For weeks after Homer blows up the rose-garden fence, Coalwood can talk about little else. Adults and children tease Homer about the incident. On the bus to school, Buck Trant, an obnoxious football player, makes fun of Homer and his friends. Homer fires back at Buck, and an argument breaks out. The bus driver kicks both Homer and Buck off the bus. Outside, Buck doesn’t fight Homer—probably because, Homer guesses, he’s wearing blue suede shoes and doesn’t want to dirty them. Buck and Homer hitchhike to school. At school, Homer tells his friends that he’s determined to build a successful rocket.
It’s almost disturbing to see how quickly the news of Homer’s actions spreads throughout Coalwood, and how quickly the people of Coalwood resort to teasing him. It’s almost as if they can sense that Homer is trying to “break away” from Coalwood, and want to pressure him into staying. The bullies in Rocket Boys are intimidating but a little ridiculous: Buck may be bigger than Homer, but with his blue suede shoes (straight out of an Elvis song), he’s more laughable than anything.
At home later in the day, Jim confronts Homer about his argument with Buck, and mocks him for his girlishness and stupidity. This further encourages Homer to make a successful rocket.
Homer’s positive motivations include his desire to go to college and work with von Braun, while his negative motivations include his desire to “shut everyone up” and prove them wrong about him.
The next day, Homer encounters Pooky Suggs, a rude young man who blames Homer Sr. for his own father’s death in the mines. Tom Tickle, a friendly miner, tries to prevent a fight from breaking out between Homer and Pooky, but Pooky shouts insults at Homer. Pooky calls Homer a “Rocket boy”—a nickname that sticks, to the point where almost everyone in town soon calls Homer this.
Coalwood has cruel bullies like Pooky and Buck, but there are also kind, supportive people like Elsie and Tom Tickle. Here we first hear Homer called a “Rocket boy”—a nickname intended as an insult, but one that will come to define him in a positive way.
A few days later, it’s the final football game of the regular season. Jim wins the game for Big Creek high school, meaning that his team has gone undefeated all year. Despite this fact, the state football board has already ruled that Big Creek is ineligible to compete in the state championship game—Big Creek has played too many games with Virginia schools. Homer Sr. is so outraged by this news that he resolves to see a lawyer in the neighboring town of Welch. Although Elsie doesn’t think this is useful, Homer Sr. insists that he’ll go.
Each of Homer’s parents seems to have a “favorite child.” Homer Sr. supports Jim, admiring his athletic achievements, and spending far more time with him than with Homer. Elsie, by contrast, is quieter and more thoughtful, and gravitates toward Homer, supporting his engineering experiments even after they become the mockery of the entire town.
One week later, Homer Sr. has visited a lawyer and put together a case for Big Creek’s competing in the state championship. A state judge denies his motion, and the state championship proceeds without Big Creek high school. Homer Sr. is undeterred, saying that he’ll appeal the motion. Elsie finds this absurd, especially since the game has already been played.
Homer Sr.’s devotion to Jim causes Homer great jealousy and sadness. At the same time, Homer Sr.’s undeterred attempts to achieve his goals will serve as a benchmark for Homer’s own attempts to build rockets. Homer is more like his father than he’d like to admit.
Winter comes to Coalwood, and union tension arises. The leader of the miners’ union, John Dubonnet, knows Homer Sr. from high school. In the last ten years, Coalwood has experienced disruptions in its peaceful history—union leaders have gone on strike repeatedly. Although John and Homer Sr. know one another, Elsie has long predicted that they’ll experience conflicts. The first such conflict begins when Homer Sr. lays off several miners as a result of the national recession. Homer notices some of his classmates going hungry as a result of these layoffs.
Elsie maintains a laconic distance from the politics of Coalwood, allowing her to see the bigger picture and predict what will happen—for instance, she predicts that Homer Sr. and Mr. Dubonnet will quarrel even when Homer Sr. finds this unlikely. Homer is observant enough to realize that his father (and the mining company) is responsible for impoverishing some of his friends and classmates.
One night, John Dubonnet visits Homer Sr.’s house. Homer Sr. angrily tells John that he can come to his office, but John insists that they speak now. Outside the house, Homer overhears John and his father arguing about the recent layoffs. Homer Sr. contends that the layoffs were necessary, and accuses John of being a Communist. John laughs and says that Homer Sr. doesn’t know who his true friends are—Homer is just as disposable to the mining company as any of the workers. John tells Homer Sr. that he’s come to talk about the coal dust, which is destroying the workers’ health, and Homer Sr.’s health, too. Homer Sr. doesn’t respond, telling John to leave his house. After John leaves, Homer Sr. and Elsie talk. Homer learns that when she was a younger woman, Elsie “could have had her pick” between Homer Sr. and John.
The influence of the Cold War on life in Coalwood is obvious here, as Homer Sr. suspects that all those who oppose the decisions of big business must be Communists. Homer Sr.’s cough doesn’t bode well for his health later in the book, and even here, one senses that Hickam is foreshadowing tragedy. It comes as a poignant surprise to learn that Elsie knew both Homer Sr. and John Dubonnet when she was younger, and could have married either one of them. The scene reinforces Elsie’s loyalty and devotion to Homer Sr., in spite of her disdain for mining in Coalwood.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Homer Sr. gets orders from Mr. Van Dyke, the general mining superintendent, to visit the doctor for his annual checkup. At the doctor’s office, he learns that he has a “spot” on his lungs, probably a symptom of cancer. He tells Elsie that he won’t do anything about this. This worries Homer, since it’s traditional for workers with bad lungs to quit the mine immediately.
Homer Sr. has already proven that he can be stubbornly devoted to whatever goal he sets himself (suing the state over football, for example). Here, we see the dark side of this stubbornness, however. Even when it’s clear that Homer Sr. should retire from mining and preserve his health, he continues to work.
In December 1957, the U.S. launches a satellite called Vanguard, which blows up on the launchpad. Homer, still interested in launching a rocket of his own, decides to talk to a classmate of his named Quentin.
Hickam ends the chapter by introducing a new character, one who will be very important to Homer’s study of rockets.