IRISCO: The Microcomputer Store
It is late evening. I took a nap when John, Annette and I returned from work. It was a short day because the temperature is so low and we’re all exhausted. It became a very long nap. Tarri packed while I slept and then we had another fantastic, homemade meal. I love to eat and there is nothing we have done so well here as eat and laugh. It has been a wonderful break from the stress and anxiety of the past three years. My admiration for Annette’s stamina and discipline is boundless. I have come to love John like a brother and he fills a hole I hadn’t realized was so painful. My two weeks here flew and I will return, but now it is time for the next step in our journey – tomorrow we leave for Rochester and the Mayo Clinic.
Tarri isn’t resting well. As we were preparing to leave Canada, she received a phone call that her last and favorite Uncle had passed away that morning. She had to make a decision quickly whether to return to California or leave for Mayo. I know she struggled with her decision and I, also, knew then she would not cancel our trip. She hasn’t said much about it but we both loved Uncle Bob. In one of those little quirks of life, Rebecca, Uncle Bob and I all shared the same birth date. Uncle Bob was deaf and drilled wells for a living. He was self-taught and his knowledge of geology was astounding. Rebecca is a technical writer (self-taught) and artist (by avocation and education). She has some native instinct for understanding computing theory that is weird. The three of us became very close, very quickly. To be honest, I wanted to go to California but was selfish enough to hope we wouldn’t delay the Mayo appointment. Tarri has paid that price by not being with Rebecca who is grieving for her Uncle and not being with the rest of her family in California during this difficult time. Her commitment to me is humbling.
Tomorrow, no matter how little rest she gets, Tarri will be driving and listening to music and, realistically, I will probably sleep most of the day. I am writing tonight. I can’t help but fear what’s coming even as I know there is now an answer. How do I know? Deductive reasoning, I guess. Dr. Petersen was to call if they needed more tests or information, and we would have returned. If not, we were to return as scheduled and he would give us the results, prognosis and recommendation.
Some people say, it’s not death … it’s dying that scares me. In some ways, I have to admit that it’s not death but being a vegetable that scares me. I’ve hated these past two years, what I can remember of them. I’ve hated not remembering, getting lost in the grocery store, being unable to find my car after I park it, and all the things that have gone wrong. I hate that little piece of paper in my pocket so, if I forget who I am or where I belong, someone can point the way home.
I’ve hated being on medical leave and away from friends who are also co-workers – friends that understand the light and the power of chemistry. And I really hate how frightening this has all been for the people I love. My children are closer to my new wife than they are to me. This has been a nightmare and the only way to wake up is to know. We are so close to achieving that goal and yet I cannot seem to want to open my eyes tonight. I am afraid to know.
For some time I have been unable to function without lists. Tarri prepares them for me; however, I cannot alter or add to the list. If there is a change, I give the old list to her to rewrite with the new instructions, in the correct order, for me to complete the tasks. I carry a card in my shirt or coat pocket with my name, home address and phone number. These coping strategies along with my early psychological evaluations caused some professionals to a probable diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment or MCI, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Sheldon could not accept that diagnosis as he observed that data was getting into my brain but I could not retrieve it without prompting. That is not Alzheimer’s.
I am afraid. If this continues, there will be no new opportunities for me. There will be only the kindness and gentleness from my wife and children to ease the days. But there were opportunities before; many of them and I eagerly rushed every fence to experience every one.
In the first year of my graduate studies, I helped start a microcomputer store in downtown Québec City with Ricardo Talbot, my old chum from the Petit Séminaire. By that time, Ricardo had graduated as an electronics engineer from Laval. Another friend from Laval, Rafael Candela, Jr. was then working towards his MBA and decided to join us. Since my hearing aids would occasionally whistle, I was dubbed R2D2 after the robot character from Star Wars and known as IRISCO’s Bionic Man!
I worked there part-time, mostly on weekends and on Thursdays and Fridays, when stores were open. Our store was the first of its kind in Québec City. At that time, computers came in kits that needed to be assembled on-site before they could be sold. Hobbyists and ham radio operators constituted the majority of our customer base.
