- As you read this memoir, did you begin to feel as if you knew the people involved? Did you like them? Do you think you’d have been happy to live in Coalwood in the late 1950’s? If you had, what position in it would you have wanted? Coal miner? Foreman? Teacher? Housewife? Preacher? Doctor? Rocket Boy or Girl? Football Star?
Coalwood had a distinct role for each person who lived there. In order to live in the town, it was required that the head of the household work for the mine in some capacity. The exceptions to this were the teachers at the Coalwood School. Even the preachers were company men!
- Was this memoir similar in its construction with others that you’ve read? What do you think of the memoir genre? Do you think it might be difficult to write a memoir that is interesting to readers?
A memoir is, as its title implies, a memory of long-ago events. To write Rocket Boys/October Sky, Homer had to dig very deep into his soul to bring back moments that he hadn’t thought about for a very long time. He has a great sense of drama and believes that all of his books should be entertaining page-turners. This required even more work during the creation of the book since each “real” event had to be written in such a way it was interesting and stimulating and fit within an overall pattern. Homer realized early on into writing the book that to simply write down the sequential reality of rocket launches, incidents at the mine, the comings and goings of his friends, his parents, and other Coalwood citizens was not the best way to reveal the truths of the story. To bring Coalwood alive required careful crafting including, in some isolated cases, composite characters. Homer now regrets that he insisted on adding an “Author’s Note” in this book concerning the “liberties” he took in telling the story because some reviewers took that to mean he’d not told the truth. In his note in the follow-up memoir, The Coalwood Way, he wrote: “Memoirs are tough things to write. How can you remember what somebody said or did forty years ago? I don’t have an answer. All I know is I do. I’ve changed a few names and disguised some other folks to protect them but, otherwise, this is pretty much the way it happened, I swan.” We suggest a discussion of the current popularity of reading memoirs. Also see www.homerhickam.com and go to “The Rocket Boys” and “Coalwood” buttons for photos and biographies of the real people in the book.
- How would you describe this book? Would you call is a man’s book or a woman’s book? Were you fearful it might be too technical? Is it just a story of a boy with a dream or the story of a small mining town? Or is it something grander and deeper?
Homer has always said he used the rockets as a metaphor to tell the true story of life in the coalfields of West Virginia but he also had something else in mind, a weaving of many allegorical themes that begin loosely connected but are gradually wound tighter and tighter until they become as one. Can you spot those themes? Homer gets lots of glowing fan mail from “reluctant readers” who had the book recommended to them, but thought they wouldn’t be interested, then they stayed up all night reading it.
- Do you think Homer Senior and Elsie love each other? What is the principle cause of their conflicts? What is the importance of the mural Elsie is painting in the kitchen? Why is Homer Junior called “Sonny” in the book? Why did his teachers insist on calling him by that nickname rather than the one his mother wanted?
Homer dropped his nickname “Sonny” when he served as an Army Lieutenant in Vietnam. It felt very strange to him to be called by this name at first. He says when people called him “Homer,” he kept looking over his shoulder for his father!
- How would you describe Sonny’s father? Why does Homer Senior take Sonny into the mine, risking Elsie’s wrath? Why does he arrange for rocket materials when he seems so antagonistic to the rocket building? How does the conflict between his mom and dad motivate Sonny? Why was Geneva Eggers so important in Sonny’s understanding of his father?
Homer believes that this book is in reality his father’s book. It rests on the bedrock of Homer Senior’s strong, deep beliefs in the town and its everlasting “industrial symphony.”
- In the first paragraph of the book, Homer writes that his hometown was “at war with itself over its children.” What does this mean?
Many young readers write Homer that they are upset that their parents are trying to steer them towards a career or life that they don’t want. It’s an interesting situation as it seems to occur in every generation all across the world. Coalwood, then, is a microcosm of this tendency. Yet, the Rocket Boys knew that they and nearly all the children of Coalwood were the “designated refugees,” destined to leave the town of their youth. Standing nearly alone against this tide was Homer Senior who believed in the town and knew it would die if its children left.
- All the women in Coalwood are shown to be strong women, a trait they must have to say goodbye daily to their husbands and sons who work in the dangerous mine and may not return that night. Although most of the women of Coalwood make the best of their lot, they want a better life for their children. How can they help this to happen? Are they feminists before the term existed? How about the teachers called “The Great Six?” What’s their role in Coalwood? What is your opinion of Elsie, Sonny’s mother? Is she too harsh with her husband in her attempt to better her life and that of her sons? And Miss Riley? What did it say about her when she stood up for the Rocket Boys against the feared principal, Mr. Turner?
It was a disappointment to Homer that the movie “October Sky” portrayed the women as rather weak when he believes they were the strongest people in the story.
- Is this a universal story? Could it be set in other times or is it specific to Coalwood and West Virginia in the late 50’s? The book has been translated into eight languages and people from all over the world say Homer “told their story” yet they have never held a rocket or even seen a coal mine! The book is dedicated “To Mom and Dad and the people of Coalwood.” Why do you think Homer made that dedication?
