Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bill Bolt: The last of the great men of the Rocket Boys era passes

Word has come that Bill Bolt, the last great man of the Rocket Boys era in Coalwood, has passed away. Go here for his official obituary. BILL BOLT OBIT.

Obituaries rarely tell the whole story. Certainly, Bill Bolt was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. But who was Bill Bolt to me, my friends, and the people of Coalwood?

Well, that's a little more complicated and I don't pretend to know his whole story, just the part where he and I intersected. Actually, that happened three times in completely different eras and situations but all were interesting and I hope beneficial to us both.

In our first intersection, he wasn't Bill Bolt, at least not to me. He was Mr. Bolt just as assuredly as every adult man in Coalwood was a Mister to me and my boyhood friends. Interspersed in any conversation I might have had with him when I was a boy in Coalwood would have also been a lot of "sirs," as in "Yes sir," "No sir," "Thank you, sir," and "Excuse me, sir." Deep in our hearts we knew these gruff men cared about us, maybe even loved us, but we couldn't help but be awed in their presence.

Somewhere in our little heads, my youthful companions and I always suspected there was a bit more to our parents and the men and women who lived in Coalwood and, more or less, raised us all. Small clues were dropped now and again that the adults of Coalwood had been a far rowdier bunch before we came along. They were, after all, men and women who'd grown up in the Depression and then marched off, one way or the other, on the great crusade for humanity that we call World War II. They knew a lot more and were far worldlier than we were, or perhaps ever would be. They had seen the world at its rawest and its cruelest and had come through to settle in a rough little coal town that they proceeded to thoroughly tame.

Coalwood map 1959
used in
The Coalwood Way
There were hints of this raucous past. For instance, the little town of War, which held Big Creek High, seemed to me when I went to school there a quiet little place where people worked hard and minded their own business. But when a woman wore too much perfume, my mom would say she "smelled like Sunday morning in War" and then smile from what apparently was a not entirely unpleasant memory.  When I studied the county for my memoirs, I learned, before the 1950's, there were dance halls spotted around the county that featured jazz and blues bands, hard drink, and a whole lot of shaking going on. Oh, yes, there was a bit more to our parents and their compatriots than we'd ever know.

Downtown Coalwood in the 1950's
By the time I knew the men and women of my parents' generation, they were solid citizens of Coalwood, each with their place pretty much engraved in the ethereal version of the eternal limestone that was the foundation of the grand Coalwood Club House. There was the nearly mythical Mr. Carter, the founder of our town, Captain Laird, his successor and the lord and master of Coalwood, Doctor Labar (I called him Doc Lassiter in Rocket Boys), Doctor Hale, the dentist, and Mr. Likens, the school principal. And then there was also Mr. Bolt, the foreman of the machinists whose job was to repair mining equipment and even, if necessary, manufacture them. His redoubt was in a great glass-paned building filled with lathes, drill presses, milling machines, and just about every kind of machine used to bend, fold, cut, and weld metal there was.

Coalwood Machine Shop
Since all of these adult men were formidable in their own special way, we didn't tend to approach them unless there was an absolute requirement. I had no reason to speak to Mr. Bolt, other than shyly saying hello, until I was thirteen years old. He and his wife Reba lived then in what we called the Apartments which might be described today as Tudor-style condominiums. They were really quite nice.

Coalwood "Apartments"
At the time, I was the delivery boy for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. When I wasn't climbing a mountain of steps to deliver the paper, I tossed them from my bicycle. The Apartments were perfect for that particular delivery system. I even had a special way to fold them, a kind of tight square, so I could get maximum range. One morning, flying past, I threw a folded paper onto the porch of the Bolts, inadvertently making a perfect strike on a pyramid of milk bottles set up for the milk man. I didn't slow down when I heard the shattering of glass. In fact, I sped up. It was my sincere hope that perhaps the Bolts would think a mighty gust of wind had knocked over the bottles, never mind the incriminating presence of the Telegraph in the midst of all of the glittering fragments.

