Remembering Early Times at HP

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Hurdling to Freedom, by Les Besser

- Chapter 9 -

Single Parenting





CHAPTER 9 - Table of Contents:


Single Parenting

Our children, particularly Nancy, did not take the news of the divorce well, but Joyce and I did our best to reassure them that they would not lose either of their parents. After explaining the 50-50 joint custody, we discussed the various options to split the time between us. Following the kids’ recommendation, we settled on changing their residences weekly. Joyce remained in the Los Altos Hills home and kept the horses. I found a house on Russell Avenue near the children’s elementary school that was also within walking distance of a junior high as well as a high school. I did not like the idea of moving for the fourth time in ten years and promised myself to stay in that home for a long time.

Although the location of the house was ideal, it needed quite a bit of work. The previous owner liked dark colors; the carpets, the window coverings, and the wallpaper were all brown. I decided to completely redecorate the home using vivid, cheerful colors. Adding large sliding glass doors, bay windows and skylights made the house much brighter. Resurfacing the old brick-covered fireplace with shale tiles made the family room far more inviting. A landscape architect helped to reshape the front and back yards. We also added a gazebo and hot tub.

Against the decorator’s advice, we moved in as soon as the carpets were laid. I let the kids select their furniture and decide their own color schemes. Nancy’s idol was Miss Piggy, and pink was her favorite. Her room reflected those choices. George’s taste was more subtle, although he wanted wallpaper with Star Wars characters.

The remodel took two months, and I realized it would have been smarter to rent an apartment until the work was completed. Living with the noise and dust was no fun. On the other hand, I watched the job progress and learned some new skills from the workers.

My mother offered to come and help with the transition. After her arrival, she cooked for us and taught me to prepare some simple Hungarian meals. I went to work a couple of days every other week but always stayed home when the kids were in my house. The books Mom’s House, Dad’s House and Co-Parenting Survival Guide gave me advice on how to minimize stress on the children when they switched between the two homes. Both of them adjusted surprisingly well.

One evening when the children were in my house, the mother of one of Nancy’s friends called. She wanted to know if her daughter could spend the afternoon with us after kindergarten. I agreed and promised to pick up the girl with Nancy and bring them home together.

The next evening she called again. “You left my daughter standing in front of the school!” she scolded. “Thank God another mother drove by before long and saw her all alone.”

To my embarrassment, I had totally forgotten my promise to take the little girl home with us. The next day, I mounted a dedicated bulletin board on the refrigerator and started keeping all child-related memos on it. On the weekend, I took the mom and the daughter with us to Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor for a treat. I am not sure, however, that she ever forgave me for my absent-minded action; she certainly never asked me to pick up her daughter again. Neither did any of the other mothers!

After Mother returned to Hungary, the kids and I established our weekly menu. I prepared dinners at home five days: wiener schnitzel with roasted potatoes (Bécsiszelet); a pan-cooked dish with layers of boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and pepperoni (Rakott krumpli); noodles topped with sour cream and cottage cheese mix (Turóstészta, although Nancy renamed it “white stuff”); BBQ steak with creamed vegetables; and Swanson’s frozen Chicken Pot Pie. On one of the remaining days we brought home Kentucky Fried Chicken, and on the other we ate at a Chinese restaurant.

The winter of 1983 brought an unusually high amount of rainfall to our region. One morning, after dropping the children off at school, I took my car to the Volvo dealer for a major service. They gave me a ride to the CGIS office, where I planned to stay until the work on the car was completed. The service however, took longer than expected. It was a shortened day at school, and my children had to be picked up. Mike Ball offered to loan me his car. I collected the kids from school and we drove home. They were going to do their homework. KFC dinner was scheduled for the evening.

Not planning to stay long, I left the car in our driveway with the engine running, and the three of us walked into the house. Shortly, I heard Nancy screaming from her room. “Daddy, Daddy, come, quick.”

I rushed to her room and saw part of her large bay window smashed. Apparently, an aluminum sheet from the neighbor’s roof had been blown off by strong winds, and it had broken our window. The carpet near the window was completely soaked with rain.

After comforting her, I phoned our home insurance agent. “One of our windows was broken by a flying object,” I told him.

“Not covered,” was his reply. “Your deductible for windows is $500. I don't think the repair would exceed that amount.”

Frustrated, I was ready to hang up when I heard a enormous thud outside, followed by George's voice. “Daddy, come and see this.”

I asked the insurance man to hold for a minute and ran to my son’s room which faced the street. To my horror, when I looked through his window, I saw that the large tree in our front yard had crashed to the ground, flattening the top of Mike's car as it fell.

George and I went outside in the pouring rain to investigate. The engine of the car was still running, but George was able to crawl inside to turn off the ignition.

I returned to the phone. “I have bad news for you,” I told the man. “One of our trees just fell on top of a car.”

“Is it your car?”

“No, it belongs to a colleague.”

“Not covered,” said the man calmly. “He has to claim it under his insurance.”

Fully irritated, I hung up on him. Reluctantly, I made the next call. “Hi Mike. Say, how attached are you to your car?

“It's a great car. I love it.”

“I’m sorry to tell you that it was crushed in our driveway by a huge tree.”

Mike took the news graciously. I called AAA and had the car towed to a garage. I reimbursed Mike for his expenses and switched to another insurance company.

Our local newspaper sent a reporter to take a photo of the front yard after the incident. The next issue showed readers what had happened.


Photo from the Los Altos Town Crier article shows Mike’s car with the huge tree on its top.

George and Nancy were introduced to computer games when I worked at CGIS. I wanted them to become computer literate, and shortly after moving into our home on Russell Avenue, I bought IBM'S newest personal computer, the XT, equipped with an internal 10-MB hard drive. [*A minute fraction of the capability of today’s hard drives.] The kids quickly learned how to use it. After that, they were surprised to hear that many adults were not familiar with computers. “Dad, my teacher does not have a computer at home,” the surprised 12-year-old George told me one day. “How can he be a teacher?”

I explained to him that home computers were still new to most people. He was proud that he knew more about something than his teacher.


Seven-year-old Nancy and twelve-year-old George are learning to use our IBM PC XT in 1983.