We quickly assembled those kits and then had a lot of fun running smoke tests and logic diagnostics. Woe to the one that was too liberal with soldering material (mostly me) because that produced a soldering joint that caused the test diagnostics to fail. We then had to inspect the motherboard by hand with a magnifying glass to identify the offending spurious connection. After a few months of that tedious and labor-intensive work, we finally concluded that we should hire a qualified technician and focus, instead, on sales and marketing.
Ricardo Talbot: “Some – including I – say that Life is like a ball game. So Denys arrived at the plate, just like many of us, with 2 men out and 3 men on. First pitch: Forgot to breathe; Cerebral palsy: Strike 1. Second pitch: Lost hearing: Strike 2. Oh my God, we are far, far away from the Pennant, aren't we? The pitcher was willing to walk him to first base, but his parent coaches said no: Great call. Honest. Next pitch: Hits it with an out-of-this-world IQ. The rest is history. Home run heard around the world. I am barely exaggerating: is it not true that this book will find readers everywhere around the world?
“And although he could have simply scooted around the bases, Denys chose to run. Not the Forrest Gump way, but the cheetah way. "Menou", as his fellow students at Collège des Jésuites affectionately called him, dashed through his scholar and professional careers at a blinding speed that would not allow anything – or anyone – to stop him. He would occasionally stop to destabilize unaware victims with one of his favorite games, which you could call the "pity-me-and-then-see-me-kick-you-big-time-in-the-teeth" tactic. You see, we both grew up in a society where "normality" was everything, and every first encounter with Denys (including my own) was a most memorable experience. I saw Denys at work, a genuine Yoda at instant image rebuilding: he would observe the other party carefully, and at the first sign of any form of discomfort, pity or contempt (it happened), he would immediately come up with the big-time kick in the teeth. He would pronounce the magic words that would turn the perceived marginal into a genius, just as he would turn the frog into a prince. He would cast famous spells such as "Pergamum was in Asia minor", or "Schrödinger's Time dependent equation has its limitations". He might just as well have yelled "Vavoom! Dead in your incisors! Don't you ever look at me from above again!" And you could bet your life you would never do that again.
“There is so much more to Denys F. Leclerc. One could write a book about him. But wait… Has he not done that, too?”
I also moonlighted as a software programmer and wrote computer programs for various projects, usually in BASIC. I remember spending many weekends debugging these programs, a difficult task at the time because diagnostic tools were rudimentary or non-existent. Ricardo and I logged tons of time doing this.
The business grew rapidly and, after the first year, we moved to a bigger and more central location, on boulevard Charest, one of Québec City’s bigger thoroughfares. Instead of a single room, we now had a big display room showcasing several microcomputer models, an office, an assembly/repair shop, and a small washroom. In the absence of regular volunteers among the all-male staff, the toilet, of course, was maintained by yours truly until we could afford a cleaning service. I have never been able to live with dirt or clutter and have always been willing to do the work myself, if necessary, to keep my environment comfortable.
I am proud to report that I was the first to sell a microcomputer at Laval, to a professor of polymer chemistry, Dr. Robert Prud’homme, who succumbed to my sales pitch. He became very happy with his purchase since he didn’t have to wait for the University’s mainframe to disgorge the results. Instead of several hours, he could get results within seconds.
When we were studying together at the Petit Séminaire, Ricardo had been working part-time in a camera shop, and it was from him that I had purchased my first and only SLR manual camera, complete with flash and accessories. However it was later, during my years of graduate school at Laval, I began to develop a lifelong interest in photography. I was and still am particularly intrigued by natural phenomena such as lunar and solar eclipses, natural wonders and urban life. During that time, you could see me lugging my camera bag and tripod around town and the countryside, looking and waiting for the perfect shot. I still have and treasure this camera, since this was the last mass-manufactured manual camera before the migration to more and more automatic cameras.