Except for the one dedicated to the mine, we had no telephone in our house but in the mysterious way Coalwood adults communicated with one another, my mother knew what I'd done well before I got home. "You will march right back down there and apologize to the Bolts!" she said upon me opening the door. "What about breakfast?"I asked, whereupon she pointed toward the Apartments. "This is more important than breakfast." "What about school?" This caused her to frown. Arriving late to school was considered a mortal sin. "Instantly after school," she said. "And don't come home first."

After school, I walked to the Apartments and rapped timidly on the Bolt's door while noticing that the porch had been swept clean of every bottle shard. Mrs. Bolt answered the door. She was grinning while I mumbled my apology. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Sonny," she said, "I know you didn't mean to do it!" Then she nodded toward the machine shop, less than a hundred steps away. "But I have to tell you Bill's pretty mad."

Coalwood machinist, 1950's

I walked the hundred steps to the machine shop with approximately the enthusiasm of a man on his way to the electric chair.  Mr. Bolt's office was in the back and, with my head hanging low, I trudged through the great machines, hardly noticing the shrieks and whirs and banging and clanging of the busy machinists. I found him talking to one of his men. At the sight of me, he scowled and waved me inside. The machinist left and there I was, standing in front of one of the great men of Coalwood who I had wronged in a most foul and obnoxious manner. My knees were knocking. After a bout of frowning and pursing his lips, he said, "You need to aim your paper better, Sonny. What a mess you made! And you didn't even stop to say you were sorry." I replied the only way I knew how. "Yes sir," I said. "I'm sorry." That wasn't good enough. "You're saying you're sorry now but I bet your mother made you come down here and say it, didn't she?" I continued my apologetic litany. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry. I really am." He shook his head, then said, "Mow my grass." "Sir?" "You have a lawn mower, don't you?" We did, the push kind. "Well . . . " "Mow my grass. It's a little long. And don't you ever knock my milk bottles down again!"

Young Sonny just a few years
after he was the notorious
Bill Bolt bottle buster
The men of Coalwood taught us kids lessons even when we didn't know it.

I mowed his grass and for as long as I kept delivering the paper, I was careful to get off my bike and place it just perfectly without any kind of mishap on the porch of Mr. and Mrs. Bolt.

My next intersection with Mr. Bolt was during the Rocket Boys era. This is well documented in my memoir except it isn't because I gave Bill Bolt the pseudonym Leon Ferro. I'm not sure now why I did that except maybe I was remembering how scared I'd been of him during the milk bottle episode. In Rocket Boys, Leon Ferro receives my halting request for help to build our rockets with less than full enthusiasm. In fact, to do anything for us, he says he wants to trade. He needs gravel for his back yard and there was only one person who could get it for him, my father. This sets up my need to go to Dad to not only ask for gravel but to give the machine shop foreman permission to help us. Ultimately, "Mr. Ferro" and all the machinists get fully behind the Rocket Boys and help us, with or without my father's permission. I enjoyed writing about the machinists. In a way, they're more heroic than anybody in the book.

It was 1999 when I next met Mr. Bolt whereupon he insisted I call him Bill. This was after Rocket Boys was published and Coalwood was celebrating its October Sky Festival. It isn't easy for any Coalwood kid to call one of the adults we knew back then by their first name but I managed. I could tell Bill was pleased that my memoir had brought what he considered proper fame to his home town. He had, after all, never left Coalwood even after the mine and his beloved machine shop had shut down. The following decades were not kind to Coalwood, years that included floods, fires, windstorms, political neglect, and corporate perfidy but Bill Bolt was born and raised a Coalwood boy and that's what he would forever be.

After we'd talked about this and that for awhile, he asked, with no small hurt registering in his eyes, "Why did you call me Leon Ferro in your book?" My honest reply was, "I didn't think you'd like the way I wrote about you." Bill laughed. "Aw, Sonny, anything you write is good by me." In The Coalwood Way, the next sequel to Rocket Boys, I gave Bill his name back by claiming "Leon Ferro" was a code name I'd used to keep my dad from finding out who was helping me with my rockets. Bill liked that. He told me so.

