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HOMER HICKAM QUARTERLY NEWSLETTER
Summer '06 Issue, September 2006
click here for this issue's photos
Dear Gentle and Prodigious Readers:
Everybody who knows me knows I'm a summer person. I love summer! Even in Alabama where the weather is hot and muggy (mugg-eye as some say in these parts), I crave the summer. Maybe it goes back to my boyhood in Coalwood when the winters were so harsh and long. Once it snowed so much I built ice tunnels all over the yard. I had secret trapdoors, and escape portals. I started battles with kids walking past and then would dive inside my snow fort. Oh, that was the life, all right, but I was happy when it melted and then came the beautiful West Virginia springs and marvelous summers. O'Dell Carroll, Roy Lee Cooke, and other Coalwood boys would head for the creek where we'd seine for fish, hunt crawdads (we let everything go), and built rafts (they always sank). We climbed the mountains and the cliffs (we were into rock climbing before it became a sport and we did it barehanded), swung on grape vines (see my memoir Sky of Stone), or simply sprawled in the backyard on the soft, green grass and looked up at the sky and made up stories based on the creatures, ships, and buildings we saw in the clouds. Oh, those were the days, all right!
Well, another summer has passed and I guess I could get a little melancholy about it because it was a great one. Let me share it with you.
THE WRITING LIFE:
I've finished The Far Reaches and we've put up the first few chapters on the home page of www.homerhickam.com. Everyone who's read the complete novel says this is the best "Josh" adventure yet, and I have to agree with them, even though I'm still partial (of course) to The Keeper's Son, and The Ambassador's Son. In "Reaches," my character Sister Mary Kathleen seems to be adored by most of my readers, which pleases me. I love her, too! So enjoy the excerpt. And if you haven't read any "Josh Thurlows," let's get busy out there! The unhappy news I have to share with you is that The Far Reaches won't be out until probably next June. It wasn't anything I did, or the publisher failed to do, just the way the schedule has worked out. I'm OK with it. I think The Far Reaches might do well as a summer book!
I have also been working diligently on The Red Helmet, the new book I'm writing for the big publisher WestBow/Thomas Nelson (http://www.thomasnelson.com). After you see my notes on our travels below, you may question whether I have been working diligently enough, but indeed I have. I had to change more than a few mental gears after writing about only Josh Thurlow for the last few years, but I'm into the novel now and expect only good things from it. The Red Helmet is set in today's West Virginia coalfields, and I think you'll like it a lot. I believe it's a love story. At least that's how it's evolving. Anyway, it's different from anything I've ever written, but that's a good thing. A writer has to keep stretching his craft and his art!
Finally, keeping fresh and up to date as best I can, I am now writing a blog which can be found on my website. I will try to update it at least weekly. It isn't meant to supplant this newsletter, but to enhance it with some current musings. Let me know what you think!
I will begin with our most excellent adventure in Alaska with our good friends the Mountain Marauders joining us on Linda's birthday trip. (Photo 1) What a grand time we had aboard the Sikumi! She is a small passenger vessel that specializes in customized cruising of Alaska's Inside Passage. Actually, I don't have to write much about it since Linda's already done that! Go here (http://www.sikumi.com/2006-homer-hickam.htm) for her article, then look around the Sikumi's website for more interesting information on this highly recommended vessel and crew. Being a writer, however, I just have to add a little more, so here goes.
Petersburg, Alaska was the starting point for our journey and I loved it. It's a delightful little town (think of the old TV show Northern Exposure) filled with very friendly people. One reason I felt right at home is that Petersburg is something of a company town, just like Coalwood! But rather than mine coal, everybody there is involved in fishing, one way or the other. We were fortunate to arrive during the week the town celebrates Norwegian independence, reflecting the heritage of most of the people who live there. There were bands, parades, lots of good food, and folks dressed up like Vikings and Valkyries! Even the dogs were wearing horns. On our first night in town, while the other Marauders were hanging out in the local bars, Linda and I opted to go to a play. The play was locally written and acted and I have to say we enjoyed ourselves, although I never quite figured out the plot. It had something to do with a beautiful girl who worked the "slime line" at the local cannery. That's all I know!
