,I love to read. As a kid I was sick a lot, and reading opened up the world for me and it is still one of my great pleasures. My most recent pleasure was reading Homer Hickam’s, the author of “Rocket Boys”, extended autobiography with the catchy title “Don’t Blow Yourself Up”. Here are my thoughts.
As per the Odyssey of Mr. Hickam’s ancient namesake and possibly muse, this book has the structure and feel of Homer’s famous Greek work of the saga of the Odyssey. Many of the aspects ascribed to the epic poem are present in Don’t Blow Yourself Up. The idea of the return home, of wandering, testing, and even omens are all detectable in Homer Hickam’s work.
Homer begins where the book “Rocket Boys” ends, in Coalwood West Virginia, with the now graduated from high school “Sonny” Hickam seeming lost about his future. Sonny is what everyone knew Homer as, since he and his father shared that name. After being rejected by Vice President Nixon (who was Eisenhower’s vice president) for the Air Force Academy, his mom comes to the rescue having submitted an application for him to Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI), (now known as Virginia Tech). Homer does not bother to open any of the documents pertaining to the school and is surprised when he gets there a week late, that his mom enrolled him in the military school there.
Homer has many adventures there, including one that resonates to this day, which was building a cannon to compete with their rival institution the West Virginia Hokies. Lots of words are dedicated to the design and construction of the cannon, and Homer is a wonderful story teller so the enterprise is filled with skulduggery, hiding from some of the faculty while enlisting the help of others. Finally, at the big game the cannon is unveiled and boom! A legend is born. However, a discordant note is the relationship with his parents as he rather thoughtlessly appears to diminish their role in his life, first by denying his father’s contribution of brass to the cannon, and giving the honor of pinning him at graduation to someone else, in a manner that really hurt his mother’s feelings. It was not done maliciously, but more thoughtlessly. He further (and this was inevitable when coming from a small coal town in the boonies) disappointed his father by going off into the big world. Since I am from coal country as well, I have many relatives who also went into the military to escape going into the mines, and so Homer’s abandonment of Coalwood is an echo of the millions of our Appalachian fellows.
Into the Fires of Vietnam
After graduation homer goes into the military to Officer Candidate School (OCS) which helps to prepare him for his future. It was a brutal time which Homer tells is a matter of fact way, but he survives and is commissioned as an officer in the United States Army. He then his whisked off into his career. First was to the Dugway proving grounds for chemical ordnance work, which even when writing about a normal and even mundane assignment, Homer makes interesting and engaging, and he has a kitty! Homer and I share a love for kitties and his cat Gato was a true friend to him, along with some of his adventures with the opposite sex there. The story gets very intense as he feels the call of duty and volunteers for service in Vietnam.
It turns out that Homer ends up in Vietnam during probably the greatest military crisis of the war, the Tet Offensive of 1968. Homer tells the story of his arrival, and the pretty much loose way of the military in the war when it came to personnel assignments. Homer ends up leading small teams doing maintenance work in the field, that compliments his degree in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech. As the war heats up his experiences multiply and he ends up leading a team in the northern part of the country (Called I Corps then) very close, within miles, of where my brother was at the time in the First Cav division. Homer’s team even did maintenance work for the First Cav (for movie watchers think the choppers in Apocalypse Now), and could have even met my brother during that time as he was a tech there. Thus, I have a lot of context for Homer’s time there and if anything he plays down just how bad the carnage was during that time. Though the U.S. won the engagement called the Tet Offensive, it was the beginning of the end for the U.S. forces there. In Homer’s tale of his time there it would probably help the uninitiated reader to have a bit of context relative to his time there. The climax to this part of his life is his decision to not extend his tour. Read the book to find out why.
Post Vietnam Military Service
With Homer’s experience in logistics and maintenance he was assigned to the military, firs in Huntsville Alabama during that most depressing time of the post Apollo program depression, then to Puerto Rico where he continued his wandering, racking up many miles and adventures in Europe during his time there. Homer relates, that in retrospect this period of his life he was just existing, wandering through life and just letting things happen, to continue the metaphor of the Odyssey. In Puerto Rico he picked up one of the loves of his life in the form of scuba diving. Scuba becomes very important to him and it frames much of the rest of his life. He goes to Honduras where he has many adventures (later in the book, it almost kills him). He ends up in a world of undersea adventures, including some very interesting research regarding German submarines sunk off the east coast that he ends up writing his first book about. His publishing career starts to take of during this time, with articles, and eventually a book about the WWII Atlantic U boat war. His methodical and thorough approach to his research is well keeping with his engineering background and he weaves the tale within the context of his daily life.
During the malaise period of the late 1970’s (look it up) Homer on a whim applies for an army job in Germany, which accepts him and he moves over there for a three year stint in logistics for the Seventh Army Training Command. During this time was the rise in the use of small computers for word processing and Homer’s personal interests in things leads him to develop processes to help Bring logistics into the digital age. Well, this isn’t as exciting as Vietnam or swimming with sharks, but it brought him to the attention of higher ups, and he continued to stoke his wanderlust with trips to various European and other locales for his diving. One super interesting interlude included a scuba trip to the red sea where he and another person came upon an archaeological discovery, and then he and his friend Serge hid it! (Note to Homer: Now is the time to pick this thread back up!). His work with computers and word processors and travel was also helped foster his writing career where he published articles and even started work on a scuba and sunken submarine novel. In 1981 he left the army and moved to back to Huntsville Alabama to work for NASA. This time also closed his life with his dear kitty friend Gato, after a fifteen year run. I mourned with Homer over the loss of his dear friend.
