- Associated Press - Saturday, October 17, 2015

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) - In his forthcoming book “Carrying Albert Home,” Homer Hickam weaves together family lore, historical accuracies, comedy and a touch of sadness as he tells the story of his parents’ journey from Coalwood, West Virginia, to Orlando, Florida, to return home a pet alligator named Albert.

The book is subtitled “The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife and Her Alligator,” and it is those blurred lines between truth, the unreliability of memories and the way stories become stretched and exaggerated over time that give this novel its charm.

Albert was a wedding present from the Hollywood actor and dancer Buddy Ebsen to the author’s parents, Homer and Elsie Lavender Hickam. The reptile grew under the loving and watchful eye of Elsie, but Homer becomes preoccupied with Elsie’s affections for Albert, which he believes reveal her secret affections for Ebsen. He gives his wife an ultimatum - It’s him or the alligator - and they begin their long journey to carry Albert home to Florida in 1935.

At constant odds with one another and facing dangerous adventures, the two travel 1,000 miles before learning how to come home together.

Writer, retired NASA Engineer and West Virginia native Homer Hickam is best known for his memoir “Rocket Boys,” which is a New York Times Best Seller and was the basis for the movie “October Sky.” Although “Carrying Albert Home” stands on its own as a work of fiction, Hickam said it could not have been written before the movie.

In this most recent work, which went on sale recently, Hickam tries to paint a more accurate depiction of his parents.

“I felt people had the wrong idea of who my parents were,” he explained. “My dad was supposed to be this harsh, unrelenting authoritarian figure and Elsie is a wimp. That is not the way they are in the book, but most people see the movie. I wanted people to know who my parents really were.”

He said that while his father was an authoritarian in the coal mines, his mother was in charge at home and always got her way with her husband.

“In Coalwood, Mom was considered eccentric. The fact that she used to own an alligator would not have been surprising, but she had a love of animals that was passed on to me and my brother. My mom had a green thumb for animals. No matter what kind of animal it was, that animal would thrive,” he said.

It was not uncommon for alligators to be given as gifts or brought home as souvenirs from Florida during the 1930s, but they rarely survived. For Albert to grow to 5 feet in length and enjoy both the coal camp house bathtub and a special concrete pond in the yard is a testimony to Elsie’s devotion, ability and, perhaps, stubbornness.

In addition to Albert, Elsie had a pet fox named Parkyacarcass and a squirrel named Chipper while the author was a young boy.

Hickam said he grew up hearing snippets and stories about Albert and his parents’ trip to Florida when they were in their early 20s. The stories were offered offhandedly. While referring to Elsie’s lead foot in the car, his dad might mention her driving moonshine on the “thunder road,” a tale Hickam expounds in the novel.

“They just liked to tell funny stories about their trip. I think it was the longest period of time in their lives when they were never apart,” Hickam said. “I couldn’t name a town from Coalwood to Florida that they had not been through. I’d name any town and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve been there,’ and I’d say, ‘Let me guess, it was when you carried Albert home.’”

While the story is filled with outlandish tales, Hickam explains the novel is “all true except the parts that are not true, and they are true, too.”

Even when the character of his father fights off smugglers and jumps into the ocean to save Albert during a storm, that story reveals the true character of his dad - a brave man willing to do anything to protect an alligator for Elsie, Hickam explained.

His parents evolved as characters as he imagined what they were like at 23 years old.

“Of all the reviews I got, my brother’s (Jim Hickam) was the best. He wrote back two pages in longhand about how much he enjoyed the book and loved the fact I’d given our parents this great adventure. He was certain wherever they are now in heaven they were loving it, too,” the author said.

Regardless of the way “Carrying Albert Home” toys with historical accuracies and personal memories, it elicits a truthful response from readers through laughter and tears.

When looking through old family photos to accompany the book, Hickam could find no photographic evidence of Albert except pictures of the concrete pond where Albert enjoyed playing. Perhaps it’s fitting that photos of Albert are missing; It makes him more of a mystery. Albert then becomes a moment captured only by memory. He leaves an impression but is gone.

“Carrying Albert Home” leaves readers with more than one mystery. Accompanying Albert and the Hickam couple on their journey is a rooster “whose presence in the journey is not entirely understood,” admits the author.

At one point in the novel Homer is walking down a dirt road carrying Albert in his arms like a cradled child and the rooster walks confidently a few feet ahead.

The rooster manages to come and go throughout the narrative, avoiding trouble and swooping into the backseat of their old Buick just in time to continue the journey. The rooster rides either on Homer’s shoulder or perched atop Albert.

Hickam said it remains up to the readers to decide what the rooster represents.

“I have a theory on who he is, but it’s a good discussion topic to save for book clubs,” said the author.


Information from: The Register-Herald, https://www.register-herald.com

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