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'Rocket Boy' shares his story in W.Va.

March 08, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

BUNKER HILL, W.Va. - "Rocket Boys" and "Rocket Girls" are not necessarily aeronautics fanatics. They're youngsters who pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.

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That synopsis came from Homer H. Hickam Jr., one of West Virginia's successful native sons, speaking to a packed audience at Musselman High School Tuesday evening.

"Once you've got a passion you should get a plan, then pursue it. No matter what that passion is, don't be afraid to show it," he said.

Hickam's fantastic but true story of how he and some boyhood friends captivated their town by successfully launching a model rocket ship was described in the critically acclaimed movie "October Sky."

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The movie was based on Hickam's memoir, "Rocket Boys," which has been renamed "October Sky" in releases since the movie.

The audience roared at many of his jokes and anecdotes, and Hickam laughed along.

Hickam, who went on to be an engineer for NASA, showed Tuesday he hasn't lost his wonderment. He shared with the audience his fun and meteoric rise since his story caught on.

Laura Dern, who plays his teacher in "October Sky," excitedly grabbed and kissed his hand at the premiere.

During a week in Montana looking for dinosaur bones with his director, who's now working on "Jurassic Park 3," Hickam found a triceratops skull.

He's been a guest on "The Late Show with David Letterman," whose host he taught to scuba dive.

And his writing, a passion since he returned from Vietnam, is in demand, he said.

He is working on an "equal" - not a sequel - to "Rocket Boys" named "The Coalwood Way," after his hometown. A Christmas story, it will go into more depth with the original characters, he said.

He's also under contract for a third book about Coalwood. It's due Sept. 1, but he hasn't started. And another novel he has written, "Back to the Moon," has a movie option.

That's not as daunting as it sounds for a writer who said his biggest strength is his swiftness under deadline.

The best example was the story of how "Rocket Boys" came to be.

As a freelance writer, Hickam got a call from a frazzled editor at Smithsonian Magazine. They were in a bind, the editor said, and needed a 2,000-word piece the next day. Could he do it?

Hickam said that as he mulled the idea over, his thoughts turned to the rocket nozzle paperweight on his desk, a product of his hometown. He told the editor bits and pieces about the Rocket Boys, and their science award, and, oh, yes, how they won a national gold medal.

The editor was "completely totally underwhelmed with the idea," he recalled. But when he turned in his story, which took him 90 minutes to write, the Smithsonian decided to make a major feature out of it.

"Our phone started ringing at that point and it hasn't stopped ringing since," Hickam said. Agents, publishers and Hollywood producers were interested.

In an unusual move, the movie and the book were developed simultaneously.

Hickam said he didn't like the first draft of the screenplay. "It was 'The Bad News Bears Launches Rockets,'" he said. "I had trouble recognizing it, except some of the names were the same."

It's a story about people, not rockets, Hickam told the crowd.

West Virginians are among the luckiest people anywhere, he said. "Always tell people where you're from," he said.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, who introduced Hickam, said "Rocket Boys" is a lesson in vision, education and perseverance.

"Introducing Homer Hickam to a West Virginia audience is a little bit like taking coals to Newcastle - or should I say coals to Coalwood," Underwood said.

The governor announced that each school library in the state will receive a copy of the book.

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