Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Why I went to Virginia Tech

         When I graduated from high school, I guess I was pretty full of myself because I'd managed to go off to the National Science Fair and come back with a gold and silver medal.
Oh, yes, I was full of myself...

       The other rocket boys and I tucked our thumbs behind our lapels and strutted around town although that didn't last long. Getting too puffed up is pretty much a West Virginia sin. Anyway, it's hard to strut around when nobody cares if you do it except yourself.

The medal and award which in my memoir and that movie was what all the fuss was about
         After we got over being sinful in that way, we thought we'd better thank all the people who'd helped us. That's why we set up a last day of rocket launches that I wrote about in Rocket Boys and they memorialized it, sort of different but almost the same, in the movie October Sky. It was kind of a big deal and the day had special meaning to just about everybody who was there, especially me. My dad came that day and, for the first time in forever, I think he was pretty proud I was his son. I know I was proud he was my father.

Homer H. Hickam, Sr. aka Dad and Superintendent of the Mine
         What I didn't write about and what the movie people didn't show you, was when I got home that day and put all the bent tubes and corroded nozzles and splintered nose cones in a corner of the basement, and Dad had gone back to work at the mine, and Mom back to work on her painting of Myrtle Beach in the kitchen, I went upstairs to my room and sat down at my desk and realized I didn't have anything to do. There was no need to build any more rockets, there was nothing to study, and I didn't have a single plan for what was supposed to happen next, mainly because of a letter that had come for me in the spring, one that I'd picked up myself at the post office without anybody else seeing it but me. It was not a happy letter and I should have done something about it but I was in the midst of building my rockets and getting ready for the science fairs and, somehow, nothing got done.

Sonny aka the Rocket Boy
         In such times when I had determined that I'd really messed up, it was my tendency to seek out my fellow rocket boys Roy Lee, Sherman, Billy, O'Dell, and Quentin to ask them what I should do. The problem was by the time I decided to do that, they were gone. O'Dell and Billy had joined the Air Force, Quentin lived in a town three mountains away and I had no idea where he was, and Roy Lee and Sherman had gone away to visit relatives. So there I was, stuck in Coalwood and kind of in trouble. After a couple of days of lolling around, playing with the dogs and reading novels taken from the stacks Mom and Dad kept around the house, I took a job at the gas station across the street to pump gas and change oil and put fresh tubes in tires. In the photo below, you can see the gas station with cars parked behind directly across from "The Captain's House" where we lived (the big house in the center).
Our house and the gas station as seen from the mine

         My parents didn't say a word about the fact that I was still hanging about although, eventually, I suspected they would want to know what plans I might have.
         One day in July, after a day at the gas station, I came into the kitchen, my hands still dirty from changing a tire, to find Mom working on her painting. She looked over from the ladder. "What now, Sonny boy? Wash your hands before you touch anything."
         I washed my hands in the kitchen sink, petted Lucifer our old black tom who was asleep on his back next to the refrigerator, took a deep breath, and confessed everything. "Mom, I don't know what I'm going to do now."
         "I thought you were waiting to hear from the Air Force Academy."
         "They don't want me."
         "Really? How's that?"
         "Well, it's Vice President Nixon's fault."
         Mom put down her paint brush and climbed down from the ladder and threw a leg over a kitchen chair and sat. "Do tell."
        Upon her invitation, I proceeded to remind her that I had wanted to go to the Air Force Academy but Dad wouldn't let me apply because our members of Congress were all Democrats. Instead, he'd made me apply to the Vice President, one Richard Milhous Nixon, who was a good Republican and could also nominate young men for the service academies. This I had done and, just before I'd gone off to the National Science Fair, the answer had come which was pretty much I'm sorry but you don't quite fit the bill. Of course, I would eventually exact my revenge of a sort by putting "Nick" in one of my novels.*

