After Homer’s rocket fails, Homer Sr. and Homer walk home. Homer Sr. orders Homer to stop “fooling around” with rockets. He collects Homer’s saltpeter and powdered glue. Guessing correctly that it was Bykovski who helped Homer, Homer Sr. says that he’ll “take care” of Bykovski.
Homer Sr. seems almost relentlessly opposed to Homer’s goals. One gets the sense that Homer Sr. isn’t just criticizing Homer for stealing company property, but because he doesn’t approve of studying rockets at all.
Elsie speaks with Homer privately. She explains that Homer Sr. is under pressure from his bosses because of Homer’s rocket. She subtly encourages Homer not to give up, and to continue making rockets—but in a more isolated place.
Elsie has to do her job as a mother, disciplining Homer when he misbehaves, but she also wants to encourage Homer to continue with his plans—in this way, subtly undermining her husband’s wishes.
The next day, Homer goes to visit Mr. Bykovski. Bykovski explains that Homer Sr. fired him from the machine shop and sent him to work in the mines once again. Homer finds this despicable, but Bykovski insists that Homer mustn’t say these things. Before Homer leaves, Bykovski gives him four wooden nose cones for future rockets. He encourages Homer to impress his father by making a flying rocket.
Homer has to struggle with Homer Sr.’s discouragement, and also with his own guilt—when he implicates Mr. Bykovski in his rocketry, Homer Sr. punishes Mr. Bykovski by sending him into the mines. It’s inspiring to see Mr. Bykovski encouraging Homer to continue with his rocket science, especially since Mr. Bykovski must understand that he’s risking his own job for the second time.
Homer finds the thought that his father doesn’t want him making rockets exhilarating. He proposes to his friends that they test rockets in the Pine Knob area, far from the mines. He also asks Quentin to find a more efficient way to test the rocket fuel, and Quentin promises that he’ll do so. In the end, Homer recalls, Quentin’s testing mechanism is too complicated to be practical.
Here, we begin to see the limitations of Quentin’s approach to science. While Quentin is precise and insightful with his analysis, he’s often too slow for Homer’s taste—and sometimes too slow to be practical.
One afternoon, when the BCMA is visiting Homer’s house, Roy Lee proposes that the group focus less on rockets and more on girls. He brings out a bra he claims to have gotten from one of his girlfriends, and brags about his conquests. He teaches his friends to remove a bra with one hand—a trick that Homer finds surprisingly difficult. Elsie asks Quentin to stay for dinner, and Quentin says he’d be delighted. Elsie seems to find his overly formal manner charming.
The BCMA’s rocket-building is a constant struggle between Quentin’s exactness and perfectionism, Homer’s eagerness, and Roy Lee’s teenage desire to forget rocketry and go on dates. Somehow, this struggle results in a kind of equilibrium where the three balance each other out. Quentin’s relationship with Elsie is humorous, but it also confirms that Quentin and Elsie are kindred spirits—outsiders in Coalwood.
In the coming weeks, the BCMA uses a simpler method for testing rocket fuels than the one Quentin developed—detonating small quantities of fuel in soda bottles. The group discovers an important rule: the finer the powder they use, the bigger the explosion. Homer notices that locals hear the soda cans exploding, but surprisingly, his father never brings this up to him. Homer decides that his team needs a place where it can launch rockets in peace.
Again, it’s only through careful trial and error that the group discovers they can get maximum efficiency by grinding their powders more finely. It’s also hinted that Homer Sr. isn’t as distant from his son’s life as it seems: he might be helping Homer by purposefully looking the other way.
Shortly after detonating soda cans for the first time, Elsie brings Homer to talk with Homer Sr. Elsie explains that Homer needs a place where he can experiment with rockets without causing a problem. She adds that “some people”—the teachers in Coalwood—think that Homer’s experiments are of great importance. Homer Sr. insists that there’s no way for Homer to use rockets—the mining company is pressuring him to clamp down on such disturbances. Out of the blue, Homer asks his father if Coalwood will close down soon. Homer Sr. replies, after some thought, that there is at least fifty more years of coal in the mine. Homer objects that Mr. Dubonnet has said differently, and Homer Sr. angrily insists that Homer never talk to Mr. Dubonnet again.
At the beginning, Homer seemed like the “loner” of the memoir, but in this scene, it’s Homer Sr. who seems like the isolated, foolish person. While everyone around him—his wife, his son, Mr. Dubonnet—recognizes the truth (that Coalwood will inevitably fold up), Homer Sr. distances himself from the popular opinion. It’s maddening, but also poignant, that Homer Sr. refuses to see the naked truth: he’s devoted his entire life to mining, and can’t stand to think that his children won’t be able to do the same.
Homer’s family attends Sunday church service. Homer sits with O’Dell and Sherman. The preacher, Reverend Lanier, gives a sermon about a disobedient child who caused his father great pain. Lanier looks directly at Homer as he gives this speech, and Homer feels exceptionally guilty. Suddenly, Lanier changes the meaning of his speech. He suggests that the father in the story is just as petty and narrow-minded as the child. It’s a great thing, he concludes, to have an intelligent, curious child. This conclusion draws “Amens” from the congregation. Lanier specifically mentions the “Rocket Boys” as examples of curiosity and intelligence—qualities which he says should be encouraged, not repressed.
Coalwood initially seemed to be opposed to Homer’s rocket science experiments, but now support for him is growing. Inspired by the Reverend Lanier, people now encourage Homer’s curiosity instead of repressing it. Lanier’s sermon seems particularly bold when one considers that he’s essentially criticizing Homer Sr. in front of the entire town: if Homer represents the “disobedient child,” then Homer Sr. represents the petty, narrow-minded father in the Bible story.
Outside the church, Homer Sr. tells Homer that it’s time for him to learn to drive a car. Homer thinks that his father looks vaguely disgusted with him, but he wonders if he’s taken Reverend Lanier’s sermon to heart. In the car, Homer does fairly well with his driving lessons. Eventually, he and his father reach Cape Coalwood, a steep range of hills covered in nothing but coal and dirt. Homer Sr. explains that Homer can use this area to test rockets—he’ll be alone for miles in all directions, and thus won’t cause any problems. Homer works up the courage to ask his father for scrap metal and lumber. Homer Sr. agrees, on the condition that Homer keep his rockets “out of sight.”
Homer Sr. seems to have taken Reverend Lanier’s advice to heart. Cape Coalwood isn’t a particularly inviting place, but it suits Homer’s purpose for the time being. The name also draws a telling parallel with Cape Canaveral, the part of Florida where NASA launches its rockets. Although Rocket Boys is ostensibly about Homer’s coming of age, it’s also about Homer Sr.’s changing relationship with his child, and his town. This scene is a major milestone for Homer Sr. as well as Homer himself.