October Sky Festival Sign

I would see Bill every year from that year until this. He and Reba were one of the main organizers of the Cape Coalwood Restoration Association who put on the October Sky Festival. Bill was always there with a big grin, working as hard as he could to erect the tents and put up the decorations required. I never heard him complain, except maybe about his knees, and, well into his 80's, he worked twice as hard as any other man to keep the festival going.

Reba and Bill Bolt at the October Sky Festival in Coalwood
One of the best festivals featured Randy Stripling, the actor who played "Leon Bolden" in the movie October Sky (you know the one. It's loosely based on Rocket Boys). Somewhere along the line, the writer of the film got into a renaming frenzy, changing my teenaged name - Sonny - to Homer, my dad (Homer, Sr.) to John, Dorothy Plunk to Dorothy Platt, and Leon Ferro (whose name was fictitious to begin with) to Leon Bolden. I didn't like the other name changes but I didn't mind Mr. Bolden because, coincidentally, it was somewhat closer to Bill Bolt's actual name.

Bill Bolt and Randy Stripling,
apparently brothers from another mother,
share a laugh
Anyway, Randy Stripling didn't exactly look like Bill but, my gosh, they sure acted like they were "brothers from another mother" from the moment they met. Randy got up in front of the crowd and waxed on about how proud he was to play Bill Bolt in the movie, no matter what name was used, and the crowd, sensing the obvious respect and admiration Bill and Randy had for one another, reacted with prolonged cheering. It was a nice day.

Bill Bolt and his beloved Machine Shop
Here, he and his machinists
fabricated the rockets for the
Rocket Boys of the Big Creek Missile Agency
When Bill and Reba and the other Coalwood folks got tired of putting on the festival and the nearby city of Beckley picked it up, I still made a point to drive over to Coalwood on the Sunday after the event. There, Linda and I would sit with Bill and Reba and just have the best conversations. Only once did Bill mention the milk bottles. "I wasn't mad at all," he claimed. "I thought it was kind of great that you could hit them while pedaling by on a bike."

Memories aren't always true but maybe, in a way, they're truer.

All I know is that I'm proud to say I knew Bill Bolt, that he was a mentor who grew into a friend, and that without him, there probably wouldn't have been any Rocket Boys for me to write about.

Rest in peace, Mr. Bill Bolt. You and your alter ego, Leon Ferro, will now live on pretty much forever as long as there are books and people to read them.

Oh, and by the way, I loved you and all those great, gruff men of Coalwood. All us kids did. We still do... sir.

Homer Hickam

For more on Mr. Hickam and his books, please go to his website at www.homerhickam.com

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Introduction to Carrying Albert Home

Carrying Albert Home
by Homer Hickam (the younger)

     Long after my parents made the journey that is told by this book, my brother
Jim and I came along. Our childhoods were spent in Coalwood during the 1940s and ’50s, when the town was growing older and some comforts such as paved roads and telephones had crept in. There was even television and, without it, I might have never heard about Albert.
     On the day I first heard about him, I was lying on the rug in our living room watching a rerun of the Walt Disney series about Davy Crockett. The show had made the frontiersman just about the most popular man in the United States, even more popular than President Eisenhower. In fact, there was scarcely a boy in America who didn’t want to get one of Davy’s trademark coonskin caps, and that included me, although I never got one. Mom liked wild critters too much for that kind of cruel foolishness.

Elsie Hickam (my mom) in Orlando, 1935
     My mom walked in the living room when Davy and his pal Georgie Russell were riding horseback through the forest across our twenty-one- inch black-and-white screen. Georgie was singing about Davy and how he was the king of the wild frontier who’d killed hisself a b’ar when he was only three. It was a catchy tune and I, like millions of kids across the country, knew every word. After a moment of silent watching, Mom said, “I know him. He gave me Albert,” and then turned and walked back into the kitchen.
     I was focused on Davy and Georgie so it took a moment before Mom’s comment sank into my boyhood brain. When a commercial came on, I got up to look for her and found her in the kitchen. “Mom? Did you say you knew somebody in the Davy Crockett show?”
     “That fellow who was singing,” she said while spooning a dollop of grease into a frying pan. Based on the lumpy slurry in a nearby bowl, I suspected we were having her famous fried potato cakes for supper.
     “You mean Georgie Russell?” I asked.
     “No, Buddy Ebsen.”
     “Who’s Buddy Ebsen?”
     “He’s the fellow who was singing on the television. He can dance better than he can sing and by a sight. I knew him in Florida when I lived with my rich Uncle Aubrey. When I married your father, Buddy sent me Albert as a wedding present.”

