Machines that bend, crimp and cut the metal plates to his liking tower above him inside of his North Side garage. Numbers, dashes and alphabet letters encircle the retired educator like wallpaper as he hunches over his work bench, creating homes for birds, bats and butterflies.
At 92, Fischel is still active, spending eight hours a day on his hobby. Wednesday, he turns 93.
“This is inexpensive,” Fischel said. “All it costs me is my time. I really consider myself very lucky.”
Garage shelves are filled with license plate homes of all sizes and configurations, the dark letters punctuated with shiny, silver rivets that hold the structures together.
There are motels, missions and renditions of The Alamo. There are also decorative trucks and angels, trash cans and baskets. No two items are the same.
For the past 20 years, the retired educator has puttered away at the hobby that’s resulted in thousands of homes for winged creatures across San Antonio. Recently, he’s expanded into other items, including angels, trash cans and baskets.
No two items are the same.
His creations are made from recyclable materials such as old license plates his son-in-law retrieves from car dealerships and discarded wood he’s picked up from repaired fences.
The name of his cottage business, like its owner, raises an instant smile: “For the Birds.”
As the holidays approach, he’s expanded his catalog even further to include wood-framed Christmas trees with old costume jewelry as ornaments and decorative turkeys made of tags that fan out into diamond-point feathers.
More than 200 bird houses he had hoped to sell at the annual Starving Artist Art Show in April — cancelled because of the coronavirus — are stacked beneath cabinets.
He’s not alone with his endeavor. His son Edgar Fischel Jr. dotes on his father, helping design and construct the bird houses.
“The license plate homes have turned into conversation pieces,” he said. “It’s a great hobby, but the main thing is it’s fun to do. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.”
During the day, when Fischel steps inside his home, he’s greeted by his caregiver Gaby Garza, the woman who also tended to Olga, his wife of 63 years. Olga died in 2016. Before her death, she asked Garza to stay and care for her husband the way Garza had cared for her and Garza has honored that promise.
Always at Fischel’s side is “Little Boy,” his chihuahua. Fischel calls the small but fierce dog “his bodyguard.”
Fischel works with the garage door open, a cable news anchor talking from a wall-mounted television across from his work station. The TV is mainly on for white noise — he doesn’t pay attention to the “stop what you’re doing and listen” updates. His focus is on the work spread across his table.
“There’s two things you should never discuss: politics and religion,” Fischel counseled. “Because everyone has their own ideas.”
Fischel has ensured he will always be present in his family’s lives. He wrote a memoir called “My Life Story,” for his grandchildren, great-grandchildren and future generations.
Currently, there are only a handful of the 92-page books in print. One of the books sits on his work bench, with Fischel as a blonde-haired child looking unamused on the cover.
It details his life growing up in San Jose, Costa Rica, raised by his father, a businessman, after his mother died when he was three weeks old.
In 1949, because of unruliness in school, his father sent him to Peacock military school in San Antonio, known at the “West Point of the Southwest.”
The only words he knew in English were ice cream and sandwich. His demerits stacked up because he couldn’t understand the orders. Fischel’s saving grace was listening to morning radio shows that repeated words in ads, words that he practiced over and over.
He met his future wife outside the Majestic Theater in 1948. In 1953, after he graduated from St. Mary’s University, the couple married and honeymooned in his native Costa Rica, where they would return five years later.
Working at his father’s business didn’t work out, however, the couple returned to San Antonio with a three-month old girl, the first of five children — Fischel only had $25 to his name.
He worked at top end-men’s clothing stores like Formby’s and held down other jobs on the side until an ironic twist of fate. The once rambunctious student, who was thrown out of schools and made teachers cry, was hired as a teacher in the Edgewood Independent School District.
After graduating with a master’s degree in supervision and management he was promoted to principal. But after a short time, his love of teaching drew him back to the classroom.
Fischel said he’s proud of the 17 years he was in charge of the district’s migrant student program.
Whenever he shops at a grocery store, he looks over the fruits and vegetables, thinking about the youngsters and their parents who worked the fields and picked the produce. He said that shoppers buy the items without a thought of the migrant’s labor.
Fischel has seen the toll that the labor can wreak upon bodies, young and old.
When Fischel is not making bird houses, he works on newspaper crossword puzzles or reads a book to keep his mind active. Currently he’s reading “The History of the World.” He still practices origami, the art form he taught his students, making folded bow-ties, elephants and cranes out of dollar bills.
“A man is like an automobile,” he said. “Whenever he gets old he starts to fade.”
He acknowledged there are some parts of his life that have slowed. The walks around his North Side neighborhood have shortened. His bedtime is much earlier these days.
But one constant never slows down — there’s always plenty of license plates to tinker with and transform into sturdy houses for San Antonio’s winged creatures.
Vincent T. Davis is a reporter in the Greater San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Vincent, become a subscriber. email@example.com | Twitter: @vincentdavis