Bob Rychlik (born Bohuslav Rychlík), 1950
Bohuslav Rychlik was born in Krnov, Moravia, in 1950. His parents, Bohuslav and Františka, had moved to Krnov after WWII, because their home in Pustiměř had been destroyed by Americans who were bombing a nearby airport. Under the communist regime, Bob’s father lost his job as a senior office clerk and began working as a laborer, while his mother stayed home and raised Bob and his two sisters. Bob’s father, who died when he was 10, was a keen musician who played piano and violin and passed his talents on to his children. Bob was taught piano first by his sister and later in music school, and taught himself to play the guitar. Although he was fond of filmmaking, Bob says that he had ‘no chance’ to pursue this interest, and that he went to a technical high school in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm to prepare for a career in electronics. After high school, Bob says he decided not to attend university, as he did not want his mother to sacrifice anymore for his education. He got a job at the TESLA factory in Rožnov where he held several different positions before leaving the country.
In August 1983, Bob and his wife, Vilma, decided to leave Czechoslovakia with their two young sons when they had the opportunity to vacation in Split, Yugoslavia. While there, Bob tried to buy tickets for a day trip to Italy, but says he was denied because his passport was valid only for Yugoslavia. They traveled to Belgrade where they learned about the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office. After an interview and a 6-week wait, Bob and his family were given papers allowing them to leave Yugoslavia and enter Austria. They spent about seven months in refugee camps in Traiskirchen and Ramsau before receiving permission to move to the United States. Bob and his family arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 17, 1984. Having learned English at school, Bob says he was able to find work fairly quickly, while his wife took English classes at a community college. The Rychliks became American citizens in the spring of 1990.
Bob says that he is very proud of his sons, who were both valedictorians at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and earned full scholarships to college. He continues to play music, and more recently has focused on the fujara, a large, flutelike, traditional Slovak instrument. Bob engineered the first fujara workshop in the United States, which he held at his home, and included participants from several different countries. He frequently performs around the Washington, D.C. area and, in 2010, Bob presented a lecture at the Library of Congress for the American Musical Instrumental Society. He has returned to the Czech Republic several times and currently lives in Mount Airy, Maryland, with his wife, Vilma.
Bob worked in electronics at a TESLA factory for many years
“There were parts of the factory where I couldn’t go, that were marked secret. I don’t even know what they were doing. I started to work in the industry in TESLA and I found out, as we were saying in Czechoslovakia, that we were 100 years behind the apes in electronics. Because what they were doing, they were actually doing reverse engineering. They took a transistor, American-made or some other made, or integrated circuit, and they took it apart to find out how it was made and then they tried to make the same thing. But we were running a huge operation. I was a supervisor for a while on the epitaxy, on silicon wafers which were for power transistors. After I was offered membership in the Communist Party and I very politely refused, I was no longer supervisor. I worked as a technologist in integrated circuits and then I left the area to work in the office for inventions and patents – it was still in the same factory, but a different place – and improvement suggestions. I was there for a couple years, and after that, just took off.”
One of Bob’s hobbies was tramping, a popular Czech pastime
“Tramp here means somebody who lives on the street; this was completely different, they just used the word – they were like Sokol, but unorganized. There were no leaders. On weekends, they went out and got on trains. Usually they had on soldiers’ dress, like old-time uniforms from the first World War, even backpacks and stuff. And they would sleep outside without a tent, because a tent was considered to be, I don’t know the word for it, but like spoiled. For people who really don’t belong in nature – they sleep in tents, they could as well stay home, or get in a car, drive somewhere and then put up a tent – it was like, no. You have to get on a train and walk. And it was really nice.
“It was just singing songs. I was even collecting tramp songs for a long time. I really liked it, because those are truly, truly romantic songs about America, which people in America have no idea. It’s just funny how people romanticized this country.”
