Rocket Boys

A Memoir

by Homer H. Hickam

Rocket Boys

Paperback, 368 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $16 | purchase

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Book Summary

The author traces the boyhood enthusiasm for rockets that eventually led to a career at NASA, describing how he built model rockets in the family garage in West Virginia, inspired by the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Reprint.

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Excerpt: Rocket Boys

Rocket Boys

Coalwood

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.

Coalwood, West Virginia, where I grew up, was built for the purpose of  extracting the millions of tons of rich, bituminous coal that lay beneath  it. In 1957, when I was fourteen years old and first began to build my  rockets, there were nearly two thousand people living in Coalwood. My  father, Homer Hickam, was the mine superintendent, and our house was  situated just a few hundred yards from the mine's entrance, a vertical  shaft eight hundred feet deep. From the window of my bedroom, I could see  the black steel tower that sat over the shaft and the comings and goings  of the men who worked at the mine.

Another shaft, with railroad tracks leading up to it, was used to bring  out the coal. The structure for lifting, sorting, and dumping the coal was  called the tipple. Every weekday, and even on Saturday when times were  good, I could watch the black coal cars rolling beneath the tipple to  receive their massive loads and then smoke-spouting locomotives straining  to pull them away. All through the day, the heavy thump of the  locomotives' steam pistons thundered down our narrow valleys, the town  shaking to the crescendo of grinding steel as the great trains  accelerated. Clouds of coal dust rose from the open cars, invading  everything, seeping through windows and creeping under doors. Throughout  my childhood, when I raised my blanket in the morning, I saw a black,  sparkling powder float off it. My socks were always black with coal dirt  when I took my shoes off at night.

Our house, like every house in Coalwood, was company-owned. The company  charged a small monthly rent, automatically deducted from the miners' pay.  Some of the houses were tiny and single-storied, with only one or two  bedrooms. Others were big two-story duplexes, built as boardinghouses for  bachelor miners in the booming 1920's and later sectioned off as  individual-family dwellings during the Depression. Every five years, all  the houses in Coalwood were painted a company white, which the blowing  coal soon tinged gray. Usually in the spring, each family took it upon  themselves to scrub the exterior of their house with hoses and  brushes.

Each house in Coalwood had a fenced-off square of yard. My mother, having  a larger yard than most to work with, planted a rose garden. She hauled in  dirt from the mountains by the sackful, slung over her shoulder, and  fertilized, watered, and manicured each bush with exceeding care. During  the spring and summer, she was rewarded with bushes filled with great  blood-red blossoms as well as dainty pink and yellow buds, spatters of  brave color against the dense green of the heavy forests that surrounded  us and the gloom of the black and gray mine just up the road.

Our house was on a corner where the state highway turned east toward the  mine. A company-paved road went the other way to the center of town. Main  Street, as it was called, ran down a valley so narrow in places that a boy  with a good arm could throw a rock from one side of it to the other. Every  day for the three years before I went to high school, I got on my bicycle  in the morning with a big white canvas bag strapped over my shoulder and  delivered the Bluefield Daily Telegraph down this valley, pedaling  past the Coalwood School and the rows of houses that were set along a  little creek and up on the sides of the facing mountains. A mile down Main  was a large hollow in the mountains, formed where two creeks intersected.  Here were the company offices and also the company church, a company hotel  called the Club House, the post office building, which also housed the  company doctor and the company dentist, and the main company store (which  everybody called the Big Store). On an overlooking hill was the turreted  mansion occupied by the company general superintendent, a man sent down by  our owners in Ohio to keep an eye on their assets. Main Street continued  westward between two mountains, leading to clusters of miners' houses we  called Middletown and Frog Level. Two forks led up mountain hollows to the  "colored" camps of Mudhole and Snakeroot. There the pavement ended, and  rutted dirt roads began.

At the entrance to Mudhole was a tiny wooden church presided over by the  Reverend "Little" Richard. He was dubbed "Little" because of his  resemblance to the soul singer. Nobody up Mudhole Hollow subscribed to the  paper, but whenever I had an extra one, I always left it at the little  church, and over the years, the Reverend Richard and I became friends. I  loved it when he had a moment to come out on the church porch and tell me  a quick Bible story while I listened, astride my bike, fascinated by his  sonorous voice. I especially admired his description of Daniel in the  lions' den. When he acted out with bug-eyed astonishment the moment  Daniel's captors looked down and saw their prisoner lounging around in the  pit with his arm around the head of a big lion, I laughed appreciatively.  "That Daniel, he knew the Lord," the Reverend summed up with a chuckle  while I continued to giggle, "and it made him brave. How about you, Sonny?  Do you know the Lord?"

