Homer explains who Quentin is: a pretentious high school classmate of his, who carries a briefcase and reads books constantly. Quentin has no friends, but Homer senses that he’s a genius—he gets perfect scores on every test he takes.
Quentin may be pretentious or obnoxious, but he’s like Homer in that he doesn’t fit in with life in Coalwood. In a sense, Quentin is like a caricature of Homer: very bookish, very isolated, very “wimpy.”
One day, Homer approaches Quentin in class, and asks him if he knows anything about rockets. Quentin smirks, and replies that he knows everything about rockets. He promises to help Homer, on the condition that he can join Homer’s team. He explains that he can’t build a rocket on his own, since he lacks both the necessary supplies (supplies which Homer can obtain easily, since his father is a superintendent), and the proper leadership qualities. Homer and Quentin agree to build rockets together.
Quentin is intelligent enough to research rockets on his own, but he’s also intelligent enough to recognize that it would be better to partner with Homer. He praises Homer for his leadership qualities—which comes as a surprise, since Homer hasn’t displayed much in the way of leadership so far. Perhaps Quentin sees something in Homer than even Homer isn’t aware of yet.
Quentin tells Homer about the history of rockets: the Chinese invented them, and they were used in various 19th century wars. Noted rocket scientists include Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard. The fundamental principle of the rocket is Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal an opposite reaction. Potential rocket fuels include saltpeter and gunpowder. One way to make rocket fuel is to mix saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal.
In this expository section, Hickam introduces readers to the basics of rocket propulsion. Quentin’s knowledge of rockets is impressive—indeed, it’s a little daunting, since it reminds Homer of how much work he has to do before he masters the sciences relevant to rocketry.
Homer leaves Quentin and joins his friends, who demand to know why he was talking with Quentin. Roy Lee insists that Homer will never have a chance with Dorothy if he’s seen with Quentin, and threatens to ask Dorothy out if Homer doesn’t soon. Inspired by this threat, Homer chases after Dorothy, and asks her, point blank, to accompany him to a dance. Dorothy explains that she has plans, but that she’d like to study biology with him. Homer is happy with this news, although it occurs to him that Dorothy’s “plans” on Saturday are probably with another boy.
Here Hickam establishes the tension between Homer’s scientific pursuits—which necessitate a friendship with Quentin—and his romantic pursuits, which seemingly hinge on Homer being “cool” and not associating with nerdy students like Quentin. Roy Lee, the “ladies’ man” of Homer’s friends, acts as if he’s experienced with girls, but we sense this is mostly an act.
Homer describes the Big Store: there are groceries, radios, musical instruments, candy, and hundreds of other supplies. Homer goes to the Big Store in search of rocket fuel. He asks the clerk at the Big Store, Junior, about saltpeter—Junior is surprised, but he gives Homer what he wants: sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter. He warns Homer about the dangers of saltpeter.
Junior is more accommodating of Homer’s needs and interests than the other people of Coalwood. He doesn’t mock Homer for trying to build another rocket, but he does give Homer some good, sensible advice about how to use saltpeter.
As Homer leaves the Big Store, he sees John Dubonnet. John knows that Homer has plans to build another rocket, and seems proud of Homer for being ambitious and trying to leave Coalwood. John explains to Homer that in a few years, Coalwood will be no more—Homer Sr. seems to be the only one in Coalwood who doesn’t know this. With this, he says goodbye and walks away.
John, like Elsie, seems to understand that Coalwood is doomed to be shut down in Homer’s lifetime. Now we see that Homer Sr. isn’t ignorant of this fact, he simply refuses to recognize that Coalwood will shut down, because he’s stubborn.
On Saturday, Quentin goes to Homer’s house. Outside, by the coal furnace, they experiment with different proportions of rocket fuel. After they’ve “cooked” each batch of fuel, they test it by throwing it into water. They test the two fuels that produce the most bubbles. To do so, they saw off lengths of an old broom handle and glue small fins to these pieces.
Homer and Quentin need to perform a huge number of tests to build a successful rocket, and trial and error—though it’s systematic, slow-paced, and often frustrating—is their best friend in these endeavors. It’s the only way they can guarantee that their rocket reaches maximum efficiency, and thus, maximum height.
Quentin and Homer join Roy Lee to test their new rockets. They go to the creek near Homer’s house where they know they won’t be seen. The first rocket fizzles up and melts when Homer ignites it. The second blows up, throwing shrapnel everywhere. Homer Sr. notices this, and yells at Homer for pursuing his rockets. Elsie jumps in and, with a small smile, tells Homer to find a better place for his experiments. Quentin and Roy leave the house. Before he goes, Quentin notes that this was an important day: the first rocket had too little fuel, and the second had too much. Now they’ll have a better idea of how much fuel to use.
Quentin seems to have a much better grasp of the scientific process than either Homer or Roy Lee. Where Roy Lee thinks that a failure is just that—a failure—Quentin recognizes that the rockets that burn up on the launchpad teach him as much about rocket science as the rockets that shoot into the sky. Quentin’s slow, methodical pace of working will be an important ingredient in Homer’s success with rocketry later in the memoir.
It is Sunday, and Homer has gone to Dorothy’s house to study with her. Dorothy is eager to hear about Homer’s rockets. She believes him when he says he’ll work with Wernher von Braun one day, and she explains that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. She adds that she finds Homer much more interesting than Jim—an observation that brightens up Homer immediately. The rest of the “study session” passes uneventfully, with Homer and Dorothy talking about their families.
Homer and Dorothy are both intelligent, forward-thinking, and ambitious. That they envision different career paths for themselves is perhaps indicative of the gender stereotypes in American culture in the 1950s and 60s: Dorothy chooses a stereotypically feminine profession—school teaching—while Homer chooses a job that was, and still is, dominated by men.
The next day at school, Homer resolves to ask Dorothy out. When he approaches her, however, he’s horrified to see her making weekend plans with another boy.
As in most coming-of-age stories, Homer’s teenage romances and heartbreaks are just as important to him as his scientific breakthroughs.