Soon after Emily Buckberry sent me the letter from dad, I was compelled to reconnect with Coalwood, West Virginia, the town that had so unexpectedly come back into my life. I was actually a little frantic about it. I ransacked the house for my copy of Rocket Boys that I’d read immediately after Hilary and Jimmy came home from the movies in 1999 and told me they’d seen this movie, October Sky, about the town where I’d spent that summer after high school. I couldn’t find it, so I rush-ordered a copy from Amazon. I went on Homer Hickam’s website and discovered he’d written a couple of other books about growing up in Coalwood, Coalwoood Way and Sky of Stone, so I ordered and read those, too. I Google’d “Coalwood” and landed on the Coalwood, West Virginia website. I spent hours poring over that site— reading all of the posts and links and looking at the pictures— desperately searching, in vain, for a familiar name or face from 1968. I only vaguely remembered some of the boys I worked with—I recalled their nicknames like “Taf,” “Hub” and “Rat”—but drew blanks on last names. I did find a couple of photographs of Emily and some great shots of the Clubhouse where I stayed and of the coal mines. I didn’t bother to look at the Webmasters page.
In February of this year, Steve Date forwarded to me a nice note he’d received from a friend of his, Charlie Myers, complementing him on the film The Letter. Steve told me that he’d met Charlie at a couple of the October Sky Festivals and Charlie provided him with some financial support for Coalwood Way, the film that Steve was handing out at the 2009 October Sky Festival where he and I first met. Steve also told me Charlie was the webmaster for the Coalwood, West Virginia site.This time I checked out the Webmasters page and discovered that Charlie had himself experienced quite a few remarkable ‘coincidences’ involving Coalwood including one, in particular, about a random connection with a teacher, Rafe Esquith, and his 5th grade class in Los Angeles. I very nearly fell off my chair when I read Charlie’s story. It was spookily similar to the story about Dr. Roseveare and the Congo in the ‘Isaiah 65:24’ email Emily Buckberry had sent to me a few months before. Charlie had his very own Hot Water Bottle story!
I think it was shortly after I sent an email to Charlie to introduce myself and share my amazement at the similarity of his story and the one Emily has sent to me that Charlie began to refer to these bizarre coincidences and synchronicities as the “Coalwood Twilight Zone.” Charlie also confessed that almost every night as a college student at Georgia Tech in the early ’70s he and his buddies watched reruns of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone aired on WTCG Channel 17, a tiny Atlanta TV station run by some young guy named Ted Turner.
I’m very pleased to share Charlie’s stories on Write Me Something Beautiful. As Charlie mentions, there is another story (Part 2) that is continuing to play out involving his father who passed away in 1973. Charlie has kept me in the loop as that one has been spooling out and let me tell you—it is absolutely mind-blowing! Stay tuned.
What is it about Coalwood? In the film The Letter I make the observation “There is something magical about this place.” I’m beginning think that may be a gross understatement. Steve Date and some teachers from Minnesota read Rocket Boys, make a pilgrimage to the October Sky Festival in 2005 and Steve decides to make a movie about the town—never mind he didn’t have a camera or had never made a movie before. Charlie Myers, from Portland, Tennessee, watches a film on a bus ride from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon and is so moved by the story he starts a website about Coalwood—a town he’d never heard of or had any contact with whatsoever. Casey Gauntt, an 18 year old kid from Itasca, Illinois (me) spends the summer working in Coalwood, of all places, and 40 years later a woman reappears out of nowhere and sends him a letter his father wrote to him that summer that was left behind—a letter that changed my life forever. And now Emily Buckberry, Steve Date, Charlie Myers and I are friends, in about as deep and personal way as possible, and all we can do is just smile, shake our heads, and wonder ‘what in the heck is going on?’
Maybe, Charlie is right and Coalwood is a portal into the Twilight Zone. I have some different thoughts on that, but Twilight Zone is as good a guess as any, I suspect.
Thank you, Charlie—and keep that portal open!
Rod Serling’s opening to the TV Series Twilight Zone (1959)
You unlock this door with the key of imagination.
Beyond it is another dimension—
A dimension of sound,
A dimension of sight,
A dimension of mind.
You’re moving into a land of both
Shadow and substance,
Of things and ideas.
You’ve just crossed over
Into the Twilight Zone.
Stepping Into The Twilight Zone
By: Charlie Myers
This is the story of the rather incredible string of coincidences which led me to set up the Coalwood web site in 2005 and the even more bizarre twists and turns that resulted in an amazing connection in 2009 with a 5th grade class in Los Angeles. When I established the web site, it was a simple tribute to the little town of Coalwood, West Virginia. However, from the very beginning, I noticed a lot of interesting “coincidences” – things that probably shouldn’t have happened, but did. At first, all of the coincidences involved Coalwood, but in 2011 they mushroomed to the point where I now describe them, laughingly, as “The Twilight Zone.”
In part 2 of this story, I’ll share what happened to me with the 2011 coincidences that involve Coalwood, Steve Date, Casey Gauntt, Jimmy Gauntt, a fifth-grade teacher in Italy, a lady who does historical research as a hobby in Ohio, and my father, who died in 1973. With the exception of Steve Date and my father (of course), I’d never heard of any of these people.
