The Day I Became a “Rocket Boy”

I received a message out of the blue today from a dear old friend. It said:

“Just getting ready for Wood Badge this morning, preparing my presentation and my thoughts turned to you. Wondered how you were doing and hope all is well!”

Wood Badge Beads: Two is a participant, Three is a staffer, and four is a Course Director (Scoutmaster)

For those who don’t know what that means, Wood Badge is the penultimate (in my opinion) adult leader training in the Boy Scout organization. Over the span of seven days, sixty-four participants and twenty-eight staffers become a whole new family to you that you will never forget. I went through as a participant in course #MT-61 back in 2014. Then, for MT-63 in 2016, I was a first-year staffer when I met Liz and her husband Ren, and during my second stint on the Wood Badge staff for MT-64 in 2017, Liz and I were both staffers and Ren was a participant. I could write another entire article about this amazing training and the wonderful friends you make along the way, but that’s not why I write this today. I’ll sum Wood Badge up for you with this description: As a participant, you are in for the time of your life during the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. When you are invited to be a staffer, you are given the enormous honor to deliver the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. But again, that’s for another article. Let’s get back to that text message.

As a Wood Badge staffer, you get assigned presentations to do throughout the week that make the program so exemplary. My first year on staff, my assigned presentation was “Coaching and Mentoring.” I worked hard on perfecting it, and to this day, some five years later, I still receive the occasional message about it from random MT-63 participants. The text I received above from Liz, a MT-63 participant from five years ago, still remembered my presentation and my chaplain’s message from MT-64 about the “Lower Lights”. It goes to show you that you don’t realize how much of an impact your words can have on someone, and how long those words will stay with them.

Her kind message today found me in a strange mood. There is some tumult going on with me these days that I’m wrestling with. Of course, I responded with warm regards and that I’m great and all that good stuff. But the truth is, I’m not. The reasons why don’t matter. What matters here is that the universe knew I needed a kick in the pants, and delivered it wrapped in twenty-seven typed words from a good friend. The universe is smart. It knows things and has an uncanny sense of timing.

What that text message did was remind me of those days back in Wood Badge that inspired me so much. When you’re a staffer, your whole job is to inspire the participants in any way you can within your assigned role. I was a Troop Guide, and then Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, and also had the Chaplain duty during my second year to boot. I like to think that within those three titles, I did my best to deliver whatever inspiration I could. These occasional messages from my Wood Badge family are evidence that I must have done alright back then. Even with that legacy behind me, sometimes the inspiration well still runs dry. That message this morning found me lacking, but it also reminded me of the day I became a “Rocket Boy.”

October Sky poster

One of the presentations in Wood Badge centers around the movie October Sky. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean when I say “inspirational.” It’s a heart-warming tale about a group of boys from a small coal-mining town that do extraordinary things in the arena of aerospace and rockets during the time of Sputnik and the start of the space race. That’s a terribly poor description on my part, however, the unmistakable message of the film is the three P’s of success:




You may know this already, but October Sky is based on the true story Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam. (Trivia moment: October Sky is an anagram for Rocket Boys.) If you haven’t read the book, I cannot recommend it enough. I devoured it shortly after it came out, but the subtle messages in the story didn’t resonate with me as much until I went through Wood Badge. Going back through it again as a staffer put a whole new spin on those three P’s and what they really mean. So, after my first turn on staff at MT-63, I reached out to Homer Hickam to ask a favor. I decided to go to the source of all that inspiration and see what he had to say. Lo and behold, he replied.

Book cover for Rocket Boys

When I was invited back for my second staff gig, I wanted to bring with me something that conveyed how much the message of this program and his story can change your life. I wanted to give the participants of MT-64 something they would never forget. I asked Mr. Hickam if he would write them an inspirational letter that I would deliver on his behalf, and he did. Here’s what the letter said:

Homer Hickam's Letter to MT-64

I got to read this aloud to the ninety-one other people of MT-64 at the end of our third day together—right after watching October Sky—and there was barely a dry eye in the house. It’s not sad, not at all. I struggled through those elegant words, breaking up a couple times in joy. Those words—they hit you right in the feels, don’t they? It doesn’t matter what condition you happen to be in at any given moment. Pick up a letter written like this, and, well, like it says—

“A rocket won’t fly unless somebody lights the fuse.”

O’Dell, Rocket Boys

I framed the original as a gift for our MT-64 Scoutmaster, Michelle, and made copies for everyone else in the course. I hadn’t forgotten about that letter, but it was also not at the forefront of my mind. However, when I received that text message this morning, it reminded me how kind words can make such a difference to someone. It reminded me of the lessons I learned from Rocket Boys/October Sky.

My fuse was lit.

When I came home this evening, I went to the book shelf and pulled down my hardback copy of Rocket Boys for a quick browse. Ironically, a folded copy of that letter was neatly tucked in the dust jacket. I read it and re-read it, then I read it again. I’m not ashamed to admit my eyes leaked a little bit. I was transported back in front of those ninety-one people again; reading it aloud and sending my feels on a tempest-tossed ride one more time. I folded it back the way I found it, nestled into the cover until the next time I forget it’s in there. Then, I flipped a little further to the bookplate page and my eyes leaked—again—when I read this:

Homer Hickam's inscription to me in my copy of Rocket Boys

I was honored that my words so many years ago still inspired one of my participants, who turned out to become a dear friend, and how her preparations to be a staffer this year hearkened back to something I said all those years ago. I’m proud that she’s going back now for what I believe is her third or fourth time as a staffer, and that now, in twenty-seven typed words, our roles have reversed. She is delivering inspiration to another generation of adult leaders this time, and knocking it out of the park. Then to top it off, THE Rocket Boy himself, Homer Hickam, counts me among his pantheon with this inscription. Boy, I needed that.

The universe sure is smart, ain’t it?

MT-61 Bear.

MT-63 Owl Troop Guide. (The Bear with Owl tendencies…)

MT-64 Assistant Senior Patrol Leader and Chaplain.

Servant Leader for Life.

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