Once in a while, I come across a book that captivates me. The author is able to draw me into his or her world and take me along on a journey in which I am an interested and intrigued companion. Homer (Sonny) Hickham Jr.’s memoirs titled “Rocket Boys” is one such book and I just finished reading it last night. It is a story of a young boy growing up in the coal country of West Virginia in the late 1950s. The launch of the Sputnik in 1957 by the erstwhile Soviet Union and America’s race to launch her own satellite under the guidance of Wernher von Braun inspired Sonny to form his own Rocket club along with his friends. What started as a hobby ended up with Gold and Silver medals at the National Science Fair in 1960 and a career later at NASA. Along the way, Homer provides a glimpse into the life of rural West Virginia and the lives of the coal miners.
Now I agree that reading tastes are subjective and this book may not appeal to other readers, however, it struck a chord with me. When I was in third grade, I won a prize for Science. It was a Ladybird book on “Lights, Mirrors and Lenses”. The “Ladybird” books were printed in the UK and were very popular in India when I was growing up. These slim, hardbound volumes covered various topics related to Science, History, Sports, Fairy Tales and so on. In fact, these merit a blog post on their own. The book that I received described reflection, refraction and diffraction. It had instructions on how to calculate the focal length of lenses and construct microscopes and telescopes amongst other things.
A year later, my brother returned from a Scout camp armed with the knowledge of identifying constellations and he would point out the Big Dipper and constellations such as the Seven Sisters to me. This was my introduction to astronomy. Around this time, my father brought home a book that I read with great interest. It was an unusual book – some four inches in length and probably an inch and a half thick with an even more unusual story. The plot involved a trio of Racoons who build a rocket and land on the moon! I did not know what a Raccoon was but the rocket in the illustrations looked pretty interesting. Then there was Tom Swift, a character in a Sci-Fi series who has a lab and builds spacecraft, not just willy nilly but from official-looking blueprints. My “lab” was on our balcony and it constituted of some old test tubes in which I heated boot polish along with remnants of egg whites and what not. The test tubes were heated on a candle and fortunately, the smells never made it to the inside of the house. The Ladybird book came in handy as I grew a little older and I used cardboard tubing along with old spectacle lenses to make telescopes. In all honesty, the magnification was not great and the stars when I could focus, were hazy, to say the least, but I was thrilled.
My interest in Space peaked when I was in 8th grade. Fr Scottus Fernandes was our Geography teacher and we had a section on Astronomy. I read my textbook and I also read encyclopedias at the library. I read about the Soviet and US space programs. Baikonur, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, Laika, John Glen, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Saturn rockets, the Mercury space program, Goddard Space Flight Center, Sea of Tranquility, “The Eagle Has Landed”. I dreamt of becoming an astronaut, the first Indian in space. An Indian did travel into space a couple of years later. Rakesh Sharma, an IAF pilot journeyed into space on a Soyuz spacecraft in 1984. When asked by the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, as to how India looked from space, he quoted from Iqbal’s poem to reply “Sare Jahan Se Accha” (the best in the world). The patriotic sentiment was not lost on his countrymen. Fr Scottus also took us one evening to the Observatory in the St Joseph’s college. This was serious and exciting stuff! Incidentally, India does have a commendable Space program that operates on a budget that is a fraction of that of NASA.
In “Rocket Boys”, Sonny the protagonist was probably in 9th grade when he developed an interest in space. He formed a club with a few of his friends and they fired off rockets initially in his backyard with some disastrous results. However as time passed by, their designs grew more sophisticated and their choice of propellants more scientific. They set up a launching pad with a small concrete base and a shack to act as their blockhouse. The boys were mentored by their Chemistry teacher who procured a book on Rocket design and by machinists at the coal mine who helped fashion the body as well as the nozzles for their rockets.
The book is not all about rockets though. There is sibling rivalry, close friendships with kindred spirits, unstinting support from a firm yet generous and loving mother and a testy relationship with a seemingly distant and uncaring father. The awkwardness and confusion of adolescence and the pain of unrequited love. Rocky relationships between labor and management. The coal mine itself dominates the town, everybody works there and depends on it for their livelihood. They cannot live without it, yet it takes their lives, sometimes without warning in the form of accidents but surely and inexorably with each breath as the miners inhale the fine coal dust. There is period trivia too, the local club plays Dean Martin, Chuck Berry and the Platters. Hubert Humphrey swings by on the campaign trail and Sonny inadvertently runs into one of JFK’s campaign stops. JFK is ill at ease addressing the miners but lights up when Sonny suggests that the US should send a man to the moon.
About 25 years ago, I was fortunate to witness a shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral. It was an awe-inspiring sight, The ground reverberated as the shuttle was launched leaving behind a plume that looked like two vertical columns before it billowed out. Later that day, I visited the Kennedy Space Center where exhibits were grouped by the missions in chronological sequence. Space suits, rockets and capsules, enough material to inspire a young mind. I felt wistful as I looked at the exhibits, I would have probably enjoyed this immensely had I visited it when I was younger. At that age, I had to content myself by reading books and looking at pictures.
Looking at the exhibits I realized that I had been in love with the idea of becoming a scientist but the not science itself. My encounters with thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, differential equations and variational calculus were not happy affairs. I saw glorious pictures of the moon and that of the earth from space but as I looked at the Apollo spacecraft, I realized that I would never have been able to become an astronaut. I am claustrophobic. And I think that is why I admire Sonny. His school did not have a calculus program, he fought to get it instituted but did not make the cutoff since there were limited spots and his grades did not let him get into the class. Undaunted, he taught himself calculus and differential equations at home. He needed this knowledge to design the de Laval nozzles for his rocket. Studying something for an exam is one thing but to study it because you need to apply it immediately is something else. It forces you to understand the principles and not just the mechanics.
I have read books on the moon program before. These were centered on the space program itself and on the astronauts. The latter are easy to admire, jet pilots with nerves of steel who ventured into the unknown, trusting their lives to the engineers and technicians who built their craft. This book though is narrated from the viewpoint of a young boy far from the actual program. As I read the book over a few nights, I realized that it was not just the story of a boy’s aspirations but also of his need to prove himself to his father and win his approval. As the mine supervisor, his father had the ability to provide him with materials and assistance in the form of mechanics and use of the workshop. While his father “refused” to help him, things would show up magically whenever he needed anything, Along the way, Sonny sees aspects of his father that point to a more complex person, a company man who for all external purposes has a single focus in his life, namely keeping the mine running. He maintains a library though with books on mathematics and poetry. He braves into the mine when there are accidents and is generous to miners who have suffered accidents.
For a few nights, I was a resident of Coalwood in West Virginia and I pictured the town in my mind’s eye. The book was published in 1998 and was made into a movie “October Sky”, an anagram of “Rocket Boys”. I haven’t watched the movie, I wonder if I will like it as much as the book though. A movie is enjoyable but it is instant gratification, there is no incentive or opportunity to exercise my mind. I’ve been disappointed before, movie versions of books that I’ve read have not measured up to the original books.
Reading an interesting book is one of the simplest and purest forms of joy to me. I can lose myself into the book and am free to exercise my imagination. The years pass by and dreams and aspirations contend with reality. Some are realized, many discarded. I age physically and it’s harder for me to understand and remember things but fortunately, some things never change. I can still experience the thrill and excitement of reading a good book just as I did many years ago as a young schoolboy. For that I am grateful.