Checking The Bucket List: Coalwood, WV

It’s not hard to find Coalwood, WV.  Go north on highway 19 out of Abingdon, VA, take a left on highway 16 in Tazewell, VA and don’t get in a hurry because the road soon clings hard to what little space there is between a meandering creek bank and whatever mountains you are passing.

After a bit you will go through War, Cucumber and Caretta and find Coalwood, where the road takes a hard turn to the right.  Truth is, you will find what used to be Coalwood because there is scant left of what once was a thriving mining village of 2,000.

But the real question is: why would anyone go searching for Coalwood, WV?

For me, it started with a book I read more than a decade ago that told the story of Homer Hickam, Jr. and his teenage years in McDowell County.  A story that recounted how Homer, better known as Sonny, and his friends Roy Lee, O’Dell, Billy, Quentin and Sherman learned to build rockets.  In fact, they learned so well that they won a gold medal at the 1960 National Science Fair.

As things do sometimes, the book captured my attention and I filed Coalwood away in my mind, promising that if the opportunity ever came along, I would pay my respects.  So one August day in 2019, I paid a visit to this little spit of West Virginia.

The story goes that a George Carter wandered through the hills and hollows of McDowell County in the early 1900s and found coal.  He bought 20,000 acres and over time, built Coalwood, most of which he owned lock, stock and barrel.  Everything belonged to the company.  Houses, school, company store, doctor, dentist, church, post office, utilities, everything.

Homer’s daddy was the mine superintendent.  Coal was his life–and his death–and at a young age Sonny determined that it would not be his.  Oddly enough it was an event on the other side of the world from Coalwood that gave purpose to young Homer.  Russia sent Sputnik into the heavens in the fall of 1957 and when Homer watched from his backyard as the first space craft passed far, far above he set his heart on building rockets.

Decades later Homer recalled it all in his book Rocket Boys.  I could relate to the book for the simple reason that Homer and I are the same age.  But while he was learning to build rockets in the mountains of West Virginia, I was chopping cotton in south Alabama.  And it was Sputnik that convinced my father that I should study engineering at Auburn.  So while Homer was at Virginia Tech becoming an engineer, I was at Auburn coming face-to-face with the realization that calculus was not my pathway to success.

At one end of Coalwood’s main thoroughfare these days is a large metal sign proclaiming it to be home of The Rocket Boys.  But rust is about to reclaim the sign, just as nature is reclaiming Coalwood.  The house Homer grew up in is across the street from the only store in town.  But most all of Homer’s boyhood hometown is gone.  The railroad, the mine tipple, even the post office.  Only a handful of houses remain.

It’s hard to believe that a bustling community was once here.  That this was were boyhood friends, spurred on by the encouragement and support of a teacher, Freida Joy Riley, created the Big Creek Missile Agency and launched their rockets from a coal slack site dubbed Cape Coalwood.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the mine closed.  Coalwood closed with it.  But the dreams this little community birthed never died.

So I took highway 19 at Abingdon and took a left on highway 16 at Tazewell a few months ago.  Not so much as to see another mountain and winding creek as to be reminded of how powerful the human spirit truly is.

Editor’s note: Homer Hickam Jr. became an engineer, working for NASA in Huntsville from 1981 to his retirement in 1998.  He trained astronauts.  Rocket Boys was published in 1998.  The movie about Homer and Coalwood, October Sky, was released in 1999.  He has written a number of books, including The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone and From Rocket Boys to October Sky.  They are all about Coalwood and I have enjoyed each of them.  He lives in Huntsville.

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words

The picture above comes from Northpontotoc Upper elementary school in Ecru, MS.  Ecru has less than 1,000 people and is in Pontotoc County just west of Tupelo.

Here is what accompanied the photo.  “These trees were 17 years old when harvested.  The smaller one competed for space in a large plot of other trees and the large one was planted out in the open area.  What if these were students, one in a crowded classroom with a high student/teacher ratio and the other in a smaller classroom with a low student/teacher ratio.  Think about this!”

