Record Making

You Tube has been my savior for many a dinner hour. Since my wife works evenings most nights, it’s just Short Stack, Lulu Belle and me clustered around our little ash wood table as I try repeatedly to get them to take bites and masticate what I’ve made for supper. Since neither one of them is really “in to” eating, it’s a crazy making situation for their father that can very quickly ratchet up my stress level to brain popping levels.

“Short Stack, take a bite. Lulu Belle, chew.”

“Short Stack… What did I just say? Lulu! Stop pouching! Chew!”

“Hey! Take. A. BITE!”

“Lulu! CHEW! You’re going to choke!”

And around and around it goes until I need to get up and find another beer.

The main problem is that, being five and three, the two if them usually get messing around with each other, which is a lot of fun it their eyes, but usually ends up with a two hour mealtime and at least one spilled glass of milk. This is not good for my mental well being, especially when you throw in the inevitable cry of hunger that will be tossed at me at bedtime.

“But Dad! I’m too hungry to go to sleep!”

And before you say it, the tough love thing doesn’t really work. Sending them to bed hungry, mostly just makes for a midnight visit to my bedroom asking for food OR them getting up and raiding the cracker boxes them selves at O-Dark-Hundred. It’s not a good way to ensure a full night’s sleep. So, I use the only trick I have found that works: Distraction.

With the computer sitting at the table like a guest unto its self, I cruise You Tube in search of fun things that will astound and amaze my kiddos without giving them nightmares or turning them into sociopaths. There’s more that fits that criteria than you’d think! Today’s was the magic of the phonograph.

“Hey! Look at this one guys! It’s a Victrola.”

“What’s a Victrola, Dad?” It was a machine, so it had Short Stack’s interest immediately.

“Yah! What’s a Bic-tra-la?” Lulu asked around the mouth full of sandwich I had just crammed in her.

“Well, it’s a old kind of record player. I’ve always wanted one of these. It plays 78s!”

Blank stares.

“You see, different records spin at different speeds. The older ones… Wait.” I stopped my self as a mind blowing notion washed over me like a big analog wave. “You’ve never actually seen a record player before, have you guys?”

More blank stares.

“Eat up, and I’ll show you something amazing.” And with that, I hopped out of my seat and scurried to the basement.

To my children, our basement must seem like some sort of Cavern of Wonders, which I suppose makes me Ali Babba, which I’m cool with. I love neat, old stuff and I’m pretty careful to keep things in good shape. Couple that with my ability to fix most things I encounter and my ridiculous sense of sentimentality and you get a basement that is bursting at the seams with “stuff”.

Good stuff, though!

Lots and lots of it.

It took about five minutes for me to locate my ancient stereo with integrated turntable. This machine had been lusted after by a far, far younger me something like thirty years ago and purchased in the electronics department of Sears by my lovely mother. I’m sure she knew exactly what she was in for, but, bless her, she bought it anyway. It had a double tape deck (for making mixes!) as well as the ability to record directly off the radio. Somewhere, in some ancient and sagging cardboard box, there must exist my collection of radio recordings featuring the best of the 70’s and early 80’s. Back in the day, I was quite proud of my ability to fling myself across the room with enough precision to reliably connect with the record/play buttons when a sought after song started playing on the local station. I have a lot of music that’s missing the first second and a half of each song.

What this wonderful piece of hardware also sported, was a turntable! MY turntable! Down in the living room, my parents had a super fancy, stack six or seven records and let it rip, turntable. It was a thing of beauty and music playing power. It was also mostly off limits. It was for their music and though my Mom and I often shared similar tastes, Dad was another story all together. Dad was mostly a Classical person and rarely ventured into anything with an amp or a snare drum. For whatever reason, the only real divergence from this involved the 70’s answer to disco: ABBA.

For much of my childhood, I listened to every ABBA record that they ever made, over and over again as my parents stacked them on the turntable and spent their weekend hours working on our house. Somehow, and for some reason unknown, it didn’t burn a hole in my soul and actually, I came to love it. Call it nostalgia, call it disco-fever, call it the outcome of a mild head injury, whatever… I loved it. Even later on, as I started purchasing my own albums, the likes of Van Halen, the J Giles Band and even ZZ Top weren’t capable of totally eclipsing the guilty joy of catching that Swedish Supergroup on the radio or on the weekends when my folks were painting. Eventually, as the decades wore on, it faded away, with the likes of plaid pants and el caminos.

As my own children quickly munched down their dinners in the hopes of seeing the latest treasure dredged up from the house’s depths, I dragged the wooden and plastic box to the head of the stairs and plunked it on the kitchen floor.

