May 25, 2012

Homer Hickam Learns Rocket Science and Escapes the Coal Mines

Today I will tell you of the story of Homer Hickam Jr.  Homer, nicknamed Sonny, grew up in the town of Coalwood, West Virginia. In this town, coal mining is the only industry.  The mining town mines coal to power a steel mill in Ohio. Since mining is the chief industry and the town is poor, very few people went to college and escaped life underground.
Homer's interest in rockets began when the Russians launched the first man-made satellite to clear the atmosphere of Earth, Sputnik. America panicked after this, prompting schools to update the curriculum to beat the Russians to space.  Sonny and his three friends Roy Lee, Sherman, and O'Dell, built a rocket using directions from a magazine.  They determined to propel it with a fuel from skyrockets. When they try to launch it in Homer's, the rocket blew up the family fence.  Homer's mom, Elsie, wasn't too happy about that.
Homer Hickam Sr., his father, looked down on the idea of rockets because he loved mining and was the superintendent of the mine.  He wanted Sonny to become a miner too.  However, he secretly helped Sonny with supplies. He supported Sonny's brother Jim more because he was the star of the Big Creek football team.
Because of their continued failure at launching rockets (they kept blowing up instead of launching,) Sonny consulted with the nerd of the class, Quentin, for tips on rockets. Together they created the BCMA, or Big Creek Missile Agency. The group built more rockets that failed, but as Quentin said, "It adds to our body of knowledge." The group decided to use black powder, a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter for propellant.
In order to build rockets, they needed a machinist. Sonny consulted Mr. Bykovski, a company machineer, to help. Mr. Bykovski had a soft spot for Homer, leading him to help. Mr. Bykovski was transferred to a mining position, out of the machine shop, when Sonny's dad became furious with him for using company resources to help build the rockets.
The next problem they faced was land. The BCMA needed a place to launch their rockets, since Homer Sr. would not let them launch on company property. After looking for a place, they found a slack dump and built a blockhouse and a launchpad. However, after one of their launches, the all-famous Big Creek football team tore down the Blockhouse. Then, Tag, an unofficial enforcer to law, made the team rebuild it.
The rocket boys signed up for Chemistry with their teacher Miss Riley, who gave them ideas for new propellants and inspired them. She told them to go to the science fair and, against all odds, win it. This would be hard because Welch High school always beat Big Creek in science. Later, she gave Homer a rocket book with equations and trigonometry that helped them.
Since Mr. Bykovski was gone, Homer had to find new machinists. He consulted with Mr. Leon Ferro and Clinton Caton and others from the mine, who willingly helped.
When the science fair finally came up, Homer went and won the county science fair. In two weeks, the state fair came up and Homer won that too. He was going to the Nationals!
Before the National Science fair, Homer bought a suit for it and while walking around he came across Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy giving a speech to get people to vote for him for president. No one was really listening until Sonny asked, "What do you think we should do in space? I think we should fly to the moon, and see what it is made of, and then mine it like we mine it here." Other miners said," He is right! West Virginians can mine anything!"
 At the National Science fair on the day before the judges would judge, Homer forgot to lock up.  All of his rocket items were stolen. Homer called home and asked the machinists to build the stolen items again. This was hard though because the Union was on strike. Mr. Caton could not get into the machine shop until Elsie made Homer Sr. stop the strike. The union fought with him until a big order came from the steel mill. The strike released, and Mr. Caton remade the rocket items and shipped them to Homer.  Homer won the National Science fair!  Homer went on to work for NASA forwarding the space program, not in the mines.  
You can do whatever you want no matter the problems you face.  Geoffrey Johnson, age 9

Bibliography: October Sky, a memoir by Homer Hickam Jr. originally published as Rocket Boys