Bob recalls an American influence on his banjo playing
“The five-string banjo, actually, I just fell in love with it – I was already playing the guitar. There was a movie, one of the movies they let through, because the movie didn’t contain any scene about a private [swimming] pool. There was a commission approving the films for distribution and one of the things, which I found out, if there was a private pool, the movie was out. It couldn’t be shown. This was not the case; the movie was Bonnie and Clyde – there were no pools in Bonnie and Clyde, just some shooting. And there was this track when the cars were going, it was a chase and there was this track. It was Earl Scruggs playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” That was exhilarating. We went to see that movie maybe four times, just to hear that. And I couldn’t believe it. I was playing at the time the four-string banjo which is a completely different instrument, and I thought, how is his picking so fast? I was trying to copy it and there was no way.”
In anticipation of their departure from the country, Bob took precautions
“So we have hidden all the documents in our luggage. There was a piece of luggage, it was this bag, and it had an inforced bottom. It was like thick paper. So I took it apart, sliced the paper apart. I dug out space on both sides, and our marriage certificate and documents which we needed to have with us, I put there, glued everything together, put it overnight under a piece of furniture. I also made it black on both sides, inside and outside, in case they would use some light or something, I thought maybe that would help, the black color would block it, and put it back together. I wouldn’t believe that it was there. And the money that I bought on the black market, where do you hide the money? Well, our son who was nine years old, Bobby, same name as me – our older son’s name is Mark, Marek – so Bobby had a little [stuffed] doggy. And I thought that the doggy, he had a inforcement in the neck, to keep the neck up. So Vilma carefully cut an opening in the bottom of the dog, we took out the inforcement and rolled the money into a roll, put it back on the inforcement, and she nicely sewed it back. So our son had the money all the time, in his doggy.”
Upon arriving in Austria, Bob and his family were sent to Traiskirchen refugee camp
“There was so-called isolation. They put everybody who was new in so-called isolation. You couldn’t talk to anybody else, you were going to meals at different times from everybody else, and we were not allowed to open a window and talk to anybody. The reason for that was that they needed to first separate any people who were escaping from the law, who killed somebody, and in those couple days they hoped they would be able to find out. But also, most important, there was an interview after those three days, and they didn’t want people to get smart, to know what to say, because based on that interview, the Austrian authorities decided if they give you political asylum or not. So if you got political asylum you could stay in Austria, if not, you had to go somewhere else.”
Bob had the opportunity to see Pete Seeger, one of his musical influences, in concert
“We came to Baltimore, and I was here for just a couple years, and I heard that my huge idol, Pete Seeger, who I admired so much playing his five-string banjo and how he played guitar – just a tremendous influence on me, and he was in Baltimore, so I had to go see him, even when we didn’t have much money, but this is something I would regret for the rest of my life if I missed it. So I took my two sons and we went to the concert and I was so happy that he was there. But then, President Reagan was president at the time, and Pete Seeger started to sing a song – “This Old Man” – [which] was making fun of President Reagan. I couldn’t believe it, and I noticed all the policemen standing there and I thought, what are they going to do. They’re going to climb on the stage and take him down or turn off the speakers or something. And then I watched – they were standing with their backs to the stage, only watching the audience so nobody would cause any trouble. They were protecting the singer; they were protecting him if somebody didn’t like him so nothing would happen to him. That was just unbelievable. I saw democracy at work. And I was really impressed by that, even when I didn’t like the song.”
Lately, Bob has focused his musical efforts on the fujara, a traditional Slovak instrument
“I started to play at festivals, and right now I have about 80 performances behind me. I started to make workshops. The first American fujara workshop was right here, at this house. After that, I did a workshop in Rožnov where I used to work in the TESLA factory. It was just three years back. It was also a two-day workshop and I was playing at a concert. Of course, the most important thing was last year, about one year ago in the Library of Congress. It was really a highlight of my life so far because it was for the American Musical Instrument Society, and they were of course recording it and it’s ‘forever’ in the archives, I mean, the archives of Congress. And I knew it, unfortunately, ahead of time. So you can just imagine the pressure that I had performing in a room full of experts on instruments and music and they wanted me to talk to them about the fujara and about everything concerning the fujara and the overtone flutes. And then it was recorded and everybody will be able to see it on the internet, all my friends. It was really a lot of pressure, but I somehow got through it.”
Category: Oral History