Summer jobs

This is a summary of some of the summer and part-time jobs I had before going to graduate school at the University of Texas.

  • Summer, 1968 (age 21). Research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Cognitive Systems at Texas Christian University. The Institute, directed by Selby Evans, was interested in pattern recognition by computer. I wrote a program to produce systematic distortions in black and white images so that we could assess the effectiveness of different pattern detection algorithms (see “Production and control of visual pattern variability by computer”). For example, we could then say that algorithm X could detect a pattern which had been distorted 30% along a particular dimension, but not 40%. The distortions included various versions or rotating, stretching, flipping, or just adding random noise.
  • Rice University, Psychology

    Rice University, Psychology

    School year, 1966-67 and 1967-68. Psychology department research assistant at Rice University. I helped set up experiments on behavioral conditioning in rats and learned a little about electrical circuit design.

  • ice-bag-2Summer, 1967 (age 20). Research assistant at the Public Health Service Clinical Research Center in Fort Worth. This was one of two Federal research centers, the other being in Lexington, Kentucky. The Center housed both VA psychiatric patients and criminal addicts. My job was to review case files looking for patterns in the lives of addicts, such as those related to early drug use and job history.I learned a lot about the importance of community in shaping young people’s lives, and how hard it was to change individual behavior when it was nearly impossible to secure a job or to find meaningful opportunities away from a drug culture.
  • Earlier that summer I had a brief job working in an ice house, primarily carrying bags of ice from a conveyor belt to a truck, because there was no machine to do that.
  • orderly2School year, 1965-66. Mail room worker at Rice University. I briefly got to drive the little mail truck until one of the other workers got drunk and smashed it up.
  • Summer, 1965 and 1966 (ages 18 and 19). Orderly at All Saints Hospital in Fort Worth. I learned how to perform various kinds of enemas and catheterizations, work with patients in the psychiatric ward, apply orthopedic weights for patients whose limbs were lifted by ropes and pulleys, and do various other procedures that a teenager with no experience would not be allowed to do today. My co-workers came from all over Fort Worth, representing a variety of backgrounds. They helped open up my world.I read later that Nietzsche was a hospital orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which influenced his views of life and death, including the development of the idea of Will to Power.200px-apollo_program_insignia
  • School year, 1964-65. Experimental subject for the NASA Apollo program. I was one of three “astronauts” in a simulated three-day mission to outer space. We ate dehydrated space food and carried out mostly boring and repetitive tasks. We each had 11 electrodes pasted on to our bodies to monitor EEG, ECG, and vital signs. One outcome of the study was to learn that paste-on electrodes don’t work after about 2 1/2 days, because the hair grows back.
  • fwzooSummer, 1964 (age 17). Concession stand worker at the Fort Worth Zoo. We sold soft drinks, fries, and BBQ sandwiches. Each morning we had to fill out a squirrel damage report detailing any destruction of supplies due to squirrels and other zoo residents. This started with things like “3 bags of corn chips had chew holes in them.” But we were called in when it began to say, “4 large drinks, 2 BBQ sandwiches, 1 without onions, 3 orders of fries.”My friends Leslie, Ben, John, Hull, and others worked there, too, so we had lots of time to talk about books, life, and our futures. We’d go bowling at lunchtime, sometimes managing to get to the bowling alley, bowl three games, and still get back before the half hour lunch break was over.scuba-diving-03
  • Summer, 1963 (age 16). Researcher for Colonial Cafeterias. My friend John Horan and I used contest entry forms to develop a primitive geographic information system (GIS) representing the source of patrons of the cafeteria. We also scouted out competing cafeterias to assess the level of current and potential business in different areas of town.
  • Also, that summer, a job cleaning public swimming pools using scuba equipment in order to stay under the water longer.
  • ivory-piano-keysSummer, 1962 (age 15). Piano repair at the Bruce Piano Company.
  • Summer and part-time, 1959-63 (ages 12 to 17). Various yard work jobs–mowing, edging, clearing brush, raking leaves, etc.; newspaper delivery

Bruce Piano Company

Bert Sr. in the piano storeBertram Bruce, my father, opened Bruce Piano Company around 1950 in Fort Worth. The store later became the authorized Steinway dealer for Fort Worth and provided pianos for performers visiting the Fort Worth Symphony and Opera. We occasionally got to meet those performers in our home.