Homer never knows who’s going to show up in his autograph lines to tell him how much they enjoyed this book. They vary from astronauts to coal miners to just about everybody, young and old.
- Many schools from fifth grade to college are studying Rocket Boys/October Sky in their classrooms, including English, math, and science classes. That makes it a pretty unique book! This is an adult book but it is told from a young man’s point of view. Why do you think teachers are picking this book to study and why are they writing Homer that they think it was their most popular class read ever, sparking the most thoughtful discussion? (See the website’s Teacher’s button and the letters from them for many examples.)
Homer is always pleased when teachers and students write and tell him how much they enjoyed studying his book(s). But he is always astonished and a bit chagrined when an English class writes and says how much they loved “the movie!”
- This story is also about the rewards and costs of nonconformity. Who conforms, who doesn’t and what is the consequence of their actions? Is that a problem today and can this story help those who tend to go against the expected norms? How was Quentin a nonconformist? How about the other boys?
Homer believes the Rocket Boys are still “dangerous” when they get together. There’s something about their mix of personalities that is a bit volatile! They do miss Sherman, though. He was a soothing influence to their passionate personalities!
- In Chapter 22, Mr. Turner, the Big Creek High School principal, wryly tells Sonny, “In the queer mass of human destiny, the determining factor has always been luck.” But in Chapter 26, Homer writes, “There’s a plan. If you are willing to fight hard enough, you can make it detour for a while, but you’re still going to end up where God wants you to be.” Are these quotations about human fate really in conflict with each other? How do they apply to the story?
This is one of those underlying themes to the book, that destiny is one of life’s grandest mysteries.
- Rocket Boys/October Sky is an excellent way to think about and discuss the many steps it takes to achieve a goal. Sonny’s idea of building rockets starts as simply a dream, but then he brings in the other boys and even approaches Quentin, the school outcast. The Rocket Boys first look upon their rocket-building as interesting and fun but then it becomes a challenge to defy expectations. Only much later does the idea of entering the science fairs occur to them. Discuss the importance of incremental steps in your life. Do you believe an incremental approach has validity in all walks of life, academic and otherwise? Why does Quentin believe in the necessity of obtaining what he calls a “body of knowledge?”
Homer now gives motivational speeches citing “Passion, Planning, and Perseverance” as the secret to a successful life. He stresses that planning in a sequential, incremental way is very important in reaching your dreams.
- Miss Riley, the physics teacher, seems to regard education as a challenge and adventure. Sonny rises to meet the formidable task she sets before him. He writes, “I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it.” (p. 168) That challenge is taken to the next level by Miss Riley when she gives him the book Principles of Guided Missile Design, saying, ³All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it.² (p. 232). Discuss Miss Riley’s motivational techniques.
In Sky of Stone, the third book in the “Coalwood trilogy,” Sonny, home from college, promises Miss Riley he will “do his best.” She sums up her philosophy to him in two words: “Do better.”
- When Sonny thinks of giving up rocketry altogether, Miss Riley tells him: “You’ve got to put all your hurt and anger aside so that you can do your job . . . Your job, Sonny, is to build your rockets.” When Sonny asks why that’s so important, she answers, “If for no other reason, because it honors you and this school.”(p. 296). It’s clear that she means it also honors Coalwood. Discuss the concept of civic pride. How do the Rocket Boys help the town? Why are they celebrated in the newspapers? In church? In the Big Store? By both sides of the unionization conflict? Why do so many attend their rocket launches? Is it just because the football team is on year-long suspension?
Today, after a long period of decline, Coalwood lives again! Rolling up their sleeves, the people of the town have restored Cape Coalwood (the boy’s old rocket range), and sponsor an annual October Sky Festival. Thousands of tourists visit Coalwood every month and the people there take great delight in showing them all the sites in the book. Please see our Gifts section for Rocket Boys shirts and other gift ideas. Proceeds go to the non-profit Cape Coalwood Restoration Association which was formed by the retired miners and their families still there.
- Discuss the motivational aspects contained within this story. How did Sputnik motivate Sonny? Is his mother trying to be motivational after he blows up her rose garden fence with his first rocket (“I believe you can build a rocket. [Your father] doesn’t. I want you to show him I’m right.” (p. 52)) Early in his career as a rocket builder, Rocket Boy O’Dell says, “A rocket won’t fly unless someone lights the fuse.” (p. 105) How important is it to find motivation in all our endeavors? Would the boys have gotten to the science fair without being motivated by something larger than themselves?
The movie presented the boys’ motivation for building their rockets as gaining scholarships for college. In fact, there were never any scholarships offered at any of the Science Fairs they entered nor did they receive any. Still, despite the differences between the book and the movie, we recommend you see the film. It is wonderfully and artfully made and is very motivational. It might also be an interesting discussion to figure out why Hollywood felt the need to change the story.
- The final chapter in the book (before the epilog) finishes with the launch of the last rocket of the Big Creek Missile Agency. Homer Senior is invited to launch this rocket. Why do you think this invitation was made? Why do you think he accepted?
Homer held back writing this scene until the very last although he wanted to write it more than any other. It was, he says, a gift to himself to finally write it down and savor that moment.
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.