Monday, November 18, 2013

Rocket Boys

I’m a big fan of Homer Hickam, author of the outstanding book entitled “Rocket Boys.” In 1998, I was serving in my second term on the county school board when I first heard about a great new book celebrating education, the space race, and West Virginia—a perfect combination for me! I eagerly devoured the book “Rocket Boys” and eventually the rest of the Coalwood Trilogy.

I loved Homer’s stories in part because of the similarities we share (although he is much older!).

• Both of us were born in West Virginia, and have a strong affinity for its land and people.
• Both of us were blessed with some inspiring teachers who cared about our education (you can read about mine at
• Both of us did science fair projects about model rocketry (although mine didn’t win a national award) and formed a rocket club with our friends (you can read about some of my model rocket history at
• Both of us were eventually able to turn our interest in rocketry into a job at NASA and visit its facilities at Cape Canaveral, Houston, and Huntsville (I was working at NASA HQ when Challenger exploded--
• Both of us have been underground in a working coal mine, and experienced the “blackest black of darkness” as well as the grim reality of carrying a numbered bronze tag so that your body could be identified in case of an explosion (for more about my trip underground, see

I also had another connection with the “Rocket Boys” story. While serving on the school board, I learned that the only school in the entire state that had not been successfully paired with a business partner was Homer’s alma mater, Big Creek High School. I contacted a former co-worker at NASA Headquarters and shared the story, which resulted in a unique partnership with NASA through Marshall University.

Fortunately for me, Anna is also a big Homer Hickam fan. About a dozen years ago, we made a trip to McDowell County to visit Coalwood (on the same Route 16 that starts near my hometown along the Ohio River in Pleasants County—see We stopped at the convenience store across from the house where Homer had lived, and talked with the folks there. They insisted we needed to get the “grand tour” and called for Red (O’Dell’s dad, the junk yard guy). He soon picked us up in his old pickup truck and proceeded to drive us around the Coalwood area, pointing out various landmarks from the books. It was a great experience!

However, it was a bit depressing as well, because it was easy to see how the economy had changed so much and that Coalwood was just a shadow of what it had once been. It wasn’t just the Coalwood community, though. On our way there we drove through Welch, the county seat, and it was obvious this once proud major city was on the decline (and the same can be said for most of the West Virginia coalfields). It is a problem with which West Virginia continues to struggle.

We decided to return to Coalwood a couple of years later to attend the annual “October Sky Festival.” It was a big event and most of the “Rocket Boys” were there. It was good to see the community on a festive occasion, as well as seeing some of the real life characters from the books. It was interesting to see them as adults (and to meet Homer’s wife, too).

We had met Homer for the first time in 2002 when he spoke at Ohio University, not far from Parkersburg. This was not long after the Quecreek mine rescue in Pennsylvania, and Homer was able to include in his presentation some pictures of his dad’s similar rescue device from the Coalwood mine. We later attended Homer’s presentation at WVU’s Mountainlair in Morgantown. Each time we got a chance to briefly talk to him afterward.

These various brief meetings with Homer culminated in a chance meeting at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. We just happened to arrive at an entrance door at the same time and recognized him, leading into a nice conversation in the airport lobby. He truly is a wonderful gentleman—whether he really remembered us from those previous meetings or not.

Last year, we heard about “Rocket Boys: The Musical.” Apparently some Broadway folks thought that the Rocket Boys story had potential as a play. They wrote songs that fit the story and decided to try it out at Grandview State Park near Beckley (where the “Honey in the Rock” and “Hatfields and McCoys” shows have always been performed). We wanted to check out this new “song and dance” version of the story, but just couldn’t fit the limited run into our busy schedules the past two summers.

We finally got our chance to see the show this past weekend. Fairmont State University made arrangements to bring the show to their campus as another way of celebrating West Virginia’s sesquicentennial year. It was a good performance, and a great way to commemorate our 150th! We also enjoyed touring the special museum exhibit about coal mining that they are concurrently hosting in the top floor of the theater building.

If you liked the “Rocket Boys” book (or the movie “October Sky” which is an anagram of the book title), then you should also see “Rocket Boys—The Musical” (details on the FSU engagement can be found here). As they say in the book, it is prodigious! And (even though we haven’t crossed paths in the past eight years or so) if you ever meet Homer Hickam, tell him I said “Hi!”

That’s me inside the actual Space Shuttle trainer in Houston. My left hand is on the joystick controlling the shuttle's robotic arm. The window into the payload bay is in front of me, while another window is above my head. It was a day I will always remember!

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