PUBLICATION: The Roanoke Times



COALWOOD, W.VA. -- The town the Hickam boys knew is nearly dead.

Gone is the barbershop, the bottling company, the doctor's office and the service station. Gone are the company stores.

"They were always filled with people bustling around and gossiping," recalls Homer H. "Sonny" Hickam Jr. "It was just a very warm place."

Where there were once 2,000 miners and their families, 600 people now live in a tight community stretched like taffy along the flat land between mountains and a snake of highway.

The Tudor-style apartment houses, once home to the mining "Big Wheels," today are rotting. Much of what the coal company built has been torn down altogether, replaced by grass and milkweed.

But back when the tipple operated under a cloud of black dust and 125 coal cars rumbled to the mine each day, people in West Virginia were aware of Coalwood.

In Coalwood, people were aware of the mine and the rumbling in the mountains -- and in the community itself. They were aware of the Big Creek High School football team, where Sonny's brother Jim, now the coach at Northside High School in Roanoke, played tackle and dreamed of a scholarship. And they were surely aware of the rocket boys, who, spurred by Sonny, stood outside the night Russia's Sputnik passed overhead, and felt connected, for once, to the rest of the world.

During the space race, the rocket boys would gather to look at the stars and the moon and dream about rockets. Eventually, they would fire their own, homemade rockets in a field of coal slag.

"We were all really patriotic," says Sonny Hickam, who wrote "Rocket Boys," his memoir of that time. "We didn't want to see the United States in second place on anything. We thought building rockets somehow would help the U.S. catch up."

People called them crazy after they accidentally blew up Elsie Hickam's picket fence. Homer Hickam Sr., the mining superintendent, took it as a personal embarrassment. But folks still watched for the familiar sign in the company post office: Rocket Launch Today.

Forty years later, this town is still talking about the rocket boys.

Soon, they'll be talking about the rocket boys in other states, too, as "October Sky," a movie based on Sonny's book, premieres this month.

THE ROCKET BOYS were a skinny bunch, too skinny to play football. They didn't come across as geniuses, either, except Quentin Wilson, who used words like "prodigious" and carried a briefcase to Big Creek High School.

As youngsters, the boys stood on a bridge and threw pop bottles into coal cars.

When they were older, they started thinking about outer space.

"The adults didn't try to stop us kids from doing things - even dangerous things," recalls Sonny Hickam.

His father didn't want his sons' activities to interfere with anything at the mine, which was his life then.

"Don't blow yourself up," was his mother's only warning when Sonny announced he was turning the basement into a rocket factory.

"I had read a lot of science fiction growing up and was really attuned to the concept of going into space," Sonny says. "But it was still fiction in my mind. When Sputnik went up and we were actually able to walk in the back yard and look up and see it, I was absolutely astonished. Here was science fiction coming true. It was real. All of a sudden, I wanted to be a part of all that - part of the outside world that put that spacecraft in orbit and part of this great race into space."

He eventually did become part of it, as a NASA engineer training astronauts at Marshall Space Flight Center. But that was long after those early rockets in Coalwoods. The first ones were a bust.

Sonny writes this about Rocket No.1: "There was an eyewitness, a miner waiting for a ride at the gas station across the street. ...

There was, he reported, a huge flash in the Hickams' yard and a sound like God himself had clapped his hands. Then an arc of fire lifted up and up into the darkness, turning and cartwheeling and spewing bright sparks. The way the man told it, our rocket was a beautiful and glorious sight, and I guess he was right as far as it went. The only problem was, it wasn't our rocket that streaked into the dark, cold, clear and starry night.

"It was my mother's rose garden fence."

From his home today in Huntsville, Ala., Sonny Hickam laughs. "Like most West Virginians, we were stoic about our losses, and also stubborn about them," he says. "We just kept going."

The rocket boys had a goal: the school science fair. And if the right people noticed them, maybe college.


PEOPLE FROM COALWOOD didn't go to science fairs, though at least not the state fairs, or the nationals. That was for kids from more cosmopolitan parts of the state. For kids with more money. For kids more a part of the outside world.

Sonny Hickam would end up in that world, knees knocking, riding a Trailways bus to Indianapolis where he would represent his high school and the rocket boys in the national science fair against kids from New York and Massachusetts. Where he would stand in front of his display of rockets, making whooshing sounds while the judges smiled at displays that featured live monkeys in a self-contained biosphere.

The rocket boys wouldn't get to the nationals alone. People in the community helped.

There were teachers, urging the boys to prove something - to themselves, above all. There was the curmudgeonly math teacher who let them take calculus, a course not offered at Big Creek, so they could figure out the rockets' altitudes when they disappeared from sight.