I worked in the West Lancaster store in the summer when I was 15. I remember learning how to buff hammers, replace bridle straps and damper felts, install new hammer shanks, glue on new plastic key surfaces, and generally, restore most other parts of the piano action. I also helped with refinishing, including converting old uprights into mirror spinets. This was mostly on old uprights, some of which were in sad shape after years of abuse in a bar or humid basement. Many of the operations were challenging at first, but even I could learn them after 88 times.

In the beginning, the store focused on pianos, but later began selling televisions. That led to several robberies in which mostly the new TVs were stolen. This proved to be a great hardship on the small business.

Bertram BruceThe original location was on Fifth and Calhoun St., in the Binyon O’Keefe Moving Company warehouse. Later the store moved to 8th Avenue near Massey’s, then to the Westchester House where it doubled the space. After that it moved to West Lancaster near Farrington Field. My mother made curtains for the first store and played a crucial role in many other ways to help the young store thrive.

Later, Bruce Piano Co. opened a second store on Pipeline Road in Hurst, with Ken Nance as manager. Harvey MacDougall became the manager of the main store. The final location was on Inwood, off of Camp Bowie Boulevard. Bert then invited his brother Don to merge his business.

I remember Don as being an excellent salesman, but like many good sellers, he was an overly willing buyer, too. Rather than insisting on the cash that the store needed, he’d make trades for a boat, a pool table, and once, a donkey. My father had to rein him in from ordering a truckload of the latest amp or band instrument.

All of this happened shortly before my Dad died on December 12, 1969. Don bought the store after my Dad died and then Harvey took over after Don died. Don, who was two years younger than Bert, also died at age 54, just two years later.  Later Harvey bought Bruce Piano Co.

guitarBruce Piano Co. was a well-known part of Fort Worth for 35 years, offering everything from used and low-cost new pianos for families who wanted their children to learn music to Steinways for visiting performers. There were also practice rooms used by local piano teachers.

Over the years it also sold sheet music, organs, guitars, band instruments, speakers and amps, televisions, and even once conducted an ill-advised experiment in bagpipes. But changing habits among the public, with the rise of television and music recording devices, meant that piano sales were less and less a central part of middle-class family life. When the Savings and Loan crisis hit in the 1980’s the bank cut off credit for floor planning and the company could no longer survive.

This is a sad story, but I’m proud of what my father accomplished (with ample help from my mother, Don, and others). I’ve also become more aware of what the store did for the community over many years. There’s a piano in our home with a decal showing that it was once on the floor of Bruce Piano Co. I try to play a little each day, and imagine the others whose lives were also enriched by what the store did.

Quetico, August 1963

Here are some photos from my trip to Quetico Provincial Park in August 1963. Notice the water damage on the 35mm slides, which is explained by the story that follows the photos.

In August of 1963, our Explorer Post 52 traveled to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park just west of Lake Superior on the Canada-U.S. border for a wilderness canoe trip. In order to get to Quetico, we journeyed for three days from Fort Worth in what was even then an old, yellow school bus. We stayed in Air Force bases, sleeping on the gym floors and experiencing steam baths for the first time.

This was a year of changes, including the arrival of the Beatles in the US and the assassination of President Kennedy. But the trip was the major event in my life that year.

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires. It was good exercise, too, especially with the canvas packs of those days. On portages, one of us would carry the canoe, one a food pack, which weighed 110 pounds in the beginning, and one all our gear–cotton sleeping bags, canvas tent, and clothes.

