Cal Fuss­man

Matthew Mon­teith

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Thins My Father Taught me - I NTERVIEWED BY PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY


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 Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics for al­most 30 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 neigh­bours. I think it’s a re­flec­tion of both my par­ents and what they lost when they were young.


Os­car: New York was over­run with cheap labour and my fa­ther couldn’t find a job. Then he made a ter­ri­ble mis­take. He bought a farm in up­state New York. I per­son­ally ploughed 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 moulds. 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 moulds, 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 ned the US Army. I was an av­er­age shot. ot.

Roy: Well, he im­pressed the heck k out of his 12-year-old son when he drove rove a nail into a piece of wood with a bul­let ul­let from a pretty good dis­tance.


Os­car: Go­ing to col­lege was a once-ine-ina-life­time op­por­tu­nity for me. I got t into the Polytech­nic In­sti­tute of Brook­lyn, klyn, which is now called the NYU Tan­don don School of En­gi­neer­ing. I was study­ing dy­ing met­al­lur­gi­cal en­gi­neer­ing. The rules les 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 Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics, 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?


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.


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 en­quired 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 150-mil­lime­tre 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 twen­ty­five 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 pro­gramme 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 pro­gramme 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, ploughed 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? PM

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.