Homer Hickam: What Happened to the Rocket Boy?

Homer Hickam and five high school buddies created the Big Creek Missile Agency in the late 1950s as the world’s space race was heating up. They designed, built, and launched increasingly sophisticated and high-flying missiles, capturing the hearts of the residents of their hometown, Coalwood, West Virginia. They gained a wider spotlight in 1960 when they won two medals in the National Science Fair.

But that was just the beginning for Homer Hickam.

He brilliantly described his coming-of-age adventures in his book, Rocket Boys, which became October Sky, an endearing motion picture. Jake Gyllenhaal, then 17, played Homer.

I loved the book and the film, but they left me wondering: Did Homer Hickam realize his dream to work for NASA?

My son Chris, who lives in Charleston, West Virginia, with his fiancée Gail, are big Homer Hickam and October Sky fans. Just a few weeks ago, Chris reminded me Hickam had written more memoirs that answered my question and many more.

I just finished reading all three followup books and the story about how he pursued his dream is as captivating as his high-school antics with rockets. His path includes Virginia Tech University, work in his father’s coal mine, and the Vietnam War. He lives through (barely) experiences as a scuba diver that put him on NASA’s radar. And there is so much more.

The three books that follow Rocket Boys, in order, are The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone, and Don’t Blow Yourself Up.

But Homer Hickam, now 80, is not finished. He acquired the film rights to his story and has begun work on December Sky, a motion picture he says will not be a sequel, nor a prequel. He calls it an “equal.”

(Click here to see my review of Rocket Boys.)

Book of the Year: The Winner Is…

I have read many good books in 2021, but Jerry Steimel’s Chasing Zorba jumped out at me for my book of the year. You will enjoy getting to know Jerry and his journey will intrigue you on several levels.

Oh, by the way, one follower of this blog found the answer to my find-the-book challenge within minutes. Well done, Jeff.

I am pleased to republish my discussion about Chasing Zorba below.

In 1972, Jerry Steimel graduated college, jumped in a VW Beetle with his lifelong friend, and set out to live his dream, a cross-country trip to California. But his VW Bug had other ideas, quickly ending the trip with mechanical breakdown.

Steimel’s dream wasn’t deterred. Forty-five years later, he jumped in another Volkswagen, a 1973 air-cooled van, and set out from his home in Massachusetts for another try, this time solo. But Jerry Steimel hardly traveled alone.

In Chasing Zorba: A Journey of Self-Discovery in a VW Bus, he is guided by author Nikos Kazantzakis and his book, Report to Greco, whose life lessons begin each chapter. He names his van Zorba after Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek. Steimel’s goal: California. And so much more.

Some call his plan lunacy. But Steimel is out to discover comfort in taking risks rather than living as if he is just waiting to die. He doesn’t hurry, neither in his writing nor his driving, and his literary and physical journeys are a meander. But, in the end, the book rushes up and grabs readers before leaving them with memories anchored in what it means to live life to its fullest.

Steimel goes to great lengths to find places, like the West Virginia site where four high school boys launched rockets and their lives to heights beyond their wildest dreams. It is the site of the film October Sky, which Steimel watched a dozen times. That figures, you see, because Jerry devoted 45 years to social work, lifting kids who needed an extra push.

Steimel weaves places and American history with the people he meets as he drives mostly back roads, having to stop more than now and then to take Zorba to mechanics for adjustments. The journey tests Steimel and Zorba in ways they could never have anticipated.

The author and his VW Bus still miss the turn of the key every morning. And I miss wondering what is around their next turn.