Blame it on Daddy
If only my daddy hadn’t given that tape recorder to me. It’s entirely his fault, and no one else can take the blame. Silly me, I thought that wheel of tape would capture my thoughts, ideas, and stories, chronicling my life for the world to consider. (As if the world turned on my every thought and action.) Somehow that thin ribbon of tape would transcribe not only every detail of my life, but also every fantasy I could cook up. Compiling those recordings into books neatly lined up in rows like soldiers would give me power. I was 7, it was summer, and I had stories to tell.
Parents have the best intentions in mind for their children, but they don’t always know how they will play out. That summer I’m sure Daddy thought he’d amuse me with the tape recorder, get me out of his hair and offer some respite from the constant chatter I was wont to do. I was a precocious child, filled with fervor for learning, a quality not always easily endured by adults whose lives are filled with bills and suffering. My younger sister had died in my mother’s arms that March, and I’m sure my parents had much on their minds as I rattled off the endless stream of questions, observations, and chatter typical of a young child. Their love for me was certain, for they endured this despite their grief.
My dad was a Marine. One of his duties while in the Corps was to write and edit the base newsletter. He also created human interest stories related to base life for the civilian news media. Many of these stories were printed in the local paper, many were sent home to the soldiers’ hometown press to keep their family and friends apprised of their wellbeing and unending duty to protecting democracy and thwarting communism. It was the early 1950’s and Daddy used that small reel to reel tape recorder to record and document his interviews.
We’d been talking that day about stories, the difference between truth and lies, and fictional accounts told like truth. We talked about stories written purely for pleasure, and stories that could render pain and suffering simply because they told the truth so well. He shared his passion for writing, although I honestly believe he didn’t even know he possessed it. Explaining that sometimes we have to get our thoughts out of our heads, but that not everyone had to hear our voice, he showed me how he would record himself when he was writing for the Marines. We sat side by side in the kitchen as he patiently instructed me on how to thread the tape through the machine, careful to not twist it or touch the surface, then wind it around the hub of the empty wheel, finally allowing a short lead before beginning recording.
That small off-white machine turned me from a child filled with innocent ideas into a menace. It began simply enough, I recorded the stories I’d been dreaming up, filled with sound effects and dramatic narration. Each story also had a song, sung off-key with child-like exuberance. Listening to the playback, I’d realize I’d left something out, or needed more descriptive language to get my point across (You see this penchant I have for revision came early!) Following each I included a review of the story, rendered by whomever I could waylay. Sometimes I’d add my own notes, as well. Finally I would transfer all of this on to paper. (The songs became inspiration for the illustrations, and were generally pasted at the end.)
Next I discovered a sneaky secret. I could set up the tape recorder, turn it on, and leave it to record conversations. In my mind I would become a better writer, discovering natural interactions and conversational speech between adults. I wanted my next story to be about adults, I’d exhausted tales about kittens, dogs, and horses. I’d told tales of children, their daily habits and adventures. I was tired of the “Dick and Jane” quality of my stories; it was time for those truth-telling stories. I was ready for literature!
I recorded conversations at the dinner table, while we watched TV, when my mom was on the phone, as she and the neighbor talked over coffee. I recorded TV shows, and chatter from the radio. I recorded Daddy as he made comments about articles he’d read in the paper, or while watching the evening news. What got me in trouble were the clandestine night recordings, and in my defense, the end justified the means.
We lived in a small two bedroom apartment. It’s not like I didn’t listen to my parents conversations every night anyway. They knew this, because I’d call out comments when I was supposed to be sleeping. I had a protocol I followed. Prepare the recorder. Check the room for adults. Lift the skirt of the sofa, slide the recorder underneath, threading the electric cord between the legs and up to the receptacle in the wall. Then wait for the opportune moment after kissing my parents good night to nonchalantly press the record switch just before leaping into bed. This served me well for about three days. It was while transcribing the third night’s recording that the trouble began.
Sitting in my bedroom closet, Daddy’s flashlight balanced on my shoulder, the beam shining on my notebook, and my pencil scribbling the words of the previous night’s conversation interspersed with dialog from Perry Mason, I was absorbed by the task at hand. Suddenly there was a jerk on the cord, the closet door flew open, and I found myself face to face with a red faced demon who vaguely resembled my mom.
(An aside: this is where I have trouble. I remember that it was Perry Mason. I remember writing what my mom and dad said, and that it was mixed up with dialog from the show. I cannot remember precisely what they said or what Perry Mason said. I just remember my mom screaming because she tripped over the electric cord as she brought clean laundry to my room. I remember my lace trimmed socks and underwear scattered everywhere, and I remember being dragged out of the closet.)
“Young lady, what are you up to in that closet?” my mom tersely demanded as she inspected herself for broken bones.
Of course my response, the ambiguous “Nothing,” rendered by all children when they’d rather not go into details about what they’ve been up to. I hung my head in shame, anticipating the scolding.
It was then that I discovered my prim and proper Southern Lady of a mom knew how to cuss, as she discovered what was at the end of the cord that had snaked its way around her ankles. But that was nothing compared to what emitted from her mouth as the taped conversation of the night played on.
Don’t ask me how it remained plugged in, it must be karma.
I’m not sure if she was more upset about the laundry, the content of the conversations I’d taped, or about her perception that her privacy had been invaded as she read my transcript. It really doesn’t matter anyway. Those rich conversations I collected were worth every admonishment, every cuss word, everything my parents dreamed up as punishment. My parents confiscated my tape recorder, and I had to write letters of apology to everyone whose voice I caught on tape.
I still had my stories, and I worked even harder to combine words and phrases that sounded just right. Blame it on Daddy, I lost my tape recorder, but I found my voice.
copyright 2008, Joy Darden Widmann