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Authors: Homer Hickam

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Sky of Stone

BOOK: Sky of Stone
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CONTENTS

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Praise for Homer Hickam's Memoirs

Acknowledgments

Preface

Map

1 The Coalwood Proposition

2 The Call

3 The Secret Man

4 Homebound

5 The Captain’s House

6 Sad Times

7 Mr. Dubonnet’s Offer

8 The UMWA

9 The Club House

10 The Enginette

11 Marching in the Line

12 Big Jeb

13 Cut Off

14 Whupped

15 The Kettle Bottom

16 In the Graveyard

17 Squared Away

18 A Sky Made of Stone

19 Water Tank Mountain

20 A Track-Layin’ Man

21 Bobby’s Advice

22 The Bet

23 Johnny’s Team

24 Simple Things

25 The First Testimony

26 Rita’s Chance

27 A Question for Mom

28 Payday

29 Doc Hale

30 Coalwood Business

31 Kitchen Talk

32 The Fourth of July

33 Dandy

34 The Cabin

35 Bobby’s Plan

36 The Second Testimony

37 The Honor of Kings

38 The Third Testimony

39 Talking Turkey

40 Parkyacarcass

41 Johnny’s Last Lesson

42 Coalwood Forever

Epilogue

About the Author

ALSO BY HOMER HICKAM

Copyright Page

To Johnny Basso, Bobby Likens, and fellow coal
miners everywhere.

To motivate your coworkers, you must be thoroughly motivated yourself. Remember the credo of the medieval horsemen: Throw your heart across the ditch, and your horse will follow!

—Dr. Wernher von Braun,
rocket scientist

Don’t be afraid to tell a man he’s no good. A man can’t get good if he doesn’t know he’s bad.

—Homer Hadley Hickam Sr.,
mine superintendent

Boys, there are only two things that are going to keep you alive in this coal mine. Me, and the tolerance of God.

—Johnny Basso, coal miner

PRAISE FOR
HOMER HICKAM’S AWARD-WINNING MEMOIRS

SKY OF STONE

“The prose of [Hickam’s] third book is as vivid and alive as that of the first, and the bond with the people of Coalwood just as intense and complex. . . . Hickam has made [Coalwood] live again in his writing.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“[A] cleverly constructed, richly detailed mystery . . . This pleasing book only reinforces his oeuvre.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Related in such an engaging way that many readers will forget
Sky ofStone
is nonfiction instead of an elegantly crafted novel . . .
Rocket Boys
[aka
October Sky
] was a National Book Critics Circle nominee, and
The Coalwood Way
should have been. It will be no surprise if
Sky of Stone
wins that, along with a few other major literary awards.”

—The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

THE COALWOOD WAY

“Another classic coming-of-age tale . . . the rocket boy soars again.”

—People

“Irresistible . . . as compelling and rousing as a NASA liftoff.”

—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“[A] sparkling memoir.”

—Chicago Sun-Times

“Recalling a lost era, [Hickam] brings his American hometown to life with vivid images, appealing characters and considerable literary magic.”

—Publishers Weekly

OCTOBER SKY

“A thoroughly charming memoir . . . [An] eloquent evocation of a lost time and place . . . Mr. Hickam builds a story of overcoming obstacles worthy of Frank Capra, especially in its sweetness and honest sentimentality.”

—The New York Times

“Unforgettable . . . Unlike so many memoirs, this book brings to life more than one man’s experiences. It brings to life the lost town of Coalwood, W.Va.”

—USA Today

“A stirring tale that offers something unusual these days . . . a message of hope in an age of cynicism.”

—The San Diego Union-Tribune

“A great read . . . One closes the book with an immense feeling of satisfaction.”

—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Hickam has a great story to tell. . . .[His] recollections of small-town America in the last years of small-town America are so cinematic that even those of us who didn’t grow up there might imagine we did.”

