The Sentinels

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Kitt Peak National Observatory lies at the top of a mountain range an hour and a half outside of Tucson, on the ancestral land of the Tohono O’Odham. The observatory domes sit atop the ridge like little spacecraft of their own. Some are better maintained than others. There are over 20 of them up there, and 2 of them were designed and instigated by Tom. 

We drove through the desert, past churches and fast food chains of every denomination and variety, past billboard adverts for the upcoming gun show (We Have Ammo!!!!) and slowly through border control in tense silence. The saguaro cacti stand like ancient witnesses along the road, and as you climb higher, the clouds cast shadows on the earth.

The air is naturally very still at that altitude, crucial to observe the stars (any movement will distort the images needed by the astronomers). Birds and crickets wander about and there are signs to warn visitors of bears and snakes. The O’Odham believe this peak is the summer home of I’itoi, their mischievous creator god, and the land is very sacred- you won’t find a Taco Bell up here. Astronomers visit here for a few days, observing through the night and sleeping in one of the dormitories during the day, so you have to keep your voice down.

We go inside one of the scopes with its hulking heavy machinery, and, of course, visit the gift shop. Then we take a walk around a gently curving road, past the never-used basketball court installed for the astronomers (not the most athletic breed- there is grass growing through the cracks in the concrete), keeping one eye on the bank of black cloud lurking over the desert that threatens to unleash on us at any moment. 

Jo-Ann, Tom’s daughter, is carrying a bottle of wine and some plastic cups in her bag, and we take it to the steps of the Spacewatch telescope that Tom fundraised for and designed. From the outside, the telescope is unassuming- it is not as large or gleaming or as grand as others on the mountain, but Spacewatch’s primary mission is to observe the skies for near-earth asteroids, like two sentinels on guard on the peak. We take a toast to Tom (or ‘Pops’ as he is more widely known here), and spill a little of the wine in the ground as an offering. 

In Tom’s obituary, when he was asked what he would do if he discovered an asteroid hurtling towards the earth, he replied, “Well I’d go outside and take a look, of course!”

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The Book

Some time during our postal correspondence, what I received through the letterbox was significantly bulkier. Still the same air mail stickers and stamps, still the same spidery handwriting that all our Dutch relatives seem to have adopted. 

Tom had sent me a book- hardback, with a glossy dust jacket. The photograph on the front was of a lunar-like landscape, all rocky promontories and craters and dust. The book was titled “On The Glassy Sea: An Astronomer’s Journey”, and it was written by him- his autobiography. 

In the accompanying letter he told me that I was probably too young to read this book, because there was a lot of complicated science in it that I wouldn’t be interested in. But he urged me to read it one day, because there were stories in it about our family that I should know. I put it up on the shelf, and for a while I marvelled at the Gehrels name sandwiched up there between Salman Rushdie and George Orwell (we’re not big into alphabetising in our house), but over time it became just another part of the room, and faded into the background.

I’ve had something of a complicated relationship with my Dutch heritage. I didn’t grow up with my father, but thanks to my Oma (grandmother), I have always known my family and visited them regularly. I did not learn the language- something I am now trying to remedy- but to my shame they spoke English with beautiful precision. I hated cycling and am only now forcing myself to overcome my fears of it- they can cycle through a busy intersection while sending a text and eating a sandwich, as if it’s an extended part of their body. When I am in Holland, I never feel fully Dutch; but when I am in the UK, I never feel fully British either.

Oral history is an important component of being part of a family. Being an intermittent visitor to the Netherlands, I missed out on the familial storytelling that makes up a huge part of who we are and how we see ourselves in the world. I knew the histories of the immediate family, but even my grandmother’s past was something of a mystery to me until very recently.

After hearing that Tom had passed away, we were moving house. One of my jobs was to box up the books, and send the ones we were unlikely to ever read to charity. Into my hands fell Tom’s book, and there among the boxes, I started to read.

The Letters

When I was eight years old, I was obsessed with space. The first thing I ever I wanted to be was an astronaut (I still do, deep down). Well actually the first thing I ever wanted to be was a duck, but being an astronaut seemed to be more feasible in the immediate future.

I had glow-in-the-dark star stickers on my ceiling. I would lie in bed in those nights which seemed very very dark, and gaze up at them. If you focused your eyes on one, it would seem to disappear, and the others clustered around it would come into sharp relief. Flick your eyes across, and the whole configuration would change, until your eyelids became heavy and you drifted off to a star-studded sleep.

One of the best days I ever had was a visit to the London Planetarium, a little girl in a big chair cosied down in the warm dark, neck craned up to take in the lights flickering across the magnificent dome.

What was it about space that held such an appeal? As an only child, I was used to my own company, so the loneliness did not dissuade me- if anything, it was part of the excitement of it. Floating alone in the endless blackness, relying on nothing but your wits (or so I thought at that age, before I learned about the extensive support system that keeps space missions afloat). Something in the sound of the whirring instruments and bleeping machines created an atmosphere of profound immensity that I wanted to experience.

One day, I was speaking to my Oma in Holland, and she told me I had a great-uncle who was an astronomer. He lived over in America, in the desert, in Arizona. His name was Tom- I later found out my father was named after him. She gave me his address and I wrote him a letter.

I wrote lots of letters as a child, to anyone I admired or wanted to talk to. A particular family memory is of writing precociously to then Prime Minister Tony Blair with my concerns about my grandma being poor in her old age. In his hand-signed reply he assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, and explained in very child-friendly terms why. I wrote to writers that I loved, and more often than not I got a response.

Two weeks later or thereabouts, I received a letter in a battered air-mail envelope, bordered with blue and red dashes, covered in stamps and postmarks I had never seen before. Inside was a letter from great-uncle Tom, answering the questions I had written to him.

Over the following year, we wrote back and forth to each other, and he became something of a pen-pal across the ocean. He seemed to me like one of the most interesting people in the world- I could understand nothing about his life of observing the stars in gigantic telescopes perched atop mountains. I no longer remember what I wrote to him about, but it must have been trivial set against the asteroids, comets and stars that occupied his attention. Nonetheless he always responded, and always seemed interested, and always asked questions back.

Eventually, the frequency of our letters dwindled, and our correspondence ended. We never met. I always meant to write to him again, but I never did. In 2011, I heard through my Oma that he had died.

So, in a way, this is what this project is about- writing the letters I never made the time to when he was alive. Sending something out into the ether, in the hope that it might reach someone, somewhere, in some time.