Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.
Coalwood, West Virginia, where I grew up, was built for the purpose of extracting the millions of tons of rich, bituminous coal that lay beneath it. In 1957, when I was fourteen years old and first began to build my rockets, there were nearly two thousand people living in Coalwood. My father, Homer Hickam, was the mine superintendent, and our house was situated just a few hundred yards from the mine's entrance, a vertical shaft eight hundred feet deep. From the window of my bedroom, I could see the black steel tower that sat over the shaft and the comings and goings of the men who worked at the mine.
Another shaft, with railroad tracks leading up to it, was used to bring out the coal. The structure for lifting, sorting, and dumping the coal was called the tipple. Every weekday, and even on Saturday when times were good, I could watch the black coal cars rolling beneath the tipple to receive their massive loads and then smoke-spouting locomotives straining to pull them away. All through the day, the heavy thump of the locomotives' steam pistons thundered down our narrow valleys, the town shaking to the crescendo of grinding steel as the great trains accelerated. Clouds of coal dust rose from the open cars, invading everything, seeping through windows and creeping under doors. Throughout my childhood, when I raised my blanket in the morning, I saw a black, sparkling powder float off it. My socks were always black with coal dirt when I took my shoes off at night.
Our house, like every house in Coalwood, was company-owned. The company charged a small monthly rent, automatically deducted from the miners' pay. Some of the houses were tiny and single-storied, with only one or two bedrooms. Others were big two-story duplexes, built as boardinghouses for bachelor miners in the booming 1920's and later sectioned off as individual-family dwellings during the Depression. Every five years, all the houses in Coalwood were painted a company white, which the blowing coal soon tinged gray. Usually in the spring, each family took it upon themselves to scrub the exterior of their house with hoses and brushes.
Each house in Coalwood had a fenced-off square of yard. My mother, having a larger yard than most to work with, planted a rose garden. She hauled in dirt from the mountains by the sackful, slung over her shoulder, and fertilized, watered, and manicured each bush with exceeding care. During the spring and summer, she was rewarded with bushes filled with great blood-red blossoms as well as dainty pink and yellow buds, spatters of brave color against the dense green of the heavy forests that surrounded us and the gloom of the black and gray mine just up the road.
Our house was on a corner where the state highway turned east toward the mine. A company-paved road went the other way to the center of town. Main Street, as it was called, ran down a valley so narrow in places that a boy with a good arm could throw a rock from one side of it to the other. Every day for the three years before I went to high school, I got on my bicycle in the morning with a big white canvas bag strapped over my shoulder and delivered the Bluefield Daily Telegraph down this valley, pedaling past the Coalwood School and the rows of houses that were set along a little creek and up on the sides of the facing mountains. A mile down Main was a large hollow in the mountains, formed where two creeks intersected. Here were the company offices and also the company church, a company hotel called the Club House, the post office building, which also housed the company doctor and the company dentist, and the main company store (which everybody called the Big Store). On an overlooking hill was the turreted mansion occupied by the company general superintendent, a man sent down by our owners in Ohio to keep an eye on their assets. Main Street continued westward between two mountains, leading to clusters of miners' houses we called Middletown and Frog Level. Two forks led up mountain hollows to the "colored" camps of Mudhole and Snakeroot. There the pavement ended, and rutted dirt roads began.
At the entrance to Mudhole was a tiny wooden church presided over by the Reverend "Little" Richard. He was dubbed "Little" because of his resemblance to the soul singer. Nobody up Mudhole Hollow subscribed to the paper, but whenever I had an extra one, I always left it at the little church, and over the years, the Reverend Richard and I became friends. I loved it when he had a moment to come out on the church porch and tell me a quick Bible story while I listened, astride my bike, fascinated by his sonorous voice. I especially admired his description of Daniel in the lions' den. When he acted out with bug-eyed astonishment the moment Daniel's captors looked down and saw their prisoner lounging around in the pit with his arm around the head of a big lion, I laughed appreciatively. "That Daniel, he knew the Lord," the Reverend summed up with a chuckle while I continued to giggle, "and it made him brave. How about you, Sonny? Do you know the Lord?"
