Note: This is a recent pitch or treatment of a proposed television series based on The Coalwood Way, the "equal" to my original memoir Rocket Boys/October Sky.
THE COALWOOD ROCKET BOYS
The Television Series
BASED ON A TRUE STORY
A television series is proposed based on the New York Times best-selling book THE COALWOOD WAY (Delacorte Press; First Edition edition (October 10, 2000), ISBN-10: 0385335164, ISBN-13: 978-0385335164) and the short stories of Homer Hickam about his days as a Coalwood Rocket Boy.
The series is set in Coalwood, West Virginia, a miner's town built to fit within a narrow valley surrounded by high, heavily forested ridges. Every house, fence, road, store, and church is owned by the coal company. Every man works for the mine. All the women who live in the town, except teachers, are wives of the coal miners. All the kids are the children of these coal mining families.
The episodes begin in the fall of 1958, a time of harsh economic recession for the coalfields of West Virginia, and the beginning of the space age in the outside world. Each show will draw from the rich lode of stories about the strong, proud, and rambunctious people of Coalwood struggling with the realization that their little town may be dying, and that their children are being torn between following the old life of their parents or choosing what appears to be a bright new future in the outside world. Across generational lines, a town begins to fight a war over its children, and a mother and father enter into a kind of bloodless combat over the fate of their sons.
Because of its unique setting, The Coalwood Rocket Boys will break new ground and will attract young and mature viewers alike, the shows spotlighting adults and teen-agers in turn. There are also many possibilities for comedic episodes, the book often cited for its ability to make the reader laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page.
From his room, teenager Homer H. (Sonny) Hickam, Jr., the main character (and often the narrator) can see the coal mine tipple, the black steel tower that lowers and lifts the miners' cage. The town is governed by the rhythms of the shifts at the mine. Sonny Hickam is a Coalwood boy, destined, it seems, to eventually join the miners digging coal until he decides to build rockets and someday go to work for NASA. He recruits his friends to join him in what he calls the Big Creek Missile Agency (named after Big Creek High School). Now, suddenly, Sonny and his friends, Quentin, Roy Lee, and O'Dell begin to look in an entirely different direction from their fathers -- up. Their determinedly optimistic plan to build rockets is set against a town beset with economic problems. Quentin is the prototypical nerd, Roy Lee is the most mature of the boy (he has a car and a girl friend!), and O'Dell is the scrounger of rocket supplies, always with a scheme.
The book, the inspiration for the episodes, has tales of not only rocket-building, but of loves won and lost, of family struggles between father, mother, sons, and daughters coping with great change, of high-spirited school classes and dances, of dealing with teenage bullies, of hard-working men in the mine, of gossip, of church-going, of preachers and prostitutes, of grand drama across a little town fighting a losing battle to survive.
Besides Sonny Hickam and the Rocket Boys, the main characters include:
Homer Hickam, Sr., Sonny's father and the superintendent of the coal mines in Coalwood. Self-educated and well-read but lacking the formal engineering education usually required for the job, he devotes all of his energies to keeping the mines productive for its owners and safe for the men who work inside. Homer is tough and disciplined and the heart of the little town. He is certain about every thing he does and thinks, including the probability that his dreamer second son, Sonny, is never going to amount to much. He dotes on Jim, his football star son because Homer once wanted to be a football star, too. Despite his hard manner, he has a softer, gentler side to him, especially for his wife, Elsie. We also see him grow to have a new respect for Sonny as the rockets of the Big Creek Missile Agency get more and more sophisticated and start to reach for extreme altitudes.
Elsie Hickam, Sonny's mom and Homer's wife, an independent woman ahead of her time and the only person in the town who can stand up to her husband. Despite her independence, Elsie Hickam leads a lonely life with a man whose first love is the coal mines. She is also determined that her sons will not follow in her husband's footsteps into the mine. She is seen over the years painting a scene on the wall of her kitchen, a picture of a beach where she hopes someday to live.
Jim Hickam, Sonny's brother, a handsome, girl-crazy high school football star struggling with his own sense of inadequacy by pretending bravado that often isn't there as he contemplates having to compete in the outside world and dreams of a football scholarship. He is outwardly disdainful of his younger brother but is mostly bemused by Sonny's energetic optimism.
Valentine Carmina, a gorgeous, sensual young woman who is nearly always in trouble with the high school principal and the managers of the coal mine. Sonny is attracted to her although she is from one of the poorest families in Coalwood and is not considered his social equal. Valentine returns Sonny's interest but doesn't share his dreams of space. She has her eye on escaping Coalwood and its restrictive ways by becoming an actress. She organizes a local theater group but runs into opposition from the coal company and the company church.