Ernest "Red" Carroll, father of rocket boy Jimmy "O'dell" Carroll, still lives in Coalwood. He never thought of the rocket business as crazy, he says, and lugged their tools and materials around in his garbage truck. He saw nearly all of the launches.

Men at the mine's machine shop followed the boys' blueprints and helped make the rockets themselves.

People from Coalwood didn't go to college, either. They went to the mines, like their fathers.

In those days, "football was the primary way out," Sonny Hickam says. "A very small percentage of people went to college, primarily because of money, but there weren't too many role models around, either. Most of the boys, if they didn't work in the mine after graduation, went to the military."

Jim Hickam's focus - "my passion all my life" - was football, and though few college scouts made their way to Coalwood, he was one of two in his senior class who got scholarships. He set off for Virginia Tech in 1960, and was gone for most of the rocket years.

The rocket boys didn't know what they wanted to be in life, exactly, Sonny recalls. "We just had the sense we didn't want to be coal miners."

Outer space was as far from the mines as you could get.

COUNTRY CORNER, Coalwood's only existing store, is now the center for community gossip.

Of course talk turns to the movie, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern. It is directed by Joe Johnston ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "The Rocketeer") and produced by Charles Gordan ("Field of Dreams") and Larry Franco ("Mars Attacks!").

"Sonny told me over the Internet that I got killed in the mine," says Carroll, 80. "Supposed to of."

In the book and in real life, he worked more than a decade at the tipple, then hauled trash for Coalwood's 888 houses.

"You die in the movie, Red?" asks Harold "Pick" Hylton, who runs the Country Corner with two partners. Sonny did a book signing in the store when "Rocket Boys," which has been nominated for several awards,came out last year. (The book appears in paperback under the movie title, "October Sky.")

The space above Hylton's jukebox is reserved for rocket boy-related newspaper articles, gently covered with Saran wrap, and a big wooden sign with their names in block letters: Homer "Sonny" Hickam Jr.,Willie Rose, Jimmy "O'Dell" Carroll, Roy Lee Cook, Quentin Wilson, Sherman Siers.

At a June reunion, the boys - men in their 50s now -- all signed it, except Sherman, who died of a heart attack years ago.

The community would like to remember the boys with a park, too, in the deserted field where they once fired off their rockets. They might put out a jar, for donations. They might clear the field and put in a few picnic tables, and a plaque that says "Cape Coalwood," Hylton says.

Hollywood wanted to film "October Sky" in Coalwood, but it was too hard to reach. If the cast and crew had reached it, there would have been no place to stay, Sonny says, and the sunlight, blocked by looming mountains, would have limited shooting time to five hours a day.

Instead, Oak Ridge and other parts of Tennessee became Coalwood,War and Frog Level.

Carroll went to Tennessee to watch some of the filming. He will have to drive 39 miles to Bluefield, home to the nearest theater, to see the final product when it opens Feb. 19.

He'll see it, though, as will Hylton and just about everyone else in Coalwood.

The book and movie "got a dying town - a dead town, really - a little recognition," Hylton says. "People come just to see where the boys grew up."

When the weather is good, Carroll takes the time to show visitors around.

You have to view the landmarks with imagination and a good reading of Sonny's book, which fills the quiet valley with rocket fire, and fills the town with people.

It puts a blockhouse and a launching pad in an overgrown field flanked by sycamores, and lets explosions replace chirping frogs and buzzing chainsaws.

"Their launch pad was right over there," Carroll says. "This was a coal yard. The last rocket went farther than a mile into those woods. The boys went up there and found it."

More than 200 people sometimes gathered along the dirt road to watch the rocket boys launch their models, dubbed "Auks" after the extinct bird, closer and closer to space. Not into space, but high enough above Coalwood so that they could see beyond it.

The machine shop is on Carroll's tour, too. It is a building of mostly windows, broken windows, and, like the other company buildings still standing, it's deserted.

It was once roaring with machinery, though, and with the voices of boys who watched, late at night, devoted miners manufacturing rocketships.

At Country Corner, word has it that I-73 will run right through here in a few years, right in front of the store, in fact.

Then it would take only half an hour to get to Bluefield, instead of an hour and a half.

It could revive things, Hylton says. Bring in more work. "I guess I've seen the best and worst of Coalwood," Carroll says, looking over his town.

The best? "That was during the war when so many people were working."

The worst? "I guess that's now. So many people left, and there's no work for the men to do."

But he loves it. "You know your next door neighbor."

