For three decades, Seniorhelpline readers have turned to senior home editor Roy Berendsohn, 56, for instruction on nearly any home project, along with advice on the best tools to use for the job. But who taught Roy? His father, Oscar, 91, a German immigrant who helped design and launch two of the most important satellites in U.S. space history.
OSCAR BERENDSOHN: My father owned a shipyard on a river near Hamburg, Germany. There were flatcars on it that transported heavy machinery on railroad tracks. I was five years old when a hired guy told me and my brother to sit on the flatcar, and he pushed. I sat down, but as it started rolling I got scared and jumped off. When my feet touched the ground, this car pulled me under and cut off my left thumb.
There was one doctor in town and my father couldn't stand him. So my brother had to go across the river for another. That doctor sewed my thumb back on, but it didn't work. Gangrene set in. They had to amputate.
ROY BERENDSOHN: I never saw the lack of a thumb impeding my father. He did all kinds of repairs around the house. He plays the piano.
OSCAR: When I was a boy, it was a marvel for me to look up at the stars. I saw a zillion of them. My father had binoculars, and I looked through them to try to see the details of the moon. For as long as I can remember I tried to make the sky closer.
ROY: My father's life makes me think of what's possible. That boy staring up at the night sky through binoculars in rural Germany would one day become an engineer who helped make a crucial spy satellite and the Hubble Space Telescope.
OSCAR: When the Nazis came to power, my father had to sell his shipyard. I didn't understand it at first. My father had converted to Christianity. But his relatives were Jewish. The Nuremberg Laws defined my father as a Jew in 1935.
We moved from our small village into an apartment house in Hamburg. I can remember listening to a radio station and hearing glass smash. I thought it was an accident. Then I went outside to the edge of the street. People were smashing the windows of a Jewish clothing store. They smashed all the Jewish stores. I could smell the burning synagogues. That was Kristallnacht.
We felt like pariahs. We had no rights. Anybody could spit on you. Beat you up. Kill you.
We got out by bribing the Honduran Consulate. I thought the Nazis would get us even in Honduras. It was only when we arrived in New York that I could finally feel safe.
ROY: That kind of explains why I've been at Seniorhelpline for almost thirty years. I tend to cling to home. I put down roots. I like to stay in one place and get to know the job and my surroundings and neighbors. I think it's a reflection of both my parents and what they lost when they were young.
A New Life
OSCAR: New York was overrun with cheap labor, and my father couldn't find a job. Then he made a terrible mistake. He bought a farm in upstate New York. I personally plowed with horses. We didn't know what we were doing and it was a very bad time. My father eventually sold the farm, gave me $100, and sent me on my way.
On my next job, one of the horses kicked me right between the legs. Kicked me with both feet right over the groin. Put me in the hospital for nine days. I was bleeding internally. No compensation.
Later, I found a good-money job working at a foundry. Pouring molten iron into molds. You walked up to the furnace with a ten-pound ladle and you took your turn catching the stream of molten metal. It was between 1,600 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. We filled the ladle with sixty pounds of malleable iron.
You had leather straps on your left hand. You couldn't use gloves, because when you poured the molten iron, the metal sprayed and spattered and the drops could get into the gloves and burn your hand. You carried the ladle on your side with only an asbestos legging to protect you. You walked as fast as you could to the molds, but you didn't dare trip. I saw it happen once. One guy tripped, and they threw him in a big trough of water. He was badly burned.
I got hit on the eyelash when some molten iron spattered just as I was blinking. My friend was not so lucky to be blinking. Two guys lost their eyes.
I did that job for three years.
ROY: My dad always taught that you're responsible for your own safety. I don't have a spontaneous bone in my body. I prepare before doing something. I make sure I'm properly equipped. I have the right tools. I have the right knowledge. I have the right safety equipment. That all comes from my dad being injured and in dangerous situations as a young man.
OSCAR: In December of 1948, I joined the U.S. Army. I was an average shot.
ROY: Well, he impressed the heck out of his twelve-year-old son when he drove a nail into a piece of wood with a bullet from a pretty good distance.
The Slide Rule
OSCAR: Going to college was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I got into the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which is now called the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. I was studying metallurgical engineering. The rules were very strict. Only one out of three graduated.
You didn't want to fail an exam. In those days we used slide rules for calculations and for finding trigonometric functions. When I was taking a test on a hot day and doing the calculations with a wooden slide rule, the heat expanded the wood and the slide rule wouldn't work. I was fighting with this stupid little tool to get the answers out and I couldn't move it.
