Road Trip to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory
McDonald Observatory

In October 1974, I made my first trip to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. It was 500 miles one-way from the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington (UT Arlington) to Fort Davis, Texas. I went to do the required astronomical labs for my physics class in astronomy.

The trip was a caravan from the UT Arlington campus to far west Texas. We departed about 2 PM on Friday, October 4, 1974. We headed from Arlington west on Interstate 20 (yes it was built way back then). We drove to Lake Colorado City State Park about 3 miles south of Interstate 20 just southwest of Colorado City, Texas. I pitched my tent. I shared the tent with 4 young women and one young man that were fellow cadets in the UT Arlington ROTC program. Three of them were prior service (US military veterans).

The next morning we got up early and headed west. We stopped at a Stuckey’s (remember them?) getting two scrambled eggs with toast and bacon or sausage plus coffee for under a dollar. The journey continued to Pecos, Texas. There we left Interstate 20 and headed south on Texas Highway 17. We crossed Interstate 10 at Balmorhea, Texas and head south to Fort Davis. We camped at the Davis Mountains State Park.

That weekend the park also hosted a retreat for the Odessa, Texas Jaycees. Some of them were concerned that we had males and females staying in the same tent. I got a strong morals lecture from a Baptist deacon. It mattered not we were all of legal age.

That Saturday, October 5, 1974 a very good top five ranked Texas A & M football team was upset by Kansas University loosing 28 to 10. We listened to the game on the radio as we explored the city of Alpine, Texas and toured the Fort Davis National Historic site. I’ve actually been there more times than any national park or historic site with the exception of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Why more to the Smokeys? My brother-in-law is a retired Great Smoky Mountain Park Ranger.

We drove to the McDonald’s Observatory in the early afternoon to check-in and get ready for the night’s observations. We returned that night for one of the most memorable evenings of my life.

The McDonald Observatory is an astronomical observatory located. It is located just northwest of Fort Davis, Texas, on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. It is the property of the University of Texas at Austin.

The McDonald Observatory was the first location on earth to bounce a laser off a reflector left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. I learned this on my road trip.

I also learned the high and dry peaks of the Davis Mountains make for some of the darkest and clearest night skies in the region and provide excellent conditions for astronomical research. It is one of the darkest places on earth at night. I can vouch for it being dark and more stars being visible than you could count in a lifetime.

UT McDonald Observatory

I have been back many times since that first trip in 1974. I took my two sons there on dad-son vacation when they were 13 and 10 years old. Since then they have built an excellent visitor center.

The trip back to the University of Texas at Arlington was a long one. We drove back on US 67. It was 500 miles on a two lane highway. On the return trip I stopped and visited my parents at their ranch northwest of Brownwood, Texas.

McDonald Observatory

It was on the 1974 trip I decided to ask Benita Breeding to marry me. I proposed the next week and we married on December 28, 1974.

Photo Credits: Jimmie A. Kepler took the photographs in May 2007. The photographs are available for use under the Creative Commons License listed below.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Not a Gentleman’s War – An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War

“Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War” is the story of the 5,069 junior officers who died in Vietnam as well as the ones who survived. We are reminded all officers had volunteered to lead men in battle. Based on Ron Milam’s detailed and thorough research, “Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War” gives an excellent analysis of these men. The author has the rare combination of scholarly research and with an easy reading text. The book is divided into two main parts.

Part one views the future officers and officers in the United States. It examines their officer training programs: West Point, Officer Candidate School (OCS), and Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The selection, training, and evaluation process of each is explained in detail. We see how the army ramped up for the increased demand in officers. We feel the arrogance of the West Point educated toward the Infantry Officer Basic Course and the slow change of curriculum at the United States Military Academy. We learn that the majority of officers were commissioned through ROTC. We find out the selection standards were not lowered for OCS. We are reminded that changing views on campus impacted the world views of men commissioned through ROTC.

Part two has the young officer in Vietnam. The four chapters in this section examine the junior officer’s performance as combat leaders. We experience the life and death tests they faced. We confront the myths about the men. We experience the different leadership challenges of being on a mission in the field and being in a firebase or in garrison such as preventing alcohol and drug abuse as well as racial tensions.

Myths about the Vietnam War say the junior officer was a no-talent, inadequately trained, and unenthusiastic soldier. Lt. William Calley of My Lai often is held up as the typical junior officer baby killer. Ron Milam debunks this view with detailed research including oral histories, after-action reports, diaries, letters, and other records.

The author has excellent primary resource materials. He clearly shows that most of the lieutenants who served in combat performed their duties well. The junior officers were effective. They served with great skill. While they were not always clean shaven and often had mud on their boots, they were dedicated and committed to the men they led. Ron Milam’s story provides a vibrant, you-are-there portrayal of what the platoon leader faced and his ability to meet the challenges as documented by field reports and evaluations of their superior officers.

This is a book that all students of the Vietnam War should read. I encourage all military officers to read the book as well. “Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War” should be in every college library in the world. Ron Milam has written an excellent book. Dr. Milam is assistant professor of military history at Texas tech University.

On a personal level, the book helped me better understand my own experience as an United States Army officer. I received my officer training and commission through the United States Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) between 1971 and 1975. Some of the training I received was based on decisions explained in the book.