Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why do miners mine coal?

Or why mine coal at all?

Coal is a natural resource. It is packed with energy from ages past. When it is burned, that energy is released. Before there was oil or gas or nuclear or solar or geothermal, coal was THE mass driver of energy. Coal created the modern society of today.

Besides its use for energy, coal can be chemically changed into many products including plastics, creosote, napha, a variety of phenols, medicinal components, fertilizer, ammonia, and a thousand others. It is also required to make steel. Every day, nearly everyone in the world is either warmed by coal, use the electricity produced from it, or, without realizing it, is touched in some way by one of its byproducts.

Coal can be found nearly everywhere in the world. It is most abundant in North America and Russia. The reason for that is complex but has to do with the manner in which ancient forests were covered by the debris of the ages.

As cities and manufacturing plants grew during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, energy was desperately needed. Coal was there and whatever it took to get it, that's what was done. A lot of miners died and got sick but a vastly greater number of people were raised up to benefit from the new industrial age. Miners, for the most part, were politically insignificant but, for all practical purposes, built the technical civilization we enjoy today..

Most people outside the mining industry who think about coal mining and miners generally think about it and them in the way it and they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with picks and shovels and exploding methane and dead canaries and mules. In the 21st century, coal miners in the United States are much different. However, in the rest of the world, they are only a little better off. Russian and Chinese miners work in an environment similar to 1940's USA.

Modern coal miners in the United States (and here I'm talking about those who go underground which are the minority, most coal being stripped from the surface) essentially work in a computerized underground plant. Their environment is controlled and monitored by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a federal agency with much authority and an ability to shut down a mine that doesn't adhere to its safety and health requirements. MSHA has supplanted unions and forced modernization and safety to a remarkable degree on the coal mining industry.

American underground coal mines are marvels in efficiency. To work in them, American coal miners are thoroughly trained. The equipment they use, the computers they operate, the geology they learn, all are astonishingly complex.  They are paid accordingly. Pay for experienced miners is in the $75,000 - $125,000 range and upwards. It should be easy to understand why such trained and experienced people don't want to go into a different profession and start anew.

Coal mining is far from the most dangerous profession in the United States. Logging, fishing, garbage pick-up, truck driving, farming, and construction kill many more workers.  Water sprays and face masks, all required by MSHA, should decrease the amount of black lung in the future.

Most people think of coal as that nasty stuff burned for energy or electricity. In fact, there are different grades of coal. The coal used for making electricity is of a different grade than that which is used to make steel. Sometimes, coal that can be used for steel is burned for energy but not vice versa. Much of the coal in West Virginia is steel-making coal.

The coal business is going to wax and wane. But no matter what happens, the demand for coal miners is going to diminish. Every day, underground mines become more automated. Ten men can do now what hundreds did when I lived in Coalwood, West Virginia, and watched those long lines of miners trudging along the road that led to the coal mine, greeted by their fellows from the shift before them trudging back home. My father and others of his generation began the automation that ultimately would destroy the town he loved and make those long lines of hardy miners a thing of the past.

There is somewhat of a solution, however, for those who want to stay in that beautiful region. West Virginia is the poster child for sending its treasure out of state. If even a small percentage of the riches from coal had been collected for its people over the decades, everyone in the state would be rich and be able to pass it along for future generations. It wasn't. The treasure of West Virginia ended up in New York and Washington and Los Angeles and all the big, rich places. We hope you've enjoyed it.

For now, coal must be mined. It is a valuable resource and the people who do it should be paid accordingly and allowed to work. But, better late than never for West Virginia and all coal mining states, its treasure should not just be shipped out without some sort of mechanism to give back to the people of the region. There's an oil dividend in Alaska. What not a coal dividend? A percentage of every ton of coal mined should be returned to its people so that they might create for themselves a new future, free of welfare, drugs, and everything else of the dependent culture.

To learn a little about modern coal mining and enjoy a crackling good yarn at the same time, may I suggest my novel Red Helmet? You'll like it, I swan. http://homerhickam.com/project/red-helmet/

And there is the truth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

2016 Homer Hickam Holiday Newsletter

Dear Friends and Readers:

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays 2016 to all! Our lives have been busy and full and this short newsletter is meant to bring you up to date and also remind you that a Homer Hickam book makes a great gift for the readers in your family. For those who asked about our cats, they're assigned to the shipping department and are busy at this very moment shredding wrapping paper and boxes in preparation for the upcoming gift sales of books!

