Homer has just learned that there was an accident at the mine—two fans were struck by lighting, and as a result the mine was no longer ventilated. Workers are trapped without a source of oxygen, and could die soon. As Elsie explains all of this to Homer, Homer Sr. rushes through the kitchen, about to head to the mine. Elsie sends Homer to bed, reminding him not to go out that night.
Homer Sr. may not always show his love for Homer, but he distinguishes himself as a good man in other ways. Here, he shows incalculable bravery by risking his life to save the men in the Coalwood mine. Even if Homer hates his father for ignoring him, he’s forced to respect him for his courage.
Homer goes to bed, still thinking about Valentine. He’s forgotten about Dorothy forever, he realizes—he’ll never be able to look at her now that she’s gone out with his brother. Even his romance with Valentine seems curiously sad, he thinks—Valentine seemed almost to pity him when she said goodnight.
It’s interesting that Homer remembers this detail of his night with Valentine after he’s gone home. Perhaps the accident at the mine makes his own problems seem small, and he sees the experience in a more negative light.
Unable to sleep, Homer decides to slip out of his room and walk toward the mine. There, he sees Mr. Van Dyke standing with a group of engineers and miners. One old miner is trying to argue that the trapped miners still have a chance—they can drill a small hole that connects to a ventilation shaft, giving them a source of air. Horrified, Homer sees Mrs. Bykovski without her husband, and realizes that he must be trapped underground.
Homer’s discovery about Mr. Bykovski triggers a wave of guilt. Because Homer’s misdeeds supposedly resulted in Mr. Bykovski’s being condemned to work in the mine, Homer immediately blames himself for Mr. Bykovski’s predicament—ignoring Homer Sr.’s more active role in the situation.
Suddenly, Homer hears a shout—it’s his mother, furious that Homer has disobeyed her. Homer tries to argue that he was worried about his father, but Elsie insists that Homer only worries about himself. As they argue, the miners hoist a few of their trapped coworkers up. Homer notices Mr. Bykovski being carried away on a stretcher. There are cries that everyone else is alive—cries which traumatize Homer, because they confirm that Bykovski is dead. Then, Homer sees his father—he’s wearing a bloody bandage over his eye. As Homer Sr. walks away, “Doc” Lassiter whispers to Homer that a dozen men would have died tonight if it hadn’t been for Homer Sr.
Elsie’s accusation that Homer only thinks about himself comes as a surprise, since Homer doesn’t seem to have done anything overtly selfish in Rocket Boys. Yet we are also seeing the story from Homer’s point of view, so he might be totally unaware of how his actions or self-absorption affect others. Even if he’s been selfish in the past, however, Homer has shown great moral progress in recent chapters, expressing his sincere sympathy for other people in a way he was unable to before.
Homer begins to cry, and he tearfully explains that if it hadn’t been for him, Mr. Bykovski wouldn’t have been relegated to the mines, and wouldn’t have been injured. Doc insists that Mr. Bykovski built Homer’s rockets because he wanted Homer to be happy. Doc warns that if he ever sees Homer crying again, he’ll hit him.
Here the people of Coalwood (represented by Doc) encourage Homer to continue with his rockets and stop feeling sorry for himself. It may seem insensitive for Doc to threaten to hit Homer in this period of anxiety and sadness, but there also seems to be something selfish and childish about Homer’s depression—focusing on himself instead of Mr. Bykovski and rocketry.
The next day, Homer Sr. goes to the hospital. Homer visits him many times. At the same time, he realizes that he’s changed enormously in the past few days. He begins to think that he’ll never be able to change his life—instead, he just feels guilty and sorry for himself.
Despite Doc’s warning, Homer does indeed start to feel sorry for himself—but in a way, he’s been doing this for some time, as when he tried to use his anger at his father as a motivation to build more rockets—in essence letting a strong “negative emotion” guide his behavior. The same criticisms that Doc made of Homer as a child Hickam now makes of himself.