Sixty-odd years ago, no one expected kids from Coalwood, West Virginia, to be whip-smart. Coalwood produced football stars and coal miners, not rocket scientists. “Rocket Boys” is the story of how the book’s author, Homer H. Hickam Jr., aimed a missile at that long-standing belief and blew it sky-high. His memoir was the basis for the award-winning 1999 movie, “October Sky,” which is an anagram of the book’s title.
Even Hickam himself, though he knew that learning came easier to him than to some of his school mates, had a difficult time imagining himself outside the community into which he was born. Coalwood was a mining town and home to the Carter Coal Company. As was the case in most such towns in the late 1950s, basic needs for the citizens living there were met by the coal company. Housing was provided for the miners and their families. Other necessities, from appliances and furniture to canned goods and hardware, were available for purchase at the local company store. The mining community was a family — tight-knit and insular.
Hickam’s father was a well-respected mine boss in their town. His mother was a woman who once had big dreams of her own that did not include living forever in the backwoods coal country of West Virginia. When her own plans went awry, she resolved that she would do all she could to help her sons achieve theirs.
Hickam becomes fascinated with rocket-building when the students in his school are told of the successful launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Union’s first satellite. Suddenly the night sky holds a new fascination for Hickam and his pals, who dub themselves the Big Creek Missile Agency, or BCMA for short. These young men are laser-focused on building and launching their own rockets.
Not knowing where to start in those days pre-dating Google, they begin to search for a book that will explain to them what they need to do. Unable to find one in the school library, they use their combined brainpower and the help of some sympathetic teachers and mine workers to create and launch their first crude rocket. Their adventures are not without mischief and mishap, and reading about the learning curve of their quest is sure to make readers of a certain age nostalgic for the simpler days of youth.
As time goes on and the boys learn from their mistakes, their rockets become more sophisticated. They begin to amass a fan club of sorts, including a group of teachers in their school who recognize the potential of the “Rocket Boys,” as they have become fondly known around town. No one is a bigger fan of the group than Hickam’s mom, who frequently turns a blind eye to their shenanigans and somehow comes through to save the day.
Eventually, a favorite teacher gifts the BCMA with a book called “Principles of Guided Missile Design,” and the boys devour it, learning advanced physics and trigonometry in order to improve their methods. They build a launch site on an old mine dumpsite and christen it “Cape Coalwood,” a tribute to Cape Canaveral where their idol, aerospace engineer Dr. Wernher von Braun, works to help the United States overtake the Soviet Union in the “space race.”
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The BCMA’s notoriety grows when a local newspaper writer gets wind of the group and starts covering their rocket launches. The Rocket Boys begin to advertise upcoming flights by posting flyers around town, and the crowds who come to watch them grow larger each time. Many miners and other residents of the town are skeptical of the BCMA at first, (and sometimes for hilariously good reason!) but as the boys prove themselves to be exceptionally gifted, Coalwood grudgingly starts to respect the group’s endeavors and supports them in various ways. Kudos for the Rocket Boys were kudos for their entire town.
This remarkable group of young men decides to enter their best rocket in the high school science fair in a quest to add a prestigious academic award to the school trophy case, which to date has displayed nothing but football laurels.
“Rocket Boys” is a moving tribute to the human spirit and how far we can go when we find our passion and apply ourselves in dogged pursuit of it. It’s the story of how five rag-tag young boys pursue their dream with determination and courage, even when those around them scoff at their attempts to achieve it. It also underscores the power of a good book combined with a dedicated teacher -— together, they can change the course of events for generations to come. Hickam skillfully tells the tale of growing into his own intelligence and confidence, and describes in detail life in a West Virginia coal-mining town and the changes that will eventually destroy those communities. “Rocket Boys” also provides a thought-provoking study about how social class affects the academic expectations we hold for our students.
To find out if the BCMA succeeds in bringing home a trophy, you can snag a copy of the book on Amazon or through your local library. “Rocket Boys” is a feel-good tale that will make the reader proud to be a Mountaineer.
• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.