Coalwood, WV…A Wonderful Visit!

My Notebook for Weekend of Rocket Boys’ Festival-(Part IV)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Our morning off to a flying start, having met O’Dell and Roy Lee by chance, at breakfast, we were all set to get on the motor coach for an excursion to Coalwood, the town where the magic of the Rocket Boys took place and the setting for Homer Hickam’s classic, Rocket Boys.

100_5397As I wrote about earlier, Carolyn and I had driven to Coalwood last winter when we were en route to her brother’s in North Carolina. The experience of dealing with the steep and very winding roads was something I still think about. And because Coalwood is basically a place where you “can’t get to from here,” it’s a long ways away from anywhere (paraphrasing Roy Lee and O’Dell) and doesn’t show up on many maps or atlases. Just the same, it’s a neat place once you finally get there just over two hours from Beckley. That was why I was so very much looking forward to making the trip this time via a comfortable tour bus, with a tour guide of sorts, explaining the lay of the land and other points of interest. The old slogan about “take the bus and leave the driving to us” was totally in play here!

By the time we pulled away from Tamarack, it was 9:15 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday morning, and our intrepid guide and director was none other than Scott (the guy in the Red Sox ball cap), and he filled us in on the plan for the trip. He took the occasion to ask us our feelings and opinions about the Festival and the surrounding events. We also introduced ourselves and spoke about why we were there. I found this part of the bus ride interesting, and it was good to meet—if only briefly—most of the other twelve or so people who were along for the trip.

But there was also plenty of quiet time to ride along and admire the rolling landscape and all of the various species of trees and plant life adorning the land. There always seemed to be a creek or a river running right alongside our serpentine road as we twisted and turned, up and over, the many mountains leading on to Coalwood. Our little entourage was expected at the Coalwood Community United Methodist Church around 12:00 as the good folks there were planning to serve all of us hungry travelers lunch.

Arriving in Coalwood about a half-hour early, we were joined by a long-time resident and church member, Virginia Phillips, who served as our tour guide through Coalwood. It was good having her aboard as she pointed out the various places—now abandoned and basically gone to ruin—that functioned as the vital parts of the town of which Homer wrote. Her pleasant demeanor and great sense of humor provided each of us a wonderful time learning about—up close and personal—Coalwood and its background. And, we soon learned, she is the daughter of William “Bill” Bolt, who was the machinist who helped the Rocket Boys with their rockets. Further, the church was helping him celebrate his 90th birthday, so we would all be a part of this celebration during our lunch.

100_5409
The Coalwood Community United Methodist Church

We returned to the pretty white church and went down to the basement for a lunch of chili, cornbread, slaw, and delicious homemade desserts. It was quite pleasant chatting with the church members and residents of Coalwood. Their friendliness and hospitality was outstanding! Though a small congregation, there appeared to be an overall feeling of goodness and spirit. Shortly after our arrival, we were joined by unexpected guests, Homer and Linda. On their way back to their home in Huntsville, Alabama, they wanted to stop and wish Mr. Bolt a happy birthday at the church.

After lunch, and before we boarded for the return trip to Beckley, our little tour group had our picture taken with Homer on the front church steps, after which he spoke to us for ten minutes or so, pointing out various aspects of the buildings, streets, and locations that were such a prominent part of his story. It was good to be on the actual site, with the actual main character/author speaking directly to us.

Then it was time to bid farewell to Homer and Linda and all of the wonderful folks of Coalwood and hop on the bus to get back to Beckley. Nick and I would be up very early—4:00 a.m.—Monday morning for our long drive back to Illinois, so we were anxious to get back to the hotel to pack and get some sleep that night. The return bus trip was one of reflection on not only the day’s journey to Coalwood, but also of the entire weekend. Thanks to all who made it such a good experience, and if all goes well, I’m planning to do it all again the first weekend of October in 2014. See you there…CortlandWriter

Nick explains to Homer the significance of Mount Gay Rum (See The Keeper's Son)
Nick explains to Homer the significance of Mount Gay Rum (See The Keeper’s Son)

Saturday’s Festival & Sunday Breakfast Shenanigans…

My Notebook for Weekend of Rocket Boys’ Festival-(Part III)

Saturday, October 5-Sunday, October 6, 2013

Saturday was the Rocket Boys’ Festival, and it provided us plenty of opportunities to walk about and enjoy the sights and the entertainment. The day kicked off with a wonderful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by Rhayne Thomas.  And, of course, Homer and the three other Rocket Boys (Billy Rose, Jimmie O’Dell Carroll, and Roy Lee Cooke) were introduced at the beginning of the festivities front and center on the entertainment stage. And we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day weatherwise: Clear, blue skies, lots of sunshine, and enough of a breeze to keep things comfortable.