May 22, 2012

Joan of Arc Leads with the Power of God

This week at church we had a High Counselor speak.  Brother Becknell spoke first on the importance of Mothers in their relationships with their kids, especially their daughters.  Then the choir sang, "Battle Hymn of the Republic."  How do you tie those two completely different themes together?  Bro. Becknell did it by telling us that America wouldn't be free if it weren't for a teenage girl!  Huh?
Joan of Arc was born in 1412 as a peasant in the country of France.  She lived in an area that had been ravaged by years of war and the people were living in extreme poverty.  Her own village had been burned and sacked several years earlier.  At the time of her birth, France was ruled by England and battles continued to explode as other invaders tried to claim pieces of France.  At age 12, Joan began to feel pulled toward God and began to attend church more faithfully.  She began to see visions of angels and other messengers who taught her to be pure and go to church.  Through them, God began to teach her that France should be free, not ruled by England. 
She tried to set up a meeting with the son of the deposed King to tell him what God had told her.  But he wouldn't meet with her.  Why would he?  She was just a peasant girl.  After a couple of years of trying, she foretold the outcome of a battle exactly, and that got the Dauphin's (future king) attention.  Dressed as a man, she snuck through enemy territory to meet with the Dauphin.  To him, she said, "I am sent of God to aid you and the kingdom."  Then she told him of a very private prayer he had offered to God, asking God for help in behalf of the suffering people in his kingdom, and saying that they should not suffer if it was due to his sins.  She assured him that he was to reign on the throne of France.  The Dauphin was convinced of her divine mission and was ecstatic. 
Although she was a simple young farm girl, he believed her but he had to convince his armies and leaders.  So he had to put her to a test by the religious leaders of the country.  He didn't want them to think she was possessed by a devil or something.  After religious leaders interviewed her, they "declared her to be of irreproachable life, a good Christian, possessed of the virtues of humility, honesty and simplicity."  Perhaps she could change their desperate circumstances into a victory after all. 
A white suit of armor was made to fit her exactly.  And she made herself a banner with the image of Christ on it, reading 'with two angels at our sides.'  She traveled to the battle front and confronted the tired French army.  She sent any women in the group away and then preached repentance to the lot.  She forced all of them to confess their sins and go to church.  She made them commit to stop swearing and behaving badly around civilians.  But mostly, she inspired them.  She gave them hope by telling them about her visions of a free France.  Men joined the army in droves after hearing that there was a 'saint' leading them.  She called herself simply 'the maiden.' 
Sending a letter warning the opponents to give up their cause because the Dauphin was God's choice to lead France, she began her campaign.  It's a fascinating study of war strategy that you might want to read.  Joan always went ahead of the soldiers, perched on a white horse with her white armor shining, carrying her banner, not weapons.  She convinced soldiers and civilians alike that the French were supposed to win as determined by God, which helped them win many battles.  In some cases, the towns gave up without a fight.  Joan was wounded twice—once with an arrow through her shoulder (and yet she marched ahead at the front of the army again before sundown) and another with an arrow to her thigh.  She was amazing!  To summarize, after several battles and campaigns, Joan was successful in retaking towns and getting the Dauphin Prince Charles to the city of Reims, where he would be crowned King of France.
After the coronation, Joan wept as she said, "Now is accomplished the pleasure of God, who wished me to bring you to this city to receive your holy anointing, to show that you are the true king and the one to whom the kingdom of France should belong."  Now King Charles continued the campaign to restore French cities to French rule. 
God had accomplished His desire, as France was free to rule its citizens once again.  And this was important to American History, for as we fought the Revolutionary war against England, the French came to our aid.  If they had not helped us, we would never have won this war of independence ourselves.  And if France were ruled by the British, without Joan's intervention centuries earlier, we would have had no alliance with a non-existent France. 
Brother Becknell was right!  America would not be free without the bravery and work of a teenage girl!  In my scripture reading today I came across this scripture in 3 Nephi 21:4, "For it is wisdom in the Father that they should be established in this land and be set up as a free people by the power of the Father, that these things (the gospel) might come forth from them unto a remnant of your seed, that the covenant of the Father may be fulfilled…"  America had to be free so that angels could come to a teenage boy named Joseph Smith and restore the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God worked with these teenagers to accomplish His purposes.  He has a work for each of us to do in His kingdom today.  We can do the hard things it takes to prepare for our work. 

