Someone has just tried to shoot Homer Sr. in his own home. There is a sound of screeching tires—whoever fired the shot is getting away. Homer is amazed at how calmly Homer Sr. is handling the incident. Homer Sr. remarks that he’ll be able to repair the bullet hole—which was made by a .22 bullet—and Elsie agrees. Homer Sr. suggests that the assassin was either Pooky or another disgruntled miner.
It’s not entirely clear why the assassin tried to hurt Homer Sr., but he has become extremely unpopular because of his position in the mine, and someone in dire straits might need a scapegoat to lash out at. It’s chilling to think that the bullet might also have something to do with Homer’s rockets as well.
As Homer Sr. calmly discusses his would-be killer, Elsie interjects: she’s going to buy a house in Myrtle Beach. Homer Sr., confused, asks Elsie where she’d get the money for such a thing. Elsie calmly explains that she’s been investing Homer Sr.’s income in the stock market—at the moment, she could buy two houses if she wanted to. Elsie has been communicating with a New York stockbroker for years, cleverly investing in booming industries, such as Band-Aids. She informs Homer Sr. that she’ll be moving to Myrtle Beach, whether he wants to retire and join her or not. She’ll wait until Homer goes off to college. Homer Sr., utterly bemused, asks Elsie what the town will say—she cheerily replies that she doesn’t “give a shit.”
Elsie has always given hints that she’s dissatisfied with her life in Coalwood, but this is still a huge surprise. It’s remarkable that Elsie could have invested in the stock market for 20 years without Homer Sr. knowing anything about it. This reminds us that Elsie plays an enormously important role in the Hickam household: while Homer Sr. works in the mine for ten hours at a time, Elsie is responsible for nearly every other aspect of their family life: educating and disciplining her children, cooking food, and, it now seems, controlling finances.
Afterwards, Homer goes to talk to his BCMA friends about the sudden events in his family. After he explains that someone tried to shoot his father, O’Dell asks him what kind of bullet the assassin used, and Homer answer that it was a .22. O’Dell laughs and says that this is only a pop-gun. Homer is irritated that O’Dell is taking this news so lightly. Suddenly, Billy tells the group that Miss Riley is sick with cancer, and has been for some time. Homer is crushed to hear this.
Homer gets another reminder that his own personal tragedies and anxieties pale in comparison with those afflicting others. Homer Sr. survived the attempt on his life, but Miss Riley, by contrast, will almost certainly die of her cancer. Homer’s sympathy for Miss Riley shows how important she has been to him personally.
Homer goes to see Miss Riley after school. She looks sad and tired, and Homer finds himself tearing up as he talks to her. Miss Riley tells Homer that he’ll be representing Big Creek at the upcoming science fair on his own—as only one member of the BCMA is allowed to attend. Homer contends that Quentin would be a far better representative, but Miss Riley laughs—Quentin, she explains, would try to hard to impress the judges with his big vocabulary. Suddenly, she tells Homer that she’s been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. While it’s possible that she’ll live a long life, there’s no surgical operation that can cure her. As a result, Miss Riley is constantly tired, and she won’t be able to attend the science fair with Homer.
Based on everything we’ve seen, Quentin’s contributions to the rockets seem to have been more substantial than Homer’s (it was Quentin, after all, who designed both rocket fuels, calculated the maximum efficiency of the rockets, designed the fins, etc.), yet Homer was the one who started the BCMA, and he has recently proven himself to be an innovative, intelligent rocket scientist. He also has better interpersonal skills than Quentin—something that will be important in impressing the science fair judges.
The next day, Mr. Caton calls Homer and tells him that he’s no longer able to help Homer with his rockets—the union is officially on strike. Mr. Caton hasn’t finished Homer’s latest design—the Auk XXV, along with a selection of nozzles, casements, and nose cones for the science fair. Homer goes to talk to Mr. Caton at his store, where he also finds Homer Sr. Homer Sr. and Mr. Caton argue over how long the strike will last—it could be a day, or it could be months. Homer begs his father for help with the science fair, which takes place in only one week. Homer Sr. shakes his head sadly.
Homer experiences near-constant setbacks. Only a few weeks after Homer had seemed to settle into his routine, calling Ferro and Caton on the phone nightly, he now finds that he can’t communicate with Caton about rocket design at all. This merely reiterates a frustrating truth: Homer isn’t living his life in a vacuum. As a citizen of Coalwood, he’s inevitably effected by the events in the town, even union strikes that seem totally unrelated to rocketry.
