It was a Montgomery Ward Airline. A heavy box, with sections of simulated wood grain veneer next to areas of highly polished chrome. An odd mix of comforting old material and newfangled tech in one package. Meant to bridge the gap between generations nearly ruined by a misuse of recordings.
It was new enough that it hadn’t yet made a habit of eating cassette tapes. I remember the sudden panic that erupted, fingers scrabbling to stop the machine and carefully ejecting the tape to see how bad it was; how much tape had been ingested. You never knew until it was too late. The music or talking would suddenly stop and you would hear the faintest crinkle. Then the trick was to extract the tape carefully, without stretching the plastic film. If you could get the cassette and its rumpled entrails out, you had a good chance, at least, to spin the tape back onto the reels, using a pencil in the gear wheel hole. Monkeys with basic tools, adjusting high tech components.
Of course, after that, the tape was always more susceptible to being eaten again. The crumpled tape would still play; slightly muffled as the damaged pieces flowed over the playing head. But, those sections were always easier for a hungry cassette player to grab.
I was welcome in Gary’s room for the recording sessions. We were both content to spend hours with a transistor radio, some talk shows or commercials, and the cassette player that was actually Dad’s for work. Gary and I made stories then, not initially with our own words. We’d record random sentences across radio stations, never knowing how they would come out. It was Mad Libs for an emerging electronics era. I’m not sure we ever made anything truly engaging with those recordings. Occasionally, we’d hit a few sentences whose non sequitur put us into fits of laughter.
Soon after, we tried our own stories. Most were loosely based on the radio mystery stories we’d listen to late at night. I was welcome then, too. Those stories were broadcast every few days, always past our bedtime. So, it was doubly enticing for me. I was sneaking out of my room at ten to go to Gary’s room to listen to scary tales, in the dark. The broadcast would start with a deep and sinister chord, an iron door creaking open, and the the low voice of E.G. Marshall beckoning: “Come in….”
His closet also held the door to the attic, at the back behind the clothes. In the attic, the former inhabitant of our house, Mrs. Bailey, still walked around. That’s why the timbers creaked and there was a constant draft coming from the attic door. It was a safe and delicious fear. Even though Gary wasn’t happy to have the room leading to Mrs. Bailey, he was brave enough to hold onto if I was afraid.
Those radio mysteries were tales of murder, betrayal, ghosts, and stories based on historical events such as the French Revolution. All of that was fodder for our own stories, acted out between us as the cassette tape spun. I wish just one of those tapes had survived. It wasn’t great acting or story making by any means. The main story and events were agreed upon before we started, but the details were ad libbed entirely. The fun was in the making. The product was a mash of bad dialog, cliche, and crude sound effects.
Our best story was loosely based on Frankenstein. As the youngest, I played the smaller bit parts. So, I was Igor to his Dr. Frankenstein. I learned to render a decent, “Yes, master,” when called upon. We both became stuck in a dead end, however, when, with all the bravado of age and scientific wisdom behind his voice and persona, Gary channeled his best Dr. Frankenstein and commanded: “Hand me that shovel, and start digging.”
I stared at him, wondering how someone could do that. We couldn’t continue. I sputtered some laughter and ruined the mood. He felt a little foolish, I think. But, in the end, we could tape over it and try again. The rewind button was our friend. It wasn’t the story we told or how well, or badly, we told them. While we were making those, we didn’t fight.
Now, all either of us has to do is look at the other with a slight smile and say: “Hand me that shovel, and start digging.” In drops the cassette in our mind and we play that part of our life story again. No fears now. It’s all good.