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Me and My Robot

When a high-school kid with a troubled past invented the first wireless radio-controlled robot, his life was changed forever

by Erin Pihlaja on July 2, 2013 · 1 comment

 

One big happy: Thodar at the INn By The Mill. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

It’s a grand sight, the kind of place that those driving by want to stop and explore. The high stone walls of 1679 Mill Road tower above the Timmerman Creek, which, depending on the time of the year, either gurgles softly behind the property or roars down the hillside, spilling over its winding banks.

It was the waterfalls that drew Ron Hezel and his wife Judith up from downstate to the village of Saint Johnsville, Montgomery County, about 50 miles west-northwest of Albany. In search of a home for their retirement, just a few years after they married, they found the historic stone grist mill and the adjacent property where the miller’s house stands. At the time, in 1988, the property, which is noted for its involvement with the Underground Railroad, was in shambles.

“The windows were smashed out, there was no electric, no plumbing,” says Hezel. “Judy sanded all the floors by hand. There was junk all over.”

The upstairs of the mill was filled with bats who did not care to be relocated. The couple stayed in the miller’s house while they rehabilitated the mill. They also purchased a neighbor’s property next door on which they later built cottages.

Today the couple live in the top two floors of the mill and run a bed-and-breakfast out of all three properties. The mill is the only place where visitors do not sleep, but they are welcome to spend time on the first floor where there is a game room, an ice cream parlor (Judith’s childhood dream)—and a 7-foot-tall robot named Thodar.

Thodar was built in 1954 by Hezel, and is said to be the world’s first wireless radio-controlled robot of its kind. Thodar was a smash and appeared in many newspaper articles and television shows. Hezel and Thodar even got to appear with celebrities like comedian Jonathan Winters and talk-show host Jack Paar.

After the show-biz circuit, Thodar went on educational tours. “I went to schools to talk about robotics as the future, but nobody believed me,” says Hezel.

Those were exciting times, especially considering that Hezel wasn’t yet out of high school when he built the 282-pound machine. How would he answer the robot skeptics today if he had the chance? He laughs. “I told you, jackasses!”

Sitting in the mill, after all the guests have checked out, Hezel and his wife are a funny set of opposites. He is a large man who is loud and talkative, but doesn’t hear well. She is petite, quiet and seems more reserved. It is clear that each has learned to deal with the other’s quirks. As she frowns at him, exasperated, from under her mane of fluffy, stark-white curls, he smiles at her. “I call her my dandelion,” he says as he puts his arm around her. “She’s the only one. I don’t hug anyone else.”

“I was from a broken home, which is common now today,” recalls Hezel, who was born in 1935. At that time, it seemed a rare thing to be a child from a divorced family.

He says that his mother was “rather promiscuous,” meaning that after the split, she bounced from relationship to relationship. “We traveled all over and she had a new guy every few days,” says Hezel. “It was going to be the perfect new guy and he was going to be a great father. That would last three days, and we’d have to get out in the middle of the night before he killed us.”

Their journeys took them all over New Jersey and into Maryland, Hezel says. It was sort of an adventure for him at first. “I’d move in with my comic books and my little suitcase,” he says, “and then we were moving out at two in the morning and then we’d be traveling through snow and ice to go to the bar.”

On one trip, the bar was in South Jersey. At the time it was run by a woman who Hezel remembers was from Alsace Lorraine. “I was a young little kid, and I was sort of like the mascot,” he recalls. “I was a shill, I’d sit at the bar and the woman who owned it would give me a soda and I’d drink half of it. When no one was looking she’d put it underneath and put an empty bottle up and say, ‘Oh you know, the kid needs a soda,’ and then all the drunks would say, ‘Oh I’ll pay for that.’ So she’s collecting from like 15 guys for my soda, and when no one was looking she’d switch and I’d get my half back. When I finished I’d get another one, so she made a fortune on me.”

For the young boy, parts of these moments sound like paradise. But he also remembers falling asleep under the pinball machines of the loud, dirty joint, with no mother by his side.