Lifespring encouraged its graduates to teach the principles we learned in the training to our children early in their lives and provided opportunities by holding events with kids in mind. I took my son with me to a locally held Family Weekend. During the course, George shared an experience he had at school where he had not gone along with the majority decision of his class.

“Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” asked the trainer, trying to emphasize the value of compromise.

“I want to be right,” answered George, “because when I’m right, I’m happy.”

The group broke out in laughter. Even the trainer had trouble keeping a straight face. During the break, many people congratulated George for his clever answer. He enjoyed his few minutes of fame.


Introduction to the Unexplainable

Although I had been in good health, low back pain began to bother me. Chiropractic manipulations did not help. My former mother-in-law, who had been involved with a medical group that researched the writings of the psychic seer, Edgar Cayce, [*Although he was a photographer, Cayce discovered his psychic abilities and produced hundreds of readings in a trance. Many of those readings specified prescriptions to treat various physical ailments. A biographical book by Jess Stern, Edgar Cayce: The Sleeping Prophet, describes his life.] suggested a visit to a homeopathic clinic in Phoenix. The clinic, headed by two physicians, offered a body-soul evaluation. Although I did not really believe in psychic healing, I took her advice and made an appointment with them.

On the first day, they asked me to have a psychic reading. An exceptionally attractive woman greeted me at the session and asked why I was there. I explained my back problem, and she began to “read me.”

At first, she gave me a general description of my background and personality. I suspected that she had received prior information from my mother-in-law, so I was not impressed. Then, she went into a trance and began to talk about highly personal parts of my life. She brought up events from my childhood that I had never discussed with anyone. My doubt gradually dissipated. This woman can really see things. I’d better pay close attention.

She talked to me for nearly an hour while I listened flabbergasted. Among other subjects, she discussed my children and predicted that “they will both be healers.” (In their adult lives, Nancy has been involved with rehabilitative Pilates and George is a physician.) To my utter amazement, she also discussed my “past lives,” and told me that a long time ago I had lived in England in a female body. “You cheated on your husband,” she said. “It created much karma for your present life.”

As for my back problem, she envisioned that the pain would subside when I accepted what I could not change in my life. At the end of the hour, she handed me a recording of the session. Dazed, I left her. I was beginning to realize that there are things in life for which engineers do not have scientific explanations. Psychic ability is one of them.

After coming home, I followed her suggestion and gradually accepted that I was 45 years old. I gave up trying to look 20 years younger, and In a few months my low back returned to its normal pain-free condition. The part about my past life, however, sounded so far-fetched that I dismissed it—until it came up again at a technical conference a year later.

During the coffee break at a microwave symposium in San Francisco, a Dutch engineer stepped up to me. “I think we’ve met before,” she said.

She did not look familiar. “Are you using the COMPACT program I wrote?” I asked.

“No. We met hundreds of years ago in England.”

That did not make sense at first. Then, I suddenly remembered what the psychic told me in Phoenix and pulled her aside. “Tell me more please,” I asked.

After making sure that nobody could hear us, the lady confided in me about her special ability to sense other people’s auras. Additionally, she had frequent regressions to recall her own past lives. Then, she told me an amazing tale. “Hundreds of years ago, we both lived in England as upper-class women. We were close friends. Both of us cheated on our husbands, but you were caught and brought shame to your family.”

Her revelation astonished me. What is the probability that two people from different parts of the world come up with the same information? Perhaps this past-life concept has some truth in it. I met her several times before she returned to Amsterdam, and we became romantically involved. Our friendship in this life, however, was cut short by her death in a car accident. If humans really have multiple lives, perhaps we’ll meet again in a future life.

Reentering the dating game, I quickly learned things had changed significantly during my 14-year absence. Women had become much more assertive, and the health risks involved with relationships had increased. I joined a singles group, Trellis, and attended some of their functions. I also enrolled in a video dating program called Great Expectations. I liked the second option more, because their system allowed the members to preview the personal folders of prospective dates. Being able to read their completed questionnaires and look at their photos and video interviews gave me the opportunity to meet women with compatible backgrounds and interests. The fact that I had no trouble attracting women, including some younger ones, helped to rebuild my bruised ego.


Three pictures from my single-parent days. Left: Ready for tennis. Center: Coming home from Mexico.
Right: Listening to the Gypsy playing my mother’s favorite Hungarian song.

For the first three years, I did not take dating seriously; I just wanted to have fun. Then I began to look for a permanent life partner who would also be a suitable stepmother to my children. That task, however, was not easy. Single women without children generally wanted to have children their own. Because I was almost 50 and had had a vasectomy, additional kids were not in my future. Women with children was more difficult, because I had to make sure that the family members of both sides were compatible.


Pictures taken from my first three years of single parenthood.

I also learned that making money was easier than keeping it. California laws and my divorce agreement had evenly split our family’s financial assets. I looked for investments to recover the money I had lost through the divorce. Not having any significant investment experience, I asked for advice from my stockbroker and our accountant. “Put your money into limited partnerships," [*A unique business partnership, where the “general partners” manage the business and assume legal debts and obligations. The “limited partners” are liable only to the extent of their investments, but they receive the tax benefit of "passed through" losses during the development of the partnership.] was their response. “You receive tax shelter for several years. When the partnership is sold at a profit, you can reinvest the proceeds in new partnerships. It is safe and defers the taxes.”

The recommendation sounded good. I checked with another source and received the same advice. I invested a large part of my assets in six different partnerships that owned large office complexes. For several years, I paid minimal income taxes. 

In the mid-1980s, Congress passed the Tax Reform Act so that rich people and big corporations would have to pay their fair share. The new law ended the use of limited partnerships as tax shelters. The resale market for those partnerships suddenly disappeared. What had been a lucrative investment for decades became almost worthless overnight. Instead of regaining my pre-divorce assets, I lost a significant part of my investment, and the prospect of my early retirement vanished. It seemed that yet another hurdle had been shoved in my path.