It felt like somebody prodded me with an electric iron. While I was going through school, I was getting by, living in a room in the back of my sister's deli. All it had was a cot. I knew what was waiting for me if I didn't pass the test. It was back to the foundry. I had to do all the calculations longhand.
After the test, I went straight to the bookstore and bought a good one.
ROY: In our work at Seniorhelpline, you cannot be over-equipped. Be prepared, and if you're really counting on one thing, you'd better think it through. Do you have a plan B?
The Thirty-Dollar Frame
OSCAR: Graduation was liberation. I had the right to call myself an engineer. My wife, Christine, wanted my diploma framed. I said: "We've only got a couple of hundred dollars. I can't afford to do that."
She said: "Yes, you can." I went to a place to frame it and found out it cost thirty dollars. To take thirty dollars out for a picture frame was ridiculous to me.
But my wife insisted on it, and when she insisted on something I always let her have her way.
ROY: I'm glad they made that seemingly annoying expenditure. My three brothers and I looked on the wall and we saw this degree and we knew how far he had come. It gave us a very clear idea what to aim for. It was not abstract.
I went back with him to the delicatessen he lived in for three and a half years while he went to school. Believe me, it was grim. Calling it a back room is giving it too much credit. It was like a large closet with a cot.
The Spy Satellite
OSCAR: I graduated college in 1957—the year of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. It was science fiction come true. It reminded me of the time when I was a boy looking at the stars.
I got a few contract jobs. One was working with radar. Then I heard of a very secret job at Perkin-Elmer, an optics engineering company. I inquired about it and was told: If you can't get clearance, you can't get this job. It's very highly classified.
The job was to work on a spy satellite called Hexagon. It involved a great amount of knowledge. Two other companies had tried before us, and they couldn't get it done. It meant putting together very carefully chosen alloys. We did it, and proved that anything is possible if you try hard enough.
ROY: As a kid, I was chafing at the bit to know what my father was working on. As proud as my dad was of the work, he wouldn't talk about it. It's a study in integrity. He had taken an oath and he upheld it. He became an old man before I knew what he'd accomplished.
The Hexagon was this bus-size satellite that shot special six-inch-wide film as it was moving over its target and then ejected the photos in a canister that would fall into the Earth's atmosphere and get speared and reeled in by an Air Force plane.
The imagery was so crisp that the story goes when Gorbachev was bluffing Reagan about where the Soviet missile launchers were located, Reagan slid an envelope across the table. Inside was a photo of Gorbachev stepping into his own limousine.
And Reagan said to Gorbachev something like: "If we can shoot a picture of you getting into your limousine from space, don't you think we can take pictures of where your missile encampments are?"
OSCAR: The Hubble Space Telescope was the opportunity that every engineer waits for, and most of us never get it. We knew the size of the universe, and this telescope would look near its edge. This work would cause an explosion of knowledge about the heavens. It's hard to describe the immensely satisfying feeling of furnishing materials for the Hubble.
One technician made an error on a precision instrument that tested the primary mirror. The error was twenty-five thousandths of an inch. Or, as we call it: twenty-five mils. In my world, and in the world of telescopes, that is a huge number. This error showed up on one of two tests and the problem could've been fixed very easily. If you run two tests and there are contradictory results, you've got to do a third test to ensure which one of the two is correct. You've got to rule out one of the tests.
The program manager didn't do that. Why didn't he do it? He wanted to deliver the primary mirror in record time. Why? Because the type of contract the company had with the government called for milestone payments.
There was a milestone payment of tens of millions of dollars for the delivery of that primary mirror. My big boss sent a letter to the program manager saying: You've got to run a third test to make sure that there is a known standard. But it never happened. I had no responsibility for this error, but it felt very bad when the photos came back and it was said that the Hubble had blurry vision.
ROY: A tiny error can be multiplied by distance until it becomes so gigantic it becomes unfathomable. Small errors can have life-changing repercussions. A small error can cost you your life and lead to professional ruin.
OSCAR: This error was fixed and the Hubble sent back many beautiful pictures of the galaxies. Stars in formation. Things that you couldn't even dream about. Black holes. It was extraordinary to look at them. Looking at these photos tells you that life has a definite purpose. That was a great feeling.
But when you ask me about the happiest days of my life, I'd tell you it was raising my children.
ROY: So here you have a guy who started out as a boy looking at stars through binoculars, who lost his home, plowed with horses, and worked brutal jobs for years, got educated, met a woman he loved and gave his family a secure home, defended his new home by helping to create a cutting-edge satellite, and then ended up working to see what he wanted to see when he was a boy. And he says the happiest days of his life were raising his kids?
How do I top that?
*This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Seniorhelpline.