Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hidden Figures in the Audience at Hidden Figures

A continuation of last week’s blog…..

After church was over I had a hot date with my youngest granddaughter to go see Hidden Figures.  It’s a brand new movie and I can’t say enough great things about it. Go see it.

This is the true story of the black women who calculated the trajectory of the rockets who took the early space explorers into space.  Their story has only recently been told.  To think that these women were performing such intricate calculations by hand before computers is mind-boggling and to think this job was held by not just women but black women back in the early 60’s during the civil rights movement makes my head spin. This story is too good to pass up and I wanted to be the one to make sure Elisabeth, a high school sophomore,  got to see it.  Of all the stories and experiences teenagers get bombarded with today I wanted her to see women excited about math and where that excitement can take you.

Sarah had her own hot date with her aunt to plan her graduation trip so she couldn’t join us.  Instead their mother came. 

The movie was a voyage back in time to the 1960’s with the vintage clothes and cars but I kept watching the calculators they used because they were the same ones I used when I worked in the Actuarial Department at Union Bankers Insurance Company in 1967.  They were big, burly things with ten buttons across and then up and down.  After pressing all the buttons you needed and hit enter there would be a few seconds where electrical and mechanical wonders would dance around then you would get an answer. Upstairs on the sixth floor at work we had an IBM computer like the one they showed in the movie.  It took up the whole floor and required its own air-conditioning system.

So this stuff really happened.  It was a long time ago.  And, yes, I guess I am old now.

Union Bankers Insurance Company was also considered very avant garde back then for a couple of reasons.  It was owned by a husband and wife but the wife was the brains of the operation. One of the early women leaders of Dallas, Margaret Brand Smith was the president of the company.  Our building (which still stands at the end of Deep Elum St in downtown Dallas) was painted pink.  Yes.  Pepto Bismol Pink.  Mrs. Smith always said that if she was the president of the company she got to pick what color they painted the building and she wanted it pink so it was pink. (Sadly, somebody has since bought out Union Bankers and the building is gray now.)

The company also employed a black woman in one of the departments and she held a position of authority and it was done with such grace that I remember very little about it.  In fact, I often forgot that she was black.

I digress.

When we got to the theatre most of the seats were filled and the theatre was already dark.  After we sat down four black women came and sat next to me.  I couldn’t see clearly but something in the dark told me the women were about my age.  It was one of those movies that elicited vocal expressions occasionally and almost immediately my seatmate and I began softly responding to the movie.  Beyond merely a laugh or chuckle here or there, we found ourselves harrumphing, clucking and clicking throughout the movie.  Once we stomped our feet.   There were a couple of indignant “No, you didn’t!” moments and once I couldn’t help myself and softly blurted out “Moses!” in one scene to which she whispered back “Leading her people….”  It was the closest thing to having a conversation with each other as you can get with a total stranger when you’re not supposed to be talking with in a movie.

When the movie was over (with applause) and everyone stood I turned to my neighbor and told her I had enjoyed sharing the movie with her.  The theatre was still dark but I thought I could detect gray hair.  “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”  “62” She said.  I told her I’m 69.  “I remember when that happened, she said softly.” “So do I,” I replied .

That was all we were able to say.  My people were walking off in one direction and hers in the other.  We parted as new friends who would never see each other again.

The whole experience was so much more multi-faceted than I ever expected when I first planned taking my granddaughter to see a movie about girls and math.

I want to pause here for my younger friends who may not appreciate the moment in the way my movie buddy and I understood it. In 1961 when the movie took place, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things—she and I would not have even been allowed to sit next to each other in that theatre.  It would have been against the law.  Think on that one for a minute.

The other emotion that surprised me came in the car while I busied myself with my seat belt and worrying about how all the other cars in the parking lot were moving around. It sneaked up on me and brought me to tears and I had to stop was I was doing. 

The whole point of this endeavor—beyond the math, beyond the race factor, the office politics, the international and national politics—the one simple objective of all the analytical geometric calculations these people made with their clunky calculators and advanced mathematics was one simple goal--and that was for John Glenn to die in bed as an old man and not in the middle of the air in the prime of his life.  And that had happened only two weeks before.  John Glenn died on December 8 at the age of 95. 

He had that greatest luxury any of us will ever have.  He got to grow old. And the women of Hidden Figures gave him that luxury.

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