You knew your neighbors in 1957, too.

"Everyone in the town looked after every boy in the town," Sonny recalls.

People took pride in their children. They still do, though there are few of them now that the mine has closed. This year, 315 students fill the classrooms at Big Creek High School in War. There had been more than 200 students in Sonny's senior class alone.

"I suppose, in a sense, it was one of those idyllic communities," Sonny's brother, Jim Hickam, says. With the coal company "you were really kind of taken care of. I wouldn't trade growing up there for everything in the world."

He recalls tennis courts and swimming pools and happy Saturdays when coal families would visit "Little New York," neighboring Welch, where the kids would watch Westerns while their parents shopped.

But he hasn't gone back since his parents left Coalwood around 1980. The mine had been his father's life, and the mine wasn't there anymore. It's a different town. "I'm that way about funerals," he says. "I'd rather remember people the way they were."

Sonny, too, stayed away for years, but he went back in the early 1990s as he was writing his memoir, and he's been back since.

"We didn't know it was any different from anyplace else because we'd never been anywhere else," Sonny says. Now that he's been other places, the community he once knew has changed.

Houses, no longer owned by the company, are not painted the standard aluminum, but are shades of yellow and blue and white. Many of the houses are gone, along with the tipple and rows of train tracks.

A chain link fence replaced the wooden one at Sonny's old house, the house that always went to the mine superintendent, with the ringing black phone for emergencies. His father's phone.

"I didn't realize until I looked back how much my father held the town together or how much he and Mom were at odds over the town and what it meant," Sonny Hickam says.

Homer Sr. was a miner through and through. Even with black lung, he thrived on life underground. He wanted the same for Sonny. Elsie Hickam wanted both of her children out.

"It required some years to pass before I could look back and realize the struggle that was going on," Sonny says. Struggle between husband and wife, parent and child, company and union.

The community had only the one industry at its core, and that industry made it strong. Strong and fragile, both.


WHEN SONNY WROTE his book, he did it from his own memory.

He merged some of his characters and moved some things in time, but it remains his true recollection of growing up: vying for the affection of his father, seeing the strength of his mother, searching for love and coming of age.

"I often say I got a million dollars worth of psychotherapy I never knew I needed out of this book," he says.

It took him time to find the right voice for it, the voice of the young Sonny and not the 55-year-old man he became.

"I'm not that boy, though I wish I was sometimes."

One night, he knew he had it, and everything fell into place.

It is with that voice that brother Jim, 22 months older, often comes across as a vain, self-absorbed jock.

They were raised as two only children, they both explain. Brothers, but as different as brothers can be.

Still, Jim enjoyed the book. A history teacher as well as a football coach, he has a love for all things historical, even if he doesn't remember things quite the same way as his brother.

He does remember that they moved through life separately. So did all of the rocket boys, once they left Coalwood to become bankers and engineers and insurance agents.

Like Jim, Sonny went to Virginia Tech where he became a member of the Corps of Cadets.

They didn't see each other much on campus, but were together for the three-hour ride to and from their home. Jim had the car and helped lug brass for Sonny's pet college project: technical work on The Skipper, the cannon Tech sets off after touchdowns.

Jim went on to coach high school, in Fort Chiswell, then eventually at Northside.

"I am now, as I have always been, proud to be Jim Hickam's brother," Sonny wrote in the last pages of his book. When he sent Jim a signed copy, he wrote, in ink: "I meant every word of that."

Sonny still does some consultant work for NASA while he writes his books and articles. An avid scuba diver, he counts David Letterman among his students and is scheduled to appear on his show Feb. 23.

On the movie screen, Coalwood is like it was: a community with stores and doctors and coal mines.

Sonny Hickam, who was a technical consultant for the movie, will see it for the first time when it premiers in Knoxville on Feb. 16.

His father died in 1989. His mother, who lives in Myrtle Beach, will be there, along with Jim and the rocket boys.

It will be the Hickam family's first reunion in years. The rocket boys will have their reunion, too.

"We'd gone our separate ways for decades, really," Sonny says. "Now I hear from them every day. ... To me, it's all a miracle, the way this has unfolded. It was just meant to happen."

Inevitably, talk will turn to rockets.

"We talk about building our own rockets again," Sonny says. "It gets kind of dangerous, especially when Quentin shows up. He still wants to get into space."

The Auks never did make it there on their own power.

But in 1997, one of Sonny's astronaut friends carried an old rocket-boy nose cone aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

Also aboard on that trip: a gold and silver medal, from the science fair in Indianapolis. A boy from Coalwood had beaten them all.

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