About seven years ago, Steve Christensen bought some used cassette tapes at a flea market. He took them home, and when he popped one in, heard a bunch of people singing "Take up thy Cross."Little did he know he was about to discover an incredible story.
"Virginia, it's nearly seven o'clock and Hazard Jordan and I are here with Lomie Williams. Just got here at dinnertime. I guess she was through with her dinner but she fished me up a nice lobster dinner, and I showed her a picture of your cats. I thought she'd like to see them. So maybe she'd like to say a few words to ya."
"Hello, Mrs. Daly, I think your cats are lovely. You must be a very busy woman to be able to do all those things. I think Whitman is having a really good vacation. I think he's looking fine but I know he's beginning to want to be back home with you and the rest of the family. We were all very glad to have him visit us after all these years.
"Virginia, Hazard wants to say a few words; he's an old school friend of mine."
"Well, Mrs. Daly, I truly endorse what Lomie said about your cats. You have lovely cats."
"Hello, Virginia, today is Saturday, September the 6th. It's raining outside and I'm here in the living room with Hughie and he'd like to say a few words to you."
"Hello, Virginia, Whitman just showed me the magazine with that picture of your cats in it. Very nice."
After listening to that, Christensen Googled "Virginia Daly and cat." He came up with more than 200,000 hits for a woman from the Detroit suburb of Berkley, who, in 1964, invented a spotted feline breed known as the Ocicat.
But that wasn't all. This tape was just one of several recorded by Virginia's husband, Whitman Daly, in which he recites his life story with amazing clarity. The 12-hour tale involves buried treasure and sailors shipwrecked in the Caribbean, British loyalists driven from their homes in Boston, psychics, and more than one near-death experience.
And it all begins on a tape labeled I Was Born, etc.
"I saw that and I thought to myself, 'I gotta buy that, man,'" Christensen says, over the phone from Atlanta, Ga., where the former Detroiter now lives. "When I heard it, it just floored me."
Finding a tape like that can be "like happening upon a few pages torn from a really great novel," says music producer Jon Moshier, about the rare and extraordinary world of adventure listening.
For several decades, field recordings and found sound have interested artists and musicians because they offer access into an environment you normally wouldn't have access to, revealing intimate glimpses inside the lives of others and traces of history that could otherwise be lost.
What's recorded on most homemade tapes isn't usually so memorable. Julie Snyder, senior producer of National Public Radio's This American Life, explains, "Sometimes we discover that the most amazing part of the story is finding the tapes — but what is actually on the tapes isn't so surprising and generally falls along the lines of what you'd kind of expect letters home might be."
But some believe even the everyday stuff has its charm. Aside from the romantic hiss of a super old cassette tape, one local musician says he appreciates that you can tell the creator's motivation is genuine and that the recording is without the trappings of money around it. There's something to be said for what remains untouched and imperfect in our overproduced, highly-stylized society.
Artist Aeron Bergman believes the appeal is more visceral, similar to found photos, but perhaps stronger.
"It has to do with Susan Sontag's ideas about mechanical reproduction: Tapes are removed from the source by years and miles, yet they maintain a very physical connection with the person whose voice was recorded."
What follows are excerpts from three tales: One takes place about 40 years ago in Vietnam; another takes us on a centuries-long journey across Ireland, Canada and the U.S., and the third is just some kid, somewhere, goofing off.
These tapes ended up in shoebox in Christensen's home. But there's a stronger connection. The stories come alive through the voices of the creators. Three men, at different stages in their lives, reflect on relationships — with their parents, with strangers in a strange land and even with a buzzing 1920s city named Detroit.
At a booth in the Dixieland Flea Market in Waterford, Christensen discovered deteriorating cassettes housed in little torn cardboard envelopes, addressed to Richard Henry in Detroit from Sergeant James Henry. It was an audio correspondence between a young guy stationed in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1969, and his father in Detroit.
When Richard died a couple years ago, his wife sold the possessions of their home in an estate sale. What didn't sell made its way into the booth and eventually into Christensen's hands. After some research, Metro Times located Jim Henry living in Colorado.
He was slightly stunned when he received the phone call about those letters home he recorded decades ago. "It really is uncanny, and somewhat emotional. I lost my dad several years ago and my mom only two years ago."
After taking a step back for a few days, he was ready to talk.