     I had never heard of Buddy or Albert but I had often heard of rich Uncle Aubrey. Mom always added the adjective rich to his name even though she said he’d lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. I’d seen a photograph of rich Uncle Aubrey. Round-faced, squinting into a bright sun while leaning on a golf club, rich Uncle Aubrey was wearing a newsboy “Great Gatsby” golf cap, a fancy sweater over an open-collared shirt, plus-four knickers, and brown and white saddle shoes. Behind him was a tiny aluminum trailer which apparently served as his home. It was my suspicion that rich Uncle Aubrey didn’t need much money to be rich.
     Seeking clarification, I asked, “So . . . you know Georgie Russell?”
     “If Buddy Ebsen is Georgie Russell, I surely do.”
     I stood there, my mouth open. Giddiness was near. I couldn’t wait to tell the other Coalwood boys that my mom knew Georgie Russell, just one step removed from knowing Davy Crockett himself. I would surely be envied!
     “Albert stayed with us a couple of years,” Mom went on. “When we lived in the other house up the street in front of the substation. Before you and your brother were born.”
     “Who’s Albert?” I asked.

     For a moment, my mother’s eyes softened. “I never told you about Albert?”
     “No, ma’am,” I said, just as I heard the commercial end and the sound of flintlock muskets booming away. Davy Crockett was back in action. I cocked an ear in its direction.
     Seeing the pull of the television, she waved me off. “I’ll tell you about him later. It’s kind of complicated. Your father and I . . . well, we carried him home. He was an alligator.”
    An alligator! I opened my mouth to ask more questions but she shook her head. “Later,” she said and got back to her potato cakes and I got back to Davy Crockett.
     Over the years, Mom would do as she promised and tell me about carrying Albert home. At her prodding, Dad would even occasionally tell his side of it, too. As the tales were told, usually out of order and sometimes different from the last time I’d heard them, they evolved into a lively but disconnected and surely mythical story of a young couple who, along with a special alligator (and for no apparent reason, a rooster), had the adventure of a lifetime while heading ever south beneath what I imagined was a landscape artist’s golden sun and a poet’s quicksilver moon.
      After Dad went off to run heaven’s coal mines and Mom followed to tell God how to manage the rest of His affairs, a quiet but persistent voice in my head kept telling me I should write the story of their journey down. When I heeded that whispering voice and began to put all the pieces of it together, I came to understand why. Like a beautiful flower unfurling to greet the dawn, an embedded truth was revealed. The story of how my parents carried Albert home was a bit more than their fanciful tales of youthful adventure. Put all together, it was their witness and testimony to what is heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.
To order your copy of Carrying Albert Home, please go to my website right about here.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Southern Indie Booksellers, Crossword Puzzle Fame, Washington Post, and, of course, Carrying Albert Home to Readers Everywhere

I had a great time with the Southern Independent Booksellers in Raleigh and think I did some good for Carrying Albert Home there.

My part was to speak at the "Taste of HarperCollins Breakfast" on Saturday morning. There was a very nice turnout.