Knowink Shipping Department Meezers at Work

It's been Spring since we last wrote to you so I'll just hit the high points. First, we visited our awesome home in St. John in April to decompress a bit from the wonderful book tour for my big International best-seller Carrying Albert Home. We've completely remodeled the pool so enjoying it was a major requirement!

New Skyridge Pool

By the way, Skyridge is available for weekly rental so, when the snows come and the days are short and cold, go here  - www.skyridgevilla.com - to imagine what it would be like and maybe decide to come enjoy our tropical home!

The next adventure was my annual trip to Montana to hunt dinosaurs! Glad to say my buddy Frank Stewart found another T.rex! NASA Al English also joined us on this one and brought us luck.

Homer and NASA Al with Frank's T.rex find

Have you read my novel The Dinosaur Hunter? It's a mystery novel set in today's Montana. Not only is it, as the Washington Post called it, "a smart, sexy novel" (absolutely not a kid's book), I sneak in a little on how to find dinosaurs and what it all means - you know, life, death, and all that kind of thing. Linda has a Holiday special on it so from now until Christmas, buy The Dinosaur Hunter or Red Helmet (each are $25) and get as a gift, your choice of Paco the Cat Who Meowed in Space OR From Rocket Boys to October Sky! A $10 value! As many as you wish!! Both signed as you please and autographed of course. Solve your shopping list quickly in a very meaningful and special way with my autographed books. www.homerhickam.com/bookshop

The Dinosaur Hunter

Linda and I also ventured to Iceland in September with our dear friends the Mountain Marauders and had a most prodigious time! I'll be writing a book about that most excellent journey tentatively titled Iceland Full Circle so keep an eye out for that one in 2017!

Linda, Homer, and Albert in Iceland

Working with Dr. Alan Stern, I also completed a screenplay based on the life of Clyde Tombaugh who discovered Pluto. Titled Clyde's Planet, it's making the Hollywood rounds now. Producers, please contact my agent Brian Lipson at IPGLM.

We also went up to West Virginia for the annual Rocket Boys Festival (www.rocketboysfestival.com). Besides original Rocket Boys Roy Lee, O'Dell, and Billy, we were joined by the marvelous Chad Lindberg who played O'Dell in the movie. He was great and we surely enjoyed getting to know him again!

Chad and Homer

Speaking of West Virginia, have you read Red Helmet yet? It's also a mystery (and very romantic) novel, this one set in modern-day West Virginia coal country. Publisher's Weekly said, "The latest from Rocket Boys author Hickam takes an inside look at coal mining, from shoveling gob to negotiating international trade deals, through the lens of modern romance." I think you'll like this one a lot! And it is part of Linda’s special to get a free gift book worth $10 when you buy it through Christmas.

Red Helmet

And of course, how can I talk about books without again mentioning Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and her Alligator? "Albert" is a national best-seller and, in translation, hit #1 in Britain, France, and Italy! Next to Rocket Boys (forever a best-seller), it is my most popular book. Hope you'll include it on your Christmas list, too! Buy an autographed copy here. (http://homerhickam.com/product/carrying-albert-home-2/)

Carrying Albert Home

Happy Holidays to all of you. May there be Peace on Earth.

From the Hickams in Huntsville, Alabama, Ho Ho, and all the cats who own them!!

Note from Linda:

BOOKS AUTOGRAPHED AND PERSONALIZED BY HOMER HICKAM AVAILABLE BY MAIL Homer's many books can be personalized, autographed and mailed to you! Great gifts for Christmas, birthdays, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, special teacher, Father's Day, graduation and more!! If you want inscriptions on them, remember to add that in the appropriate area in my store order form.

If you do not have PayPal, you may send it THROUGH Paypal or send a check. Be sure to include any inscriptions desired and your mailing address to:

Linda Hickam
4906 Whitesburg Dr. S
PO Box 16053
Huntsville, AL 35802

Books mailed when payment received, so PayPal is quickest!