"They had just come out with a tape machine," says Jim, over the phone from Arvada, Colo. "It was basically new back then to have a cassette player and that's when I bought one. I was in Da Nang, and they had a basic post exchange where you can buy things. I sent my dad one too so we could talk."
Jim was taking some time off from college and living in Los Angeles when he received the phone call from his mom, in 1965, that he'd been drafted. After training in San Antonio and Amarillo, Texas, his first permanent base was in Denver. In August 1969 he was sent to Vietnam and stayed there for a little longer than a year. One morning, he says he awoke in the top bunk of his hooch feeling like something was trying to squeeze the life out of him:
"Suddenly, without warning, I saw a bright light come down through the roof of the hooch and hover above me. It was the brightest light I had ever seen, but it did not blind me. It appeared like a crystal with sharp points going out in all directions. Instantly, I felt more love and peace than I had ever experienced."
This spiritual experience changed Jim, and he became "a semi-evangelist." He spends a majority of his time in the letters attempting to explain his newfound personal belief about Christianity to his parents, which reveals some tension between father and son. But in between, he offers an eye-opening account of what it's like adjusting to life away from home — the people he meets and how they have changed his perspective on life.
December 12, 1969
Hi, Mom and Dad. This is your long-lost son. It just sounds that way from the last tape. Well, I have been neglecting ya. And, Dad, I'm sorry about that, really. It just seems like it's easier to write a letter, but I haven't even been doing too much of that either. It's really a rough thing to play tapes and make tapes here because people are crawling all over ya and there's no privacy.
Let's see. Now I got my notes all screwed up here — oh, you had a few comments about my religion keeping me in a cage and making me somber or something like that. Well, it's done anything but that, although I can see how you'd probably interpret it as that. You haven't heard from me as much. I'm not depressed. I haven't been depressed in really about three months, since things changed for the better here. I'm not going to try and preach you a sermon or anything. It's something you won't understand — and I didn't understand — unless it happens to you. I have to come 12,000 miles to find out that life is really worth living.
I was walking outside the gate and I had some candy in my box and I let these four little Vietnamese kids — they're really cute, sitting on this, I don't even know if you call it, a doorstep. I oughta take a few pictures of these places, you wouldn't believe them. Shacks, really shacks. And they're sitting there. They're looking at me, and I'm looking at them. And they were smiling. So I kept walking on. And I stopped, and I dug into that box and I pulled out a bag of candy, and this one little kid, he comes shooting out there after me. And I held up the bag, and he looked at me, really cute little kid. He looked up at me and he grabbed that bag of candy and I expected him to run off, you know. But he looked at me and stared at me sort of for an instant and said, "Thank you." You know, perfect English. It kinda shocked me. He went running back to the other kids, and they were screaming up and down. That did a lot for me, see those kids and even the "mamasans," that's what we call them, and the "papasans," they were running around in the shack seeing what I gave them. You know, it was just, must have been about 10 pieces of candy or something. Boy, it was like Christmas Day or something. And then some little kid had seen me give that candy to him. He was even smaller and that guy could run. He must have been 2 years old or something, I don't know, 3. He's zipping along. He came running out there and had his hand out.
I'm going to try and take a few pictures of these kids. Mom, Dad, there's no way I can describe, but I've been out to that orphanage a few times. You give them one of these little Chiclets, this gum, and, boy, they look at ya and you think you're God or something. They want so much love. You get out of the truck and they run up to you and grab your hand, you know, and just hold onto that thing as long as they can. You know, they hold onto your pants. They're just all over you. It's sad. I'm not getting too involved, don't worry about it. But to think that a lot of them have probably seen their parents killed. Some of them are so skinny when they got there, they couldn't even stand up.
Oh, you know, you said something about being conservative. It kinda struck a funny note because Doug just wrote a letter to me saying that he's become a little bit more conservative now that the baby's on the way and he's married. I guess with that comes a little wisdom too. So your reactionary sons are becoming a little bit more conservative.
But, Dad, I do worry about you sitting around. You say you enjoy life sitting around. But I don't think anybody can enjoy life just sitting around. It just doesn't make sense. You weren't put on this earth to be nonproductive, to sit around and watch television. I think you ought to really do something with your hands. You've always been making something with your hands. To me that means a lot. Because I want to do something where I can make something and see it. Going back in the shop, I think, would be a good idea. Never hurt a man to swallow a little bit of pride. I tell ya. I've had to swallow a whole lot of it over here. It's not easy to do it, but it's quite rewarding to do it, though. I've got a lot more to swallow. A lot more. And there's nothing like the service to make you do it.
