Homer has just ignited his mother’s rose-garden fence in a failed attempt to launch a rocket. There is a loud “bang,” and a fire. Neighbors run out of their houses to see what’s the matter. To Homer’s relief, no one is hurt—the only “victim” is the fence itself. Elsie runs outside and yells at Homer. Before she can get far, Homer Sr. rushes outside, and Elsie begins yelling at him. They begin arguing about Homer Sr.’s life as a miner, and Homer quietly sneaks into the house.
It’s very telling that Homer Sr. and Elsie begin to argue about Homer’s future only a few seconds after they’ve been yelling at Homer. Even when they’re angry with Homer, they’re thinking about his future and, in Elsie’s case, praying that he finds a way to leave Coalwood and start a better life somewhere else.
A little later, Elsie walks inside, glaring at Homer. She calls his actions “stupid,” and tells him that he’ll be punished soon. Homer dreads his mother’s punishments—she has a creatively sadistic steak.
Homer’s mother is responsible for much of the hands-on parenting, it seems, as Homer Sr. is always away working in the mine.
Elsie asks Homer if he thinks he can build a real rocket. Homer, confused, admits that he thinks he can, with the right research. Elsie tells Homer that she doesn’t know what he’ll do with his life—Homer Sr. thinks that he’s going to end up working as a clerk or a typist. Homer is hurt by this information, and he asks Elsie why his father doesn’t like him. Elsie replies that Homer Sr. doesn’t dislike him—he’s just more interested in mining than his children. Homer knows that this isn’t exactly true, as Homer Sr. has always made time for Jim. Elsie insists that Homer has to “get out of Coalwood” by going to college. There’s no guarantee that Coalwood will still exist in twenty years, since mining towns shut down all the time. She wants to prove Homer Sr. wrong—in other words, she wants Homer to build a successful rocket.
In this crucial section, Elsie sketches out Homer’s life as she sees it—unless he throws himself into science and engineering now, he’ll spend the rest of his life doing dull work in the Coalwood mines. It’s interesting that it’s Elsie, not Homer Sr., who recognizes Coalwood’s finite future. In a sense, this is an obvious conclusion, as Coalwood only has a finite amount of coal under it, and it’s surrounded by the “skeletons” of earlier towns that failed. Yet Homer Sr. is too involved in the day-to-day actions of the mine to see the big picture, and also perhaps refuses to try.
After talking with his mother, Homer thinks about Coalwood. He stays up late, and at midnight, hears his father come home from work. It’s difficult for Homer to imagine that Coalwood could ever disappear. At the same time, he’s eager to build a successful rocket and go to college.
Homer isn’t a genius by any means, but he shows a spark of creativity, as well as an ability to think about the future critically and realistically—at least for a boy his age.