The next day, we were off on our Sikumi adventure. Every day was a delight. I tended to hang out on the bridge with Captain Mercury (a great name). I just liked to watch where we were going. I especially liked it when we started shoving big chunks of ice out of the way. (Photo 2) My buddy Frank Stewart (a fellow dino-boy, more on him later) would come up and point out to my weak eyes various eagles, mountain goats, seals, and grizzly bears. "Look!" "Where?" "There!" "Oh yeah!"
We also kayaked and fished. Now, I'm not typically much of a fisherman, I'll confess, but fishing for halibut didn't take a great deal of skill. In fact, I caught the biggest halibut of the trip while I was half asleep. A good tug on my line brought me awake and, after about 45 minutes of hard work, I brought in a fish that was as big as a barn door. He was let go, but Claus (yet another dino-boy, but a new one) later caught one we kept and ate. Boy, the cooking was just fine on the Sikumi!
Another great adventure was when we hiked up a mountain and found ourselves stopped by a giant landslide filled with huge upended trees. Carlee, our guide asked if we wanted to turn back, and some did, but, as my mom always said, "Sonny is sometimes stupid," so I volunteered to continue. Frank, Claus, Debbie, and I went ahead along with our trusty (and trusting) guide, Young Henry. If you ever played pick-up sticks as a child, you'll get some idea of what it was like working our way through that humongous mess. It was dangerous, too, which pleased me, mainly because I didn't get hurt and neither did anybody else. (Photo 3) There was much, much more that happened on our fine little ship but most of it is in Linda's article so check it out.
On June 8-9, Linda and I ventured up to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for the Wright Brothers Lecture Series. (Photo 4) Gosh, we had a great time up there! The event was sponsored by the Air Force Institute of Technology. Our escort, Major Doug Hall made sure everything ran smoothly and was a great guide. Presentations were by Col. "Bud" Day (Medal of Honor Recipient and Vietnam POW), Gen. John Jumper (former Chief of Staff, Air Force), Brig. Gen. "Tex" Hill (A Flying Tiger of WWII), Brig. Gen. Robin Olds (WWII and Vietnam Ace), Col. Gail Halvorsen (Candy Bomber, Berlin Airlift), Capt Bob Crippen (NASA astronaut and the first Shuttle pilot), Col. Chuck DeBellevue (Vietnam Ace & 1972 MacKay Trophy recipient), Lt. Col. "Buddy" Archer (Tuskegee Airman), Gene Kranz (Apollo 13 Mission Director), Florene Miller Watson (an original WASP), Tom Griffin (a Doolittle Raider ) and ... ta-da!... Homer Hickam (retired NASA engineer and author of Rocket Boys). Well, we were in good company, that's for certain! Linda and I really enjoyed meeting all the young AFIT graduates, as well as these distinguished American gentlemen (and lady!). I especially liked it when Tex Hill leaned over to me while we were on a bus going somewhere and said, "Homer, I have a question to ask." "Sure, General, what would you like to know?" He eyed me for a long second with a withering gaze, then asked, "Who the hell are you?" I responded, "There are days, General, when even I don't know who the hell I am!"
By the way, have you heard about the group called "Homer Hiccolm and the Rocket Boys"? No? Well, they're great! Go here for more: http://www.myspace.com/rocketboys. No, I don't own them (not even a percentage) but I think they rock. Even though they can't spell my name, I'd like to have them come to Huntsville next year for the Big Spring Jam.
In June, Frank Stewart and I headed out to our Montana dino hunting grounds for another week of happy hunting. We were joined by Art Johnson, a fellow Mountain Marauder just back from climbing Mount Kilamanjaro! He had destroyed every toenail in the process but what the hey, he had fun! Anyway, we stayed at the marvelous Garfield Hotel in Jordan, Montana (think Deadwood, the HBO television series, without the cursing and gunplay). We visited Jack Horner's paleo-camp out in the boonies (Jack wasn't there but Nels Peterson, our old buddy, was running things) and aided and abetted the grad students in their search for fresh dinosaur finds. We soon figured out there was nothing where they were looking and headed a bit north where we were certain to make a big strike. We didn't, but we found some promising signs for future hunts, including this Triceratops occipital condyle (Photo 5). I just like saying that: ok-sip-i-tal con-dile! They've taught me a great new vocabulary, these paleontologists! Art did a good job as a fresh new dino-boy, by the way. Here's a photo of us along the edge of a canyon (Photo 6). I later fell off it but that's another story.