—The Philadelphia Inquirer

“[Hickam] is a very adept storyteller. . . .It’s a good bet this is the story as he told it to himself. It is a lovely one, and in the career of Homer H. Hickam, Jr., who prevailed over the facts of his life to become a NASA engineer training astronauts for space walks, that made all the difference.”

 
—The New York Times Book Review

“A refreshingly hopeful book about personal triumph and achieving one’s dreams.”

—San Antonio Express News

“Great memoirs must balance the universal and the particular. Too much of the former makes it overly familiar; too much of the latter makes readers ask what the story has to do with them. In his debut, Hickam walks that line beautifully. No matter how jaded readers have become by the onslaught of memoirs, none will want to miss the fantastic voyage of BCMA,
Auk
and Coalwood.”

—Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

“Compelling.”

—Chicago Tribune

“Thoroughly captivating.”

—The Christian Science Monitor


Rocket Boys,
while a true story, reads like a well-written novel. It deals with a wide range of issues, including the bittersweet experience of coming of age. It also provides an intimate look at a dying town where people still allowed kids to dream and helped them make those dreams become reality.”

 —
Rocky Mountain News

“[A] nostalgic and entertaining memoir.”

 
—People

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

T
HIS MEMOIR
, the third in the series of what I call my Coalwood books, required the assistance of many people, including some real coal miners to keep me straight. My uncle, Harry Ken Lavender, a man much like my father who rose from basic miner to a high management position with a coal company, read an initial draft and made several helpful suggestions. Mr. Early Smith, who worked for my father during the time period I cover in this book, was also very helpful. Mr. Martin Valeri, the last general superintendent of the Coalwood and Caretta mines, added some expert advice. Dr. Robert Likens, my fellow college boy coal miner, reviewed the manuscript when it was nearly completed and reminded me of several important events. Team leader Johnny Basso’s sister, Mary, was very gracious with her time, providing me with many details concerning her late brother. Linda Hickam, my wife and first reader, saw the book from its first incarnation and made it much better, especially by keeping me on track and not off in the creative weeds. Emily Sue Buckberry, my high school buddy and forever friend, also got a look at a draft and made some great suggestions, as did David Groff, my touchstone on these books. My brother, Jim, reminded me of a great story about one of our dogs. My mother, of course, got her two cents in (make that three), as she always does. A special nod goes to Mrs. Betty McClamrock for helping Queen Elsie go back to the mountains from time to time.

Of course, I always like to mention my agents, Frank Weimann and Mickey Freiberg, who also happen to be my friends. I wouldn’t get very far without them.

Continuing to inspire me are the people of Coalwood, especially those folks of the Cape Coalwood Restoration Association. All of them work so hard for the community, the county, and the state. Special accolades should go to Peggy Blevins for her great organizational skills in putting on Coalwood’s annual festivals. Red Carroll, the father of Rocket Boy O’Dell and the unofficial tour guide of Coalwood, continues to be his remarkable self and a great source of wisdom to me and all who know him. His wife, Ivy, is also a most remarkable woman, as is nearly every West Virginia woman I’ve ever known. In fact, should Beth Rashbaum, the editor of this book, ever decide to move to the Mountain State, she would fit right in.

T
HIS STORY
is based on actual events that occurred in the summer of 1961 in my hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia. Names have been changed and events rearranged and compressed to clarify for the reader what happened, and to protect certain individuals, mostly including myself.

1

THE COALWOOD PROPOSITION

W
HEN ONCE
the president of the United States called his nation to greatness, and told the world we were going to the moon, Coalwood, West Virginia, remained what it had always been, a town that mined coal. When President Kennedy also said Americans were going to do many grand and wonderful things, not because they were easy but because they were hard, Coalwood’s men continued to walk out of fog-shrouded hollows and descend beneath their mountains to grub out the coal by the millions of tons to send to the blast furnaces of Ohio and Pennsylvania so as to make steel. For if coal failed, the people of Coalwood believed, steel failed. And if steel failed, so did the country, no matter what else might happen, even with a young president’s dream of glory on the moon.

