Friday, March 17, 2017

Rocket Boys Preface - Chinese Edition

Note: There will be a new Chinese edition of Rocket Boys during 2017. At the request of the publisher, I wrote the preface below to celebrate it. Rocket Boys continues to be one of the most popular memoirs in the world. Its 20th anniversary will be in 2018. It is my hope that the American publisher, Random House, will choose to come out with a special edition and a version of this preface can be included.

Chinese Rocket Boys Cover

Rocket Boys
Preface - Chinese Edition
Homer Hickam

            During the nearly two decades since the first publication of Rocket Boys, many literary honors have come its way which includes its choice by dozens of library and community reading programs across the United States and the world. This reflects the broad appeal and popularity of the work and its ability to connect with nearly everyone at some level. As the author, I have caught some of this reflected glory. I've been offered honorary doctorates, received countless awards, been invited to many towns, cities, and countries to talk about the book, and allowed to continue my writing career with a variety of well-received novels and memoirs. Rocket Boys, however, is the work for which I'm best known and probably will be forever. Something about it transcended even its author and touched the hearts and souls of people everywhere.
            My purpose for writing the book was to create a remembrance that would, at least in a literary sense, bring back to life the town where I was raised. When the idea for the book came to me, my hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia had essentially passed from the scene. Although some of the old houses were still standing, most of its people were gone and its purpose for existing, the coal mine, had closed down. Like many of the young people who had been raised there, this tore my heart to pieces. Coalwood had been a special place filled with a strong and unique people, something we didn't really understand until we had left and then looked back, only to see our hometown mostly destroyed.

Coalwood in the 1950's

            To tell the story of Coalwood and my life there wasn't easy. I like to say, only somewhat facetiously, that I received a million dollars of psychotherapy when I wrote Rocket Boys that I didn't even know I needed. It required me to delve deeply into family problems especially those caused by the long battle between my parents on how they would live their lives. After several false starts, I finally hit upon the best way to tell the story not only of Coalwood but also of the tensions within my family. This was accomplished by recounting my high school years when five of my friends and I got it in our heads to build rockets, an idea extremely unusual in the West Virginia coalfields. As soon as I started to tell the story of our grandiosely titled Big Creek Missile Agency, the words just tumbled out of my head, one atop the other, with an urgency that was astonishing. Coalwood seemed to ignite in the sentences and paragraphs that flowed from my mind. My old town stirred and became alive again and the pain of its passing eased in my heart as I relived an era when boys built rockets and a people ultimately rallied to help them achieve their dreams. It is a great honor that thousands of readers have written to say that after reading my memoir, they feel as if they also grew up in Coalwood. They tell me how much they loved the boys who built the rockets and loved their girlfriends and almost-girlfriends, and loved the teachers and parents and coal miners and preachers who came to life as they read along. In some cases, they've told me that the book actually changed their lives for the better. High praise for a book! These letters are worth much more to me than any royalties received.

            One unexpected result of the memoir was that many of its readers wanted to become part of the aerospace community. Although the memoir contains nothing of my future career with NASA, these readers felt the stirring within our teen-aged hearts to go into space. Of course, unlike the era of the Big Creek Missile Agency, the present movement into space has broadened beyond just the efforts of the United States and Russia. Dozens of countries have ventured into orbit and beyond with both unmanned and manned vehicles. Even private companies have gotten involved with such entities as SpaceX and Blue Origin fielding advanced rockets.
           When I recently visited the SpaceX factory in California, I was astonished and pleased by the number of young engineers who came up to me to tell me that my memoir was the primary reason they had picked their careers. Who would have ever thought a story of some boys in a coal mining town would lead people around the world to head for the stars? Teachers everywhere like the book, too. Science and mathematics teachers use it to teach the importance of their subjects and literature teachers use it because it tells a story with many layers of meaning during a time of change.

The Coalwood Trilogy
            Another happy result of Rocket Boys and the movie based on it titled October Sky was that amateur rocketry, essentially stagnant for years, suddenly became an international obsession. In nearly every country in the world, inspired rocketeers influenced by the book and the film joined rocket clubs and learned the secrets of propulsion just like the boys of Coalwood. When I hear from them, I always remind them of my mother's admonition: Don't blow yourself up!

Four of the six Rocket Boys
L-R Sonny (Homer, Jr.), Quentin, Roy Lee, O'Dell

            A group of readers who've also embraced the book are the many folks who have sadly had trouble with their parents, especially their fathers. In his position of superintendent of the coal mine, my father in the book is a man obsessed with the success and prosperity of the mine, the miners, and the little town. As Coalwood begins to crumble around him, the efforts of his second son and some other boys to seize a different and brighter future is a constant affront. That my father and I would clash is inevitable but how the conflict ultimately resolves is not. That is the surprise of the book, held off until the ending when the true character of both the father and his son are revealed during a special moment. After reading about what happened at the end, one reader wrote and said, "I'm going to tell my father I love him whether he likes it or not!" I have received many such sentiments, all amazing, emotionally powerful, and much appreciated.

            Rocket Boys has so far spawned three sequels, The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone, and We Are Not Afraid, one prequel, Carrying Albert Home, the movie October Sky, and a Broadway play, Rocket Boys the Musical. It has been quite a ride for this author. Mostly, I feel privileged to tell not only that boy's story but also that of his friends, his family, and his teachers during a time when rockets soared, not just to reach space, but to reach altitudes of hope and joy.

 - Homer Hickam, author Rocket Boys, Carrying Albert Home, & many more

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.

The wealth created by those miners mostly ended up in New York and Washington and Los Angeles and all the big, rich places. We hope you've enjoyed it.

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.

And there is the truth.