Here are a few photos of that event:

Albert and I are speaking to the audience at the breakfast.
I opened with the story of how I got my name and then eased into the story of Albert.
The reaction of the audience during my talk. We also cried a little.
I choked up when I told how it was I came to write the novel
and also read from the letter I received from my brother after he'd read it.
Albert at the HarperCollins book table at SIBA

Albert and I met our good friend Joshilyn Jackson, fellow
Wm.Morrow/HarperCollins author at SIBA
When the demand was such after my talk that they ran out of Albert advances, HC reps Heidi and Eric found another partial box. Those were mostly gone, too, by the time I'd left.
I talked to as many booksellers as I could. I promised them all my support.
After my talk, lots of store owners begged me to come to their stores. Since I think Carrying Albert Home may be my most important book since Rocket Boys, I honestly wish I could go everywhere.
At least, I was able to promise to Skype with any of their book clubs on Albert IF they purchased ALL their copies from the Indie store.
I strongly believe in Indie booksellers. They have hand sold my books (meaning when people come in looking for a good book, they hand them one of mine) for years and I'm deeply appreciative.
Of course, authors have to be open to all booksellers, the big box stores and even the big on-line sellers because they can make or break a book. At bottom, I just want my fans to be able to find "Albert" and enjoy the family legend of how and why he was carried home.
Remember also, wife Linda now has her own bookstore. To order autographed, inscribed copies of "Albert" and all my books, please go here: Linda's KnowInk Bookstore.
To all the folks who've sent me copies of a crossword puzzle that appeared in papers across the country, I did not buy the entry. If I had, I would've wanted my memoir to be known by its actual title Rocket Boys!
One Down

I had an interesting encounter with The Washington Post last week. One of its editors approached me to write an article about the travails of Ahmed the clock maker, a youngster in Texas who got in trouble for bringing a disassembled digital clock to school which some of the authorities there thought looked like a b-b-b-bomb! I thought it was all pretty crazy and, doubtlessly, the result of the zero-tolerance rules in schools around the country that substitute harsh measures for minor infractions instead of common sense. Since my memoir Rocket Boys has a scene in it where the Big Creek Missile Agency is falsely accused by the school principal and some state police of starting a forest fire, I assumed this was why the editor wanted an article from me.

I'm a fast writer so it didn't take me long to write the article, relating it to the story in Rocket Boys, pointing out that Ahmed was more likely the victim of zero tolerance rules than Islamophobia, mentioned that the folks who are behind Rocket Boys the Musical have offered Ahmed a scholarship at Space Camp (I'm on the board there, by the way), speculated that Ahmed was probably pretty confused about the whole thing, and hoping that he would be as happy at Space Camp as so many really smart (but often picked-on) kids are.

The WPost editor loved my article and wanted to publish it right way but then asked for a one-line bio. I replied with "Homer Hickam is the author of Rocket Boys: A Memoir and, most recently, his novel Carrying Albert Home."
The reply from the editor was, to the effect, that, no, they would say this: "Homer Hickam is a retired NASA engineer."
And I replied, in effect, "I would sooner die than have that as my bio. I am an author, a best-selling one at that, have been for decades, and to be identified as anything else is a poison pill for my writing career."
"But you are a retired NASA engineer, right?" came the rejoinder.
"Yes. John Grisham is a retired lawyer. Stephen King is a retired carpenter. Tom Clancy was a retired insurance broker. John Steinbeck was .... oh, never mind. Please, call me an author or you can't call me anything at all."
"You're pulling the article? We reach a hundred thousand plus readership!"
"Are you going to call me a retired NASA engineer and not an author?"
I pulled the article. Yes, I worked for NASA but, even while there, published Torpedo Junction, the best-selling book about the U-boat wars along our coasts during World War II. I am a writer. That's what I do. My memoir Rocket Boys and all the other Coalwood books were written to describe life in a small West Virginia coal town, and wasn't anything about NASA. My Helium-3 novels were written for a publisher who wanted me to write novels for young adults and I decided to set them on the moon in a mining town. Yes, I know a little about rockets and space and worked in the field for awhile but it's not my driving interest.
Well, I guess you get my drift. Due to the miracle of the Internet, however, I went ahead and published the article myself on this very blog. You can find it right here.
By the way, I've since found out that Ahmed's father is pretty much a jerk. I hope Ahmed still takes us up on the scholarship to Space Camp if only to get away from his situation for awhile.
October 13, 2015 is rapidly approaching. Why am I so interested in that date? It's the first day that Carrying Albert Home is officially available for most folks to read! There are a few places where it will be available a little earlier and you can see those on my book tour appearances list on HomerHickam.com but for the most part, that date is the magic date.