The Storm

We had been out for at least a week when the storm came up. It was on the Basswood River, but in a wide section, like a long lake. When the storm arrived, we decided not to risk a crossing and pulled into a cave a the base of a huge granite cliff with pictographs. “Picture rock” on Crooked Lake was shown in the September 1963 National Geographic, and I recall seeing the Basswood cliff when I returned from the trip.

I held my canoe onto the rock under this 100-foot cliff, as did Fred Moyer, our guide. The other two canoes held on to us, locked together to avoid capsizing.

After a few minutes, I released my grip on the rock for just a moment to tighten my poncho. As I did, lightning struck a solitary tree at the top of the cliff. The current traveled down the cliff to our cave. Everything went suddenly white, for some indefinite period. If you told me today that it was ten seconds or just one, I wouldn’t be able to dispute it, because time didn’t exist for me then. I could feel the charge in the air, and am still sensitive to changing electrical conditions. When I’ve felt that while canoeing, I get very nervous.

The current reached Fred’s hand, which was still touching the rock. His canoe, which was the only wood and canvas one, was shattered. Bob Cocanower and Gary Rall were the two scouts in Fred’s canoe and they both suffered physical injury from the lightning: Bob’s arms were paralyzed and Gary’s legs. Fred was killed instantly.

After Fred died, Chuck Borgeson and Duane, the guide from a companion group, took his body to the ranger station (see Bobby’s account, too). I must have gone into shock, because I went to sleep later that morning and slept until the next day. We, of course, cut the trip a short from what was planned originally, but not by much, because there wasn’t an easy way just to exit from such a remote location.


The accident was reported in Texas newspapers as “lightning strikes Scout group, at least one killed.” Naturally, our parents were distraught, but unable to learn much about what had happened for several days. This was well before cell phones and we had no portable radio.

It’s sobering to realize that I was the only one other than Fred holding on to the rock just before the lightning struck. If I hadn’t let go to pull my poncho, all 12 of us might have died, because it would have completed an electrical circuit connecting all our aluminum canoes.

We managed to complete the trip without further mishap, but aspects of it are still vivid for me today. After the wilderness experience, we went to Winnipeg and found a restaurant that offered all-you-can-eat lunches for 49 cents. After two weeks of vigorous exercise and eating our own cooking of dehydrated potatoes, we were hungry beyond any measure a restaurant should have to endure. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that we put them out of business.


Coalson, Bob. The Fred Moyer incident. Post 52 history: Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base.

Olson, Sigurd F. (1963, September). Relics from the rapids. National Geographic, 124(3), 412-435.

Connecting learning and life

Bruce, B. C. (2003, Summer). Connecting learning and life. Frontiers!: Official publication of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, p. 7.

Frisky and Blossom are long gone now, and I wouldn’t recognize them if they showed up today. But they taught me more about life than many people I’ve known. They were de-scented skunks who lived at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum (now the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History). I met them when my mother enrolled me, as a three-year-old, in the Frisky and Blossom Club held at the Museum.

The Frisky and Blossom Club was the first class of what later became the Museum School, now one of the largest museum school programs in the world, having served over 200,000 children. It was one of the first museum preschools to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. But in 1950, the Club had only five members, Ben Hulsey, his younger brother Price, Gary Rall, Doug Wiley, and me.

Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow ran the Frisky and Blossom Club out of an old house on Summit St. We started in the summer of 1950, and came several times a week. There were outdoor benches where we sat for activities. We played with Frisky and Blossom, learned about rocks and fossils, and other artifacts the Museum offered. We also talked about things we liked to do and the Bigelows helped us connect those interests to each other’s and to the larger worlds of science and nature.

Museum School

Zeiss projectorLater, I took other classes from the Museum School. These included Insects, Rocks & Fossils, and Astronomy. I joined the Astronomy Club, run by Mary Charlie Noble, the namesake of the Noble Planetarium. I still have my notebook from the Astronomy Club. It has issues of Sky and Telescope from 1956, diagrams of constellations, and notes from our classes. It also describes our wonderful field trips, in which we sat on a hillside watching for meteors, or studying the Milky Way (a stupendous sight available to anyone on earth to see in the days before we polluted the skies). I also participated in a program to spot enemy aircraft, presumably Russian bombers that had somehow missed being seen on their way to Fort Worth. I don’t know whether I helped save the Nation, but I remember being excited about a chance to contribute, and learning how to identify planes by their sound and silhouette. I still have a book Astronomy, which I won for spotting the most planes.

