Retired NASA engineer Homer Hickam’s memoir, “Rocket Boys,” about life in the little town of Coalwood, became an instant classic and was the basis for the critically-acclaimed film, “October Sky.” He lives in Alabama, but returns often to visit his home state.
To me, coming home to West Virginia means … another October Sky Festival in my wonderful hometown of Coalwood in McDowell County. The first Saturday in October is the date for this annual reunion of the Rocket Boys and the people of the town. I spend the day autographing books for folks while the crowd enjoys good music, great food and exciting exhibits. The other Rocket Boys usually head down to the old Cape Coalwood to watch rockets being launched all day.
My favorite West Virginia reunion memory is … dancing with Dorothy Plunk, my high school “wish-she-was-my” girlfriend, on the occasion of our 30th Big Creek High class of 1960 reunion. I wrote about that moment in the epilogue of Rocket Boys/October Sky.
West Virginia’s best-kept secret is … it is filled with well-educated, well-traveled people who love to read and write.
Even when I’m away from West Virginia, I feel its influence in my work or life … because of the values instilled in me by my parents and all the people of Coalwood. They taught me to be proud of who I am, to stand up for what I believe, to keep my family together, and to trust in God but rely on myself. I wrote all that down in my book, “We Are Not Afraid,” which was a life primer for the people of the world unfortunate enough not to be raised in West Virginia.
Of my books, the Coalwood series — “Rocket Boys” (“October Sky”), “The Coalwood Way,” “Sky of Stone” and “We Are Not Afraid” — is an ideal homesickness remedy … because these books remind not only those raised in the Mountain State of their lives, loves, heartaches and triumphs there, but also informs their children and grandchildren why they should be proud of their heritage. A runner-up is “Red Helmet,” my novel of life and love in today’s West Virginia coalfields.