Barbara Scully Talks Life, The Universe, Cats & Alligators with Homer Hickman
I read to escape. Not that my life is full of drudgery and awfulness… well there is some drudgery but not enough that I need a daily escape. No, I just like to escape into other people’s lives for a change of scenery. For a book to sing to me I have to really like most of the characters and really be able to see the situations and locations described. If the story being told is also quirky, well then that’s an added bonus. If it features animals as an integral part of the tale well then the book is damn near my perfect read. Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hadley Hickam is one such book.
I read it greedily and yet I didn’t want it to finish. It is a beautifully told story full of warmth and emotion and outrageous stories. And it’s based on an episode in the lives of the writer’s parents, one Elsie and Homer Hickam (Snr).
It was a great pleasure to interview the writer, Homer Hickam (Jnr) albeit via email recently.
Barbara: Do you yourself know what truth of your parent’s epic journey is and what is imagined? Or did your mother remain enigmatic on the truth?
Homer: I like to say the story of carrying Albert the alligator home is all true except the bits that aren’t and they’re true, too. This is a family legend, told and retold, usually a bit differently each time. In my telling, I often get inside the heads of Homer and Elsie which was not anything they ever told me directly. They told me what they’d done but not necessarily why they’d done it. A lot of times when they told it, something in the present was clearly coloring the story, so I wanted to get back to where it all begun. With jumbles and pieces, I tried to figure it all out, get everything into some kind of order, then bring in a certain amount of fantasy and even some spiritualism and lot of humour to bring the reader into the spirit of things.
Barbara: There is a real philosophical bent to the story with some charming wisdom. But from a philosophical viewpoint what did Albert (the alligator) stand for or more importantly what did the rooster stand for?
Homer: Well, Albert is pure innocence. He is a cheerful little boy who explicitly trusts Homer and Elsie to do the right thing for him. But he’s also a bit like any young animal (including humans) when they are about to be weaned. When things change, and the parents draw away for the good of the child, there is a sense of betrayal even though the separation must occur. Elsie senses the betrayal inherent in the entire journey but, in her manner, she doesn’t dwell on it. Homer knows very well what must happen. It’s one reason his heart eventually goes out to the little reptile in the backseat.
Ah, but the rooster! Who is the rooster and what role does he play? A friend of mine, who likes to think deep thoughts, said the rooster was hope because he kept going away and coming back again like hope often does. My brother said the rooster was an angel sent down from heaven especially for our father who needed all the help he could get. That’s why it sat on our dad’s shoulder so much. I think everyone may have a different opinion. As I said at the beginning of the book, the rooster’s presence is not entirely understood
Barbara: I know this book is a prequel to your earlier memoir Rocket Boys [Sorry to interrupt but this an utterly brilliant MUST READ book that has influenced my daughter to study aeronautical engineering, no joke. Ed) which was subsequently made into the movie, October Sky. You certainly had fascinating parents, both of whom seem (from Carrying Albert Home anyway) to be strong characters but very different. Elsie in particular seems like a woman ahead of her time – her own woman. Were you aware of that growing up?
Homer: I had my suspicions! Certainly, she was unique. I knew early on that she had no use for Coalwood and was quite willing to stand up against the company owners if they did something she didn’t like. I also knew there were so many things she wanted to do with her life and that it was a disappointment to her that she was never going to get to do them. If something had killed my father in the mine, I’m fairly certain she’d have left and never looked back. Of course, she’d have taken my brother and me with her. And her cats. And her squirrel. She was something, that Elsie.
Barbara: Who would you say was the biggest influence on your life, your father Homer Snr or your mom, Elsie?
Homer: Oh, certainly, my mom. I figured out fairly early who the real leader in the family was and tried to keep her on my side as much as possible. She filled my head with her dreams through her stories and the books she gave me to read, books filled with adventure such as Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn. I was even reading Jack London when I was seven years old! I also figured out my father was quiet and mild-mannered at home but different at the coal mine. In a way, he was two different people in Coalwood. Until my teenage years, I kept out of his way when he was in his foreman’s role at the mine. When I started building rockets, that meant he and I were on an unusual collision course. Of course, I thought my dad was heroic in so many ways. He was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the town and the mine and, I had no doubt, his family. He was a lot to live up to.
Barbara: Your own biography reads like a novel. You seem to have crammed a whole lot of living into one not yet complete life. Tell me a little about being a soldier in the War in Vietnam?
Homer: I actually volunteered to go because, like Hemingway, I wanted to experience life in its most terrible form: war. It took me about 24 hours to figure out that this was a big mistake! People were getting hurt over there! But I was on the hook for an entire year there so I had other decisions to make. One choice was to try to stay in a relatively safe area or stay out in the field. I lasted about two weeks in a safe base camp before I knew I had to get out of there or go crazy. So I told them to put me out in the field where I felt I could do the most good. The Army was very happy to do it. So I spent the entire year in the mountains of central Vietnam. In a way, it was like a hot, very green West Virginia except a great number of people were shooting at me and my troops. There were lots of ups and downs. I kind of lost it at the end when my little firebase was nearly overwhelmed by an attack. It wasn’t that I was afraid. I was just tired of the whole business and wanted nothing to do with it any more. I was ready to come home.
Barbara: Did Vietnam leave you with physical, emotional or psychological scars?
Homer: I ended up with a lot of little bits of steel in my leg and forehead from a nearby blast but it wasn’t life threatening or anything. For years, those bits worked their way out. I kept getting visited by Vietnam! I think there are two little fragments left and they’ll probably stay. I don’t think I had much in the way of emotional or psychological scars but maybe I’m the last to know.