I was still teaching the short courses, and they paid extremely well for a few days of work. Most of them, however, required travel and interfered with my schedule. Ideally, until I remarried, I preferred to be Mr. Mom one week and a carefree single guy the next. Being away teaching meant that I had to give up the latter. Finding a girlfriend who was available to travel freely did not happen too many times. I began to consider starting another home-based business.

My sister, who lived in a Cleveland suburb, provided another motivating factor for having my own business again. After tolerating the alcoholism of her husband for 20 years, she had filed for a divorce. She needed to support herself and two college-age daughters but possessed no special skills. If I had a small business, she could move to California and work with me.

Fate presented an opportunity for me. Ron Rose, one of the salesmen at CGIS, called me unexpectedly, “I have a business proposal for you,” he said. “Let me come over to discuss it.”

When he arrived, he told me that Comsat had not been satisfied with the progress of the division and had decided to close CGIS. However, they wanted to be certain that the technical support of their software would continue. “There are over $1 million worth of support contracts for Super-COMPACT,” he said. “Comsat would probably give the contracts away if they were assured that capable people would maintain the support.”

Next, he outlined his plan. He and I would start the new company and hire two of the CGIS support engineers and an administrator. One of those engineers lived on the East Coast; the other was in California. The two of them could provide effective coverage for most of the world. Annual payroll expenses for the three employees would be under $150,000. Office expenses, equipment and overhead would not exceed $100,000. With a guaranteed $1 million yearly revenue, this new business could be highly profitable.

I liked his idea but explained to him that my time was extremely limited. “Don't worry,” he said. “You can be a figurehead, and I will do most of the work.”

After thinking it over a couple of days, I agreed to explore the idea with Comsat. The company was glad to hear that we would continue to support Super-COMPACT. Ron and I filed the paperwork to set up a new corporation. He felt that I had name recognition the microware industry and recommended we call the company Besser Associates. I was hesitant at first but after talking it over with others, I agreed to use that name.

We extended good job offers to the two laid-off CGIS engineers before another company could snap them up. They were glad to join us. Éva sold her house in Ohio and moved to California to work for us. Ron and I leased an office in Palo Alto. I was ready to visit Comsat in Washington to finalize our agreement. They asked for a week’s time to create a formal contract.

The week passed, but we did not receive a contract. Comsat asked for another extension. Finally, they announced that they found a buyer for all the assets of the Compact division, including the support contracts. Our idea of having a highly profitable new company ended before it had a chance to begin.

I faced a serious dilemma—another unexpected hurdle in my life. Our three employees, as well as Ron, expected to be paid. We had nothing to sell or support. After less than one month of operation, I had to let the two engineers go and bought Ron’s share of the business. I felt responsible to Éva and kept her on the payroll as the office manager to handle my course teaching. However, that was not enough to keep her busy.

I recalled some feedback I had received from a Motorola manager who came to evaluate our short course at UCLA. “I wish this course focused on the RF frequency applications instead of microwaves," [*Mobile communication initially began at the Very High Frequency (VHF, 30-300 MHz) and gradually moved into the Ultra High Frequency (UHF, 300-3,000 MHz) range. Most of the military communications were at the Microwave, or GHz frequencies.] he had written on his course evaluation form. “My engineers need continuing education, but they work on mobile phones instead of defense electronics. Your course has only limited value to them.” Perhaps there was an opportunity for me to develop additional courses! I decided to contact him.

“If we revise our courses to cover lower frequencies, would Motorola give us enough teaching business to justify our work?” I asked him.

“We have thousands of engineers worldwide,” he replied. “Talk to Motorola University to find out if you could become part of their continuing education program.”

At that time, Motorola was a very progressive electronics company. All their technical employees had to take a minimum of 40 hours of continuing education annually. The potential for teaching in-house courses was huge.

I visited Motorola University in Schaumburg, Illinois, to find out how we could establish a long-term working relationship with them. I met two managers, one from the training group and the other from the mobile phone division. They were open to the idea. However, the engineering manager did not want Bob’s two-day filter design section. He wanted me to expand my material to five days and include computer lab sessions with Super-COMPACT. [*Motorola had purchased Super-COMPACT for several divisions. The Fort Lauderdale group was one of them.] “How much would you charge for revising the Microwave Circuit Design course to fit our needs?” the manager asked.

I had not even planned to ask for money, but I grabbed the opportunity to discuss payment. We came to an agreement and tentatively set up a pilot program to be conducted at their Fort Lauderdale division. “If the courses help our engineers to become better designers, your company could become the teaching group for RF courses.”

During the following months, I altered my course material to satisfy their needs. The three other instructors, who taught the next level courses, followed suit. Once the lecture material was ready, I presented the five-day course, “RF Circuit Design 1,”  in Florida. Shortly after the next level RF class was taught.

The courses were successful, and we returned to the division several times to teach. Within one year, Motorola became a steady customer and requested 20 to 25 courses annually. Our contract specified $15,000 for a five-day domestic course, plus expenses. Paying the instructors generously for their contributions assured me of finding top experts in various specialties.

My next target was AT&T. Using the format already established with Motorola, we began to teach at the various AT&T locations. I signed up more instructors who added new courses to our curriculum. Within a few years, Besser Associates became a recognized continuing education provider for the RF and microwave industries. We began to look for an assistant for Éva to handle the increased amount of administrative work.


Branching Into Different Kind of Lectures

In 1985, Cardiff Publications launched a new communication symposium, RF EXPO. The publisher of their RF Design magazine, Keith Aldridge, asked me if I would present a mini-version of the RF Circuit Design course at the conference. Squeezing the five-day course into a single day was not easy, and my first presentation was not successful. Some of the participants slept through part of the day. Others stared with blank faces. When I asked questions, only a few volunteered to answer. One participant summarized how many of them probably felt, “I was totally lost by the first break,” he wrote on the course evaluation. Obviously, I had misjudged the background of the attendees.

Gary Breed, the editor of the magazine, suggested a drastic simplification of the course content. “Your five-day course is aimed at design engineers. The ones who come to a one-day seminar are technicians, salesmen and managers,” he told me. “Their main interest is in the fundamental concepts.”

I followed his advice and redesigned the course to cover only the basics. We also changed the name of the course to RF Circuit Fundamentals. The promotion emphasized that the course would provide “an introduction to the mysteries of RF technology.”

