Star-gazing at Bogan Gate

A skymemoir by Neville Jennings, for the Skywriters Project. Pre-print version.
[See the youtube version below.]

On ABC radio one day I was listening to a bizarre story told by a songwriter. It was a story about a scientist working at the Parkes Radio Telescope. Apparently, Norman was a conscientious worker who seemed to have little social life. His colleagues organized a blind date for him at a Chinese Restaurant in Parkes. They were unable to find another astronomer and the best they could find was Debbie the Astrologer from the Crystal Healing Shop. When these two met it was quickly established that they viewed the night sky from very different perspectives. At the end of their pleasant meal, Norman handed over his business card and watched longingly as Debbie sauntered down the main street. Norman’s colleagues noticed that he was more than usually quiet over the next few weeks and eventually deduced that Debbie had not called him. They went to the Crystal Healing Shop and chatted to Debbie. In her response, she said, “Look he was a really nice guy, but I couldn’t possibly have a relationship with a Sagittarian.”

This strange story caused me to think back to my own experience of the region. In late January 1961, at the ripe old age of nineteen, I took up my first teaching appointment at Bogan Gate Public School. After travelling by train from Sydney with a hot little telegram in my hand I arrived at Bogan Gate and met the station master’s wife who was secretary of the P&C. My telegram stated that I could get accommodation at the local hotel but as my gaze shifted from the large wheat silo to the township it was obvious that there was no hotel. The lady from the P&C explained that the pub had sadly burnt down over the school holidays but not to worry. The McPherson Family who owned a farm out of town had children at the school and I was to board with them. It was during my first nights on the farm that I first saw the night sky in all its central western glory.

My beautiful picture
Bogan Gate Public School, 1962. Photo by Neville Jennings.

I had grown up in Sydney where smog had blotted out many of the far-flung stars. However, despite the haze in the late 1950’s, we had all spilt out into the street one night to see Sputnik pass overhead. There was heightened interest in the night sky as the Americans joined the space race. At Teachers’ College in Wagga Wagga, I had taken an elective in astronomy and enjoyed the classes in spheroidal geometry that allowed us to track the constellations.

At Bogan Gate between 1961 and 1964 I taught a succession of combined Year 4 – Year 5 classes and as part of the science curriculum, we studied the solar system that in those days included the planet Pluto.  I can vaguely recall screening off the windows and using a light source to represent the sun in our darkened classroom. An orange and a ping pong ball were used to represent the Earth and its moon as I tried to explain eclipses of the moon and sun.

There was a lively interest in news from the space program. One of the students announced in the morning news session one winter’s morning that, “The Japanese have put a man into space.” Then after giving us a wry smile, he said, “There is a nip in the air this morning.” We then launched into a serious discussion about inappropriate use of language but there was no stopping the students’  interest in outer space.

I took some students on trips to Parkes to see the radio telescope as it was being built. There was disappointment that the telescope would not allow them to see the stars close up. This led to a lesson on radio signals. Those first trips to Parkes were over a corrugated dirt road and my red Standard 10 car with its canvas hood was severely shaken by each experience. However, I did make weekly visits to Parkes to play hockey, to purchase LP records and to partake of the slightly more varied cuisine.

Parkes radio telescope-BW2
CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope soon after it was opened. Photo by Neville Jennings.

For my sins, I was made sports master at the school. I helped the local policeman Tim Tyler to start a boys’ club and I was Cubmaster in the town. With the Cubs, I looked at methods of night navigation using the stars and the Southern Cross in particular.

I was studying Geography through New England University at the time and I developed a particular interest in aerial photography. As the space program got underway we were better able to study the earth below. President John Kennedy had launched the American Space Program in 1961 and my policeman friend had tape-recorded many of his inspiring speeches. Then in November 1963 when I was about to leave the district, I walked into the post office one Saturday morning and saw tears in the eyes of the postmaster. President Kennedy had been assassinated. The world on Earth had changed but our explorations into space continued. When the first moon walk took place in 1969, the Parkes Radio Telescope was involved in transmitting images. I was teaching Geography and using photographs of the natural world in conjunction with NASA photos to highlight the unique elements of planet Earth.

It was perhaps fitting, at the end of my teaching and lecturing career, that I was teaching at an institution called Southern Cross University. The bristling night sky over Bogan Gate brings back many fond memories.

© Neville Jennings, 2017

Neville was unable to attend our First Big Gig in Parkes, in July 2017, to read his skymemoir, so shared it by video.

Page created 16 October 2017.