Thank you, have a great 2017!

Linda Hickam

Monday, October 17, 2016

Homer (David) vs. COMCAST (Goliath) print

After discovering my battle with the giant COMCAST movie studio which can't be named, the world famous caricaturist Don Howard stepped up to create a wonderful caricature of the situation. He casts me as David and COMCAST as Goliath.

I can't thank Don enough. With his permission, we're offering this print autographed by Don and me, on our IndieGoGo campaign.

Here's Don's wonderful work of art:

Homer/David vs COMCAST

Go here to find our IndieGoGo campaign. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Gate at Skyridge

The Gate at Skyridge
            When we became the owners of the house and property we came to call Skyridge in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, it had no gate at the entrance to its driveway which is approximately a mile long (OK, maybe fifty yards) and tilted essentially vertical (it honestly feels that way). Instead of a gate, we found a tangle of ugly orange plastic mesh stretched between two trees. This was, so we were informed, meant to keep the wild donkeys and goats from getting in which was an understandable precaution. The wild donkeys, lovable as they are and icons of the rich history of St. John, are not very good guests because they eat all the flowers within reach of their cute little muzzles and grinding teeth which leaves not only denuded gardens but enormous, stinky poop piles. As for the goats, they also eat the vegetation but have the further habit of falling into swimming pools and drowning. Goat corpses floating in one's pool are not what one wants to wake up to in the morning.
            The plastic mesh was the previous owner's idea of protecting the property against the armies of donkeys and goats that regularly make forays into the Upper Carolina neighborhood of Coral Bay. That meant every time we wanted to go anywhere, I had to hike down the driveway and pull the mesh back and then, after driving the car through, get out and stretch it across the driveway again. When we returned, the process had to be done in reverse, pulling the mesh back, driving up the driveway to park, then walking down to pull the mesh across the driveway again and tying it off. Not only did it require the stamina of your average Olympic long-distance runner but the mesh was ugly as sin and, anyway, didn't always work. The donkeys and goats often just hopped over it or mashed it down and came on up to see what they could see and eat what they could eat. That invariably meant many hours of work cleaning up donkey and goat poop, not to mention having to get new plants. Fortunately, no goats drowned after hopping the mesh but chasing them away was a pretty daunting exercise. Far faster and nimbler than any human, they were quite willing to be chased around the house as many times as I was able and still be ready to give it another go. Ultimately, it always took Linda and me in a coordinated effort similar to calling a Hail Mary play in a pro football game to get them headed down the driveway.
            One morning, even before we had time for a cup of coffee, we looked out from the deck and saw six goats in the driveway, contemplating life and our flowers. We rushed to defeat them. "You go left, I'll go right, yell, clap your hands, and herd them!" I cried as the goats looked placidly on, only reluctantly moving after we came after them. Even when we got them going more or less in the right direction down the driveway, they simply scattered into the trees, there to meander and giggle to themselves while probably also calculating how they might get into the pool to drown. Eventually, we got them down the driveway and I pulled the mesh tight. Hot and sweaty, I climbed back up the driveway to sit down on the steps and give the problem some thought, not the immediate goat problem but the problem problem. After a bit, I proudly announced to Linda my solution. "What we need is a gate!"
            "We have a gate."
            "That's a strip of mesh. I mean a real gate. You know, built out of maybe aluminum. With real hinges so it swings open and closed."
            "Sounds expensive," she said.
            "It will also be expensive when I die of a heart attack going up and down the driveway or we have to drain the pool to get out a dead goat."
            She pondered that. "It would have to be a pretty big gate and you'd still have to go up and down the driveway to open and close it."
            "No I wouldn't. I'll get an automatic gate opener." I cracked open my laptop and showed it to her, a tubular device bolted to a fine looking gate. A man and a woman were standing beside it. They were smiling and looking generally ecstatic about their gate and its opener. "Behold," I said grandly, "the Heaving Horse, the finest little gate opener in all the land."
            Linda peered over her reading glasses at the screen. "The Heaving Horse?"
            "That's its name."
            "Is that really its name?"
            "You betcha."
            Note to readers: It's not actually its name but I'm just trying to be nice here.
            "I know a fellow who will build the gate for us," I went on.
            "I don't know . . . "
            "Oh, come on. You worry too much. Trust me, it'll be great!"
            Linda arched an eyebrow but then nodded her assent and, before long, that fellow delivered up a fine big aluminum gate hung on a steel post. I was so proud.
            "I thought there was going to be an automatic gate opener," Linda said from the car as I trudged down the driveway to swing open our fine new gate.
            "The Heaving Horse has been ordered," I said over my shoulder. "I will install it the next time we come down."
            Indeed, just as I claimed, after we returned to Huntsville, the Heaving Horse arrived in a package. I peeked at it, saw it looked exactly as it did on the company's website plus also a black box filled with electronics and some power cordage. I didn't read the instructions in its thick manual. I was confident I would figure it all out when I got back to St. John.
            When we next arrived, I got busy installing the Heaving Horse. My buddy Wayne came over and inspected the assembly. "Where's the battery?" he asked.