The symposium the following year was held at the Disney Hotel in Anaheim. Cardiff prepared 100 sets of the course notes. Their registration staff, however, was completely overwhelmed by the large number of people who showed up at the door. When I was ready to begin the presentation,150 participants had crowded into a conference room that had only 100 seats. The hotel staff opened the rear doors and placed chairs in the hallway, creating an L-shaped space. Although loudspeakers were installed for those who ended up sitting in the hall, they could not see me or the projection screen. The staff frantically reproduced the notes on the hotel’s copy machine and handed them out by sections to those who had not received them at registration. During the first coffee break, the Audio-Visual (AV) group placed a video camera in the meeting room and connected it to a couple of TV monitors in the hallway. After that, everyone could see the screen. It was a nerve-wracking day, but most of the pa rticipants were happy in the end.

On my return from the conference, I sat next to a young woman on the plane. “What did you do in Anaheim?” I asked.

“I went to the RF Expo Symposium.”

“I was there too. Did you go to see the exhibits or to hear some of the technical sessions?”

“I attended a full-day seminar.”

“What was it about?”

“My boss sent me to learn about high frequencies, because I sell RF system components.”

“Was it a good course?”

“Oh, yes. I’m sure I’ll feel more confident now when I talk to engineers.”

I did not ask where she had been sitting during the course. If she did not recognize me as the instructor, I did not want to embarrass her. The important part was that it might help her to be more effective at work.

In the following year, the RF Circuit Fundamental course drew over 300 participants. Encouraged by the interest, I added a second day that also became very popular. Cardiff added a couple of additional short courses and expanded the number of locations, so the RF Expo would cover both the East Coast and the West Coast. In addition to Anaheim, I taught courses in San Jose, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Orlando.


One of my early RF Expo one-day seminars. I used an overhead projector for the  illustrations.

Recognizing that only a limited number of people could attend these conferences, I decided to videotape my courses. KCSM Public Television Studio in San Mateo was the most convenient and economic place for the recording. For a fixed price, the studio allowed me to record six two-hour segments in VHS format. Two cameras would record simultaneously during my presentation; one focusing on me and the other one on the projection screen. An editor would switch regularly between the two outputs to make the presentation more understandable. They agreed to provide a single high-definition master tape of the combined sessions.

Compared to current video recording technology, the 1986 methods seem primitive. The recorded image of the overhead projection was far from the high-resolution quality we see in PowerPoint presentations today. However, with limited expertise and an equally limited budget, that was the best I could do.


The RF Circuit Fundamentals 1 course,
recorded on videotape

Meeting the studio’s personnel proved an interesting experience. The day we recorded a short practice session, I learned that they had a strict pecking order of duties. During setup, one of the inactive television cameras was in the way, so I asked one of the employees if he would move it. “Only the camera chief is allowed to do that,” he replied, but that person was not available. The entire crew waited 30 minutes until the chief showed up and shoved the equipment aside.

I did not enjoy standing in front of two monstrous cameras. Instead of interacting with a live audience, I had reflectors shining into my face. Reviewing my recorded practice session was not at all encouraging. I was stiff and made some obvious mistakes. “With this capacitor we can tune the frequencies,” I said one time while pointing to a inductor. Another time, I dropped the transparency marker and banged my head on the overhead projector while picking the marker up.

After several days of practicing alone in our office talking to a blank wall, I felt confident to begin the recording sessions, and within the space of two weeks, we received the final tape. Two weeks after that, we had the first 100 sets of VHS tapes delivered to our office. In addition to our live courses, Besser Associates now had another product to market. During the following decade, we sold nearly 300 sets of RF Circuit Fundamentals 1 and 2. At that point, a publishing company bought rights to market the videos. The contents were eventually converted to DVD format and are still available through the Internet [*] for $595 per course.


Finding a New Sibling

In 1987, after a week of teaching in Europe, I spent the weekend in Budapest visiting my mother. The first day, as she reminisced about the past, she made a slip of the tongue. “The daughter of that good-for-nothing woman who married your father must be about 40 years old now,” she told me.

“You’d never told me that they had a child,” I interjected.

She quickly changed the subject. Although I tried to bring it up again several times, she would not discuss it. I, on the other hand, was determined to find out if I had a sister in Hungary.

My father had passed away in 1977, but I remembered the street where he lived and went there late that afternoon. Not recalling the house number, I started at one end of the street and knocked on the door of each building’s housemaster. When he was not available, I asked tenants if Solt’s wife and daughter still lived there.

The short street had about 40 buildings, but as I progressed along the street, I did not find any residents who knew of my father’s family. I was beginning to fear my search would be in vain. Finally, in the last building, I saw an elderly man walking out. “Excuse me, does the Solt family live here?” I asked him.

“Not anymore,” he replied. “After the father passed away, the wife and daughter moved out.”

My heart began to pound faster. “Do you know where they live now?”

“I have no idea, but the daughter works for MALEV. Her name is Kati.”

I thanked him for the information. MALEV was the Hungarian national airline. I should be able to track her down there. But I’m flying home tomorrow morning. I’ll inquire at the airport before leaving and make contact with her on my next trip.

The next morning Mother escorted me to the Budapest airport, and I asked again about my father’s daughter. “There was no child,” she told me and looked away. I did not press the issue further with her.

At the passenger terminal of the airport, I had my mother sit down and told her I needed to exchange money. This would probably be my only chance to make a stab at tracking her down. After waiting in line at the foreign exchange kiosk, I stepped to the window. “Do you know someone working for MALEV named Kati Solt?” I asked the blond lady sitting inside.

“Why do you want to know?” she replied.

“It’s personal. Do you know her?”

“Kati Solt is my maiden name. What do you want?”

I could hardly believe my good luck. Out of all the airline’s employees, I had managed to find the right person on my first try! “It’s a long story, and I don’t want everyone to hear it. Could you step outside for a few minutes?”

She did not reply but stepped back and consulted with one of her colleagues. The two of them looked at me suspiciously. Next, she talked with another employee. Finally, she waved at me and came outside.

“Was your father’s name László Solt?” I asked when she stepped next to me.