“What’s THAT, Dad?”
“Yah! What is it?”

I felt like a magician. I was going to make music with NO iPod or CD involved. After a brief foray into the living room to retrieve a speaker from the house sound system and a little wire splicing, we were ready.

I plugged it in and touched the dusty power button.

It lit up!

I love old technology. Thirty years later and after who knows how many in storage, it still works!

The kids clustered close around me. “Ok, it looks like there’s a record in there so we should…” What I had expected to see was an old Fleetwood Mac record, which I have a vague recollection of playing in the garage while I cleaned. This particular garage belonged to our last house which I haven’t set eyes on in a decade or more, so I can be forgiven for not remembering correctly. What I was there made me smile broadly.

“Oh… You’re gonna like THIS!” Looking up from the table was a dusty but unscratched ABBA Album. Actually, it was ABBA: The Album.

You know!? The one with Take A Chance On Me?… Okay, maybe that was admitting too much knowledge.

“Hey! It’s got lines on it!” Short Stack chirped.

“Actually, it’s just one line. It’s a spiral that starts at the outside and goes all the way to the center. As the needle on this arm travels in the groove, it makes music.”

Pause. Pause. Pause.

“WHOA!”

Little mind: officially blown.

He looked on in amazement for a second more and then reached forward. “Can I start it?”

“No, no! I’ll do it. You have to put it down just right.” And in that moment, I had become my parents.

“Don’t drop the needle!”

“Don’t run in front of the record player!”

“Only touch the edges!”

“Don’t set it down like that. Put it right back in its jacket!”

Oh the rules of an analog world. Compared with the modern rules of “Don’t drop it” and, “Don’t drop it in THE WATER” what we had to deal with as kids looks pretty Byzantine.

Still, as the record spun, both of my kids sat next to it, glued to the floor, watching the disk spin and the arm move slowly to the middle. Short Stack was intrigued with the breaks between songs and Lulu, with the wonderful music she had never heard before. I’ve now listened to The Name of the Game and Thank You For the Music more times in a row than since I was under ten years old… and I have to say, I still love it! It brings me back to summer days long gone, couch cushion forts in the living room and my Dad’s voice booming, “Slow down! You’ll make it skip!” as I ripped though the house at full throttle.

Good times. Good times.

Looking up, I noticed that though mostly gone, my munchkins didn’t get quite all of their dinner eaten, but that was okay. I shut the computer, still sitting on the table and showing the frozen You Tube page, waiting for our next digital selection and cleared the plates. Lulu Belle and Short Stack hopped around in the living room, far from the delicate needle traveling in its microscopic groove and grooving away.

“Close enough,” I thought and broke out the cookies.

My little girl beamed at me over the thumping beat of the bass guitar, “Let’s dance, Daddy!”

“You bet!”

After a while, the telltale hiss of static, clunk and silence announced the end of side one and the beginning of dessert. We chatted as we munched about different records, record speeds and how old their daddy was until the cookies were gone. Getting up, I went to put my venerable old stereo back where I had found it.

“Dad…” It was Short Stack.

“Can… Can I put the needle down this time? I’ll be super-careful.”

I smiled. “Yah. Sure. I know you can be super-careful. Just let me flip the record first. I’ll show you the right way to pick one up.”

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Frog Racing

Needing to know how mechanical things work has always haunted me. I was never the kid who took the perfectly good pocket watch apart or removed the family car’s carburetor, but that was solely for fear of screwing things up and getting in trouble. If something had the audacity to actually break on me though, well then, that was a different story! I positively reveled in the excuse to bring what ever it was down to the basement and get the screwdrivers out and start the post mortem. Sometimes, I’d just get a view of perplexing circuit boards and I’d put things back as I found them. More often than not however, I’d get what ever it was, running again. Perhaps it didn’t work JUST the same way that it had before, but hey, it DID work now, right?

My proclivity for voiding warranties followed me as I grew and my patients got more and more complex. Building plastic models and fixing dysfunctional toys was fun and all, but I was looking for a challenge. If this challenge could ultimately provide me with something that I could then play with, well… so much the better! I knew what I needed. I wanted a radio controlled car.

I had owned a handful of cheap radio controlled gizmos, usually created in the image of pop culture icons of the time. There was the Cylon Raider spaceship, the miniature R2-D2 and a few others of less notable stature. These little toys could go forward and reverse and turned only as they backed up. Though appreciated, they were far from what I was looking for as I grew. When I was eight, navigating them across the kitchen floor was a hoot. As a thirteen year old, they just wouldn’t do. A real radio controlled car was a work of art. It was something to be proud of. It made your friends jealous. It also cost a bundle to get into. I would have to save long and hard for this one.

