"October Sky" by Homer Hickam, Chapters 1–4

Originally published under the title Rocket Boys, this memoir recounts the story of six rocket-obsessed friends growing up in a small West Virginia mining town in the 1950s.

Here are links to our lists for the memoir: Chapters 1–4, Chapters 5–9, Chapters 10–14, Chapters 15–21, Chapter 22–Epilogue

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. sonorous
    full and loud and deep
    I loved it when he had a moment to come out on the church porch and tell me a quick Bible story while I listened, astride my bike, fascinated by his sonorous voice.
  2. denomination
    a group of religious congregations with its own organization
    The denomination of the preacher the company hired automatically became ours too. Before we became Methodists, I remember being a Baptist and, once for a year, some kind of Pentecostal.
  3. ensue
    take place or happen afterward or as a result
    When we ambushed some older boys—my brother, Jim, among them—who were playing cowboys up in the mountains, a great mock battle ensued until Tony, up in a tree for a better line of sight, stepped on a rotted branch and fell and broke his arm.
  4. seam
    a stratum of ore or coal thick enough to be mined
    Mr. George L. Carter, the founder of Coalwood, came in on the back of a mule in 1887, finding nothing but wilderness and, after he dug a little, one of the richest seams of bituminous coal in the world.
  5. deference
    a courteous expression of esteem or regard
    When Mr. Carter’s son came home from World War I, he brought with him his army commander, a Stanford University graduate of great engineering and social brilliance named William Laird, who everyone in town called, with the greatest respect and deference, the Captain.
  6. protege
    a person who receives support from an influential patron
    Almost immediately, the Captain saw something in the skinny, hungry lad from Gary—some spark of raw intelligence, perhaps—and took him as a protégé.
  7. instill
    teach and impress by frequent repetitions or admonitions
    After a couple of years, the Captain raised Dad to section foreman, taught him how to lead men and operate and ventilate a mine, and instilled in him a vision of the town.
  8. confound
    be confusing or perplexing to
    After a long piece of his intestine was removed, Dad confounded everybody by going back to work in a month.
  9. throng
    a large gathering of people
    Welch was a bustling little commercial town set down by the Tug Fork River, its tilted streets filled with throngs of miners and their families come to shop.
  10. slog
    walk heavily and firmly, as when weary, or through mud
    In their coveralls and helmets, they reminded me of newsreels I’d seen of soldiers slogging off to the front.
  11. weld
    join together by heating
    I was awakened in the morning by the tromp of feet and the clunking of lunch buckets outside as the day shift went to work, I ate supper after Dad saw the evening shift down the shaft, and I went to sleep to the ringing of a hammer on steel and the dry hiss of an arc welder at the little tipple machine shop during the hoot-owl shift.
  12. meager
    deficient in amount or quality or extent
    Every so often, somebody would come up with the idea of putting a penny on the track and getting it run over by the coal cars to make a big flat medal. We’d all do it then until we had used up our meager supply.
  13. stifle
    smother or suppress
    Stifling our laughter, we’d hand the crushed coppers across the counter at the company store for candy.
  14. wallow
    roll around
    I wallowed through the coal and climbed down the outside ladder of the car and jumped for it, skinning my hands, knees, and elbows on the packed coal around the track.
  15. aversion
    a feeling of intense dislike
    Mom’s family did not share her aversion to coal mining.
  16. foyer
    a large entrance or reception room or area
    We fell into the hall, me on the inside punching him in the stomach and him yowling and swinging at the air until we rolled down the stairs and crashed into the foyer, where I managed a lucky hit to his ear with my elbow.
  17. breach
    a failure to perform some promised act or obligation
    Jack ran his bus in dictatorial fashion. The slightest breach in decorum would find the perpetrator kicked off on the side of the road, no matter where we were.
  18. decorum
    propriety in manners and conduct
    Jack ran his bus in dictatorial fashion. The slightest breach in decorum would find the perpetrator kicked off on the side of the road, no matter where we were.
  19. precipitous
    extremely steep
    At the top of the mountain, the road dropped precipitously and swung back and forth until it bottomed out into a long, narrow valley.