Linda and I took our next trip back to wonderful Skyridge, our home in America's paradise, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Gosh, I love that place! (Photo 7) Right off, I made myself happy, too. We have an electric gate at the bottom of our terribly steep driveway. How steep? Take your hand and tilt it at about a 45 degree angle. OK, keep tilting it until all your fingers are pointing straight up at the ceiling. That's how steep it is, I swan! Anyway, our marvelous gate had failed during our absence and no amount of work over many weeks by all the very smart people on St. John could make it work. I, however, got it working within six hours! How did I do it? Well, I used to be a rocket scientist, after all! There was an electronics problem (involving ants, among other things), but that's not important. What is important is that the gate is MY gate. That made all the difference. Things that belong to you naturally get a little extra attention when you're working on them. There's a moral in there somewhere but it's too late in the evening for me to figure it out. Apply whichever one you like!
We didn't have any company this trip so we visited with friends, snorkeled, dived and enjoyed piddling around the house. We did have our favorite cat sitter Amy there on island with friends so enjoyed showing them some favorite spots including the geocaches on island (see http://www.geocaching.com). We visited the two we have hidden there and hid two more in favorite out of the way spots. (Photo 8)
In August, Frank Stewart and I ventured once more into our favorite Montana dinosaur hunting grounds. This time we took Mountain Marauder Claus Kroeger, (Claus's father was one of Wernher von Braun's original rocket team members) and Matt Terry, my nephew on Linda's side of the family. Gosh, we had fun out there in that one hundred degree heat! I will spare you most details except to relate that we each hunted alone except for one thirty-minute period when Frank and I joined up. During that time, I fell down a hole (Frank had to drag me out of it), and we found a big Hadrosaur! (Photo 9). I know it doesn't look like much but there's a big boy under that mound! How do we know? Because we're dino-boys, and also because we take our dino-hunting serious. We are very professional in how we go about it, and we do it under a charter provided by Jack Horner, the Montana state paleontologist. Don't try this at home, folks! Both Claus and Matt acquitted themselves more than admirably, hardly passing out from the heat at all, and both made some great finds, too. Here's Claus and I on the day we went to the hunting grounds by boat (Photo 10). And here's Matt comparing the raptor claw he found with the claw of a juvenile T.Rex I found (Photo 11), and me with that baby claw. (Photo 12). Our finds this time were so good, Jack is chartering a helicopter to go out and stabilize them so they can be dug up next summer. Isn't paleontology fun?
Well, whew! That's about it for this summer. Right now, I am not going anywhere, mainly because I just had foot surgery to fix my big toe. I had Hallux Rigidus, which is a degenerative type of arthritis that affects the large joint at the base of the big toe (called the metatarsal-phalangeal or MTP joint). The condition may follow injury, or, more commonly it simply develops over a long period of time. Sigh. Yes, it hurt, and it still hurts. I had the surgery on September 6 and I'm still limping around. I walked two miles the other day and the Doc said maybe I was pushing it a little (in other words, STOP!). Anyway, I'm chained now to my little 'puter here and will write away. This makes me happy, I swan. And, I confess, I'm getting spoiled from Linda's "room service".
Coming up: We're heading for the 8th Annual October Sky Festival in Coalwood on October 7. Come on out to see me and all the Rocket Boys in the town where it all started! It is a huge Fall Festival with all kinds of fun events and special guests and friends from all over the country attend. Info is here: http://www.coalwoodwestvirginia.com/october_sky_festival.htm
Gifts: Of course, we are pleased when you choose one or more of my books as presents for friends and family. For special autographed and personally inscribed books (Think Christmas NOW!), please contact our friend John Shaver of Shaver's Bookstore here in Huntsville, Alabama. There is no extra charge. Here's all the contact information you need to make that happen:
