Homer Sr.’s eye hasn’t healed properly since the mining accident—he can’t see clearly, and probably never will. Elsie is angry with him for risking his life to save the miners, but she’s polite to him. In general, Homer’s family is cold and quiet: they almost never eat together, and while Homer is polite with his parents, he’s not warm or trusting.
In a way, the icy “equilibrium” in which the Hickams find themselves is worse than any one of their arguments. At least in the aftermath of an argument the two sides can reconcile, or reach a grudging truce. Here, the Hickams are just quietly, passively irritated with each other.
One day, Homer is hitchhiking to school, having missed his bus because Jim took too long in the shower. As he’s walking, he notices Jake driving his Corvette. He hops in the car—this is the first time he’s seen Jake since the accident. Jake drives to Big Creek, past Geneva Eggers’s house. Jake greets Geneva like an old friend, and she seems happy to see both Homer and Jake.
Jake has been a force for good in Homer’s life so far, but it remains to be seen if he can continue to cheer up Homer. Clearly, Jake patronizes Geneva’s house (or brothel), and takes advantage of her services. (Hickam plays Jake’s philandering and romantic tastes for laughs, and this section is no exception.)
At school, Jake walks Homer to chemistry. There, he seems pleased to meet Miss Riley—Homer notices that they make eye contact for a split-second too long. Jake talks to Miss Riley warmly, and Miss Riley replies in a voice sweeter than any she’s ever used in class. As he leaves the class, Jake whispers to Homer that he’ll drive him to school as often as he wants. Shortly thereafter, Homer reports, Jake and Miss Riley begin dating.
It’s strangely refreshing to see Miss Riley show interest in Jake, and vice versa. Miss Riley has done so much for Homer and his friends that she seems almost more like a saint, and less like a human with her own needs and desires. Even so, it’s a little strange to see her attracted to Jake—especially after learning of his familiarity with the brothel.
As the boys’ junior year draws to a close, the BCMA discusses its next steps. They need zinc and sulfate, as well as more scrap iron—and they still need to find a way to pay off Mr. Van Dyke. O’Dell explains that they can pay off their debt by finding and selling the scrap iron buried out by the railroad tracks: there are dozens of defunct iron drainage pipes there. The group agrees to this plan, since, O’Dell insists, it’s perfectly legal.
As the BCMA proceeds with its rocket research, the various members of the group distinguish themselves. Here, O’Dell proves his value by suggesting a perfectly legal, straightforward method of getting money to pay off Mr. Van Dyke.
At the end of the June, the BCMA drives out to the abandoned tracks. There, they camp out with food and sleeping bags, knowing that it’ll take hours to find the pipes. The boys dig ten feet into the ground before they find what they’re looking for. They spend days digging up the area, while their food dries up and eventually gets moldy. Despite the rain and lack of food, Homer loves his camping experiences—he didn’t realize how miserable he’d been since the accident in the mine. Now, he can enjoy swimming in the nearby river, spending time with his best friends, and looking forward to the science fair.
Homer’s experiences outside of town remind him of what he likes about Coalwood: his friends, his projects for building rockets, and his adventures looking for supplies. There’s a common motif in coming of age stories: the protagonist has to leave his hometown, have a cathartic experience elsewhere, and then return to his home, endowed with a new appreciation for it. Homer experiences his own kind of catharsis in this scene (one might say he’s “baptized” anew in the river), and then can return to Coalwood refreshed.
After many days of work, the boys succeed in extracting ten pipes from the ground. While he’s removing the tenth pipe, Homer cuts his wrist, spurting blood everywhere. His friends use their T-shirts to tie the area around his wound, and then walk him to Frog Level, where Doc lives. There, Doc sutures Homer’s wrist. He offers Homer anesthetic, mentioning that Homer Sr. never needed it. Homer refuses anesthetic, but when Doc begins sewing the stitches, he screams that he wants it after all. Doc shakes his head—it’s too late. Homer yells to the other members of the BCMA to get their scrap iron. Reluctantly, they leave him to recover, and return to the railroad tracks.
It’s important—in a thematic sense—that Homer be hurt during the course of his “baptism.” When he goes to Doc for stitches, Homer gets a stern reminder that he’s still only a child, not yet like his strong, stoic father. The further implication of this episode is that Homer is wrong to cut himself off from the rest of the town: he depends on other people (like Doc) to help him. Finally, Homer displays some of his devotion to rocket science by valuing scrap metal above his own safety.
The BCMA takes its scrap iron to a nearby scrap yard. There, they’re disappointed to find that they’ve only made twenty-two dollars. This means that, counting the cost of food and sleeping bags, they’ve made only four dollars. Jake Mosby saves the day by offering to settle their debt with Mr. Van Dyke, in return for which the BCMA will wash his Corvette “until the end of time.” Jake also buys the group ten pounds of zinc dust.
Here, Jake proves himself to be a “fairy godmother” for the BCMA:” he’ll pay off their debts and even throw in some zinc dust, asking only for some car washes in exchange. This is another example of how luck plays such an important role in one’s success—the BCMA worked hard and earned little money, but then had a windfall by chance.