  20. uppity
    arrogant or self-important
    According to what I heard Mom tell Uncle Joe during a visit, a lot of people in Caretta had said some real nasty things about that, calling Dad " uppity.”
  21. exalt
    praise, glorify, or honor
    I had never asked any girl out, much less the exalted Dorothy Plunk.
  22. proclivity
    a natural inclination
    I had no proclivity for football whatsoever.
  23. incredulous
    not disposed or willing to believe; unbelieving
    “Sputnik, Homer.”
    “Over West Virginia?” His tone was incredulous.
  24. emphatically
    without question and beyond doubt
    “President Eisenhower would never allow such a thing,” he said emphatically.
  25. abject
    showing utter resignation or hopelessness
    Roy Lee stared in abject admiration. “I don’t care if they break every bone in my body, I got to go out for football next year.”
  26. rapt
    feeling great delight and interest
    Then I saw the bright little ball, moving majestically across the narrow star field between the ridgelines. I stared at it with no less rapt attention than if it had been God Himself in a golden chariot riding overhead.
  27. inexorable
    not to be placated or appeased or moved by entreaty
    It soared with what seemed to me inexorable and dangerous purpose, as if there were no power in the universe that could stop it.
  28. fuselage
    the central body of an airplane holding crew and passengers
    I took one of the cherry-bomb fuses left over and stuck it in the hole and then glued the entire apparatus inside the fuselage of a dewinged plastic model airplane—I recall it was an F-100 Super Sabre.
  29. edification
    uplifting enlightenment
    There was an eyewitness, a miner waiting for a ride at the gas station across the street. For the edification of the fence gossipers, he would later describe what he had seen.
  30. fleeting
    lasting for a markedly brief time
    I fleetingly caught a glimpse of Roy Lee leaping over the still-standing part of the fence, clearing it by a good yard.
  31. duress
    compulsory force or threat
    Even under the greatest duress, my capability to dissemble was scarcely diminished.
  32. dissemble
    make believe with the intent to deceive
    Even under the greatest duress, my capability to dissemble was scarcely diminished.
  33. smolder
    burn slowly and without a flame
    She looked at the smoldering ruin of her fence and sighed deeply.
  34. preempt
    take the place of or have precedence over
    “I know what I did was wrong, Mom,” I said in a bid to preempt whatever she had in mind.
  35. coy
    modestly or warily rejecting approaches or overtures
    “Sonny, do you think you could build a real rocket?”
    She so startled me by her question that I forgot my usual coyness.
  36. chide
    scold or reprimand severely or angrily
    “Just go away,” I growled. “I’m busy.”
    “Doing what?” he chided. “Trying to decide what dress to wear?”
  37. besiege
    harass, as with questions or requests
    The Football Fathers were besieged with demands from fans and the football team to do something.
  38. nonchalantly
    in a composed and unconcerned manner
    “Elsie, I know what I’m doing,” he replied nonchalantly.
  39. sullenly
    in a manner showing a brooding ill humor
    Jim’s face went dark and he shoved his chair back from the table. “I want to be excused,” he said sullenly.
  40. riveting
    capable of arousing and holding the attention
    Dad held up his right hand to his face, as if to shield it from Mom’s riveting gaze.
  41. unassailable
    without flaws or loopholes
    “And if the blind leadeth the blind, both shall fall into the ditch,” she told him, making her argument unassailable because it was clearly on the side of the Lord.
  42. intermittent
    stopping and starting at irregular intervals
    In the decade that followed, an edgy peace between labor and management settled on our town, broken only by intermittent strikes, usually quickly settled.
  43. apt
    being of striking pertinence
    Twenty-five men were cut off from the company. The phrase was apt. Not only were the men separated from their work, they were cut off from their homes, credit at the company stores, and identification as a Coalwood citizen.
  44. surreptitiously
    in a secretive manner
    A few of them surreptitiously moved up past Snakeroot and built shacks along the fringe of the woods, hoping someday to be rehired.
  45. tentative
    hesitant or lacking confidence; unsettled in mind or opinion
    In December 1957, the United States made its first attempt to put a satellite into orbit with its Vanguard. I saw the result on television. Vanguard managed three tentative feet off the pad, lost thrust, and then blew up.

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