|National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Green Bank WV - Summer 1960
Waves and Caves
Summer Internship in ?
|Why am I doing this?
In the Summer of 1960 I had the good fortune to have been awarded an internship at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV. Though very elaborate now, at the time there was just one Radio Telescope (85' shown above?) and the entire area had a population of less than 1 person/sq. mile. The only town nearby was Cass, WV which, at the time, had wooden side walks and hair cuts for 25 cents.
I did not realize it, but this was not only a great opportunity, but also great timing. Two much different things were happening that summer. The first, it was the start of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Inteligence), then known as Project OZMA. The second was the founding of what was to become a well know Cave Exploring/Rescue team.
I also did not appreciate the company I was keeping while there that summer. The Director of the observatory was Otto Struve who I now realize was a pioneer in Astronomy. The most active programs were headed by Frank Drake. I suspect anyone who has taken an introductory Astronomy Course has heard that name through, the now famous, Drake Equation, which was and is the intellectual basis for the SETI project. Drake explained the equation to us in what may have been one of its first presentations. I don't know about the other interns but I was more confused than enlightened.
Apart from the Astronomy, there was a great interest in exploring and documenting the many caves in the area. There existence was known, but there exact locations were not known. So it fell to me and a couple of others to drive around during the day and try to locate them. This usually meant driving dirt roads through creeks and woods hoping to find a farm house with (friendly) people and without (unfriendly) dogs. Doing so we located many caves and on the following nights many from the observatory would explore them.
I had pictures from these trips, but 30 or more years ago I lost them. After we moved to our present home, twenty years ago, I was sure they were gone for good. And Then ... On St Patrick's Day in 2008, POOF, there they where. Nearly 50 years old now, most have faded beyond use, but I was able to scan a dozen and present them here along with my memories of that summer. Now in a way that is meant as a warning. My memories are not "recovered memories", since they were never covered in the first place. They are, however, well nurtured memories.
The two memories that are clearest are Cass Cave, the entrance shown on the left, and the astrophysicist and radio astronomer Sebastian Von Hoerner. Von Hoerner and a young friend are shown on the right. It was my good fortune to be assigned to work for Von Hoerner. Current references say he started in Green Bank in 1962, but he was there in the summer of 1960.
I learned a lot from Von Hoerner, but the most interesting had nothing to do with where we now found ourselves, rather what happened to him towards the end of WW II. He told me that he was a german soldier trapped in the Russian section at wars end. He told me that he hid in the forests alone for over a year so as to escape the Russians and later to surrender to the Americans. I was impressed and asked how he survived for the year. He told me he mostly ate mushrooms. YIKES (and your still alive)! When asked, Sebastian told me that he felt we had genetic memories. He believed that if you held a mushroom, felt it and smelled it, you would know whether or not it was good to eat. 'Musta' worked, there he sat.
I remember few others from that time. The only other student intern was Dave Brown (shown on the left next to Von Hoerner in the middle) from Harvard University. Dave was hard to forget, among other reasons. because of his Jag with a cracked block that ran all summer without oil. More on him later. While on the subject of cars, at the time I had a much neglected Studebaker Lark. Because of the Lark, I was able to meet Grote Reber the first person to build a modern Radio Telescope. For some reason, possibly too much sun, I decided to wash my car. A task I was singularly unprepared for, when Reber walked by, watched for a minute, walked up to me and took the sponge. He said "that is no way to wash a car." He proceeded to show me how to do it. Great job. I was humbled, but my car delighted - its one and only bath.
Another person I was to meet (if you can call a head nod a meet) was the Nobel Prize winner Edward Purcell. One day was to be a big event. Not that any of us interns had any idea what was actually going on. All sorts of dignitaries like Purcell arrived and meetings of some import were held to be followed by a banquet. We were invited to the banquet, but then, as now, I 'hate' crowds an lines. When the dinner time came and all headed for the dining hall I held back, far back. My goal was to enter last and unobtrusively. I succeeded in the first, but sadly I could not have failed more in my second goal. When I entered, everyone stopped talking and looked around and then directly at me. Did I forget something? Dare I look down? Not to worry the problem was the Hall was filled. Not a chair available. Not a chair - except, well, at the speakers table. So while wanting to be inconspicuous I ended up at the most conspicuous place of all, at the head table next to the Director of the Observatory. I thought at the time "there must be a parable in this", but could not think of one.
Fifteen or twenty years later I visited the observatory as a faculty member with a group of students in tow. Von Hoerner even pretended to remember me. I guess I had succeeded after all at being inconspicuous. Things had really changed, no longer just one telescope, but many of various types. There was also proper housing for all now.
