Virginia Tech Magazine
Spring 2009

Homer Hickam '64
Reflections of a rocket boy
by CLARA B. COX M.A. '84
When Homer Hickam's novel Rocket Boys, which is based on his experiences growing up in Coalwood, W. Va., was transformed into the movie "October Sky" and named one of the "Great Books of 1998" by The New York Times, Hickam's fame shot skyward nearly as fast as the homemade rockets he launched as a teenager. One of Virginia Tech's most famous alumni, Hickam (industrial engineering '64) has penned 10 books, both fiction and non-fiction.

After graduation, Hickam was a first lieutenant in the army while fighting in Vietnam, where he won the Army Commendation and Bronze Star medals. After six years, he left the service with the rank of captain. He next worked as an engineer for the U.S. Army Missile Command in Huntsville, Ala., and Germany, then as an aerospace engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at Marshall Space Flight Center, designing spacecrafts and training crews. At his retirement in 1998, he was the payload training manager for the International Space Station Program.

The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Hickam received Alabama's Distinguished Service Award for heroism during a rescue effort of the crew and passengers of a sunken paddleboat on the Tennessee River. The award spurred the U. S. Olympic Committee to name him to carry the Olympic Torch through Huntsville, Ala., in 1996. Hickam was recognized by the state of West Virginia in 1999 when the governor issued a proclamation honoring him for his support of the state and his distinguished engineering and writing careers. The governor also declared an annual Rocket Boys Day, which is still observed in Coalwood.

A jogger who accompanied the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets on a spring Caldwell March in 2005 (see Summer 2005 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine), Hickam is married to Linda Terry Hickam, an artist and his first editor and assistant. Recently, Hickam took the time to answer questions about his passions, influences, Virginia Tech experiences, and the "what if's" of life.

question You're known around the world as a writer, but what else do you do, and how did you become interested in those activities?
October Sky
The Far Reaches by Homer Hickam
Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam
Sky of Stone by Homer Hickam
Red Helmet by Homer Hickam
The Coalwood Way by Homer Hickam
We Are Not Afraid by Homer Hickam

A: Writing is my passion, but reading runs a close second. To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. I'm an eclectic reader and a lot of [what I read] doubles as research for future novels, but I definitely enjoy a well-written page-turner. Most recently, I've really liked reading the series set in ancient Rome by Steven Saylor.

Many folks know I've been a scuba instructor (now officially retired) since 1973, and diving remains a passion, although I confess I've slowed down a little. Diving came into my life when the army sent me to Puerto Rico after my tour in Vietnam. When I moved to Huntsville, Ala., to start work for the Army Missile Command, I met a gentleman by the name of Cliff McClure who ran a local dive shop. Cliff was a great scuba instructor, and after being trained, I began to teach at his shop. This ultimately led me to dive all over the world and, because of my wreck-diving experiences, to write my first book, Torpedo Junction, about the battle against the [German] U-boats along the American coast during World War II.

My most recent activity, almost an obsession, is hunting for dinosaur bones. I was introduced to this activity by Joe Johnston, the director of "October Sky" and a little movie titled "Jurassic Park III." Through Joe, I met the famous paleontologist Jack Horner and went out into the field with him a couple of times to see what hunting dinosaurs was like. From there, I spun off more or less on my own with several friends, and we've become excellent bone hunters, mostly in Montana. We've gotten credit for four T. Rexes so far. Of course, all our bones are turned over to Jack, who is also the Montana state paleontologist.

question Turning to your writing, have you been influenced by any other authors? If so, who are they, and how did their writings influence you?

A: Every writer is influenced by other writers they admire although the mechanism for that isn't always understood. I suspect it's an amalgam of influences that we don't even recognize when we write. I am an American writer and am fairly certain my influences principally come from other American writers such as Mark Twain, Jack London, and John Steinbeck.

As for modern popular writers such as John Grisham or Dan Brown, they serve for me mostly as examples to avoid. This isn't because they're poor writers but because they're formulaic in both technique and style. My writing career is, frankly, a publisher's nightmare since I haven't stuck with the genre (memoirs) that made me well known. I've written non-fiction military history, memoirs, inspiration, adventure novels, and even romance!

question Are there others who are not writers who influenced your writing? If so, who are they, and how did they influence you?

A: My wife, Linda, reads all of my stuff, and I appreciate her commentary. Certainly, all of the editors I've had over the years from my various publishers have their input although usually I try to turn in a clean, ready-to-print manuscript.

