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


  1. Thank you for this magnificent story....
    Rest peacefully, Mr. Bolt!

  2. Great memory of Bill and Coalwood. Heaven gained a great man. I bet he is sharing some of those stories in Heaven that he shared with you.