Homer is desperate to finish his rocket designs, so he and the BCMA hatch a daring plan. In the middle of the night, they sneak into the machine shop, find Mr. Caton’s lathe, and attempt to operate it themselves. The work is harder than Homer thought it would be, and for more than an hour he struggles to make a clean cut with the lathe. Suddenly, the door opens—it’s Mr. Caton. To Homer’s great relief, Caton puts a finger to his lips and whispers that he’ll finish the work himself.
This scene is comedic because both the BCMA and Caton are breaking the same rule at the same time, each unknown to the other. It also reminds us that the BCMA has won the respect of many—before, the BCMA was regarded as a group of troublemakers, but now its popularity is such that it’s inspired others to break the rules.
Homer and the BCMA leave the machine shop, and Homer rides his bicycle back to home. As he rides, he passes a group of disgruntled miners, including Pooky. Pooky and his friends recognize Homer and chase after him. Homer manages to evade the strikers, making it back to his house only a few hours before he has to wake up to catch the bus to school.
It seems quite likely that Pooky was responsible for shooting at Homer Sr., even if it’s impossible to prove it. His anger with Homer Sr. is matched only by his anger with Homer himself—thus, he had every reason to try to hurt someone in the Hickam household.
There is a national wave of strikes, Homer reports. At the same time, Senator Kennedy is visiting West Virginia as part of his bid for the presidency. Kennedy has proposed sending federal assistance to the miners: free food and other resources. Homer Sr. finds this infuriating, since it means that the miners in Coalwood will try to “wait out” the mining company in the hopes that the White House will help them out.
Homer Sr.’s dislike of John F. Kennedy has some symbolic resonance, since Kennedy would go on to fund NASA’s manned missions to the Moon, culminating in the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Since Homer Sr. is suspicious of NASA and rocketry in general, it’s only appropriate that he should dislike Kennedy, too.
It is the spring of 1960. One day, Homer pays a secret visit to Mr. Caton, where Caton gives him the nozzles, nose cones, and casements he’d promised. On Homer’s way home, Calvin Suggs, Pooky’s son, chases him, and Homer swings the heavy sack containing the nozzles and other rocket parts at his attacker. The sack slips out of Homer’s hands and sails into the nearby creek. Homer is furious—he punches Calvin in the chest and jumps into the creek, trying to recover the rocket parts.
Ironically, it’s Homer’s attempts to defend himself from the aggression of the people of Coalwood, not their actual aggression itself, that results in his losing his rocket parts. This is very telling—it suggests that Homer’s hatred for Coalwood is a little irrational, and ultimately self-defeating.
Homer yells at Calvin for making him lose his rocket parts. Calvin looks confused, and mutters that he “just wanted to talk” to Homer, and he offers to help Homer look for his things. Calvin explains that he was going to ask Homer for help getting a job at Cape Canaveral. Homer angrily replies that it’ll be “a while” before he works there, and goes home. The next day, Homer is astounded to hear a knock at his door. It’s Calvin, holding the sack containing Homer’s nozzles and nose cones.
We see why Calvin was chasing Homer—surprisingly, he’s been trying to get a job at NASA. This reminds us of how popular and influential Homer’s rockets have become in Coalwood, and even for an apparent bully they represent an escape from life in the mines. This scene also suggests that Homer has been excessive in his dislike of the people of Coalwood. While many of them are intolerant or unkind, the majority are sincerely supportive of him.
A few days later, Elsie drives Homer to the McDowell County Science Fair in Welch. Roy Lee drives the other members of the BCMA in his car. Homer is carrying his plans and equations for the rocket, along with all his rocket parts. Miss Riley is unable to attend. At the fair, Homer sets up his designs while O’Dell inspects the competition: Welch High School has elected to present on fossils and rocks. This seems to be the BCMA’s stiffest competition.
The two schools’ presentations seem symbolic, as Big Creek looks to the future of American science (engineering, space, and the unknown) while Welch looks back to the past (animals that died out millions of years ago). Studying the past is often just as vital as innovation, but in a small, conservative town like Coalwood, innovation seems especially important.