I was born in 1943 and raised a Coalwood boy, the second son of Homer Hickam, a mine foreman who loved the town more than his life, and Elsie Lavender, a woman who could not love Coalwood no matter how hard she tried. Although my given name was the same as my father’s, my mother tagged me early on with “Sunny”—the light of her life. Believing it was more important for me to know who I was rather than what my mother hoped I might be, my first-grade teacher at the Coalwood School changed the spelling to “Sonny”—the son of Homer. Although she didn’t like it, my mom chose not to argue. In Coalwood, the teachers were considered the final social arbiters.

During my childhood, I came to understand that Coalwood was more than houses, roads, and company facilities. It was also a proposition. This proposition held that if a man was willing to come to Coalwood and offer his complete and utter loyalty to the coal company, he would receive in return a sensible paycheck, a sturdy house resistant to the weather, the services of a doctor and a dentist at little or no cost, and a preacher who could be counted on to give a reasonably uncomplicated sermon. Mr. George Lafayette Carter, the man who founded Coalwood and built its mine, also opened his wallet to the local schools. He did so, according to a letter he wrote to his men in 1912, “so that any of Coalwood’s children, be they sons and daughters of foremen or common miners, might aspire to greatness.”

In 1926, a newspaper reporter from the
Washington Post,
having heard of Mr. Carter’s proposition, visited Coalwood and filed this copy:

Mr. Carter owns lock, stock and barrel the model coal town of Coalwood—houses, stores, churches, police, clergy, and medical services—all that makes up the life of a miner. It is a town of remarkable contrast to the surrounding villages where squalor and poverty are their world. With houses painted and surrounded by flower gardens and lawns, Coalwood looks more like an Alpine Village than the begrimed coal towns of most of America.

The proposition depended on everybody following Mr. Carter’s rules. They were few, unwritten, and unbreakable. One of them had to do with what happened to a miner’s family when he was killed. I first observed it in practice when I was six years old and in the second grade of the Coalwood School.

We were reading from a book titled
The Wind in the Willows,
a tale of a toad who could drive an automobile. I liked the book, mostly because the toad was smart and used a lot of big words. I think all of my fellow classmates wished we might also grow up and be as smart as that toad, even though he kept wrecking his car. Mr. Toad was just about to wreck it again, when Mr. Likens, the school principal, came to collect one of my classmates, a boy named Lonnie Huddle. Lonnie didn’t want to go with Mr. Likens. I think he could see in the principal’s face that something awful had happened. Lonnie started to cry, and pretty soon nearly every girl in class joined him. I watched Lonnie go, certain that because he had cried, he was going to get knocked around by the other boys at recess for being a sister. But the day ended without Lonnie’s return.

That evening, as my family gathered around the kitchen table for supper, Dad announced that Lonnie’s father had been killed in the mine. After giving my mother a furtive eye rewarded by a subtle nod of her head, he explained to me and my brother, Jim, that the company gave a widow of a deceased miner two weeks to make arrangements to get her husband buried and her family out of town. Her children, however, were not allowed back into the Coalwood School. These were the rules, he added, and that was all there was to it.

“Lonnie won’t come back?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine recess without him.

“Lonnie won’t come back,” Dad said, and went back to cutting up the ham Mom had slapped on his plate. Our conversation, such as it was, was over.

Before I went to bed that night, my mother suggested that I make up a prayer for Lonnie and his mother and his brother and two sisters. “He’s gone, Sonny,” she said after I said how much I liked playing tag with Lonnie and what a good reader he was in class. “It’s the way of this place. Get used to it. God knows I have.”

“But he’s just down the street! I could go see him, tell him how sorry I am about his daddy.”

“It isn’t allowed,” she said coldly. “He’s cut off. You know about being cut off, don’t you?”

