. Don’t forget us, they said. And there was one. He wasn’t whispering but he was there. Every time I tried to turn away from him in the book, he moved like a phantom to stay in my view.
And then I knew where I was going, what I had to write the entire book for. I had to write it all down so that I could get to where waited the answer to my odd contentment when Dad died. The moment lay there, far in the distance, and all I had to do was to relive it all to get there.
I wrote, and as I wrote, the little town of Coalwood came alive again. The miners trudged up the old path to the mine, their lunch pails clunking against their legs, their helmets perched on their heads. Dad was there amongst them, wearing his old snap-brim hat, his cow-hide coat, encouraging them in the day, gathering his foremen to him for their instruction. The people of the town bustled in and out of the Company store and gathered on the church steps after Sunday services to gossip. My mother was in her kitchen, in her refuge in front of the big painted picture of the beach and the ocean. My dog waited in my basement laboratory, his stubby tail wagging at the sight of me as I picked up and inspected the implements of my chosen trade, the high school rocket builder – the potassium nitrate and sugar, the zinc dust and sulphur, the moonshine we used as a propellant binder. In my room, there was my old desk and the book our Miss Riley had given us, the one with all the answers written in a mathematical script no one believed we could learn but we had, against all odds. I looked and my wonderful little cat still slept on my pillow on the bed beneath the window from which I could see the mine and the tiny machine shop where the kindly machinist had built our first rocket. The church bell was ringing as once more we boys stood on the roof of the old Club House and peered through the telescope a junior engineer had loaned us, to see once more the bands of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the craters of the Moon. The old high school was there, the halls ringing with the excitement of youth, the classrooms echoing with our lessons, the awareness slowly dawning on us that we were the designated refugees of our town and our school – that we were being prepared to leave and never return. Everything and everyone was still there, all in their places, defining the path, urging me along it, to where my dad waited.
It was on a hot, black slack dump we called Cape Coalwood, our firing range, a place my dad had been forced by the people of Coalwood to give to us. All the rockets, the ones that blew up and the ones that flew were launched again. All the failures, all the successes, all had to be experienced. When I at last reached our final rocket, he was standing there, looking up at it as it flew out of sight. But the boy that was once me wasn’t looking at the rocket. He was looking at his father. The father was saying something and I strained to hear what it was, difficult because of the cheering of the town in the background, and the muffling of the decades that had passed.
Glorious! Glorious! Oh, has there ever been such a glorious day!
I watched the boy and I knew he was waiting hopefully for the father to turn to him and put his arm around him. But it didn’t happen. Instead, the father began to cough the wracking cough of the miner and it was the son – me – who reached out.
And he had let me.
Oh, has there ever been such a glorious day!
And so my book was written as it was meant to be, not a boy’s adventure, or a young adult’s inspirational tale. It was written for all of my generation who had parents who came out of the Depression and fought World War II and struggled from the day they were born. It was written for all of us who watched our parents sacrifice in a million ways every day so that we might have a better life. It was written for all of us who observed by deed every day how much our parents loved us but never experienced it through touch or word. It was written for all of us who have tried our entire lives to find a way to reconcile that dichotomy. Once, even if it had to be in the wilderness of West Virginia in a tiny coal camp on the black dust of a slack dump, one of us was allowed to find resolution and reconciliation.
And that’s what I think The Rocket Boys is really about: reconciliation. To recreate it turned out to be one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. I reached as deeply as ever I could into my soul to bring them all back, all the miners and miner’s wives and teachers and preachers and each of the boys, because it took them all, urging me, compelling me, to get me back to that place on that slack dump.
It was worth the journey, at least to me. My father died without me and I was neither needed or wanted. But I know now, and will forever know because I wrote this book, that it was all right.
Oh, has there ever been such a glorious day!
I think, for a reason that may never become evident, Someone needed to remind me of that.
From Publishers Weekly
Great memoirs must balance the universal and the particular. Too much of the former makes it overly familiar; too much of the latter makes readers ask what the story has to do with them. In his debut, Hickam, a retired NASA engineer, walks that line beautifully. On one level, it’s the story of a teenage boy who learns about dedication, responsibility, thermodynamics and girls. On the other hand, it’s about a dying way of life in a coal town where the days are determined by the rhythms of the mine and the company that controls everything and everybody. Hickam’s father is Coalwood, WV’s mine superintendent, whose devotion to the mine is matched only by his wife’s loathing for it. When Sputnik inspires “Sonny” with an interest in rockets, she sees it not as a hobby but as a way to escape the mines. After an initial, destructive try involving 12 cherry bombs, Sonny and his cronies set up the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA). From Auk I (top altitude, six feet), through Auk XXXI (top altitude, 31,000 feet), the boys experiment with nozzles, fins and, most of all, fuel, graduating from a basic black powder to “rocket candy” (melted potassium chlorate and sugar) to “Zincoshine” (zinc, sulfur, moonshine). But Coalwood is the real star, here. Teachers, clergy, machinists, town gossips, union, management, everyone become co-conspirators in the BCMA’s explosive three-year project. Hickam admits to taking poetic license in combining characters and with the sequence of events, and if there is any flaw, it’s that the people and the narrative seem a little too perfect. But no matter how jaded readers have become by the onslaught of memoirs, none will want to miss the fantastic voyage of BCMA, Auk and Coalwood. First serial to Life. 10-city author tour. (Sept.) FYI: Rocket Boys is currently in production at Universal, which plans to release it later this year titled October Sky.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Inspired by Werner von Braun and his Cape Canaveral team, 14-year-old Homer Hickam decided in 1957 to build his own rockets. They were his ticket out of Coalwood, West Virginia, a mining town that everyone knew was dying–everyone except Sonny’s father, the mine superintendent and a company man so dedicated that his family rarely saw him. Hickam’s smart, iconoclastic mother wanted her son to become something more than a miner and, along with a female science teacher, encouraged the efforts of his grandiosely named Big Creek Missile Agency. He grew up to be a NASA engineer and his memoir of the bumpy ride toward a gold medal at the National Science Fair in 1960–an unprecedented honor for a miner’s kid–is rich in humor as well as warm sentiment. Hickam vividly evokes a world of close communal ties in which a storekeeper who sold him saltpeter warned, “Listen, rocket boy. This stuff can blow you to kingdom come.” Hickam is candid about the deep disagreements and tensions in his parents’ marriage, even as he movingly depicts their quiet loyalty to each other. The portrait of his ultimately successful campaign to win his aloof father’s respect is equally affecting.
Amazon.com Reader Review rating: 5 stars out of five