In Cape Canaveral, Homer says, von Braun has launched a series of successful satellites. The Americans and Soviets are competing to launch bigger and more impressive objects into space. Von Braun hints that he might leave the military and work for an organization called NASA. When he learns this, Homer decides that he wants to work for NASA too.
While growing up, it’s important to something to aspire to, and Homer’s hero is Dr. von Braun. Von Braun serves as another kind of father-figure to Homer—in the absence of Homer Sr.’s support, Homer tries to imitate the greatest scientists and engineers of his age.
As his 10th grade school year draws to a close, Homer attends an auditorium meeting. There, he encounters Valentine Carmina, a girl in the year ahead of his. Valentine is beautiful and sexually adventurous—two qualities that endear her to the boys at school, but not to Mr. Turner. She’s always liked Homer, for reasons that have never been clear to him. As Homer and Valentine talk, Mr. Turner announces that the school’s football team has been placed on suspension—as punishment for Homer Sr.’s attempts at legal maneuvering, there will be no games played next year. Turner adds that Big Creek will be teaching more math and science classes in an effort to compete with the U.S.S.R. He stresses that West Virginia’s students are more than a match for the students of Russia. Turner’s speech elicits groans and “boos” from the students.
This is one the key moments in Rocket Boys, and a metaphor for the changes occurring in the United States at this time. Just as the United States was now concentrating on math, science, and engineering as a way to get ahead of the Soviet Union, so Big Creek High School now turns away from physical competition (football) and focuses on academia. Mr. Turner seems perfectly aware of the full significance of the decision to cancel football, and he understands that Big Creek is only a tiny part of the Cold War, but of course, the students of Big Creek can’t think in these broad terms, so they boo Mr. Turner.
As the students leave the auditorium, Homer notices that Dorothy is crying, and the footballer players look furious. Buck yells that he’ll never be able to get a football scholarship, meaning that he’ll probably spend the rest of his life working in a coal mine. Mr. Turner overhears him, and agrees, saying that there’s nothing fair about what has happened. Homer sees Dorothy embracing Vernon Holbrook, a senior football player.
While Homer seems to find Buck’s consternation comical (Buck has beaten him up, after all), there is something undeniably tragic about Buck’s situation: in all probability, he will spend the rest of his life in the coal mines, gradually losing his strength and succumbing to illness. This tragedy is so ubiquitous in Coalwood that it’s difficult to see, like water to a fish.
When Homer and Jim come home from school, Homer can tell that Jim is very angry. Jim complains that Homer Sr. has ruined his chances at a football scholarship. Homer Sr. insists that he’ll pay Jim’s way through college. Jim doesn’t accept this consolation—he insists that he wanted to play college football. Homer jokes that Jim can join the band now. Jim is furious, but doesn’t fight Homer. In the coming weeks, the people of Coalwood agree that Homer Sr. has acted foolishly by trying to sue the state over football—he’s become more unpopular than ever.
Once again, Homer seems childish and immature in his mockery of Jim. In part, this is because Homer is upset that Jim is basically guaranteed college tuition, and there’s no indication that Homer Sr. has any plans to pay for Homer’s college. In the aftermath of the incident, Homer Sr. adds to his reputation for being foolish and obsessive. Homer may be an outsider in Coalwood, but Homer Sr. is, too.
A week after Mr. Turner announcement, Homer goes to the lumber shop at the mine. At the mine, he finds Mr. McDuff, a lumber worker. Homer tells McDuff that Homer Sr. has promised Homer building materials: scrap lumber and tin. Another worker, Mr. Leon Ferro, reports that there is no leftover tin—Reverend Richard took all of the tin to repair his roof.
Here, Hickam establishes the first of many serious logistical challenges that the BCMA faces. While the students at a wealthier school—Welch, for example—could obtain rocket materials more easily, Homer and his friends have to hunt and trade for them.
Homer and his friends go to visit Reverend Richard. They talk to him and find a way to get the tin he has: they can go to Emmett Jones, a miner, to get shingles, use the shingles to repair Richard’s roof, and keep all of the tin Richard has gotten from McDuff. The boys trade Emmett Jones a load of “plantin’ dirt”—fertile soil for growing flowers—for his shingles, and trade Richard the shingles for his tin.
There is something frustrating but also amusing about this brief section, as Homer and the BCMA have to go through at least four different people just to get some tin. One effect of the BCMA members’ difficulty obtaining materials is that they come to value these materials very highly, and so every rocket really matters.
The BCMA goes about using its newfound tin to build a launchpad, nozzles, and rocket shafts. As they work, Elsie pays special attention to Quentin, feeding him extra food. After an especially long day, Homer runs into his father, who warns him to keep the rockets out of sight. When Homer asks his father to inspect his launchpad, he declines. Homer thinks that if Jim had been on the BCMA, Homer Sr. would be supporting him whole-heartedly. Homer Sr. mentions that Mr. Bykovski wants to teach Homer more about welding—Homer is excited with this news. As his father goes to bed upstairs, Homer hears his mother and father moving into their separate bedrooms, and he feels immensely lonely.
The contrast between Homer’s father and his “father-figure” couldn’t be clearer here. Homer Sr. is cold and seemingly uninterested in Homer’s rocket designs, even as they become increasingly elaborate and impressive. Mr. Bykovski, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about Homer’s rockets—as a “father figure,” he provides Homer with the love and support he needs to continue with his projects. It’s also in this section that Hickam reveals that his parents didn’t sleep together—it seems like they have a sad, lonely marriage.