Think about it indeed.  A graphic message of what is really, really important when trying to educate children.

Alabama Making Education Progress? Don’t Tell The Skeptics.

This will not be welcome news for all the naysayers who say Alabama educators can’t walk and chew gum at the same time–but new info from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama says we are making great progress in graduation rates and preparing students for college and careers.

In 2012 when Tommy Bice was state superintendent, he and his staff put together Plan 2020 that tackled graduation and readiness rates.  This was guided by tons of feedback from both four-year and two-year colleges, business and industry and local school systems.

Here is the PARCA news release of September 23 that details what is happening:

“In 2012, the Alabama State Board of Education adopted Plan 2020, which embraced a vision for the state education system led by the motto: “Every child a graduate. Every graduate prepared.” The plan called for raising Alabama’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent, while at the same time producing graduates who are better prepared for college and the workplace. Since that time, significant progress occurred in raising the graduation rate from 72 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2018.

While the high graduation rate is laudable, state education leaders have raised concerns about the gap between the percent graduating and the percent prepared for college or work.

Significant progress has been made over the past three years:
In 2016, Alabama graduated 87 percent of its students, though only 66 percent were college and career ready.
In 2017, the gap closed, with 89 percent graduating and 71 percent college and career ready.
In 2018, improvement continued with 90 percent graduating and 75 percent college and career ready.

Though the gap is still large, it is improving.

Continuing to close that gap is vital. The state has a goal of adding 500,000 highly-skilled workers to the workforce by 2025. To meet that goal, virtually all high school graduates will need to be prepared for education beyond high school or prepared to enter the workforce directly after high school.

The 2018 CCR data shows:

Career Technical Education (CTE) certificates are the fastest-growing means for classifying students as college and career ready.

Qualifying scores on the ACT and WorkKeys assessments are the two most common measures used to classify students as college and career ready.

Systems and schools leverage different strategies for preparing students – reflecting varying strengths, resources, and goals for education.

Some systems are very strong in particular areas and weak in others, which may not meet the needs of all students.

The Alabama College and Career Strategic Plan (a component of Plan 2020) articulated a vision in which all Alabama students graduate high school college and career ready. The plan defines college and career readiness as:
“…a high school graduate [that] has the English and mathematics knowledge and skills necessary to either (1) qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses without the need for remedial coursework, or (2) qualify for and succeed in the postsecondary job training and/or education necessary for their chosen career (i.e. technical/vocational program, community college, apprenticeship or significant on-the-job training).”

High school graduates are classified as college and career ready (CCR) if they meet at least one of the following criteria.
Score college ready in at least one subject on the ACT
Score at the silver level or above on the WorkKeys Assessment
Earn a passing score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Exam (college-level courses delivered in high schools)
Successfully earn a Career Technical Education credential
Earn dual enrollment credit at a college or university
Successfully enlist in the military”

Our Thoughts And Prayers Are With Governor Ivey

Alabamians were shocked to get the news that Governor Kay Ivey is undergoing treatment for a cancerous spot on her lung.  I have said a prayer for her, as have people all across the state.

Because we have all been touched by this disease in some form or fashion, while we pray for the best, it is only natural that we fear the worst.

I will never forget the August afternoon in 1988 when a urologist in Dothan told me that I had a mass in my right kidney and since it was  probably malignant, the best thing to do was yank out my kidney.  Talk about getting your attention.

So shortly after I was cut open and out came the kidney. And yes, the mass was malignant.  I was in the hospital 5-6 days and ever since have had tremendous admiration for those kind souls who donate a kidney to someone.  Back then it was a pretty extensive procedure.

However, thankfully I was lucky and did not require any follow up treatment.

I do remember that the doctor said I could not play golf for six weeks.  I also remember that six weeks to the day after the operation I played a course in Eufaula I liked and shot a 74.  (Talk about a blind hog finding an acorn?  I think this was the best score I ever had.)