This crap about old college graduate Henry, I used to live that thing up. I used to stick my old ring in peoples' faces so they'd know I'm a college graduate and things like that. I've found out that it doesn't last. That's nothing, really. Found out more people over here that haven't had college educations have got a lot more going for them than I do as far as thinking and really downright living. I have to be honest with myself, I've probably learned more in these four months than I have in my life. Formal education, informal education, I learned more about living.
You know, another thing, maybe, religious and all that, you may not want to hear it, but I believe a person's going to reap what they sow. I'm doing a lot of harvesting over here. I guess other people are doing the same. You asked about Thanksgiving, I better squeeze that in. I'm sorry to hear really that you're just lonely. I imagine how it could be having part of the family there. We sort of made the best of it here. We had some orphans down at the chow hall and that was something to see when they saw all that food that they've probably not seen in their life before. And sit there eating it with them was really an experience. One little incident I'd like to tell you about is, I saw these kids sorta clomping in and they looked like they were all crippled. Then I realized that was probably the first time they ever wore shoes and had a hard time walking. You should have seen it. It was kinda funny.
Well, I'm gonna say good night and get this thing out so you won't get too anxious. I'll try to get it out in the morning. So good night and take care.
The remainder of the tape reveals the end of a letter that Jim didn't record over. His father says:
Everything you kids do reflects upon us. We live a life, too, and we're pretty proud of our kids. So we don't like them to get in trouble; we try to steer them away, try to help them. But sometimes it doesn't work. Just won't work.
Well, I'm getting to the end of this darn thing and I'm going to sign off here. That was a real sad side, as your mother says, it has been a sad side. But there's always a brighter side. I didn't know what to talk about, I started by giving you a bawling out and started to give you advice and I did about everything that was on the books I guess. You can probably can go to the chapel and hear all that stuff.
Looking back on his experience, Jim admits now that he didn't want to frighten his parents, so kept hidden from his parents the details about what life was really like in Da Nang.
"One night I was awoken by an awful drone of a plane that crashed. It just about hit our barracks, and all I could see was fire. There were bodies all over the place burnt to a crisp. Twenty-two guys died, so it was this huge gasoline fire, hottest fire you could possibly imagine. And this guy kicked out the door of the plane and walked through, came out of the fire. I couldn't get within hundred yards of it, yet he walked right by me. I felt so guilty I couldn't help him. I still do to this day."
One letter actually ends with the sound of an explosion. But he doesn't ever allude to the noise in subsequent letters to his parents. Asked about it now, he says, "I was scrambling underneath the desk at the time. That night they had sent in so many rockets it drove a tiger into the base and a Marine was killed, eaten by the tiger."
Still, his news home sticks to issues his parents could manage emotionally, making a day in South Vietnam seem like just another day at the office.
February 9, 1970:
Hi, Mom and Dad. Well now, I tried to get a tape off to you last night but me batteries went dead. Dad, for your benefit, that's an F-4 warming up for a takeoff — if you can hear it, I don't know. Should be able to hear a rumble pretty soon, if you want to be able to hear all the background noises around here. There goes the afterburn. Well, it's hard to concentrate with that thing going on. The whole place shakes.
I had a bad day today. You mind if I complain to ya for a while? Jeez. Didn't get any sleep. Just about two hours ago I went into a bad state of depression and that doesn't happen very often. But I got pulled out of it so I'm not feeling too bad now. Man, it was bad. It happens to me once in a while but I don't know why, just not thinking right for one thing, not doing right for another thing. But I guess I learn the hard way.
This supervisor of mine, I've been doing my damnedest to try to get along with this guy, but there is a personality conflict. I guess he's been trying to get along with me too, but it just isn't going that well. For one thing, I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and we're the only ones in the whole outfit of a thousand people working 12-hour days. At least I was the only one. He was working, I think, a 10-hour day. So I was getting a little sick of it because I wasn't able to go to the activities I wanted to at the chapel at night. I took it for a while and tonight I guess I was supposed to come in at 6 — I sorta knew I was supposed to come in at 6 — but I went to church instead. He got all uptight, so I kinda got upset. It gets pretty rough, so there I am complaining. It's not all roses over here, as I may indicate once in a while in some of my "happy tapes."
