Authors: Homer Hickam
Table of Contents
To Charlie, Linda D., and Susan Black,
beloved family, who left us much too soon.
Matters of faith are not really accessible to our rational
thinking. I find it best not to ask any questions, but to just
believe. . . .
—Dr. Wernher von Braun, rocket scientist
The Lord works us . . . even though we don’t know it.
—The Reverend Julius “Little” Richard, preacher
There are girls and then there are girls. But that girl there is a
woman. Don’t ever get them confused.
—Roy Lee Cooke, the Big Creek lovemaster
THE COALWOOD WAY
“Another classic coming-of-age tale . . . the rocket boy
“Hickam . . . has a wonderful story to tell.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Perceptive and honest . . . A charming and sentimental, yet
realistic paean to the values, biases, and hopes of small-town America.”
“[A] powerful story . . . since Hickam writes without pity but
with love, he causes readers to care.”
“Recalling a lost era, [Hickam] brings his American
hometown to life with vivid images, appealing characters and
considerable literary magic.”
“With keen memory and dedication to fact, Hickam mines
his childhood, playing the trials of growing up and self-
discovery against the unstoppable forces of change. Along
the way emerge truths and realizations that resonate on deep
levels. Indeed, Hickam is powerfully gifted in rendering the
personal into the universal.”
The Denver Post
“More than a good read, charming and often moving enough
to bring a lump to your throat.”
“A heartwarming tale of family love, small-town living and
boyhood adventure that will take readers back to their own
youthful days. I loved it!”
“A story of heartwarming possibilities . . . original and
nostalgically humorous . . .
The Coalwood Way
is the story
of a rocket boy shooting for the moon. But it is also the story
of the maturation of a boy, a family and a town.”
HOMER HICKAM’S #1 BESTSELLER
“Unforgettable . . . Unlike so many memoirs, this book
brings to life more than one man’s experiences. It brings to
life the lost town of Coalwood, W. Va.”
“Mr. Hickam builds a story of overcoming obstacles worthy
of Frank Capra, especially in its sweetness and
The New York Times
“A stirring tale that offers something unusual these days . . .
a message of hope in an age of cynicism.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune
“A great read . . . One closes the book with an immense
feeling of satisfaction.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Hickam has a great story to tell. . . . [His] recollections of
small-town America in the last years of small-town America
are so cinematic that even those of us who didn’t grow
up there might imagine we did.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A refreshingly hopeful book about personal triumph
and achieving one’s dreams.”
San Antonio Express-News
“[Hickam] is a very adept storyteller. . . . It’s a good bet this is
the story as he told it to himself. It is a lovely one, and in the
career of Homer H. Hickam, Jr., who prevailed over the facts
of his life to become a NASA engineer training astronauts
for space walks, that made all the difference.”
The New York Times Book Review
“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 walks that line
beautifully. No matter how jaded readers have become by the
onslaught of memoirs, none will want to miss the fantastic
voyage of BCMA,
The Christian Science Monitor
while a true story, reads like a well-written novel.
It deals with a wide range of issues, including the bittersweet
experience of coming of age. It also provides an intimate
look at a dying town where people still allowed kids to dream
and helped them make those dreams become reality.”
Rocky Mountain News
“[A] nostalgic and entertaining memoir.”
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 that 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.
—Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
March 14, 2000
THERE HAVE BEEN many gifts and honors to come my way since the publication of
Rocket Boys: A Memoir
), but none have been so wonderful as the recollections I’ve received from the citizens of Coalwood, past and present, as well as from folks from all over McDowell County and West (by God) Virginia. There are too many individuals to list so I will simply give my humble thanks and reflect that this book would not have been possible without them. This includes Jim, my steadfast friend and brother. I would also like to thank Frank and Mickey, the greatest agents known to mankind; my editor Tom, who’s the very best at what he does; and David, my touchstone. Thanks are also due to Linda, my wife and assistant, who works so hard and does so much, as well as her parents, Walt and Sue, who are among my heroes. Of course, nothing would be possible without the continued, gentle vexations that come my way from one Elsie Gardener Lavender Hickam. As ever, I’m proud to know and love her.
