The Stars at Night are Big and Bright (****) Deep in the Heart of Texas!

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You know that song, right?  The **** are for the “duhn, duhn, duhn, duhn” in the song 🙂  I’m going to skip the retelling of our few days at a condo – save it for tomorrow – because this will be a quicker post, and it’s already 8pm.  Last night I was excited to join my brother Gerrit and students from his astronomy classes for an outdoor Astronomy Lab.  There are not a lot of schools offering Astronomy these days, so for Gerrit to be exclusively teaching Astronomy is quite the dream come true for him.  Astronomy, Meteorology, Navigation – these things used to be just his hobbies, but through a strange series of events, including never giving up on your dreams, he now teaches 6 sections of Astronomy per day, for his second year in a row.

Gerrit tells his students that he did not do well in school.  They never believe him.  They incredulously say- but Mr. Rickwalt! You’re the smartest guy we know! (or other things along those lines.)  Growing up, I always thought he was the smartest guy I knew, too.  I couldn’t understand why the teachers never agreed!  I remember when we were younger that there were often parent-teacher conferences.  Then came a math tutor for a year.  The real impetus to pass his classes came from wanting to stay qualified to run Cross-Country for Conroe High School, which paid off when they went to the 5A State Championships his Senior Year – the first time in ten years a team from our school had made it to State, and there has not been a team to do it since that year (1991).

The Cross Country team – Gerrit is the one pointing up in the air with his right hand, in a yellow jacket.

Gerrit is shirtless and right in the middle of the photo, black shorts.

Here he is, looking on the verge of passing out…I used to think 2 miles was a long distance, but now that I’m a runner, I realize it’s a sprint!!

(Don’t you just love facebook? I found all sorts of pictures of Gerrit that were taken by other people around 15-20 years ago and posted to facebook!) He was my older brother, so of course I thought he was a genius — why couldn’t everyone else see it??  He started off college at Texas A&M, Galveston.  Eventually he moved up to the Main Campus in College Station.  That didn’t go too well for him, and he had to leave school at the end of his third year.  He kept at it, though, and the summer after that year he applied to the Naval ROTC program back down at Texas A&M, Galveston.  His grades weren’t too hot, but he was provisionally accepted.  This was finally where he wanted to be, and he maintained high grades in order to stay there.  We had grown up with tales of the Navy – my mom’s dad retired as a CDR after being the XO of the War College up in Newport, RI, and commanding a few ships, and my dad had joined up right out of college as a surface warfare office for a few years himself.  At the time, I was just starting my second year at the United States Naval Academy, so it was neat that we were both wearing uniforms at last.

With his ROTC unit – he’s on the far left.

He earned an ROTC scholarship through hard work and determination once he was already at school paying for it himself.  He got a tutor for Calculus, and FINALLY, he was able to see things the way he needed to in order to make the right grades.  He just needed to figure out a few key concepts, and then the rest of it made sense.  He did well enough to finish out college on the Navy’s dime and to become the Commander of his ROTC Unit in his Senior Year.

At his wedding with his best friend Robbie – Gerrit was still a midshipman in ROTC at the time, so he and Robin spent their first year in Galveston finishing school.

He was commissioned a year after me and went to his first ship as the Gunnery Officer.

Gerrit’s ship pulled in to Newport, RI, so I drove over from Saratoga Springs, NY, where I had just finished Nuclear Prototype training.

Fast forward a few years, and he was the Navigator on board a frigate based in Mayport, Florida, meaning their deployments took them through the Panama Canal to bust drugrunners.  Now, navigating by the stars was truly a hobby for my brother.  He had the charts MEMORIZED (if you’ve learn CelNav – he memorized the long charts on which we filled out all the star declination information and stuff out of the Nautical Almanac) and had used celestial navigation a few times for his own sailing trips.  Finally, he was doing things he already loved, and getting paid for it.   Eventually he either was put in charge of communications in some way, or he just sort of took charge  – not sure which it was.  Either way, he took some of his guys over to a local South American Radio Shack on a port visit and purchased some wires and metal poles with his own money.  Then he proceeded to build his own HF antenna array, mount it to the ship, and use it himself to track down drug boats.  Yes, that’s what he did.  A few of their drug busts containing lots of cocaine (I don’t know the exact amounts, but, whatever :)) were directly a result of my brother’s homemade antenna.