I suppose that in the back of my mind I'm always thinking about my readers. I believe they deserve an interesting page-turner, no matter which genre I'm working in. In my writing universe, "less is more" and "leave them wanting more" are two of the most important axioms.

question How has your education at Virginia Tech affected your life?

A: Everything productive I've done since graduating from Virginia Tech is directly traceable to my experience there. I didn't make wonderful grades, I confess, but I did pay attention and took away with me not only a solid engineering education but also a continuing curiosity about the world around me. Also, the corps of cadets not only gave me a sense of being part of something larger than myself but also provided friends for life.

question If you could start over in college, would your major be the same? If not, what would it be, and why are you attracted to it now?

A: I would still choose to be an engineer even though my natural inclination is toward English and literature. The way I saw it back in 1960, engineers did interesting things and I wanted to learn what they knew, figuring I could be a writer and a reader on my own. Amazingly, that's the way it worked out. These days, I would probably want to take some geology classes to help my dinosaur hunting and also would like to spend some time in an agriculture department since farming and animal husbandry are areas I'm deficient in and would like to know more about.

question What are your fondest memories of your years at Virginia Tech?

A: Oh, that's an easy one. Building the Skipper! Butch Harper, George Fox, and I, along with a bunch of other cadets, had a vast amount of fun building that big old brass cannon. I loved the 1963 Thanksgiving game when we dragged it out in front of the VMI cadets, who were chanting, "Where's your cannon? Where's your cannon?" I stuck a triple charge inside Skipper and let her rip: "Here's our cannon!" After the smoke cleared and the Keydets picked up their caps, which had been blown right off their heads, they were pretty quiet the rest of the game.

question Has anyone at Virginia Tech been a strong influence on you? If so, who? And how did they influence you?

A: Definitely my classmates in old Squadron A. Without exception, they were honorable men and still are. My entire life, I've tried to be worthy of their association.

question What advice would you give to today's Virginia Tech students?

A: Dig in, don't give up, and graduate. If it were easy, everybody would be a Hokie.

question If you could go back, is there anything in your life you would change? If so, what and why?

A: Well, I wish I'd gone earlier to zincoshine, the last propellant used when I was a rocket boy. We were just starting to understand that powerful combination when we went off to the National Science Fair, won that gold medal, and then graduated from high school. Who knows? We might have been able to put something into space! In later years, there have been things I've done that I regret, although that doesn't mean, given the opportunity, I wouldn't do them again. We are what we are, although we do try to get better.

question What are some of the most interesting experiences you have had because of your fame?

A: After Rocket Boys came out and then the movie "October Sky," many interesting things happened, including lots and lots of fan mail from people who liked my work. This, of course, was very gratifying. In terms of experiences, one of the best was being part of the 1999 Venice Film Festival. I hung out with Chris Cooper, Jake Gyllenhaal, Laura Dern, Tom [Cruise] and Nicole [Kidman], and other folks like that who are considered to be somewhat greater than mere human beings. However, every time I'm with such people, it reinforces my understanding that people are just people and there are no super people out there, with the possible exception of the young men and women who serve in our armed forces.

Homer Hickam at his desk
Another arena of interesting experiences is the paid speeches I've given all over the country. Those are always fun and gratifying because the folks who bring me in are invariably wonderful and treat me royally. One time I was on with Bill Clinton and gave the speech before his. I got a standing "O" and he got polite applause. Thank you, Miss Bryson, my speech teacher at Big Creek High.

Probably the greatest honor I've received was being chosen to give the keynote speech at the Sago miners memorial services.

Of course, every time I get a book published, it's interesting.

question What is the most fulfilling experience you have had, and how did it affect you?

A: Probably the most fulfilling event, based on the work it took to get there, was getting Torpedo Junction published. That book required more than 15 years of research, including some deep, dangerous diving. On the engineering side of my life, my NASA career had some very fulfilling moments, including training the first Japanese astronauts and seeing them successfully fly into space.

question If there is one thing you want people to know about you, what is it?

A: That I honestly don't believe I've changed much since I left Coalwood, W. Va., and went off to Virginia Tech. Well, maybe I've gotten more glib and confident, but it was drummed into me from my first moments of cognizance not to even think about getting above myself. The way they put that back in Coalwood was "Don't get puffed up!" Lord knows I've tried to get puffed up a few times, but sadly, it just won't stick.

Homer Hickam online

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