Reading With Fakename: Rocket Boys

You might find this book under the title “October Sky” (an anagram), because that’s the name of of the movie they made from it in 1999.  When the movie came out, Ballantine published the book in paperback form and renamed it.  I was shocked to find that out, because if I were ever to write a book, I would never let anyone change the name. 

The book was written by Homer H. Hickam, Jr., who was born and grew up in the tiny mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia.  Current population:  about 900, but I’m sure it was much larger when the mine was operative–it was closed in 1982.  The nearest “big city” is Bluefield.  Current population:  just over 10,000. 

The book is a memoir, and like all memoirs, it can’t be called great literature, but it’s well done regardless.  You have the feeling that Hickam is sitting in your living room telling you a story.  It’s conversational.  You want to raise your hand to ask a question–it feels just that personal. 

Hickam says in the book that you can divide his life into two parts:  everything that happened before October 5th, 1957, and everything that happened afterwards.  Because that date is when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.  And I actually remember this.  Because one night I was standing outside with my parents.  I looked up and said, (in today’s vernacular), OMG, a star is moving!  I can’t tell you how much this scared me.  Since in my previous experience, stars didn’t move, it never occurred to me that one could fall on you.  My parents laughed at me and said, that isn’t a star, it’s Sputnik.  What is Sputnik?  It’s a sort of satellite.  What is a satellite?  You get the picture.  I was seven years old, and was still at the stage of wanting to know why we called sky blue and grass green.  Who decided that, I wanted to know? 

But Hickam was about 14, and decides he wants to build a rocket.  It’s still a mystery why.  There are hints that he just wanted to do something unique.  He had a difficult relationship with his father, who thought he wasn’t good for anything, and lavished all his attention on Homer’s older brother, a big football star.  There were patriotic overtones (the Russians beat us!  We can’t let that happen.)  And there is a big dose of growing up as a boy, and how fun it is to get into trouble and blow stuff up. 

The getting in trouble part is of course never intentional, but it’s inevitable. Homer, along with a few friends, forms the BCMA, the Bitter Creek Missile Agency, Bitter Creek being the name of their high shcool.  When they launch their first rocket, they set it on top of Homer’s mother’s rose garden fence, with fabulous results.  Flames shoot into the sky.  Except those flames are not from the “rocket”.  They are from the fence.  They blew the fence to Kingdom Come while the rocket imbedded itself in the ground.  Proper fuel would continue to be elusive to the Rocket Boys. 

But a funny thing happens.  Homer has been a lackluster student who is just getting by, but he’s found something that engages him.  A kid who barely made it through algebra teaches himself calculus.  He has found an interest that he can’t be swayed from, no matter how much ridicule he has to endure. And here’s the good part:  after many detours, he grows up to become an engineer for NASA.   

I’m not really even scratching the surface of the book here. There is much more to it, such as his hilarious description of losing his virginity.  I actually burst into tears the first time I read about one of their rockets successfully surpassing their wildest dreams of altitude. 

But I’ll leave you with the last line of the book, which I personally think is sad and misguided:  “Even now, Coalwood endures, and no one, not careless industry or overzealous government can ever completely destroy it–not while we who once lived there may recall our life among its places or especially remember rockets that once leapt into the air, propelled not by physics, but by the vibrant love of an honorable people, and the instruction of a dear teacher, and the dreams of boys”.

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7 responses to “Reading With Fakename: Rocket Boys

  1. When you write that book, the publishers will name and rename it as they see fit, sorry to tell you.

    I remember standing outside in the dark looking at Sputnik. Which is hard to believe since I wasn’t quite 3 years old at that time. But it was a Great Moment and I remember.

  2. I think I will order that book just as soon as I’m done typing this. Great report:)

  3. Have to say the movie is even better than the book. Superb story, great cast and journeyman directing. Loved it on several occasions.

  4. Fakesister, that’s hard for me to believe, but I can’t dispute it. Memory, as we know, is a funny thing.
    I didn’t think of it while reading it, Jeff, but now that I do, you really SHOULD read this book! It may be the story of your life 🙂 (You know, growing up as a boy and liking to blow stuff up.)
    pt, I should have known you would have both seen the movie and read the book. While reading the book, I kept thinking about how it must have been a great movie, and I’m glad to hear that’s true. Plus, it may be the story of your life too 🙂

  5. The reason I read the book was that I have a friend who lives in Bluefield, and she’s been touting Hickam for forever. In addition to being a NASA engineer, he apparently became an expert in coal mining as well. When the Upper Big Branch mine exploded in April or so of 2010, I saw him on TV doing expert commentary. Probably on CBS.
    What struck me about him then was that his analysis was calm and methodical, and balanced. At the time there was a lot of understandable hysteria about coal-mining in general. Hickam both explained how the explosion happened from a scientific point of view, but managed to convey a real and abiding admiration for coal miners and their courage. Pretty amazing, since when he was growing up, his father was the Superintendent of the Coalwood mine, and eventually died of Black Lung Disease.
    His father is one of the most interesting characters in the book. He hated Communists and unions, in no particular order.

  6. I was one of the hysterical ones, of course, about coal mining in general. Like, why are we still doing it? Besides the fact that people are dying from it, there is the whole mountaintop removal method, which is undoubtedly safer for people, but devastating to the environment. When I say “environment”, I’m not talking about some abstract “progressive” concept. It is the destruction of the mountains themselves. People who love the mountains (of which I’m not really one) are watching helplessly as their view is destroyed, not to mention the pollution of their water.
    But somehow, Hickam’s calm demeanor caused me to do a shift in my thinking. Because it really doesn’t do any good simply to be against something, unless you have an alternative solution. And right now, we don’t have one. We need coal, for better or for worse. About the best you can do is hope and lobby for a solution, and meanwhile, like Hickam, celebrate the courage of the people who work in the mines.

  7. Fakesister, I also wanted to say that it is highly (!) unlikely I will ever write a book. I would have said “never”, but you know…never say never. I would hate to write a book and have it be a bad one. As for the name change, I’m pretty sure Hickam would have had to agree to Ballantine publishing the book in paperback form and to the name change. While I was puzzling over this issue at work one day, someone said Duh, Fakename, it’s about the money. If the name of the book matched the name of the movie, they would sell more books, which would also benefit Hickam.

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