SONG OF THE CAPE
OF ALL THE lessons I learned when I built my rockets, the most important were not about chemistry, physics, or metallurgy, but of virtues, sins, and other true things that shape us as surely as rivers carve valleys, or rain melts mountains, or currents push apart the sea. I would learn these lessons at a time when Coalwood, the mining town where I had lived my entire life, was just beginning to fade away. Yet, as the fall of 1959 began, and the leaves on the trees in the forests that surrounded us began to explode in spectacular color, Coalwood’s men still walked with a trudging grace to and from the vast, deep mine, and its women bustled in and out of the company stores and fought the coal dust that drifted into their homes. In the dark old schools, the children learned and the teachers taught, and, in snowy white churches built on hillside cuts, the preachers preached, and God, who we had no doubt was also a West Virginian, was surely doing His work in heaven, too. At the abandoned slack dump we called Cape Coalwood, rockets still leapt into the air, and boyish voices yet echoed between ancient, worn mountains beneath a pale and watchful sky. Coalwood endured as it always had, but a wheel was turning that would change nearly everything, and no one, not even my father, would be able to stop it. When that brittle parchment autumn turned into our deepest, whitest winter, this and many other lessons would be taught. Though they were hard and sometimes cruel things to learn, they were true, and true things, as the people of Coalwood saw fit to teach me, are always filled with a shining glory.
TO me, there was no better time to launch a rocket than in the fall, especially a West Virginia fall. There seemed to be a cool, dry energy in the air that filled us with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. I had always believed that our rockets were lifted as much by our dreams as by burning propellant, and as the lazy summer faded and a northerly wind swept down on us with its lively breath, anything seemed possible. It was also when the school year started and I always felt an excitement stir within me at the thought of learning new and wonderful things. Fall had other marvels, too. At the Cape, we were often treated to V-shaped flotillas of migrating Canadian geese, bound from the far north to places we had only read about or imagined. We always stopped our rocket preparations to gaze longingly at the great creatures as they winged their way high overhead, and to listen to their joyful honking that seemed to be calling us to join them. “If only we could,” Sherman said once to my comment. “Even for just a moment, to look down on our mountains and see them the same as angels.” Sherman always liked to remind us that we lived in a beautiful place and I guess we did, although sometimes it was easy to forget, especially since we’d never known anywhere else.
Once, a rare snow goose, as purely white as moonbeams, landed on the old slack dump, perhaps fooled by the reflection from the slick surface of the coal tailings. We gathered around the great strutting bird, awed by the sight of her. Then I noticed that her wing tips were as black as the faces of Coalwood miners after a shift. O’Dell said the reason for the black tips was so the geese could see each other inside a white cloud. O’Dell knew a lot about animals so I believed his explanation, but it got me off to thinking. How did the snow geese decide what colors their feathers would be? Did they all get together up north somewhere a million years ago and take a vote? It was a mystery and the snow goose made no comment. She just looked annoyed. When she tired of us gawking at her, she flapped her wings and continued her journey, and I confess I was relieved. I knew the snow goose did not belong in Coalwood. Some people, especially my mother, said neither did I.
Our first rocket of the fall was
A serious little rocket, it began its journey with a mighty spout of flame and turmoil and its shock wave rattled our wooden blockhouse as it climbed. I ran outside with the other boys, but no matter how much I strained my eyes, I couldn’t see it. All I could see were clouds that went, as far as I knew, all the way up to heaven. The seconds ticked by. We had never lost one of our rockets, but I was beginning to wonder if maybe this one was going to be our first. If it had fallen on Rocket Mountain, buried itself into the soft black West Virginia loam up there, maybe we had missed it. “Time, O’Dell,” I called nervously.
O’Dell looked at the stopwatch he’d borrowed last year from one of the coal company industrial engineers and forgotten to give back. “I think it’s still flying,” he said.
“Then where is it?” I demanded. We couldn’t lose it. Like every rocket we launched, it held answers we had to know.
“There it is!” Billy yelled as he began sprinting across the slack. I still couldn’t see anything but I ran after him anyway. He easily pulled away from me with athletic grace, his muscles like small coiled springs, his shoes sending up little puffs of black grit as he ran. How that boy could run! Nobody could keep up with Billy Rose when he had his sharp eyes locked on a rocket. I, on the other hand, tended to be a pretty slow runner. I think it was because I was so nearsighted. I was always afraid I was going to run into something.
