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Growing up in Proctor: The Night Skylab Fell on Roy Palmer’s Place

By Gary Eller - | Mar 3, 2021

In May 1973, amid much public hoopla, NASA put the huge Skylab satellite into orbit. It remains the only U.S.-only space station ever put into orbit. Skylab suffered damage during launch which required later attempts at repair, accompanied by more hoopla. Unfortunately, models predicting a nine-year lifetime for Skylab were short by several years, and by early 1979 it was clear that Skylab would fall to earth sometime in the summer or fall of that year. NASA budget limitations led to the omission of adequate controls for the descent, so nobody knew where on Earth it would land. Since Skylab was so massive (dimensions 36x56x82 feet and 170,000 pounds), a lot of damage would have occurred if it were to hit a populated area. Concerns were further heightened by the fact that in January 1978 a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite, Cosmos 954, crashed in the Great Slave Lake area of northern Canada and spread radioactive debris.

Plans were made across America for gala Skylab crash parties. Skylab was very bright in the night sky, adding to the excitement. Even “Out Proctor” folks were talking about the upcoming event and watched Skylab overhead. Roy and Ruby Palmer, our unsophisticated hillbilly neighbors, knew about Skylab thanks to my Uncle Okey and Joe Coleman, both lively and creative characters who saw the Palmers often. The Palmers squatted on a piece of land between Okey and Joe on the dirt road on Neuman Ridge near our small farm.

As year 1979 progressed, Okey and Joe started feeding ever more ominous “news” about where and when Skylab was going to land to Roy and Ruby. They even speculated what the metal debris might look like. Okey and Joe emphasized how valuable the debris would be for anybody lucky enough to recover it. In early July, it became clear to NASA and the rest of the world that Skylab’s end was near. Joe and Okey kept projecting the impact spot ever closer to West By God Va., then Wetzel County, and finally pinpointed Neuman Ridge. Late in the night which NASA finally predicted as the likely crash date, a pile of junk aluminum mysteriously appeared in the Palmer’s yard. The next day, Roy bragged to Okey and Joe about how a piece of the satellite fell in his yard and how he and Ruby were going to be RICH and they would move to town!

The Palmers grew and shot all the food they needed to live. They only went to town once a month to pick up their dependence check, buy salt and bullets, and have a drunken spree at May’s tavern, setting aside enough money for a taxi ride back home. I’ve always been amazed that Roy never exacted retribution on Okey and Joe – he was a good shot, assassin of many a groundhog, squirrel, and rabbit for supper.

Note: Skylab debris actually fell in Western Australia and the Indian Ocean on July 11, 1979, causing no damage. Skylab parties nevertheless raged many places across America. And, I wrote and recorded a song about Skylab falling on the Palmer Place.