*Vice President Nixon whom I later made a major character in The Ambassador's Son
          Now here I was, working at a gas station with no prospects for higher education. It was quite a comedown but I deserved it. I made that clear by ending my discourse by saying "I deserve this. I should have told you and Dad." Just in case she didn't understand how really sorry I was, I added a little sniffle.
         During my discussion of Vice Presidents, service academies, and my general failure to plan for the future, Mom had developed sort of a cat swallowed a canary smile. "Well, here's the thing," she said. "It's not Nixon's fault, it's your dad's for making you avoid Democrats even though, just like the Republicans, they are as rascally a bunch as ever put their hands in the pockets of the working man. However, I know a sloo of 'em and I bet I coulda got you in, not that that it would have done any good. Your eyes aren't good enough. I read the health requirements. Did you?"
         I confessed I hadn't and watched her cat-canary smile fade into all seriousness. "You want to be an engineer, you have to go to engineer school. Heard they got a good one at VPI."
         VPI was the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, sometimes called Virginia Tech. I knew it fairly well because my brother Jim was going there on a football scholarship. He'd been offered to play football in a lot of colleges but had decided at first to go to West Virginia University to play for a famous coach there named Art "Pappy" Lewis that Jim idolized. But then Coach Lewis abruptly resigned and my brother, furious that he wouldn't get to play for the coach he'd wanted to play for, switched over to Virginia Tech where a few other football players he knew had decided to go.

Brother Jim aka the fellow who could knock you into next Sunday on the football field

         Mom added, to keep me from thinking since there was really nothing to think about, "I applied for you back in March, called down there and talked to Jimmie's coaches, and they went over to wherever they had to go and got you admitted. You're supposed to show up first week in September. All the paperwork is on the dining room table."
         "How did you know I didn't get in the Air Force Academy?"
         She didn't answer, just gave me that look that told me I had no secrets from her, not while she had access to my room and, now that I thought about it, had gone to school with the postmistress of the Coalwood post office.

Downtown Coalwood in the 1950's
         And that was that. I could always count on my mother to do the best thing for me even when I didn't deserve it.
         I don't recall doing much to get ready to go to VPI. I didn't read the literature she'd left on the dining room table. As long as I knew the day and time I was supposed to show up there, I figured it would be just like when I first went to high school. All I did then was get on a school bus and ride for awhile and then get off and walk through the door where the teachers and the principal were waiting to tell all of us where to go, how to get there, and what was going to happen. Going to school wasn't that complicated.
         With the money I'd saved from working at the gas station and also previously accumulated with a newspaper route, I bought a motor scooter from Sears Roebuck. When the September date for arrival at VPI rolled around, armed with a small bag of clothes and some pens and pencils, I started the scooter up and steered it out onto the road and headed off 100 miles away to Blacksburg, Virginia. Dad was at the mine and Mom was the only one to see me off. She didn't say much. I don't think we hugged. I do remember she came out in the yard and opened the gate so I could drive through it.

My scooter looked like this. I thought it was cool. I still kind of do which tells you something.
        Once I got going, I didn't look back. Coalwood was over for me, or at least I thought it was. Although I didn't see her, I have since imagined what my mom did after she closed the gate behind me. For a while, she probably watched the place where her little Sonny boy had disappeared past the first house on Substation Row. For all I know, maybe she even shed a tear but past that, I think she turned on her heel and went into the house, there to contemplate what next she might do to save her husband and herself from the town she just could not love no matter how hard she tried. She was done with me and rightfully so. It was time for me to take care of myself.

Elsie Hickam aka The Rocket Mom
        There was, however, a small problem. By the time I'd been accepted, all the dormitories were full and that was something even my mother couldn't fix. So I had to live in town in a basement apartment with another late applier, a fellow from California named Cecil C. Childress, III. Since I was officially Homer H. Hickam, Jr., at least in alliterative fashion, we had it covered.
         "Where's your uniforms, Sonny?" Cecil asked not too long after he'd welcomed me to our little underground space. I had no clue what he was talking about but, fortunately for me, it turned out Cecil knew a lot more than I did about Virginia Tech - which wasn't difficult - because his father had graduated from there and he'd been sent, mildly against his will, to repeat that experience. The uniforms I needed, he explained, were for the military units that we were both required to join.
         "Jim doesn't wear any uniforms," I told him.
         "That's because he's a football player. They don't have to be in the Corps."
         I had no idea what he was talking about and I revealed that by repeating his last word. "Corps?"
         As in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets which was, he explained, a completely military organization where everyone was expected to live like they were in the military and wear uniforms and march around and everything. I was astonished at this turn of events but, on the other hand, I supposed it was sort of like the Air Force Academy so maybe this wasn't so bad. The only thing was it was just so unexpected, I didn't know truly what to make of it.

