Oct 17, 2015

A Lesson in the Value of Silence...

Wilhelm Angele at the telescope of the Von Braun Astronomical Society
Photograph courtesy of The Huntsville Times." (Dooling)
On September 1st, 1996, an obituary notice in the New York Times was titled "Wilhelm Angele, 91, Engineer in Space Program."  The notice went on to describe, "Wilhelm Angele, a member of the team of scientists who began the American rocket program in the 1950's and whose last contribution will help test parts of Einstein's general theory of relativity in a project scheduled for the year 2002, died on Aug. 22 in a hospital in Richmond. Mr. Angele, who was 91, formerly lived in Huntsville, Ala., where he worked at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center."

Mr. Angele and I became acquainted in 1978, shortly after Margo and I had married and moved to Huntsville.  It had to do with my long-standing interest in astronomy and telescopes.  Not long after we moved to the Rocket City, I became aware of the Von Braun Astronomical Society (VBAS), an energetic local organization of astronomy devotees.  They maintained (and still do) a very nice observatory with a high-quality 16-inch diameter reflecting telescope on top of Monte Sano Mountain which borders Huntsville.  There could be no doubt -- I needed to become a member and gain access to this telescope.

In 1955, when the VBAS was in its infancy, Mr. Angele served as the committee chairman for observatory construction.  That beautiful facility with its fine optics were Wilhelm Angele's babies!  When I joined the club and showed an interest in using those fine optics, I was told that I first had to complete a training program administered by Mr. A.  No one was permitted to touch the telescope until they had been trained, examined, and certified by the builder himself.  My recollection is that it involved four or five 1-hour evening sessions at the observatory.  I signed up for the training.

At the time this was taking place, I was a regular consumer of alcoholic beverages.  I would come home from work in the evening and have at least a couple of highballs before doing any of my evening activities.  So invariably, I would have had a couple of drinks before I drove up the Bankhead Parkway to attend my class with Mr. Angele.  Because I didn't want everyone in the confined space to know I'd been drinking, I'd usually stand off to myself and seldom speak.  I was the quiet guy over in the corner of the observatory.

There were only around 7 or 8 people in the group being trained, and we would ascend up a ladder through a hatch to enter the telescope space.  I recall that we alternated entering the upper space and remaining in the larger, lower space because we couldn't all fit in the observatory at one time.  Among the group were a couple of teenage boys, probably 15 or 16 years old, who were constantly talking and distracting those who were trying to hear the teacher.  Several times, Mr. Angele had chastised them to little avail.  On the last evening of our instruction, after the entire group had descended from the telecope chamber, Mr. Angele had had it with these two.  He said he had decided to grant users' cards to everyone in the class except for the two young men.  He chastised them for not listening and for interrupting him constantly.  And then he said, "Why can't you be more like Mr. Mead, always listening and only asking intelligent questions?"  (I had barely opened my mouth, let alone asked any intelligent questions.)

I got my telescope user's permit that night, but I learned an even more valuable lesson -- keeping your mouth shut may give people the impression that you know what's going on!  Who would have known?

By the way, having "the card" wasn't all that I thought it might be.  You had to reserve the use of the telescope and it was booked up several months in advance.  I reserved an evening in October and when the night arrived it was pouring rain.  I did the same for a March evening and it was completely overcast.  I never got to use the scope before we moved away from Huntsville.

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