Homer and Mark
Homer and me on the porch at Rocket Boys’ Festival, Saturday, October 5, 2013

The first thing Nick and I did was to pay a visit to the front porch of Exhibition Coal Mine & Museum where Homer’s wife, Linda, had all of Homer’s books available for sale.  She also added her signature to my copy of Rocket Boys, right under Homer’s. This porch would also be the place where Homer would be signing books and having his picture snapped a million times throughout the day.

I am still truly amazed at the endurance Homer displayed, standing behind a lectern most of the day. Not sure how he held up with the number of people that came to meet him. A true testament to a person who cares about his many fans! The procedure for this was made simpler by the old “take-a-number” method. Nick’s and my number weren’t going to be called until much later, so we wandered about and took in the atmosphere of the fun day.

Nick and I were very impressed with the wonderful items on display inside the coal museum. The actual artifacts of the mining profession displayed makes one truly realize just how tough and dangerous a job the miners face, day after day. And to anyone reading this, if their travels should take them anywhere near Beckley, West Virginia, I would highly recommend a visit to this Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine/Museum, located in New River Park. There’s also a nice Youth Museum as well.

Later in the afternoon, I was ready to return to our hotel to kick back, get some writing done, and get ready to head off for the annual Chili Night in downtown Beckley. It was an early evening since the next morning would be another early wake-up for our bus trip to Coalwood.

(Sunday morning)

As usual, our morning started with a visit to the breakfast area where I enjoyed coffee, scrambled eggs, and a small bowl of fruit. Nick, who had been reading my copy of  Rocket Boys throughout the weekend, trying to finish it up before our trip had ended, had the book with him at breakfast. As we were finishing, a familiar face was in the food line. That familiar face belonged to Rocket Boy, Jimmie O’Dell Carroll. With breakfast plate in hand, he walked past Nick and me, taking the table right beside us.

A few minutes later, this Rocket Boy was going back for something in the food area, and noticing the copy of Rocket Boys lying on our table, said, “What do you think of those guys?” I told him that I thought the book was great and that we were there for the purpose of meeting him and the other Rocket Boys! He liked this, laughed, and shook our hands. From that point on for the next while, we talked about the festival from the day before, and he even returned to his room for his camera to show us pictures he’d taken of the trip into the Exhibition Coal Mine. He had asked if we had taken the tour of it, and I said that I was a bit claustrophobic and not too sure about such things. He said that it wouldn’t have been bad. His photos proved that, so I told him next time I’d visit the Exhibition Coal Mine.

autographed book
My copy of Rocket Boys with mostly “authentic” signatures!

Then the real fun began! I explained that I had attended the Writers’ Workshop on Friday night, and Homer had signed my book, and that Linda had signed it at the Festival. Showing him this, he asked if he could sign it as well. Without question, I wanted him to do so! After adding his own unique autograph, he did something quite memorable. He said that he could sign all of the other signatures for the Rocket Boys, and I told him that would be great. Hesitating no more, he forged the signatures of the other Rocket Boys–one not even living (Sherman Siers) and one not in attendance (Quentin Wilson)–and handed me the book.

About that time, Jimmie O’Dell Carroll saw Roy Lee Cooke fixing his coffee at the coffee station. “Hey, Roy,” he called to him. Roy Lee looked up and came on over and joined us. I introduced Nick and myself to him and handed him my book for his “authentic” signature. We continued to chat and enjoy the friendly banter for a while longer before it was time to make the short drive over to Tamarack where we’d board a nice tour bus for the trip over to Coalwood—hometown of Homer and the Rocket Boys.