            "We don't need a battery," I said. "We'll hook it up to the house power."
            "I think it has to operate off a battery. Look there in the control box. See that slot? That's for the battery."
            I shook my head and triumphantly held up the power cord coming out of the box. "This takes AC power. See? It says right here in the manual. Or at least, that picture shows it."
            Wayne took the instructions away from me and stared at the picture, then read the words beneath it. "Homer, what the electronics does is take the AC power to pump up the battery, and then the battery opens and closes the gate."
            I thought that was a strange design and said so. "Why use a piddly little battery when you have the entire grid to open and close the gate?"
            "Because if you lose power, the battery will still do the job."
            Unhappily, Wayne made sense. Also unhappily, the battery, naturally a very specialized one, was not included in the package. "I think I might be able to get one in St. Thomas," Wayne said. "But I won't know for sure until I get over there and start looking around."
            I approved Wayne's trip the next day to and fro St. Thomas to see if he could procure the battery. As I hiked down the driveway to open the gate, Linda called out, "Why isn't the Heaving Horse working?"
            "Technical difficulties," I said. At the bottom, I swung open the gate. It rotated easily on its brand new hinges. I loved how easily it swung. It was also good looking, too! I started to walk up the driveway but just as I turned to make the climb, the gate pushed up against my back. Astonished, I turned around and pushed it back. It swung easily and where I stopped it, it stayed. I pushed it another foot and it stayed. Then I pushed it another foot and it still stayed. Then I pushed it wide open and it didn't move. What, I wondered, had made it swing shut? Puzzled, I turned my back on it again and started up the driveway. I didn't take a step before I heard a creak and turned around just in time to keep the gate from hitting me in the back again.
            I hiked up the driveway, got a length of wire, and, with Linda watching me from the car with a lot of unvoiced questions, hiked back down and this time I wired the gate open. Back up I went and got in the car. Linda could stand it no longer. "Why did you go back down the driveway?"
            "To wire the gate open."
            "It won't stay open on its own?"
            "Yes. I mean, no. It's complicated. It will all be solved when Wayne brings the battery for the Heaving Horse. Then, we'll just use a clicker." I added my usual promise. "It'll be great!"
            "I'm sure," she said but it sounded like to me that she wasn't sure at all. Clearly, I would just have to show her.
            Wayne came back the next day with the proper battery and we inserted it into the control box and used some wire straps to hang the box to the gatepost and then Wayne hooked up the electricity. The circuit board happily lit up with some lights, some green and some red. I didn't know what they meant but I was confident I could figure it out. We bolted the Heaving Horse to its hinge on the post, then drilled out the bottom of the gate to receive the Heaving Horse piston, then ran the power and control wires into the Heaving Horse control box. After that, I got out the manual and looked at the pictures and fiddled with the little dials in the control box to set how long the opener would stay open and what kind of sensitivity it would have in case the gate ran into anything.
            All was in readiness. Confidently, I clicked the clicker remote. Nothing happened. I clicked it again. And again. Then again. The Heaving Horse sat immobile with apparently no plans to ever move. "It doesn't work," Wayne said.
            "I know that, Wayne, but why?"
            "Did you read all the instructions?"
            "Of course," I lied.
            Unfortunately, that was when Linda decided she needed to go somewhere in Dosie (our Suzuki Sidekick) so down she came, skidding to a stop before the closed gate. "Open, please," she said, keeping her foot stomped on the brake lest the steep incline cause the car to fall through the gate onto the road below. Honestly, it's that steep.
            Since the Heaving Horse was frozen, this required us to unbolt it from the gate while standing on the incline which meant if we dropped a screwdriver, it would roll for miles. Nonetheless, we persevered until finally, with some arduous effort, we swung the gate open, the Heaving Horse left dangling from its hinge like a freshly broken arm. Linda let off the brake and Dosie rolled down and then she sped off. We bolted the Heaving Horse back to the gate and I went back to puzzling over the instructions, this time trying out some of the words beside the pictures. "Well, I'll leave it to you," Wayne said after watching me read for a while. Absently, I waved him away and he headed off, no doubt grateful to get away from the Heaving Horse and me and the thick manual.
            Over the next two hours in the heat and the bugs and the tilted driveway where I could barely stand, I tried everything the manual said I should do and everything I could think of beyond. I fiddled with the dials, turned the box off and on at least a dozen times, unhooked the battery, rehooked it, and kept clicking the clicker. Nothing worked. In desperation, I turned to the troubleshooting pages where it had such wonderful advice as Does it have power? If not, turn on the switch. No, not that way, you moron, the other way. Actually, it didn't say that but kind of implied it. Finally, I had to admit defeat.
            When Linda arrived and beeped Dosie's horn, I once more went through the arduous process of unbolting the Heaving Horse so as to swing open the gate.
            "Doesn't it work?" she asked, either oblivious to the obvious answer or some sort of vile attempt at malicious humor. I was too tired to care. I had tools strewn everywhere, my tee shirt was soaked with sweat, my feet hurt from standing on the precipice that is the driveway, and I was done in.

