Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Rocketeer's Bookshelf: Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, Jr.

Rocket Boys is Homer Hickam's autobiographical account of his boyhood experiments with rockets in Coalwood, West Virginia. It was the basis for the movie October Sky, and has been reprinted under that title.

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inspired Hickam, then a freshman in high school, to gather some friends and start building rockets. The Big Creek Missile Agency, as the boys style themselves, start with a black powder charge in a plastic flashlight casing, and succeed in blowing up a good portion of the Hickams' back fence. After that abortive attempt, they switched to metal tubing, and over time they progressed from black powder to rocket candy to zinc powder. The boys got parts for their rockets, launch pad, and blockhouse by scrounging from around town, bartering, and collecting scrap iron and ginseng root. Much of their work is done in secret, to avoid official scorn and censure, much of which comes from the mine supervisor, Homer Hickam, Sr.

The book is not just a biography of the rocket boys. It is also a biography of the town of Coalwood and its residents. Strikes, explosions, cave-ins, layoffs, and deaths affected everyone in the town, including the rocket boys. At first, Hickam's mother and his teachers tell him that he has to get out of the town and make something of himself, but he can't imagine how to accomplish that, nor does he really want to. As the rocket club takes off, he realizes that the rockets will be his ticket out, and he comes to despise the town and its people. By the end of the book, when he leaves town after graduating from high school, Hickam has reconciled both impulses. He is looking forward to going to college and becoming an engineer, but he knows that Coalwood is his home and that the mountains will always be home to him.

This book reminded me of my childhood on all kinds of levels. It seemed to be an even blend of
(1) the books that I read as a kid, notably Danny Dunn, Tom Swift, and Encyclopedia Brown adventures, plus a little of Tom Sawyer and The Great Brain;
(2) the TV shows I watched when I was a kid, like Lassie, Leave it to Beaver, and Happy Days (which makes me think that the version of the 50s I got from those shows wasn't entirely inaccurate);
(3) my own childhood. Substitute plains for mountains, farming for mining, dinosaurs for rockets, and 4-H and my brothers for the Big Creek Missile Agency, and you'd have a reasonable facsimile of my pre-college life. The rural, lower-middle-class milieu, the centrality of high school football as the focus of the community, and the scorn of band fags and other geeks were all pretty much the same for me as they were for Homer Hickam. Okay, my home life was less complicated than Homer's, but it wasn't devoid of conflict, both parent-to-parent and parent-to-child, and many of those conflicts have recognizable parallels in the book.

But what about the rockets?

Model rocketry as we know and love it today didn't exist when Homer Hickam was growing up. Or rather, the pioneers of model rocketry were just starting to experiment with mass-produced black powder motors, electrical launch systems, and cardboard-and-balsa construction. All of these things made model rocketry safe and marketable. One of the driving forces behind the development of model rocketry as a safe hobby was the number of 'backyard bombers' who lost fingers, eyes, and occasionally their lives experimenting with homemade rockets in the 1950s.

On one hand, the rockets built by the Big Creek Missile Agency were monstrously dangerous by today's standards. They had metal bodies, homemade and hand-loaded propellants, and the first few were lit by hand using firecracker fuses and launched with no guide rod to get them moving in the right direction. They frequently exploded and showered the launch area with high-velocity shrapnel.

On the other hand, the rocket boys were not morons. They hid behind rocks or logs for the first few launches, and when it became clear that they needed something better, they built a concrete launch pad, a wood-and-tin blockhouse, and an electrical ignition system. Their activities were more potentially dangerous than model rocketry as currently practiced, but they compensated by taking the necessary precautions.

Of course, doing the things the rocket boys did today would get you arrested and probably interrogated by the jack-booted minions of the Homeland Security department. Kids can't even get decent chemistry kits these days because the ninnies in charge are afraid bearded extremists (hillbilly or Muslim) will use the contents to make meth or bombs. All anyone seems to care about is being safe, everywhere, all the time. God forbid that young people actually have to take any responsibility for themselves or their activities. The whole Western world is becoming infantilized.

But that's a rant for another day (and I don't actually have any other substantive points to make). Rocket Boys is a great book. Go read it.


Blogger Mike Taylor said...

This book reminded me of [...] my own childhood. Substitute plains for mountains, farming for mining, dinosaurs for rockets, and 4-H and my brothers for the Big Creek Missile Agency, and you'd have a reasonable facsimile of my pre-college life.

It's funny you should say this, because when I read this book it reminded me of Lord of the Rings. Substitute Middle-Earth for mountains, the quest to destroy the One Ring for mining, the nine rings of mortal men for rockets, and the Fellowship for the Big Creek Missile Agency, and you'd have a reasonable facsimile of Tolkein's masterpiece.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Matt Wedel said...

Surely you mean to substitute the quest for the One Ring for rockets, and the nine rings for mining?

Congratulations on being the first comment-poster on this blog!

12:30 PM  

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