And what a fine experience that trip to Coalwood turned out to be! The details of that will be the subject of my next post….CortlandWriter

The Pinnacle–Meeting Homer Hickam…

Introducing myself to Homer Hickam, a nice person and terrific author!
Reaching the pinnacle! Introducing myself to Homer Hickam, a nice person and terrific author (Photo: Nick Dempsey)

My Notebook for Weekend of Rocket Boys’ Festival (Part II)…

Beckley, West Virginia: Friday, October 4-Saturday, October 5

What a weekend! In my last post, I wrote about setting off early Thursday morning, with my good friend Nick, to the beautiful mountains of West Virginia for the annual Rocket Boys Festival  and author Homer Hickam and some of the original Rocket Boys. Arriving late afternoon, we found our accommodations at the Country Inn & Suites to be excellent, far exceeding our expectations. Loved the first-floor room conveniently located to the lobby, the ice machine, the breakfast lounge, the coffee station, the pool, etc., etc. 

After settling in and then going out for a nice dinner, we relaxed outside on one of the comfortable patios and planned for Friday, which would include exploring and “reconnoitering” during the morning to locate where the venues were and to pick up our tickets for that night’s Writers’ Workshop at the beautiful Tamarack, a very short distance from our hotel. It was there that first morning where I almost met Rocket Boy, Roy Lee Cooke. As it turned out, I would eventually meet him and another Rocket Boy, Jimmy O’Dell Carroll Sunday morning at breakfast in our hotel and have them sign Rocket Boys.

Just before 5 p.m. Friday, we found our way into the comfortable auditorium at Tamarack where Homer was to conduct a question-and-answer workshop for an hour or so. To get things started, an energetic guy wearing a Boston Red Sox ball cap sat up front on the edge of the stage and asked us randomly how we’d heard about the event and the festival in general. I told him that I had found the Web page, and he was pleased with my response since he was responsible for putting the Web site up! He was quite sincere in wanting all sorts of feedback—positives and negatives—about anything concerning the Web page and/or the events of the weekend. As it turned out, the energetic guy was Scott Hill, the guy in charge of, and responsible for, the Rocket Boys’ Festival. In fact, it was his effort and hard work that landed the Festival in Beckley (a terrific location, by the way!) after the folks in Coalwood no longer could put one on. Scott’s story is a good one, and I enjoyed meeting him and talking with him throughout the course of the weekend. http://rocketboysfestival.com/home

Soon, we were in for an unexpected surprise as Homer’s pleasant wife Linda, and a very vibrant and energetic story teller/blues singer named Rhayne Thomas kicked things off while waiting for Homer to arrive from a live-TV interview outside. Doing a wonderful job of “filling,” they shared highlights of their careers and experiences in the publishing world and life with Homer.

Once Homer arrived not long after, he spoke about his own experiences getting started

Homer H. Hickam: Rocket Boys
Homer H. Hickam: Rocket Boys (Photo credit: Wolf Gang)

in his writing career, as well as some of the various obstacles he had to overcome to get published. Throughout the evening, he was most interested in entertaining any and all questions and comments from us in the audience, and the hour moved along way too quickly. At the conclusion, Rhayne treated the audience to a sample of her blues singing and her love of all things prunes. Yes, you read that correctly—prunes! She even passed out some samples of prune snacks. (http://www.rhaynethomas.com) Meanwhile, Homer and Linda were available for book signing and photo opportunities (see photo above). Not hesitating, I seized the chance, especially since I was in the front row a few feet from Homer, so I introduced myself, had him sign my copy of Rocket Boys, shook his hand, and had Nick snap a couple of photos and then we left the auditorium, savoring the wonderful warmth of the evening’s program just concluded.

That was it for Friday night, and Nick and I returned to the hotel for some more relaxation on the veranda, a cold drink or two, and basking in the good feeling of having just spent an evening listening to one of my very favorite authors and having met some very nice and genuine people. We knew that Saturday’s Rocket Boys’ Festival would be busy and fun, and we both looked forward to getting to the New River Park and surrounding area where things would begin the next morning.

At this point, I felt as though I had reached the pinnacle! One of my major goals I had set when I decided that I would attend the Rocket Boys’ Festival was to meet Homer Hickam, introduce myself, shake his hand, and ask him to sign my book. With all of that accomplished that Friday night, I could have driven back home then and there. But then I would have missed out on several more unique things that happened during the course of Saturday and Sunday. Of those, I shall be writing in my next post. Stay tuned…CortlandWriter

McDowell County, Home of the Rocket Boys
McDowell County, Home of the Rocket Boys (Photo credit: taberandrew)

Beckley or bust! Holding a Rocket Boy’s coffee…

My Notebook for Weekend of Rocket Boys’ Festival…

Cover of "Rocket Boys (The Coalwood Serie...
Cover of Rocket Boys (The Coalwood Series #1)

Thursday, October 3-Up and out of bed at 3:15 a.m. Showered and got the coffee going and finished putting things in the truck. Left for Naperville and Nick’s just before 4 a.m.