The lifestyle had ill effects on young Hezel. “I failed fifth grade because I was in 18 different schools, that was before computers so my paperwork was always back 10 schools. I have no idea how my mother knew where she was going because there was no Internet, so we’d travel 100 miles and go to the bar and here’s this guy that’s going to be great and we’d move in for three or four days, maybe a week maximum.”

He missed a lot of school and didn’t make friends. “I was always a loner, you had to be that way, because I was alone,” he says. “You don’t have a group, you never knew another kid and so you learn psychology. You learn how to keep out of fights, you learn how to double talk and say wonderful things to this enemy and wonderful things to that enemy, and so you’re in the middle but they don’t know it. So you learn how to plot this guy against that guy so they’d kill each other.”

Hezel is a master storyteller, and as he stands in the cavernous mill, the volume of his voice rises and falls. As he delivers another line, his eyes squint mischievously: “My creed now is how to do the least amount to cause the biggest mess.”

 

Blast from the past: A young Hezel with Thodar. Photo by Erin Pihlaja, original photo credit unknown.

It was 1939, and Hezel’s father, before the marriage dissolved, took him to the World’s Fair. “I remember looking way up,” Hezel says, “and I saw him up there.” He was Elektro, Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s 7-foot-tall, 265-pound robot.

“It walked around and he smoked,” Hezel says, “because everybody had to smoke in those days, so he had a cigarette and he would puff smoke.”

The robot also talked and was accompanied by a robotic dog named Sparko. “It wagged and sat and ran around all over the place,” Hezel recalls.

This moment made a huge impression on Hezel, who later read the book I, Robot. He was hooked on bots, and anything mechanical, even when it meant he had to improvise.

In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Hezel recalls some happy childhood memories from when his parents were still together. “When [the neighborhood kids] would play house, this is when you’re like 6 maybe, I would make sure I was the mother,” he says, “because the mother got the carriage and I like to steer.” He points across the front room of the mill to Thodar, whose giant metal feet rest on small wheels.

“Eventually I found an old carriage, and I found a big skull—I had to make it into a masculine thing—I put a big skull on the front, painted it all black and I would run up and down the streets.” Hezel called the contraption the Skull Buggy, and he wreaked havoc with his new toy.

“I liked the steering and I always liked the way the springs bent when you steered hard. I still look at that when I watch an 18-wheeler. When it makes a sharp turn you can see the carriage underneath twisting to make this turn.”

Then the divorce came along with the endless shuffling around, looking for someplace that would promise, and deliver, permanence. “I was getting to the age where I was destroying the relationships,” he remembers.

Hezel tells a story for the joy of telling a good tale to a willing audience. He recalls all of the moments of his past with the same even emotion. But every so often, a hint of the disappointed little boy peeks back through.

“My mother wrote a famous letter which I can’t find,” he says. He has all of his father’s papers saved, and saw the letter for himself. Here, young Hezel breaks through the story, “‘Take him,’ she said. ‘I can’t stand him anymore, he’s destroying my life.’”

Hezel says that his mother would often drop him off at the movies to get rid of him for a couple of hours.

“They were all in black-and-white, there would always be a cartoon, then a newsreel, and then there would be a serial to keep you coming back,” he remembers. “One of them was The Crimson Ghost, and I fell in love with him. He was a bad guy, and he had a black outfit on—I think because it was in black-and-white, it could have been in crimson for all I know—so I considered that black and he had a skull mask and he did bad stuff. This was before atomic power, but he had ray guns and stuff and he would blow stuff up.”

When Hezel’s father came to fetch him, Hezel was living in one of the many foster homes that his mother had placed him in.

During World War II, residents of New York City made wartime preparations in case of an enemy attack. “They used to have air raids in the city, every house had to have black out curtains,” Hezel says. “When that got over with everybody had rolls and rolls of this heavy duty black cloth. I made a crimson ghost outfit with a cape and I would terrorize the neighborhood. I would go and look in a window and put a flashlight under my face and the people would scream.”

Other elements of this time fascinated Hezel. “Cars had the top of the headlight painted black so the Japanese couldn’t find New York,” he laughs. “Although they’re the ones making GPS now. Looking back, it was kind of dumb.”

