My grandfather Bob Fischer passed away today, just shy of his 81st birthday. A few years ago, I asked him to tell me about his childhood, his working life, and his family life. Our conversation is long, but I’d love to share it with you. I’m happy to pass it along as a word document as well.
1. Growing up in Brook Park
Could you tell me about where you grew up?
I grew up in Brook Park, Minnesota, in a small town. The sign when you come into town, it says 120 people living here, and that’s about what it was when we were there—maybe 50, 60 houses.
We were a poor family when we boys were growing up. Dad knew it and was so happy he could leave money for us boys when he and mom were gone. We lived on three farms around Brook Park and rented the first two. He bought the third farm on which the house burned down.
And what did you do as a child?
I remember picking blueberries as a family activity off somewhere in the bog country north of Hinckley. I think we had a blueberry patch in a bog near town, not far out on the road to the cemetery.
And a favorite family activity on Sunday afternoon was to go for a drive in our 41 Chevrolet sedan. Our whole family went in one car, so we had plenty of scrappy fights along the way, but Dad could reach us from the front seat to make us behave.
Sometimes we would drive down to our garden plot south of Cambridge and look over our garden and maybe pick a few things. Dad rented garden land down south of Cambridge on the way to the Cities, in sandy soil, and we could raise good big carrots and radishes there.
We also raised lots of green beans there so we had to pick them in the hot sun. Every summer we picked green beans for sale, and I think we took baskets of them to town and sold them to the store keeper in Brook Park.
And other times, we drove out east to visit pretty sights along the rivers bounding the east side of Minnesota.
So what was your first home like?
The first home my dad rented was a small place, when I was six years old. And that’s where I started stuttering, because that place was right beside the train tracks. And the train track had telegraph poles along it with uh, see those glass supports for the wires? (he points out the car window)
My brothers and I would throw stones at those glass supports and try to break ’em—yeah, we broke some. But the trains coming by, it scared me once and I started stuttering, or that’s what my parents said.
So I started stuttering from 7 years old on. When I was 14 and a half, between my freshmen and sophomore years, I went to an Easter Seal camp. We didn’t have money for them to send me to a camp, but I went there for four, five weeks I think it was, and I learned how to overcome the stuttering.
They made us go from house to house in the community and ask for a Reader’s Digest magazine or a Saturday Evening Post, you know some common magazines, and we had to—they asked us to stutter the whole time and see—and see what happens. Just, you know, continue stuttering and see what happens.
And in every case they people were real nice and they gave us the magazines. It didn’t make any difference at all! To forget about your stuttering, you know, that’s what they were trying to teach us. And it sort of worked, because I’d always had problems with stuttering, but not anywhere near as much after that Easter Seal camp.
3. His Brother Larry
And what was it like with your brothers. You had three brothers?
Yes but I really only had two, because Larry came along in 1945. And he was never really a big part of our lives until he grew up—until he was eight or nine years old or so—and then he became more a part of our lives. Because he had cerebral palsy he was off at a cerebral palsy school when he was two years old, in training down in the city. I suppose it cost Dad mounds of money to put him there.
And then by the time he was old enough to go to public school he was ready, and he went to public schools. But he still went to Easter Seal camp.
Easter Seal camp?
See, when you go to Easter Seal camp all your expenses are paid with Easter Seal money. They’re little postage-stamp type things that people would buy at Easter time to help out Easter Seal kids, the kids like me who had something wrong with them. They would have people go around and sell them and sell Easter Seals. Guess we don’t have that anymore, do we?
Not really. Did people do more door to door stuff back then?
Well they had to. The people never went—you couldn’t go to Brook Park and buy your groceries, for example, you had to go to Mora and buy your groceries, and it still wasn’t really good big stores like they have now…
So what was actually in Brook Park?
There was a good garage, a good place to get your car fixed. There was a… well, let’s see now. There was a grocery store but it was expensive. It was run by Mannford Brunnigan, he would go on his small van-type truck and pick up groceries in the cities, or wherever he got it from, and then he’d sell them.
4. Putting Up Hay
So what were your brothers like?
Well we used to have a lot of fun putting up hay in the summer time. We would stack the hay in the fields usually, and we would wrassle before we got the hay stack built completely. We’d get up on the haystack and wrassle and play King of the Hill and see who would push the other guy off of the haystack, and that was fun.
How tall was the haystack?
The haystack was maybe six, seven feet but when you finally topped it out it would be maybe 12 feet, about twice that. Grandmother Karges used to have us come over and put up hay in her swamps. Her house was surrounded by swamps on two sides, there was a big swamp there west of her place, and we would go in there and mow that grass and then put it up for hay, and we would put haystacks right there in the swamp. There was no water in the swamp there at that time.
Grandmother Karges was my dad’s mother, and dad always took care of her his whole life. He’d stop and see her, encourage her and bring her mail in person. And she paid us to mow her grass and that was really good money. I forget exactly what she paid us but it was under $5. I think it was more like a dollar and a half…
5. Trapping Weasels in the Winter
So what could you buy with a dollar and a half?
Oh, we would save it and put it together with money we got from trapping in the wintertime. We sold weasel and muskrat—no, weasel and beaver. Mainly weasel furs. The hair on a weasel turns from brown to white in the wintertime. So they can hardly be seen against the snow. But they’re still out there and they’re eating anything they can get, so it’s pretty easy to catch them.
I used to go out on the cold winter days and run my trapline—I would take skis along to ski instead of slogging through the snow, so I would ski my trapline.
And the weasels that we caught were always frozen to death. If they got caught in a trap, they froze to death immediately, because they couldn’t— they might fight to try to get out, but if they got caught with their legs in the trap, then they would freeze to death. And if you know something about freezing to death it’s a painless way to die. I’m sure their feet hurt when they got caught in the trap, but if they got caught around the head then they died instantly, because the trap would cut off their oxygen.
How many did you catch in a winter?