I had to admit I wasn't certain about that, but the Reverend said it was  all right. "God looks after fools and drunks," he said with a big grin  that showed off his gold front tooth, "and I guess he'll look after you  too, Sonny Hickam." Many a time in the days to come, when I was in  trouble, I would think of Reverend Richard and his belief in God's sense  of humor and His fondness for ne'er-do-wells. It didn't make me as brave  as old Daniel, but it always gave me at least a little hope the Lord would  let me scrape by.

The company church, the one most of the white people in town went to, was  set down on a little grassy knob. In the late 1950's, it came to be  presided over by a company employee, Reverend Josiah Lanier, who also  happened to be a Methodist. The denomination of the preacher the company  hired automatically became ours too. Before we became Methodists, I  remember being a Baptist and, once for a year, some kind of Pentecostal.  The Pentecostal preacher scared the women, hurling fire and brimstone and  warnings of death from his pulpit. When his contract expired, we got  Reverend Lanier.

I was proud to live in Coalwood. According to the West Virginia history  books, no one had ever lived in the valleys and hills of McDowell County  before we came to dig out the coal. Up until the early nineteenth century,  Cherokee tribes occasionally hunted in the area, but found the terrain  otherwise too rugged and uninviting. Once, when I was eight years old, I  found a stone arrowhead embedded in the stump of an ancient oak tree up on  the mountain behind my house. My mother said a deer must have been lucky  some long ago day. I was so inspired by my find that I invented an Indian  tribe, the Coalhicans, and convinced the boys I played with—Roy Lee,  O'Dell, Tony, and Sherman—that it had really existed. They joined me in  streaking our faces with berry juice and sticking chicken feathers in our  hair. For days afterward, our little tribe of savages formed raiding  parties and conducted massacres throughout Coalwood. We surrounded the  Club House and, with birch-branch bows and invisible arrows, picked off  the single miners who lived there as they came in from work. To indulge  us, some of them even fell down and writhed convincingly on the Club  House's vast, manicured lawn. When we set up an ambush at the tipple gate,  the miners going on shift got into the spirit of things, whooping and  returning our imaginary fire. My father observed this from his office by  the tipple and came out to restore order. Although the Coalhicans escaped  into the hills, their chief was reminded at the supper table that night  that the mine was for work, not play.

When we ambushed some older boys—my brother, Jim, among them—who were  playing cowboys up in the mountains, a great mock battle ensued until  Tony, up in a tree for a better line of sight, stepped on a rotted branch  and fell and broke his arm. I organized the construction of a litter out  of branches, and we bore the great warrior home. The company doctor, "Doc"  Lassiter, drove to Tony's house in his ancient Packard and came inside.  When he caught sight of us still in our feathers and war paint, Doc said  he was the "heap big medicine man." Doc set Tony's arm and put it in a  cast. I remember still what I wrote on it: Tony—next time pick a  better tree. Tony's Italian immigrant father was killed in the mine  that same year. He and his mother left and we never heard from them again.  This did not seem unusual to me: A Coalwood family required a father, one  who worked for the company. The company and Coalwood were one and the  same.

I learned most of what I knew about Coalwood history and my parents'  early years at the kitchen table after the supper dishes were cleared.  That was when Mom had herself a cup of coffee and Dad a glass of milk, and  if they weren't arguing about one thing or the other, they would talk  about the town and the people in it, what was going on at the mine, what  had been said at the last Women's Club meeting, and, sometimes, little  stories about how things used to be. Brother Jim usually got bored and  asked to be excused, but I always stayed, fascinated by their tales.

Mr. George L. Carter, the founder of Coalwood, came in on the back of a  mule in 1887, finding nothing but wilderness and, after he dug a little,  one of the richest seams of bituminous coal in the world. Seeking his  fortune, Mr. Carter bought the land from its absentee owners and began  construction of a mine. He also built houses, school buildings, churches,  a company store, a bakery, and an icehouse. He hired a doctor and a  dentist and provided their services to his miners and their families for  free. As the years passed and his coal company prospered, Mr. Carter had  concrete sidewalks poured, the streets paved, and the town fenced to keep  cows from roaming the streets. Mr. Carter wanted his miners to have a  decent place to live. But in return, he asked for a decent day's work.  Coalwood was, after all, a place for work above all else: hard, bruising,  filthy, and sometimes deadly work.