The Virginia Tech (VPI) Cadet Corps which awaited me.

         And so it was that Cecil took me off to the cadet corps tailor shop, there to purchase two pairs of gray 100% wool shirts, two pairs of gray 100% wool pants with black stripes down their sides, one 100% wool blue dress tunic with brass insignia, one white crossbelt with brass couplet, one 100% wool overcoat, one dark blue cap with a shiny leatherette brim and a black leather strap at the base of its crown, one black rubber raincoat so thick and heavy I could barely pick it up, a white cotton belt with a wide brass buckle to go with it, and a pair of dress black leather shoes. I'd brought some cash money Mom had given me before I left and that just about depleted every cent.
         The white belt, Cecil explained, was called a rat belt. It was so that I could be identified as a freshmen or, according to the corps vernacular, a rat. That didn't sound good.
         A trip to the bookstore was next, there to buy with the little money I had left a liquid brass polisher called Brasso, something called a Blitz cloth and a jeweler's cloth to complete the brass polishing process, a wire gizmo called a Spiffy, and black Kiwi brand shoe polish, the only one, so Cecil claimed, that truly worked to properly spit shine shoes which, he said, I would need to do every day. By then, I was essentially in full zombie mode, just doing what I was told. Nothing seemed right but I guessed it was.

         Once back to our apartment with the purchases, Cecil looked over my paperwork to see what I'd have to do next. "You're in Squadron A over at Eggleston Hall which is in the lower quad. They'll be expecting you today. Let's get you fixed up and then you better get on over there and report in."
         "Fixed up" required the use of all the brass polishing chemicals and implements (especially to make sure my brass belt buckle was real shiny), spit shining my shoes until I could see myself in them - Cecil showed me how and actually did most of it - and tucking my shirt into my pants so that it was flat in the back without any bagging. Cecil also showed me how to use the Spiffy to keep the tabs of the shirt collar straight and properly flat, how to wear the cap squared away with the brim no more than two fingers above my nose, and, lastly, how to walk or, as Cecil put it, to "drag right" and "square corners."
         This was truly mind-boggling stuff. To drag right meant to keep my right shoulder next to every wall, and to square corners meant to sharply execute a right or left turn any time I wanted to change directions. It was, Cecil said, necessary for rats to always drag right and square corners any time they were in the upper or lower quadrangles where the Corps dormitories (or barracks as they were sometimes called) were located and also inside the dorms themselves. I don't recall if I asked why this was but it didn't matter. It was and that was it.
         After I got dressed up, my skin crawling beneath the itchy wool of the uniform, Cecil inspected me and said, "I guess it will have to do," and pointed me in the right direction. "You either go now or they'll come after you."
         I went but not on my scooter. Cecil said it was illegal for a freshman to have a vehicle on campus - something else I'd kind of missed in the literature - so that meant walking. Along the way, which was about a mile, my shirt sort of came loose in the back, and I guess I handled my brass belt buckle a bit leaving behind a greasy fingerprint or two, and I walked through some mud with my shiny new shoes (which hurt, anyway), and the wind blew my cap to the back of my head. I gave none of that any thought. The lower quadrangle, where Squadron A was located, looked like an ancient castle built out of gray stone and just as forbidding. I entered it, found the quadrangle empty, and continued to the dormitory marked with a brass plaque that said Eggleston which was where Squadron A was supposed to be.

Eggleston Hall
          There was a heavy wooden door which I opened and walked inside into a hallway that was so deeply polished, I could see my reflection. The smell of wax and cleansers was almost overpowering. Everything just gleamed. I spotted a fellow in a cadet uniform lounging beside a water fountain. He looked at me and his eyes widened. "Hello," I said. "I'm Sonny Hickam. I was told to report here. Do you know where I'm supposed to go?"
         Which was the last thing I said for a good long time mainly because for much of that good long time, I had a bucket on my head.
         But, oh, the adventures I was about to have over the next four years including building a giant brass cannon we decided to call the Skipper...

Cadet Sonny Hickam aka Skipper cannon boy