Homer Hickam, Jr. had a dream too big for his small coalmining town of West Virginia, however, with the collective will of he and close friends, he fulfilled his dream.
Coalwood is located in the southern most tip of West Virginia in McDowell County. It was a coalmining town founded by George Lafayette Carter in the early 1900’s. Carter built the model town of his time, “… if a man was willing to come to Coalwood and offer his complete and utter loyalty to the coal company, he would receive in return a sensible paycheck, a sturdy house resistant to the weather, the services of a doctor and a dentist at little or no cost, and a preacher who could be counted on to give a reasonably uncomplicated sermon.” (Sky of Stone, 2) The town was basically the company, everything from the dirt under your feet to the gritty coal dust in the air was owned by the company. Everyone’s wallets and purses were a mix of U.S. currency and company currency, called scrip, which was used in the company store, or, the “Big Store”. Carter also set up schools so the children of coalminers could “…aspire to greatness.” A newspaper article from 1926 sums up the town pretty well; “Mr. Carter owns lock, stock, and barrel the model town of Coalwood—houses, stores, churches, police, clergy, and medical services—all that makes up the life of a miner. It is a town of remarkable contrast to the surrounding villages where squalor and poverty are the world. With houses painted and surrounded by flower gardens and lawns, Coalwood looks more like an Alpine Village than the begrimed coal towns of most of America.” (Sky of Stone, 2)
That was then, since 1985 up until a few years ago, Coalwood was barely a town at all. There were no traces of a mine ever being there, the original town buildings were all boarded up, and all of the company shops were closed down. That all changed after Homer Hickam, Jr., the son of a former Coalwood mine superintendent, wrote Rocket Boys, which went on to become an award winning movie, renamed October Sky. The book was about himself and his friends building rockets in Coalwood, and Homer’s dream of one day working with Dr. Wernher Van Braun at Cape Canaveral. Because of the popularity the movie brought, Coalwood became a tourist attraction. “Forty year’s after he was governor during the Rocket Boys’ first career, Cecil Underwood was reelected and … began to pay attention to McDowell County. Soon there was not a pothole to be found anywhere in the county and signs saying, “Welcome to the Home of the Rocket Boys’” began to blossom like flowering rhododendron.”(Sky of Stone, 365) Underwood also announced the first ever Rocket Boys Day and the October Sky Festival in Coalwood.
The people of Coalwood are a peculiar people. The town kept to themselves for the most part. Outsiders were always welcome as long as they didn’t try to nose in on the town. Anything that happened within the boarders of the town was dubbed “Coalwood business”, which meant if you weren’t a part of Coalwood, no matter how much you wanted to be, you were on a need to know basis. In Coalwood news traveled fast, if something happened, the “fence-line gossipers” would spread the news throughout Coalwood, and by the end of the day everyone had their own version of what happened. “Thanks to the fence-line, the gossip circuit that went up and down every hollow and cranny in Coalwood, everybody in town was sure to have chewed over my battering of the Buick until they’d reached some consensus, most probably about my stupidity or driving skills.” (Sky of Stone, 62)
Homer Hickam, Sr. was Coalwood’s mine superintendent. He started out as a miner who had come from Gary, WV during the Great Depression. At the time, William “Captain” Laird was the mine superintendent. Every time the Captain, as everyone called him, went in or out of his office, Mr. Hickam greeted him. The Captain always carried a gun, just in case he caught any Union people snooping around his mine. Suspicious of Mr. Hickam, he asked him what he wanted. Mr. Hickam replied, “There are no better miners than the Hickam’s of Gary, and I’m one of them, Take me on and you’ll never be sorry.”(Sky of Stone, 7) In McDowell County, boasting wasn’t done lightly, so, Mr. Hickam told the Captain he’d put in writing that if he didn’t do as he was told, the Captain could shoot him. That night, Homer Hickam, Sr. got a job and good dinner. After he was hired, Mr. Hickam brought his father, whom Mr. Hickam’s children called Poppy, to Coalwood to work. He worked until his legs were cut off by a man-trip (coalmine train), then he stayed with his son and his family until he died much later in a hospital. Although Captain Laird tried his best to keep the Union out of his mine, President Truman, with the Navy to back him up, won over Coalwood. After the Captain left the mine, Mr. Hickam became the mine superintendent. He retired at age 65 and joined his wife, Elsie Hickam, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he lived until he died of black lung disease in 1989. Elsie Hickam never liked Coalwood very much. She often wished Mr. Hickam would quit the mine and they could move to Myrtle Beach. She bided her time in Coalwood painting a mural of Myrtle Beach on the kitchen wall. She was involved in the Coalwood Women’s Club, which was proud to win every Veteran’s Day float competition up until 1959. The Hickam’s had two children, Jim, the eldest, and Homer “Sonny” Jr. Jim played football through high school and went to Virginia Tech on a football scholarship. Homer Jr. went to Virginia Tech also, on his parent’s money, and majored in engineering. When they were both in college, Mrs. Hickam had had enough of Coalwood and finally moved to Myrtle Beach. She split her time between Coalwood and Myrtle Beach, which seemed to suit her and Mr. Hickam just fine.