For more information, see: 
Williamson, Allen.  Joan of Arc Short Biography  30 March 2010, Joan of Arc Archive, found on May 22, 2012 at:
Wikipedia, Joan of Arc, found on May 22, 2012 at

May 14, 2012

Benjamin Franklin Learned How To Teach Himself to Master Subjects Starting with Writing...

I just finished reading a book called "Talents are Overrated" that describes the way great people became great.  In it, I learned that developing abilities usually starts with talent, but then hard work and determination hone those abilities into spectacular traits.  Several examples of famous successful people are cited to show this progression.  I learned about how Benjamin Franklin became a great writer and I thought it would be a great story for you today.
Ben was born into a huge blended family, one of 17 children!  His dad had planned to make him a minister, so he sent him to school.  Ben did well but the family ran out of money for his schooling after just two years.  Ben's dad had him work in the family soap and candle business.  At age 12, he sent Ben to live with Ben's older brother to learn the printing trade.  Ben apprenticed with his brother with the goal of eventually becoming a printer himself. 
Learning to read made a big impact on Ben.  He once read a book about swimming and using the book as a guide, he taught himself how to swim.  He even built paddles that he strapped to his hands that helped him swim faster.  He learned how to educate himself using books.
While working in the print shop, Ben decided that he wanted to be more than a printer, he wanted to be a writer.  Perhaps he could teach people how to do things.  One day, his dad read something he had written and evaluated it.  Ben had used good spelling and punctuation, but his writing was 'inferior in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity.'   (Perspicuity means clarity of meaning.  Funny how he used a word that I had to look up to express clarity for the reader…)
Using this feedback, Ben set up a plan to teach himself how to be an excellent writer.  He found the best writings he could, choosing a book called The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.  Then he read the book one article at a time, making notes about the sentence structure of each sentence.  After doing this for several days, he'd go back to the first notes he'd made, rewrite the sentences in his own words and compare them with what was in the book.  He'd see his faults and improve them until they were the same as the books.  He did this over and over again, trying to learn how to compose sentences like these polished writers did.
He realized that he was really lacking in vocabulary.  So he thought of poetry, which usually is composed of vivid vocabulary.  He decided to take the same sentences he was studying in the book and write them as poetry using descriptive words freely.  Then he'd come back to them after progressing with other exercises and write these poems into prose, like it would have appeared in the book.  He'd then compare what he had written with the original book to see how close he got to the original.  That helped him write with better vocabulary. 
Then he attacked his other weak spot—organization.  He took apart good sentences in an essay in the book, writing the content onto slips of paper.  Then he'd mix up the notes and set them aside while he worked on another exercise.  When he came back to them, after he forgot the original essay, he'd rewrite the sentences and try to put them in order.  He'd then compare what he'd written with the original essay.  Doing this reinforced what he was learning about sentence structure, vivid vocabulary and now, ordering sentences in an essay. 
Ben did this instead of playing with friends, attending church (and his family was devout) and doing the many other things a young man would want to do with his free time.  This was after working hard all day at his brothers' print shop.  He awoke early and went to bed late to fill his spare time with this effort.    
What he couldn't get from the books was consistent feedback.  So Ben came up with another strategy to fill this need:  he started writing letters to the editor secretly using the pen name "Silence Dogood."  He'd slide them under the door of his brother's office.  Ben's brother loved them, printing each one in his newspaper, some on the front page, all the while wondering who Silence Dogood really was.  Ben satisfied that curiosity by creating a persona behind the letters, saying in them that he was a female older widow left with many children.  'Silence' wrote letters every two weeks and discussed a variety of topics, offering opinions and observations of local life.  It was an ingenious way of getting his work published so he could get the feedback on his writing that he needed.  Ben's brother vocally assessed the writings in front of Ben as he read them.  And he heard the buzz in the print shop from the readers about what 'Silence' had recently written.    
Using this system, Ben effectively taught himself to be a great writer by the age of 16 with hours and hours of diligent work.  Many consider Benjamin Franklin 'America's first great man of letters.'  He earned that title!  He went on to succeed in many other fields besides being an author like invention, science, democracy, and politics.  He likely used the same system to become familiar with and master these endeavors.
We can learn how to be excellent in any field by employing these same techniques.  We can do the hard practice needed to master any skill or trade.  We can do the hard things we need to do to conquer our obstacles and reach our goals.

