Author Homer Hickam Visits His Home State
Every October, author and West Virginia native, Homer Hickam, makes a trip home to West Virginia for the annual Rocket Boys festival in Beckley…but he also makes a point to stop in on his hometown of Coalwood in McDowell County during his visit.
Hickam grew up in the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia during the 1940s and 50s, when Coalwood was a busy company town and Sputnik was first launched in space. It was his childhood experiences that inspired him to write his famously known memoir, Rocket Boys later adapted into the film, October Sky. Since then, Hickam has written an array of novels including genres in science fiction, military, stories on Coalwood, and much more.
His newest work, just sent to his publisher, features a family legend about an alligator his mother raised in West Virginia in 1935, named Albert.
“My dad said, it’s either me or that alligator, Elsie, and mom, after a few days of thinking about it, said okay, but we have to let Albert go back to Florida," Hickam said, "And so they had this awe-inspiring, sometimes funny, sometimes sad journey from Coalwood, West Virginia to Orlando, Florida.”
Hickam says he first heard about his family’s legend when he was a boy watching the television show, Davy Crockett.
“I was watching it back in the mid-1950s and my mom walked in, and looked and said, I know him, and turned around and walked out. It turned out that she was looking at Buddy Ebsen, who later played the Uncle Jed in Beverley Hillbillies.”
Hickam says Ebsen and his mom dated when she went to Florida after graduating high school, but they later became friends. When she married Hickam’s dad, Ebsen sent her a very interesting gift.
“Buddy’s wedding gift to my mom was that alligator. And so, I started over the years to try to find out more about Albert, and ultimately it became a family legend about their journey.”
Hickam’s newest novel, Carrying Albert Home should be available around Fall of next year.
Hickam resides with his wife, Linda at their home in Alabama throughout most of the year, but during his annual trip back to West Virginia, Hickam says he always makes a stop to visit his hometown of Coalwood.
While Hickam says he’s always happy to visit home, he says Coalwood has drastically changed from the time he was a boy and sadly not for the better.
“Now, unfortunately, with the coal industry the way it is, Coalwood is just a shell of what it used to be, and it’s kind of sad when I go there. McDowell County, the population is about a quarter, I think now, of what it was when I grew up there, so obviously there are a lot of empty houses with trees growing up through them. The infrastructure has collapsed.”
Although Hickam is concerned for his hometown, he says the people haven’t lost faith.
“The people there are strong, they’re intelligent, and they are working hard trying to bring the county back to some semblance of what it used to be.”
Hickam continues to make a point to visit home annually, and he hopes that through the scholarships he has available at Marshall University and Virginia Tech that more kids in the coalfields will go to college.
Apart from being an author, Hickam worked for NASA as an aerospace engineer for seventeen years. Now, he continues to show his love of Space and rockets not only through his writing, but by working at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
Hickam is on the Board of this STEM based camp. He says they don’t get enough West Virginia kids, but he does see many West Virginia teachers that attend workshops hosted by the camp.
Hickam thinks educators in West Virginia and Appalachia who are involved in STEM teachings are doing a good job. He says however, that ultimately, success comes down to the commitment of teachers and parents rather than just the technologies available today.
“In my Coalwood school, my class, over 90% of my class went to and graduated from college. We didn’t have computers, the teachers had nothing but books and a blackboard and a piece of chalk, yet when I graduated from high school, I was well-prepared to go off to Virginia Tech and to the engineering school. Much better than a lot of the kids that were coming out of Richmond and Roanoke and Washington, DC, and you know the big schools like that. Why? Because we had dedicated teachers, and we had parents who were fully engaged in the education process.”
Hickam says after writing Rocket Boys, he never expected it to have the impact it’s had on West Virginia and the Appalachia’s, and he’s humbled so many people identify with his story.
“When you write about West Virginia and the coalfields and so on, the easiest thing in the world is to write about the poverty and the hardship and the struggle, and all that kind of thing…but what I write about is the optimism of the people, and the good life that they have crafted in the coalfields of West Virginia and the pride that they have in the state.”
Homer Hickam may no longer live in the state where he grew up, but he constantly recognizes and credits his West Virginia roots for making him who he is today.