Linda and Dosie wait for me to fix the gate

            "Doesn't it work?" Linda asked again.
            "Not yet," I said.
            "Why not?"
            "Technical difficulties."
            She smiled - this time I was certain it was a triumphant, nearly malicious smile - then drove up the driveway while I began to pick up my tools. I figured to give it a night and hit it fresh in the morning. As I bent over to pick up a pair of pliers, I heard a whirring sound and looked up just in time to be hit square in the forehead by the gate which was being pushed with all its might by the Heaving Horse suddenly come alive. As I fell backwards, my thought was, "It works!" This rather triumphant thought was, however, soon followed by another thought after I landed on the concrete. "Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!"
            The gate swung on, the base of it hitting one of my splayed feet, turning it painfully over, then heedlessly proceeding until it slammed into the post on the other side at which time it bounced back and started to close or, as I thought of it, came after me for a second try on my life.
            I scrambled out of the gate's way and watched as it swung until it slammed against its hinges, almost tearing them off. Unbelievably, even with an awful shriek accompanied by flying bolts and nuts, it started to open again. Crawling with bloody knees, I got out of its way, scrambled to the control box, and hit the rocker switch to turn off the power. The gate froze except for an odd trembling from what appeared to me excitement from its near-murderous rampage.
            For a long time, I sat bleeding on the driveway contemplating the gate while I gathered myself. When my gathering was completed, I collected my tools and limped up the driveway. "Tomorrow," I said to myself. "Tomorrow. I will fix the gate tomorrow." In the meantime, a wet washcloth and some antibiotic ointment sounded like just the ticket for my external wounds and perhaps some rum for my internal ones. Just as I got to the top, I heard a truck at the bottom of the driveway. It was Romney the gardener. I limped back down to disconnect the Heaving Horse opener arm and swing open the gate.
            Perhaps observing my bloody knees and other scratches and contusions, Romney asked, "Wha' hoppened to you, mon?"
            I told him about the gate. He looked at the gate, looked at the Heaving Horse, and took a step back. Then, he took another one. "Oh, mon," he said.
            "You know there be somthin' wrong down here."
            "There sure is. I can't get my gate to work . . . yet."
            Romney shook his head. "You don't know about it? You don't . .  . feel it?"
            "Feel what?"
            "This place, right here at the road, it's cooler than anywhere else around here. You never noticed that?"
            I looked around. "Well, there's plenty of shade," I said indicating the overhanging trees.
            "That's not it, mon!" Romney scolded. He came nearer and whispered, "Maybe a jumbie here."
            "A jumbie?"
            Romney put his finger to his lips in a warning for me to be silent, then climbed in his truck and drove it up the driveway, leaving me to puzzle over the situation. It was a bit cooler at the bottom of my driveway, now that he'd mentioned it.
            I looked at the gate.
            The gate looked at me.
            Was there a jumbie in my gate?
            The gate smiled. No, it grinned. An evil grin. It really did.
            I narrowed my eyes and set my mouth.