For more, see:
Colvin, Geoff.  Talent is Overrated—What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.  Penguin Group, 2008, pgs. 105-109.

May 7, 2012

Robert Moehling took a chore and built it into a business

We just returned home from Key West, Florida.  We had a guide book to help us choose what fun things to do.  Inside, a recommendation was made to visit a fresh fruit stand on the way.  It is called "Robert is Here."  That's a really strange name for a fruit stand, so I had to find out what was going on.  In finding out, I thought it was fun enough to share with you this week.
Over 50 years ago, a 6 year old kid named Robert Moehling was sent outside to the corner to sell some extra home-grown cucumbers.  Times were hard and his family needed the money.  When he came in at dark, he hadn't sold any.  His father thought the reason might be that they couldn't' see the little boy selling the produce.  He made him a sign on old shutters that read, 'Robert is Here!' and staked it near where he sent Robert to hawk the cucumbers the next day.  That day, many people stopped and bought cucumbers from Robert.  He sold all his cucumbers by noon and walked home.  That was just the beginning of a success story.
Within a few weeks, other farmers started adding to Robert's pile of vegetables to sell, and Robert managed to sell them all.  When school started, Robert set up the stand before school and put a coffee can there for people to pay for the produce they took.  When he got off the bus, he'd go back to his stand and sell the produce personally.  "It was something that I had to do to keep the family's head above water," Robert said. "The first year or so it was sustaining an income we didn't have, because dad was really busted out."  Imagine-- his friends were all out playing and having fun, but Robert was manning a fruit and vegetable stand.  That might have bothered him, but Robert took it in stride.
By the time he was nine, he had hired a lady to manage the stand while he was in school.  Then he'd cover it after school.  He earned enough money selling produce at this little stand that by the time he was 14, he bought a house on 10 acres of land nearby and rented the house out.  He planted avocado trees on the acreage and looked for more land to buy.  He bought land in 5 or 10 acre plots and farmed it, adding to his produce stand vegetables to sell.
Over time, Robert has added many more fruits and vegetables to his open-air market, including some exotic ones I've never seen before.  He also added homemade jams, convenience items and fresh squeezed juices.  (I watched some guys out back squeezing oranges into jugs.  Cool machine that does it.)  They also serve many varieties of shakes using their fresh fruit.  (The key lime was fabulous.)  Additionally, he added a water play area and a petting zoo behind the store.  Most noticeably, his little shutters announcing he was there has been replaced by large white letters across the top of a respectable open-air market.  Robert is still here on the same corner he sold the cucumbers in 1959, but he's surely made it something better.
Tourists love this place.  Locals can count on being able to buy high quality fresh produce, and local farmers add theirs to his merchandise. I don't agree with all of his business choices (I'd let the poor animals in the petting zoo go free for one…), but he's a success story.  Robert took a chore to help his family out and turned it into a thriving business.  Now Robert is preparing to turn it over to his four kids, who all went to college and one by one have returned to the fruit stand to help out. 

Fischer, David.  USA Today Travel, "Robert is Still Here:  Florida Fruit Stand turns 50", July 22, 2010, found at