O’Dell trotted up alongside me, putting a hand on my elbow to straighten me out. “Time looks good,” he said, and then ran on ahead, his mop of blond hair bouncing as his short legs churned. He held his stopwatch in front of him, his finger poised to click it off the moment our rocket hit the slack.
Roy Lee caught up with me next. He was in his Dugout clothes, a tight pair of draped and pegged black pants, brown loafers, a pink shirt with black piping, and hair thoroughly lacquered down into a swept-back DA. He had a date for the Saturday-night dance at the teen hangout in War and was headed that way right after the launch. “I never can see the blamed things,” he griped as he ran by me. Roy Lee’s long legs soon had him beside O’Dell, but Billy was still far ahead.
Behind me, I could hear Sherman’s uneven gait, his left leg slung in an arc at each step, his built-up shoe scuffing the slack. Polio had given his leg a twist and turned it thin as a sapling. I slowed to let him catch up and run alongside me. “O’Dell said the time looks good,” I gasped.
Sherman broke into a grin at my report. “Maybe it’s going to be a great rocket,” he said.
A “great rocket” was what Quentin, the brains of our outfit, called the rockets that did exactly what we’d designed them to do. I sincerely hoped Sherman was right.
used an untried propellant. With rockets, anytime you changed one thing, a lot of other things changed, too, and it was hard to predict what all they might be. In that, I guess they were a bit like me and the rest of the boys. Even though we were all seniors in high school and thought of ourselves as being grown up, the truth was we had a way to go. I was sixteen, they were seventeen, and every day, it seemed we grew a little, usually in some unpredictable way. Sometimes, I had trouble recalling who I had been the day before, or might be tomorrow. Coach Gainer called it the “teenage boy crazies.” When I got too afflicted with it, my mom always jerked a knot in my tail and said, “Straighten up and fly right.” And so I did.
Quentin was downrange so that he could measure the altitude of our rocket using trigonometry. To do it, he had to see the rocket at peak altitude and aim at it with a device he had built out of a broomstick, a nail, a wooden ruler, and a plastic protractor. He called his invention a theodolite. But clouds had defeated him today, the rocket disappearing through the heavy layer that hung overhead. We would have to depend on O’Dell’s stopwatch.
“Whoa! Stop!” Billy cried as we ran up to him. He had his arms outstretched to hold us back. I could hear the rocket whistling as it came in, and then, a hundred yards ahead, there was a big metallic retort and a plume of slack. The Auk had struck nosefirst. “Come on!” Billy yelled, and we ran on.
“Thirty-one seconds,” O’Dell reported as we reached the rocket. I did a quick mental calculation. I had designed
to reach an altitude of 6,000 feet. It had reached, according to the formula we used, less than 4,000 feet. That was a disappointment. The Big Creek Missile Agency (or BCMA, as we liked to call it) had been in business for nearly two years, ever since the sight of the Russian
flying through the starry sky over Coalwood had first inspired us to join the space race. We’d started off slow, our rockets mostly blowing up, but after a while we had gotten the hang of it. We had already sent rockets higher than a mile using our old rocket candy propellant. The new propellant we were using should have easily gotten us past the mile mark. Something had gone seriously wrong with this little rocket, and I itched to find out what it was.
The smoking Auk was too hot to touch, so I gave it a quick eyeball once-over. The casement, which is what we called the body of the rocket, was made from a three-foot-long, one-and-a-quarter-inch-diameter length of seamless steel tubing. Steel tubing of that size and make was incredibly strong, yet it was now slightly bent. That wasn’t unexpected, since it was flying at over three hundred miles per hour when it had hit the hard slack. The wooden nose cone that had capped it had been reduced to splinters. One of the four fins welded to the casement had broken off. The machinists in the coal company machine shop would be interested in the damage. They had become dedicated rocket builders, sneaking in the work between jobs sent down by the mine. My father, the mine superintendent, had tried for months to stop them but had finally given up. “Bill,” Dad had said to their supervisor, “they’re your problem. Just remind your boys who pays their wages.” The machinists heard Dad’s reminder but it didn’t make much of an impression on them. Building rockets, after all, was a lot more fun than working on mine equipment.
