94: Caught on Tape

94: Caught on Tape

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

Caught on Tape

It’s surprising how much memory is built around
things unnoticed at the time.

~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

“An early birthday present?” I asked myself as I snatched the square package from my mailbox. The return address told me the box was from my mother in Texas. I hurriedly unwrapped the layers of fiber tape that guarded the prize inside. Finally pulling off the last piece of brown paper, I discovered it wasn’t the present I was hoping for after all. “Oh,” I said out loud, a bit disappointed when I saw the contents. It was old recording tape, two unlabelled seven-inch reels. I read the note inside. “Found these in the attic,” my mother had written. “Thought you might want to have them.”

I was curious, of course. Fortunately my workplace had a vintage, mostly unused reel-to-reel tape recorder. I took the mystery bundle to work and during a break, I powered up the machine, threaded up a tape, turned up the volume and hit “play.”

Memories suddenly flooded my mind. Events of my childhood rushed at me in fast-rewind. A voice I had not heard in twenty-five years came from the wall-mounted speaker. Amid the scratchy and distorted hisses on the aged tape, I knew the voice in an instant. The unmistakable Texas drawl of my late father, speaking from another time and another place, leaped from the tape. He died when I was only twelve, but now I could almost see him smiling as he spoke to me.

Suddenly, another voice interrupted. It was the voice of a child belting out a song. “Da-vy, Da-vy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!” It was my voice! The mental picture of me as a four-year-old boy, wearing a simulated raccoon-skin cap, half-shouting into the microphone made me laugh. As I listened further, my dad invited me to sing another song. With his help, I struggled through a chorus of “Jesus Loves Me.” Soon other voices joined in. My two younger sisters sang along with me. Then, one by one, my father interviewed all three of us about what we were learning in school, our friends, our likes and dislikes. Now and then he added his own thoughtful comments, demonstrating his humor, his unabashed pride in his children, his respect for us, and his surprisingly profound wisdom in even the simplest everyday conversation.

Gradually coming out of my audio-induced trance, an overpowering realization struck me — these old tapes represented a priceless treasure. As the childhood memorabilia continued to play on, I considered all the things my father never achieved in his short thirty-five years on earth. I reflected on all his dreams that went unfulfilled. No doubt he had lofty goals for his life. What a tragic waste, some had said. And I had believed it.

But no longer. Though I didn’t recognize it as a youngster, my father had obviously made a conscious effort to leave his children a valuable legacy. I’m not referring to the scratchy audiotapes; those only served to remind me of his real gift. His most valuable offering was himself — his presence, his words, his laughter, his insight, his devotion to pass on to his kids what he knew was genuine and good. My father was not perfect, but he actively and consciously taught us. Even after my father’s death, his spoken legacy imperceptibly continued through my teenage years and later into my adulthood. Though his life was short, my father had been a success in what really mattered.

On my drive home that day, I pondered my own responsibility as a father of three young children. What were they receiving from me daily? What were they learning, not in the frequent lectures I gave about keeping their rooms clean or getting to bed on time, but in my everyday conversations with them? Was I leaving a legacy of understanding and patience, of wisdom and truth and love? When the time came for me to be taken from them, would I leave them with something that couldn’t be taken away?

That evening as I maneuvered my car into the garage, I had a pretty good idea of what I would find when I walked through the front door. The living room would be littered with toys and books and clothes. The kids would be demanding attention as my wife tried to make dinner. There would possibly be an argument going on. I could react as usual with stern threats or disciplinary measures, then settle in front of the television in an attempt to wind down. Or, I could do something else. . . .

Bursting through the front door, I bellowed out a hearty greeting, and called out, “Hey kids, let’s have some fun! Have you ever talked into a microphone?”

~Nick Walker

More stories from our partners