Mail is something you depend on so much. It's hard to believe that you're in the world over here. It's kind of an unreal existence in that people are back there in another part of the world. I haven't seen a movie for a while; I see a situation comedy or something, and there's a real odd situation that comes out of it because this is isolation and in a way you — I don't know how to explain it — you almost forget about what it's like in the world. That's why so many guys have a hard time coming back from R&R. They get really depressed. It kinda scares me to think of going on R&R and then coming back here. I mean, this place, I hate it as it is, and then seeing what the good life is like again and then having to come back here ... oh, I guess I have to worry about that when the time comes.
What was spoken on these tapes may not be what was "real," for Jim, but these sessions allowed him and his father time to get to know each other in a way they never had before, and Jim did not take that for granted. After more than a year in Vietnam, the letters expose a better understanding between father and son.
Hello, folks. Good news from Rocket Alley. This is your son. Well, Dad, I've been waiting for a tape like this for a long time. And I must say it was quite an interesting tape. I've written down a number of questions you've asked, comments you've made. I guess I should have been doing this all along, 'cause it's kinda hard to make a tape without really making notes about it. So I wrote down a few things.
I must say, Dad, you're mellowing in your old age. You really are a lot different than I thought you were, Dad. I mean you're calming down. I suppose we could have an argument about that. I suppose we could have an argument about anything. The thing is, I think we're discussing things for the first time in our lives, and that's good.
You want to know about Da Nang. Well, Da Nang is a little hard to describe. We're about five miles from the city. To one side, we've got the sea. Of course, you can see by a map that the east side is the sea and the west side is covered with mountains. You can see them out here. I'm sitting in an outdoor theater-type of thing that was abandoned when they built an indoor theater. To the right of me is a concrete revetment they keep the F-4s under.
They don't give us any protection. We've got a hundred men in our barracks here. They put a little slab of cement on the bottom to keep the shrapnel out, yet they got these big concrete things here to cover the F-4s. So you tell me where the value of life comes in, you know?
When I came over here, I looked around at the dust and the dirt and the sweat and the grime and the filthiness and the degradation. I said to myself, this is the land that God forgot. And the people that wear these jackets, 'Vietnam the land that God forgot,' they must be right. And also put on it that I know I'm going to heaven because I put in my time in hell. So if you come to Da Nang and spend your time in hell for a year, then I guess you're going to heaven.
There goes a Stinger. I thought I'd tell ya about that. It sounds kind of noisy here — I don't even know if you're hearing this. But that's a Stinger. That's Mr. Bad. Those two before that were jets, but this is a Stinger. I'm going to jump from subject to subject. They got four mini-guns on this thing and all it is is one big gun. I mean you can't imagine this plane, the firepower that this thing has. Nobody messes with it. It's got four mini-guns which shoot six thousand rounds a minute plus two Vulcan cannons on it which shoot six thousand rounds a minute. And these are all individual six thousand rounds a minute with high explosive shells on it. It can cover a football field, every square foot with a bullet, in less than 30 seconds I believe. So when the Stinger gets to moving, it rains bullets, just rains, literally, looks like rain. So there's a little interesting comment about the Stinger. I got six of them protecting our base and, believe me, we need it.
Some of James' tapes were recorded over, years later, by his father, being frugal with his money by corresponding with his son Doug, Jim's brother, sending tapes through the mail rather than chatting for hours over the phone:
Well, I was going to leave what was on this tape to show you how Jim was when he was in Denver — no job or anything else. But I thought I had better take it out 'cause it was a little depressing. I wrote him a tape trying to cheer him up and he was answering me back in how things were and how much he was going to go back into it and get started in there, which he did. Everything seemed to turn out alright for him now that he's married. But it was a little rough after he came out of Vietnam and Denver and I thought maybe you would have liked to have heard it, but I don't think he liked it so I erased it. I also am erasing the other side so you won't have to listen to the other side. I'm going to erase the whole thing. It'll all be empty.
"I bought it because it said 'PEI' on it." Being a fan of Canada, Christensen had hoped the writing on that cassette label he found at Dixieland Flea Market stood for 'Prince Edward Island.' He was right.