In the winter, it seems like I trapped maybe six to eight a week—or maybe in six weeks. We got five dollars a weasel. Yeah, it was good money! We had to skin them out and every time you skin the body away from a weasel fur, boy, it smelled like everything! And then we’d put them—we had metal frames and sometimes wood frames if we had too many skins being dried. We had to dry the skins before we could sell it. We’d put them on these wire stretchers to stretch the skin out, and we’d let them hang out there in the cold and they’d dry out. I can’t remember where we sold them. I think maybe to the guy right next door to the church in town. He was one of the guys that bought the furs. There had to be a trader that would be able to resell our furs to somebody else…
6. His Grandmother Karges
Who else lived in Brook Park?
Oh they were all different people, some of them worked up at the prison. Up near sandstone there was a prison there, and a little farther north of Sandstone before you get to Askov, there was a mental hospital.
Grandmother Karges’ husband wound up in that mental hospital. He had hardening of the arteries, which meant he didn’t get enough blood to his brain and he became kind of crazy in his older years. So who knows, it was too hard for Grandmother to take care of him, so she put him in there. I went to visit him there a few times… We don’t have mental hospitals like that anymore.
Do you know anything about your grandmother’s life?
Well, she came from South Dakota, I think, to Brook Park while she was still married to George Fischer, and lived in Brook Park almost her entire married life. I think he died in southern Minnesota, when my dad [Deane] was two years old and his brother Edward was four years old.
So my dad didn’t have a father until she remarried to this Karges guy, Albert Karges. He was a Plymouth Brethren, and they don’t have any preachers. Every layman is also a preacher, so he would take his turn at being the preacher.
But Grandmother always went to the local Methodist church just like my dad and mother did. We were with that local Methodist church for all their young people’s activities, and all the church camps they ran in the summertime.
How many people were in that church?
Oh, they’d have 60 or 70 people come to church. It’s one of the big old—had a high steep roof on it, had a bell tower with they a bell roped onto the end. The preacher would ring that bell before the service started. Uhh, it was a single room, and they had a basement down below where the ladies’ aid would have a community meal. They’d come in there and feed a whole bunch of people, so they set up a lot of tables. People from the community would pay 40 cents or something for their meal. They had that maybe three or four times a year, and that was part of the income for the church. My dad stayed with that church in Brook Park throughout the years until, maybe he was in his 90s when he stopped going there and started going to a local Methodist church in Mora.
7. Deane’s Work
And what were your dad and mom like?
Well, Dad [Deane Fischer] worked out of town on construction during our high school years. For example, he was in charge of resurfacing the cement runways at the Minneapolis airport, and stayed overnight in Minneapolis with relatives.
Sometimes on Sunday he was ready to do fencing on the farm. I didn’t like to have to do this type of work on Sunday, but I really enjoying plowing fields on into the evening with the tractor lights. Most plowing was done with a Case tractor with two front wheels close together, and a two-bottom plow. Or later, a Ford tractor with wheels wide apart and a two bottom plow. I enjoyed the throaty sound of the exhaust popping out of the exhaust muffler.
One weekend when he was home, Dad was expecting to drive our boy’s car back to his job in Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon. But late Saturday evening or maybe early Sunday, several of us boys took the car up to the highway and raced the engine and quickly let out the clutch to squeal the tires. The forward universal joint on the drive shaft snapped and the drive shaft fell out onto the highway.
Dad had to arrange to have Hank Berndt at the garage fix the universal joint and put the driveshaft back in while we were in Sunday School. Hank didn’t go to church anyway, but I don’t think he liked it too well to have to do the emergency fix on the car so Dad could drive it back to the Cities that afternoon.
What about later?
After that, Dad was postmaster for 17 years. He had a post office that was right in the middle of town, and right on the corner, and people—kids stopped in to talk to him after school. The people from town would stop in to talk every time they came in to pick up their mail. Most of the rural people were on a mail route but the city people came in—they had a post office box there, the old fashioned kin. They would come in there and they would talk to dad.
And one of the reasons he decided he had to quit, when he was 67 years old, was he couldn’t remember their names anymore. And that bothered him so much, so he decided he had to quit being postmaster.
8. Grace’s Work
And my mother [Grace Swedlund Fischer] was always the Sunday school superintendent. She taught many of my Sunday school classes and in later years she taught the adult Sunday school class. My dad did teach young boys.
My mother also directed the church choir. She did that when I was singing in high school, and also for many years later. The choir would meet at their house out there in the country during the week, three miles away from town, to practice for Sunday morning. She usually played the piano for the choir too. She had to keep her hands on the keyboard, but when the phrase ended, she’d raise her hands or maybe nod her head.
And my parents, when we were in high school they had the high school kids come over to our house for bonfires and wiener roasts and s’mores—you know, you eat marshmallows and put them on fudge graham crackers.
What did she do in her free time?
Oh, I don’t think she had much free time. She had so many boys around. She had extra special work with Larry because he had cerebral palsy and could barely walk. But he did go to those Easter Seal camps and went to the School for the Crippled Kids when he was two years old, down in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. He was in sort of a boarding school there. It was down in the twin cities, so mother didn’t have to take care of him during that time.
But she always had to wash our clothes. I remember she heated the water in a copper tub on the top of the stove. And later, they got an LP gas stove for the kitchen. But before that, she had to burn wood on the kitchen stove. I suppose she put something down on the floor to keep the splash of water from staining the wood floor, because she had real pretty ash flooring in that house.
We didn’t get an indoor bathroom until I was in my junior year of high school, so we had an outhouse. But we finally put in a pressurized pump way down in the well, and brought the pipe across the whole yard and back to the house. And then we had pressurized water inside the house, so we could have an indoor bathroom. There was always a place for the bath there in that house, but there wasn’t any sink or toilet until my junior year of high school.
9. School Days
What did you do in school, what were you interested in?
Oh, I dunno. I always liked science and math. We had some teachers that were really good and some weren’t so good.
