Charleston Daily Mail
Tuesday July 31, 2012
by Charlotte Ferrell Smith
Homer Hickam, author and former NASA engineer, captivated his audience with stories of growing up in a McDowell County coal-mining town.
Hickam was keynote speaker Monday morning at the opening plenary session of the annual meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference. Hickam, who spoke in a meeting room at Embassy Suites, shared several stories of his childhood in Coalwood.
The conference began on Friday and continues through today with events being held at the Charleston Civic Center, Marriott and Embassy Suites. The Southern Legislative Conference of the Council of State Governments is composed of the presiding officers and key legislators from 15 southern states.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization is based in Atlanta.
Aside from being a storyteller, author and rocket scientist, Hickam is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. As a NASA engineer during the 1980s and 1990s, he worked on programs and trained astronauts. An avid amateur paleontologist, he recently found a juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex in Montana.
“Rocket Boys,” his first memoir in a series of three, is the story of growing up in a coal-mining town and pursuing his love of rocketry. The bestselling book inspired the film “October Sky.”
“When you have written a book everyone associates you with, it doesn’t matter what you have written since,” said Hickam, who doesn’t seem to mind the connection. “‘Rocket Boys’ is really a celebration of this marvelous state.”
Two ingredients are needed to write a memoir, he said.
“You need to have interesting parents, and you need to be from an interesting place,” he said. “Coalwood was a pure company town. Everything was owned by the coal company. To live in Coalwood, you had to work for the company. To be a woman living in Coalwood, you had to be married to a miner, a miner’s daughter, a teacher or a preacher’s wife.”
He describes Coalwood as a place where hardworking men supported families in an atmosphere where everything was supplied by the company, from the doctor to the preacher.
“In Coalwood, the church was owned by the company,” he said. “Preachers had three-year contracts. Every three years, we got a new religion. We were Baptists and then overnight we were Methodists. It was hard to be a Methodist and then go back to being Baptist. Dances had to be canceled and makeup removed.”