That's how he came to own the nearly complete nine-cassette volume Daly Story, in which Whitman Daly recites the events of his life, his father's life and his grandfather's life, through his own memories, as well as information gleaned from his dad's diaries. After all the time and effort Daly put into preserving his family's history (it is apparent on the tapes that he recorded and rerecorded the story a few times), his oral history would have been lost, had it not been salvaged by a yard-picker like Christensen.
The tale begins in the late 18th century, in County Cork, Ireland. But first, Whitman provides a preface:
Through the centuries countless men and women have written memoirs and autobiographies. It is my belief that most of us are more or less interested in our heritage and I have many times thought it would be gratifying to read just a small chapter in the life of my great-grandfather Daniel Daly, his transition from priesthood to parenthood, a life endured to an indefinite degree of fatigue, but nevertheless a happy and meaningful one.
In discussing the subject of ancestry with my family, it was the consensus of opinion that I should write the story of my life for some who may follow me and would be interested maybe in such a story. The information I have recorded on the family history was mostly gained from my father, Joseph W. Daly, through word of mouth, diaries and other retained data pertinent to our family's lineage. The encouragement and help given me by my wife Virginia is greatly appreciated. This story is dedicated to my grandson, Joseph Whitman Daly. This story is primarily written in an attempt to relate for my two grandsons some of the events and happenings of our branch of the Daly family.
Whitman's great-grandfather Daniel Daly was studying to be a priest in Ireland in the early 1800s when it became apparent that he had "become interested in drinking."
"On frequent occasions he had overindulged in the consumption of church wine, much to the embarrassment of his Uncle Peter and the bishop." Daniel was sent to Boston, Massachusetts, prior to the war of 1812, where he learned shoemaking and fell in love with one Elizabeth Williams, from Nova Scotia. The two wed and encountered problems as a couple of British loyalists, "treated with great cruelty," and moved to Nova Scotia along with 30,000 others.
Whitman's grandfather Abraham was born in Shelburne, one of 11 children. At age 19 he sailed on a schooner to the Caribbean, and returned home in six weeks, setting a sailing record. Later he shipwrecked twice, the second time on a small island of the Leeward group, where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. In his son's diaries, it is noted that Abraham was "picked up on the beach by black natives and nursed back to health after near death from yellow fever." After almost a year had lapsed, he was given up as lost by his family. When he finally returned home, he too took up the shoe-making trade. He married and gave birth to Joseph Daly, Whitman's father, in 1868.
Whitman was born in 1902 in a farming and fishing community in Beach Point, Prince Edward Island. He spent his childhood helping his mom on the farm while his dad worked as a traveling stove salesman. With encouragement from his father, Whitman moved by himself to Detroit at age 18. What follows are excerpts from his first experiences in the big city in 1921:
On January 13, 1921, my father quit his job as foreman of the steel yard over policy matters. Although I was asked to stay on, I left the job the following day. In early February, he decided to come to Detroit after an invitation from a family to pay them a visit. This family formerly lived on a farm near Ridgetown, Ontario. Father had sold the family a home-comfort range in 1914 and like many other of his former customers he had corresponded with him for some time. In March he wrote me requesting that I come to Detroit for a visit.
Going to Detroit at this time was far from my mind. On April 8th, I received a telegram from him stating that he would be leaving for home around the middle of May and he thought a trip to Detroit would do me good. For the next three weeks, I had no idea of ever coming to Michigan. However on Friday evening May the 3rd while riding my bike home from New Glasgow, I made up my mind to accept the invitation. When I arrived home that evening I said to my sisters, "Well, I'm leaving for Detroit on Monday morning." Jenny said "Good. If you like it there then maybe we can all go."
I changed trains in Montreal on Tuesday and arrived in Windsor shortly after midnight. Mrs. Kindrey and my father were waiting for me at the depot. They got on the train and we came through the railway tunnel to the Michigan Central Depot, arriving there around 1 o'clock in the morning of May 10, 1921. We boarded a streetcar on Michigan Avenue at 14th Street and transferred to a Sherman line car in Cadillac Square. While waiting there for our car my attention was directed to the construction site of the present First National Building, which was in the process of being built and would be the tallest building in the city when completed. At this time, the work had not progressed beyond the second story. We got off the streetcar at Kercheval and Baldwin Avenue and walked two and one half blocks to Mrs. Kindrey's home at 2525 Townsend Avenue.