When Mr. Carter's son came home from World War I, he brought with him his  army commander, a Stanford University graduate of great engineering and  social brilliance named William Laird, who everyone in town called, with  the greatest respect and deference, the Captain. The Captain, a big  expansive man who stood nearly six and a half feet tall, saw Coalwood as a  laboratory for his ideas, a place where the company could bring peace,  prosperity, and tranquillity to its citizens. From the moment Mr. Carter  hired him and placed him in charge of operations, the Captain began to  implement the latest in mining technology. Shafts were sunk for  ventilation, and as soon as it was practical, the mules used to haul out  the coal from the mine were replaced by electric motors. Later, the  Captain stopped all the hand digging and brought in giant machines, called  continuous miners, to tear the coal from its seams. The Captain expanded  Mr. Carter's building program, providing every Coalwood miner a house with  indoor plumbing, a Warm Morning stove in the living room, and a coal box  the company kept full. For the town's water supply, he tapped into a  pristine ancient lake that lay a thousand feet below. He built parks on  both ends of the town and funded the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies,  Cub Scouts, and the Women's Club. He stocked the Coalwood school library  and built a school playground and a football field. Because the mountains  interfered with reception, in 1954 he erected an antenna on a high ridge  and provided one of the first cable television systems in the United  States as a free service.

Although it wasn't perfect, and there was always tension between the  miners and the company, mostly about pay, Coalwood was, for a time, spared  much of the violence, poverty, and pain of the other towns in southern  West Virginia. I remember sitting on the stairs in the dark listening to  my father's father—my Poppy—talk to Dad in our living room about "bloody  Mingo," a county just up the road from us. Poppy had worked there for a  time until a war broke out between union miners and company "detectives."  Dozens of people were killed and hundreds were wounded in pitched battles  with machine guns, pistols, and rifles. To get away from the violence,  Poppy moved his family first to Harlan County, Kentucky, and then, when  battles erupted there, to McDowell County, where he went to work in the  Gary mine. It was an improvement, but Gary was still a place of strikes  and lockouts and the occasional bloody head.

In 1934, when he was twenty-two years old, my father applied for work as  a common miner with Mr. Carter's company. He came because he had heard  that a man could make a good life for himself in Coalwood. Almost  immediately, the Captain saw something in the skinny, hungry lad from  Gary—some spark of raw intelligence, perhaps—and took him as a  protégé. After a couple of years, the Captain raised Dad to  section foreman, taught him how to lead men and operate and ventilate a  mine, and instilled in him a vision of the town.

After Dad became a foreman, he convinced his father to quit the Gary mine  and move to Coalwood, where there was no union and a man could work. He  also wrote Elsie Lavender, a Gary High School classmate who had moved on her own to Florida, to come back to West Virginia and marry him. She refused. Whenever the story was told, Mom took over at this point and said the letter she next received was from the Captain, who told her how much Dad loved her and needed her, and would she please stop being so stubborn  down there in the palm trees and come to Coalwood and marry the boy? She  agreed to come to Coalwood to visit, and one night at the movies in Welch, when Dad asked her to marry him again, she said if he had a Brown Mule  chewing tobacco wrapper in his pocket, she'd do it. He had one and she said yes. It was a decision that I believed she often regretted, but still would not have changed.

Poppy worked in the Coalwood mine until 1943, when a runaway mine car cut  off both his legs at the hip. He spent the rest of his life in a chair. My  mother said that after the accident, Poppy was in continuous pain. To take  his mind off it, he read nearly every book in the County Library in Welch.  Mom said when she and Dad visited him, Poppy would be hurting so much he  could hardly talk, and Dad would agonize over it for days afterward.  Finally, a doctor prescribed paregoric, and as long as he had a continuous  supply, Poppy found some peace. Dad saw that Poppy had all the paregoric  he wanted. Mom said after the paregoric, Poppy never read another  book.

Because he was so dedicated to the Captain and the company, I saw little  of my father while I was growing up. He was always at the mine, or  sleeping prior to going to the mine, or resting after getting back. In  1950, when he was thirty-eight years old, he developed cancer of the  colon. At the time, he was working double shifts, leading a section deep  inside the mine charged with cutting through a massive rock header. Behind  the dense sandstone of the header, the Captain believed, was a vast,  undiscovered coal seam. Nothing was more important to my father than to  get through the header and prove the Captain right. After months of  ignoring the bloody symptoms of his cancer, Dad finally passed out in the  mine. His men had to carry him out. It was the Captain, not my mother, who  rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital in Welch. There the doctors  gave him little chance for survival. While Mom waited in the Stevens  Clinic waiting room, the Captain was allowed to watch the operation. After  a long piece of his intestine was removed, Dad confounded everybody by  going back to work in a month. Another month later, drenched in rock dust  and sweat, his section punched through the header into the softest,  blackest, purest coal anyone had ever seen. There was no celebration. Dad  came home, showered and scrubbed himself clean, and went to bed for two  days. Then he got up and went back to work again.


