By Julie Gagnon Prior
Growing up in Essex Center in the 1970’s and 1980’s was much like living in Grand Isle in 2019. There wasn’t as much farmland as there is in Grand Isle. But there was plenty of it, some of it right behind my house on Towers Road. I spent many hours in those fields, kicking and chasing a soccer ball, flying kites, cross country skiing, walking through to get to the skating pond or frog catching pond (depending on the time of the year). I shared the field with bobolinks, deer, rabbits and other friends.
When I started college in 1986 and moved to Burlington; I felt like I was in a foreign country, not understanding the culture or language. There were so many people that I felt claustrophobic, but at the same time I felt like I was on the outside of them all.
Have you ever noticed the formation of flock of geese when they are migrating? Have you noticed that sometimes there is one goose who isn’t in formation and seems like it’s always trying to catch up and be part of the group? I felt like that goose. I felt like I should be comfortable in the grouping within the big city of Burlington. But my heart and soul wanted to be by myself back in my small town.
One day I was feeling very lonely and lost, and decided to go for a walk. I went downtown and instead of walking on the main touristy streets; I took to the side roads. It was on a quiet, rundown road that I met one of the most generous people of my life. This man, about in his sixties, was pushing a full shopping cart. I said, “hi” to him and his face lit up as he said “hi” back. He asked me if I would like to see what he had in his cart. Of course, I said yes. He was exuberant as a child showing off their new prize marble. As he picked out each item, he shared the story of where he got it and what it meant to him. He truly appreciated and cherished each one of his treasures.
After quite a long time of talking and laughing over his stories, he looked up at me and paused. He then smiled ear to ear, and told me that if I would accept it; he would like to give me a gift. At first, I hesitated, because I didn’t want to take anything from someone who had so little to begin with. But after seeing his smile and the sparkle in his eyes, I said that I would love it. So, he reached down deep into his cart and pulled out something I had never seen before. It was a plastic white ball about the size of a baseball. The plastic was shaped kind of elegantly with simple designs around the globe, all attached to a small white cord with a plug. I had no idea what it was. But he said to take it home, plug it in and see what it does. It was then that he said that he must be going, smiled and walked away, pushing his cart in front of him. When I got back to campus, I immediately plugged it in. It was the most awesome moment when I heard the sweet song of birds coming out through the ball. I was overwhelmed. Here this man had all of his life belongings with him, and he was so unselfish as to share with me. I will never forget that generosity.
When my kids were born, I would plug the gift into the outlet; and they were thrilled to think that we had our very own special bird that lived in the ball. I guess now that they are adults, I should tell them that there really isn’t a bird in the ball….
To this day, I still have that gift, story and lesson in my mind and heart.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
From November, 2018 to February, 2019 my pituitary gland was malfunctioning. This caused a lot of symptoms, one being extreme, debilitating fatigue. My Mom is my Medical Proxy and caretaker for times that are severe like this.
While in bed at Mom and Dad’s, I received a lot of computer messages from people asking if they could help or come visit me. One example is on Dec. 8, when my friend Mandy asked if I’d like a visitor. I wrote back, “Hi! Too weak for talking, but I want a raincheck.” Her reply, “You’ve got it my friend! Keep your chin up.”
By the time April came around and Carl and I were scheduled for our trip to Virginia, I was gaining strength but honestly very fearful of leaving the house. But there were more reasons to go than to stay: so, I played the odds. I won the bet.
Carl and I stayed a few days at my brother Brad’s house in Woodbridge, Virginia. On April 14, my sister-in-law Sandy asked if we would like to go for a ride to see where Brad used to work. Well of course we did!
Brad is a Marine and worked in Quantico. Sandy commented that there are other things within Quantico that we would see, like the FBI Training Academy. At this news I got silly excited. I said, “No way! I saw on Facebook just last week that a friend of mine is training there!” Sandy laughed and said, “Well, maybe we can see her.” I immediately sent a message to my friend asking if she could meet. We lucked out because it was a Sunday afternoon and she had it off from training. My friend said we could meet in the parking lot of the FBI main building. This was all too funny!! We were both so crazy psyched to see each other. We all busted a gut when Mandy said, “I couldn’t come visit you in Vermont in December but you made it here to Virginia to come visit me.”
The next day Brad brought us to the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Carl and I thought it’d be interesting, but the Museum far exceeded our expectations. It is a phenomenal place.
We walked up on a small crowd listening to a Marine tell the story of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. I was beside myself excited because Brad and I have a connection to one of the Marines involved in this event. See, my Grampa had told us about his brother “Lucky”. His given name was Renford Gagnon.
When he arrived at Iwo Jima, he had to walk across the rocks to get to shore. He sat down for a break on a torpedo on the beach. His superior hollered at him to get off in case it was a booby trap. As he was walking away, the torpedo exploded, knocking him onto his stomach on the beach – but otherwise leaving him unharmed. That is how he earned the name “Lucky”. He was also a “runner”. Wikipedia defines a runner as “… a military courier, a foot soldier responsible for carrying messages during war.” When the decision was made to get a second (and larger) flag for the press photos; Lucky was the runner. He’s the one who brought the new flag to the photo shoot.
