By Kelly Crigger
This article is written equally for both the admirers of extraordinary veterans and the aspiring writer who wants to learn from the best. Homer H. Hickam, a Vietnam Veteran and Bestselling author of Rocket Boys, penned The Ambassador’s Son in 2005 which I read in 48 hours and is the only book my wife has ever asked me, “are you going to put that down?”
No. I’m not.
Hickam burst on the literary scene with his opus Rocket Boys in 1998. A stunning memoir about his childhood pursuing amateur rocketry in the mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia, the book was an instant bestseller and was made into a movie starring Jake Gylenhall and Laura Dern in 1999 called October Sky (October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys). I should probably focus this article more on the massive success of Rocket Boys, but as a veteran and a reader of military fiction, I’m more enthralled with Hickam’s WWII series set in the Pacific around Coast Guard Captain Josh Thurlow.
That trilogy-The Keeper’s Son, The Ambassador’s Son, and The Far Reaches-is surreal and humane despite being about the most sublime facet of humanity-complete and total war. The series is written with an easy tone and cultural identity that’s laced with historical research and attention to detail that enriches the pages. As an author I can vouch that writing with this level of sincerity is damn difficult.
“I went all the way back to Jack London,” Hickam says of his research. “I found a lot of material about the Solomon [Islands] written by him. Let me tell you, it didn’t take long to admire the people who went out there to farm copra. They were looked at as the bad guys in that part of the world because they were considered colonists, but they worked hard to eek out a living. People think it’s a tropical paradise, but it’s really a crap hole. You’re guaranteed…guaranteed to get malaria or beri beri or another of those wild tropical diseases and yet these people went out there to farm the land despite it.”
The fun part of The Ambassador’s Son is the way it connects two people…two massive historical figures…in the context of unsure, scared, normal young men serving their country together in the US Navy at the time – John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This is, in fact, historically accurate but since there are no records to indicate what may or may not have transpired between the two, Hickam is free to write history as he pleases and he does it very very well. The irony to Hickam’s attraction to John F. Kennedy is that he met him and in fact may be the person who inspired him to think about space exploration.
“I wrote about this in Rocket Boys,” Hickam says. “I met him in West Virginia when he was trying to win the primary there. Kennedy was a Catholic and came to Protestant West Virginia. I was in the County Seat at the time and got to go meet him when he was trying to sell the idea of food stamps. Well, he was surrounded by employed coal miners who didn’t really want to listen to what he had to say, so I asked him what we should do in space. He didn’t have an answer. So then I told Jack Kennedy we should go to the moon and you know what happened next.”
Yeah. We went to the freaking moon and to this day interne memes remind the world of it. Hickam has another skill that fiction enthusiasts would do well to take note of. He can capture a culture like the Outer Banks or Papua New Guinea tribesmen and develop complex and intriguing characters that make you want to keep turning the page. He has a simple reasoning for this.
“People are interested in other people. It doesn’t matter so much what the story is about. People want to read about other people. You really have to stress what the character is about and what makes him interesting so people want to turn the page. You have to make the reader care about the character.
I spent a lot of time on the Outer Banks and got to know the people there. After The Keeper’s Son I got an email from a guy who said it was the best book about life on a Coast Guard cutter and he invited me to spend time on the Coast Guard Cutter Rush. I spent three weeks on it in the South Pacific and loved it.”
It’s that ability to capture people that made Rocket Boys, which chronicled the life and times of youth as they looked to the heavens, so successful. But it came at a price.
“The problem with it being so successful is that you get pigeonholed or typecast. I once met [To Kill a Mockingbird author] Harper Lee in Alabama and she said to me ‘you realize your readers will never forgive you for this success?’ A vast amount of readers only want me to write another version of Rocket Boys and almost resent that I’m writing anything else.”
Homer Hickam writes about a lot of subjects, but don’t look for him to write about his days in the Army. After graduating from Army ROTC at Virginia Tech (he joined almost by accident because his eyesight was too poor for the Air Force) Hickam volunteered for Vietnam in the 1960’s and came back knowing he didn’t want to lead an ordinary life.
“I’m not going to write about Vietnam because I would look like a hero more than I am. A lot happened to me over there, but I would have to write it in a way that gives honor to the guys I was with, not me. I didn’t have any PTSD. Maybe it was where I grew up. [In Coalwood] men went off to work every day in a place where they could get killed, so you grow up familiar with death.”
That’s ironic considering he’s been recognized by the State of Alabama for actually BEING a hero. According to his biography, “In 1984, Mr. Hickam was presented with Alabama’s Distinguished Service Award for heroism shown during a rescue effort of the crew and passengers of a sunken paddleboat in the Tennessee River. Because of this award, Mr. Hickam was honored in 1996 by the United States Olympic Committee to carry the Olympic Torch through Huntsville, Alabama, on its way to Atlanta.”
I pressed him on this incident. “Do you think risking your life for others is still an American value?”
“The good ole boys down here would jump in the river but I don’t know about the rest of the country,” he answered. But Hickam is not without hope for America. “There are kids I’m impressed with who have gone through the public school system and become patriotic young Americans, so I do have a lot of hope for our young people.”
And for the troops?
“My hat’s off to the guys going back over and over. I can’t imagine what they go through. The young vets of today are the highest class people in the world and I’m so impressed with their intelligence, dedication, and courage. I thank God every day we have people like them. We shipped a lot of books over to Iraq and Afghanistan. In Vietnam I would read the labels on aspirin bottles I was so desperate to go to another place.”