I did. I had grown up hearing that being cut off was the worst thing that could happen to anybody. It meant you could no longer use the company store, or go to the company doctor and dentist, or live in a company house.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Say your prayers.”

I did as I was told, finishing with “God bless Lonnie and tell him I miss him.”

“That’s good,” she said. “You’ve done what you can for him.” She climbed up the ladder that leaned against the bunk bed and tucked my blankets so tightly around my shoulders I could barely breathe. Then she ran a rough hand over my forehead and then climbed back down. “Are you all right, Jim?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jim said.

“Did you say your prayers?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good boy.”

Mom turned out the light and closed the door behind her. Below me, Jim said, “Sister, if you start crying, I’ll get up and smack you myself.”

I muttered defiance but felt the tears coming despite myself. I fought them back, except for a few that escaped and trickled down my cheek. For a long time, I lay awake, wondering what might happen to us if Dad got killed. We’d be cut off, ordered out of Coalwood. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

A few days later, when I next walked down Main Street to the company store, which was known as the Big Store, I ventured past Lonnie’s house. Another miner and his family had already moved in. Little kids I didn’t know were playing on the front porch. I never saw or heard from Lonnie again.

 

W
HEN
I
was growing up in Coalwood, I liked the times after supper the best, because that was when my mother would pour herself a cup of coffee and my father would fix his dessert of corn bread and milk in a glass and they would sit at the kitchen table and tell stories, often about a Coalwood I didn’t know, of a town filled with young men who worked the coal and of their teenage brides who kept their homes and bore their children. Jim always left the table, but I stayed behind, quietly leaning on the table with my elbows and soaking in a world that had once existed right where I was.

Mom and Dad spoke of a younger Coalwood where weekends saw raucous gatherings and miners boasted of their prowess underground and their wives bragged of the life they were building in Coalwood, and of the fine houses Mr. Carter had given them and how they kept them spotless even with the daily assault of coal dust and smoke from the endless chuffing coal trains that passed within a few yards of their front doors. My mother would laugh into her coffee cup to recall when she had hit a cow with my dad’s new car, and how the cow was unfazed but the car was a shambles, and how she’d walked to the mine and waited to tell Dad when he got off the man-lift before anybody else could do it. I especially liked it when my father filled in with his side of the story, how he’d heard my mother out and then taken her into his arms, right there in front of God and everybody, and told her she could wreck all his cars she wanted, he didn’t care, as long as it made her happy. In all my growing-up years, I had never seen my parents hug each other, and it was fun to imagine what it must have been like, them young and happy. For her part, my mom always frowned at Dad’s version and said she never did get that coal dirt off her dress, that it was ruined even though she still had it and kept it in her cedar chest and every so often got it out and looked at it. That my mom would keep such an artifact always seemed to make Dad’s eyes shine with pride.

A favorite story was about Mom’s pet alligator. During the first weeks of their marriage, someone had mailed one to her from Florida as a wedding gift and she had named it Albert.

They had their dialogue down pat. “It was a tee-niny thing,” she would say. “No bigger than my little finger, I swan.”

“It had big teeth,” Dad would growl.

And Mom would say, “No, it didn’t. They were just like little needles.”

“I believe it,” he’d say. “I still have a scar on my finger, right here,” and then he’d show off the index finger on his left hand, which was so rough and discolored by coal dirt I never could see anything, although I always pretended I could.

Mom would go on, telling how the alligator had grown larger until it filled up the bathtub. “I changed its water every day,” Mom would proudly relate.

“When it climbed out of that tub and chased me down the steps, I told you it was him or me,” Dad would say. “You took your own sweet time deciding which one of us it would be.”

“It was a close-run thing, Homer,” she’d reply, her lips perched on her coffee cup and her hazel eyes twinkling,

Then Dad would look at her and shake his head and then tell how he had loaded her and Albert into his old Ford and drove night and day from West Virginia to the first river he could find past the Florida border, the only place Mom said she could possibly let her pet reptile go.

