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The Coalwood Way: A Memoir [Mass Market Paperback]

Homer Hickam
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
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Product Description

From Amazon

In this follow-up to his bestselling autobiography Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam chronicles the eventful autumn of 1959 in his hometown, the West Virginia mining town of Coalwood. Sixteen-year-old Homer and his pals in the Big Creek Missile Agency are high school seniors, still building homemade rockets and hoping that science will provide them with a ticket into the wider world of college and white-collar jobs. Such dreams make them suspect in a conservative small town where "getting above yourself" is the ultimate sin and where Homer's father, superintendent of the Coalwood mines, is stingy with praise and dubious about his son's ambitions. Homer's mother remains supportive, but bluntly reminds him, "You can't expect everything to go your way. Sometimes life just has another plan." Indeed, Hickam's unvarnished portrait of Coalwood covers class warfare (union miners battling with his authoritarian father), provincial narrow-mindedness (the local ladies scorn a young woman living outside wedlock with a man who abuses her), and endless gossiping along the picket "fence line." These sharp details make the unabashed sentiment of the book's closing chapters feel earned rather than easy. Hickam can spin a gripping yarn and keep multiple underlying themes and metaphors going at the same time. His tender but gritty memoir will touch readers' hearts and minds. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Not really a sequel to Hickam's first memoir, Rocket Boys (which was made into the successful movie, October Sky, and dealt primarily with his gang of misfit friends and their inventive, adventurous exploits) this book, set around Christmas 1959, is a study of the town of Coalwood and how a fast-moving world affects a small community resistant to change and the introspective teenage boy in its midst. Hickman's reading is flawless. His voice and perspectiveAas a man looking back on his childhoodAconvincingly conveys experience and a reminiscent tone, while at the same time sounding so full of youthful exuberance that listeners will be certain they hear the voice of teenage Homer himself. Coalwood, W.Va., is a coal-mining town. Homer Hickam Sr., the author's father, is the superintendent of the mine and resented by the workers. To his children, he is a formidable man, and his imaginative second son, Homer Jr., aka "Sonny," obsessed with the 1950s space race, does not want to follow in his father's black, dusty footprints. With Christmas fast approaching, the tension in the town grows as layoffs threaten miners' jobs, until Sonny's father takes a huge risk to save them and the town's livelihood. Simultaneous release with the Dell hardcover (Forecasts, Sept. 18). (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

From Library Journal

In this follow-up to his acclaimed Rocket Boys, retired NASA engineer Hickam recounts tensions in his household during his last Christmas before college, even as the Rocket Boys are drafted to help celebrate the holidays with a really big bang.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

From Booklist

This sequel to Rocket Boys (1998), which Hollywood parlayed into the movie October Sky, continues the author's life story with his senior year in high school, 1959, in the declining West Virginia mining town of Coalwood. The rocket club, featured in the last book, is pushed to the periphery, and the focus shifts to Hickam's teenage problems, which include his parents, girls, and a sadness whose cause he cannot divine. For advice, he consults his rocket-club pals and a minister, improbably named Little Richard, but they offer slight help. This memoir's main theme is the happenings in Coalwood and how they affect the Hickam household. For Coalwood was a coal-company town, and Hickam's father was the boss of the mine, and resented for it. In addition, Hickam's mother suffers a series of social reversals, and the dinner table soon becomes a tense, taciturn arena. The father wants to dig more coal; the mother wants to move away from Coalwood; and Homer wants to take Ginger Dantzler to the Christmas formal dance. Hickam develops these mini-dramas with anecdotes that are by turns lively, pensive, wry, or self-deprecating, yet none combine in a structural way to reach resolution. The memoir simply stops (after an interruption by a vicious crime) with Christmas carols. Although lacking the strong theme (winning a science fair) that lent Rocket Boys its charm, this profile of a town and a time partakes of a gritty nostalgia that will still entrance Hickam's fans. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“A heartwarmer ... truly beautiful and haunting.”—People

“Irresistible ... as compelling and rousing as a NASA liftoff.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Compelling ... riveting ... extremely satisfying reading.”—Boston Globe

“[A] sparkling memoir.”—Chicago Sun-Times

From the Back Cover

“A heartwarmer ... truly beautiful and haunting.”
People

“Irresistible ... as compelling and rousing as a NASA liftoff.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Compelling ... riveting ... extremely satisfying reading.”
The Boston Globe

“[A] sparkling memoir.”
Chicago Sun-Times


Also by Homer Hickam:

