Hearing Dad’s Voice–After 50 Years

“Good morning my three lovely children.

I trust you all slept well?

There is plenty of food to eat so eat well.

Greg, you eat well, but according to your diet.

And please, no fights!

[said with a sigh] Now, I guess I’ll put some gas in that Plymouth.

So listen:  I’ll leave the key in the sewing machine.

Greg, if you’ll drive Debbie to the car, she can drive it home.

I guess I’ll have to go to Hemet today, but I’ll try to be home before six, as Mom wants to go to the May Company.

I love you all very, very much so please take care of one another.

Dad.”

This was an audio recorded message my Dad left behind one morning in June of 1970.

109 words.

It’s only 43 seconds long.

That is all us three kids have of our father’s voice.

A voice we haven’t heard for nearly 50 years.  That is when our father died on Jan. 27, 1973 from lung cancer one month after reaching 60 years of life.

Dad often left handwritten notes behind on the dining room table whenever he left the house and all three of us were still asleep, our mother already gone to her 7:00 a.m. hospital job.  His fatherly instinct to reassure his children that nothing has happened to him illustrates the type of loving dad he was.

I vividly recalled that Dad had left behind a vocal “note” to us kids one time.  That morning, he must have been in a rush and decided recording a message would have saved time.

That recorded message of Dad’s was the impetus to get the old Columbia reel-to-reel tape machine repaired.

The 60-year-old tape recorder has been in my family since I was a small child.  After my brother and sister moved away, it has always traveled with me, the youngest child, as I have moved.  The last time the machine worked was 30 years ago.

When I went through cleaning my garage last summer, I was looking forward to plugging the old machine in to hear all 36 reels of tape again, each lasting an hour.  I especially was interested in finding the few snatches of my Dad’s voice.

The tape recorder with the capacity for 7-inch reels has a twin auxiliary speaker with the same dimensions as the main machine: 16”x15”, 10” high.

The big difference between the two black boxes was the weight.  I need to use both hands to pick up the main machine which weighs 35 pounds.  The surface has a tacky feel to it, and the smell of the machine is one of childhood.  A persistent hum like a heartbeat can be heard when turning it on.

So when I brought it out from the bottom compartment of a worn stereo cabinet that’s against the back wall of my garage, I set it up on the backyard patio where I have an electric outlet to plug it in.

To my major disappointment, the machine did not turn on.  I looked at the thick gray power cord and noticed how the outside rubber had worn away.  The machine had always worked reliably before, but time had finally taken its toll.

Imagine trying to find a store that would fix a reel-to-reel machine from the early1960’s.  I might as well be looking for a blacksmith.

The internet did not provide me with much help.  I could not find an image of my machine let alone any information that the Columbia company, famously known for recording music, ever manufactured their own machines.

Maybe I could find a place to rent a reel-to-reel machine especially in a media market such as Los Angeles?

Well, I did locate one place in North Hollywood which rents them out.  However, when I saw the machine, it was a professional grade rather than a home consumer version, too complicated for a non-sound engineer like me to operate.

Surely, there would be a library which had reel-to-reel equipment for visitors to play audio recordings.

The Los Angeles Central Library in downtown does have such a room, but due to the pandemic, it has remained closed for two years.

Finally, at my local camera store (another relic from the past), the owner located a man who would repair the machine at the princely sum of $600.

What could I do?  It was my only option to ever hear these tapes again, the only option to ever hear my father’s voice again.

Most people alive today have a hard time grasping that once upon a time there weren’t any recording devices except for audio tape.

Home video didn’t become common until the 1970’s; digital formats arrived in the late 1980’s.

So having a home audio recording device was a major deal.  That is why so much of what us kids recorded 60 years ago sounds silly to hear today, inconsequential nonsense just because we had the ability to place a microphone in front of a TV speaker to record a whole movie that we could at least hear again.

In the 1960’s, if there was any movie or TV show you wanted to view again, you had to wait until it reappeared either on the big screen or the boob tube.

Other recordings were of us three kids pretending to be a DJ on the radio.  We would introduce current songs playing on Top 40 radio stations and introduce them.  The only worthwhile thing from these tapes is that it provides a time stamp when they were made.  I was able to look up a song and find its released date.  After all, oldies radio stations did not exist back then so all the popular music being played was new.

When 8-millimeter home movies became popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s, people could permanently record their loved ones on film, though without sound.

However, not until consumers had video camcorders in the late 70’s was it possible to record both sound and picture.

And that is what makes those 43 seconds of audio tape of my Dad so precious.  Yes, we do have home movies in which he appears, but they are silent.  And he is the one family member who was the least filmed of all five of us because he was the primary cameraman.

Once I picked up the repaired machine, I anxiously started playing each reel.  Unfortunately, most of the tapes have incorrect labeling requiring me to listen to each 30-minute side.

Since so much of the taped material is not worth archiving, I quickly tired of listening to every bit and began fast-forwarding a few minutes at a time so that I didn’t go past any important recording.

On the third day I hit pay dirt.   I was fast forwarding a tape, then stopped it.  When I pressed “play” again, I heard my Dad talking to me—for the first time in half of a century.  It was chilling and thrilling.

There was his gravelly fatherly voice, full of emotion, recorded with the microphone quite close to his mouth giving it an intimacy and aliveness.

His voice sounded older than the late 50’s chronological age that he was.  The cancer may have already begun growing inside of him.  But nothing could diminish the love that he always had for his children.

Immediately I had both my brother and sister on two separate phones and told them, “Listen to this,” then played Dad’s recording.

It was a special moment for all three of us.  There was Dad alive again speaking directly to us.

It was as if he was talking to us from beyond especially the last part where he firmly reminds us to “please take care of one another,” emphasizing “please.”  He didn’t like it whenever us kids fought one another; he loved us too much to have to come home with reports about our behavior that day.

He would have been pleased how close all three of us have remained in the decades since his death.  Perhaps the void he left tightened the bond.

My sister pointed out that it wasn’t just a coincidence that as I was scanning this audio tapes, I happened to stop at one point in fast-forwarding, pressed play, and there was our father’s message to us from a half of a century ago.

Dad wanted to talk to us one more time.

The Columbia High Fidelity reel-to-reel tape recorder circa 1962.

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