“Yes,” she replied in a surprised voice.

“Did you live on Rippl Rónai Street for a long time?”

“Yes. Who are you?”

“I must board my flight soon, so we have only a few minutes. I believe that we have the same father. I am your half-brother.”

That was too much for her to absorb. She stepped back. “That’s not possible,” she whispered. “I would know about it.”

I saw that my mother was nervously looking at me. She must not find out who I am talking to, because her reaction might not be pleasant. Kati’s mother lured my father away when my mother was pregnant, and I cannot think of any reason why Mother would be nice to Kati. The two of them must not meet.

I guided Kati back behind the kiosk where we were out of my mother’s sight. Turning to Kati, I quickly told what I knew about our father. She still looked numb. “I’ll have think all this over and ask my mother to verify it,” she said finally.

I told her that I would be back in a few months and look her up again. She said good-bye and quietly walked away. Our first meeting did not end as positively as I had expected.

Before completing my check-in, I said farewell to Mother. Parting from each other had always been hard, particularly for her, because she was the one left behind. Before we had our last hug, she sprayed holy water on me from a small bottle she always carried with her.


With my half-sister, Kati Tóth, at the Budapest airport

After going through customs and immigration, I was waiting in the departure area prior to boarding my flight. Suddenly, Kati appeared. Her MALEV badge allowed her to bypass the inspections. “I'm taking a short break so we can talk more. It’s still hard for me to believe you might be the brother I've always wanted,” she told me.

We chatted about 20 minutes, exchanging information about our families. I showed her pictures of Nancy and George. She told me she was married to a full general of the Hungarian Army and that he was a devoted Communist. The two of them did not have children. “Keeping in touch with someone in America would present a political problem for us,” she said with concern on her face. “You better not write to me. Perhaps we can meet again the next time you’re in Budapest.”

We concluded our brief acquaintance because my plane was ready to leave. She offered me a handshake first but then changed her mind. Instead, she hugged me and planted a kiss on my cheek. “I'm glad that we finally met,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

When the elderly man in the apartment building had told me that Kati worked for MALEV, I assumed that she would be a flight attendant. The only reason I had gone to the kiosk to ask for information was to avoid raising my mother’s suspicion. Considering that MALEV had about 4,000 employees, the probability of walking up to the right person the first time was miniscule. What makes the result even more incredible was that nobody at the airport would have known  her by her maiden name. She told me that if I had asked anyone else about Kati Solt, I would never have found her.

On my long trip to San Francisco, I contemplated what it would have been like to grow up under normal circumstances, with the loving care of both a mother and father. Neither Éva nor I had that luxury, and I was determined to maintain contact with Kati and learn more about the father I knew so little about. I was also curious about her Communist husband. Meeting him would allow me to find out how those people really felt about the West. More than 30 years after Stalin’s death, the Kremlin's attitude had softened. Would his feelings have also changed, or was he one of the hardliners? Would he allow Kati to maintain contact with me?

I fell asleep in my seat, and a new version of one of my recurring dreams came back. After I snuck back into Hungary, fighting broke out again. As I desperately tried to escape through a muddy field, Kati appeared wearing a flight attendant’s outfit. “Hurry,” she said. “Your plane is leaving.” I tried to follow her, but my feet were stuck in heavy mud. She moved farther and farther away from me, and gradually vanished. After waking up, I wondered if I would ever see her again.


A Telephone for My Mother

During the summer of 1988 the Hungarian Prime Minister, Károly Grósz, visited the United States. After meeting with President Reagan in Washington, where he expressed a desire to establish closer contact with the West, Grósz made several stops in the U.S., including San Francisco. The Hungarian-Americans of Northern California honored him at a dinner, and I was among the invited guests. He was sitting at the head table with the Hungarian Consul and some American dignitaries. After building up my courage, I decided to grab the opportunity and ask for assistance for my mother.

Under socialism, the Hungarian telecommunication system had remained in a primitive state. Only a limited number of residences had telephones—in most cases, party lines—and it was virtually impossible to have new service installed in an apartment. My mother had petitioned for phone service for nearly two decades, but her request was always denied. Grósz’s visit offered an opportunity to appeal at the highest level.

I walked up to the head table and stood in front of the guest of honor. “Forgive me, Mr. Prime Minister, but I have an unusual request,” I told him when he looked at me.

“What is it?” he asked.

After introducing myself, I explained that my elderly mother lived by herself in Budapest, and I wanted to give her the opportunity to call for help by phone, in case of emergency. I also briefly told him about my company and offered to teach courses to Hungarian engineers in return during a forthcoming visit to Hungary.


President Reagan greeting the Hungarian
Prime Minister at the White House.

“We would not expect anything from you,” he said with a smile. “Come to see me when you’re in Budapest, and I’ll do my best to help.” He gave me his business card and wished me all the best. I returned to my seat and happily finished the wonderful Hungarian dinner.

A month later, I arranged a trip to Budapest and wrote a letter to Grósz to remind him about our discussion. After arriving in the city, I called his office in the Parliament. “The Prime Minister is in Moscow for a conference,” his secretary informed me. My heart sank, but she continued. “He received your letter and wanted you to see one of his cabinet ministers. I’ll transfer your call to that office.”

Another secretary came on the line and told me that Mr. S.T. would see me the next morning. “His driver will pick you up at your mother’s address,” was her unexpected offer.

The following day, a shiny black Russian-made ZIL limousine was waiting for me in front of my mother’s apartment building. The driver greeted me cordially. During the ride, he wanted to hear about life in California. At the Parliament, he turned me over to a guard who escorted me inside the building.

It was my first time inside the Parliament. I quietly followed the guard up the impressive red-carpeted stairs to the second-floor reception area. Within a few minutes, I was in the minister’s office.

The man was exceptionally friendly. After shaking hands, he asked if we could address each other by our first names. Of course, I agreed. He asked the secretary to bring us coffee. Then, he wanted to know why I was there. I described my mother’s need to have a telephone and the fact that she had been denied many times.

