This straightforward, un-self-conscious memoir is set in Coalwood, W. Va., where the author was 14 years old in 1957, the son of the local mine superintendent. Hickam divides his life in West Virginia into two phases--before and after the October 1957 launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. Hickam Sr., a straight company man, despised the Russian Communists and saw his budding scientist son as a future mining engineer, but his son had other plans. After reading all about rockets in Life magazine, Homer Jr., a disciple of the esteemed US engineer and Cape Canaveral team leader Wernher von Braun, decided to build a rocket of his own. Hickam satisfies in his characterization of his rocketeer cohorts, including the brains behind the operation, the school nerd, whose jet-black hair ""looked as if it had been plastered down with about a quart of Wildroot Cream Oil."" After several mishaps in town with their dangerous steel missile projectiles, the boys set up a rocket center on an old dump site and called it Cape Coalwood, complete with a cement launch pad and a ""blockhouse,"" or building for the rocketeers' projection, made of scavenged wood and tin. The author and his friends are adept at breaking things, including his mother's rose garden fence and bathroom scale, but when they break the one-mile barrier in their launches, the entire town has to take them seriously. Hickam admits in an author's note to having used a certain license in telling his story. This seems evident in its idealization of his mother and her near-religious insistence that her son not follow her husband into the mines. A simple small-town story of larger-than-life dreams, in the vein of Rinker Buck's recent coming-of-age adventure, Flight of Passage (1997). Heavy on '50s nostalgia, invoking song lyrics throughout and portraying the era's inhibition of sexual relations among young people.