The science fair begins. A panel of judges walks around the room, asking questions of Homer and the other presenters. When the panel gets to Homer, their first question is, “You ever blown anything up?” Homer replies that he hasn’t, thinking about his mother’s rose-garden fence. Afterwards, the judges asks Homer a number of technical questions about his nozzles and equations. Homer boasts that his rocket can attain a height of three miles. Strangely, the judges seem unimpressed—they comment that Homer’s work seems very dangerous.
When the judges give Homer a hard time for causing explosions, we’re reminded of the abuse that Homer endured from Coalwood residents at the beginning of Rocket Boys (after he blew up Elsie’s rose-garden fence). There’s something almost reassuring about these associations: just as the people of Coalwood changed their minds about Homer, perhaps the judges at the science fair will too.
Homer and his friends go off to lunch. When they return, they’re astounded to discover that they’ve been awarded first prize for their rocketry—the BCMA will be moving on to the state science fair finals. Homer is overjoyed, and he can’t wait to tell Miss Riley and Homer Sr.
In retrospect, it seems perfectly correct that the judges should award top prize to Big Creek. Rocketry was arguably the most relevant area of American science at the time—no matter how dangerous it might seem for high schoolers.
Homer returns to school, where he tells Mr. Turner about his success—Turner grins and congratulates Homer. Homer also tells Miss Riley, who’s extremely proud of Homer. Homer doesn’t tells his father personally, since he’s in the mines, but Elsie promises to let him know when he returns in the morning. In the following weeks, the BCMA is invited to the Coalwood Women’s Club, where Quentin boasts about their hard work and ingenuity.
Despite the BCMA’s victory, there’s a general mood of dissatisfaction in this section, since Homer doesn’t get to tell Homer Sr. about his victory—at least not personally. The reconciliation between Homer and his father is yet to come (if, indeed, it is to come at all).
Shortly after Homer’s victory at the science fair, Elsie and Homer Sr. leave for Myrtle Beach, since it’s the usual time of year for miners’ vacations. Homer has the house to himself for the week, which happens to be the week of the prom. Homer invites Melba June, the girl whom he danced with at the Christmas formal, to the prom, and she eagerly accepts. Homer learns that Dorothy has a new boyfriend, another college student, and Homer makes a point of “not caring.”
Even though he’s just won a prestigious award, Homer can’t forget the fact that both his father and the “love of his life” are still ignoring him. Much like Homer Sr., Homer is always thinking ahead to the next thing, rather than celebrating in the moment. This is a useful quality for a scientist, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into much happiness or sense of personal fulfillment.
The BCMA schedules a celebratory rocket launch on the day of the senior prom. There is a healthy crowd at the launch, though Homer notices that the people divide along union and company lines. The Auk XXV attains a height of 15,000 feet, exactly as predicted. Homer has modified the Auk XXV by adding a layer of putty to the nozzle—this limits erosion, as Homer predicted it would.
Even as the rocket launches bring the people of Coalwood together, there continue to be divisions and boundaries between them, most notably between the union and the company. Meanwhile, we’re given another reminder of how much progress Homer has made as a resourceful thinker—his putty provides an elegant solution to an important technical problem.
After the rocket launch, Homer and his friends go to the prom. Homer walks into the gymnasium with Melba June. He has a wonderful night dancing and making out with Melba. A few days later, his mother and father return from Myrtle Beach. Elsie, delighted, tells Homer that Homer Sr. has agreed to retire from mining and go into real estate near Myrtle Beach after Homer goes to college in the fall. Homer Sr. seems as happy and excited as Homer has ever seen him.
When Homer Sr. leaves Coalwood for a short time, it becomes clear that he doesn’t enjoy his life in Coalwood in the slightest. His stubbornness and stoicism are so great, however, that he continues to work in the mines, causing himself misery (and poor health), and saddening Elsie.
Homer prepares for the area science fair in Bluefield. One day, while he’s in his room, he hears a screech of tires. Elsie and Homer Sr. yell downstairs, and Homer comes running down to them. He is shocked to see the bloody body of his beloved cat, Daisy Mae. Someone has run over Daisy Mae and driven away. At first, Homer thinks that this must be an accident, and he blames himself for letting Daisy Mae outside. Shortly thereafter, Roy Lee and the other BCMA members show up at Homer’s house—it’s as if they’ve sensed that something is wrong with Homer. Roy Lee promises to make whoever killed Homer’s cat “pay for it.” Homer realizes that the same person who tried to shoot Homer Sr. also killed the cat.