Then in 2012 another mass was found on my remaining  kidney.  A very skilled doctor at UAB was able to remove the mass and leave most of the kidney.

I left the hospital with a row of staples on the left side of my stomach.  I recuperated at a friend’s in Daphne and when it came time to get rid  of the staples, I called my Auburn classmate, OBY/GYN Dick Roh in Fairhope, who jerked them out.  I told Dick that I was the only male in his waiting room.  He laughed.

And here is hoping and praying that some years from now, Governor Ivey can look back at this time and share some chuckles.

Kay, we are praying for you.


Yes, There Really Is Goodness In This World

We can all be forgiven for thinking the world has truly gone to Hell since we are constantly bombarded by news of murders and mass shootings and politicians wasting our tax dollars, etc.  The drumbeat is unending.

But then we learn about a restaurant in Brewton, AL with the unlikely name of Drexell & Honeybees’ where patrons can eat for free, or pay whatever they wish, and a smile comes to our face  Suddenly our day is a wee brighter and our faith in our fellow man is restored, at least for a little while.

The restaurant is the idea of Lisa Thomas-McMillan and her husband, Freddie.  Both are retired.  They opened the restaurant in March 2018.  Those who wish to pay for their meal simply drop some money in a box.

Several years ago Lisa worked in the dining hall at the local community college.  One day some senior citizens showed up who were hungry, but had little money.  That planted the seed that is now Drexell & Honeybee’s.

Do yourself a favor and click the link above to read more.

As for me, I will definitely seek out this establishment on some of my travels.

A Technology Rant.

While I may be accused of many things, understanding–and using–technology is not one of them.

Lord only knows how long I’ve had my old flip phone.  I do not text.  It does not take pictures.  My GPS is made of paper, unfolds and has lot of lines on it.  I use my ancient IPad for only one thing.  When I am traveling I stop at McDonalds because I know they have wifi and I know how to access it to check my email.

When I am in a restaurant I am not looking at some electronic device to check Twitter because I do not tweet, nor know what it is.

So you get the picture.

Which brings me to why I write.  I get TV and internet service from Spectrum.  I have been a loyal and faithful customer since 2015.  Have always paid my bills on time.  I have the basic TV package, none of the add ons I hear about.

I just paid my latest bill for $163.41.  Checking my checkbook (yes, I still write checks and put them in a stamped envelope) I find that my check to them on July 12, 2018 was $98.67.  Hardly a math whiz, I did nonetheless figure that is a jump of 65 percent in 14-15 months.  Which is ridiculous to this old man.

So this afternoon I spend 20 minutes on the phone with a Spectrum customer service lady (yes, I did actually get a human on the phone after punching a few buttons to let them know I was not calling about having flat feet, ingrown toenails or a cat that claws the furniture.)

I wanted to know what I could do to lower my monthly bill.  I learned that I am paying $12.99 a month for a box that plays something called a DVR.  I have never used it.  The lady tells me that if I unhook it and take it to the local Spectrum store, I can save $12.99 each month.  I tell her don’t even know where this contraption is and that since one of her technicians obviously installed it, they can come get it.

She tells me it will cost $49.99 for the technician to do that.

Then she tells me that she has found a way to save a few dollars on my internet–but this will require new equipment that I can pick up at their store and install myself.  To  me, this  is like going to the dentist, learning I have a tooth that needs filling and the dentist handing me some teeth-working-on-tools and saying “Have at it.”

Then the lady tells me that if a technician comes to my house, he can remove the DVR box and install the new internet equipment at the same time and I only have to pay for one visit.

I tell her that I have been a loyal customer, have always paid my bill on time and feel that I am being had.  All she says  is, “I understand.”  I also tell her to relay to Spectrum management that they are idiots.  Again, “I understand.”

So one morning this coming week a technician is supposed to show up, at my expense, and make changes that will save me about a few dollars each month.

No doubt, he will use a GPS to find me.

Yep, the world has passed me by.