During this time with the company, being busy with school, astronomy, writing and the camera, I didn’t lack companionship—I had so many friends and varied interests. I would have liked to have been involved with someone for conversation and company, but I saw other graduate students attempt to juggle school, work, relationships, even children, and I didn’t know what I was willing to change to have that kind of relationship. I wanted to experience a normal (that word again!) dating life with some loving relationships but it didn’t happen for many reasons, not the least of which was my appearance and speech impediment. I have to admit that my appearance was more important in the dating world than it was in education but only marginally. This pattern would later be repeated when I looked for a job. While on the one hand, I refused to allow people’s biases to prohibit me from attaining my goals, I also realized that there are limited emotional resources we have to fight battles on numerous fronts. My life was full but I had to make choices and, for me, the battle in which I was already engaged in—to get a Ph.D. in Chemistry—was the primary battle I chose to invest my energies in, at that time. So there was the loneliness that I needed to fill. Photography added another dimension to my life and helped fill that need.
The store was located downtown, close to a lot of restaurants serving a variety of foods from all over the world. I began developing an appreciation of various ethnic cooking. To this day, I enjoy Louisiana Cajun cooking, Japanese, and authentic Mexican food, as much as Maman’s French and Italian cooking.
During my last year of graduate studies at Laval, I worked at IRISCO more often than previously while contemplating the next step in my studies. I looked around for professors who could help me finish my education and, with Prof. Turrell’s help, determined that, of the three that met the requirements for my discipline, Dr. James de Haseth would be the best person available.
Professor de Haseth was at the University of Alabama at that time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to move to the United States and, even more unsure about a move to Alabama.
I applied to study with Prof. de Haseth in the spring of 1980, with some trepidation. Not long after, Jim came to Quebec City looking for some instrumentation for the University lab. He agreed to come to the house to meet with me. Despite the highest recommendations, university professors reserve the right to the final decision whether or not to take on a new Ph.D. candidate. I was understandably nervous but Jim was very gracious and personable. My parents hosted dinner and we had a great evening.
Jim de Haseth: “Denys first contacted me when I was a starting Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama. I began my position only one year before and I had not attracted any graduate students to my group. The summer before my second year was spent at the U.S. Environmental Protection Laboratory in Athens, Georgia, and that led to considerable funding. This permitted me to seek the purchase of a new instrument for my research. It was on a trip to look at a spectrometer in Quebec that I first met Denys.
Denys and his father met me at the airport and took me to their holiday cottage in the Laurentian Mountains. Denys and his parents were most gracious hosts and we enjoyed an excellent meal and a great evening in their cottage. I was very pleased that Denys had agreed to come to Alabama to undertake his graduate studies. It was clearly apparent that Denys is very intelligent and was capable of being a successful scientist.”
My application to the University of Alabama was accepted. And that is how a French Canadian with “cerebral palsy and profoundly deaf” ended up at the University of Alabama!
I sold my share of the computer store and that provided enough money to move and pay my first year’s tuition. Later on, I received a teaching assistant stipend and was able to get research fellowships to continue my studies.
As mentioned previously, my sister France joined IRISCO, in the late eighties, and remained for several years. Following the introduction of mass-production PCs, the business morphed itself into a software-based company offering ERP/MRP integrated solutions for manufacturing companies and still exists today, more than thirty years after its founding, no mean feat in the IT business. It is a success story that reflects the flexibility and good business acumen of its principal founder, Ricardo Talbot.
Interlude — Poetry
The moon rose
In a jet-black sky
In my youth
I discovered unknown seas
Plains and oceans
Of translucent horizons
Sea of Tranquility
The Eagle has landed
The day was dying from heatstroke
She was there
Lying down like a flower
Evening’s breeze chased the torpor
We looked at each other
Straight in the eye
Sea of Fertility
Autumn’s wheat was heavy
With the weight of its ears
An enormous shiver
Ran through the enchanted plain
A mean bumblebee was teasing the roses
Two lovers were rolling around
Barely visible in the high grass
Sea of Rains
Rainstorm of rainstorms
O marvelous rain
Our bodies become oases
And you whisper in our hair
The song of universal intimacy
But we came to know
Our ultimate secret
Cries in the night
An owl was doing its round
Ocean of Storms
The rain was ending
The squall exhausted itself
Over the shore
Of the erstwhile continent
The world was falling asleep
But then I parted with my youth
And the years of innocence came to an end