When young Hezel looked at those painted lights, he didn’t see a poor attempt at thwarting enemy detection, he saw cars with living personae. “It looked like eyes looking at you,” he recalls.

There in Brooklyn, Dad insisted on rules and structure, and even when Hezel tried to pull a fast one to get out of school, his father made sure he went.

He didn’t quite give up his prankster ways, though. He often got in trouble for wiring high-voltage booby-traps to the students’ seats. Some of his efforts were appreciated, though; one of his teachers even offered to buy a tesla coil he had fabricated. The same teacher told his father that if Hezel’s energy wasn’t channelled, he would likely be in jail by high school.

Hezel went for special testing to find out what areas of study he was best suited for. The proctor, Hezel says, told his father that he had a very high intelligence to the point that he got in trouble, but that he was also analytical and technical.

“She said, ‘There’s a school for him,’” says Hezel. “It was the [High School of Performing Arts] in Manhattan.” He didn’t think he would ever get in to the prestigious school, but after the visit he was instantly admitted. It was here, in what he calls the special-effects department, focusing on electronics, that he thrived.

He built a lot of things for the school, including an intercom system for Dr. Franklin Keller, the principal and founder. During his last half-term, he was required to complete a special project. One of his teachers suggested he build a robot.

“I thought, ‘Oh that’s easy, I’ll do that,’” says Hezel. “Little did I know.”

But he succeeded, even without any plans, and Thodar was born. Shortly after, there was the flurry of publicity and admiration that gave Hezel his glimpse of celebrity, but really, it was the next door that his invention opened that set Hezel on the rest of his life course.

His father wanted him to be an engineer, but Hezel preferred teaching. A teacher and mentor from his high school suggested he apply for a scholarship in industrial arts at New York University through the Hebrew Technical Institute. There were only two spots, and hundreds of people applied. When the rabbis who interviewed him heard that he had been recommended by Dr. Keller, they granted him the scholarship on the spot.

He earned his bachelor’s and his master’s degree, and later taught at NYU. Over the years he also acquired an unusual amount of certificates. They range from educational qualifications, to certificates in safety engineering and embalming (from his Naval years with the submarine corps—another story, Hezel says). He’s also a certified member of the clergy. He can’t easily tell you which one, but he’s got the paperwork somewhere, with all of the others.

Hezel taught school for 36 years and worked in many administrative roles. As his professional adventures were winding down and he was getting a divorce from his first wife, he realized that he felt lonely.

 

Two hearts: Ron and Judith Hezel by their waterfalls. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

He placed a personal ad in the newspaper and got back 51 responses. Judith was number 50, he loves to remind her.

They had a long correspondence via telephone, since he was in Middletown, N.Y., at the time, and she was in New Jersey. Always a lover of technology, he recorded the conversations, unbeknownst to her. “I was working on a book,” he explains.

Judith is the one with the memory, Hezel claims. It is she who keeps track of all of the significant dates in their relationship. A year after they met, as she reminds him, they reconvened at the same Denny’s restaurant they went to on date number one.

“I go buy my dozen roses, a white box with the big red ribbon,” he says. “I get out and she gets out with a box with a red ribbon on it too. I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’ So, we go in and we sit at our table.” They exchanged gifts.

“I said, ‘My box is a little heavier than yours,’” Judith recalls.

“The box was heavy as hell,” says Hezel. “I open it up, and it’s the tapes. She was recording me, while I was recording her. She’s sneaky, that’s why I love her.”

Even though Hezel does most of the talking, it’s easy to see that Judith holds her own. Here in the mill, these two opposites share complementary responsibilities which keep them busy. Overall, life seems peaceful.

When the weather is right, they hike up the creek with their grandchildren, and they spend a lot of time sitting on one of the many benches on the property, just watching those waterfalls.

Over the sounds of the creek, swollen with recent rains, Hezel recalls a conversation with an aunt who acknowledged his rough start. “She said, ‘You had the worst childhood of anybody that I could imagine.’ I said, ‘Really, because that’s your point of view.’”

He pauses, and adds, “You either feel sad about how your life was, or it’s another good story.”