Rocket Boys — the Pain and the Delights of Being Different
Establishing your own identity is one of the most difficult aspects of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. This was even more difficult for author and scientist Homer Hickman when he was growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia, during the conservative, conformist 1950s. The strength of Rocket Boys as a memoir is that it is a tale that is both universal and particular. On one hand, Homer must deal with quarreling parents, roughhousing at school, and insensitive authority figures like the principal of his school. These difficulties are common to most adolescents, whenever and wherever they live. But Homer’s tale is also set during a unique period of American history, when America was coming to terms with its role as a superpower. It was striving to be on the cutting edge of the race to conquer space before the Russians, yet it was also an era of “Leave it to Beaver” and following in the footsteps of one’s parents. Where Homer lived, the coalmines were the main source of the town’s economic and social community, yet working in the coal mines was no longer a viable prospect for long-term, stable employment.
Homer’s father was the mine superintendent. Homer Senior believed in the town and wanted Homer to follow in his footsteps. Homer had a clear choice — he could obey his father or he could obey his mother. His mother dreamed of a different life for her son, that he would grow up to fulfill all of her hopes and ambitions. She had seen firsthand the dangers of mine work, as well as the glories promised by the future of aerospace engineering, proclaimed by all of the newscasters after the launch of the Russian Sputnik. Homer’s parents were in constant conflict, and he could not ally himself with one or the other, without losing either his mother or his father. Homer’s father was such a presence in the town that Homer has no existence beyond his father’s shadow at the beginning of the book — even his teachers called him Sonny. Although Homer loved his father, ultimately it was Elsie who drove her son to the National Science Fair at the end of the book. While Homer’s parents both loved him, and Homer senior’s outlook on life seems hopelessly conservative, patriarchal, reactionary, and backward-looking in the eyes of a contemporary reader. Homer’s struggle resonates with any child who is the product of divorce, or simply a difficult home situation. Homer follows his dreams, but this comes to feel like a betrayal at times, as his father is locally renown for saving men’s lives when there is a mine disaster, yet his mother tells him to build a rocket in defiance of his father, because “I want you to show him [Homer Senior] I’m right” (44).
Homer’s life at school is also full of complications. Homer is not athletic, nor is his friends, particularly the intellectually driven outcast Quentin. Football players, rather than star students, are prized by his high school. Instead of than encouraging his early experimentation in rocketry, the principal Mr. Turner resented the boy’s efforts, and accused the members of Homer’s Rocket Club of starting a bomb club, much the same way Homer’s father’s friend Doc warned the boys that they would blow themselves to kingdom come. Mr. Turner only begins to look differently at what came to be known as the Rocket Club after the high school’s football season was threatened, because of the school’s poor academic record. Homer’s instincts and his mother’s wise words were correct — Sputnik changed everything, and America’s leaders agreed that America had to look to the future. Homer was a defiant boy of conventional wisdom, a rebel, but not because of the clothes he wore or because of his anger, but because of his determination to look beyond the confines of Coalwood and to use his mind.
Homer’s efforts were encouraged by his teacher Miss Riley, a rebel in her own right. She was a female science teacher in a male-dominated field, an unheard of profession in a day when the mention of a woman working was often looked at strangely, or laughed at. Homer was inspired by Miss Riley as well, and he later admitted, had a schoolboy crush on the beautiful, young, unmarried teacher. Miss Riley taught Homer that “learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it,” in other words, that motivation means everything (143) Miss Riley also made a special request for the ‘Rocket Book’ that provides one of the keys to the boy’s attempts to produce a realistic rocket, telling Homer: “All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it” (207). Homer’s efforts slowly win him respect, not just from Miss Riley, but also from the girls of the school, like his beloved Dorothy and even from the ‘bad girl’ (“stacked like a brick) Valentine Carmina, who protects him from the pushes and shoves of the football players (110).Homer, like any boy, wants love and respect and to be popular with the opposite sex, but he finds an unusual way to gain esteem — science.
With Miss Riley’s encouragement, the Rocket Boys eventually make their way to the National Science Fair. The boys won acclaim for Coalwood at the fair, and eventually the town came to respect its new favored sons. Once, the football players were the only Coalwood heroes, even though they were often cruel to the rocket boys, and made them feel threatened. At the end, the town celebrates the Rocket Club’s achievements. The Rocket Boys did not merely build a rocket, and realize their dream of emulating their favorite scientists. They also changed the culture of the town in which they lived, which is perhaps every young person’s greatest dream. The older people were wrong and the boys were right, but the Rocket Boys changed the world, not through mindless rebellion and negation, but through mindful and positive pursuit of a great dream.
Hickman, Homer. Rocket Boys. New York: Delta, 2000.
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