The screech of tires reminds us of the night someone tried to shoot Homer Sr.—and it’s likely that the same person committed both crimes. Homer seems curiously slow on the uptake, as he takes a while to grasp the link between the cat’s death and the attack on his father. Roy Lee shows a vengeful, determined side, proving that his loyalty and concern for Homer run deep.
Homer attends the Bluefield science fair and proceeds with presenting the BCMA’s findings. He’s accompanied by his fellow BCMA members, though he’s the only official representative. Although Homer is distracted by the death of his cat, he’s surprised to find that the BCMA has again won the fair—a first for Big Creek High School. The BCMA will now be attending the National Science Fair. As an added bonus, the Air Force, which sends a representative to the area science fair every year, awards the BCMA a prize for “Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Propulsion.” The Air Force representative, an experienced major, tells the boys that their rockets are the most sophisticated he’s seen outside of Cape Canaveral.
It seems that Quentin and Homer have been right all along: attending the science fair will open up many doors for the BCMA. Here, they meet an experienced military man who essentially offers them careers outside of Coalwood. This scene is also an insightful reminder of the motives behind the Space Race. The United States pumped billions of dollars into math education, NASA, and rockets because they believed that this technology had military applications. Although the greatest achievement of the Space Race—the Moon landing of 1969—was completed on behalf of “peace for all mankind,” it only emerged from years of conflict.
A few days after the BCMA’s victory, Mr. Turner summons the BCMA onstage during a school-wide assembly. Turner and Miss Riley congratulate the BCMA in front of the entire school for their hard work, and for proving that Big Creek students are capable of anything. Homer is particularly gratified to see Miss Riley in such good spirits.
We’re coming now full circle—at the beginning of the memoir, there was another assembly, in which Homer was relegated to the audience. Now, he’s on the stage, cheered on by his fellow students.
The night after the assembly, Homer hears a tapping at his window—it’s Roy Lee. Homer climbs outside, where Roy Lee explains that he’s found the culprit for Daisy Mae’s death, just as he’d promised. The killer was a member of the miners’ gang, a friend of Pooky’s. Roy Lee adds that Pooky has left town: Calvin, Pooky’s son, lashed out at him for beating his mother, and as a result the police chased Pooky out of Coalwood. Homer feels a sudden attack of sympathy for Calvin. Although Calvin had always been cruel to Homer, he helped Homer recover his rocket parts, and stood up to Pooky. Roy Lee offers to give Homer the name of the person who killed Daisy Mae, but he mentions that the culprit feels horrible about his crime. Homer thinks, and realizes that there’s no point in learning the name of the killer. “Justice” will come to him, just as it came to Pooky. Homer thanks Roy Lee for helping him, and privately senses that they’ll always be friends.
Immediately following his latest victories at the science fair, Homer shows that he’s grown as a moral being as well as a scientist. While it would certainly be easy for Homer to track down the attacker and punish him to the full extent of the law, Homer recognizes that such an action would be ultimately futile—it wouldn’t bring his cat back to life, and wouldn’t make him feel any better. In essence, Homer’s attitude toward this unnamed assassin parallels his attitude toward his father, and toward Coalwood. He has many problems with Coalwood, but no longer seeks “revenge” on his home town. Rather, he wants to forgive his town, his father, and his cat’s killer, and move on with his life.
Alone, Homer goes down to his yard and scoops up a handful of West Virginia soil, putting it in a small fruit jar. He decides to take this jar with him to the National Science Fair in Indianapolis. He remembers hurting his father’s feelings by claiming that he’d never return to Coalwood. Homer sees how foolish he was to spite his father—Coalwood is in his blood, and always will be. Nevertheless, Homer finally feels comfortable pursuing his dreams of becoming a NASA engineer.
Here Hickam makes the link between Homer’s epiphany about his cat’s killer and his feeling about Coalwood explicit. Paradoxically, respecting Coalwood and wanting to leave it aren’t mutually exclusive: it’s perfectly possible, Homer now finds, to recognize that Coalwood has been a huge influence on his life, while also still wanting to leave Coalwood and join NASA.