On Monday, I was able to do something that not many people can say they’ve done. I had the opportunity to spend the day with a New York Times #1 bestselling author and former NASA employee.
Homer Hickam is no stranger to West Virginia. Over the years, his first memoir, “Rocket Boys,” has become a token of the Appalachian people. It has become their story as much as it is his. They treasure it because, in West Virginia, everybody is family.
He’s a friend to those who know him, and his words have made him a legend to those who don’t.
He was a legend to me until I stepped into the Country Inn and Suites on Harper Road early on Monday morning. Mr. Hickam had traveled to Beckley to promote his newest memoir and the true sequel to “Rocket Boys,” “Don’t Blow Yourself Up.” I had been invited to follow him and write a story.
I had spoken with Mr. Hickam on the phone on one occasion prior to meeting him in person, but I wasn’t prepared for the stories I would hear from him as I traveled with him from one press event to another.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what my angle was going to be when I stepped into the hotel lobby. I knew I would be following the author, seeing what a “Day in the Life of Homer Hickam” is like. I had roughly planned to discuss how he prepared for a day of press, what he had talked about, etc.
My plan was soon upturned when Mr. Hickam said, “This isn’t a normal day for me.”
Panicking, I began to think of another plan for my article as we made our way to our first press event.
I came up empty.
Around 8 a.m., we arrived at Southern Communications for a segment on the “Early Show With Rick and Lola” on 103.7. It was during this interview that Mr. Hickam said something that stuck with me throughout the remainder of the day.
He was talking about his new book, which tells the remaining 40 years of the Rocket Boys story, and mentioned the mini-musical he would be narrating and performing in at Tamarack later that night. He announced that he would be hosting a book signing before the show, and then it came.
Mr. Hickam said that many authors scribbled their names down with sharp lines and curls when singing a book because it was faster. When you’re signing hundreds of books, time is everything.
“When I’m signing a book, I take my time,” he said. “Its Homer, with three humps on the ‘m.’”
I knew I liked the sentence as soon as he said it, but I wasn’t sure why. I wrote his words down on my notepad, saving them for a moment when they would make sense.
All morning, Mr. Hickam hopped from interview to interview, answering questions that were the same just in different fonts. He had equal enthusiasm in the first as he did the second, third, fourth, fifth…
Every person he met had his undivided attention for that moment, and although he had spoken to one hundred people, you’d never know it. Although they were one stop of many during his day, he made them feel special.
I began to realize that Mr. Hickam didn’t just take his time on his autograph. He took his time with everything, paying attention to every detail, every question, every person.
He does the same thing with his books. He takes his time; he waits for the right moment, and when that moment comes, he makes it memorable.
“Rocket Boys” almost didn’t exist. Mr. Hickam had written a portion of the memoir for a magazine but didn’t sit down to pen the full story until publishers were knocking at his door asking where the rest of the story was. The book many know and love today reached the world decades after its contents had happened.
“Don’t Blow Yourself Up” begins the very afternoon that “Rocket Boys” ends, yet Mr. Hickam waited more than 20 years to finish the story.
Why? Because it wasn’t the right time.
Mr. Hickam’s tale didn’t end when he won the National Science Fair. He went to Vietnam and fought for his country, graduated college, became a scuba diving instructor, trained astronauts, scowered shipwrecks, traveled to Russia, built a cannon, got in trouble, fell in love, fell in love again, worked for NASA, wrote book after book after book and more.
These are the stories I heard as I sat behind him in the car. These are the memories I was able to live through him as he told them to local middle school students, radio hosts, journalists and fans.
Throughout the day, I heard these stories a dozen times- at least- but I would listen to them a dozen times more, not only because they were fascinating on their own but because he made them worth listening to.
The story continued Monday evening at Tamarack when Mr. Hickam joined Broadway veteran, Carl Anthony Tramon, and Las Vegas entertainer, Rhayne Thomas, to perform a mini-musical version of the “Rocket Boys” story.
The performance was well attended, as I had suspected it would be, and received a standing ovation.
Before and after the performance, I watched fans excitedly hand Mr. Hickam a book to sign and listened to them tell him how his story had affected them personally. Every story he was told, he listened to happily.
Now, granted, I haven’t met many famous people in my life, but I can’t imagine that they all show the same attentiveness to their fans.
But Mr. Hickam takes the time. He writes Homer with three humps on the ‘m.’”
After spending more than 12 hours with Mr. Hickam, I learned a lot of things- things I will never forget. But perhaps the most important thing I learned was this:
Good storytelling doesn’t just take talent. It takes patience.