Aerospace interest launches family tradition

Photos by Alisha Jucevic/The Herald
Jim Vaal of Ferdinand, middle, talked with Anthony Seifert of Tell City, 12, right, as the family worked to decorate rockets Wednesday evening at Vaal’s home in Ferdinand. Caedon Hammond of Ferdinand, 13, left, Bob Vaal of French Lick, top left, Bryson Small of Huntingburg, 2, and Cheryl Satterfield of Ireland also listened as Jim described one of the rockets.


FERDINAND — Eight children crowded around a table in the basement. The kids colored small, six-inch rockets, adding their names and giving them a personal flavor. One of the children drew smiley faces all over the fins.

A 78-year-old man sat with them, smiling as he assembled more rockets with a hot glue gun. Parents of the children are scattered about the room, sitting on couches chatting, helping to decorate and build.

They’re all family. This is the man’s legacy — both the family and the rockets.

One of the children wiggled a fan on his rocket. He repeated “uh-oh” over and over, louder and louder as he motioned it toward Jim Vaal, the rocket builder.

“To see this and enjoy this. It’s his legacy,” said Clara Vaal, Jim’s wife.

Jim reached to grab the rocket.

“Oh, that’s not too bad,” he said.

He applied a line of hot glue to the fin and secured it in place.

Alysia Small of Huntingburg decorated a rocket. Small said she remembers watching the rockets as a child and it is special for her to see her two sons get to participate and spend time with their great-grandfather.

Jim, a retired teacher who lives in Ferdinand, and several of his family members — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — gathered Wednesday evening in what was a bit of an alteration in their annual family tradition of shooting off rockets. This year, they were all involved in the building process, either watching Jim do his craft or taking a shot at it themselves. Previously, everyone showed up to a gathering on Father’s Day or the Fourth of July and they launched rockets; then, Vaal had everything ready and the kids merely decorated the rockets.

Now, they’re getting involved. In August, they’ll launch the rockets they built Wednesday.

“This year I said, ‘Dad, why don’t we do this with the grandkids to show them what you do it?’” said Bob Vaal, Jim’s oldest son and one of seven children. “He said, ‘Well, sure.’”

The change this year is an effort to make sure that the tradition continues for years to come, said Bob, who is 52 and lives in French Lick.

“It’s about bringing the family together,” he said. “Hopefully, it continues after mom and dad pass and it just doesn’t stop.”

Jim began building rockets as a project with eighth-grade students at Heritage Hills Middle School. The students built their own rockets out of scraps, cardboard tubes and wooden caps, then fired them into the sky. The practice went with him when he went to teach at David Turnham Educational Center in Dale. He retired in 1992 but that didn’t stop him from enjoying rockets. Shortly after his teaching career ended, he began helping a former student teaching in Rockport complete his own rocket projects. He brought home the extra rockets for his family, thus beginning what’s become a 15-year family affair.

“I’ve always had a fascination with rockets because Dad did,” Bob said.

Alysia Small of Huntingburg and her son Bryson, 2, decorated a rocket together on Wednesday evening.

A blanket in a bag in Jim’s house reads “Rocket Days with Grandpa Vaal.” It’s decorated with pictures of Jim and the family launching rockets and the kids chasing after them.

One of the photos depicts a favorite memory. Members of the family are at the softball field at the 18th Street Park in Ferdinand, near Jim and Clara’s home. Their children are Bob, Deb Brunsman of Huntingburg, Cheryl Satterfield of Ireland, Gayle Beard of Ferdinand, Jay Vaal of Olney, Ill., Julie Hanebutt of Huntingburg and Scott Vaal of Jasper.

In the photos, a group of kids is rushing toward the fence. One of the grandsons is climbing the fence and, like a baseball player denying a home run, he’s reaching to snag the falling rocket before it hits the ground.

“(Shooting off rockets) was just a fun thing to do,” Jim said.

Jim taught science and social studies during the majority of his 33 years as an educator. He’s always been fond of aerospace, whether it’s judging projects for 4-H in several southern Indiana counties or getting to see a space shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“We were down to see my mom and dad. We were watching television one night and we found out there was going to be a launch the next day. So, we got up early and went down,” Jim recalled.

Landon Small of Huntingburg, 4, decorated a rocket Wednesday evening at his great-grandparent's home, Jim and Clara Vaal, in Ferdinand.

Jim got as close as possible to the launch, about six miles, and recorded it.

“When we came back, we had tears in our eyes,” Clara, 75, said. “This was the only time we would see this in our lifetimes.” The launch moved Jim so much that he showed the recording to his students when he came back.
“(The launch) motivated me to keep doing this,” Jim said.

This year’s change in tradition isn’t just a chance for the younger members of the family to discover the joy of rocket building.

“This is the first time we’ve built them together. I’m excited for (my son Matthew),” said Scott, Jim’s youngest son. “I was the youngest and never got too into (rocket building and launching).”

Wednesday evening, Scott opened another rocket kit and laughed with excitement. Building rockets with his son gives him a chance to experience something the 45-year-old Jasper resident didn’t.

“This is like a toy. I didn’t just get them for (Matthew),” he said. “I’m absolutely loving reliving a childhood I didn’t have.”

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