Arrived Nick’s about 4:45 a.m. And transferred things from truck to trunk of our rental car, a 2014 Chevy Cruze. Parked the truck by Nick’s garage for the weekend, and he and I set off a few minutes past 5 a.m. For Beckley, WV.

Weather warm and balmy, promising humid temperatures for the day and threatening rain. We did run into rain—off and on—down through Indiana and past Indianapolis and on into Ohio.

Reaching the Dayton area, we swung southeast on U.S. 35 and travelled through some very hilly and scenic country leading to West Virginia.

Since Nick was the only person permitted to drive (due to saving some money on the car rental/insurance, etc.), I couldn’t relieve him at the wheel.  I was sleepy and dozed here and there, and I knew Nick must have been equally as sleepy. In fact, he pulled into a Rest Area further down the road before we entered West Virginia, and he relaxed and dozed for about fifteen minutes or so. I took advantage of the nice sidewalks around the area and stretched the legs a bit. Refreshed, we were back on the highway shortly thereafter and soon hooked up with I-64 and then on to Charleston, WV where we connected with southbound I-77 that would take us on to Beckley.

We were definitely in the state of West Virginia! Surrounded by mountains, we enjoyed viewing myriad colors of the trees—russets, yellows, and some flaming crimson. A little more than an hour, and we were in the Beckley area, and I immediately recognized Tamarack next to the Welcome/Travel Center where Carolyn and I had stopped last February on our ancestry “field trip.” Our hotel where we’re spending the weekend is within a mile of the place.

As Nick and I checked in, we found everything better than expected. A first-floor room and so many amenities, nothing could have been better. A beautiful swimming pool (open until midnight) just around the corner, a coffee station nearby, and the breakfast dining area right there, have been excellent parts of this trip so far. Perhaps a late-night soak in the pool will be in order following tonight’s events at Tamarack.

Dinner Thursday evening was at the Outback Steakhouse, and the steak and shrimp meal was delicious and the service exquisite. Returning to our hotel, we both were exhausted from the day’s travels, and I think sleep fell upon us no later than 8:30.

Arising this morning at 7:00, I couldn’t believe that I slept that long, but I guess it’s a tribute to the comfy bed and air conditioning in the room, not to mention the early awakening the previous day and the long ride from Illinois to Beckley, West Virginia.

Off for the breakfast of coffee, cheese omelette, biscuits and gravy, and a bowl of chilled fresh fruit. Our plan for the day was to explore and “reconnoiter” Beckley and the surrounding area for the venues for the upcoming activities for the Rocket Boys’ Festival. Thus, we set off for nearby Tamarack and found the round building full of wonderful shops and exhibits of local lore. My main goal was to check on our tickets for the Writers’ Workshop, scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday (today) and the exact location for it. Since Homer Hickam is conducting the workshop, I set my mind long ago making sure I could attend.

As it turned out, we met Kelly Elkins with whom I had spoken a couple of times on the phone about reserving tickets for tonight’s workshop and the bus tour to Coalwood on Sunday. She handed me a hot cup of coffee she was holding and said that it was for Mr. Roy Lee Cooke, one of the Rocket Boys, and asked if I would give it to him if he should return before she did.

I had recognized the bearded man from photos and then remembered he had been sitting across the room from me at breakfast this morning at our hotel! Wow, I was holding the steaming cup of coffee for one of the original Rocket Boys! As it turned out, Kelly returned with an envelope with our tickets for both events before Mr. Cooke came back, so I wasn’t able to introduce myself to him and chat.

From Tamarack, Nick and I drove to nearby Beckley in search of New River Park, where most of the events of the Festival will be centered beginning tomorrow (Saturday). Locating the place next to the Exhibition Coal Mine and Museum wasn’t difficult and, once again, quite convenient to our hotel. Touring the exhibits in the museum was rewarding and educational. Still it’s hard to imagine the very difficult life of a coal miner, especially before modern technology was available.