Although my writing in that notebook seems primitive compared to that of the nine- and ten-year-olds I see today, it recalls for me the joy I felt in expanding my imagination. I listed distances of planets, not because I was to be tested on it, or because it was good preparation for middle school, but because the Museum classes had awakened my senses. They concocted a living organism out of the natural curiosity of a child, knowledgeable and caring adults, interesting books, charts, and images, and the clear Texas skies.

What emerged from the Astronomy Club can be said about the other activities as well. I’ll never forget searching for insects in the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens or making boxes for mounting them. I can still identify insects by their order and was interested to read about the recent discovery of a new order, Mantophasmatodea. In fact, a characteristic of all the experiences I had at the Museum School is that they didn’t stop when the class or club ended. Instead of covering a topic and moving on, the Museum School caused me to open up, to seek to extend and enhance those experiences.

Another characteristic of these experiences was that they were never just, say “rocks & fossils” or “insects.” Through the insects class, I learned about cigar boxes (to hold the mounted insects), carbon tetrachloride (now banned as unsafe!), painting and homasote, the Greek language, flowers in the Botanical Gardens, diseases, history, and much more. Through “rocks & fossils” I learned about plaster of paris, two-D and three-D representations, dinosaurs, evolution, geology, oil exploration, and the age of the Earth. In contrast to some of the formal instruction I had received, this was a living process, a statistically unpredictable one, in which each experience led to learning and in turn to new experiences.

What It Meant to Me

It’s impossible to identify all the ways the Museum School affected me. The fact that I married Susan, who was working then at the Boston Children’s Museum, seems too obvious to say. Perhaps it’s all the little things, reading a biography of Roy Chapman Andrews as a teenager and fantasizing about exploring the world, loving to canoe and to hike in the mountains to this day, choosing to major in biology in college, being a regular reader of Scientific American, Natural History, Smithsonian, and National Geographic, participating in Science for the People, wanting to share a love of science with my children.

The most pervasive effect for me is how it has shaped the way I think about learning and life. In school we sometimes experience learning as a negation of life (“sit down and finish your workbooks!” “that doesn’t belong in the classroom!” “what were you doing instead of your homework?”). The testing mania of today only exacerbates that tendency.

When learning is separated from life, it becomes sterile: How many hours did all of us spend doing calculations in math classes and how many of us feel confident in math, care about it, spend time thinking about it? If the sterile approach helped develop people with a lifelong passion for learning, critical social engagement, and caring for others, I’d reconsider my views about it, but from where I stand those qualities emerge in spite of the sterility of much of formal instruction. Much of my work today is aimed at making learning come alive by connecting it to what matters in each learner’s ordinary experience.

The Museum School taught me a lot about the world. To this day, I can tell you the difference between diplodocus, diptera, and dipper (and I’m probably less afraid of skunks than I should be!). But more importantly, it taught me that the process of learning and growing is both challenging and energizing. The energizing aspect comes because the learning is connected to things the child cares about. That caring in turn is what makes it possible to for the child invest deeply in what would otherwise be daunting tasks. In the end, the learning becomes deeply embedded.

I mentioned above the joy I felt in expanding my imagination. I think many of us identify museum learning with joy, or simply with fun or play. In so doing, we risk conceiving it as un-serious, as inconsequential, as peripheral to real learning that can be organized into the scope and sequence of a curriculum or assessed on a standardized test. But my experiences with Frisky and Blossom, and yes, the people, too, taught me that joy means being connected to what matters, to being deeply engaged in life, and that joy in one’s experiences is the only real source for lifelong learning.