The first thing that set these toys apart, other than the sticker price, was that you had to build them. They didn’t arrive assembled and ready to go. Far from it. For your one hundred and fifty or so dollars, what you got was a box filled with hundreds and hundreds of parts, bits, pieces, nuts and bolts. It wasn’t, “some assembly required”, but rather, “all assembly required.” That was the point.

While I was aching for one of these cars, Mom and Dad were more than a little dubious. My track record for, “projects started vs. projects finished” wasn’t the most stellar. I have a tendency to get distra… HEY! Look! A penny!

The clincher for me was when my friends Charlie and Mike both got cars of their own. My burning desire for one of these had become incandescent. The hobby shop in town was owned by a good hearted fellow and I routinely came in to drool on the car kits and discuss the merits of each model with him and his infinite patience. It was he who introduced me to the concept of layaway. I bit at the chance and gave him my down payment. With saved birthday money and hoarded allowance cash, I picked up my very own car kit shortly after. It was called, “The Frog.”

frog-box

The picture on the box showed a tough looking dune buggy bounding into the air as it rocketed off a rise in the land with a slogan painted on the spoiler reading, “No Guts, No Glory!” The ride home from the hobby shop just about killed me with the anticipation of getting at it. When we arrived, I cleared a large spot on the floor in an out of the way room, dragged my record player and speakers down from my room and put on Van Halen’s “1984” It was time to build!

The directions, though lengthy, were no harder to follow than the average plastic airplane model and I dove in with gusto. I remember being surrounded by little piles of nuts and bolts, all arranged in order by size and type as I made a zillion trips to my Father’s bench for tools, the kitchen to forage for munchies and to my record player take off the current record and put on some ZZ Top or, more aptly, The Cars. I was in heaven.

It took me a day and a half to finish it but in the end, it was a thing of beauty. Ugly, ugly, beauty. Naturally, all the parts you needed were not included in the kit and had to be purchased separately, but I had seen to that. For my birthday, I had asked for and received a radio transmitter to control my new car and I had scraped up enough cash from piggy banks and squirreled away stashes to purchase my battery charger. The rechargeable battery itself, I had to beg Dad for. It was twenty bucks, More accurately, it was twenty bucks I didn’t’ have. I can still see his face, mulling over whether to get it for me or not. In hindsight, I doubt seriously that he would have said, “no”, but his pause and measured suck of air through closed teeth made me appreciate it all the more when he said, “Okay”. I was in business!

As it turned out, driving “The Frog” wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. It was WAY, WAY more fun! There is something compelling building something your self and the pride that I took in the finished car made me highly protective and eager to show it off to my friends and the guys at the hobby shop. The place where I had bought my car also put on radio controlled car races every other Sunday and I did what ever I could to make it to them. Again, my Dad was an integral part in all this since the little battery pack for my Frog only lasted about fifteen minutes before it needed recharging. Since the races were outside, the only way to recharge was with the battery under the hood of the family car. I may never have taken the carburetor apart, but I did get to know the car’s electrical system pretty well! My Father would sit with a book or the paper in the running car as I carefully adjusted the load from the charger, hooked one end to my twenty dollar battery and the other to his car. I tried very hard to make sure to thank him for this. I bet he could’ve thought of a hundred better ways to spend his Sunday mornings rather than in a parking lot, waiting to watch me race. He’s a great dad, that way.

I was down in my basement yesterday and noticed a familiar shape hanging from its bumper on a beam. Its looking a little worse for wear after Lord knows how many hours of being driven at break neck speed over all sorts of terrain and then gathering dust for nearly two decades. Taking it down and cleaning it off reveled that things seemed to be in working order despite the years of neglect. I fiddled with it a bit, greasing up a part here and there and applying WD-40 as needed. As I got reacquainted with this old but hard won distraction, I realized that the only part it really needed was a replacement battery. The original was now far too elderly to hold any appreciable charge.

I ordered its new battery today along with a set of new tires to take the place of the elderly, cracking ones currently clinging to the rims. It feels like I’m thirteen again and waiting to make my last layaway payment. I can’t wait for the new parts to arrive! My son will no doubt be confused and enthralled, all at once when get it out in the snow. I’m betting that it will take about a minute and a half before he’ll want to drive it himself. That ought to be a hoot. At least I don’t have to worry about his feet being able to reach the pedals.

Back in that room, so long ago, I never would have guessed that some day my own kids would get a chance to drive my little off road buggy. You might think I’m crazy, but I hope Short Stack doesn’t mind listening to The Cars while I get it ready to run.

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