I had to admit I wasn't certain about that, but the Reverend said it was all right. "God looks after fools and drunks," he said with a big grin that showed off his gold front tooth, "and I guess he'll look after you too, Sonny Hickam." Many a time in the days to come, when I was in trouble, I would think of Reverend Richard and his belief in God's sense of humor and His fondness for ne'er-do-wells. It didn't make me as brave as old Daniel, but it always gave me at least a little hope the Lord would let me scrape by.
The company church, the one most of the white people in town went to, was set down on a little grassy knob. In the late 1950's, it came to be presided over by a company employee, Reverend Josiah Lanier, who also happened to be a Methodist. The denomination of the preacher the company hired automatically became ours too. Before we became Methodists, I remember being a Baptist and, once for a year, some kind of Pentecostal. The Pentecostal preacher scared the women, hurling fire and brimstone and warnings of death from his pulpit. When his contract expired, we got Reverend Lanier.
I was proud to live in Coalwood. According to the West Virginia history books, no one had ever lived in the valleys and hills of McDowell County before we came to dig out the coal. Up until the early nineteenth century, Cherokee tribes occasionally hunted in the area, but found the terrain otherwise too rugged and uninviting. Once, when I was eight years old, I found a stone arrowhead embedded in the stump of an ancient oak tree up on the mountain behind my house. My mother said a deer must have been lucky some long ago day. I was so inspired by my find that I invented an Indian tribe, the Coalhicans, and convinced the boys I played with--Roy Lee, O'Dell, Tony, and Sherman--that it had really existed. They joined me in streaking our faces with berry juice and sticking chicken feathers in our hair. For days afterward, our little tribe of savages formed raiding parties and conducted massacres throughout Coalwood. We surrounded the Club House and, with birch-branch bows and invisible arrows, picked off the single miners who lived there as they came in from work. To indulge us, some of them even fell down and writhed convincingly on the Club House's vast, manicured lawn. When we set up an ambush at the tipple gate, the miners going on shift got into the spirit of things, whooping and returning our imaginary fire. My father observed this from his office by the tipple and came out to restore order. Although the Coalhicans escaped into the hills, their chief was reminded at the supper table that night that the mine was for work, not play.
When we ambushed some older boys--my brother, Jim, among them--who were playing cowboys up in the mountains, a great mock battle ensued until Tony, up in a tree for a better line of sight, stepped on a rotted branch and fell and broke his arm. I organized the construction of a litter out of branches, and we bore the great warrior home. The company doctor, "Doc" Lassiter, drove to Tony's house in his ancient Packard and came inside. When he caught sight of us still in our feathers and war paint, Doc said he was the "heap big medicine man." Doc set Tony's arm and put it in a cast. I remember still what I wrote on it: Tony--next time pick a better tree. Tony's Italian immigrant father was killed in the mine that same year. He and his mother left and we never heard from them again. This did not seem unusual to me: A Coalwood family required a father, one who worked for the company. The company and Coalwood were one and the same.
I learned most of what I knew about Coalwood history and my parents' early years at the kitchen table after the supper dishes were cleared. That was when Mom had herself a cup of coffee and Dad a glass of milk, and if they weren't arguing about one thing or the other, they would talk about the town and the people in it, what was going on at the mine, what had been said at the last Women's Club meeting, and, sometimes, little stories about how things used to be. Brother Jim usually got bored and asked to be excused, but I always stayed, fascinated by their tales.
Mr. George L. Carter, the founder of Coalwood, came in on the back of a mule in 1887, finding nothing but wilderness and, after he dug a little, one of the richest seams of bituminous coal in the world. Seeking his fortune, Mr. Carter bought the land from its absentee owners and began construction of a mine. He also built houses, school buildings, churches, a company store, a bakery, and an icehouse. He hired a doctor and a dentist and provided their services to his miners and their families for free. As the years passed and his coal company prospered, Mr. Carter had concrete sidewalks poured, the streets paved, and the town fenced to keep cows from roaming the streets. Mr. Carter wanted his miners to have a decent place to live. But in return, he asked for a decent day's work. Coalwood was, after all, a place for work above all else: hard, bruising, filthy, and sometimes deadly work.