When we were there in 1960 the student interns stayed in an old farm house in the middle of a field surrounded by a fence. Why the fence? Simple, we shared the field with a real live Bull. To get to the farm house you stood by the gate and waited for the bull to get to the other side of the field and then you jumped the fence and ran for the house. Gives a whole new meaning to the term "Bull Run." I have no doubt that the bull knew what game we were playing. He played it very well.
We investigated many caves, but spent most of the time in Cass Cave. I suspect many of the pictures, and probably all of them, were taken there. It was enormous and extended itself at many levels. We spent a dozen or more hours there and made at least one significant find and discovered, what was to become well known later, - it is dangerous.At the entrance level you had several options. One of these was a 2' x 2' hole at floor level with water running through it. On the first couple of trips there we ignored that and had more than enough other challenges to keep us busy. On the third trip I got curious enough to crawl into it, tight fit and bad choice of time as the bats were on their way out. The crawl seemed to go on forever and at times there was little more than wiggle room. As I went further a sound grew louder. This, of course, was like a Siren's Song pulling me on. Where I ended up was a ledge next to a river with a great water fall. With a flash light I could not see the bottom or even the limits of the room into which the water fell. I, of course went back faster than I came and soon all of us that could fit were there. Quite impressive. In preparation for a later visit we constructed a rope ladder about 250' long. And yes we used it, at least Dave Brown did, to get to the bottom. It was not even a close decision for me. No way was I going to climb down a rope ladder in a waterfall. Over the summer several did, possibly even Frank Drake. A couple of years later a picture of it taken from the bottom appeared in National Geographic. They said it was 170 feet high and was the highest underground waterfall in the world. I was glad to finally see all of the waterfall which in person I could only glimpse from above.
Parts of Cass Cave had been visited before us. This was clear from messages left on the walls. There was no record, formal or informal, of who had been there or when. Most of the Cave area we visited showed no sign of previous visits. West Virginia has many "wild Caves", many more then, than now. We probably explored another six in addition to Cass Cave. Only one impressed me enough to recall our trip there, and even at that I do not now know the name.
From the very beginning you knew this cave was going to be a challenge. The entrance was a single room with a river running out of it. A river with no side, top or bottom. To move on you had to go underwater and hope to come up in a open room after a short (in my case - very short) time. Nobody in their right mind would do this. Fortunately there are plenty of people not so endowed, especially among a group like us. After all, we always had Dave Brown. Further inspiration was given by the writing on the wall urging faith that all would be well if one took the plunge. We could only hope that this was a message to cave explorers and not to those seeking Baptism.
We tied a rope around our "volunteer" and the agreement was that if he did not return in 60 seconds we would pull him out. He returned in about 40 seconds and said that in 10-20 feet the river emerged into a big Cave. So down and down we went and thru and thru we went, into and unto this cave.
Back in Cass Cave. We found that there was a whole level of the cave high above the main levels. It was constructed almost as a perfect labyrinth, with narrow hallways splitting off in all directions. The halls were high enough to easily walk through and had shoulder room for the broadest of us. There were two dangers, the most obvious of them was getting lost. Like most would do in this situation we used our Carbide Lamps to write instructions at each turn. No such directions were already present so we could be reasonably sure that we were the first to be in the maze. The scarier challenge was that the hallway floors were occasionally interrupted by "sink holes" as in the picture on the left. These were usually only a foot or two across but seemed to go down forever. The first time I came to one, I made the mistake of looking down as I stepped across and FROZE. The person in front of me, looked back, grabbed my arm and jerked me across. "Thank you I needed that." I never like crossing them and I never looked down again, before, during or after.
The only thing left to say about that summer and Cass Cave is a peculiar feature we found, that is shown in the picture on the right. The picture certainly could be better, but what it seems to show is a river flowing through a passage in the cave. And that is what it really looked like. Except, the river was a river of stone. We walked the length of it and found that it appeared to "flow" out of a wall and maybe 400 meters further on it abruptly ended in a sharp demarkation. From there it looked to be about a foot deep.
I wish I had kept records or at least notes from this summer. I know a lot more happened. I read James Michener's "Hawaii" during that summer. My fun loving fellow interns put a timber rattle snake under my cot (in a pillow case). I was delighted, and that was not the reaction they expected.
I most regret not remembering much of the scientific work we were supposed to be doing. I do remember that we were mostly computer operators and that the computer that controlled the telescope was a Bendix G20. A computer I was familiar with. It must have had 10,000 or more vacuum tubes and at least one of them failed every night, I do remember that one night when we were viewing the Orion Nebula with the Radio Telescope, I realized that I had no idea where Orion was in the sky and went outside to see where the telescope was pointing and thusly learn what I was looking at. Some astronomer I!Carl