A few days after Homer Sr.’s argument with Mr. Fuller, Mr. Fuller leaves town. This could be because of Homer Sr., Homer admits, but it could also be because Mr. Fuller’s only job was to be the company’s hatchet man, and now that the property sales are in effect, there was no more need for him. Meanwhile, Jim goes off to college, having ended his relationship with Dorothy. Homer hears that Valentine and Buck have gotten married. Homer is worried for Valentine. When Dorothy tries to talk to him, he ignores her, even though he misses her company.
It’s a little disturbing to read about Valentine settling down with Buck. Buck is a bully and a rude, immature young man, and it seems almost like a betrayal that Valentine could love someone who treats one of her close friends so horribly. Homer’s confusion regarding women and romantic relationships will persist throughout the rest of the memoir—he’s coming of age, but this certainly doesn’t mean he’s figuring women out.
The BCMA prepares for Auk XXIII: the first rocket based on the group’s lessons from Mr. Hartsfield’s class, Quentin’s calculus knowledge, and the group’s previous experiments. Quentin comes to Homer’s house every weekend to research nozzle shapes. The key, they realize, is to make the gas travel faster than the speed of sound. They aim to use mathematics to calculate thrust coefficient and nozzle-throat area.
The BCMA’s ambition to break the sound barrier with their rocket propulsion parallels the measures that American scientists took at the beginning of the 20th century—measures which led to the establishment of NASA and the dawn of the Space Race. Tom Wolfe’s excellent book on the Space Race, The Right Stuff, begins with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier.
Quentin and Homer calculate that their rockets have attained speeds of 545.45 miles per hour—incredibly fast, but still short of the speed of sound. Homer is proud of the group’s achievements, but he finds himself losing his nerve to continue with the mathematical calculations. Quentin encourages Homer to continue, reminding him that they’re close to building a “great rocket”—a rocket that satisfies the equations and attains a height of two miles.
Surprisingly, Quentin acts as another inspiring, supportive figure for Homer here—encouraging him to give rocketry his all as he approaches a “great rocket.” This is surprising because, although Quentin has shown great intelligence and insight when building rockets, he hasn’t shown much in the way of emotional maturity or wisdom in human interactions.
Homer continues doing the necessary calculations, encouraged by Quentin. At many points, Quentin angrily tells Homer that he’s doing the work wrong—when this happens, Homer starts his calculations from scratch. After hours of work, Homer reaches his answers: he’s calculated the precise shape and angle necessary to give the BCMA’s rockets the maximum thrust and efficiency.
The next week, Homer takes his calculations to Mr. Hartsfield. Hartsfield is greatly impressed with Homer’s progress as a mathematician. Miss Riley is even more impressed, though Homer notices a certain sadness in her eyes, the source of which he doesn’t know. Miss Riley shows Homer’s drawings and equations to Mr. Turner, explaining that Homer and the BCMA should represent Big Creek in the county science fair in March. Mr. Turner summons Homer to his office and explains that he’s willing to send Homer to the fair. However, he wants Homer to be a charismatic presenter—he has to be able to explain his work and answer questions about it. In the following days, Homer notes, he’ll find that he can explain his designs and equations perfectly.
Mr. Hartsfield’s praise gives us a benchmark for Homer’s intellectual progress in the memoir. At first, Homer was a mediocre student who could barely pass algebra. Here, he’s mastered calculus, and translated his mastery into sophisticated, well-thought-out designs. Mr. Turner’s change in attitude is also significant: first he thought of Homer as a nuisance, but now he recognizes him as a valuable representative for the school. Although Turner has doubts about the value of the science fair in the first place, he seems to have come around to the idea that Big Creek needs to excel in math and science.
Homer and Miss Riley leave Mr. Turner’s office, and Miss Riley tells Homer that she’ll enter him in the upcoming science fair. She adds that she’s been feeling exhausted and glum lately. She adds, off-handedly, that Homer should say hello to Jake the next time he sees him—Jake has been summoned back to Ohio for a few months.
Miss Riley’s descriptions of Jake suggest relationship troubles, especially given our knowledge of Jake’s womanizing nature. Miss Riley’s physical exhaustion also forebodes disaster.
In the months leading up to the science fair, Homer sends his designs to Mr. Ferro and asks him to build the corresponding rocket. He spends long hours on the phone communicating with Mr. Ferro and Mr. Caton about his designs.
Homer now seems to be settling into the business of building rockets. He acts remarkably mature, setting up regular calls with Ferro and Caton, his “business partners.”
In late November, the BCMA conducts its first major test of the new rocket. They load their rocket with zinc fuel, drying it for hours and hours. Meanwhile, Homer Sr. is forced to fire miners from Coalwood due to industry cutbacks. This is an especially stressful job, since the new town preacher often preaches against the evils of “corporate greed”—in other words, the town hates Homer Sr. more than ever. Even Mr. Dubonnet, who’s urged the workers to continue on at the mines, becomes unpopular.
Previously, Mr. Dubonnet has reminded Homer Sr. that the mining company bears him no love or loyalty—he’ll be fired whenever he’s no longer of use to the company. Here, Mr. Dubonnet finds that same is true of himself: the union and its workers shun him when he comes bearing unpopular news.
The weekend after Thanksgiving, three hundred people show up at Cape Coalwood to watch the BCMA launch their latest rocket. They launch it, counting the seconds it remains in the air in order to determine its distance. Quentin and Homer calculate that their rocket attains a height of 7,056 feet—the highest flight yet for the BCMA. While this is an impressive achievement, Homer is puzzled, as the height is substantially less—3,000 feet less—than what his equations predicted.