October Sky

The #1 New York Times bestselling first book in his crowd-pleasing memoirs

“A thoroughly charming memoir ... [An] eloquent evocation of a lost time and place.”
The New York Times

Back to the Moon

Torpedo Junction

Available from Dell

And look for Homer Hickam’s new hardcover:

Sky of Stone

The third memoir in his bestselling trilogy

Available in October 2001 from Delacorte Press

About the Author

Homer H. Hickam, Jr., was born and raised in Coalwood, West Virginia. The author of Torpedo Junction, a Military History Book of the Month Club selection, as well as numerous articles for such publications as Smithsonian Air and Space and American History Illustrated, he is a NASA payload training manager for the International Space Program and lives in Huntsville, Alabama.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Song of the Cape

Of all the lessons I learned when I built my rockets, the most important were not about chemistry, physics, or metallurgy, but of 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. I would learn these lessons at a time when Coalwood, the mining town where I had lived my entire life, was just beginning to fade away. Yet, as the fall of 1959 began, and the leaves on the trees in the forests that surrounded us began to explode in spectacular color, Coalwood’s men still walked with a trudging grace to and from the vast, deep mine, and its women bustled in and out of the company stores and fought the coal dust that drifted into their homes. In the dark old schools, the children learned and the teachers taught, and, in snowy white churches built on hillside cuts, the preachers preached, and God, who we had no doubt was also a West Virginian, was surely doing His work in heaven, too. At the abandoned slack dump we called Cape Coalwood, rockets still leapt into the air, and boyish voices yet echoed between ancient, worn mountains beneath a pale and watchful sky. Coalwood endured as it always had, but a wheel was turning that would change nearly everything, and no one, not even my father, would be able to stop it. When that brittle parchment autumn turned into our deepest, whitest winter, this and many other lessons would be taught. Though they were hard and sometimes cruel things to learn, they were true, and true things, as the people of Coalwood saw fit to teach me, are always filled with a shining glory.

To me, there was no better time to launch a rocket than in the fall, especially a West Virginia fall. There seemed to be a cool, dry energy in the air that filled us with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. I had always believed that our rockets were lifted as much by our dreams as by burning propellant, and as the lazy summer faded and a northerly wind swept down on us with its lively breath, anything seemed possible. It was also when the school year started and I always felt an excitement stir within me at the thought of learning new and wonderful things. Fall had other marvels, too. At the Cape, we were often treated to V-shaped flotillas of migrating Canadian geese, bound from the far north to places we had only read about or imagined. We always stopped our rocket preparations to gaze longingly at the great creatures as they winged their way high overhead, and to listen to their joyful honking that seemed to be calling us to join them. “If only we could,” Sherman said once to my comment. “Even for just a moment, to look down on our mountains and see them the same as angels.” Sherman always liked to remind us that we lived in a beautiful place and I guess we did, although sometimes it was easy to forget, especially since we’d never known anywhere else.

Once, a rare snow goose, as purely white as moonbeams, landed on the old slack dump, perhaps fooled by the reflection from the slick surface of the coal tailings. We gathered around the great strutting bird, awed by the sight of her. Then I noticed that her wing tips were as black as the faces of Coalwood miners after a shift. O’Dell said the reason for the black tips was so the geese could see each other inside a white cloud. O’Dell knew a lot about animals so I believed his explanation, but it got me off to thinking. How did the snow geese decide what colors their feathers would be? Did they all get together up north somewhere a million years ago and take a vote? It was a mystery and the snow goose made no comment. She just looked annoyed. When she tired of us gawking at her, she flapped her wings and continued her journey, and I confess I was relieved. I knew the snow goose did not belong in Coalwood. Some people, especially my mother, said neither did I.

Our first rocket of the fall was Auk XXII-E. A serious little rocket, it began its journey with a mighty spout of flame and turmoil and its shock wave rattled our wooden blockhouse as it climbed. I ran outside with the other boys, but no matter how much I strained my eyes, I couldn’t see it. All I could see were clouds that went, as far as I knew, all the way up to heaven. The seconds ticked by. We had never lost one of our rockets, but I was beginning to wonder if maybe this one was going to be our first. If it had fallen on Rocket Mountain, buried itself into the soft black West Virginia loam up there, maybe we had missed it. “Time, O’Dell,” I called nervously.

O’Dell looked at the stopwatch he’d borrowed last year from one of the coal company industrial engineers and forgotten to give back. “I think it’s still flying,” he said.