            The battle had begun.

Note: The Gate at Skyridge has its own Facebook page now, don't ask me why. To engage with it, please go here: https://www.facebook.com/TheGateatSkyridge/  Proceed at your own risk.

Donkey at Gate

Monday, September 12, 2016

War Story

War Story - 
    In my latest book, Carrying Albert Home, I make something of Kismet as the driving force behind the journey my future parents took when they carried their alligator from West Virginia to Florida. Kismet might also be called destiny but it is a little more mysterious than that. Kismet is mixed with forces that control us even when we think we are fully in charge. We make decisions to do things or we have things happen to us, all of which we think are simply either free will or random accidents.
    But they aren't. They're Kismet.
    Kismet made me a writer and to explain it, I have to tell you a war story.

    It was late summer 1968 and I was a first lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Division heading up a support contact team.

     My battalion called and told me there was an M48A3 tank broken down somewhere in the boonies and I was to get out there with my M-88 recovery vehicle and bring it in.  When I asked what was wrong with it, I was told a blown engine.  I was told further the busted tank's crew had hooked a ride on another tank and left it just sitting there, waiting for whoever got to it first.  Since battalion suspected it was probably best if it was the proper owner of the tank, that being the United States Army, I was ordered to get in gear. I therefore rounded up Spec 4 Cooper, my M-88 driver, and his helper, an ex-grunt named Blue, and we all climbed in the big armored vehicle (known formally as a VTR for Vehicle, Tracked, Recovery).
     It took a while to find the tank which was so far back in the boonies, it made me wonder why the armored unit was out there in the first place.  That particular outfit mostly guarded the convoy roads, not often barging through the countryside where they might be easily ambushed.  It occurred to me after we got there that what I'd done was pretty dumb.  Instead of rushing to the site, I should have insisted on a tank or two going out with me but, no, I'd just charged off and put us in a pretty hairy spot.  The tank was up to the top of its tracks in mud which explained its burned-up engine and also made me doubt we could complete our mission.  A VTR can pull a tank for a short distance but I doubted it was going to be able to pull this one out of all that sticky goop.  Even before we got started, I thought we probably needed two VTR's for the job.
         Still, we were there and we had a job to do so I got my guys going to hook up the tank.  We were just about ready to see if we could pull it out when a young Vietnamese man stepped from the trees.  I noticed him right off, mainly because he was carrying a rifle, and also because he was soon joined by a dozen other young men, similarly equipped.  They were mostly wearing uniforms of dark green shirts and pants.  My first thought (or hope) was these were ruff-puff troops which was what the irregulars trained by our Special Forces were called, the ruff for RF or regional forces, the puff for PF or popular forces.  Generally, ruff-puffs were a tough bunch but, also, in general, they didn't go around wearing uniforms.  I had to accept what we had here was most likely main force North Vietnamese Army troops.  This explained why the armor was out in those woods in the first place.  They had been looking for these fellows and now I had found them.
      Nothing happened for the next few eternities (which were probably seconds).  I was standing beside the M-88 radiator, Cooper and Blue were just a step away from the tank.  Had I a little time to think about it, I'm certain I would have concocted a plan for us to dodge behind the armored vehicles and then one of us scramble up on the M-88 and get behind the fifty caliber machine gun.  I like to think I was within a heartbeat of making that move (yeah, right) when the men simply melted back into the forest, disappeared, with neither sound or trace.
     Kismet. We were alive.
     "Let's get out of here!" Blue said, his voice cracking, and I concurred with his assessment.  We unhooked the tank, jumped on the M-88 and spun tracks with me on the fifty, swiveling it back and forth in case I heard that flitttt sound of passing rounds I'd heard a number of times before.  Blue took a short cut and about thirty tons of roaring armored vehicle threw itself up on the road, bursting from the jungle like a crazed green water buffalo, scattering Lambro motorized tricycles, motor scooters, mamasans, bicyclers, chickens, and pigs.  We kept going until we got back to the firebase.
     Later on, the armored unit would go in and retrieve their own tank with a couple of VTR's, three tanks, and two armored personnel carriers filled with troops.  They reported it untouched and some snide comments were hurled in my direction about us bugging out.  My response was we'd done exactly what they'd done.
