Last Saturday, October 4, I was a guest in Coalwood, WV, at the 10th annual October Sky Festival, hosted by Coalwood citizens and best-selling author Homer Hickam. The day was blessed with beautiful early autumn weather: temperatures about 70 under a cloudless blue sky. The forested ridges surrounding the little town (population, 180, down from 2000 sixty years ago) where Homer grew up were brushed lightly with the first traces of yellow, orange, and rust-red. The mining town’s main street was lined with art and craft vendors, food stalls, and plenty of happy families.
Along with Homer’s boyhood pals, I participated in a series of model rocket launches just after lunch at “Cape Coalwood,” where Homer and the Rocket Boys once lofted their home-built missiles. Most of Saturday’s rockets managed to parachute back into the former mining dump site without damage, although the surrounding tall trees claimed a few reentering vehicles.
Homer’s latest book is Red Helmet, and he always had a line out front of the Methodist Church for signing. My table was on the church’s front lawn, where I signed copies of Hell Hawks! and Sky Walking through the day. With both my grandfathers having worked in the coal mines of Wilkes-Barre, PA, my visit to Coalwood was a glimpse into their lives 75 years ago. For a day, at least, I could trace a direct path from the mines to the stars. Plan on visiting the October Sky Festival in 2009.