I wanted most of all to look inside the nozzle, the working end of the rocket. Our new propellant, which we called “zincoshine,” consisted of zinc dust, sulfur, and the purest alcohol John Eye Blevins could produce from his still up Snakeroot Hollow. The nozzle and the propellant were the keys to our success. Unless both worked according to our designs, our rockets might fly but they were not going to be “great.”
While we waited for the Auk to cool, Quentin decided it was a good opportunity to give us one of his professorial lectures, although he didn’t look anything like a professor. He was wearing a flannel shirt that was ragged at both elbows, and his pants legs were about two inches too short. One of his ankle-high leather brogans was untied, too, the tongue lapping out between the laces like the tongue of a tired old hound dog. “Gentlemen, it is time we adopt a new approach to our work,” he said, his index finger held aloft. “To date, we have accomplished prodigious results with our rockets. Yet, I perceive a certain tendency among some of you . . .” At this he sneaked a look at Roy Lee. “. . . to see our work as—dare I say it?—fun! This is not fun, gentlemen. We are about important work here. Therefore, henceforth, I challenge all of us to be absolutely, completely, and utterly
The other boys looked at him with slack jaws. He’d lost me, too, but I was not one to let Quentin get away with much. “Define rigorous,” I said.
Quentin rolled his eyes as he always did when he was disgusted with my ignorance. “To be rigorous in our work, Sonny, means it is absolutely necessary that we have a thoroughly scientific approach to everything we do. And, of course, it also means that we must do everything quickly, without delay, lest opportunity slip between our fingers.”
I didn’t see what one thing had to do with the other, but nothing ever happened fast enough to suit Quentin. “I don’t know how we can work any faster,” I told him, “especially since I’m doing all the drawings and seeing to the machine-shop work. I’ve got other things to do, you know.”
“Such as?” Quentin growled.
I stamped my feet, trying to stay warm in the chill breeze coming down the hollow. Winter would soon stake out its claim in the mountains of southern West Virginia. “Look, Quentin,” I said, “try to understand something. I can’t spend all my time building rockets. I’m trying to make all A’s this semester. And I’ve got band practice, too. I’m the head drummer, you know.”
Quentin looked down his long nose at me. “Your other activities, Sonny, are of no consequence to this group. You must transcend such matters and bear down on your designs. I assure you that without such rigor, we will impress no judges at the science fair. We must present a careful, well-thought-out,
scientific explanation as to why and how our rockets fly. You may be exasperated with me, old son, but it is nevertheless an incontrovertible fact.”
I simplified all his big words until I’d ferreted out his meaning. Quentin believed that if our rockets won the county science fair and then we went on to the state science fair and maybe even the nationals, somehow that would result in him getting an opportunity to go to college. I sincerely doubted his concept. Boys could get football scholarships in McDowell County, but I never heard of anybody getting much more than ribbons and medals at a science fair. Still, when Quentin got an idea, it was almost impossible to dislodge it from his brain. The boy had a brilliant mind, but it could get off onto some strange tracks sometimes.
The casement finally cooled enough so Quentin could pick it up. He put his eye on the nozzle, clucked loudly, and then shoved it into my face. “Look! Erosion!”
He was right. The hole down through the center of the rocket nozzle had been burned into an ugly irregular oval. That’s why it hadn’t performed according to its design.
Quentin handed me the rocket with disdain. “Gentlemen, how do we resolve this? Billy, what say you?”
Billy had been hanging back, not looking at the rocket. He seemed to be studying something on the ridge of Rocket Mountain. I looked in that direction but saw nothing but a grove of pines. He came back to us. “Maybe we just need a tougher steel,” he said with only a trace of his usual enthusiasm. Billy was painfully thin, and his shirt, neatly laundered but faded and patched, hung on him like he was a scarecrow. His father had quit the mine some months back over a dispute. I didn’t know what the dispute was, but I did know his dad tended to drink more than a little. Billy was the oldest of seven children. I had no idea how his family was getting by.