We all went to the Brook Park elementary school, which was one big building, and they had maybe six or eight classrooms on two floors. There was a third floor way up high and they had an office with an old fashioned typewriter. And I learned to type first on that typewriter when I was in elementary school. Then when I was a sophomore in high school I took a course in typing, so I really learned how to type, and that really helped me in later life when I did so much work on the computer, and we had to type in our own programs.
10. Punch-Card Computing
For a long time when I was doing computing at Caterpillar and then at Battelle [as an adult], I had to write out the programs on special long paper. About 9 x 17 inch paper that had every punched hole. You had to enter your code on that punch paper and then submit it to some girl who sat in a keypunch machine and punched cards for every line in your code.
We didn’t need to know how to type then, but later when we all got PCs, we all had to do our own typing. Of course we did it gladly because it was so much easier. You didn’t have to write everything [on paper], you just typed it to see if it worked. And if it didn’t, you changed it. I first got a PC at work in about 1984 or ‘85. I was one of those that resisted it quite a bit, ‘cause it seemed like a toy.
But there was one fellow—he wasn’t even in our group—in building 10 near where I was working, he really pushed for all of us to get these personal computers. But it seemed like a toy to me.
Before then, we got to programming the Wayne calculators. We programmed them with punch cards. We were among the first technical organization to purchase these programmable Wayne calculators. Of course that was still punch cards, but I could see it coming that we were going to be having our own PCs.
But finally we got our own PCs, and that completely revolutionized how we did things. Before, we had to be so careful that we didn’t get a program all tied up in loops, and take a whole bunch of run time and you couldn’t stop it. You didn’t stop it until the operator knew something wrong was going on. And in the meantime, you had to pay for all that. Sometimes, you’d rack up 30 or 40 dollars on a run, just for nothing!
Whereas, when you had a PC, all you had to do was push buttons, a spacebar or any key, and the program that was running would stop. And besides that, the run didn’t cost you anything. So that greatly revolutionized our work.
11. Going to College
Were there computers in college?
No, we didn’t have any computers in college. We had slide rules and calculators. We had a mechanical adding machine, and it could multiply and divide, I guess. It was like this—and this—[stretches arms out].
So we used our slide rules for everything else. I still have my slide rule. It’s made out of bamboo and it still works just as free as it did then.
What kind of classes did you take in college?
I took the five year course in mechanical engineering. If I’d taken a four-year course I’d have gotten a bachelor of science with a mechanical engineering major, but as it is, I have a bachelor’s of mechanical engineering, which is a five year degree.
And usually those that take that five year degree are not going on to grad school at that same school. If you’re going on to get a master’s degree at that same school, you’d take a bachelor’s of science with a mechanics major. But I couldn’t pass the—I didn’t have good enough grades to get into grad school there at University of Minnesota.
What were your grades like?
My grades were C plusses. I always had to work—that was my excuse anyway.
12. Working on School Buses
I always had to work in the school bus garage to earn my way. Later I worked in the mechanical engineering research shop, welding, and I ran the lathe and so on there for the grad students that were working on their programs.
How much time did you spend doing that work stuff?
Oh 30 to 40 hours a week.
And how much time did you have for your class work?
Well I took a full load—it wasn’t a big load, but it was a regular load. But I could do the extra work all day on Saturday and most afternoons. I could work when I wanted to, because I was working for grad students.
How did you get involved in the school bus garage?
I first got involved in that when I was at Bethel College. I worked at the school bus garage because that school bus garage was owned by Reuben Achterkirch. He was the same age as my dad but he was my cousin [husband of Grace’s niece/Bob’s cousin Irene]. And he and his partner ran a fleet of around 72 buses in the Saint Paul/ Minneapolis area.
First, I worked just in the garage as a mechanic, but then I got my school bus driver’s license and worked driving charters around St. Paul-Minneapolis. Every now and then I’d get an out of town charter. I really liked those because there was a lot more money, and you had to stay and go to the activities—
How much did you get paid for this stuff?
I don’t know, seems like if you ran a charter to southern Minnesota you got paid, I don’t know, 50 bucks or something. It was quite a bit.
How much did college cost you?
I earned a dollar-fifty an hour in that job, but as soon as I could after my second year of undergrad school I transferred to University of Minnesota, because I realized I really wanted to get training in mechanical engineering. I had to transfer out of the liberal arts school at Bethel College.
As soon as I got there [to UM], I was still working at the school bus garage.
But I was trying to get a job with one of the grad students. I finally managed it, so then I worked for him for nine months. I stared thru a microscope at—I measured the distance between the fringe lines on that microscope to tell something about the heating, how to predict the heating off of a horizontal flat plate. And we could do that by measuring the fringes between these lines. So for nine months I stared through a microscope and made x-y measurements. He used all that in getting his Doctor’s degrees.
And he later got hired back into the program at the University of Minnesota, and became head of the department, Professor Goldsmith. He finally retired from being head of the program maybe 10 years ago.
13. Driving the Dozer
What other jobs did you do?
I also worked at gravel pits during several summers for the State of Ohio. We were testing the content of the gravel, which was being stockpiled for delivery to roads around our county. And I had to heat the gravel in a graduated sieve, so we could determine the proportions of various content, from fine clays to small stones. So I ran the quality assurance tests on the gravel. And I enjoyed watching the dozer operators stockpiling the gravel.
In order to start the big engine, the Cat dozer had a small gasoline engine that I had to start up and use to start the big diesel engine. So one weekend I went back to the gravel pit and started the dozer—and I ran it up and down the stockpile pushing gravel along in front of the blade just like a real operator!
I had watched closely all aspects, so I was successful doing that.
But I got caught and nearly lost my job. In fact, I think I would have lost my job, if my dad hadn’t vouched for me.
And later I went on to work for the Engine Research Department of Caterpillar in Peoria for seven years, in my first job out of college.
14. Meeting June
Wait, so when did you meet Grandma June?