As we listened to the Marine tell the story, I also learned that Ira Hayes was part of this event. This excited me even further as one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs is his cover of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” I had always thought that the song was made up; I didn’t know Ira Hayes was a true life Marine.
When we got back to Brad’s house he asked if he could talk to me alone. He was all serious and such; very unlike Brad. He faced me and put his hand out (implying a handshake). I reached out and shook his hand, which held a coin. He said, “This is a Marine Challenge Coin. These coins can’t be bought. A person only has one if it is given to them. They are given when someone does something outstanding for themselves or for others. This is for you. You have challenged yourself above and beyond all expectations to fight your illness and still be here with us. You are an inspiration for so many.”
He went on to say, “I received mine for arranging a military funeral for a friend. I was handed my coin after the funeral.” I love my brother.
But wait, there’s more… I love saying that. Now here is a coincidence...
If you look back to the Islander Facebook page on June 14 at 11 a.m., you will see another link to our family history. Uncle Renford’s niece (and my dad’s first cousin) Sandy came up from Connecticut to visit the site of my great, great grandfather Joe LaRose’s blacksmith shop in South Hero.
I find it mindboggling that at the same time that I was writing this column for The Islander, The Islander posted photos and a story that involved our family history as well.
It’s a freaky cool world out there
I am not sure of the reason. Maybe it was the norm for the ‘70s and ‘80s, maybe the result of his upbringing, or maybe even just his particular personality, but during my childhood my Dad didn’t talk much. It’s humorously ironic because nowadays he’ll talk someone’s ear off if they are willing to listen.
I remember he had to go on business trips quite often for work (IBM). Every time he returned, he brought me back some fancy hotel soaps. A small gesture on his part, but it meant a lot to me.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned more about his work. I can’t even remember how the topic came up. He mentioned that he worked on the electronics for Apollo 11 and some other NASA projects. I didn’t believe him at all.
It turns out he wasn’t pulling my leg! For this column I asked him to explain it briefly. Here’s what he wrote,
“The Apollo 11 BOM (Basic Operating Memory), so many things associated with the government have a TLA (Three Letter Acronym), was designed, built and tested in Essex Jct. The integration with the main computer was done in Poughkeepsie, NY. I was involved, at some level, with all phases. The importance of the program was demonstrated during the integration phase when Poughkeepsie needed support from the memory people. If only one person was needed, they would fly two of us down in separate planes. If one plane crashed, they would still get the help they needed. IBM built three of these systems: one for NASA, one for Goddard Space Institute and one as a spare in the event of a major failure. There is more computing power in a Smartphone than there was in that system.”
I am extremely proud about his accomplishments. The fact that he was so humble and never boasted impressed me. I remember asking him, “Why haven’t you told me this before?” His answer, “You didn’t ask.”
When Carl and I went to the Smithsonian this spring, I was most excited to show him the Apollo 11 exhibit at the Air and Space Museum.
When the day came, we spent the morning at another museum, and then I needed to rest. Carl and I found a park bench so I could lay down. I tried to rest, really, I did…but I was so excited that I just couldn’t relax. After what seemed like forever, I sat up and looked at Carl saying, “I just can’t sleep. Can we go in now?” He smiled at my excitement and said, “Yes Dear.”
When we walked through the doors, I was so geared to find the exhibit that I didn’t want to look at anything else. Carl calmly said, “We will get to it Dear, let’s just look at the things that are along the way.” Frustrated, yet understanding his approach, I agreed.
Just inside the entrance, there was a large exhibit to the right. A lot of people were in the area, but weirdly no one was looking at that one exhibit. With no crowd there, we went there first.
As Carl was reading the exhibit description, a woman about my age walked up to us. She said, “I am sorry to interrupt you, but I just need to share this. My dad worked on this.”
It was an odd moment, yet not the least bit awkward. I looked at her and got all excited myself as I replied, “That is so cool! What did he do?” She replied, “He worked on the electronics.”
Carl and I both had to just about pick our jaws up off the ground. What a coincidence! I blurted out, “My dad worked on the electronics for the Apollo 11!”
I asked her if she would be in a picture with me in front of her dad’s project. She was more than happy about the idea. After the picture she faced me and said, “This means so much to me, thank you.” I could see emotion welling up in her eyes and I asked if she needed a hug. Nodding yes, I held her. While in each other’s arms she said, “I have been walking around feeling lost. My dad and I would come every year to see this. I am alone this time, he passed last year.”
Now both of us were crying. Looking over at Carl, I saw his eyes leaking as well.
We shared names and contact info, and recently Laurie shared more of her story in an email.