The minister was quite familiar with the national shortage of telephones. “What we need is a brand-new digital telephone exchange, but the American embargo prevents us from buying one,” he told me. “We can produce more phones, but the central office doesn’t have enough lines to satisfy the demand. Installing telephone lines in brick and cement buildings is another problem. However, I’ll figure out something to find a line for your mother.”

“Thank you. I would be very grateful.”

We chatted for some time before his secretary came to remind him of another appointment. As we parted, he wished me a pleasant stay in Budapest. His driver took me back to my mother’s place. Some of the neighbors noticed when I stepped out of the official government automobile and looked at me curiously. I did not care. My mother might have a telephone after all.

Within a few weeks after my return to California, our telephone at home rang in the early morning. “Lacikám, megvan a telefonom,” (Les, I have a phone) I heard my mother say through the noisy line. Even though the quality of the connection was poor, it was the best telephone call I had received in a long time. My mother was elated to have such a luxury.

A month later, during my next visit to Budapest, I called the office of the helpful minister and asked to see him. That time, he invited me to lunch in a restaurant rather than meeting in the Parliament. I placed five American $100 bills in an envelope before going. In the restaurant, I thanked him for his assistance with the phone installation and asked him to accept a token of my appreciation. He looked inside the envelope and said, “I’m glad it worked out.” With that, he pocketed the money. I had learned how to do business in socialist Hungary.

The Hungarian government-sponsored telecommunication research institute, TÁKI, accepted the offer I gave to the Prime Minister earlier. The group invited me to give a seminar on computer-aided design of microwave circuits at their facility. TÁKI employed the top-notch microwave engineers in Hungary. Until 1956, one of their task was to assist with the development of the Soviet military communication system. After the revolution, the Kremlin did not trust the Hungarians, and TÁKI’s research was reduced to domestic applications. The guarded research center was built in the Buda side of Budapest, on top of a hill, surrounded by the most prestigious residences of the city.

I had mixed feelings about their request. On one hand, giving a lecture as an engineer in my native country which I had left as a technician three decades earlier appealed to my ego. On the other hand, Hungary was still part of the Eastern Bloc. I would have to be careful not to give away any unpublished information that might be used to hurt the West. I agreed to teach a half-day summary of my UCLA short course.

A problem I faced while preparing for the presentation was not knowing the Hungarian version of technical terms I had learned in English. I had given courses in Japan and France where I spoke in English and a local translator continuously summarized my talk, but this time the task would be different. I needed someone to help me with my native language.

TÁKI offered to provide of their bilingual researchers to assist me with the Hungarian terminology. Dr. Tibor Berceli, one of their top microwave engineers and a full professor at the Technical University of Budapest, was selected for the assignment. I sent Tibor a printed copy of my transparencies prior to my talk so he could prepare the handout material.

The two of us held a quick rehearsal at their facility on the morning of my talk. During the rehearsal, I decided to add a few handwritten pages and asked Tibor to make transparencies for me and print copies of the extra pages for the group. He seemed troubled by my request.

“I need to obtain permission to use the copy machine,” he told me. “We may not receive the permission in time for your presentation.”

I assumed that his concern was about not finding help to print the material. “The two of us could do it in a short time,” I suggested.

“I’m not allowed to use the machine. It requires written permission from the Director.”

I still did not understand the problem and assumed it was a union restriction. I recalled a time when I had visited Ford Aerospace as a consultant, and discovered that an engineer was not allowed to replace a component in a circuit board. Only the technicians were allowed to use the soldering iron.

“Perhaps I could run the copies if you are not allowed,” I offered.

“No one is authorized to use the copy machine here without special permission,” he said quietly. “It’s a security restriction.”

Finally, I understood the meaning. The political system would not want people to be able to reproduce printed material. Freedom of the press did not exist there.

I proceeded with the presentation without the additional pages. The participants asked lots of questions and told me at the end how much they appreciated the information. Tibor helped me out whenever I stumbled on unfamiliar Hungarian terms. The two of us have maintained contact and are still close friends.


FBI's Visit

I was at home alone one evening, copying a videotape cassette someone had loaned me. Shortly after I sat down to watch the program, the telephone rang.

“This is Agent M… from the FBI,” the voice at the other end of the line told me. “We’re seeking information about one of your former employees at CGIS. Would you allow me to come by to talk with you?”

I was really puzzled. What would the FBI want with me? “Who are you looking for?” I asked him.

“Let me explain it in person,” the agent persisted. “May I come over to see you now?”

“Yes, you may,” I replied. “I'm not doing anything special.”

“Would it be OK if I bring another agent with me?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

About 20 minutes later, the doorbell rang. Not wanting to interrupt the progress of my video copying, I simply turned off the television display. When I opened the door , I saw two well-dressed people outside, one handsome man and an exceptionally good-looking woman. They flashed official-looking badges and handed me their business cards. Everything looked authentic, so I led them inside the house and offered them seats. I sat adjacent to them on the sofa, eager to hear what they had to say.

The man looked at my entertainment center where the audio equalizer was flashing its colorful LED lights.” Are you recording our conversation?” he asked.

“Oh, no. I'm just copying a...” I stopped suddenly, remembering those FBI warning screens appearing at the beginning of all commercially recorded programs.

The agent graciously did not press the issue and began to explain the reason for their visit. Some vitally important proprietary documents had disappeared at the Ford Aerospace Company’s Palo Alto division several years earlier. Their investigation had focused on a Chinese-American employee of my former company, who had regular access to the Ford facility. They wanted to know if I had any idea of that person’s present whereabouts.

I told them that after CGIS had shut down its operation, I lost touch with most of the employees and had no idea where that person might be. The agents took careful notes of everything I said. After asking questions about some of the other former employees, they apologized for taking my time and prepared to leave. Before parting, however, they asked me to contact them if any time in the future I heard about the person of their interest. I promised to do so, and they left.

Twenty years later, I met a woman who used to work at Ford Aerospace. When I found out that she was a security officer, I asked if she had any knowledge of those missing documents. To my surprise, not only did she know of the incident, but she had personally investigated the suspected Chinese industrial espionage. The case had created quite a commotion within the company, but as far as she knew, it had never been solved.

