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My Family and My Early Years in Kansas City

I am a typical American: my father, Henry Robert Horak, was born in Munden, KS, of Czech origin ('horák' means 'mountaineer' in that language), while my mother Leota Leigh (née Gromer) came from Pattonsburg, MO, of German, English, Scotch-Irish descent. They met while attending Kansas State Agricultural College (now called Kansas State University), and were married in 1918. My father received his degree in architecture. Since K.S.A.C. was a 'land grant' college, all students were required to take military training, and my father eventually became the Cadet Colonel of his class. I presently have his silver-plated saber that he won in a competition for "best drilled cadet." When the U.S. entered World War I, he volunteered and served as an infantry Company Commander on the western front in France. He was wounded twice. I was born on March 26, 1919 while he was overseas, and he first saw me when I was 6-months old. My mother received her degree in home economics. She was very pretty and had long auburn hair (she kept a four-foot braid of it in her cedar chest for many years); she also had quite a temper, and I learned to be tactful at an early age. She taught me and my brother Robert Joseph (three and a half years younger than I) everything that she and dad believed to be worthwhile, especially the rules of ethical behavior. And, somehow, she was always home when we needed her.

In the early 1920's our parents bought a house in Kansas City, MO, some four blocks south of Muehlbach Field, the home of the Kansas City Blues baseball team, and we were introduced to that game when quite young. We attended Irving School (1100 students), and then went to Central High School (2200 students) where I graduated in 1936. My brother followed me of course, three years behind. I was much more physically oriented than he was, and participated in sports, especially baseball, soccer and field events. When I was a sophomore in high school, I could broad-jump twenty feet, which greatly surprised the gym teacher. He urged me to join the track team, but I was more interested in chess at the time. However I returned to baseball at the age of seventeen, and played center field for the Milgram team in the Ban Johnson League. We won a couple of league championships. Actually, I had more natural talent in baseball than anything else I did, and had visions of making it to the major leagues someday.

My first exposure to an astronomy problem arose when I was five years old and visiting my maternal grandfather, George Gromer, in Pattonsburg. He and a neighbor, Henry Green, were having a loud argument about whether the moon was the size of a bushel basket, as the neighbor thought, or the size of an apple, as my grandfather thought. I remember worrying about the problem. It was much later that I learned how to solve it. The problem merely has to be posed properly, namely, at what distance from the eye does an apple, or other object, have to be placed such that it subtends the same angle as that subtended by the moon? For a 3-in. diameter apple the distance then amounts to about 28.5- ft. Of course, as every astronomer is aware, the most common type of mistake to be found in UFO (unidentified flying object) sightings has to do with the estimate of the size of an object, or alternatively its distance. However, my grandfather had only attended elementary school, and never learned much about science or mathematics, but nevertheless became a very capable farmer owning several farms and a partnership in a lumber yard. He even taught me to compute 'board feet,' but got irritated when I didn't get the results fast enough; unfortunately I never did learn to perform mental arithmetic operations quickly.

He also must have had a misplaced confidence in me, for he taught me (age 5) to drive his Model-T Ford (handling the three foot-pedals was tricky); once I ended up stopping just one foot from a substantial tree-trunk, and another time I barely crossed the track safely in front of a fast moving steam locomotive (he was in the passenger's seat both times, and the emergency brake was on my left!).

He read a lot and had collected a large library on all kinds of subjects. Whenever I visited him, he used to tell me the Tarzan stories at bedtime. When I attained to about ten years or so, I could read on my own, and got interested in science fiction and eventually astronomy by reading the fiction books in his library written about Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This interest was reinforced by my sixth grade teacher at the Irving School, the late Miss Lola Coffey, who encouraged me to read nature books.

Incidentally, my grandfather must have been a master croquet player; he told me that he had once gone eleven consecutive times around the croquet course, and the other players then gave up (resigned) having only played their initial shots. His theory about winning was simple: let the other contestants play first!

My grandmother, Annie, lived near us in Kansas City, and I visited her very frequently. I only saw my paternal grandparents (Joseph and Agnes) rarely, since they lived in Munden, KS. This was about a two-hundred mile trip via country roads, which became nearly impassable in rainy conditions.