(March 12, 2018) Yesterday I posted a nine minute video interview with Homer Hickam who is the author of Rocket Boys, which was made into a movie with the anagram title October Sky. It is the story of how six Appalachian teenagers built rockets in the aftermath of the October 1957 Sputnik Russian satellite launch. They won the blue ribbon at the National High School Science Fair exposition in Indianapolis. The experience put each boy on a track out of poverty. The book is a memoir for which the movie is a fictionalized version.
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One episode cut from the movie because it did not fit into the artificially compressed 1957 narrative has large implications. Homer’s mom told him he needed to buy his first dress suit for the Indianapolis fair. Since his hometown had no men’s clothing store he travelled to the county seat. Due to his meager funds and shopping inexperience Homer—then known as Sonny—bought a bright orange suit and wore it out of the store.
A crowd had gathered in a nearby parking lot to listen to Senator John Kennedy speak as he was campaigning for the 1960 West Virginia Democratic Primary. Politicos reasoned that the Irish-Catholic candidate needed to show he could win in a Protestant state. Kennedy was telling the crowd how he sympathized with them due to their reliance upon the awful and underpaid work of coal mining. He said as President he would start new welfare programs, such as food stamps, to lighten their burden. When the crowd failed to react well the senator asked if anyone had any questions.
Since nobody raised a hand, Sonny did. Here’s how he remembers it.
For some reason Kennedy noticed me right off.
He said, “Yes, the boy in the [orange] suit.”
I said, “What do you think we ought to do in space?”
The candidate who obviously never expected the question at such a place and time said, “Well, what do you think we should do?”
“I think we ought to go to the Moon.”
“Well . . .why would we want to go to the Moon?”
I looked around at the coal miners and said, “Well, we could just go up there and mine the blamed thing.”
The coal miners went crazy. “Oh yeah! We can go up their and mine anything! That’s what we do!”
Kennedy replied, “Well if you elect me President maybe we shall go to the moon.”
The crowd’s response caused Kennedy to shift his message. He started to tell the miners about the things he would do to get the country moving forward again by uplifting American spirits with ambitious goals.
A little over a year later President Kennedy famously announced in a May 1961 speech, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”