Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tell Me About the Man

Tomorrow would have been my father’s 90th birthday. I find myself thinking about him, of course—but also, oddly enough, I find myself thinking about tape recorders.

I find myself remembering the coolest gift my parents ever gave me: a Craig Model 212 7-transistor portable tape recorder—the exact same model Jim Phelps used to play his self-destructing taped messages on my favorite TV show, Mission Impossible.

Craig Model 212

I loved that tape recorder. I used it to record music off the radio, my favorite TV themes off the television (including, of course, the theme from Mission Impossible) and the god-awful comedy sketches my friends and I improvised in my room (most of which were based on Mission Impossible).

I remember the day Dad brought the Craig home with him on the train from Chicago—a box wrapped in plain brown paper with a wire handle attached—and presented it to me as an early thirteenth birthday gift. He couldn’t wait to see the look on my face when I unwrapped it. You know that scene in A Christmas Story where Ralph’s father gets excited as he watches Ralph unwrap the BB gun? I’m pretty sure that’s how it was with Dad when he gave me that tape recorder.

You see, I inherited my obsession with audio equipment from him.

Dad also had a portable tape recorder: a Webcor Royalite. At fifty pounds, it was anything but "lite." However, it did have a handle on it, so it qualified as portable. (In those days, you could put a handle on anything and call it "portable." We had a portable television that weighed almost as much as a refrigerator.) About a decade older than my Craig, Dad’s Webcor used vacuum tubes instead of transistors. It had all sorts of knobs, levers, and push-buttons, and a fluorescent green bar that indicated the volume level.

Webcor Royalite

It was this beautiful machine that made me yearn for a tape recorder of my own. I was mesmerized by the turning tape reels and the green light that pulsed to the sound of my voice. Dad used it to record music, and occasionally in his work as an attorney or his hobby as a genealogist. He also used it to make recordings of his kids.

I have written about how my father loved to tell stories about us ("For Dad"). One of his favorite stories involved an interview he recorded of me, shortly after I had begun to talk, concerning "the man"—my name for the small bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln he kept on his desk. I had no memory of the incident. I didn’t even remember hearing the recording, and at times I suspected that my father made it up. However, when I visited my sister in Virginia last year, she played me the CDs she had found on which Dad had lovingly preserved all of the recordings he ever made of us on that old Webcor. Suddenly, I heard the barely intelligible babble of a child, and my father's voice, unbelievably young:
Dad: Why don't you tell me about the man?
Me: No.
Dad: Who is this man?
Me: Um.
Dad: Didn't I tell you who he was?
Me: Um.
Dad: President Lincoln?
Me: Yeah.
Dad: Can you say President Lincoln?
Me: Yeah.
Dad: Would you say President Lincoln?
Me: Uh-uh.
Both my Craig and Dad’s Webcor are long gone—replaced by cassette recorders, which in turn were replaced by digital recording. But it should come as no surprise that both these marvelous old machines can be found on the Internet, in good working condition and for a reasonable price. (The Webcor only costs a little more than the cost of shipping it.) I must admit that I was briefly tempted to buy both of them, but I don’t need them. I don’t even need the CD of those old recordings.

I'm happy just to have the memories.