When I was at Bethel, I met her right away as a freshman, because we were in chapel choir. Well, she also worked in a dining hall, so I think I saw her every single meal.
And even when I went to University of Minnesota, I stayed right near Bethel College campus, so I took all my meals right there at Bethel College cafeteria. I’m not sure how they allowed that, because I was an ex-student.
And I didn’t take all my meals; I ate my breakfast quite at the local drugstore, because I had to go into the school bus garage early sometimes.
Oh like seven o’clock. You had to show up because of the school bus route. We had to make sure we had enough school bus drivers for the day.
How late would you work?
Well, if I had class I would just take off from there for class at the University of Minnesota. I drove over to the farm campus of University of Minnesota, and then took the intercampus bus over to the main campus. So I had to allow an extra half hour to be sure I could catch the bus. The buses ran on schedule, and there was a good road from where the school bus facility was and the farm campus. So I could get there in maybe 10 minutes or less.
Did you live in a dorm then?
No I lived across the street with Eric and—I can’t remember her name, but I lived with a Swedish couple. He was the janitor there at Bethel. I lived with them for 3 or 4 years.
And when I first moved out of the dormitory after my second year there, I lived across the street from Bethel with 3 or 4 other guys. One of them was a man from Cuba, Joel Scintz (sp?). I got to know him really well, and he became a missionary to Spain later. And I got to know his friend who was also from Cuba and came to seminary like Joel.
And his friend became a schizophrenic, and he was committed to the Moose Lake—well, let’s see, that doesn’t seem right. Anyway, he was committed to a mental hospital about 30 to 40 miles away, while we were there. It was up on highway 65 and out west there. His sister came to visit there in the summertime and I took his sister out to visit him, and she only spoke Spanish. I’d taken a year of Spanish, so that was a great help for me.
But Jorge eventually walked out in freezing weather because of his schizophrenia. He was going to leave the place, and didn’t have anything on his feet. And he froze his feet off. And they had to amputate both feet. He didn’t last long after that—he died.
But his sister brought—she was a clothes maker in Cuba and she made me a real nice cardigan, I guess you call it, almost like a shirt jacket. It had big squares in it, but it was orange and brown. And I still have that.
So this was back before Cuba got closed to us?
Yes, I think so. Castro came in 1957, I think. And see, I started college in ’54.
So what were politics like when you were growing up?
Uh… I don’t think I took any courses in politics in school…
Did you see the president on TV?
No, we didn’t have TV then. We didn’t have TV at home at all, none, zero, when I was young.
We got our first TV after we were married. It was an RCA color TV, a real old thing. We got it when, something like when the girls were two to six years old. It wasn’t a very good color TV, and then we got a black and white TV we kept for a long time, a small one.
15. Telephones and Radios
Now, you didn’t watch TV then [in his childhood] you listened to the radio. They had Tom Mixes on, you know, all these cowboys. They had mysteries, and I think there were some Christian radio stations. You could listen to singing on the radio, it was—course there were no computers. We didn’t have any calculators, we didn’t have any personal computers until after 1984, or ‘5. And they never got into the homes until probably after 1990.
But you had telephones all along?
Yes, but out there in the country in Brook Park, it was a community phone. When the phone rang it rang a whole bunch of other places, so if they wanted to get on the line all they had to do was pick up on the phone and not say anything, and listen…
Did people do that? [laughs]
Yeah you might have 4 to 5 people that were on the same line as you, but you all had different rings. Like our phone would ring 3 times in a row and pause, and 3 times in a row and pause, and someone else might ring 4 times in a row and pause, and 4 times in a row.
So they would know who the call was for, but they would pick it up anyway?
Yeah, they would tell whether it was their phone who was ringing or not, but if they wanted to listen in to the Fischers’ conversation all they had to do was pick up the phone. So that was how gossip would get around…
How else did gossip get around?
You could also call somebody on the phone. They had a phone exchange in town. They had a lady, Mrs. Carly, that ran the phone exchange, and all the phone calls would come in to her, and she would pass it to your phone if they asked for your phone.
Oh, and one of the activities that we really liked when we were kids, was, on the side of the Carly residence, there was a two-story building. They had an open blank wall, and they would show movies on Saturday night. You’d come in to town and put your blanket down on the ground there, on the grass, and you could watch the movie there.
16. Watching TV
What kind of movies did they show?
Oh they showed all kinds… Pearl Swedlund, my Aunt Pearl, she lived in town in Brook Park. And Jack and the girls and so on all lived there. And they were one of the earliest people to get a television. So we would go into Swedlunds on some Friday night, Saturday night, and watch wrassling.
Whenever wrassling was on it was a big deal. Gorgeous George with the real curly blond hair… he would come out with his hair all in curlers, and he’d take the curlers all off and his hair would be all curled up. Gorgeous George, he had fancy gold costumes to match his blond hair…
… it was fun to watch wrassling. Of course there wasn’t real wrassling, it was just like it is today, except maybe worse. It was all play acting, but they did it in such a way that they made you think that the guy was… getting his arm broken or getting punched in the gut or whatever. They really went at it.
17. Throwing Stones
So how did your dad treat you boys growing up?
Well he… Mom really never disciplined us. She took to holler at us, but if we had done something really bad, she would get him after us when he came home from work.
And he would take his belt off and give us a thrashing. He never liked to hit us with his bare hand. I don’t know why he thought it was better to hit us with his belt. It hurt just as bad…
Did it make you behave?
Well uh, for a while I suppose. Like, one time we would go on the railroad tracks, and there was a highway between the railroad tracks and our house. And we would throw stones at the cars that were going by, and course you know what happened then…
We hit a car, broke his windshield. And the guy stopped, and he got information from my mother about who we were, and said, “You’re gonna pay for this windshield.”
So when my dad got home that night, she turned him loose on us and uh… boy we got a thrashing.
You and Donny and David?
Yeah, and we had to pay for that windshield.
Later, I’d say when I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, we had our own milk cows. We each had one cow that dad gave us, and so we three boys had a separate milk check that would come every 2 weeks.