When I ride around in my car, I continuously zip and zap between four local radio stations, always searching for that illusive “good” song. On May 30, 2011, I happened to tune into a short clip of the nationally-syndicated radio program Delilah. One of the callers was telling Delilah a story about how she was reconnected to her dead father by a set of strange, chance circumstances that shouldn’t have happened, but did. (Gee, did that sound familiar!) Coincidentally, I was listening to this exchange on the radio in the middle of my own “Twilight Zone” experience right after I’d taken a look at the finished version of Steve Date’s film The Letter. Later that same night, little did I know, things would get really strange.
By the way, Delilah responded to the caller, “When coincidences like that occur, it’s God working anonymously.” I would say that Delilah is a very, very smart woman … she knows.
I need to go back to 2005, when this all began…
A family friend, Earline, loves horse racing and she desperately wanted to attend some kind of seminar in Las Vegas to hone her betting skills. Earline was lamenting the fact that she couldn’t get to Las Vegas; it was too far to drive in the short vacation she had from work, and she’d never been on an airplane. Earline, who had grown up in rural, south Tennessee, was 60 years old and had never flown. Amazing! By that time of my life, I’d been in 35 countries, everywhere from Italy to Cuba to Peru to Lebanon.
So, I offered to fly to Vegas with Earline. She could attend the seminar and I’d do my thing. She was ecstatic and looked like a little kid when the Southwest plane took off from Nashville. She even had a window seat and was thrilled as everything on the ground got smaller and smaller. Needless to say, Earline had a wonderful time at the seminar. She even made a few new girlfriends who now meet her at various places around the country to “watch the ponies run.”
There was one free day after the seminar and Earline wanted to see the Grand Canyon. I’d never been to the Grand Canyon either, so I signed us up for a bus trip. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the bus ride. It was just under 300 miles each way through the deserts of Nevada and Arizona. We were going to drive there in the morning, spend a few hours at the Grand Canyon, and drive back to Las Vegas, all in one day. Yuck— way too long on a bus!
When we arrived at the tour-bus depot early in the morning, there were already 100 people waiting there just for the Grand Canyon tour. The tour company had two buses for us and Earline and I were assigned to one of them. I’m not at all sure how we got the bus we did, but it became a vital part of what would happen in my future. Coincidence number one, I guess.
The company had done everything possible to make the trip comfortable. They had coolers with water and soft drinks and four VHS (yes, VHS) movies on each bus— two movies for the outbound trip and two for the return. The movies were shown on tiny television sets mounted on the ceiling of the bus.
I have no idea what the other three movies were that day, but I was fascinated by one. That movie told the story of a bunch of kids in West Virginia who had seen Sputnik pass overhead in 1957, and then, against all odds, they built their own rockets and actually got them to fly. Unfortunately, I was too far away from the TV monitor to see the title of the movie or read any of the credits. I also couldn’t see the end of the movie, which had pictures of each character and subtitles telling what happened to them.
At one of the few rest stops (thank goodness!) along the way, I tracked down our driver and asked him what movie he’d just shown. He said it was called October Sky, and it was his favorite movie. He also told me something strange: his company-furnished VHS tape of one of the four scheduled movies had broken the day before—the tape actually snapped—and he brought October Sky from his personal collection of VHS tapes from home to show on our bus that day; the other bus didn’t see it.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were important “coincidences” that occurred that day: I only had a 50% chance of being on the bus I was on, one of the scheduled tapes for our bus had broken the day before, and our driver happened to choose October Sky from his personal VHS collection. These were things that would later lead me into The Twilight Zone.
Returning from the Trip
Upon returning to Tennessee, I purchased a copy of the October Sky DVD. This time, I was able to read all of the credits and find out what happened to each of the main characters. I also saw a key phrase at the beginning of the movie: “Based on a True Story.” That was incredible, and I had to find out more. I purchased Rocket Boys and the other three books written about Coalwood, West Virginia by Homer Hickam and read each of them carefully.
At the time, I was designing web sites. I started the first one as a community service in 1999. I’ve designed and continue to maintain around 100 web sites, and it has turned into a little business. A few of the web sites, however, Coalwood included, are still done as a community service.
One day, I checked out a database to see who “owned” two domains: CoalwoodWV.com and CoalwoodWestVirginia.com. Nobody had registered either domain, and I thought that was extremely odd. Back in 2005, people were amassing hoards of domains and hoping one day to sell them at a huge profit. Since Homer’s first book Rocket Boys had been number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List starting in 1999, I figured somebody would have snapped up long ago the Coalwood domains. They hadn’t. So, I did.
With two domains in hand, I began collecting data for a “tribute” web site for the town of Coalwood, and now I needed some pictures.