Jake Mosby, a young mining engineer, an outsider sent by the company owners to Coalwood for "seasoning." Jake is a great lady's man, owns a bright red Corvette, is a Korean War veteran (flew jets), drinks a little too much, and represents to the boys the wonderful outside world. Always a little in trouble with the coal company, he is somewhat inept as an engineer but is socially smooth, adored by the all the women in town (some mother him, others lust after him), Jake provides a kind of touchstone for the outside world for Sonny and the boys, often giving bad advice but coming through in the end to resolve problems both for himself and others in Coalwood.
Freida Riley, a twenty-one year old, bright and beautiful high school chemistry and physics teacher, who acts as the boys' mentor. She has Hodgkin's disease in remission. She and Jake Mosby have something going on between them, off and on. Besides trying to help the boys in a somewhat repressive school environment, she also has to cope with an almost assured death sentence from her insidious cancer.
The Reverend "Little" Richard, the black preacher in town who provides wit and wisdom to Sonny. Richard always has a Bible quote, story, or parable handy to guide the young man along the way. Richard must also act as the representative of the black community to the company. Black men work side by side with whites in the mine. All are black when they come out of the mine. All consider themselves proud Coalwood citizens. Yet, black housing is in a separate part of town, thus artificially dividing the people.
Lesser characters include, Reverend Lanier, the white preacher in town, Mr. Dantzler, the company store manager, Mr. Turner, the high school principal, Geneva Eggers, the town prostitute (she lives in a cabin high on a mountain), John Eye, the town bootlegger, Bill Bolt, the machinist who helps build the rockets for the boys, Tag Farmer, the town constable, and Mr. Dubonnet, the union chief (and a high school boyfriend of Elsie Hickam).
And so the drama for the series is established. As the Rocket Boys build their rockets, the town is changing, the people worried, the mine struggling. Yet these are a proud people who will work to keep their little town intact.
Some suggested episodes:
(1) Cape Coalwood: The boys' rocket range is an old coal slack dump three miles out of town. Elsie visits it during a rocket launch and discovers Coalwood citizens want to watch the boys launch their rockets but are hampered by the rutted, dirt road to "Cape Coalwood." She begins to use her time-tested ways to harass her husband into doing what she wants him to do and that, for the Rocket Boys, is to improve the road. She has the preacher preach a sermon about it, she "forgets" to cook supper, she takes Chipper, her pet squirrel (who Homer hates) to sleep on her pillow, and paints Homer out of the kitchen mural of Myrtle Beach. A secondary story has Sonny and Roy Lee trying to help Valentine stage her play. Since no one will allow her to have it either at a school or the church, she has decided to have it outdoors. For that she needs a place. Why not Cape Coalwood?
(2) The Strike: The miners go out on strike. Sonny ends up being in the middle of everything when he convinces Bill Bolt to sneak in at night to help build his rockets. Homer is proud of Sonny's initiative but must punish him and Bill, making the strike even more bitter. Elsie confronts Homer when the other wives stop talking to her and Sonny's classmates shun him because of who his father is. Mr. Dubonnet offers to end the strike for Elsie. Elsie is torn between two men, her husband who she loves, and Dubonnet who she once loved. Sonny must go to his father and take responsibility for the trouble. Little Richard counsels Sonny to have courage like Dan'l in the lion's den. A secondary story has Freida Riley and Jake Mosby confronting the fact that Jake isn't mature enough to stop his womanizing and commit to Freida. Freida knows that she has a harsh choice: accept Jake for what he is and continue to love him, or walk away.
(3) The Woman's Club: Elsie demands that the railroad tracks be removed from Coalwood after she observes the coal dust from the open cars covering a new-born baby. She organizes the coal company woman's club to lead a protest. Sonny accidentally gets trapped in a coal car, taking a dangerous ride. This not only gets Sonny in big trouble with his father but also gives Elsie and the woman's club fresh reason to have the tracks removed. A secondary story involves brother Jim and a girl friend who, desperate to escape her family, wants to get married. Hoping to get pregnant, she tries to seduce him. Jim is tempted but hesitates. Valentine tells Sonny of the girl's plan. Jim refuses to believe Sonny's warning. Sonny goes to Reverend Richard with Jim's problem. He tells him the story of Samson and Delilah and Sonny sets out to convince Jim that the girl will sap his strength before the big game, thus ruining any hope he may have for a football scholarship.