But we had to milk our own cows, plus help him milk his cows. He had about 20 cows, and we had 3 cows among our group. We would keep our milk separate, and he would sell his milk, and we would sell our milk.
How much milk were you selling, with three cows?
I don’t know, but it was enough to buy a car with. All three of us put money in together and we saved up and bought a car. My oldest brother, Donald, drove the car, because he was the only one that had a license. Donald was two years older than I was, and David was one year younger than I was.
18. Brother Donald
What was Donald like?
We used to fight a lot. And I always had big muscles on my legs, up my thigh muscles, and I could get him in a leg hold and he couldn’t hit me because I had him in a leg hold. So I was not afraid of Donald at all.
In fact, when we were growing up and going to high school in the school bus—we had to go 20 minutes to high school in Pine City. I remember two years when I went to high school with Donald. He would always get in fight with someone else from Brook Park. They would pick on him, and he would never fight back. So he wouldn’t win [disbelief] and they just pestered the life out of him… and I felt so bad… because when I fought I never let anybody beat me.
I had someone like that at Brook Park that would always fight me in the elementary school at recess out in the yard. We wrassled, but I would always get him in a leg hold, and then he’d let me go. He always picked on me, but I never let him beat me.
I talked to this guy two years ago, at our class reunion. And I said, do you remember during our recess we’d always fight out there in the yard in elementary school, and I tried my best not to ever let you get the advantage and beat me, and I’d always try to get you in a leg hold? But he didn’t remember anything about it.
Well it was big memories for me, but I suppose bullies don’t remember that the people they try to be bullies to…
While the guys were fighting what were the girls doing, would they sit around and talk?
No they would cheer.
Oh my, it was bad. I didn’t like that at all… Of course, I never got involved in it because I was two years younger than Donald was, but I sure felt like he should be standing up for himself.
When he went off to college then I think he did really well. He went to University of Minnesota at Duluth and got a degree in the study of rocks… He got a degree in geology. And then after he graduated, he married Janette, and then they went down to Northwestern University in Chicago. He got a master’s degree in geology, and then he went to work for the Texaco Oil Company in Utah, Salt Lake City.
I still have a couple of his books, one on statistics and another one on something like that. He used statistics in handling large amounts of data for his thesis, for his master’s degree in geology. I don’t know why I got the books, but I guess I asked for them or Janette probably volunteered them!
What kind of personality did he have?
Well … he smiled a lot. I think he only had one girlfriend, that was Janette. He went with her from when he was a junior in high school.. I suppose after he got a car, then he could go out to her farm and then… they got married after he graduated from college.
So when did you and Grandma get married?
We got married after she graduated from college. We got married, uh, March 21st. That was before I graduated from college.
She was working as a teacher of geography at a junior high school in northeast Minneapolis. She used my car, which of course I financed, a 1950 Ford with six cylinders. She used that car to drive back and forth to her school teaching job before we were married. We were married and she taught until June, or whenever school was out, and I finished my undergraduate work by that same June.
20. Working at Caterpillar
And then we went off to my first job in Peoria, Illinois at the Caterpillar Tractor Company. We stayed there 7 years, and then came to Columbus, Ohio.
What was your job like at Caterpillar?
Oh I worked on diesel engines. I was in the research department, so I got involved in all kinds of things—water pumps, heat exchangers, turbochargers. All the parts of a high performance diesel engine, 5.4 inches diameter pistons.
We ran the V8s, the straight sixes, but primarily the V8s. They were really powerful engines. You had to wear earplugs to go out into test cells. We had brand new test cells when I first went there. I worked in the building 10, right down in East Peoria, Illinois, in an old facility. It was kinda fun, but we knew we were gonna move out to a new facility.
And when we did move… oh boy, it was really fancy equipment, and everything brand new. My office was in an open area with about 25 other engineers, something like that. And the boss had a room up off in the corner with open windows, so he would see all of us working [chuckles]. He always used to eat a banana every single morning for a snack. So every single morning he’d have his banana, and we could see him eating his banana.
What were the guys like that you worked with?
Oh they were really first rate guys, they were really… there were no slackers.
Were they all mechanical engineers?
Yeah I think so, they were all… the ones that were in my area. But we had technicians also. They might have had a desk in the same area.
And we also had a group of mechanics that were assigned to our group. And they would do the work. They also had night shift mechanics so you could order some kind of a big change in your engine, and you come in the next morning and the change was all made and ready. So you’d run the next test in the sequence that was lined up, in testing out what you wanted to test. I learned how to put on train gauges for test analysis.
Unlike a lot of engineers, I really wanted to be able to do everything, the mechanical work, the technical work setting up the instruments. I never did learn how to use the real fancy high frequency motors that we had. We had some recorders that could record real dynamic conditions, and I didn’t have any interest in learning how to use that equipment, but I used everything else.
I sometimes wish now that I could get a microvolt charge recorder like I had then, because you can do so much—it just record the signals in microvolts that some of these instrumentation…
Uh huh… so what was June doing at that time?
Uh, she was substitute teaching. She taught maybe four or five days a month, maybe more, but she had young kids too… our first child was born when… I think we were married for three years, and from then on she had children…
So all three of them were born in Peoria?
Jan and Jill were, I know that for sure. I think maybe Joan was born in Columbus. We moved to Columbus in ’66.
21. The Company of Scholars
Did you spend a lot of time with the girls, or did you work?
I think I was… well, I never pursued a doctor’s degree. I’m pretty sure I could have gotten one. I found out that I had to spend at least 11 years getting it, and, in night school. But I couldn’t very well quit my job because I had these two children. So I decided I didn’t want to give up all the time required away from the kids, just to get my doctor’s degree.
Instead I worked on a master’s degree. As I said before, I wasn’t smart enough to go directly from undergraduate to graduate school. But I had proved myself in being able to write all kinds of reports at Caterpillar.
And because I was a Caterpillar employee, Bradley University let me into their graduate program, in night school. And so I took one course every semester for 5 years, in graduate school at Bradley. I didn’t have to write a thesis, because I’d written a bunch of technical reports at Caterpillar. And I took extra math courses, which I was very glad to have instead of the thesis requirement.
I probably started in 1966, when I came there… and then I, so it had to be in the 70s when I got my master’s degree.
They paid all my tuition to go to Bradley in the evening, so it didn’t cost anything to go to graduate school. And I told you that when I graduated with a masters degree, the guy that was the speaker welcomed us into the company of scholars. And that really got to me, and it affected the way I approached my work from then on.
How did you approach your work differently?
I felt I ought to understand what I was doing. I never tried to do something I didn’t understand. I tried to… my approach was a scholarly way whenever I could. And sometimes because of time and money—when I worked at Battelle you had to get your project done on time, and within the budget. You can’t do everything as you’d like to have done, you gotta just do it.
But that was a good thing to learn early on and to use it in my career at Battelle. The same in the database work I did for Sterling Commerce and also the [consulting] work I did for Randy, I always tried to understand the work I was doing.
I always had to work on the frontiers of knowledge or information, and I could never see the end when I started.
In research you can never see the end from when you start, because you haven’t done it before! Nobody’s done it before, usually. You’re working, trying to develop something new or develop information about it that would help other people understand…
So that’s why you write reports. At Battelle I got to write technical papers which… they expected us to write technical papers whenever we could. And whenever you’re working on a government job, you’ve almost always got to write a technical paper based on that work. So I have 21 technical papers that I have written and delivered at various cities across the United States.
22. Patents and Technical Papers
And you got a patent, didn’t you?
I got my name on three patents. The first one was how to speed up a turbocharger. Because in the early days, when you would accelerate a diesel engine, you’d get a big black cloud of smoke come out of it! So we figured out ways to get rid of that by injecting oil into the turbocharger against the turbine wall, and that speeds up the turbocharger. But it was more complicated and it cost a lot more, so it never did get into production. And then I got a couple other patents on heat pumps.
What were some of the other things you were really proud of doing in your work life?
Well I’ve written several—now, it was like what you do in your research, when you accumulate knowledge on a certain subject, and then you write about it and then you tell these various people what you’ve contributed to these particular subjects.
I have one paper on—if you go to Google and type in Robert D. Fischer you’ll come up with this paper, for example. It’s a simultaneous computational model for calculations of simultaneous heat and moisture transfer in soils. And that’s a very important line of work that has to do with ground coupled heat pumps. When you try to extract heat from the ground in the wintertime, moisture flows toward the tubing that you’ve got buried in the ground.
But in the summertime, it’s just the opposite. When you want it to reject heat, well that makes the soil around the tubing dry out as the moisture goes away from the tubing. So if you can use a computer motel to calculate the simultaneous heat and moisture transfer through soils, you can start to get a handle on what’s happening there…
23. The Solar Powered Irrigation Pump
Well there are a number of others, I developed another tech paper on a project that we did to accumulate knowledge about solar powered power systems, yeah, small ones. And the reason we got that project was that we developed a solar powered irrigation pump for one of the big insurance companies that is based in Milwaukee.
We installed it down in Helovan (?), Arizona, south of Phoenix 60 miles, on one of the insurance companies’ farms they had there. They could grow three different crops in that farm because they had almost 365 days of good weather there, where the sun was shining.
So we had concentrated solar collectors/conductors in big huge troughs that were almost 10 feet across and maybe 20 feet long, and they would attract the sun throughout the day. They would power this 50 horsepower irrigation pump and water would fall out of a pipe 8 or 9 inches in diameter, out of that pipe and back onto the ground there for irrigation.
What you do is, they pull up the water from way down below, maybe 200 feet below or maybe more, from the big aquifers that are under that whole area. They would pull up the water with a pump, and then they would store it in a reservoir.
Then this pump would pull it out of the reservoir out into the fields. It would collect the water when it gets down to the end of the fields and pull it back up to the top of the fields, and they would reuse it for irrigating their systems. Everything had to be irrigated there because it was a desert! It’s where all the cactuses are, you know, saguaro cactus.
So we, uh, I did the computer modeling for the performance of that system, powered by the sun. It was a ranking cycle power system like the steam engine on a locomotive, except it was a closed system. So that was kinda new work, you know. I got to give several technical papers on the design of that system, and on the performance of it. And I got my name on another tech paper where the fellow who had the parts built and then installed it down there … he actually was down there on an operator system for two years. It operated for two years and they eventually pulled out because it couldn’t be operated without an operator there checking on it—because it leaked!
You had to have a pump to pump the liquid and that pump could not be submerged within the fluids. Like a refrigeration system, but a refrigeration pump is sealed and the motor is sealed within the refrigerator. We used an external pump, and those seals leak eventually. You lose the refrigerant and you gotta add more refrigerant…
24. Grindstone Lake Bible Camp
So, changing topics a bit (!!),what was your faith like growing up? How did you come to know God?
Well, my mother was a Sunday School superintendent, so we were exposed to the Bible from a very early age, both by reading the Bible at home and by going to Sunday School and church every Sunday.
At church us three boys would sit up on the front, two on one side and one on the other, right up on the front row.
So you had to behave?
Yeah we had to behave. And it was not—we didn’t get distracted, and we could hear what the preacher was saying.
What did the preacher usually talk about? How did he teach?
I don’t know… some of the preachers were very good, they’d keep your attention and some of the preachers were bad. We’d get a new preacher about every two to three years.
When I was about 12 years old, my aunt Janet—she was the wife of the Presbyterian minister in Hinckley, Uncle Frank. She paid for my way and my younger brother David’s way to Grindstone Lake Bible Camp [in Sandstone, Minnesota].
What did you do at the camp?
This Presbyterian Church took over that camp during that week of the year, and they had a good old fashioned camp… oh boy, it was right on the Grindstone Lake. We swam every day in that beautiful lake, real clear water. And then we played softball, we did a lot of…
Was it all boys?
No, boys and girls. And we studied the Bible. We did games up there, it was a really good time.
But that was the week I came to know Christ as my savior! I went forward one night at the invitation of the preacher, and I remember going out afterwards and looking… I felt quite at home under the night sky with all the stars and moon and everything.
It was a very good time. That’s what I look to, the time when I came to know Christ as my personal savior.
My brother David went to the same camp, I guess. I don’t remember him being there, and he said “It didn’t take with me as it did Bob.” [laughs]
What made you decide that was the time to go forward?
[surprised] Because the Holy Spirit led me, as simple as that. Even though I was a sinner I knew I needed Christ as my savior from sin, as simple as that.
And how do you feel God has reached you at other times in your life?
Well, as I look back on it now—when I studied later, I realized that God has quite a bit to do with a person’s coming to know forgiveness from sin, and coming to right relationship with him. It’s the Holy Spirit woos and wins you, and all that sort of thing, And that’s what happened with me.
And I think right about then was when uh… no, I’d been home from camp maybe… camp was probably in May…
25. The Explosion
Anyhow, the first of July I was coming home from town, and there was a lot of excitement around our driveway. We had a half mile driveway up from the highway to the house, and I could see smoke down where our house is. And I finally got home [sighs] just in time to see the roof cave in of our house. Our house burned right down the ground. And it was the same year, 1948, the same year as I came to know Christ as my savior. But this was early in July, I think.
My dad was making a fire in the kitchen stove, and he had poured kerosene on some wood embers that were still left over from the night before. The can was almost empty, and when he uprighted the can over that fire it flared up and ignited the vapors inside the can! And the can blew up!
So he was covered from… he burned his legs really bad. He has skin grafts from up on his hips down to his knees, where they had to take small dime-sized particles of skin off of his legs, a skin pattern about 6 inches wide or so. They would put those spots down on his lower legs because he burned his lower legs.
He was laid up for at least 6 weeks, maybe longer than that. A couple of months, maybe.
And I remember that time my mother cried every single night—
For him, for the house, everything?
Well yeah, everything. She had 3 boys and here we were cooped up in a granary with all the mice and everything—us boys didn’t mind it at all. We slept up in the overhead loft there, and mother had her kitchen out on the side, and had her living room, dining room right below us. Maybe her bedroom was up over the kitchen…
And a neighbor my dad had previously purchased the right to wood on… out west of town, about 10 miles. They cut down a whole bunch of ash wood, and took it to the lumber mill and sawed it up. And this neighbor came over, Edward Anderson, and he directed the rebuilding of our home.
So that was the home we lived in all through high school. That wasn’t the original home on that farm. It was the one that was rebuilt after the fire. During that fire we lost everything. We had to start over from scratch.
What were the hardest things to lose in the fire?
For example, we lost all our clothes. We lost… I don’t know what mother would say, but we lost all the keepsakes that we had. I remember we had a Japanese rifle that Uncle Blair Karges had brought back from the Pacific, from the Second World War. And that got burned up—it had a lot of wood on its side. Everything was burned down to the basement. It was very sad, but the neighbors were all so good about helping. They helped us get that granary fixed up, so we could live in it, and they helped us through with things we needed to live there.
I think it was probably very depressing for Mom to go visit Dad in the hospital in Mora and see him in such pain, his legs all burned like that.
26. Iron Ore
It didn’t slow Dad down that much, though. He worked as a construction boss in the twin cities. He worked up in Duluth, at a ranch… I remember we went up to help him there with chinking.
He would get up on the inside of those big cars that would haul the Babbitt iron ore from the mines down to the docks, and he would chink the cracks so they wouldn’t lose a whole lot of iron ore on the way from the mine to the ship there at Lake Superior. Then the ore would go over to the mills in the Cleveland area, on big huge boats.
What did they produce at the mills?
Steel, it was steel. It was from iron ore. They called it Babbitt ore because it was in small pieces, about an inch in diameter … I guess they ran it thru a machine that beat up the rock strata that it was encased in. And that’s what they would haul in those long ore trains that would go out to Lake Superior.
They would travel about 40 miles or 30 miles from the mines to Lake Superior, and they had big ships that would carry it over to Cleveland.
So dad lived the rest of his life from 1948 on with burned legs. He died maybe six, seven years ago,
2003 or something around there…
27. Hard Projects at Work
So what’s been the hardest thing in your life?
Well one was at work. I had a project that was nowhere near completed. And I wasn’t afraid of going ahead and doing it. The only problem was we didn’t have time or money to complete it… so I was up the crick. No matter how many hours I put in, no matter how hard I worked, I still couldn’t complete it and satisfy the sponsors, uh… so, that was bad.
What happened was, my bosses’ boss stepped in to the project and took over the project leadership. He basically took it away from my boss [tense tone]. And he was the one who went with me to meetings to all different cities of the United States… and he would say exactly what we’re going to get done until the next meeting.
We finally did conclude that work and it was very well received, but it was only concluded because he, the boss two levels above me, stepped in and somehow he used Battelle money to support me during that time.
It was a very humbling experience.
But like June said, “You can’t always be successful in your line of work, and you shouldn’t measure your worthwhileness before God [by it, if] even though you try your best, if you don’t succeed.” So that was a very trying experience, a very humbling experience. And that was good for me in the long run.
And I saw that man maybe three or two years ago, when I was walking over at Polaris [Mall], and he’s a good friend to this day. He had to retire earlier than he would have liked from Battelle, because he developed heart trouble. It wasn’t similar to my heart trouble, but…
So tell me more about when you decided to retire, what happened after that?
At Battelle, we knew it was coming. I prepared for it maybe four or five months ahead of time—I decided that I’m going to try to get a job teaching mechanical engineering courses at Cedarville College. And I lined up a whole series of courses on solar energy, mathematics, computer classes, developing a solar energy power system and just a whole raft of different courses that I wanted to teach.
When it came time [at Battelle], they dismissed all of us at the end of December… because they wanted everybody over 50 years old to retire. And they gave us five years on our retirement benefits to keep our mouths shut and not sue them, you know.
So effectively, I was 58 and a half years old and it was as if I was suddenly 63 in term of retirement benefits from them. Of course I still couldn’t get social security but… I said ok, goodbye, I’m leaving.
And when I decided to leave I really decided to leave. I never went back at all. My friend went back as a paid consultant. He’s still got an office there to this day.
But I never went back at all. Instead, 19 days later, I got a job. My Sunday School superintendent knew I was looking for work, and Cedarville College never came through with dealing with my application, so he said “I’d like you to come and work for me.” So I went to work for him at quite a reduction in salary from what I was making at Battelle, but at the end of 6 years working for him, my salary was back up to what it was 6 years earlier, so…
And this was at Sterling?
This was at Sterling Commerce. And then your dad came calling, wanted me to work for him. And that was the best three years I ever had, because I got paid the most And I got to work with databases, new programming languages. I used Java, C and C++. I used all those languages in doing my work and that was amazing! And then suddenly all that came to an end, when I was 67 years old. But that’s the same age as my dad was when he retired, 67 years old.
So when did you pick up the motorcycle, then?
I started doing the motorcycle probably two years after being with Randy, when I was maybe 68 or 69 years old.
29. The Girls
And going back, what memories do you have of the girls growing up?
Ohh… the girls always were involved in music. They always had their own specialized instruments. And it cost a lot of money, but I never regretted spending that money.
Let’s see, Jill had a trombone and then she played the bass viola [cello]. Her bass viola was not a cheap instrument at all, but it’s a really good instrument. I think her trombone probably wasn’t the greatest. And she played in a band and then in the orchestra.
And then Jan played her violin. She had a cheapie violin to start with, and then we got her a really good one. And then she also played the flute.
And Joan played the trumpet and she played the—what’s between a bass viola and a violin?
A viola, yeah, she played a viola. Then when she went off to college, to Wheaton College she wanted to play the French horn in the worst way, and so we bought her a French horn. And I think she enjoyed playing in the Wheaton College orchestra with the French horn. A French horn can be really beautiful.
So I got to go to a lot of the girls’ activities. They always were in competitions and June played for them in competitions. And the girls always had art things that they’d drawn or worked on, that we went to see at the high school or the junior high.
And I don’t know, I suppose… I wasn’t an absent dad… but I sure wasn’t interested in all the things they were doing…
What did you see as the difference in their personalities?
Well, Jill kicked the traces worse that any of the other girls, that’s for sure… I won’t go into the details, but she tried us sorely. That’s about all I’ll say about that.
She’s been really good, my wife’s best friend for years and years, and we really appreciate her.
And I think she always felt like Jan was the super achiever. Of course Jan was really smart and she was… she got really high on all of her college aptitude scores. She got a full ride scholarship to the Cincinnati School of Music, but she decided she didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want to go to spend those long six hours a day doing violin… so instead she went to Wake Forest and got her degree in Spanish and a minor in music, and that worked out really well for her.
Jill went off to school… I think first she went to Bethel College in St. Paul. That was still when she was really kicking the traces. But then she went to school in Toronto for one year at a school that was speaking only French and uh, I think she had a difficult time. French isn’t like Spanish. It’s a difficult language. And then she came home, and six months later she and Randy got married. Unfortunately she never got her degree… [note: she got it after this interview!]
And what about Joan?
Well she went off to Wheaton College, she became an Episcopalian. She liked that liturgy in her religious life, and…. what else was there? Joan’s a good student; she claimed she knitted in almost all her classes. She’d just sit back and knit. She’s just like June—she had to have something else to do beside just listen to the speaker… she always seemed to have fun, that would characterize her… she was a happy girl most of the time.
She also tended to be melancholic at times and seemed to resent living in the shadow of two older sisters. She was a good scholar and could easily do her schoolwork even at Upper Arlington High School, where over 95% of students were bound for college. She was a good musician and artist… and we felt we had done our part before the Lord in raising her.
I have a picture that I treasure of her playing her viola for Grandpa Deane about 3 months before he died. She played hymns for hours, as he was close to death.
30. Cambodian Children
What about Vaughn and Ouen?
They came to us when Ouen was nearly 15 years old, and she was just starting into high school. They were with us for five and a half years and then Ouen got married.
When they came, Joan was still home. Jan and Jill were gone, and Joan said she didn’t want to live in a fortress, because we put on a real thick Lucite panel onto our back screen door. And we put a good lock on it, so we could lock the back door.
We’d never locked the doors normally, but after them coming to live with us, we were afraid of the guy that was living with them [before], that was bothering Ouen. He was a member of the Viet… well whatever the bad people there in Cambodia were. He came over [with the family] and he was not related to them, but he was harassing them.
So, I built an apartment for them in the basement, and put in a bathroom just for them and they had their kitchen facility where she cooked—really strong smells and things!
Any other things you would say to family?
Well… our girls, and our extended family and grandkids all have enriched our lives so much.
And I wouldn’t have had it any other way, that’s for sure.
Bob Fischer, 1936-2017
What a wonderful bit of family history. You might want to add the day or days when you interviewed Bob. It would be great if you could locate the picture of Joan playing the Viola. And, if you get a chance, interview her mom as well. I try to collect some of our family history too. I found three letters from my dad to Grandma Tolly written around when I was 6 months old. He was in Nine Mile Canyon in Utah – a place I want to visit. I thought you might enjoy them.
I was about 4 or five years younger the the older Fischer boy. They were mischievous. The had cats and little kittens. I saw one of the boys put a kitten’s head in his mouth. The better trick was squirting milk straight from the cow into the kitten’s mouth. The cats loved that.
Aww, thanks for sharing, Douglas!