“My dad’s name was Seymour Altmark and he was an amazing husband and father, but also a brilliant man who happened to be an electrical engineer. He worked to design the electrical systems of the LEM (that’s what he called it). I wish I had asked more questions of him when I could have. (There is a lesson there, yes?)
Here’s the kicker—my dad was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease in the early 90’s and this awful disease basically sidelined him from engineering work for the rest of his life. I know that if that damn disease didn’t slowly and painfully destroy him, he would have been involved with some other amazing project that would have, like the lunar module, changed the world. “
That day, we said our goodbyes, and Carl and I eventually made it to the Apollo 11 exhibit.
It was closed for remodeling. I was pretty upset, but not for long. I told Carl, “It was like we were supposed to be here for Laurie. I am sorry I couldn’t show you what dad worked on, but I’m really ok with it at the same time.”
Laurie summed it up perfectly in the end of her email.
“Thanks for asking me to do this! I’m sure it’s way may more than you wanted or need, but even with the tears pouring down my face, it felt great to get it down.
There are no coincidences, Julie. Things happen because they are meant to. We were supposed to meet that day and connect over our fathers. It seems this meeting had a dual purpose; for me to give you info for your writing and for me to find my own voice and strength and to begin to write all that is in me. Things happen for a reason.
Let’s stay in touch. -Laurie”.
Everything is Relative
Frustration overwhelms me. I know that the quote I wanted to start this column off with is out there, but I am so geared to find it that it is beyond my reach.
I am sure that I read it in the beginning of “The Qur’an” or “The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk.” Neither of which I was able to read beyond the first chapters.
It wasn’t because the content wasn’t there; it was because my comprehension was not.
Regardless, I do remember adamantly that there was a quote that said something to the extent of, “Everything is Relative.”
I remember because I was so excited to see those words in print, I felt validated.
Since I can remember, I have had the belief that everything is relative. That my pain, sorrows or suffering were on the same level (regardless of the situation) of everyone else in the world. I believed (and still do) that everyone has different challenges but that they are all relative to who we are individually and to the tools that we have been given in our own unique tool bags for this life.
In all honesty, I do also realize that this approach has been a very significant coping mechanism for me. How else could anyone possibly explain such grand inequality within the human race? A large part of my heart has always needed a way to rationalize why so much suffering exists from newborns to the elderly; across the globe.
This theory, this approach to life, is why on this week I am breaking away from the story of our trip to Virginia and expressing what is bursting at my heart strings and fingertips to share with others.
I actually wrote this column on Memorial Day. Earlier that day I was driven to make this Facebook post:
“I was just thinking about how very different it must have been - between the safety and beauty of our lives in Vermont and the fear and devastation on the soils of war. Memorial Day is a fantastic day to pay tribute!
But... kinda along the lines of ‘don’t only tell your mom you love her on mother’s day; tell her as often as you can’: I believe that (despite whether or not we agree with war and all related issues) we need to recognize those who fought for what they believed in. And we need to recognize those who went to fight because they had no other - or limited other options.
Every single time I see someone with a hat/button/tattoo or any other indication that they served; I make a point to go out of my way to say, “Thank You.”
I’ve heard it said, you can’t understand something that you haven’t experienced.
I can’t begin to understand it...but I have witnessed a lot of the aftermath and pain and suffering of those who fought, their families and friends. Thank You to all the Veterans. My biggest wish for you is Peace.”
But my reflecting didn’t end there. That same night I was scared and anxious as all get out because of what was scheduled for the next morning. Last Tuesday, at 8 a.m., Channel 5 would be arriving at the house to gather footage for a feature on the Vermont Pinup Girl Calendar 2020. It may come as a surprise to many that despite my lack of inhibition or shyness; I am extremely uncomfortable with public speaking or being atop a “soapbox” of any sort.
But as I was freaking out Monday night, something in my gut brought me back to read what I had written just hours earlier on Facebook. Rereading my own words, but in a different state of mind; I was humbly reminded that I was stressing over problems that were really miniscule in the greater scheme of things.
How is it that I was in such a panicked state about an opportunity to help others? How selfish was I being in letting my own insecurities overwhelm me to the point that it might affect the final outcome of something so important?
I took a deep breath and tried to put my fear into perspective.
What about the fear of the Veterans that I just wrote about?
Or that of my friend after recently losing the love of her life at such a young age?
Or my brother’s fear of letting the world know that he is gay?
How about my own younger brothers who are Marines?
Or my Mother’s fear in persisting through a marriage to an alcoholic (who has been clean 30 years now).
It was in taking a step back and admiring the strength and courage that others have displayed… That I embarrassingly realized that my current situation wasn’t so horrific. And, I also realized that I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t dig a little deeper in my own personal toolbox.
It took some time digging around to find the tools that I was looking for. But I ended up finding them right next to my saddle. “Saddle” you might ask? Yup, see I feel that we add tools to the bag as we journey through life. I added a saddle when my son gave me this plaque for a gift about a year ago. It’s one of my favorites lately, and honestly, I know it will be a favorite forever.
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she