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Local Connections
to Rocket Boys Author

St. Helena’s Shane Smith
“Knew Hickam When”

by
Suzanne Larson
Beaufort County
Public Information Officer

Author Homer Hickam, whose best selling autobiography, Rocket Boys, is the selected read for this year’s One County One Book program has at least one tie to Beaufort County.

Hickam was befriended by Shane Smith of the Dulamo community on St. Helena Island back in 1986. At the time, Smith was living in Savannah and managing a ship’s store at a marina. Hickam, an engineer for NASA, was on vacation with a buddy when he arrived at the marina to meet a friend’s boat for a sail to the gulf coast of Florida. The boat failed to arrive on time and Hickam and his buddy found themselves in a strange city with no place to stay.

Smith, a New Zealand native and skilled sailor, had been in similar predicaments in her days of traveling the Atlantic by boat. She sympathized with Hickam and invited him and his buddy to stay in her home with her family until his boat arrived.

As it turned out, the anticipated arrival of the boat to Florida did not occur until ten days later. By then, Smith and family and Hickam and his pal were all fast friends. Smith said Hickam is friendly, highly energetic and very smart. He is also athletic and ran every day during his visit. Smith said Hickam turned out to be an unusually nice man who remembers to thank people for their kindnesses.

Hickam eventually completed his voyage and returned to his job in Huntsville, Ala. where he worked as a computer engineer for NASA and taught astronauts to maneuver in a weightless state. A long-time skin diver and athlete, Hickam felt at home in a weightless environment. As a gesture of gratitude for her hospitality, Hickam sent Smith tickets to the launch of the space shuttle Challenger at Cape Canaveral. Smith sent her 9-year-old-son, Andrew to the launch along with a school mate and the boy’s parents.

It happened to be the ill-fated shuttle that blew up and killed all aboard. But, fortunately, young Andrew and his friends did not witness that portion of the launch. Now, Andrew is a man of 29 who operates his own computer business in Atlanta. He said he will always remember the excitement of the launch and the friendly man who stayed with his family years ago in Savannah.

Smith also remembers Hickam fondly and is delighted about his success as an author. She looks forward to attending some of the One County One book events scheduled this month by the county library.

Hickam was also a close friend of “Swede” Larson, the great grandfather of Korey Hansen, a sixth grader at Robert Smalls Middle School, grandfather of Shawn Sproatt, a graduating senior at Beaufort High School and father of Suzanne Larson of Lady’s Island.

H.V. “Swede” Larson was a USMC and CIA pilot and “soldier of fortune.” Hickam wrote the book, Torpedo Junction, based on some of Larson’s WW 11 experiences and an article for Air & Space Magazine based on Larson’s adventures as a “contrabandista” in South Texas in the early 1980’s.

Larson and other retired CIA pilots would fly American appliances into Mexico and sell them on the black market. They packed their goods into used DC3’s – stripped of all insulation to allow more space – and fly at night with their lights off. It was perfectly legal in the US, but a bit risky in Mexico.

The aging veterans, apparently unexcited by the prospect of settling into the lackluster tranquility of retirement, welcomed another opportunity for adventure. The fun lasted until Larson and his crew members were captured by the Mexican Army and spent 8 months in a village prison in what Larson thereafter referred to as “my expensive Mexican holiday.”

Larson and Hickam became good friends and visited frequently. Hickam has written film scripts based on both Torpedo Junction and the “contrabandista” story.

Larson died in 1996, but his family is proud of his exploits and pleased they have been immortalized by Hickam’s writing.

“If they make a movie -- I hope Clint Eastwood, Jude Law or Hugh Jackman will play my Grandfather,” Sproatt said.

Sproatt’s father, USCB Professor Rod Sproatt, will lead a Rocket Boys book discussion presented at the county Library on Scott Street on Saturday, May 14 at 1 PM.

 

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