By Sandra B. Rifkin
My best friend growing up was my dad. Louis Berliner was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1900, and immigrated to the United States in 1907.
His story was typical. Dad’s father came here first to save enough money in order to send for his family. My grandfather sold rags and junk from a horse-drawn wagon in the small town of Coatesville, Pa. When he had accumulated enough money, he was joined by my father, grandmother and two other children. Dad was the one chosen to ride alongside his father to scream out “rags for sale!”
Louis was 7 years old when he arrived in the United States, the same age as Henry Kissinger when he immigrated here. It always amazed me that my father did not have one trace of a European accent, while Kissinger's was very pronounced.
Dad explained that he wanted very much to assimilate into his new country and worked very hard to do that. He went to school and learned English, refusing to speak Russian. Unfortunately, he was forced to quit school when he was 14 as his parents had four more children, and extra money was needed to help support the family.
When Dad was 17, he joined the Army during World War I. He brought back plenty of stories, as well as some jokes. One was he said the reason he was bald was because he never took off his helmet.
He was so proud to defend his country and rose to the rank of corporal. He fought in four battles and was awarded a Purple Heart after receiving several injuries.
I remember him marching every year in the Memorial Day parade wearing his veteran’s hat and sash on which his medals were proudly displayed. The image of him marching with that proud grin on his face has never left me.
During the Great Depression, when my father had difficulty finding employment, he would sell fruit at local markets. He lived in Buffalo for a few years, then wound up in Binghamton. There he went every morning to a government facility where there were opportunities for jobs under FDR’s New Deal. When someone yelled out, “Who knows construction?” Dad raised his hand. Actually, he had never held a hammer in his life, but he was desperate.
Dad wound up in Annville, Pa., where he eventually became foreman in building Fort Indiantown Gap, which was one of the many U.S. Army posts constructed at the time.
Dad never quite made it financially, but he certainly tried. He was a would-be entrepreneur in those days as he was innately intelligent, resourceful and creative –
but had no money. Oh, the projects he would create!
He would answer any question I would ask without hesitation. Today I wonder if they were the correct answers, but it didn't matter. He was my father, whom I trusted and adored.
Dad was the one in whom I confided and went to for advice. I can just see the twinkle in his eyes when he talked to me. When I took ballet lessons and wasn't good enough to advance to toe, he would insist on coming with me to see if he could help.
He owned a truck and would drive me every day to school. Along the way, he would pick up every one of my friends that he would see walking. You can just imagine 10 kids piling out of a truck, talking, smiling and singing.
My father died 46 years ago, but my memories of my relationship with him are so vivid, especially on Father’s Day. My only regret is that he didn't live long enough to become best friends with my own three children.
Sandra B. Rifkin, of Williamsville, misses her dad’s twinkling eyes and caring ways.