In a way, "Albert" is already a hit. The novel has 14 International publishers (more than Rocket Boys after nearly twenty years!). It has also been selected by a major book club (will announce which later), given several major awards (more on that, can't tell you yet), and will be a Reader's Digest Condensed book!
However, no book is a hit until and unless it is purchased and read. It is my sincere hope that you will read "Albert" and my sincere belief that you will enjoy it. I promise it will make you laugh and it may even make you cry.
Did I mention for autographed, inscribed copies of Carrying Albert Home, don't forget Linda and her very own bookstore? Go here to shop for Christmas, birthdays, and all holidays. Of course, all the other bookselling outlets will be available (alphabetically, note): Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, and the Indies, too. You can find them all on www.homerhickam.com.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

For your consideration: A few more preview pages from Carrying Albert Home

Dear friends:

Less than a month until Carrying Albert Home is released. October 13, 2015. I am so pleased at the reception of my novel already. 

The Cover for the USA edition

As of today, there are 11 International and three English versions, American, International (for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries) and United Kingdom for England.

The cover for the UK edition

It is to be a Reader's Digest condensed book.

"Albert" has also been picked for a number of awards and honors I can't yet announce.

But what is Carrying Albert Home? Is it a memoir? Is it a prequel to Rocket Boys/October Sky? Is it a love story? An adventure story? A story of high drama? A story of great joy? A story of heartbreak? Yes to all, or, as Albert would say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"

When I began to gather the bits and pieces of the stories about Albert told me over decades by my parents, I realized they had sent me a message from beyond the grave. In a very real way, I had unraveled, not the Da Vinci Code, but the Albert Code.

And what was this message? Put all together, it was the witness and testimony by Homer and Elsie Hickam to what is heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.

The accolades continue to pour in from the booksellers who've read the advance of "Albert," such as this one:

“I loved Homer Hickam's new book "Carrying Albert Home."  A road trip not soon forgotten !  I loved the madcap adventures that Elsie and Homer fell into along the way.  There was also the bittersweet and tender reawakening of their relationship as the trip progressed.  I think this one is a winner ~ I couldn't put it down.”
*-Lake Forest Bookstore, Lake Forest IL*

Please enjoy these few preview pages. To establish the setting, it's 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Homer and Elsie (my future parents) are trying to carry Albert, an alligator who's a gift to her from a former boyfriend (the actor Buddy Ebsen), back home to Florida. But all is not well with them. Their marriage is coming apart and now they find themselves amongst radicals in North Carolina who are trying to organize workers to fight the owner of a small sock mill for better wages and conditions. After Homer is mistaken for a "party" leader who is an expert on explosives, the radicals won't let them leave. When Homer and John Steinbeck (the writer they've picked up from a camp of starving migrants) go to the sock mill to see if they can reason with its owner, Elsie is left with Malcolm, the leader of the radicals. Although she has little respect for Malcolm, she feels the stirring within her of a true revolutionary. Before long, she has organized the listless strikers and is leading a march on the mill.

And so the story continues...