It’s a sign of Homer’s progress as a student of mathematics that he and Quentin calculate the height of the rocket simultaneously. This kind of mental calculation would have been inconceivable to Homer only a few weeks beforehand. Homer is a harsh critic of his own work, and recognizes that his new rockets don’t measure up to the standard he’d set himself—so it’s back to the drawing board.
The BCMA tracks down the remains of their rocket to investigate what went wrong. This leads them to a glade full of a strange root, which O’Dell identifies at ginseng. O’Dell is overjoyed—the BCMA has been low on money for some time now, and ginseng root will give them a source of income for the foreseeable future. Quentin and Homer dig up the remains of their rocket, and notice erosion on the inside of the nozzle. The other members of the BCMA are amazed by Homer and Quentin’s perfectionism.
At one time, Quentin was the “odd man out” in the BCMA, because he was a perfectionist, and refused to celebrate if the rockets attained anything less than their maximum height. Now, Homer has joined Quentin in his perfectionism, recognizing that there is almost always room for improvement.
O’Dell sells his ginseng root for a good sum of money, enough to buy twenty pounds of zinc dust. Three weeks later, the BCMA has completed work on Auk XXIV. It is twelve inches longer, and features a curved nozzle that will limit erosion—Homer guesses that the excessive heat of the gas caused the erosion on the previous nozzle.
Homer continues to show a sophisticated understanding of rockets, guessing that excessive heat translates into nozzle erosion. He’s been a quick study, learning not only from studying textbooks, but by launching rockets of his own.
The BCMA’s next rocket launch is scheduled for the same day as the Christmas formal. Only Roy Lee has succeeded in finding a date for the formal—the other BCMA members will be going unaccompanied after the launch. At the launch, Homer is surprised to see that his rocket doesn’t launch at—it remains on the launchpad. He guesses that the curved throat of the nozzle is blocked. Homer insists that they need to approach the rocket to fix the problem. While everyone is reluctant to do so, Sherman and Homer eventually agree to crawl toward it and try to fix it.
Homer has grown so focused that he’s basically willing to risk his life to launch a successful rocket. Hickam racks up the suspense by describing, in agonizing detail, how Homer and Sherman crawl toward the launchpad. As is the nature of rockets, there is always the danger of explosion or fire, and so this kind of suspense and peril occurs often for Homer.
When Sherman and Homer crawl toward the rocket, they see that Homer was right: the nozzle is blocked, and the wire fuse is no longer in place. Carefully, they replace the fuse and relight it, knowing that they’ll need to sprint away as soon as the fuse is burning.
Even in this moment of suspense, we recognize that Homer was correct to guess that the nozzle was blocked: he’s clear-headed about his own rockets, even in moments of danger.
Homer lights the fuse, and the rocket launches instantly. Homer and Sherman are unharmed—and Homer calculates the rocket’s height in his head: 8,500 feet. Pooky, who’s in the crowd watching the BCMA’s launch, mutters that he could shoot a gun higher than Homer could launch a rocket, and that Homer has “the money to build rockets while the rest of the town’s starvin’ to death.” Homer ignores Pooky and celebrates with Quentin and the other BCMA members.
Only a few moments after risking his life, Homer is level-headed enough to perform the calculation necessary to determine the rocket’s height. Pooky Suggs’ insult seems comically lame, but it is also telling of the state of the town. Homer has had to scrimp, save, and haggle for every piece of scrap metal, but at least he’s always had enough to eat.
After the rocket launch, Homer and his friends attend the Christmas formal. The girls there are dressed in beautiful pastel dresses. One girl, Melba June Monroe, flirts with Homer, and by the end of the night, Homer has used his “Rocket-boy fame” to dance with Melba and make out with her in the backseat of Roy Lee’s car.
Homer’s bravery and intelligence turn out to be attractive to the girls at Big Creek High School—he now seems to have little trouble finding a date at the dance.
It is January of 1960, and Senator John F. Kennedy has become a national celebrity. While his boyish charm and good looks make him a charismatic speaker nationwide, Homer finds him a little odd, particularly because of his strange, nasal voice and Boston accent. Homer Sr. mutters that the Kennedys are the “worst kind of people,” explaining that Joe Kennedy, John’s father, made millions bootlegging.
Hickam reminds us of the larger political situation at the time. A young, charismatic figure like Kennedy isn’t the instant hit with Coalwood that one might suspect. Instead, Homer Sr. seems to want a more establishment figure, and we can imagine that he’ll probably vote for Nixon, the Republican candidate who was the product of a working-class background, and an energetic prosecutor of Communists.
One day, Homer is talking with Homer Sr. in their house. Homer Sr. is discussing the dangers of unchecked greed, and argues that wealthy Americans can be as dangerous to their country as the Communists in Russia. He leans forward in his chair and tells Homer that Dwight Eisenhower will be the last good president American will have for many years. As soon as Homer Sr. finishes this sentence, a bullet whizzes past his head—right where he had been sitting a moment before.
The chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, and also a poignant point, as Homer Sr.’s conversation with his son may save his life—if he hadn’t been leaning in to talk to with Homer, the bullet would have struck his head. Neither Homer nor Homer Sr. could know this at the time, but it’s strangely ironic that Homer Sr. should be shot at immediately after talking about John F. Kennedy, who would himself would be shot in the head only three years later.