And, I was never prosecuted for copying the video…


An Unexpected Side Career

During the latter part of 1988, the president of Cardiff, Bob Searle, initiated a major shakeup of the Microwave Systems News (MSN) magazine. He fired a large part of the staff, including the publisher, and asked me if I would become the new editorial director. His request surprised me. “I’m not a writer,” I told him.

“I’ve seen the articles you’ve written for our publications,” Searle replied. “They’re good. Besides, as editorial director you need to write only a short column each month. We want you to hire new staff and supervise the operation.

Explaining to him that I already had a good business did not change his determination. “Your magazine involvement could be part-time,” he countered. “We want your name on the masthead of MSN.”

He outlined what Cardiff could offer me. Their large Palo Alto building had lots of empty office space, and my small company could easily fit into one section. We could use all their business equipment. In addition to a generous salary, they would also give me a full-page advertisement every second month in two of their publications RF Design and MSN.

At that point I could no longer resist, and we reached an agreement. I would spend one-third of my time on MSN’s editorial duties. My first task was to reassure the remaining demoralized employees about the ongoing future of the publication. Next, I hired new editors and administrative staff and began to work with them. A month later, Besser Associates relocated into MSN’s building. After being cramped in a small office, we suddenly had all the space we wanted.

One of the first lessons I learned in the publication business was timeliness. Printing and mailing the monthly magazine had rigid deadlines that could not be missed. The problem was that we did not have full control over our sources of material. People submitting articles did not always send in their work as promised. Advertisements sometimes arrived late. To make planning even harder, the total pages in the magazine varied month to month, depending on the advertisement space sold. We could not exceed a certain ratio of editorial to advertising pages.

Unlike my predecessor, I did not restrict my editorial column to technical issues. One month, I discussed American educational problems under the heading, “Johnny Must Learn to Read.”  A month later, I asked why our universities do not teach oral and written communication skills to engineers. In an editorial entitled, “Engineers Need Not Apply,” I described my recent experience of seeing a classified ad in a singles newspaper. It read:

“Wanted: Expressive, outgoing, sociable, communicative,  articulate male. Engineers need not apply!”

In the editorial I posed some questions. If the last sentence had not been included, how many engineers would meet the listed characteristics? Did we choose to be engineers because we were born poor communicators? Or were we the inevitable result of the educational and training process we endured?


Left: The front cover of one of MSN’s monthly issues. Center: The masthead and my editorial column.
Right: One of the full-page Besser Associates advertisements in MSN, promoting in-house courses as “House Calls.”

Another editorial column raised the question, “Guns or More Butter?”suggesting that the Cold War should be eased. I wrote that negotiating with a rational and reasonable man like Gorbachev seemed logical.

Surprisingly, our readers appreciated my raising these issues. The magazine received numerous “Letters to the Editor,” complimenting the new direction. Our advertising revenues began to increase.

One of the local TV stations planned to air a hawkish program about the role of microwaves in military hardware. They set up an interview with the editorial director of another Cardiff publication, Defense Electronics, but when the TV crew arrived, the editor was held up in traffic somewhere. “The show must go on,” said the crew chief, and he asked me to step in for the missing man.

“I don’t know much about military defense communications,” I replied.

“Don’t worry. We’ll edit out the parts where you don’t have the answer.”

They did a great job of making me look like a defense expert. When I watched the program on TV later, it made me wonder how much other “experts” know about their topics when they appear on air.

When President George H.W. Bush visited the West Coast in 1988, Nancy asked me if I would take her to a talk that was scheduled to present to the Ford Aerospace Company in Palo Alto. She was a reporter for her middle school’s newspaper and wanted to write an article about the President’s speech. One of the fringe benefits of my position with the publication was a press pass, so I was able to take her. We sat in the first row, only a few feet from the President. Nancy’s personal presence at the speech elevated her status at school.


Left: School Reporter Nancy at President Bush’s speech. With her hair up and wearing business attire she looked
more like an adult than a thirteen-year-old. Right: A mock Time magazine, showing me with look-alikes of
Premier Gorbachev and President Bush.


Left: A cover page article of MSN about the CGIS design system.
Center and right: Super-COMPACT advertisements. The one on the right shows me in the photo..

In 1989, we began to publish interviews in MSN. Each month, someone from our editorial staff or I asked the opinions of business and technical leaders of our industry. Encouraged by the readers’ positive response, I contacted the Soviet embassy in Washington and requested an interview with Premier Gorbachev. Without committing to a specific date, they indicated that it would be a possibility later that year. Cardiff gave a green light to the trip. Excited, I began to prepare for my first trip to the Soviet Union.


Finding the Woman of My Dreams

After seven years of dating, I finally met a woman through Great Expectations who seemed to have all the qualities I wanted. My first date with Susan, a special-education teacher, took place at the Magic Pan restaurant in San Jose. It was lunchtime, and I ordered my favorite dish from that restaurant, cheese blintzes. Because a single order only provided three blintzes, not enough to fill me up, I asked for a double order—served on the same plate. Susan ordered a chicken salad.

Another waitress brought our orders, and the blintzes came on two separate plates. She placed the salad in front of Susan and one of the blintz orders in front of me. “Whose is the second order?” she asked.

“It’s also mine,” I replied quietly, not wanting to attract attention in the crowded restaurant.

“You must have a big appetite,” said the waitress with a loud laugh.

People around us also laughed. Susan noticed that I blushed. That reaction, and the fact that I greeted her with a bouquet of roses, evidently made good first impression.


Even my old-fashioned mother was highly impressed
with Susan and gave me her seal of approval.

All my friends who met Susan, including my former in-laws, told me that she would be the perfect wife for me. She was educated, attractive, and had two well-balanced children. At that point, her son, Kent was 17 years old, the same age as George. Daphne, Susan’s daughter, was 18, six years older than Nancy. When my mother visited us, she let me know she approved of her, too. Our four children liked each other, eliminating my fear about possible family feuds.

After nearly two years of dating, Susan and I decided to marry. We had a simple church wedding, followed by a reception. Over 100 of our close friends celebrated with us.