When Mr. Carter's son came home from World War I, he brought with him his army commander, a Stanford University graduate of great engineering and social brilliance named William Laird, who everyone in town called, with the greatest respect and deference, the Captain. The Captain, a big expansive man who stood nearly six and a half feet tall, saw Coalwood as a laboratory for his ideas, a place where the company could bring peace, prosperity, and tranquillity to its citizens. From the moment Mr. Carter hired him and placed him in charge of operations, the Captain began to implement the latest in mining technology. Shafts were sunk for ventilation, and as soon as it was practical, the mules used to haul out the coal from the mine were replaced by electric motors. Later, the Captain stopped all the hand digging and brought in giant machines, called continuous miners, to tear the coal from its seams. The Captain expanded Mr. Carter's building program, providing every Coalwood miner a house with indoor plumbing, a Warm Morning stove in the living room, and a coal box the company kept full. For the town's water supply, he tapped into a pristine ancient lake that lay a thousand feet below. He built parks on both ends of the town and funded the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, Cub Scouts, and the Women's Club. He stocked the Coalwood school library and built a school playground and a football field. Because the mountains interfered with reception, in 1954 he erected an antenna on a high ridge and provided one of the first cable television systems in the United States as a free service.
Although it wasn't perfect, and there was always tension between the miners and the company, mostly about pay, Coalwood was, for a time, spared much of the violence, poverty, and pain of the other towns in southern West Virginia. I remember sitting on the stairs in the dark listening to my father's father--my Poppy--talk to Dad in our living room about "bloody Mingo," a county just up the road from us. Poppy had worked there for a time until a war broke out between union miners and company "detectives." Dozens of people were killed and hundreds were wounded in pitched battles with machine guns, pistols, and rifles. To get away from the violence, Poppy moved his family first to Harlan County, Kentucky, and then, when battles erupted there, to McDowell County, where he went to work in the Gary mine. It was an improvement, but Gary was still a place of strikes and lockouts and the occasional bloody head.
In 1934, when he was twenty-two years old, my father applied for work as a common miner with Mr. Carter's company. He came because he had heard that a man could make a good life for himself in Coalwood. Almost immediately, the Captain saw something in the skinny, hungry lad from Gary--some spark of raw intelligence, perhaps--and took him as a protg. After a couple of years, the Captain raised Dad to section foreman, taught him how to lead men and operate and ventilate a mine, and instilled in him a vision of the town.
After Dad became a foreman, he convinced his father to quit the Gary mine and move to Coalwood, where there was no union and a man could work. He also wrote Elsie Lavender, a Gary High School classmate who had moved on her own to Florida, to come back to West Virginia and marry him. She refused. Whenever the story was told, Mom took over at this point and said the letter she next received was from the Captain, who told her how much Dad loved her and needed her, and would she please stop being so stubborn down there in the palm trees and come to Coalwood and marry the boy? She agreed to come to Coalwood to visit, and one night at the movies in Welch, when Dad asked her to marry him again, she said if he had a Brown Mule chewing tobacco wrapper in his pocket, she'd do it. He had one and she said yes. It was a decision that I believed she often regretted, but still would not have changed.
Poppy worked in the Coalwood mine until 1943, when a runaway mine car cut off both his legs at the hip. He spent the rest of his life in a chair. My mother said that after the accident, Poppy was in continuous pain. To take his mind off it, he read nearly every book in the County Library in Welch. Mom said when she and Dad visited him, Poppy would be hurting so much he could hardly talk...
Excerpted from ROCKET BOYS/OCTOBER SKY © Copyright 1998 by Homer Hickam. Reprinted with permission by Bantam Books. All rights reserved.
Rocket Boys/October Sky