Posted by Jack @ 10:10 pm on August 21st 2009

The Coalwood Retroactive Diaries: Rocket Boys and October Sky

Some of you may have seen this movie, based on this book, about a group of boys living in a small West Virginia coal mining town. Inspired by the early days of the space race, particularly the launch of Sputnik, they enthusiastically take up homemade rocketry long before kits and propulsion devises were available at your local hobby store. They carved their own fins, they mixed their own rocket fuel, and poured their own molds. That small mining town, Coalwood, was my dad’s hometown, and he was one of those rocket boys. I grew up hearing misty eyed stories of that place. As a child, and later a young man, I could never quite get my head around how all these old people, now living in Florida, still got together on a regular basis to reminisce about their little slice of nostalgic heaven in West By God Virginia. Coalwood was their Mayberry, they love it to this day.

The book, largely an autobiographical account of author Homer “Sonny” Hickam’s inspirational struggle to break from his predestined path to a dead end job in the mines, is quite good, and largely based on real events. The movie, while not as bad a distortion of the subject matter as Hollywood usually visits upon the source material, takes a few, well Hollywood type liberties. The town was made a lot more dreary and miserable, since that is how company owned coalmining towns are supposed to be, right? The inspiring teacher is hot, apparently a total fabrication. But all in all, fairly well done. So what, right? Well. A movie can change things, at least locally. Coalwood was dead, before that movie. The mines had played out decades ago, and with the company closing up shop, the never large to begin with town shrank to a vestige of its former self. Empty and abandoned buildings, no future, just another dying place. The fatal blow should have come with the flash floods of ought two, when some of the town was virtually washed away, and the rest heavily damaged.

But October Sky and The Rocket Boys had changed the equation. After the movie, the Coalwood remainders, and a substantial portion of the former residents, started a reunion movement. Homer Hickam participated as the main attraction, which pulled in curiosity seekers and fans of the book or movie. The reunion grew, each year a bit more, and now October Sky days at Coalwood is like a county fair, but with a much more eclectic group of participants. My dad and uncle now go regularly, it is apparently quite the homecoming. They are particularly amused by the attendees whose only connection to the town is watching the movie. Upon learning that Uncle Bob was a main character in one of Hickam’s books, a small group of camera toting tourists followed him around for hours, waiting for him to do something rockety, I guess, Coalwood has not been saved by her recent fame, but the final closures have been forestalled, somewhat. Money from donations helped to rebuild and restore part of the flood damaged areas. The annual big event in October includes an economic injection. And to this day, despite the boarded up buildings, closure of nearly every business, including the high school and post office, the town is as picturesque as, well, as Mayberry.

One of the somewhat startling things about this small, nearly abandoned coalmining town, is how many published authors it has now produced. There is Sonny’s Coalwood series, of which Rocket Boys is but the first of three books. Each one, I am assured, departs further and further from actual events, but are still good reads. Mr. Hickam has also penned several non-Coalwood novels.

Another: J.R. Hatmaker’s The Coalwood Misfits, another autobiographical account, but more in the tongue in cheek mode, which contains a quite humorous account of my dad karate chopping into submission several other youths for attempting to abscond with his beloved motor scooter. J.R. has also published half a dozen other novels.

Then there are the scholarly historical works. Like this one by Alex Schust.

And this just published pictorial history, a joint endeavor by J.R. Hatmaker, Jack Likens, and Nondra “Nonnie” Bell.

Now, obviously, some of these books, would never have seen the light of day had October Sky not generated a bubble of interest. But Hatmaker was writing yarns as far back as Homer was, and renewed interest in the Coalwood-Caretta area created an opportunity, into which stepped the willing.

I have had the opportunity to review some of the primary source material for the last book I mentioned. Particularly, newspapers from the WWII era, and accounts of the great Coalwood strike and subsequent military takeover of mine management. Next time in The Coalwood Retroactive Diaries: Face to face with the reality of mid century race relation, aka, “Our Colored Folk.”

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