There were at least a few times the family was all together. When I was  little, Saturday nights were reserved for us to journey over to the county  seat of Welch, seven miles and a mountain away from Coalwood. Welch was a  bustling little commercial town set down by the Tug Fork River, its tilted  streets filled with throngs of miners and their families come to shop.  Women went from store to store with children in their arms or hanging from  their hands, while their men, often still in mine coveralls and helmets,  lagged behind to talk about mining and high-school football with their  fellows. While Mom and Dad visited the stores, Jim and I were deposited at  the Pocahontas Theater to watch cowboy movies and adventure serials with  hundreds of other miners' kids. Jim would never talk to any of the others,  but I always did, finding out where the boy or girl who sat next to me was  from. It always seemed exciting to me when I met somebody from exotic  places like Keystone or Iaeger, mining towns on the other side of the  county. By the time I had visited and then watched a serial and a double  feature and then been retrieved by my parents to walk around Welch to  finish up Mom's shopping, I was exhausted. I almost always fell sound  asleep on the ride home in the backseat of the car. When we got back to  Coalwood, Dad would lift me over his shoulder and carry me to bed.  Sometimes even when I wasn't asleep I pretended to be, just to know his  touch.

Shift changes in Coalwood were daily major events. Before each shift  began, the miners going to work came out of their houses and headed toward  the tipple. The miners coming off-shift, black with coal dirt and sweat,  formed another line going in the opposite direction. Every Monday through  Friday, the lines formed and met at intersections until hundreds of miners  filled our streets. In their coveralls and helmets, they reminded me of  newsreels I'd seen of soldiers slogging off to the front.

Like everybody else in Coalwood, I lived according to the rhythms set by  the shifts. I was awakened in the morning by the tromp of feet and the  clunking of lunch buckets outside as the day shift went to work, I ate  supper after Dad saw the evening shift down the shaft, 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. Sometimes, when  we boys were still in grade school and tired of playing in the mountains,  or dodgeball by the old garages, or straight base in the tiny clearing  behind my house, we would pretend to be miners ourselves and join the men  in their trek to the tipple. We stood apart in a knot and watched them  strap on their lamps and gather their tools, and then a bell would ring, a  warning to get in the cage. After they were swallowed by the earth,  everything became eerily quiet. It was an unsettling moment, and we boys  were always glad to get back to our games, yelling and brawling a little  louder than necessary to shatter the spell cast on us by the tipple.

Coalwood was surrounded by forests and mountains dotted with caves and  cliffs and gas wells and fire towers and abandoned mines just waiting to  be discovered and rediscovered by me and the boys and girls I grew up  with. Although our mothers forbade it, we also played around the railroad  tracks. Every so often, somebody would come up with the idea of putting a  penny on the track and getting it run over by the coal cars to make a big  flat medal. We'd all do it then until we had used up our meager supply.  Stifling our laughter, we'd hand the crushed coppers across the counter at  the company store for candy. The clerk, having seen this many times over  the years, usually accepted our tender without comment. They probably had  a stack of flat pennies somewhere in the company-store offices, collected  over the decades.

For a satisfying noise, nothing beat going up on the Coalwood School  bridge and throwing pop bottles into the empty coal cars rolling in to the  tipple. When the coal cars were full and stopped beneath the bridge, some  of the braver boys would even leap into them, plunging waist-deep into the  loose coal. I tried it once and barely escaped when the train suddenly  pulled out, bound for Ohio. I wallowed through the coal and climbed down  the outside ladder of the car and jumped for it, skinning my hands, knees,  and elbows on the packed coal around the track. My mother took no pity on  me and scrubbed the coal dirt off me with a stiff brush and Lava soap. My  skin felt raw for a week.

When I wasn't outside playing, I spent hours happily reading. I loved to  read, probably the result of the unique education I received from the  Coalwood School teachers known as the "Great Six," a corruption of the  phrase "grades one through six." For years, these same six teachers had  seen through their classrooms generations of Coalwood students. Although  Mr. Likens, the Coalwood School principal, controlled the junior high  school with a firm hand, the Great Six held sway in the grades below. It  seemed to be very important to these teachers that I read. By the second  grade, I was intimately familiar with and capable of discussing in some  detail Tom Sawyer and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Huckleberry Finn  they saved for me until the third grade, tantalizingly holding it back as  if it contained the very secrets of life. When I was finally allowed to  read it, I very well knew this was no simple tale of rafting down a river  but the everlasting story of America itself, with all our glory and  shame.