    Elsie and Malcolm were in the first line of strikers marching up to the gate of the Stroop Sock Mill. Most of the others were holding back. Although they’d been excited when they’d left the camp, their spirits had ebbed as they neared the mill. Their chants were listless, their signs drooping. To revive their spirits, Elsie jabbed her sign—which said Stroop is a ratt!—at the sky and yelled, “Stay with me, men. Stay with me and we can win!”
    Beside her, Albert was in his washtub atop a toy wagon pulled by one of the strikers. A sign attached to the wagon read Take a bite out of unfairness. Another man carried a bucket of water to keep Albert cool. “How did you get them to do that?” Malcolm asked Elsie out of the side of his mouth.
    “I just asked.”
    “Elsie, do you have any idea the power you have over men?”
    “And do you have any idea the power you men have over all of us women? Let me tell you, the day will come when that will change.”
    Before Malcolm could reply, if he had a reply, the strikers stumbled to a halt, their cries winding down to mumbled imprecations. Stroop had appeared behind the fence with his big, rough-looking bodyguards. Homer and Steinbeck were also there.
    The gate opened to let Homer and the writer out. “You shouldn’t be here, Elsie,” Homer said, then noticed her sign. “There’s only one t in rat.”
    “I know that. I was going to write ‘rattlesnake’ and ran out of room.”
    Homer took her arm. “You’re going with me.”
    She pulled away. “No, I’m not. The only reason these men came here was because of me.”
    “That’s kind of true,” Malcolm admitted.
   “You keep out of it, Malcolm,” Homer snapped. “This is between me and my wife.” He leaned over and spoke into Elsie’s ear. “Why are you doing this? Are you trying to put me in my place?”
    “No, to put me in mine.” She pushed past Homer to confront the owner. “You are a mean man, Mr. Stroop, and so are your scabs!”
   “Woman, be careful!” Stroop snarled. “I respect women but when you pick up a sign and start waving it at me, you get on my wrong side!”
    “All your sides are wrong!” Elsie yelled, then turned and addressed the strikers. “Listen to me! Here he is! Stroop! He’s taken away your jobs and given them to scabs. You said you weren’t going to take it.”
    A voice rang out. “No, we’re not going to take it!”
    “Don’t tell me. Tell him!”
    A quiet, almost apologetic chant began. “Not going to take it. Not going to take it.”
    “For crying out loud!” Elsie shouted. “Pick it up! No more scabs!”
    The cries became a little louder. “No more scabs! No more scabs!”
    “Elsie, you’re playing into Stroop’s hands,” Homer said. “Look at him grinning. He’s going to unleash his men.”
    Elsie ignored her husband, threw down her sign, and cupped her mouth with both hands. “Take the mill! Take the mill!”
    “Stop it, Elsie,” Homer said.
    “Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t ever tell me what to do!”
    “I’m your husband. That’s my job.”
    Elsie glared at Homer and Homer glared at Elsie as the strikers and Stroop and Malcolm and even the mill turned into a gray, inconsequential mist that all but ceased existing around them.
    “Buddy wouldn’t tell me what to do,” she said.
    Homer’s eyes turned to blue ice. “Buddy isn’t here. He’s in New York dancing with other women. Lots of other women.”
    “You don’t know that.”
    “Maybe not, but I think you do.”
    Suddenly, the mist dissolved and everything around them snapped back into focus. Stroop gave his order and his guards burst through the gate. They threw punches at the strikers and knocked them down and stomped on them. Rocks, hurled by both sides, started flying and one of them sailed in and struck Elsie on her head. “Oh,” she said in a small, surprised voice and started to fall but Homer caught her, hooked his arm into hers, and grabbed the handle of Albert’s wagon. Homer half-carried Elsie and pulled Albert through the battle until they were clear.
    In a little woods nearby, Homer sat Elsie down against a tree. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
    Confused, she stared at him. “Does what hurt?”
   He took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the wound on her head. The handkerchief came away bloody. When he showed it to her, Elsie, undaunted, struggled to rise.
    “Stay down,” Homer said, pushing her back. “You got hit by a rock.”
    “I don’t care,” she protested. “My men are getting the worse of it.”
   Homer looked over his shoulder. The strikers had broken, their signs thrown down and trampled. The only ones left behind were either lying in the street or limping away. “They’ve been beaten,” he said. “It’s over.”
    “It’s not right,” Elsie said in disbelief. “Stroop should lose but instead he’s won.” She looked up at Homer. “And you won’t help, will you? You’re on his side. You’re a . . . a capitalist.”
    Homer held her close but didn’t say anything. Elsie looked over his shoulder and saw the men straggling away, some of them helping others but mostly by themselves. Stroop’s strikebreakers were walking around, laughing and tossing the signs into a heap. “What’s wrong with this world, Homer?” she whispered.
    “Nothing you can fix, Elsie.”
    “Why not?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “You’re supposed to know. You’re my husband.”
    Homer didn’t say anything. He just held her tighter.


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