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”.
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
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