October 1, 2005
My business partner, Leonard Berry, and I took a couple of days to drive from Portland, Tennessee to Coalwood to attend the 7th October Sky Festival, an annual event celebrating the town’s fame thanks to Homer’s book, Rocket Boys, which Joe Johnson made into his film October Sky. We spent the day taking photos of the real Coalwood and the nearby towns of Caretta and War. (Filming October Sky in the real Coalwood would have been a logistical nightmare. It was too remote and the services the film crew needed, such as hotels and restaurants, were too far away. The vast majority of October Sky, therefore, was filmed in the towns of Oliver Springs and Petros, Tennessee. These two towns had a similar feel to the coal country of West Virginia, and it was easy to get to the hotels and restaurants of Oak Ridge and Knoxville.) Coincidentally, Steve Date and I attended our first October Sky Festival that day in 2005, however, we wouldn’t meet until a couple of years later.
October 4, 2005
I published www.CoalwoodWV.com for the first time and also pointed the domain www.CoalwoodWestVirginia to the same web site. I made sure I launched the web site on October 4—the 48th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957.
The traffic on the Coalwood web site grew steadily. I have to assume most of the traffic is from teachers and students doing research on Rocket Boys / October Sky. I know Linda Hickam refers people to the web site because we have a lot of useful information, such as hotels in the Coalwood area, etc.
I felt truly honored the day Homer’s and Linda’s webmaster added links from www.HomerHickam.com to www.CoalwoodWV.com. I was also pleasantly surprised the day when a Google search for the single word “Coalwood” returned www.CoalwoodWV.com as the number 1 result. We had finally beaten out the Coalwood Electric Limited Partnership in Houston, Texas, for the number-one spot!
Leonard and I also attended the October Sky Festivals in Coalwood during 2006, 2007, and 2008, and the web site continued to grow. On one of those later trips to Coalwood, I would actually meet Steve Date in person. This plays a part in both Casey’s story and my story.
Other Coalwood Coincidences
As I said, there were a lot of “interesting” coincidences that happened over the years that involved Coalwood. Here are a few more:
|Homer Hickam is an Industrial Engineer. I am an Industrial Engineer.|
|Homer was interested in building rockets in Coalwood. I grew up watching rockets in Brevard County, Florida, which happens to be where Cape Canaveral is located. I saw every manned space launch from the very first one with Alan Shepard in 1961 to the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969. I remember the unmanned launches of the 1950s too. The ones that launched after dark and blew up were quite interesting to a little kid. (More about this in part 2.)|
|Homer has one brother named Jim. I have one brother named Jim.|
|Homer worked for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center. My brother works for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center.|
|Most of October Sky was filmed in Tennessee. I live in Tennessee.|
|In Rocket Boys, Homer writes that the kids in Coalwood listened to rock-and-roll music from Randy’s Record Shop in Nashville. (This was at night, when the radio signals carried longer distances.) One small clarification: the radio station was in Nashville. Randy’s Record Shop, the sponsor, was in Gallatin, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. Gallatin is the county seat of Sumner County. I live 15 miles north of Gallatin, also in Sumner County.|
|Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Homer in the movie October Sky, was born on December 19th. I was born on December 19th. Jake is, however, a lot of years younger!|
|Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother is Naomi Foner. In the 1980s, I wrote a letter to Naomi Foner, the screenwriter of the movie Running on Empty. (A great script!) This is the first and only letter I’ve written to a screenwriter or anybody in show business, for that matter. Ms. Foner actually wrote back, and I still have that letter today. Is this just another coincidence?|
April, 2009- Rafe Esquith
The final pre-2011 coincidence occurred in 2009, and it involves two fifth-grade teachers—one in Atlanta and one in Los Angeles. I had attended a three-day seminar at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. www.ronclarkacademy.com Ron is the author of the bestselling book The Essential 55 and one of the most interesting and successful teachers around. During one of the breaks, I was talking to another attendee who told me I should read Rafe Esquith’s book, Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire.
In April 2009, I did read the book. Rafe is an amazing fifth-grade teacher at the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, an inner-city school in Los Angeles, California. Rafe and his class have also been featured in a Point of View documentary that aired on PBS. This is Rafe’s web site: www.hobartshakespeareans.org.
I was so impressed with Rafe’s book that I mailed him a thank-you letter and a few books and DVDs for his classroom’s lending library. The DVD’s were the six volume set of The Films of Charles and Ray Eames [if you teach math or science, you should see these!] and, of course, several copies of October Sky.
I knew the box had been delivered by the Postal Service, but I was surprised to get an e-mail from Rafe shortly after that. Here is part of the e-mail:
You HAVE to hear what happened yesterday in my class.
We’ve just finished our science fair — the kids did some work with physics and simple machines. Our next unit, beginning next week, is on rocketry.
Yesterday morning I told them all about Rocket Boys and Homer. I told them how we would be watching the film next week and all about the history of both the book and film. Last week, there was a break-in at the school and some of our films, including October Sky, were stolen.
Two hours later your box arrived. I am NOT joking. The kids were in shock. I have been teaching 27 years and I have never seen anything like it.
You, quite simply, are an angel on our shoulders. Thanks for the incredibly thoughtful gift. I always try to make the kids realize that despite their sometimes awful surroundings, there are millions of amazing people in the world ready to help them make their lives extraordinary. You, sir, made that point brilliantly yesterday with your fantastic gift.
To be continued in part 2, where, as far as I can tell, I encounter a real angel.