English: Homer Hickam on set of October Sky
English: Homer Hickam on set of October Sky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the way back to the car, I heard a speaker at the next-door Children’s Museum say, “And let’s give Homer Hickam a nice round of applause…” Seems as though Homer had been speaking to a large school group there, and when I saw his curly white hair from a distance, I wandered over to where he was surrounded by several kids and signing autographs. I thought maybe I’d be able to quickly introduce myself to him, but I thought further about it and knew that it would be kind of an intrusion since I wasn’t part of the school group, plus he was about to head off with others for lunch. The opportunities will be available tonight and tomorrow to meet Mr. Hickam, so I’ll be sure to have my copy of Rocket Boys along for a signature.

And so, the day has been worthwhile and successful, and I write this on the patio next to the outdoor pool at our hotel. We will head over to Tamarack around 4:30 for the Writers’ Workshop and continue with this exciting event known as the Rocket Boys’ Festival! I look forward to updating the events of the weekend. Stay tuned…CortlandWriter

English: The Tamarack, Best of West Virginia a...
English: The Tamarack, Best of West Virginia at the Beckley Service Area in Beckley, West Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Football weekend, beautiful weather, and off to see the Rocket Boys…

Another beautiful weekend has come and gone, and a good portion of it was spent doing what I enjoy doing during this glorious time of the year: watching football. From the grandsons’ flag football game Saturday morning, followed by games featuring Illinois, Northern Illinois, Ohio Sate, Alabama, and Sunday’s NFL offering of the Bears against the Lions, I pretty much got my fill of the sport. Of course, the crystal clear weather of which we’ve been blessed certainly provided a wonderful backdrop for it all. The little bit of rain we received Saturday night was perfect, too, as our yard and bushes are starting to complain that they’re getting awfully thirsty!

Now, Sunday night, I’ve mustered up enough ambition to open up the MacBook and get caught up on some writing and editing. I really need to get a lot finished this evening as tomorrow I will begin to get ready for an upcoming trip at the end of the week to beautiful Wild & Wonderful West Virginia. A friend and I are leaving very early Thursday morning and driving to Beckley, West Virginia, to attend the annual Rocket Boys’ Festival.

Homer H. Hickam: Rocket Boys
Homer H. Hickam: Rocket Boys (Photo credit: Wolf Gang)

For anyone unfamiliar with Rocket Boys (1998), it’s the book by Homer Hickam, Jr., and was later made into a popular movie, October Sky. The story surrounds Homer and his buddies growing up in the coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. Homer’s interest and love of rocketry leads to many memorable exploits of which he writes and brings to life in his award-winning book. And for nearly fifteen years, there has been a Rocket Boys’ Festival, most years in Coalwood but moved to Beckley in 2012.

http://rocketboysfestival.com/home

Last February, when my wife and I were on one of her ancestry “field trips,” we found our way to Beckley and then over the rolling roads through hollers and over mountains to Coalwood. What we found there were the remains of the old mining town that Homer “Sonny” Hickam so vividly brought to life in his poignant book and the other two in his “Coalwood” series, The Coalwood Way (2000) and Sky of Stone (2002). It was during that brief passing-through visit that I decided I wanted to come back in October and attend the weekend festival, especially since Homer and three other Rocket Boys would be there. I have reserved tickets for the hour-long Writers’ Workshop on Friday evening, and I’m looking forward to hearing Homer speak, answer questions, and possibly even get to introduce myself to him. We have conversed many times via mail and Facebook, but there’s nothing like an in-person, face-to-face meeting.

Cover of "The Coalwood Way (The Coalwood ...

Thus, I have a suitcase to pack, as well as my laptop and items needed for writing “moments,” and a rental car to pick up Wednesday evening. We managed a pretty good deal on the car for a week, so we can save our own vehicles the wear-and-tear and keep the many miles off them. Because it will be an early wake up Thursday morning in order for me to meet my friend at 5 a.m., since he lives about an hour east of here, I suppose I should get some sleep these next few nights! That said, I will close this for now and spend an hour editing my novel-in-progress. I’m looking forward to posting from my hotel room in Beckley next weekend. I look forward to the experience….CortlandWriter

Cover of "Sky of Stone: A Memoir"