Linenger's Letters to his Son

March 9, 1997
Summer Study Programs"

Dear John:

Talked to Mommy today on the radio--always lifts my spirits when I hear her voice. You were taking a nap. Good boy!

When I was a Junior at East Detroit High School, my math teacher handed me a brochure from the National Science Foundation. It listed summer study programs at different universities around the country for high school students. He had marked two that he thought I had a chance of trying for. One at MIT and another at "I forget where, but equally humbling" place. It said you would study advanced theoretical mathematics, utilizing advanced computer systems, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Scholarships available.

Well, your father did okay in high school, but I wasn't a geek or nerd. I had no desire to spend my summer indoors studying mathematics.

But the scholarship part sounded promising, so I leafed through the brochure. Your Grandpa Linenger, the telephone man, was trying to put Ken, Karen, and Susan through college, with me not far down the line--so I knew nothing would be possible without a scholarship. Found one: Foresta Institute of Environmental Studies. Conduct field studies in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Carson City, Nevada. Base camp; Washoe Pines Ranch, but most of the time spent in the field, backpacking and conducting environmental studies. Now that sounded like a way to spend a summer.

I applied. They accepted me. I received a scholarship and flew out to Nevada for the summer. And I began to appreciate better the beauty, fragility, and intricacies of our great Earth.

Turns out that Washoe Pines Ranch had lots of little cabins for us to stay in, because formerly it was a divorce camp. Nevada had lenient laws, so couples would go there to divorce. It still took two or three days to process all the paperwork; so the women would stay in cabins on one side of the ranch; the men on the other. Though most of the other students stayed in these rather ramshackle cabins, I ended up sleeping in a teepee, right next to the pee-pee teepee--showers and stalls on a slab of cement surrounded by a canvas teepee.

Part of the time was spent on an Indian reservation at Pyramid Lake. It was drying up. Irrigation projects further upstream. Water trickling in. You could see the old waterline etched twelve feet higher on the rocks than the present shoreline. The salinity increased, the fish died, and the Indians lost their livelihood.

Most of the group spread out around the surrounding desert and shore looking vegetation changes, changes in density of desert rats and other animals, and dodging rattlesnakes. And I mean lots of rattlesnakes. I made up my mind right then and there that I was a natural-born limnologist (the fresh water equivalent of an oceanographer--except you study fresh water lakes). Good decision. I drove a boat around, dropping Sieche dishes into the water, and taking microbial water samples. All the while being entertained by watching the small groups on the shore freezing in their tracks, slowing backing up, and wiping the sweat from their brows after repeated close encounters with rattlers. John, I hope that you inherit Daddy's silver spoon and knack for falling into good jobs.

I can look out the window up here, see only ocean, and know that we will soon be approaching the coast of Africa. Five hundred miles from the coast and the ocean isn't so much blue looking as dusty brown-- dust storms blowing out of the Sahel (and other great deserts) of Africa. They say that this dust gets deposited in South America--making the land more fertile. Africa's loss. The once great Lake Chad looks like a smear, a dusty blotch on the surface.

The Northern Hemisphere is sparkling, spectacular white now. Massive ice flows at the mouth of the St. Lawrence change geometry daily. Black soot cover the white and distinctly outline the towns of Siberia and Western Canada.

In Amazonia-- the jungles are ablaze and the smoke clearly discernible from space. Our planet's oxygen generators being turned into short-term farms. The lush, dark green is being replaced with brown patches.

The Betiboka River flows muddy brown from the central mountains in Madagascar; as the forest along them disappears and erosion wins.

And cities throughout the world are easily distinguishable from the surrounding landscape. They look brown and barren.

Still, the Earth is magnificent overall; and I enjoyed backpacking and studying the environment that summer. And part of the answer to the question of why and when did I want to become an astronaut is somehow linked to that summer at Foresta Institute. Out on my own. Adventuring. Becoming a bit more self-reliant. And learning to love our planet.

Love you, John. Heard that you almost don't fit into your crib anymore--you're growing to be such a big boy. Soon we'll all be together again at home in America, and you will have a bigger bed, and your old one will pass down to your new brother or sister.

Two beds are better than one.

Tell Mommy that I love her. Goodnight.


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