It is January, 1959. One day Homer wakes up to the sight of snow outside his house. As he gets on the bus, he notices Roy Lee, practicing his “speech assignment” for school. As Carlotta Smith gets on the bus, Roy Lee and Homer perk up—Carlotta isn’t stunningly beautiful, but she has an attractive body. She sits near Homer. The bus proceeds to school, and at one point, the driver orders everyone off so that he can make a narrow turn without endangering the students’ lives. As a result, Homer and his friends are an hour late for school.
We’re reminded that Homer is still a novice when it comes to romance, and he has a long way to go before he can achieve anything that could be called “maturity.” Hickam also delights in describing the minutiae of small-town life. Here, for instance, he takes the time to explain how tiresome it could be to ride the bus to school in the middle of winter.
When Homer arrives in chemistry, Miss Riley tells him that she has a surprise for him, and that he should see her at the end of the day. Unfortunately, Homer forgets Miss Riley’s advice, and takes the bus home without seeing her.
It’s surprising that Homer would forget about Miss Riley’s surprise, considering his love for rocketry, but this reminds us that he has a lot of other things on his mind, too: girls, his family, and his future.
The next day, the buses aren’t running, meaning that Homer stays home from school. Along with O’Dell, Roy Lee, and Sherman, Homer goes to sled around Big Creek. They hitch rides toward the high school, stopping to sled along the way. When Homer is within range of school, he remembers that he was supposed to see Miss Riley. Although school has been canceled that day, Homer finds Miss Riley in her classroom. She presents Homer with a book: Principles of Guided Missile Design. Riley excitedly explains that she’s ordered the book especially for Homer and the BCMA. Homer is dazzled by the book, and he flips through it, noticing the complicated math and design. Inspired by this wonderful gift, he agrees to join the science fair, under Miss Riley’s guidance.
Miss Riley’s devotion to Homer and his friends is inspiring. There’s no stipulation in her contract that requires her to buy books for her students, but she sincerely believes in the value of education, and clearly wants to help Homer and Quentin go to college (and get out of Coalwood). It’s this display of generosity that finally convinces Homer to join the science fair.
Homer leaves school and rejoins his friends, who are still sledding in the area. Roy Lee announces that they’re all going to Emily Sue’s house to play cards. At Emily Sue’s house, Homer is pleased to find Dorothy, though he notices Roy Lee looking at him unhappily—clearly, Roy Lee’s come to dislike Dorothy. Homer argues with Roy Lee—Homer is convinced that Dorothy loves him. Eventually, they agree to “test” whether Dorothy will kiss Homer or not. Homer asks Dorothy for a kiss, explaining his argument with Roy Lee. Dorothy nods, and “pecks” Homer, first on the forehead, then on the mouth. She then leaves the room. Homer is disappointed with this bloodless gesture, but Roy Lee finds it amusing.
In this moment of bathos, Homer plummets from a sense of excitement and ambition (entering the science fair, reading about mathematics) to one of humiliation (kissing Dorothy passionlessly). In Coalwood, this seems to be inevitable, as Homer is always bouncing from one activity to another, and nothing remains optimistic for very long. This is a necessary side effect of living in a poor, small town, and often of being a teenager in general.
After a few hours, Homer’s friends leave Emily Sue’s house. Homer hangs back, hoping to talk to Dorothy a little longer. Dorothy emerges from hiding, and Homer apologizes for asking her for a kiss. He shows her the book Miss Riley gave him, and Dorothy seems excited—she confesses that she wants to learn calculus, too.
Dorothy doesn’t appear often in Rocket Boys, but she does act as a kind of parallel for Homer—she too is ambitious and loves learning (and is more naturally intelligent than Homer), but because she is a girl, she doesn’t get the same kind of attention or affirmation.
Emily Sue tells Dorothy that her mother is on her way to pick her up. Dorothy and Homer step outside. As she’s getting ready to climb into her mother’s car, Dorothy, quite unexpectedly, gives Homer a real kiss on the mouth, and tells him that she doesn’t know what she’d do without him. Homer is stunned with this development.
Dorothy seems unable to make up her mind about her feelings for Homer—which is totally understandable for a teenaged girl, but for Homer it means frequent leaps between joy and heartbreak.