       Anyway, I reported to the intelligence guys what I'd seen, they duly noted it, promised to be on the lookout, and I went back to work.  A couple of nights later, our little firebase was attacked.  My unit had responsibility for one end of the small oval-shaped perimeter and reported people in the wire, meaning somebody was trying to go through the concertina barbed wire, most likely for nefarious reasons.  I threw on my flak jacket, grabbed my M-79 grenade launcher, and made for the sector.  Flares were being tossed up, tracers were flying, claymore mines were being detonated, and everybody was having a mad minute of shooting. I flung myself atop a sandbagged bunker and started punching grenades out into the darkness.
       It was a long night.  Every time we'd stop firing, they'd start up again.  Eventually, so persistent were the people in the wire, I had to call in close air support, meaning Cobra helicopters. They had probably been itching to get into the fight because within minutes they swept in, rockets spewing with more than a few on our side of the wire which was plenty scary.
     After the choppers left, things quieted down.  I began to think we were going to make it to sunrise without any more attacks but then we heard something in the wire again. I unlimbered my grenade launcher, punched out a round in the direction of the sound, it exploded, and then nothing was heard again.  When the sun finally came up, we began to see what looked like dirty laundry pitched on the concertina. But it wasn't clothes. It was people.
       Grunts and medics were rolling in on armored personnel carriers to collect the bodies.  I walked down to the wire and, frankly, was not feeling good about what had happened.  Oh, I was glad to be alive and I was glad none of my guys had been killed but this was gruesome and I wished at that moment Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and all those "best and brightest" folks back in Washington could see what I was seeing and smell what I was smelling.  If only those folks who decide on wars would have to fight them, I suspect there'd be far fewer of the blamed things.
     But something else was bothering me. These were people in the wire. People who'd been alive just a few hours ago. People who had family and friends. I could reach out and touch them. Shouldn't I be feeling some emotion other than an intellectual detachment and an interior discussion with myself on war in general? 
      I walked to where I thought my last grenade had landed and was startled to find a little deer.  Its eyes were red fly-filled clots and blood was coming from its nose and mouth.  It was just lying there on the other side of the wire at the same place I'd launched that grenade. I had killed it.
      Without warning, the tears began to flow.  Pretty soon, my face had rivulets cutting down my cheeks through the mud and sweat. I couldn't stop.  Turning my head away so nobody could see, I walked quickly into the firebase, got into my jeep, and drove into Ban Me Thuot, pretty much hiding from everybody for the rest of the day.  I parked at a shot-up Esso station, and watched the Vietnamese people walk by.  I hated that they were caught up in this war. But I started to think, really think, about who I was and what I wanted to be. I'd been thinking about making the Army my career but what happened that night in Ban Me Thuot with that little deer told me I wasn't really cut out for it. 
      A few weeks later, they gave me a medal and it was time to go home.
      The flight back to the states gave me hours to think more about what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life. Stories kept coming to me, stories about where I'd grown up and my parents and the noble coal miners and preachers and teachers of my boyhood. I realized I wanted to tell about them and what I really wanted to do was to be a writer. It was the only thing that made me feel whole. The kind of stories I wanted to tell were about brave and good people, people who made a difference with their lives, people who weren't perfect but people who, when it came down to cases, would always come through and do the right thing.
       Later, as I walked through the airport in uniform to go to my next duty station, a young woman in tie dye and bell bottoms spotted me, hissed something, and gave me the finger and applied the F word in my direction.
       Welcome home, soldier.
       I just looked through and past her.  What she thought, what she felt, didn't matter to me in the least.  I was someone she could not possibly know, not after what I'd seen and done and thought and felt.  And now I felt maybe all that hadn't been in vain. It had taught me something and it had taken me to a different place and a different way of thinking. I knew now what I was always meant to be.
     I was going to be a writer. Although I had been trained as an engineer and that might be needed to keep home and hearth together for some years, I knew that writing was what I had to do. As I like to say, I wanted to be an engineer but I had to be a writer.
    So I began writing. I wrote articles for magazines about my travels and about scuba diving and anything I could think of that might interest the editors. I wrote for years for any magazine that would publish me and kept honing my craft. Although I had my day job with the Army and later NASA, writing is what kept me going. In 1989, I finally had my first book published, a non-fiction history of the U-boat wars along the east coast titled Torpedo Junction (still in print, by the way, and recently optioned for a movie).

