Feb. 4--He has scuba dived at shipwreck sites, traveled the world and worked for NASA. His pet's "meows" were the first cat sounds heard in space. Author Homer Hickam told a group of about 850 at WVU that life is experiences gave him "fresh eyes" to view his hometown Coalwood, W.Va. -- the setting for his 1998 best-selling memoir "Rocket Boys." "I didn't realize till I grew up ... about how really special a place that it was." Hickam, raised in the small coal mining town, was a guest speaker Friday during the annual WVU Festival of Ideas lecture series. He made headlines Jan. 15 for his stirring remarks at a memorial service for the 12 miners who lost their lives in the Sago mine. On Friday, Hickam said a "thread of spirituality and belief that was embedded in me as that boy growing up in Coalwood" allowed him to tell "who West Virginia coal miners are." "We are proud of who we are. We catch a lot of grief from around the world, but we are proud of who we are. We don't go around yelling at people -- we reason it out. Sometimes it actually works. We change minds.
"And we trust in God. But we rely on ourselves." Hickam urged his audience to watch for changing moments in life, moments of hope that he likes to call "silver answers," taking an excerpt from a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. For example, a turn of events brought Hickam one of those "silver answers" after he went to work for the U.S. Army reserves in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When he arrived, he found out his services weren't needed, so he went to work for the Navy. It was during that time that "two drunk Navy ensigns" taught him to scuba dive, he said. He began diving at shipwrecks. At one, off the coast of North Carolina, he peered inside a sunken attack German U-Boat and saw a skeleton. That experience helped him write his first book and national best-seller, "Torpedo Junction," he said. He's been more than an author, Vietnam War combat veteran and NASA engineer. His first claim to fame was as the owner of the first cat to be heard in space. He got that honor by accident. An astronaut was a fan of his cat, "Paco." While the astronaut was in space, Hickam said he brought his cat to the control room to "talk" to her. "I squeezed him a little bit," Hickam said of the cat. "Someone said they checked, and that was the first time that cat sounds have ever been heard in space. 'You're famous,' " someone told him. WVU student Rachel Price said she popped into the event Friday because "I just wanted to see what he looked like." She said she had been impressed with his speech at the memorial service in Upshur County, and that there has been a movie made about his life.
"He's a good representative of West Virginia."
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Source Citation:"Homer Hickam, best-selling author, shares wisdom at WVU: W.Va. native also spoke at Sago mine memorial." Dominion Post (Morgantown, WV) (Feb 4, 2006): NA. General OneFile. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 16 Oct. 2009
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