Saturday, April 05, 2014

“Granny’s 8-track Comes Back”

c. 2014 Rod Ice

My friend Janis could best be described as unconventional in every way.
She is somewhat ‘bohemian’ in disposition. Long, red hair and no makeup. Thrift-store clothes. Oddball tattoos. She prefers sandals in all but the coldest weather. Her tastes in music are a disjointed mess - everything from Metallica to Tennessee Ernie Ford. She has a giant praying mantis in the rear window of her car.
We are polar opposites in almost every way.
Janis lives in a house loaded with pop-culture oddities and artifacts from yesteryear. In particular, items left by her late grandmother. Occasionally, this causes our conversations to detour, unpredictably.
A recent example developed when someone at work mentioned the subject of 8-track tapes. Those around us, being of younger vintage, were baffled. But she reacted knowingly.
“I think Granny had one of those things!” she said with excitement. “It is still on the back porch. I think it takes batteries.”
Laughter resounded. Only she and I seemed familiar with these bygone tape cartridges.
“Does it still work?” I asked, when the laughter had subsided.
She shrugged like an elf. “No idea. Granny always used it to listen to her Willie Nelson tapes. But that was a long time ago.”
“Does it have a turntable?” I asked.
“No!” she laughed.
“How about fold-out speakers?” I wondered.
“No,” she frowned.
“AM/FM radio?” I continued.
“No,” she said again.
“A power cord?” I said, quizzically.
“None,” she replied.
“Is it a cool color?” I said with hope.
“Black,” she moaned. “Basic black.”
“So, who made it?” I stammered.
“Sears,” she recalled.
I was out of ideas. Janis promised to bring the device to work for my inspection.
Hurriedly, I searched at home for tapes to test her player.
When it appeared, a week later, the 8-track machine looked unbelievably plain. More basic than anything I could remember. It had a channel switch, one knob for tone and another for volume.
That was all.
The battery compartment had been ruined by corrosion due to neglect. Its door had long since disappeared. But I noted a 12 volt port, intended for use with a cigarette-lighter cord.
My face brightened. “I have a power supply at home. That might work.”
“Give it a try!” she cheered. “Otherwise, I will just throw it in the trash.”
At home, I connected the 8-track to my power unit. A Slim Whitman tape seemed appropriate for the trial run. I slid it into the player and a muddy wash of audio delight ebbed from the single speaker:

“Drifting along with the tumbleweeds...
I’m a roving cowboy, riding all alone
Tumbleweeds around hum a lonely song
Nights underneath the starry moon
I ride alone and hum a tune

See them tumbling down
Pledging a love to the ground
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbleweeds

Cares of the past are behind
Nowhere to go, but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds

I know when night has gone
Here on the range where I belong
So I’ll keep rolling along
Deep in my heart is a song
Here on the range I belong
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”

The player was a Sears model 250. Investigating on the Internet turned up few clues to its history. But I found one listed on eBay for auction. And another entry offered the owner’s manual from 1972.
Undeniably, I had entered 8-track nirvana!
Janis barely remembered these audio bricks. For her, they were an odd relic of Granny’s trip toward the cosmic void.
I explained having grown up on reel-to-reel recorders, after which I graduated to cassette devices. The 8-track was a curious phenomenon I enjoyed as a sidebar to these more durable and dependable magnetic formats. But their clunky appeal was undeniable. A talisman of 1970’s culture.
My last 8-track deck came from Radio Shack. It was a Realistic unit, probably made around 1980. The component had been designed for stereo use. It had VU meters and a sophisticated set of controls.
I packed it away many years ago, with my Stereo-8 collection.
But the Slim Whitman tape came from a more recent trip to Goodwill. Probably about four years ago. I remembered that the cashier who rang out my purchase seemed amused by the stack of 8-track cartridges that I carried to her register.
In her mind, these outdated toys were like relics from an archaeologist’s excavation. They seemed ancient and foreign.
Yet in my own terms, they were nuggets of gold.
Thanks to my unconventional cohort Janis and her house full of time-warp trinkets, I found motivation to discover that gold once again.

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