2362 Whitesburg Dr.
Huntsville AL 35801
256-536-1604 (The store is open 10:00-5:30 CST)
Your writer and friend,
Well, that ole writing hog Homer about said it all didn't he? He does go on and on sometimes . . . Well my job is to report on the fur-kids anyway. Let's see, Maxx spends most of her time on a shelf in the closet (Photo 13), her new place of choice, Flopsy is no trouble (Photo 14), Batman's diabetes is still a little hard to manage but he gets two shots a day at 7am and 7pm and he is always happy to lie in his momma's lap. (Photo 15) China makes us laugh and demands play every day. All the kitties know when they see the suitcases out that we are leaving them. They hate that and often try to go with us! (Photo 16) Luckily we have outstanding cat sitter friends who take over the house for us and spoil them as much as we do. They are the "daughters-we-never-had-thank-God!" - Amy Bandas, Jessica Gaskins and Lauralai Osinski. We thank you sweet ladies for letting us leave home with a peaceful mind! (Photo 17)
And of course a few favorite letters:
*Dear Mr. Hickam, I am the drummer of a band from Abilene, Texas called Homer Hiccolm & the Rocketboys. We recently received an email from a Homer Hickam and wondered if it were the real deal. We just got off of a national two week tour, and somehow after I received your email I lost it, so that's why I'm writing to this email address that I found on your website. We have been a band for a year and a half, and have had some incredible things happen for us as a band. We are all fans of October Sky, and some of us have read The Rocket Boys, (you actually autographed our lead singer's copy).
October Sky seems to be a very optimistic and inspiring movie, and that's exactly what we want our music to be to people who listen to it. Sorry about misspelling your name, but we didn't want to have any complications with it in the future . . .and hopefully we won't. We really love the name, and it's pretty easy for people to remember it or at least remember that its really long.
We have one CD at the moment and are coming out with a DVD/CD combo in late August. We would be thrilled if you would like to have one. If you want you can look at http://www.rocketboymusic.com (which never really gets up dated, but it has a cool live video of us)
Or you can visit http://www.myspace.com/rocketboys to hear some of our music. We hope you like what you hear. Philip Ellis & The Rocketboys
*Dear Homer, Tucker Valley, WV had their training on the LEGO robotics yesterday. Here's a page of the events narrated by Linda Hamilton, the gal who trained the students (and me!). The kids decided that, since they are now reading Sky of Stone that they would name the robot Homer. I hope it brings good luck!
*Dear Mr. Hickam, In December I will graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. In January I start work for USA in Houston with the Robotics Department. I want to thank you for writing "Rocket Boys" and making "October Sky." (Universal's artistic license and all!). You have been a real inspiration to me.
I grew up in the small town of Blacksburg in the hills of South Carolina. I flew model rockets and was glued to NASA TV, but never thought that a kid from a state at the bottom of the barrel in education could wind up working for the Space Program.
I saw the movie and then read "Rocket Boys" in high school. It was then that I realized I could do whatever I set my heart, mind, and soul to. Of all the stories of Space Agency heroes, from Test Pilots to Apollo Astronauts to Flight Directors, your's hits closest to home. Thank you again for sharing your memories with the world and inspiring the next generation of Rocket Boys.
Sincerely, B J
*Hello Mr. Hickam, my name is David. I'm 33 years old and have watched the movie October Sky many times in the last year. I'm currently in Thailand as a volunteer missionary to orphanages. These children don't have much insight to the future, they go to school and everything is provided to them by support from churches and private donation. This isn't a letter asking for anything, but when I've shown them the movie, it is in English with Thai subtitles. Most of them can't read so when I've seen there faces and tears through some of the powerful parts of the movie, I know they are touched by the power of the human spirit. I myself have been touched many times by watching it and will keep watching it because it inspires me to keep going on and not giving up. I'm a cyclist and this year I competed in my first pro race here in Thailand. It was a 7 day race, it took 3 months of riding 5 and 6 hours a day to get ready for this. I completed the week of racing strong and still feel encouraged to continue training and racing when its possible. The movie inspires me, and there isn't a day that goes by I don't think of you guys and what you had to go through, that enduring spirit, the people saying you can't, you won't. Today when I watched it with some of my friends here I said I'm going to try and contact this man. The movie and all of your lives are a great inspiration and I want to teach the children using this story. Blessings to you, David