Sometimes the meaning of life can be found in an old audio cassette. Take my self-inscribed “Vet Rock,” a collection of late 1960 songs I taped off of vinyl records (The Doors, The Who, Steppenwolf, etc.), scratches and all in 1971. I had just been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army after two years of drafted service. I stood in my parent’s driveway and declared it was time for a road trip across the country I’d never seen.
This was not a well-planned excursion, save for the music. I hooked a battery-operated cassette player to two bookcase speakers lodged in the back of an old VW bug. The passenger seat was removed so I could squeeze my 6’ 2” frame into the fetal position at night. I had $200 and a gas credit card—this was to be bare bones traveling.
The tape kept me company while the bug crawled up mountain roads—every steep grade was a challenge. I actually reached the speed limit in flatland places like Kansas and Indiana. A month or so later I returned home and found a job. The tape was played now and then but eventually found itself stuffed in a dresser drawer. I moved a half-dozen times over the next 20 years, and each time I made sure the tape made the journey.
The taped music that had been my closest friend inside that VW became a reminder of how I had gone “looking for adventure.” For two years I had been confined by military rules –I wanted to be in complete control of my next move when I got out. And while I did have moments on this road trip, ultimately I came back as the same person.
Then one summer day in 1989 the tape was discovered by my son, age 4.5, and my daughter, age 1.5. With the help of a baby sitter, they hooked up a microphone to the stereo tuner and began talking with the intention of recording their remarks for the enjoyment of others. When the babysitter heard what was on the tape, she stopped the session, but not soon enough to prevent a shortening of “Light My Fire.” I can’t understand what my daughter is saying, other than “Mommy, Daddy and pizza” followed by Morrison’s “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.”
This week I drove an old truck with a cassette player. In went the tape. The scratches were pronounced and the mixing done by my kids was priceless. I could buy CDs of these songs. I could eliminate the crackling. But if I did, I would have music without meaning. The past can’t be erased and sometimes that’s good, especially when the urge to be irresponsibly free rests safely inside an audio cassette.