At the moment I am sitting in Welch, West Virginia -population 2,180. As they used to say in the old TV show Hee Haw: Salute!

Why am I sitting out here in what appears to be the middle of nowhere? Indeed, McDowell County, of which Welch is the county seat, was at one time considered completely inaccessible.

Today, though, I got here from Bluefield on Hwy 52.  This morning it was gloomy weatherwise, and I got even more depressed as I passed through some pretty bleak areas.

John F. Kennedy took the same drive when he came here in 1959 to speak, and twice during his  presidential run. It is thought his visits here led to the federal aid his administration provided Appalachia.

Indeed, the first food stamp recipients in the United States lived in Welch.  There was a ceremony here where the Secretary of Agriculture presented a couple raising 15 kids with 95 dollars in stamps.

But back to the question. The answer is that I am here because of one of the people who came to one of the speeches JFK gave here: Homer Hickham.

Hickam is from Coalwood, about 5 miles south of here, and is famous for his book October Sky. The title is an anagram for Rocket Boys, which this county proudly and loudly proclaims as their own.

If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, you should do both. October Sky is the fascinating story of Hickam’s high school days growing up around here.

He and his buds engaged in rocketry, inspired by the launch of Sputnik and the space race.  Their hobby was very unusual at the time, and it led to participation in the National Science Fair in 1960, which Homer and his friends won.

I have been working at Virginia Tech, where Hickam went to school, and have used October Sky in my classes. I’ve have been wanting to come over here, and today was the day.

At first glance, Coalwood is not much of a tour. In fact, other than some streets named after some of the Rocket Boys, you wouldn’t even think of  it as a tourist spot at all.

Before I came, though, I parked myself in Welch, had lunch and took a look at a map of the key sites related to Homer and the Rocket Boys. Doing so proved very useful.

I quickly viewed his house, the mine site, including the deteriorating machine shop where almost all the rockets were built, and the launch site. The latter is down a dirt road full of potholes. It is just an overgrown field surrounded by trees, and littered with debris.

Tangentially, One of the more interesting things that happened on the way to that field was running into the most butterflies I have ever seen in my life. Being spring and all, I suppose it is mating season.

Thar’s life in them their hills!

I tried to find the slag heap down Snakeroot hollow where the Rocket Boys initially launched their rockets. Snakeroot is close to the mine site and the town, which in the movie is shown to cause great conternation from Homer’s mine boss father and the townspeople when one of their rockets buzzes by. However, the road seemed long and I was just going deeper into the holler, past many delapidated houses (a common feature in Coalwood), and a lazy mama dog in the road, and I just turned around.

Also viewable is The Clubhouse, where Homer hung out with a young representative from the mine company. When the reps wasn’t swinging with some available mine secretary, he used to go up on the roof and view the stars with Homer.

In addition to the sites in town, on the peripher, typically, is the church of the black preacher Homer was friends with, and who encouraged him. It sits next to a ball field.

After I took a look at Coalwood, I took Hwy 16 down to War, a great name for a town if I have ever heard one. I wasn’t going to go, but I recall Hickam in his book writing about a hike home from his high school there in a blizzard, sledding down the mountain.

I wanted to see his trek, mainly, but also I wanted to get a look at the high school. Sadly, it is boarded up today, having just closed a couple of years ago. But the road gave me an idea of what Homer had to endure getting home that day.

In fact, I think I learned a lot about perseverance and overcoming obstacles today from thinking on the life of Homer Hickam today. It’s a good thing to learn from the lives of successful people, and Hickam is one of them.

Hickam overcame the resistance of his father, the townspeople and his not particularly encouraging surroudings to become a rocket scientist and a best-selling author.

Hickam didn’t do it by himself, however. He had help along the way: a supportive mother, his high school friends, an African-American pastor, and a teacher who inspired him to be great.

Some old geezer who heard my testimony at a men’s breakfast one morning told me afterward,”You’ve had a checkered career.” I suppose he is right, but it wasn’t particularly encouraging.

My life has indeed resembled the roads around here. In order to get over the mountains, the builders have had to create switchbacks.

My days have had sharp turns, and zig zags. It has been two steps back and sometimes, one step forward. I know one day Jesus and Iwill sit around talking about my highway, and I’ll listen to Him over some old dude that didn’t know me any day. He might agree with the pensioner, but He at least knows me. 

But back to this life. I guess adversity builds character, but why ask for it? I’d rather my kids just fly over their barriers, and as their Dad I will do what I can to provide them with the rocket fuel

If I can help it, one of the obstaccles my kids won’t face is a discouraging, absenteem unsupportive Daddy.  I want to be able to support them in meeting their goals, and provide them with the right environment to succeed.

If Homer Hickam can shoot for the moon, then so can my kids. Who knows, even if they miss I can help them at least land among the stars.

Pardon the pun, but I have no intention of “welching” on my kids.


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