     After that came Rocket Boys, Back to the Moon, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone plus twelve other best-sellers all the way to Carrying Albert Home.

      Without that night on the firebase, without that poor little deer, would I have stayed in the Army? Or would I have been an engineer and been satisfied with that? Had that little deer changed me so fundamentally?
     I don't know. Writing is such a huge force for me, I don't know if anything could have stopped it.
    Yet... that night did it. It made me stop and think my way through, to accept what I really wanted and needed to do. To tell stories of good and noble people, even when they don't know they're being good and noble.
    I call it Kismet.
    And perhaps that also helps explain why I get so upset when someone takes one of my stories and uses it in a play as if they could tell it better than me, as if all I did was live it and it was simple to write down. It wasn't, not by a sight. It took years of work and learning how to put words down that mean something, not only to myself but millions of other completely different people. And maybe it also explains why I get upset when those same people take my work and use it to produce something that runs down noble people like coal miners and the people who raised me and claim that they're doing it to make a "hero" of me. I'm no hero. I only write about them.
    But maybe that's their Kismet and maybe, if it's God's will, it won't turn out as well for them as it did for me.

    Homer Hickam - www.homerhickam.com

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Homer and Linda's excellent Icelandic adventure - Sept. 10, 2016

Sept. 10, 2016 - Linda and I decided to stay an extra day in Iceland, mainly so we could snorkel the famous "crack" in Iceland at Silfra. This is where the North American and European continental plates are moving apart, creating a glacier-melt fill of water into a narrow crack. As retired scuba instructors, we kind of wanted this one on our bucket list although we opted not to go on scuba - too hard on our backs since there is a long hike to get to the water wearing the tanks and weight belts - but went on snorkels instead. The water is pretty shallow so I think we made the right decision.
Selfie at Silfra

Linda ready to go into Silfra!
Linda snorkeling Silfra

Silfra snorkelers from perspective of underneath
Two continental plates, North America on left, Europe on right

Here's also a short video I made while we were snorkeling. It was hard to overcome the thick gloves and buoyancy of the dry suit so forgive me for the length and same shots of the same rocks. You can at least get an idea what it was like, though. Go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvZdN_h3wE0

And so that ends our Icelandic adventure except getting up very early in the morning and flying home. We look forward to rescuing our Molly from the vet where she's been staying since her verdict of diabetes and also cuddling with our other cats and also seeing friends and relatives. Of course, the studio that can't be named and their accomplices in San Diego have devastated us financially and emotionally but I think it can be said we have stayed brave while in this faraway place and kept our heads in a good place for awhile. Now, upon returning, we will continue to fight against the wrongs done to us to the best of our ability while hoping the good people in San Diego, especially the veterans, will take up our cause. I will also work very hard to pick up the shards of my writing career, now in shambles by the actions of the studio that cannot be named. Every time when you see the grinning mugs of the people singing about me and my family in their musical, think of the struggle Linda and I are now facing because of each and every one of them.

Homer Hickam - author Rocket Boys, Rocket Boys the Musical (rocketboysthemusical.com), the Helium-3 series (www.helium3novels.com) and many other fine works.