“Then where is it?” I demanded. We couldn’t lose it. Like every rocket we launched, it held answers we had to know.

“There it is!” Billy yelled as he began sprinting across the slack. I still couldn’t see anything but I ran after him anyway. He easily pulled away from me with athletic grace, his muscles like small coiled springs, his shoes sending up little puffs of black grit as he ran. How that boy could run! Nobody could keep up with Billy Rose when he had his sharp eyes locked on a rocket. I, on the other hand, tended to be a pretty slow runner. I think it was because I was so nearsighted. I was always afraid I was going to run into something.

O’Dell trotted up alongside me, putting a hand on my elbow to straighten me out. “Time looks good,” he said, and then ran on ahead, his mop of blond hair bouncing as his short legs churned. He held his stopwatch in front of him, his finger poised to click it off the moment our rocket hit the slack.

Roy Lee caught up with me next. He was in his Dugout clothes, a tight pair of draped and pegged black pants, brown loafers, a pink shirt with black piping, and hair thoroughly lacquered down into a swept-back DA. He had a date for the Saturday-night dance at the teen hangout in War and was headed that way right after the launch. “I never can see the blamed things,” he griped as he ran by me. Roy Lee’s long legs soon had him beside O’Dell, but Billy was still far ahead.

Behind me, I could hear Sherman’s uneven gait, his left leg slung in an arc at each step, his built-up shoe scuffing the slack. Polio had given his leg a twist and turned it thin as a sapling. I slowed to let him catch up and run alongside me. “O’Dell said the time looks good,” I gasped.

Sherman broke into a grin at my report. “Maybe it’s going to be a great rocket,” he said.

A “great rocket” was what Quentin, the brains of our outfit, called the rockets that did exactly what we’d designed them to do. I sincerely hoped Sherman was right. Auk XXII-E used an untried propellant. With rockets, anytime you changed one thing, a lot of other things changed, too, and it was hard to predict what all they might be. In that, I guess they were a bit like me and the rest of the boys. Even though we were all seniors in high school and thought of ourselves as being grown up, the truth was we had a way to go. I was sixteen, they were seventeen, and every day, it seemed we grew a little, usually in some unpredictable way. Sometimes, I had trouble recalling who I had been the day before, or might be tomorrow. Coach Gainer called it the “teenage boy crazies.” When I got too afflicted with it, my mom always jerked a knot in my tail and said, “Straighten up and fly right.” And so I did.

Quentin was downrange so that he could measure the altitude of our rocket using trigonometry. To do it, he had to see the rocket at peak altitude and aim at it with a device he had built out of a broomstick, a nail, a wooden ruler, and a plastic protractor. He called his invention a theodolite. But clouds had defeated him today, the rocket disappearing through the heavy layer that hung overhead. We would have to depend on O’Dell’s stopwatch.

“Whoa! Stop!” Billy cried as we ran up to him. He had his arms outstretched to hold us back. I could hear the rocket whistling as it came in, and then, a hundred yards ahead, there was a big metallic retort and a plume of slack. The Auk had struck nosefirst. “Come on!” Billy yelled, and we ran on.

“Thirty-one seconds,” O’Dell reported as we reached the rocket. I did a quick mental calculation. I had designed Auk XXII-E to reach an altitude of 6,000 feet. It had reached, according to the formula we used, less than 4,000 feet. That was a disappointment. The Big Creek Missile Agency (or BCMA, as we liked to call it) had been in business for nearly two years, ever since the sight of the Russian Sputnik flying through the starry sky over Coalwood had first inspired us to join the space race. We’d started off slow, our rockets mostly blowing up, but after a while we had gotten the hang of it. We had already sent rockets higher than a mile using our old rocket candy propellant. The new propellant we were using should have easily gotten us past the mile mark. Something had gone seriously wrong with this little rocket, and I itched to find out what it was.

The smoking Auk was too hot to touch, so I gave it a quick eyeball once-over. The casement, which is what we called the body of the rocket, was made from a three- foot-long, one-and-a-quarter-inch-diameter length of seamless steel tubing. Steel tubing of that size and make was incredibly strong, yet it was now slightly bent. That wasn’t unexpected, since it was flying at over three hundred miles per hour when it had hit the hard slack. The wooden nose cone that had capped it had been reduced to splinters. One of the four fins welded to the casement had broken off. The machinists in the coal company machine shop would be interested in the damage. They had become dedicated rocket builders, sn...
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