Robert Popp Essay
Robert Popp wrote, "Hello. I have a story that I wrote about Coalwood
sometime back for a college composition class. My professor liked the story, and
I wanted to find a way to get it to the people of Coalwood. She felt that it was
tribute to them. I came across this website and figured I would send it to you.
The story is a true one. I have taken liberties with the dialogue, but my
intentions were good. It's simply my story how a man from Indiana came to know
Coalwood and what I learned from it. If you wish to publish it, I would love it.
Thank you for your time.
Thanks, Robert! We have reproduced your wonderful story below. If people would like the story in Microsoft Word format, they may click on this link.
19 January 2006
An October Surprise
Some old timers have a saying that “Wisdom comes not just from the drawn out renderings of old men, it also comes from the unplanned and unexpected detours of life”. I have never believed that more than I did in the fall of 2001. Before that time, I thought being poor was nothing more than the panhandler outside of a baseball game begging for loose change. I didn’t believe that there were still areas in America that prosperity had passed by, and, above all, I never thought that the act of picking up a simple used paperback book would forever change my philosophy in such matters. They say everyone has a window to the world. I was about to take the curtains off of mine.
In the late summer of 2001, I found myself in a used bookstore looking for a book to read on vacation. I was having a lot of difficulty finding something that could hold my attention for a few seconds, much less a whole week. As it happened though, as I was just about to give up, I spotted a book that caught my eye. The cover was of a boy, staring up at the sky at sunset. The title was “Rocket Boys” By Homer Hickam. I picked the book up and started reading the back cover, and then reading the first page. After a few minutes, I found that I had read the first five pages. This was the book I was going to take on vacation.
During vacation that week, I became more and more fascinated with the book. It was a really a simple story, but an inspiring one. It was a memoir of a man who grew up in a West Virginia mining town and thought that his life was going to be that of yet another miner.
That is until Sputnik, the Soviet Satellite, flew over West Virginia in 1957. After that, Mr. Hickam wanted to build rockets. So, Mr. Hickam got a group of misfit kids together, and they started building them. It started as an annoyance in the town, but then it became the pride of McDowell County, West Virginia. Because the town embraced these kids and what they were doing, Mr. Hickam went on to become a NASA engineer and escaped one of the poorest counties in the U.S.
After reading that inspiring memoir, I discovered there was a movie made about it entitled “October Sky”, so I went out and rented the movie. After watching the film, I knew that I had to go to Coalwood, West Virginia, the town where all of the events in the book took place. After searching the internet, I discovered that the town was having an “October Sky” festival that very fall. I decided that was when I would make my visit.
Before I made my trip, I really didn’t think all that much about poverty, nor did I think there was really any such thing in America anymore. I knew there was once a mining operation, and that sometime in 1985 it was closed. I knew the town was not as big as it once was, but that there were still people there. I didn’t know where they worked now, but they had to work somewhere didn’t they? In truth, I really didn’t know what to
I arrived in Coalwood early on a beautiful fall Saturday morning. As I arrived in town, I was both surprised and saddened by what I found. The old coalwood school was deserted and crumbling. The old mine general store and the machine shop where so many of the rockets where built were boarded up and abandoned. The glass broke in the windows from years of neglect and probably childhood boredom. The club house where visitors used to stay was still there, but no one is allowed in it as it is in unsafe condition. The building where the single miners lived had stickers on the windows telling people to stay away. This is what was left of a once booming mining town. Oh sure, there were still houses, and people still lived here, but it was nothing like its former glory.
After parking my truck, I walked around the festival. I didn’t expect to really talk to anyone, just meet the author and maybe get him to sign my book. As I walked around, people from the town started to approach me and talk. One lady asked where I was from, and when I told her Indiana, she said, “Wow, and you came all the way down here for this?” “ Yeah”, is about all I could say. “Well,” she said, “let me introduce you to some people”
First she introduced me to a woman who was an extra in the movie “October Sky”. I learned several things about the movie filming and about the actors. Next, she introduced me to William Bolt, the old machine shop foreman who helped “Sonny” (Homer) Hickam fabricate his rockets. He told me several stories of the rocket boy years and about the mine in general. One thing he said that really stuck with me was that, since this was after the terrorist attacks, people were afraid of flying. Somehow, this came up in the discussion, and he told me, “Son, I worked in that mine down there; I’ve seen fathers and sons, brothers and cousins go in there, and some never came out. I’ve seen some come out with their legs and arms missing, and I’ve seen their families cry. But we all went back down in there the next day. I guess you can get killed in a plane, or with a bomb, or you can get killed or hurt in the mine. It doesn’t do any good to be afraid of either
After that talk, I met the famous “Rocket boys,” including the author of the book. Not wanting to hold the line up, I moved on. That’s when I met Mr. Red Carroll, the oldest living Rocket boy father. We sat on the porch and talked about life in the days past of Coalwood. He told me about the different people in the book who have since passed away, and then he asked me about Indiana. I in turn asked him where people work at now that the mines were gone from Coalwood. He stared off for a little bit and then said, “There’s not a lot in the way of jobs down here now. People make do in their own ways. Really, no one here thinks of themselves as poor, but then it never seemed to bother us much either; we are content the way it is I guess.” As I looked around, I noticed more and more that he was right. There was no one concerned about money that day. They were showing pride in their town, and of a few of their own who escaped their life and built one of their own. These men and women were proud. They faced those many things that most of us excessively worry about. Over time they have lost family and homes to the same company where they lost their employment. Yet, through all of that, I heard not one of them complain when asked about the past. I saw no one begging or asking for money. I realized sometime after my trip that poverty in that area is absence of money only. There is no absence of spirit or moral ethic.
As a final note I met many politicians that day including one United States senator, but not one of them offered any hint of wisdom like Mr. Red Carroll did. The final thing he said to me as I was walking away was “Its funny isn’t it? That the little book you got for a dime at some bookstore led you all the way down here for this. You didn’t learn this town, or the people in it from that book. It’s funny what you learn in life. Sometimes it’s not from a book, or the long renderings of old men like me. Sometimes it’s just the little detour life throws at you unexpected like.” The more I thought about it, the more I knew he was right. My life had given me a detour on a road full of wisdom. It started by picking up a single used paperback book and then traveling to meet the people who wrote it.