Homer, still reeling from Dorothy’s kiss, prepares to make his way home by sled. He manages to sled down the slope near Emily Sue’s house, but after a while, the snow becomes too wet for him to continue. As night falls, he remembers the stories he’s heard of explorers freezing to death in cold weather. Fearing the worst, he comes to an old, dilapidated house, and knocks on the door. To his surprise, a middle-aged woman answers and lets him in. Homer explains that he’s trying to get back to Coalwood, and the woman replies that he needs to warm up before he can go any further.
Homer encounters all kinds of dangers in Coalwood: there are mining accidents, the bullies who threaten to hurt him, and here, snow storms. Clearly, it’s possible to freeze to death in this kind of weather, and this sudden peril leads to another side episode of the memoir.
Inside the mysterious woman’s house, the woman asks Homer to remove his wet, cold clothing so that she can dry it—Homer does so, a little uncertainly. While Homer waits for his clothes to dry, the woman introduces herself as Geneva Eggers, and Homer replies that he’s the son of Homer Hickam, Sr. Geneva, surprised, explains that she’s known Homer Sr. for many years. She offers Homer a big meal, which he eagerly accepts. As the two of them eat, Geneva explains that she used to play with Homer Sr. when she was only a child. She knows Homer Sr. as a kind, generous, and heroic figure. After Homer finishes eating, Geneva sends Homer on his way, making him promise to tell Homer Sr. that she helped him, but adding that Homer should do so when Elsie isn’t around. Homer can’t imagine what this means.
As Homer grows up, he learns more and more about his father, here in a very unexpected place. While Geneva doesn’t say why she admires Homer Sr. so much, it’s clear that she has good reason to do so: otherwise, she wouldn’t take such good care of Homer, feeding him and drying his clothing. There’s a moment of sexual uncertainty both when Geneva asks Homer to remove his clothes (although this is standard procedure when one is potentially freezing to death) and when she warns him about not mentioning her when Elsie is around.
Geneva and Homer walk outside, into the snow. Homer sees a heavy dump truck—he stops the truck, attaches his sled to it, and sleds all the way back to the mines. When Homer arrives home, he finds Jim and Homer Sr. waiting for him. When he’s alone with Homer Sr., he shows him Miss Riley’s book, and adds that Geneva Eggers took care of him. Homer Sr. seems disturbed by this news, especially after Homer lets slip that he removed his clothing in front of her. Homer goes to bed, confused by his father’s reaction.
It seems there was indeed a sexual element to Geneva’s request that Homer remove his clothing, unless this is just Homer Sr. being his usual conservative and repressed self. We’d almost forgotten about Miss Riley’s book in the confusion of the snowstorm episode.
The next evening, Homer Sr. sits down with Homer and tells him a story. When Homer Sr. was in his early teens, there was a fire in a neighboring house. Homer Sr. ran into the house and was shocked to find a baby lying in the midst of the fire. Homer Sr. quickly ran out of the house, carrying the baby. It was only later that he learned that there were ten other people in the house, all of whom died. This baby, Homer Sr. explains, was Geneva Eggers. Homer Sr. asks Homer what he knows of “girls and life.” Homer replies, “I’ve never …” but trails off. Homer Sr. seems to understand, and explains that Geneva is a “friend” to bachelors and married men. He tells Homer to never see Geneva again, and never tell Elsie that he met her.
Here, Homer gets a better measure of his father as a younger man. Not only was Homer Sr. more popular and charismatic, but he also saved a child’s life. It’s also interesting to see how the characters talk about sex in the late 1950s: it’s clear that Homer Sr. is asking Homer about his virginity and then explaining that Geneva is a prostitute, but it’s also clear that they both feel uncomfortable talking about this, and prefer to do so with allusions and euphemisms. There’s something poignant about Homer Sr.’s insistence that Homer never see Geneva again—Homer Sr. saved her life, but he won’t allow his son to spend time with her.
Shortly thereafter, Homer rides the bus past Geneva’s house. Though they see one another and smile, he doesn’t wave to her, and she doesn’t wave to him. Homer realizes that he’s gained new respect for his father.