Bookcases filled with complete sets of Tom Swift, The Bobbsey Twins,  The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew were in the grade-school hallway  and available to any student for the asking. I devoured them, savoring the  adventures they brought to me. When I was in the fourth grade, I started  going upstairs to the junior high school library to check out the Black  Stallion series. There, I also discovered Jules Verne. I fell in love  with his books, filled as they were with not only great adventures but  scientists and engineers who considered the acquisition of knowledge to be  the greatest pursuit of mankind. When I finished all the Verne books in  the library, I became the first in line for any book that arrived written  by modern science-fiction writers such as Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt,  Clarke, and Bradbury. I liked them all unless they branched out into  fantasy. I didn't care to read about heroes who could read minds or walk  through walls or do magic. The heroes I liked had courage and knew more  real stuff than those who opposed them. When the Great Six inspected my  library record and found it top-heavy with adventure and science fiction,  they prescribed appropriate doses of Steinbeck, Faulkner, and F. Scott  Fitzgerald. It seemed as if all through grade school, I was reading two  books, one for me and one for my teachers.

For all the knowledge and pleasure they gave me, the books I read in  childhood did not allow me to see myself past Coalwood. Almost all the  grown-up Coalwood boys I knew had either joined the military services or  gone to work in the mine. I had no idea what the future held in store for  me. The only thing I knew for sure was my mother did not see me going into  the mine. One time after Dad tossed her his check, I heard her tell him,  "Whatever you make, Homer, it isn't enough."

He replied, "It keeps a roof over your head."

She looked at the check and then folded it and put it in her apron  pocket. "If you'd stop working in that hole," she said, "I'd live under a  tree."

After Mr. Carter sold out, the company was renamed Olga Coal Company. Mom  always called it "Miss Olga." If anybody asked her where Dad was, she'd  say, "With Miss Olga." She made it sound as if it was his mistress.


Mom's family did not share her aversion to coal mining. All of her four  brothers—Robert, Ken, Charlie, and Joe—were miners, and her sister,  Mary, was the wife of a miner. Despite their father's hideous accident, my  father's two brothers were also miners; Clarence worked in the Caretta  mine across the mountain from Coalwood, and Emmett in mines around the  county. Dad's sister, Bennie, married a Coalwood miner and they lived down  across the creek, near the big machine shops. But the fact that all of her  family, and my father's family, were miners did not impress my mother. She  had her own opinion, formed perhaps by her independent nature or by her  ability to see things as they really were, not as others, including  herself, would wish them to be.

In the morning before she began her ritual battle against the dust, my  mother could nearly always be found with a cup of coffee at the kitchen  table in front of an unfinished mural of a seashore. She had been working  on the painting ever since Dad took over the mine and we moved into the  Captain's house. By the fall of 1957, she had painted in the sand and  shells and much of the sky and a couple of seagulls. There was an  indication of a palm tree going up too. It was as if she was painting  herself another reality. From her seat at the table, she could reflect on  her roses and bird feeders through the picture window the company  carpenters had installed for her. Per her specifications, it was angled so  not a hint of the mine could be seen.

I knew, even as a child, that my mother was different from just about  everybody in Coalwood. When I was around three years old, we were visiting  Poppy in his little house up Warriormine Hollow, and he took me on his  lap. That scared me, because he didn't have a lap, just an empty wrinkled  blanket where his legs should have been. I struggled in his thick arms  while Mom hovered nervously nearby. "He's just like Homer," I remember  toothless Poppy lisping to Mom while I squirmed. He called to my dad on  the other side of the room. "Homer, he's just like you!"

Mom anxiously took me from Poppy and I clutched hard to her shoulder, my  heart beating wildly from an unidentified terror. She carried me out onto  the front porch, stroking my hair and hushing me. "No, you're not," she  crooned just loud enough so only she and I could hear. "No, you're  not."

Dad slapped open the screen door and came out on the porch as if to argue  with her. Mom turned away from him and I saw his eyes, usually a bright hard blue, soften into liquid blots. I snuggled my face into her neck  while Mom continued to rock and hold me, still singing her quietly  insistent song: No, you're not. No, you're not. All through my  growing-up years, she kept singing it, one way or the other. It was only  when I was in high school and began to build my rockets that I finally  understood why.

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