“Can you rewind?”
“I taped it.”
“Roll the clip.”
These are just some of the phrases that are still kicking around the cultural vernacular that have to do with a largely extinct technology: tape. I’m talking specifically about audio cassettes and VHS cassettes – magnetic tape. It’s enjoyable, now, to look back on the days of these technologies and find them cute and antiquated. But their served their purposes well and were actually a very cool medium.
I had a lot of personal experience with audio and video cassettes as a young lad and I was inspired to write down some of the goofy memories I have of working with magnetic tape cassettes. So here goes.
My mother has been involved with the children’s programs at my childhood church for 30ish years. When it was time to learn new songs for the Christmas Program, she would often make cassette tapes for the kids to take home and listen to. She would use one of our boom boxes with a mic and record in her bedroom with the door closed. One year in 1983, she made a special “Christmas Tape” of me and my infant brother to send to our grandparents as a Christmas present. I’m 2 and can be heard reciting nursery rhymes and singing songs learned at church. A copy of the tape survived and I have digitized it now for posterity. You can listen here.
As I grew, we listened to tapes all the time. One favorite was the series of kids programs called “Little Thinker”. Most of these have been lost to the ether, but they were somewhat educational episodes where a narrator would talk about a topic and dramatize an adventure. Periodically, she would tell you to pause the tape to draw a picture of what we were learning about. Then press play again when finished. It was a pretty great concept for the time.
Of course, one of the universal memories people have of cassette tapes is their propensity to unspool into a massive tangle of tape and needing to use a pencil or something to wind the tape back in. Then you had to hope that the crinkled tape could still function and play properly. We dealt with this numerous times at our house. There were also the time that the tape would get cut somehow and my dad would carefully cut a slip of scotch tape and apply it to both sides of the magnetic tape. It certainly didn’t work well, but it did work in many cases.
Later, our family moved up to the wonderful world of Adventures in Odyssey. For years, my fandom was enormous. We listened to the episodes on car trips and as we lay in bed at night falling asleep. I nearly memorized many episodes. I definitely memorized which episodes were in each box set that we purchased. And which position in the clamshell box each tape went and which episode was side A and which was side B. It came in handy when I had to select an episode in the dark of my room. I could literally do it with my eyes closed. It became something of a party trick of mine. We wore those tapes out with how much we listened to them. New episodes aired on our local Christian radio station (KFSI) and I occasionally taped the episode and listened back later.
As for music, my tastes were very vanilla to begin. I have shared in the past that I had a fondness Steve Green. I had a great many of his albums on cassette, lined up in release date order on a shelf in my room. Only later did I purchase a cassette of the first album by Jars of Clay and start my journey deeper into musical knowledge.
I usually listened to my cassettes on a large boom box with detachable speakers. I don’t quite remember how I came to own such a beast. I do, however, remember my first portable cassette player. Every year I was tasked with raking the leaves in the fall in our sizable backyard. It was a large, usually 2-day job to rake and bag everything up. My dad usually paid me about $20 to do this chore. One year, he proposed that instead of money, I would receive a Sanyo portable cassette player (not a Sony Walkman, but who cared?). I was thrilled to receive it upon the completion of my task. I used that thing all the time. On long family car trips, I could listen to any Adventures in Odyssey episode I wanted. I could play any Steve Green album I wanted. And soon, I was actually listening to books on tape. I purchased some Frank Peretti books on tape first and later bought some recordings of Star Trek novels. More on my Star Trek fandom later. When we took a family trip to the East Coast in 1995, I went through many books. I broke my leg on that trip and, consequently, had to stay in the car while my family did a boat ride by Niagara Falls. I sat, locked in the car outside the police station, and listened to audio books.
Soon we had all kinds of cassette players around our house. Boom boxes, stereo tuners and portables. My dad used to periodically spend a half hour cleaning the contacts on our most-used players. He would hunker down with the player, a bottle of rubbing alcohol and some Q-Tips. He would dip the Q-Tips in the rubbing alcohol, open the door of the player and hit play. As the spools turned, he would let the Q-tip wipe the metal contacts to remove dust and stuff. It was quite the process.
The movement away from cassettes to CDs was slow for our family. I started getting CDs as gifts before I had a player to put them in. Even after we purchased an AIWA 3-disc changer at Best Buy, cassettes were still the preferred format for many months (the stereo had dual cassette decks too, of course). Sure, CDs had better sound quality and you could easily skip to a song, but some of the newer cassettes had a feature that would stop fast forwarding on track breaks too (this is still wonderous to me). But soon I bought my own portable CD player with skip protection (which was very important) and the switch was officially flipped.
Still, cassettes have a certain charm to them. Today, there is a strong resurgence in vinyl sales, but I’m guessing there will be no large-scale cassette revival any time soon. While charming, the format was never really well-liked. But my memories are fond and they will stick with me for many years.