Barbara: You then worked for NASA…. at an exciting time I would imagine with the first flights of the Space Shuttle. How did it feel to work ‘at the frontiers of space exploration’?
Homer: I enjoyed the work. It was interesting. I ended up training astronauts. I figured it would be an easy job because astronauts already know everything—or think they do!
Barbara: What do you make of the fact that there seems to be water on Mars? Is there life on Mars in your opinion?
Homer: Water on Mars doesn’t surprise me but its interesting there’s enough that it flows during certain times of the year. I don’t know about life there but I’ll bet you there are microbes and bacteria here on Earth that would quickly colonize Mars given half a chance. Maybe it’s already happened. We’ve been exchanging rocks for millions of years—caused by asteroid impacts—so maybe we’ve already sent microbes and bacteria there or, intriguingly, the other way around! We might all be Martians
Barbara: Is there intelligent life out there?
Homer: I’ll bet there is, or used to be, or will be in the future. It’s all about time, really. The universe is so big and so old that intelligent life could happen over and over without anyone else ever knowing. One thing, though, intelligence of a human quality may be an aberration. In terms of survival, there is no reason for us to be as smart as we are so we may have evolved past where we should have for reasons we don’t understand. This may also explain why, at times, we seem as a species to be evolving downward in terms of overall intelligence. I am, by the way, a good Methodist but I see no conflict between that and my belief in evolution although nobody really knows how evolution works, just that it does. Maybe the rooster knows?
Barbara: Back to writing. How disciplined are you about your writing? Do you write every day or just when the muse strikes?
Homer: Every day, day after day, even Sundays. I can’t help it. I love to write.
Barbara: Where do you write? Do you need quiet or can you listen to music while you work?
Homer: I can write with jack hammers outside. Once I get going, it’s like the rest of the world disappears.
Barbara: Are you going to visit Europe promoting ‘Albert’? If so are you planning to come to Ireland? Have you ever been to Ireland?
Homer: I hope I get to come to Europe to promote Albert! But nobody’s invited me yet (whimper, sigh). Yes, I’ve been to Ireland. I drove all over it in a VW beetle when I lived in Germany in the late 1970’s. I stayed mostly in bed and breakfasts and met an awful lot of nice people. Once, as I was driving along on a little country road, I came across a car that had wrecked off the road. I got out and found a man and a woman pinned in their car so I stopped and pulled them out. The woman was so beautiful but she had an awful split in her forehead from banging against the dashboard. I got a towel and wrapped it around her head to pull it together but I knew she was going to have an awful scar. The man had a horrible gash in his leg. I bound them up as best I could, then sat with them until people came. I never found out what happened to them after they were carried away. I’ve often wondered.
Barbara: You clearly must have lots more stories to tell. What are you writing now?
Homer: I’m not writing anything in the long form right now, no novels or memoirs or non-fiction but I’m doing a lot of writing for Carrying Albert Home, such as this very piece. My first book, Torpedo Junction, has been optioned for a motion picture so I’m helping the producers flesh out that story. I’m thinking about what I’d like to write next and I’m confident it’ll come to me by and by.
Barbara: Finally, one of the things I loved most about Carrying Albert Home was the clearly illustrated love that Elsie and laterally Homer had for Albert and even for the no name Rooster. I see you also live with cats (the best people do)… is the company of animals important to you? Tell me about your cats?
Homer: Oh, my goodness. we couldn’t live without our cats! We have seven! They’re all rescues. There’s Wyatt, our Siamese (he so smart), Curly Bill (he’s a black long-hair, adorable and likes to tunnel under the covers, also the brother of Wyatt), Molly (fluffy, sweet girl, Himalayan markings, mom of Wyatt and Curly Bill), Yawzi (our Virgin Island bush cat), Summer (who apparently strayed away from the Queen of England and pines for her return to the palace), China (cute girl who got her name because we found her with a tag on her tail that said Made in China), and April (who is a bit like the rooster because we don’t know why she’s here but we’re glad she is). Linda and I also work with a rescue group called Forgotten Felines and foster sometimes (although we tend to be foster failures – that’s why we have seven cats).
The best thing about discovering Homer Hickam is that he has what sounds like a great back catalogue. I reckon that’s the winter sorted!
(c) Barabara Scully
About Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator
Big Fish meets The Notebook in this emotionally evocative story about a man, a woman, and an alligator that is a moving tribute to love, from the New York Times bestselling author of the award-winning memoir Rocket Boys—the basis of the movie October Sky.
Elsie Lavender and Homer Hickam (the father of the author) were high school classmates in the West Virginia coalfields, graduating just as the Great Depression began. When Homer asked for her hand, Elsie instead headed to Orlando where she sparked with a dancing actor named Buddy Ebsen (yes, that Buddy Ebsen). But when Buddy headed for New York, Elsie’s dreams of a life with him were crushed and eventually she found herself back in the coalfields, married to Homer.
Unfulfilled as a miner’s wife, Elsie was reminded of her carefree days with Buddy every day because of his unusual wedding gift: an alligator named Albert she raised in the only bathroom in the house. When Albert scared Homer by grabbing his pants, he gave Elsie an ultimatum: “Me or that alligator!” After giving it some thought, Elsie concluded there was only one thing to do: Carry Albert home.
Carrying Albert Home is the funny, sweet, and sometimes tragic tale of a young couple and a special alligator on a crazy 1,000-mile adventure. Told with the warmth and down-home charm that made Rocket Boys a beloved bestseller, Homer Hickam’s rollicking tale is ultimately a testament to that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.
Carrying Albert Home is available in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Barbara Scully is a freelance Writer & Broadcaster and presenter of The Hen House on Dublin South FM. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraScully