This interview with Bob Oler was recorded in November, 2010.
Bob has since retired and the new airport manager is
Bob Oler Interview
Bob Oler manages our city’s airport in Watonga. Watonga.com had the opportunity to sit down with Bob and record some of his ‘flying stories’ and ‘childhood stories’ recently. We’ve read them over several times and we are still entertained with every reading.
When Bob was 15, he spent the summer working for his Grandfather Long. He chopped cotton, ground corn for the chickens, tended to the sheep, goats, cattle and hogs – not expecting any pay except a place to sleep and something to eat. He was quite familiar with this farm; he often ran the 5 miles from town after school when his grandfather left a note at the house, “Need help at the farm today.”
At the end of the summer of 1946, his grandfather presented him with a 1926 Model T Coup and enough stuff to overhaul the engine. Before springtime, Bob had the car running and had souped it up with a 60 horsepower V8 engine and a Model A rear end. Legend has it that Bob was seen racing the car on occasion from the Hinton Junction to Consumers in El Reno against a fellow with a brand new Olds 88. It was reported that the Model T came in ahead of the Olds.
Through the years, Bob would own several ‘antique’ cars and become skilled at working on them. About 15 years ago, he got the opportunity to buy a 1926 Model T touring car that needed very little ‘fixing’ to get it street-ready. This car has been featured in probably 20 parades in Watonga.
Bob’s first experience with flight was even before he started to school.
He knew enough about weather changes to plan this out on his own. He saw a cold front moving in from the northwest and hoped that there would be enough wind for him to accomplish his goal.
He laid out the wagon sheet next to the fence on the opposite side of the pig pen on his grandfather's farm. Bob tied ropes through the grommets of the sheet fixing a seat for him with the ropes. When the wind came up, he fanned the sheet letting the wind lift the sheet and him over the fence and landing him on the soft ground of the pig wallow.
Then began Bob’s mission: plotting ways to get in an airplane and fly!
When Bob was nine years old his dad, Tom Oler was preparing to go up in a Koffman monoplane along with Charles Harriett, who was an instructor at the airport when it was located north of the cemetery.
Charles Harriet, flight instructor
The plane had two seats up front and a bench seat in back. It was owned by Roy Rice. Tom had already told Bob that he couldn’t go with him. But the determined little Bobby Joe snuck in the plane and crouched behind the front two seats.
Finally Bob heard the whir of the engine and felt the wheels on the runway go ‘bumpity, bumpity, bumpity’. Then, ‘bump……. Bump……. Bump, then no bumps and he knew they were in the air. The stowaway quickly jumped up behind the two passengers and placed his hands hard on their shoulders, saying,
“Hi you guys!”
Tom’s reaction was calm; maybe he knew Bob had snuck aboard. But poor Charles almost had a heart attack! It was on that day
Bob decided he would learn all about airplanes; how to build them, how to fix them,
but most of all how to fly them.
Roy Rice with Tom Oler
It was unusual for Bob to have any money in his pocket when he was growing up. When asked why he didn’t have spending money when he worked so many jobs, his answer was,
“It took $7 to take flying time in a J3Cub.”
At nine he worked for Mr. Hooper washing dishes. He remembered Mr. Hooper as a man of small stature, but great character. At that time there were 3 drugstores: Hooper’s Drug Store, Vetches’ Drug Store (just west of the bank building) and C&R Drug, ran by Jake Ruhl (located north side of Main between Noble and Prouty).
The drugstores were the only businesses in town that stayed open late except for Saturday nights when all the stores were open. Mr. Hooper and Mr. Vetch would drive their female employees home after work. They wouldn’t let them leave with friends even if the girls wanted to.
Another job Bob had was popping popcorn at the Rook Theater as well as the Ann Theater.
When he was 11, he worked at French’s Dry Cleaners (located just south of the Post Office). Jerry Schubert owned the cleaners then where Bob worked every day after school for $4 a week. He started out as the scrub boy. That meant that he would soak each garment in cold soap water with some spot remover, hang them up to dry, and then put them in solvent to soak. After that process the garment was put in an extractor that was steam operated and had a foot brake. Then he moved up to the press room, where he learned how to spot ties, block hats and press fine women’s clothing.
On a nice summer day when his friends wanted him to go swimming, he decided that he would quit French’s Cleaners. When he got back from the swimming hole, there was a note by the phone for him to call Service Cleaners. After a few days he went in to see the owners of Service Cleaners, Bill and Mary Wolman and saw a lot of past employees of French’s Cleaners that he didn’t know were working at Service Cleaners. As he walked in the room, he exclaimed,
“I guess that I’m late!”
Service Cleaners was on the south side of Main between Noble and Weigle (right beside the Nickel Inn). At this job, Bob earned $14 a week and all he did here was the scrubbing.
When Bob was a little older, he worked three jobs.
Right after school, he went to Dr. Barrett’s office to help him make false teeth. Then at 6 pm, he worked for, Amil ‘Butch’ Spain at Swann’s Grocery. Then at 8 pm he showed up at the Phillips 66 on the corner of Noble and Hwy 33 and worked there until midnight. Here he learned how to fix flats, do grease jobs and overhaul engines. The business at Philips 66 was good because of Bob’s work philosophy – “I like to give people good service.”
Bob’s work ethic might have come from his father, Tom ,or his grandfather, William Oler. Bob’s dad, Tom, had this philosophy about financial allowances for his children: “You do what I tell you to do and then you’ll have a place to eat and sleep.”
Tom Oler always worked hard and he expected the same from his children. Early in Bob’s life, he remembers his father catching a ride on a truck that took him to Fay to work for the railroad. When that job played out, Tom drove a fuel truck in Enid. Jobs were hard to come by in those days and Bob’s family was back in Watonga living at the Paula Hotel before he was three years old.
They settled into a house on Burford a block and a half south of Main. Tom Oler opened a garage on Noble Avenue (Pioneer Telephone lot).
The sign reads “Olers Garage - Sedelene, welding, vulcanizing”. Pictured here is a fuseloge for a 2-place glider that Tom built; it still needs its skin. At this garage Tom worked at repairing airplanes and building gliders. Tom was an expert welder. He was often found repairing people’s aluminum ice cube trays – necessity of the time.
During the war, Tom worked for the government as an inspector and Bob's mother worked as a Farm Security Administrator in the courthouse. According to Bob, this put a little more food on the table; but not enough to fill you up! After the war Tom trained glider pilots in Lamesa, Texas and Vinita, Oklahoma. He taught mechanic school in El Reno and later managed the Watonga Airport.
Tom Oler when he was the airport manager
Bob built the furniture in the airport. Besides his other jobs, Bob was a cabinet maker.
During the depression years, many families lived together. Bob was born in his granddad Oler’s house on July 17th, 1931 where his family lived at the time. His Granddad Oler just lived a couple of years after his birth, but he does remember sitting on his knee fishing chocolates out of a small paper bag.
His Granddad Oler was a designer and inventor just like Bob and Bob’s father. His farm never had a weed in the bar ditch and all the fence rows were kept mowed and neat.
Bob refers to his granddad as a ‘working fool’.
He built a rock water tower beside his house with a cooling cellar below. He designed long troughs that would hold the cold running water. The trough started in the cellar where his grandmother would place milk and cheese beside the trough to keep it cold. Then the water moved onto the horse tank and lastly to the hog trough which was quite a distance from the house.
Bob has collected two patents. One for a 'fish finder'. This tool can tell you where the fish are and give you measurements as to how far away the fish are located. It has been used a lot in areas where ice-fishing is prevalent. And his other patent was for 'slick 50 gun oil'. This oil could be used in freezing temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.
Taking a chance on a ‘beating’ from his dad who believed that kids should not hang out in pool halls, Bob frequented ‘The Cave’ owned by Clifford Ball and run by Mr. Oaf. The Cave had tournament size snooker tables and four regular snooker tables and six pool tables.
It was run by a WWI vet, a giant old man, who was 6’3”. He had only one arm and he had a glass eye. He made sure that no one took advantage of the kids. If they could beat the snooker sharps that showed up in suits and que sticks in a case, he bought them a bottle of cola and a peanut patty. Bob could run 73 on the break, Cricket McLaughlin, a little guy could run 74.
Tom Oler didn’t want Bob associating with the wrong crowd. He wanted his son to have a good education and know right from wrong. So when he found out that he had been playing snooker in The Cave, he gave him a sound beating and grounded him for two weeks. Bob wasn’t allowed to go past the backyard fence. During those two weeks, when his mother asked him to go to the store for her, he was unwilling because he had been told he was grounded. He answered her with a smart-aleck grin saying, “I can’t; I’m not supposed to leave the yard.”
Bob didn’t have as good of a relationship with his mom as he did his dad. His dad understood Bob. He knew he was a gypsy and that he had to be moving.
When asked if he went back to The Cave after his beating, he said emphatically, “Oh yeah!”
When Bob was 16 years old, he worked at the ice plant in Watonga delivering 50 lb. blocks in a ’46 Dodge Plymouth pickup truck. Gene Wheeler and L.P. Rice were partners in this ice plant. He remembers the sign in the store window, “35 cents for
50 lb. blocks”.
His first day training was spent on the east side of town; but he settled into a route on the west side where collection was a little easier. People left a sign in their window telling the amount of ice they needed and they left the money for the ice on the top of the ice box. If they were not home, the ice man entered their house, left the ice and picked up the payment.
Here Bob learned about refrigeration hoses and the compressed gas that was used to keep the ice from melting. It was a tradition in those rough days at Watonga High that new high school boys were taken to the country in winter, stripped of their clothes and left, thus making them walk back to their homes, freezing and naked.
Expecting his own trip to the country, Bob filled an empty DDT can with SO2 and rigged the top of the can with a refrigeration hose and a home-made trigger spray and kept this device in his coat pocket. The day came that two bigger boys grabbed him by the arms after the picture show let out one night and put him in a car with 2 other boys who intended to drive him out of town.
Bob didn’t fight them or struggle; he had a plan.
After the car started rolling, Bob calmly took a deep breath, closed his eyes and sprayed the gas into the closed car. Quickly the four boys, coughing and tearing, stopped the car and opened all four doors to escape the gas. Bob jumped from the car and slowly walked away having kept his clothes and his dignity.
He kept that old DDT can for several years. When he worked for the Light and Water Department reading meters, he had one particular dog that gave him a lot of trouble. He decided to spray a little of the sulphur dioxide toward the dog to get him away from the meter. From then on, all he had to do was to make an ‘sssssssss’ noise with his mouth and the dog backed away.
Clyde Peterson, Bob’s 5th grade teacher was also the principal for his grade and one of Bob’s favorite teachers. Mr. Peterson showed respect for the kids and would even take time to play baseball with them. Bob hit Mr. Peterson with his fist a couple of times, but it was an accident. The first time Bob was defending a little kid against a bully and Mr. Peterson grabbed him by the hair and pulled him up off the ground. Thinking the third party was another kid, Bob swung as he twisted his body to meet the avenger and then realized, too late, that it was his teacher.
Another time, Bob was in a fist fight in the bathroom and didn’t stop throwing punches until he saw Mr. Peterson in the middle of the fight.
Bob said to Mr. Peterson, “Look, he peed on me!” The understanding teacher told Bob to go home and change clothes. But that was a year that Bob knew he didn’t have another change of clothes at home. In fact, it was sheer luck, if there was food on the table.
Mrs. Iona Alcer was Bob’s 6th grade teacher and another favorite. She was a big woman; they said she was a great basketball player for Canton when she was in school. They said that she was one of the roughest. She was good at getting kids to excel at whatever they had a talent for. Bob had a talent for art and his school work was often accompanied by drawing or painting projects.
When he was a junior in high school, Mrs. Turner, had him design and paint the place cards for the senior graduation. Bob has always enjoyed painting. In later years, when his work schedule was heavy, he would paint after the kids went to bed, staying up until 2 am.
Another one of Bob’s philosophies is that ‘sleep is over-rated’.
Bob remembers this incident as happening when he was still in school and he remembers Rayford Scott as the best sheriff in Blaine County (maybe because he helped Bob out of so many scrapes). Sheriff Scott could smell trouble a mile away.
One Halloween night, when someone had stolen a horse and locked the horse up in a room in the school auditorium, the sheriff knew that there must be trouble. The superintendent at the time was hoarding gasoline in the storeroom above the stage where the gas furnace was located.
During the war and gas rationing, this was against the law and terribly unsafe for students attending class in that building. Upon the conclusion of Sheriff Scott’s investigation of the stolen horse, he found 55 gallons of gasoline in the furnace room. This led to the removal of the rationed substance and to one superintendent.
When Bob was 14, he worked for Buck Pierce building cabinets. One day, his dad stopped by the shop and asked if he wanted to go with him to Wyoming. Buck let him off work for the most pleasurable trip Bob remembers. Tom needed to deliver a plane to Wheatland, Wyoming. The customer wanted the plane just for its wings.
They had 5 forced landings because they kept running out of oil. It took them twelve hours to get there and two and a half days to get home by bus. Bob said he had never seen such country as Wyoming. There were no roads, no cattle to be seen. Bob thought,
“This would be a heck of a place to get lost;
but I don’t worry until I see a reason to worry and there was not.”
According to Bob, Joe Durham was a character of all characters; he was a big red-headed guy who loved to fly and ride motorcycles.
He would buy any kind of odd vehicles and knowing Joe convinced Bob that people that fly are happy-go lucky people that enjoy what they are doing. Joe was a banker at Okeene who also enjoyed catching rattlesnakes.
One day he threw a gunnysack of rattlesnakes in his plane. The snakes got loose in mid-flight. That was a day for a forced landing! But neither man nor snake was injured in the process.
Little John Oler with Joe Durham's Davis plane
Joe Durham owned a Davis plane with a parasol wing that Tom kept in flying condition. During the war when the Civil Aeronautic Association grounded all aircraft, Joe and the Oler family would move the Davis from one place to the other hiding it in different barns so that they could take it up when they wanted to. When asked why you put yourself in danger with the CAA, Bob replied,
“Once in a while, you’ve just got to get your feet off the ground.”
How fortunate is Watonga to have an
airport manager like Bob Oler!
Bob is extremely knowledgeable about airport regulations, safety and efficiency. He is able to help people trouble shoot any airplane maintenance problems. Life or death situations at the airport have been resolved well just because Bob Oler was there to talk someone down out of the sky on a day that you or I wouldn’t drive three blocks.
Furthermore, he is a good representative for Watonga when people fly into town to work or visit. Bob has been passionate about flying all his life. Being subjected to ‘airplane talk’ from his father who received his pilot’s license even before Bob was born, Bob and his older brother Dick would lay old boards out in the yard and pretend they were flying a plane.
This is the end of this story; but Bob has more stories to tell. Like the time he attempted to jump out of the plane just to experience coming down in a parachute. At the time, it was unlawful to jump from planes except in emergency situations. His plan was to have Dick drive the plane and turn it upside down so that he would just fall out; but the flight instructor squashed his plan by hiding the parachutes.
You can find Bob at the airport!
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I JUST WAS SENT A COPY OF THIS INTERVIEW ABOUT MY DAD I LOVED IT, DADDY ALWAYS LOVED TO FLY ONE THING I REMEMBER GROWING UP WAS HELPING HIM STUDY FOR HIS PILOTS LICENSE AND THEN GETTING UP EARLY IN THE MORNING AND GOING TO THE AIRPORT TO SHOOT LANDING, THAT WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST TIMES IN MY LIFE THANKS FOR DOING THIS. SHERRY (OLER) INGOLD