Then they would laugh, the story told. In later years, whenever there was a report of an alligator eating a poodle or chomping on a golfer, Dad would look up from his newspaper and say, “News of Albert, Elsie,” and she would smile.

It was a good story.

The story Dad seemed to like to tell the best over the kitchen table was how he came to Coalwood. He told it with the same enthusiasm other men might display in recounting their personal experiences as a soldier in a famous battle, or as a player in a great championship game. His chance at a job with Mr. Carter’s coal mine, he said, came in 1934 when the country was deep inside the Great Depression and he was only twenty-two years old. He had come out of nearby Gary, one of the toughest, meanest coal camps in all of McDowell County. Gary, he liked to say, was three mountains and a social philosophy away from Coalwood. After filling in the necessary papers, Dad said he had decided to begin a vigil outside the Coalwood mine superintendent’s office. Why he’d done such a thing, he still didn’t know, but Mom always interrupted his story at this point to say she knew why very well. If he hadn’t gotten the job, all that remained for him was to leave West Virginia and ride the rails with thousands of other unemployed men across the country. I piped up one time and said that riding the rails sounded like fun. Mom hushed me, saying there was nothing fun about being desperate, even aboard a train. I stayed hushed, but it didn’t change my opinion.

Coalwood’s mine superintendent at the time was William “Captain” Laird, a graduate of Stanford University, a World War I hero, and a big-footed, flap-eared giant of a man who went around with a six-shooter strapped to his waist just in case he happened upon a union organizer. Every time the Captain (as everybody in Coalwood called him) came out of his office, he was greeted by the forlorn sight of a scrawny youth in canvas pants and flannel shirt. When the Captain returned to his command post, the thin-as-a-sapling lad was still there.

In the 1930s, union organizers had worked hard to gain a foothold in Coalwood, but had failed because of Mr. Carter’s proposition. Still, every so often they’d send in an agitator hoping to spark some trouble. Suspecting a union trick, the Captain stopped long enough to give the boy a penetrating glare and, with his hand on the handle of his pistol, ask him what the Sam Hill did he think he was doing, standing outside his office like some kind of damned hoodoo scaring his men?

Dad said he had his speech all prepared. “There are no better miners than the Hickams of Gary and I’m one of them. Take me on and you’ll never be sorry.” It was a dangerous speech because it contained within it a boast, something not done lightly in McDowell County. It was common wisdom that a man prone to boasting was not someone who could be trusted.

The Captain challenged the boy. “What makes you any different from all the rest of the fellows who want to get on around here?”

The young Homer Hickam had then made a simple and fateful reply. “Captain, you tell me to do something, it’ll be done, don’t matter what it is, and to the second.”

The Captain had apparently heard such pledges before. “How do I know you’ll really do that?” he demanded.

Dad nodded toward the pistol. “I’ll write out a paper saying it’s all right for you to shoot me if I don’t.”

Captain Laird absorbed the answer, perhaps admired it more than a little, and then asked, almost gently, “Where do you stay at night?”

The young man jerked his head back toward the rhododendron that grew up behind the mine. “Up there.”

“What do you eat?”

Dad shrugged and said nothing, which was also the answer. He had drunk from the creek that ran past the mine. What did it matter about eating when there was a job at stake?

“You like chicken and dumplings?” the Captain asked.

“I’d like a job more,” Dad answered.

Captain Laird bent at the knees and reared back to let out a hoot and a holler. “Well, son, how about both? Come on down to the house tonight, we’ll get you squared away.”

My dad would never forget his promise to the Captain, even after the Captain had retired upstate to the lovely little farm village of Elkins and Dad had taken his job. Growing up, I would hear some people say my father had become all that was good in Coalwood. Others said he had become all that was bad. But whatever side they took in their opinion of him, no one doubted he believed in Coalwood and loved it as naturally as breathing, and because I had heard his story I knew very well why.

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