(4) The Truth of Miss Geneva: Geneva Eggers, the town prostitute, becomes the target of Reverend Lanier who is trying to increase church attendance. Homer (Dad) saved Geneva as a child from a burning house and has secretly protected her ever since. He must somehow continue to protect her while keeping the church-goers happy. Sonny is seen sneaking into Geneva's house. He's there to ask her to let him put up a wind gauge on her cabin so he can judge the wind velocity before his rocket launches but everybody jumps to the wrong conclusion, including Elsie. A secondary story has Reverend Richard and Reverend Lanier arguing conflicting philosophies. Reverend Richard challenges Reverend Lanier to trade churches for one Sunday to see who's the better preacher. Richard's style is singing and boisterous preaching. Reverend Lanier is a much more intellectual approach. The two congregations confront the two different styles with humorous results.
(5) Jake's Mind: A miner is killed in the mine and everybody believes that Jake Mosby's sloppy engineering caused it, including Jake. Freida defends Jake, even to himself. Homer (Dad) investigates. Jake helps Sonny and the boys with their rockets, trying to remember why he ever became an engineer in the first place. A secondary story has Valentine sent home from school for wearing, as Mr. Turner calls them, "Jezebel" clothes. When she discovers that Valentine has never been properly taught about clothes (she has been raised by her widower father), Elsie decides to take the girl shopping in Welch, the county seat.
(6) Superstition: Miss Riley receives no new lab equipment in her classroom. She resolves to teach the boys chemistry and physics by demonstration in the real world. She asks Homer (Dad) to take her class into the coal mine. He is appalled. It's bad luck for women and girls to go in the mine. Still, he's tempted. He wants Sonny to someday be an engineer in the mine. John Dubonnet, the union chief, talks to Elsie, making Homer jealous. Homer resolves to do what the union is against: agreeing to Miss Riley's request. The whole town is in turmoil as a result and it is up to Elsie and Sonny to figure out a way of getting Homer (Dad) out of the mess. A secondary story involves Sonny and the boys deciding to use a potentially dangerous new propellant. Quentin and Sonny begin a series of experiments in the basement, resulting in blowing up the Hickams' hot water heater. Now, they have to replace it, somehow. O'Dell proposes selling ginseng but first they have to find some and dig it up. It turns out the best crop is on Geneva Eggers' property, a place the boys have been ordered to never go.
(7) Tropic of Coalwood: A copy of Tropic of Cancer is found in Quentin's briefcase. In an attempt to get the boy too worn out to think about sex, Quentin, the prototypical nerd, is ordered by Mr. Turner to join the football team. All the rocket boys join with him with predictable and hilarious results. In a moment of insanity, the rocket boys tell the Big Creek "front four" that the cheerleaders would rather go with them to the Prom than the players. A bet is made. Now, the rocket boys have to figure out how to get the cheerleaders on their side! They begin a fumbling, bumbling attempt to woo the more experienced and cagey girls to go with them. Valentine takes Sonny aside and explains girls to him. She takes it as a personal crusade to get Sonny a date with the head cheerleader. A secondary story has Elsie thinking about her high school days when she was Dubonnet's girl friend and Homer (Dad), somewhat of a nerd himself, was trying to win her over.
(8) Is that Rocket Fuel or What?: Homer orders Tag, the constable, to close down John Eye, the bootlegger, after catching one of his miners with moonshine down in the mine. The trouble is John Eye provides the boys their rocket fuel - pure alcohol! His place is also one of the social centers in town. Tag lays it on Sonny - he's going to shut down John Eye unless Sonny can somehow convince his father otherwise. Sonny goes to Reverend Richard who goes to Homer and reminds him that John Eye is protected by a promise made my Homer's mentor, The Captain, just before he died. Seems John Eye saved The Captain's life. Homer is caught between his order and The Captain's old promise. He struggles for a compromise.
(9) Beware yon Dubonnet, with the lean and hungry look: Valentine puts on another stage production, a revised version of Julius Caesar, which makes fun of the coal company, the football team, the union, and even the woman's club (Elsie is president). Not only is that going to cause trouble all by itself, Sonny wrote it! After the show, he is in serious trouble with just about everybody in town. He decides to concentrate on rockets, not writing, but Freida Riley urges him to keep going on both. A secondary story has Mr. Dantzler, the company store manager, trying to sell television sets in a town set a valley too deep to receive TV signals. Quentin comes up with a plan to establish a cable system by erecting an antenna on a high mountain. The best place for the antenna is Geneva Eggers' property, owned by her and not the coal company. The company tries to make a land grab.