Navigating the ship…

These criminals tried to incinerate the evidence after Gerrit’s ship chased them down. Gerrit is on the far left.

He left active duty a few years later but is still in the Naval Reserve based in Ellington Field.  He used the “Troops to Teachers” program in Texas to become qualified to teach high school sciences, and he started out on the bottom teaching a combined physics and chemistry course to students who were, shall we say, underachievers.  I am sure he saw a lot of himself in some of the students — untapped potential waiting for the right opportunities and some encouragement — but for the most part, that first year was pretty frustrating because generally speaking, the kids just didn’t care about school.  Then next year they added in three Astronomy sections for him.  When we were little our parents routinely took us to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to tour Mission Control and Rocket Park.

I visited what is now “Space Center Houston” with my dad, my children, and a few little friends back in December 2010 — here we are in front of the Saturn V rocket.

We both went to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama — Gerrit, twice.  Yes, we were the typical “big dorks” of high school fame, except that we were both jocks as well, so perhaps that made us a bit less nerdy 🙂  He always wanted to be an astronaut…He’s even been building and launching his own model rockets since he was four or five (he has big launch days with his classes, too, after they all build rockets — they compete for the highest altitude and some even buy cameras to mount on their own rockets!)

After a year on Active Duty again with the Navy in Djibouti, Africa, he came back last fall to a full day as the high school’s only Astronomy Teacher.

Now he mostly teaches Seniors, and his students are there because they want to learn about space.  The “Lab” last night had 30-40 kids; some even brought their parents, siblings, and friends.  Most of the telescopes belong to Gerrit, as does the HF antenna he mounts on the back of his truck so they can monitor frequencies when the Space Station passes overhead.

Gerrit mounts this antenna to the top of a ten foot pole in his truck bed (I’m estimating the height, but you get the idea)

They don’t get any extra credit for attending, but there is an excitement in the air because they know they are doing something “extraterrestrial.” 🙂 (Also, high school kids like having a place to hang out together at night to just chill out, and the environment was pretty chill.) He handed out a star chart to everyone of the September night sky at a latitude about 10 degrees off of ours, and then he would line up the telescopes – and teach the students how to adjust them as well – to point at the stars he wanted them to learn.  I swear that looking at Saturn and its rings through the telescope seemed like I was seeing a little white picture of Saturn taped to the end of the scope.  It was just too perfect!  I couldn’t believe it.  This was the telescope my dad bought years ago – before I can even remember – and through which we did our star-gazing as children.  Brings back memories 🙂

Gerrit with the old Celestron telescope we had growing up

Getting setup for the stargazing

Gerrit bought a super powerful laser pointer which he uses to show the kids particular stars. You can sort of see it in the picture, but when you’re outside looking at the sky you can clearly see it pointing all the way up to the stars.

Hope you liked the long story about my brother.  If he’s reading it, I am sure he will find a few discrepancies since I don’t remember details very well, but it’s close enough for government work 🙂  We started the day yesterday at the condo out at Lake Conroe, and I snuck in a 5 mile run before breakfast.  Then we packed up our van and spent the early afternoon at the pool again before heading back in to Conroe.  By this point, there were some people notably under the weather — Claire and Liesl had had high fevers the night before and were complaining of sore tummies and heads, and my dad had been home getting sick all night, too.  Astronomy Night had been planned as a family activity, but in the end, John stayed behind to watch the children and only I was able to take part.  On the way out I took a circuitous route through the old downtown part of Conroe for some pictures – I’ll be seeing these again on my run through town in the morning!

The sun was just setting as I meandered through town.

The top of the old Crighton Theater, still in use.

The original Bus Depot


One thought on “The Stars at Night are Big and Bright (****) Deep in the Heart of Texas!

  1. Pingback: Louisiana On My Mind | Who's running this place anyway?

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