Records of Recordings

My dad liked making recordings and he liked new technology. Back in the late 40s, before tape recorders, he bought a machine that made records and took it to my grandparent’s house on what was then the outskirts of Billings, MT. They had a few acres, a couple of cattle, chickens, geese, that kind of thing. My grandfather was born in 1870, so by the 40s he was already an old man. My dad thought his father-in-law was a riot and made several recordings of him.

Among the things my grandfather made fun of were Baptist and/or Methodist preachers. I understand that, from his point of view, they didn’t say anything, but the way they used their voice made what they said sound important. To illustrate this, he declaimed the alphabet.

Now the only existing record of that record and the declamation is in my memory, but it was first a record and then my brother recorded it onto a cassette.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been purging such “records” — not the intangible kind, but the tangible kind. In a month or so I’m getting my garage repaired and there’s stuff in my garage. A lot of it is family stuff that I didn’t know I had until I moved from California to Colorado. It came to me from my mom’s crawl space when she died in 1996. I didn’t look at it then; I just stored it away.

I went through it before my move to Colorado three years ago, but not with the brave and radical fervor I should have felt. If I hadn’t brought it, I could have brought stuff that meant more to me like my drawing table and bicycle. There were boxes that held my dad’s writing and the records of his life’s accomplishments, his uniform from WW II, a box of family photos, those things that — I think — everyone has. When my trash can is full, I stop for the week. I’ve also hauled maybe a dozen bags of useful stuff to the thrift store. In going through it, my standard is, “Will I ever use this? Will this have any meaning or use to the person who goes through my things when I’m dead?”

And, since I don’t HAVE to do this, I can keep what I want. One thing I found was a speech my dad gave at a university in Missouri on the topic of using computers in colleges and universities. It’s a record of how he saw the future of computers in education and, in itself, it is a record of what computers could do when I was 8 years old. I believe (based on things I saw later, the work of a professor of mine who compiled a concordance to Chaucer’s work using a computer) and knowing my dad and how he would have wanted to do this, that this is a print out, but I do not know for sure. The paper makes me suspicious that it is not. Back then, data was entered using punch cards and his text — a computer printout — means someone had to type all that onto punch cards.


No “GUI,” just the giant Burroughs and UNIVAC mainframe in the WW II building on the periphery of the University of Denver campus that housed Denver Research Institute.


I knew that monster well; I’d gone on a lot of errands with my dad to by tubes to replace some that had burned out and spent some Saturdays with him when he was working.

For me, this was a wonderful discovery. Much of my career involved teaching people — colleagues and students — to use computers in college and university computer writing labs. I wanted so much to say, “Hey dad, look at this!” and show him my MacBook, iPhone and iPad — all proof of what he said:

Computer 1

13 thoughts on “Records of Recordings

  1. Ahh, the keepsakes boxes; I know them well. I’m going to have to knuckle down and get to mine, although I suspect our kids will find at least some of the contents interesting. I kept newspapers showing the moon landing, Pierre Trudeau’s win, the murder of JFK and so on, just so they’d have real-life artifacts from the past and not just on their computer screens.

    Good luck with your project! ❤

    • Thank you! I would be doing this differently, probably, if I had kids. My big challenge is what to do with my mother’s crystal. I don’t want it, I don’t want to unpack it but unpacking it is probably an important part of selling it. I’m almost ready to put an ad on the facebook page for my town and say, “Free! Fostoria Navarre! Great-grandma’s favorite! Come and get it!” and set the boxes out by the mailbox. 🙂

  2. Yeah, crystal’s not so much a “thing” anymore, is it. Ditto silver. I got a bunch of both when I got married a thousand years ago, and little by little I got rid of it. I’m a Danish modern kinda gal, and although I think that stuff is pretty, it’s not something I need to have around.

    If you can’t sell it, do you have access to something similar to our Goodwill stores? I hate throwing things away if they can be useful to someone. Goodwill stores work on the idea that one person’s castoff is another person’s treasure, and they hire people in their stores who would otherwise not have a job. You drive your clean used goods, furniture, accessories…whatever… to their back door, and an employee comes and takes it in for culling. I think the whole idea is pretty nifty. The Diabetes Association here in Canada has collection trucks too.

    And if we’ve got ’em here in the Frozen North, you probably have scads of them down there in the Country that God Recently Forgot (if Trump hasn’t yet vetoed them out of existence.) 🙂

    • I don’t think it was a typewriter. I’m not 10o% sure, but I think that document is a printout from the giant mainframe computer he worked with. It strikes me that is something he would choose to do given the topic of his speech. But I could be wrong.

  3. Good crystal is worth money to people who love it. If you have second hand stores that sell used goods for charity or somesuch, that’s a good use of it. I sold my silver years ago and I have a few pieces of cut crystal remaining — gifts that I couldn’t bring myself to move on. My kids don’t need or want it, but there are families that dearly love it. I’d find a second hand charity store. They could make a tidy little bundle on it and you could get a tax refund note for next year. A win win all around.

  4. Such wonderful memories combined with such heartache trying to decided how to distribute things. Your father was obviously before his time. Thanks for sharing part of his speech and the early computer information. He would have loved to see how things have developed since then.
    We ended up with boxes from Chris’s parents place. Amongst the papers were some delightful surprises, but I doubt the next generation will find them so. I have copied several of Eric’s, (Chris’s Dad), short stories onto my blog, but the novel he wrote is rather dated, though quite charming in its own way. I continue in a spasmodic way to empty the shed. Eric didn’t ever discuss his writing when he was alive. This post prompts so much thought and discussion!

    • I’ve been finding it very cleansing to let go of this stuff. To know it, appreciate it, and, like the floss of a dandelion, let it fly away. Not everything right now, but I am sure, in time. It’s OK with me that we’re ephemeral like wildflowers.

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