Homer H. Hickam launches out of the hills with a grander dream
by Tracy Jones
Surely Coalwood, W.V., is the kind of place developers envision when they promise
that their tree-sheltered, sidewalk-lined neighborhoods will bring back the America of yesterday. In the late '50s and early '60s, Coalwood was a quiet town, the fathers at work in the local mine, the mothers at home, the kids in orderly classrooms or roaming the streets and nearby hills under the watchful eyes of the adults around them. Rocket Boys (Delacorte Press), retired NASA engineer Homer Hickam's tale of how he learned to build homemade rockets in Coalwood, reaffirms much of what the nation thinks it remembers about the prosperous post-war years. But what makes it an even truer work is Hickam's scrupulous avoidance of any unearned nostalgia about that time and place.
Hickam, whose book has been made into a motion picture of the same title (filmed in Oliver Springs and Knoxville last year), says he fought with himself to keep his description fair and accurate. "My tendency when I write about Coalwood is maybe to wax a little much about how idyllic it was, when in fact there were a great many tensions," he says. "Not the least of which was that every day our fathers disappeared into this mine and they weren't necessarily going to come back."
Due, he says, to a recession in the steel industry and the closing of several mines nearby, "Coalwood in the late '50s was starting to fray around the edges. In the fall of 1957, when [the Russians launched] Sputnik and everything started to change for the United States, life in Coalwood started to change, too."
As then-14-year-old Hickam knew, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were rushing to be the first in space. The Soviets won the first leg of the race with Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Hickam remembers clearly what that moment meant.
"My whole life there had always been life in Coalwood, and life everywhere else. All of the sudden, with Sputnik passing right overhead, there was something connecting us with the whole rest of the world."
Educators all over America were pressured to start turning out scientists to join the space race. Overnight, Hickam says, homework doubled. "The wonder I write about, of seeing Sputnik, was laced with fear. The Russians had been painted as these awful bogeymen who were going to take over the country if we weren't careful."
Buckling down to serious study just wasn't Hickam's way. Although he was favored by the town's "Great Six," the town's formidable cabal of elementary school teachers (the name itself is a corruption of "grades one through six"), he had never connected the many books they pressed on him with any future ambitions.
"It took Sputnik to give me a grander dream," he says.
That dream, tackled at the age of 14, was that he and his buddies would build and launch rockets from Hickam's backyard. A spread in Life magazine gave Hickam the basic designall he needed, he figured, was a cylinder of some sort and the 12 cherry bombs he'd been saving for a special occasion.
The first rocket didn't work. In fact, it blew up his mother's pride and joy, her brand-new white picket rose garden fence. Although she was officially angry about the destruction, Elsie Hickam was also intrigued. Did her younger son really think he could build a rocket? If so, could it be his way out of Coalwood and into college?
Hickam says his mother's challenge was a turning point in his life. "It never really occurred to me that my mom was worried about my future. It was really a shock when she drew me aside and said, 'I've been watching you your whole life, and it's time you got a plan to get out of this place.'"
Thus the Big Creek Missile Agency was born. The first rocket (after the cherry bomb incident) went 6 feet in the air, and the last one, launched as Hickam was about to head for college, went almost 6 miles. Along the way, Hickam and the five other members of the BCMA won a National Science Fair medal, taught themselves calculus and trigonometry, and got themselves out of McDowell County and coal mining and into college. Four, including Hickam, became engineers.
"Without us realizing it," says Hickam, "all the adults in town were pushing us out." Because his father was a mine superintendent, Hickam had a slightly more privileged existence than the other boys. Still, his father, a miner's son, had been a miner himself until the company boss recognized something special in him and made him his protégé. He remained sensitive in many ways about his lack of formal education.
"He had a job that ordinarily required an engineering degree, and he didn't get the respect of a lot of people because he didn't have that degree. That was something I always heard, how important it was to get that 'piece of paper.' It wasn't how much you knew, but you needed those credentials."
Hickam's father is a formidable figure throughout the book, a smart and stubborn man who didn't suffer foolsor dreamy sonsgladly. But Hickam does not mean for Rocket Boys to be an indictment of his late father.
"I never doubted the love and support of my parents and all the adults around me. That was a given. The problem was understanding what form it existed in and coming to grips with that terrible stoicism." For those raised in the Depression, as his father was, Hickam says, love was demonstrated "by the roof over your head and the food on the table. The assumption that the family loved one another was just thatthat's the assumption and you go along with it.
"My dad came out of a lot of turmoil," Hickam continues. "He saw his father struggling his whole life. I think Dad worked so hard that when he got to a certain level [of success], if he could have kept everything static after that, he would have been happy. That's impossible, of course."
Certainly Hickam's own life changed in ways he never predicted when he was looking at rockets in Life magazine. His distinguished career with NASA took him to Russia, Europe, and Japan, where he trained the first Japanese astronauts. He is also a scuba instructor and has organized and participated in many diving rescues. Practically the only place he hasn't been is in space, although at 55, he still holds out hope.
Coalwood and McDowell County have also changed. As Hickam's mother predicted long ago, when she urged her son to go to college, the mine closed, and the county population has declined from about 200,000 in the early '60s to about 70,000 now. Walking through Coalwood recently, Hickam says, "was like walking through the ruins at ancient Greece."
But there are still students at Hickam's alma mater, Big Creek High School, who are eager, as he once was, to get out into the bigger world.
This summer the county held a reception for Hickam and the four other surviving rocket boys at the War Hotelonce a place, Hickam says, of shady reputation, now a renovated and refurbished jewel. Hickam gave the commencement address for the graduates.
"My message to them was that they were going to be surprised, when they went out into the world, by what a good education they had been given in south West Virginia. And they were going to surprise a lot of other people by that education."
And, he told them, they had another advantage they had probably never considered.
"I told them they were coming from a real place, not a manufactured little suburb but a place that has its own personality, and that living among these old hills you absorb their personality, too, and you take that with you for the rest of your life.
I wanted them to realize they were special just because of the place they were coming from."