After seeing Sputnik soar across the night sky in 1957, Homer Hickam Jr. decided he was going to build rockets, and, one day, work with Dr. Wernher Von Braun at Cape Canaveral. In the small town of Coalwood, this seemed impossible, “people in Coalwood… believed the Rocket Boys were the town’s special burden.” (The Coalwood Way, 49) In almost all of the mining towns of West Virginia, the children grew up to become miners and marry miners’ daughters. The only sure fire way out was riding on a football scholarship. Homer’s brother Jim was one of the few “coalwoodians” blessed with this. Since Homer was no athlete, he found anther form of enduring his years in Coalwood. He and a group of friends established the BCMA, the Big Creek Missile Agency. They built and launched rockets on a slack dump they proudly named Cape Coalwood. A flag with the school colors and the mascot, an owl, flying on a rocket was hoisted over the slack dump. The boys built a flimsy observation room, a wooden “shed”, from where they could survey their rockets blast off a concrete launch pad. The BCMA went from 4 inexperienced young boys to 6 “rocket scientists”. They taught themselves trigonometry and learned more about chemistry and physics as they went, but Sonny Hickam wrote that the most important lessons he learned while building rockets were about “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.” (The Coalwood Way, 1) Homer and the other members’ of the BCMA, Roy Lee Cooke, a.k.a., the Big Creek Love Master, Jimmy O’Dell Carrol, Quentin Wilson, the brains behind it all, Sherman Siers, and Billy Rose, entered the county science fair and went on to win the National Science fair in Indianapolis, IN. After high school, the BCMA came to a close and the boys all headed off in their own direction. Roy Lee Cooke went to Concord College in Athens, the University of Maryland, and the American Institute of Banking in Washington, D.C., he is currently President of Carolina Domestic Coal; and married with four children and six grandchildren. Jimmy O’Dell Carrol joined the Air Force and went through college and is now involved in insurance and banking. Quentin Wilson became an engineer after graduating from Marshall College in Huntington, WV and is now in Amarillo, TX. Billy Rose joined the Air Force out of high school and “is currently the Senior Engineer for American Mine Research in Rocky Gap, VA.” (http://www.homerhickam.com/rocket.htm), he married and had one daughter. “Sherman Siers became an engineer after attending West Virginia Tech. Then, in the early 1970's, moved into the new world of computers by becoming a Computer Systems Analyst. After contracting polio as child, Sherman surpassed his physical limitations by becoming a 7-handicap golfer and even more amazingly a catcher in local Softball leagues. In addition, he was a diabetic; requiring insulin shots every day. Sherman never let on that he was any different than the next guy. He had a quick mind, which he used to play Bridge at almost a master's level. Sherman died in 1976 from a heart attack at the age of 34. He is survived by his wife and three children.” (http://www.homerhickam.com/rocket.htm)
Homer H. Hickam, Jr. graduated Virginia Tech, working in the Coalwood mine during the summers, and enlisted in the Army. After Vietnam he went to find work with NASA. Unfortunately, at the time NASA was getting rid of engineers, not hiring them, “I had been wrong all those years when I’d been a rocket boy, thinking Dr. Wernher Van Braun was at Cape Canaveral. In fact, he and his team were in Huntsville, Rocket City, USA. I tried to hire on at MSFC (Marshall Space and Flight Center), without success… In an attempt to revitalize the space program, Dr. Van Braun left Huntsville to take a new assignment in Washington, D.C. He died soon after of stomach cancer. Sadly, I never got to meet him.” (Sky of Stone, 363/364) He was later hired on at Huntsville and is now a retired NASA engineer and a “highly acclaimed writer” (http://www.homerhickam.com/rocket.htm). He and his wife Linda live in Huntsville Alabama. His father is the only deceased member of his family, excluding pets.