short story by John Wesley by Julie V
A Short Story
One of the last things my dad did when we moved into our new house was install his hi-fi set. He had put it together with money he saved during the Korean War and took great pride in it. He had helped me put some radio kits together so I watched as he brought in the hifi, hoping he would ask my help. The first part was the amplifier. This was a black metal chassis with vacuum tubes on the top, all exposed, about the size of a toaster, but heavy. He placed it on the floor in the corner of the living room under a coffee table where the other parts would sit. As usual I had questions. He said it was a “push-pull” amp, a new type, from an electric organ. The largest vacuum tube was the power supply, he said, the others were in 2 rows. He plugged in the amp and the tubes came to life, glowing. The next part was the “preamp”, a burnished aluminum box with knobs on the front, about the size of a modern stereo. There was a volume knob, of course, but others were strange with names like “roll off” and “turnover” and even “downward expansion.” These controlled the way different sounds or frequencies were boosted by the preamp, my dad explained. This depends on how the record was made, what microphones were used, etc. He showed me the back of a Mozart LP. It had a small set of printed instructions on what rolloff and other settings to use. “That’s why it’s called hifi. We set the preamp to duplicate conditions in the recording studio,” he said, the engineer in him enjoying the explanation. He plugged in the preamp and wired it to the amp, all warm and ready. Next came the turntable. He set it carefully on the coffee table and showed me its parallel arms. This parallelogram set up was the latest thing, he said; it maintains the same angle of the stylus to the record as the record plays. I knew he took special pride in it and never let anyone else handle it. We could listen to records but only if he was around to turn them over. He showed me the small camel hair brush used to clean the needle. He used a small spirit level to adjust the turntable perfectly level, it was ready. Now the final piece: the speaker. He had cut a hole in the ceiling about 18x18 inches where the single large speaker would go. This was a bare speaker, not in a box, and he carefully lifted it up to the hole while I held the ladder. When this was done he covered the paper cone with some wire mesh screen and brought the speaker wires down to the amplifier. The speaker popped and hummed as he worked, coming to life. It was done---ready for a tryout.
Turning on the preamp, he brushed the stylus with the small brush, the noise amplified a thousand times, boomed from the speaker. He took an LP, “Trinidad Steel Drums,” and adjusted the preamp settings, then placed the vinyl lovingly on the turntable. A few seconds of pops and cracks was heard and he settled in his favorite chair. Then the room was filled with sounds of the Caribbean, his Army days, a carefree time two decades before. He had explained to me several times about this sort of music and this band, which he had seen in person many times. I had no ear for it and shared my mom’s musical taste for Bing Crosby and Patsy Cline. My dad sipped his ice tea and listened to the drums, I went outside.
We lived out in the country on a “gentleman’s farm,” that was my dad’s early retirement project. Every summer my cousins from the city would come for a week, something I always looked forward to. My brother and sister were small and neighbors were miles away so summers were tedious. My cousins were suburban kids, like kids on TV, and very modern, in touch with the latest trends. As the hour approached I sat on our porch and stared down the road, waiting for their shiny new station wagon. Finally it appeared. They were great kids but frankly thought our place was a bit dull. We got only one TV channel, they got 3 o 4, an amazing thing. After showing them around a bit we came inside for lemonade. I suggested we play some records and showed them our collection. WE had Patsy and Bing, Satchmo, some classical, Leadbelly and other blues artists, and of course steel drums. They whispered and giggled when they looked through this collection. “Is this all you’ve got?” my cousin Cindy asked. She sent her brother out to the car. “We need to start on your musical education,” Cindy said, the others nodding.
Cousin Jeff came back with a stack of 45s. I got my dad to come help and he looked amused at the small records. He dug out the adapter for the turntable for 45s and adjusted its speed, the first time it had ever gone at that speed. They handed him the first record. Diana Ross and the Supremes exploded from the big speaker, my dad grimacing a bit. My cousins made me dance; the song was “Baby Love,” as I recall. In 3 minutes it was over and my dad came out of his room and turned over the record, my cousins watching, thinking how cool my dad was. The party continued, my dad reading the paper and getting up every 3 minutes but being good humored about it.
The next day I told my cousins I was through with Bing, the Supremes were “it.” Pleased with my progress, they said it was time to go to the next level. They brought in an LP by The Doors, I got my dad. He was happy to be interrupted only every 20 minutes. Jim Morrison’s haunting voice filled the room. It was the next level, like my cousins said.
The next summer my cousins brought their entire record collection. Their dad was even more finicky than mine about his hifi so they thought my dad was Mr. Cool. I went to my dad’s room and asked if I could use the hifi. He started to say no but my cousins burst in behind me, he was outnumbered. So I was made deputy hifi operator. He showed me how to carefully handle the turntable arm and use the stylus brush. Nervous, I practiced a few times, my cousins waiting impatiently. He was satisfied and the sounds of the Stones chased him back to his room.
Over the next couple of years I bought my own records, by this time stereo recordings. They played OK on the old hifi, but its age was starting to show. My dad had a set of extra vacuum tubes and showed me how to tap the tubes with a pencil to find a fault. Several of my friends had stereos and thought the hifi was rather primitive. I drooled over reel-to-reel tape decks in stores and read stereo magazines. I never saw my dad buy a new record—he had the collection he liked, the music of his youth.
My first year in college I worked hard at a part time job and started buying my own stereo. It was the best I could afford: JBL speakers, AR amplifier, good turntable and an old reel to reel. My record collection grew too, plus I had 100 or so albums on tape. Hauling all this stuff home for the summer was a pain and my dad asked if I’d become a music major. I put the gear down next to the old hifi and explained some of the new technology, he was interested. That evening after supper I started wiring everything together, my brother and sister digging through he records. He came in while we were listening to Pink Floyd and asked us to turn it down, no other comments.
The next day I showed my sister a surprise I’d bough for dad: a remastered stereo version of his favorite, the steel drum band. She got him from his room and put him in his favorite chair. He played along but was braced for something unpleasant. I took the fresh, virgin record from its jacket and placed it carefully on my new turntable, with stylus pressure of less than one gram. Then I realized something and we moved dad to a chair between the speakers, he was reaching the end of his patience. The diamond stylus delicately touched the record, the low distortion AR amp patiently waited, a low hum came from the JBL. The music began, the exact same old tunes I’d heard since birth. “This is tstereo!” my dad said, smiling. The band he loved was spread before him on an imaginary stage, or on a beach, or at a tourist hotel. A broad grin crept over his face as he relaxed, my sis brought him some tea. He pointed to the left speaker. “Hear that little guy, that one? On the left side? I know him, nice guy. A Brazilian. He was always on the left.” A few minutes later I flipped the record, dad enjoyed every song. Mom came in and dad winked at her, she listened a while. Caribbean breezes filled the room, my dad’s friend shouted something in Portuguese at the end of one song. “That was him,” my dad said, “a nice guy.”