Our honeymoon in Kauai gave us an opportunity to wind down and plan our lives together. Making sure that our children’s lives would continue smoothly was one of our highest priorities. Daphne was in her second year of college but she still lived at home. Kent was beginning his first year at UC Santa Cruz but would be home for holidays and summers. George was in his last year of high school. Nancy was still in junior high school; she and George were at our house every other week. Our children were all doing well academically, had close friends, and stayed free from tobacco and drugs.

We added another bedroom to my house to accommodate the enlarged family. Susan left her teaching job and stepped in to help us in our business. In addition to gladly giving up my kitchen duties, I welcomed her much-needed administrative skills in our office. My kids appreciated Susan’s well-balanced home-cooked meals.

Of her many good traits, I especially admired her motherly devotion to her children. There was no doubt in my mind that she would be a good stepmother to my kids, and I did my best to always be there for Daphne and Kent.

I quickly learned that Susan was extremely well-organized. She always knew where everything was in the house. Recognizing that special ability, Kent affectionately gave her the name, “411.” When one of us could not find something, we yelled, “Calling 411.” Susan would appear and find the missing item in no time.


Pictures with Susan. The one on the right was taken at our wedding on August 5, 1989.

People often say that once the initial sparks of married life die away, partners drift apart. In my second marriage, just the opposite has been true. The longer I have lived with Susan, the more I love her. We have proved that two nitpicking Virgos can enjoy a harmonious marriage. We balance each other’s weaknesses and combine our strengths. I will be forever grateful to God for bringing the two of us together.


Left: With our children (Nancy, Daphne, George and Kent) before heading to the wedding.
Right: At the reception with my former in-laws, Nelson and Doris Bogart.

A Sensitivity Lesson

Two months after our marriage, I was in the office late in the afternoon finishing a long article. Everyone had gone home, so I could focus on my work. As I submitted the file to print and walked to pick up the printout, a sharp jolt shook the building. Some of the acoustic ceiling tile brackets snapped open, and the floor kept moving. Another jolt followed. It’s an earthquake. I must take cover. I ran to a doorway and stood there until the movement stopped. It was the biggest earthquake I had ever experienced.

I stood there until there until the building stopped moving. The lights were still shining. The power service apparently had not been interrupted. At that point, I realized that I had not saved the MS Word file I was working on and rushed back to my computer. As I sat down, the electricity went off. I lost several hours of work on my long file!

Annoyed and still shaken from the earthquake, I tried to call Susan at home, but all lines were busy. After several attempts, I finally reached her. Not knowing the magnitude of the quake, I exclaimed, “We lost power here just as I tried to save my work. My long Microsoft Word file is lost!”

“Are you worried about your stupid file instead of asking how we are doing in the house?” she asked incredulously. “Don’t you want to know if the house is still standing?”

I realized how insensitive I had appeared and tried to assure her that she and the family were my main concern. Complaining about the loss of a computer file had not been the best way to begin that conversation. I attempted to rush home to be with the family, but the drive took me three times the normal ten minutes. None of the traffic lights worked, and there were long waits at every major intersection.

Fortunately, our home sustained no structural damage. A couple of bookcases spilled their contents and some dishes broke in the kitchen. A 27-inch Zenith television fell off its stand, face down in the family room. To my surprise, when I righted it and switched the set on, it worked fine. I wrote Zenith a testimonial about the durability of their product.

Later in the evening, we heard that the Loma Prieta quake had a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale. It was the strongest one in our area since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Son Kent was attending the University of California at Santa Cruz—near the epicenter of the quake. When the first tremor hit, he was among hundreds of students in a large lecture hall. In spite of all the earthquake training California students had received, the panicked students ran outside the building for safety. That night, they slept on the lawn, away from the dormitories.

Many buildings in the Santa Cruz area were heavily damaged. Throughout Northern California, the quake killed 63 people and injured nearly 4,000. Approximately 10,000 people became homeless after their homes suffered severe structural damage. The loss of my fie became trivial in comparison.


Approaching Political Changes

During most of my European trips, I would also spend a few days in Budapest. In addition to visiting my mother and Pista’s family, I found opportunities to meet Kati and her husband, Lajos, who had retired from the army. The bits and pieces Kati told me about my father allowed me to become familiar with the man I had met only a few times. According to Kati, my father and I shared physical resemblance and analytical minds. She also gave me photos from his earlier life, including his military service.

Lajos was a devoted Communist Party member. He truly believed the principle that all people should work as hard as they could to build a better society and take only from the common good according to their needs. Being a former general, he often lectured me about the evils of the capitalist system. “You tell President Bush that…,” was the beginning of his frequent complaints, followed by some perceived injustice committed by the United States.

“Lajos, I don’t have a direct phone line to the White House,” I would reply.

“I understand, but you must agree that I am right,” he continued.

Being outranked, I quietly went along with his arguments.


Left: Pista in my mother’s apartment, celebrating his 53rd birthday. When I left Hungary in 1956, he and I had weighed about the same.
By 1989, he outweighed me by 60 lbs. Right: Kati and her husband, Lajos, in a photo taken when Susan visited
Budapest with me for the first time.

Major changes were coming to the entire world. At the beginning of 1989, the Hungarian government removed the barbed wire fences and landmines along the border between Hungary and Austria. When Susan and I were in Budapest in late summer of that year, we went to see Kati and Lajos. They lived in a four-unit apartment building, next to the West German Consulate [*After the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into two parts. East Germany had a socialist government and belonged to the Warsaw Pact. West Germany had a Western-style democratic system.] which was guarded by armed Hungarian soldiers. While we chatted in my sister’s living room, I noticed something strange through the window—people wearing civilian clothing were climbing over the wall into the backyard of the consulate. The Hungarian guards, seemingly unconcerned, looked in another direction.

“What’s going on?” I asked Kati.

“East Germans are escaping,” she replied. “Once they are inside the consulate, they’ll be granted passage to West Germany.”

The news astonished me. I had heard that Gorbachev had relaxed the Soviet political grip over the Eastern European countries, but for the Hungarian government to allow their socialist comrades to openly escape to the West was far beyond my imagination. Something unexpected was brewing on the political scene!




Hurdling to Freedom, by Les Besser

- End of Chapter 9 -

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