Huntsville and NASA
Homer’s move to NASA and into the world of the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center (MSFC) Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) was enabled by his use of computers in Germany and his love of scuba. The NASA MSFC NBL was a genius idea of Dr. Wernher Von Braun for the simulation of space conditions. Built out of spare space hardware, it was a magnificent system for astronauts learning to work in space and a thorn in the side of NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC). It has been said many times that if NASA field centers had nuclear weapons Huntsville and Houston would have annihilated each other a long time ago. Homer became part of that feud with crew training in the NBL as well as in the Spacelab program where he moved into a very neat role in crew training. Homer working crew training and the NBL was a double win for him and he was able to work with Ellison Onizuka, a member of the ill fate Challenger crew, and he met Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, who also perished with the rest of the crew on that mission.
Right before Challenger Homer was assigned to work with the crew of the Spacelab J mission. Spacelab was a Space Shuttle cargo bay payload that had a great expanded capability to carry experiments for the crew to work with. It was kinda like a part time space station in orbit that rode up and back with the Space Shuttle. This is another example of where expanding the text a bit to give the uninitiated reader some information about what Spacelab and its relationship to NASA and the Space Shuttle program would be helpful. Homer was in Japan when Challenger exploded on that cold January morning in 1986.
Homer went back to Huntsville and was part of the team that investigated why the accident happened. As was shown later, it was the fact that the O rings for the Shuttle boosters were never designed or tested for the cold temperatures. Homer discusses his role in the investigation, keeping a dark subject interesting.
After that stint Homer goes back to the Spacelab J mission and goes into the ins and outs in detail of what it is like to be a crew trainer across cultures and across different ways of doing space between American and Japanese astronauts. He gets pulled into high level political intrigue due to some interesting interactions between the Americans and Japanese that actually helped informed me regarding some work we are doing with Japan at this time. Again, Homer tells this story with a smooth conservational style that is easy to read. During this time, Homer’s dad dies of the dreaded black lung disease. This is a disease that coal miners often got from breathing coal dust down in the mines. My step father got it as well and it is a form of lung cancer that is directly attributed to time in the mines. Most people reading this under 40 not from coal country would have no idea what this disease is so a bit of expansion on what this disease is would have been a good addition. Its also interesting that he and I never crossed paths during this time as I moved to Huntsville in 1987 and we both met Olivia Newton John the same week, and knew many of the same people in Huntsville. My boss at UAH for a few years, Jan Bijvoet, was the European Space Agency’s manager of the Spacelab program (it was built by ESA) before he moved to UAH.
October Sky and Odysseus Returns Home
The story of Homer eventually writing the what would become the best selling book Rocket Boys and the movie October sky. Homer was already a successful writer in this time and had many articles in magazines and his book on the U Boat war had been published. However, it was a magazine article, that turned into a treatment (he did not know the term), that turned into a book, that turned into a movie, is exceptionally interesting and he tells it very well. Homer’s original desire to be able to buy a microwave oven from the proceeds were certainly fulfilled! The time on the movie set and how the movie was made, and the professionalism of the cast and crew in a cold southern winter was also fascinating.
After the explosive popularity of the movie and literally putting Coalwood (by the 1990’s an almost dead coal town after the mines shut down) on the map made Homer a celebrity and led to many new adventures based on that success. One of those was the Coalwood festival that breathed a small bit of life back into the town until it finally died in the 2000’s. This happened in Alabama as well and a bit of expansion on the decline of the coal towns due to mine closures would have also helped the narrative a bit.
Don’t Blow Yourself Up, is a metaphor for Homer’s life that is a meme that goes along with his narrative conversational style. The Homeric underpinning may or may not have been consciously applied but it fits and ties together the overall book. Homer asked me to review it and initially, though I said yes, I kinda dreaded reading it. I have read a lot of bad books lately, but I was very pleasantly surprised and I finished the entire 401 page book in four days, that is how interesting it is! I highly recommend it to the reading public as it is a page turner and has a happy ending. It has many Homeric twists and turns and in an especially gratifying moment, when Homer’s mom sends Homer’s things to him, and in there is his medal from his high school science fair and a piece of the rocket that his dad kept for him. That small gesture told him more about his dad’s feelings and all the unspoken words for all the years than he ever thought.
Bravo Homer, for a great book and a life well lived. One thing that came to my wife and I, and I advocate this to Homer, is that his storytelling style, and his life in Huntsville, lends itself to telling the stories of many of the forgotten men of the Apollo and beyond like Dr. Charles Lundquist, Mr. Dave Christensen, Ed Stluka, and many other Huntsvillians who made Huntsville into the “Rocket City”.