Her son Dana — whom I met the following day along with his wife Dorothy — was living on the West Grand Boulevard near 14th Street and had only been married since January the 1st. Dana had a 1919 Buick Six touring car, and he and Dorothy took his mother, my father and I around Grand Boulevard from east to west, then going to Belle Isle for ice cream sodas. I still remember his 1921 license plate number 342006. Dana was 24 years old at the time and Dorothy would be 19 on June the 8th. Both of them had pleasant dispositions.
After reading an ad in The Detroit News, I purchased a 1919 Cleveland one-cylinder motorcycle for 80 dollars from a fellow who lived near Grand River. The time had come for my father to return home to New Glasgow. He thought that I should continue my education but left it entirely up to me as to what I should do. Before saying goodbye to him at the railroad station in Windsor, Ontario, I had decided to continue with automobile painting for the time being. It was probably difficult to persuade an 18-year-old boy to give up a 10 dollar-a-day job and go back to school.
I continued to work for Everett Brothers. Life at this time in Detroit was more carefree than the present day. People somehow moved at an easier pace. Having the motorcycle was a real advantage in affording me an opportunity to get around and see interesting things and places. I enjoyed attending my first major league baseball game at Navin Field. Walter Johnson, the famous pitcher of the old Washington Senators, beat Detroit that day, one to nothing, and I remember Ty Cobb stealing two bases. Yet Detroit could not score. There was a very large sign board near the center field wall. "I'd walk a mile for a Camel."
Usually on Sunday, Dana and Dorothy would come over in their Buick and take us for a ride around the Boulevard, an activity which was an established Sunday afternoon custom with most car-owning Detroiters. Some of the automobiles observed could be Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, Packard, Hupmobile, Rio, Cadillac, Hudson, Maxwell, Buick, Paige, Chalmers, Oakland, Cleveland, Oldsmobile, Studebaker, Columbia, Essex, Scripps-Booth, Marmon, Cole Stearns, Auburn, Saxon, Apperson, Chandler, Hewitt, Locomobile, Stephens, Winton, Briscoe, Franklin Air-Cooled, Detroit Electric, Stanley Steamer, Liberty, Cord, Pierce-Arrow, LCar, Willys Overland, Boon, Russell, Detroiter, Will Sinclair, Willis-Knight, Nash, Lincoln, Jordan, Mercer. Traffic on downtown Woodward Avenue and also on East Grand Boulevard at Jefferson was directed by policemen stationed in pedestal-type towers at the center of the intersection.
Whitman also offers recollections of his first encounters with his wife, Virginia, who would one day become the renowned cat breeder:
This is Part 9 of the story. We definitely had an enjoyable afternoon. It was the first time that she talked about herself. When she was about a year and one half old her father and mother separated and she went to live with her maternal grandmother. Her stay there involved her mother's sister and brother, both of these relatives resided on farms in Livingston County. She had always adored her Uncle Carl, who she affectionately called Cock and said that many times she wished that he was her father. Two other uncles, Wesley and Raymond Cougar, lived in Howell, where Uncle Wesley operated a grocery store on Grand River Avenue. Another Uncle Walter lived near Lansing. At the age of 7 she came to Detroit to live with a withered aunt. Her residence at that time was 1136 Second Boulevard, a number later becoming 5748. Although her auntie was a very kind person and employed a full-time housekeeper, a considerable part of her time was absorbed in charitable activities, which often necessitated her being away during the afternoon and evening hours.
She stated that quite often she tried to compensate her loneliness by reading books obtained from the public library near her home. Her little schoolgirl friends lived across the boulevard and it was too hazardous even at that time for a small girl to cross the street to play with them and most of the trips taken with Auntie involved mostly grown-ups. She said, "You know, one time my aunt asked me if I would like to have a doll. I said no because I knew if I said yes and I didn't get it I wouldn't have been able to take the disappointment." Each summer her vacations were spent with her grandmother in Howell who deemed it necessary that she take a nap every afternoon. She loved her grandmother, but grandmothers are often far removed from administering the needs and wants of a lonely little girl. One day when she was past 13, she told me that Auntie thought it advisable that she return to her mother and have a mother's care. At this time her mother and mother's brother were living near Fourth on Ferry. She came to live with them.
She frankly stated that because of living with different relatives she didn't have any childhood. In view of what had taken place in her life, I could not understand how she maintained such a radiant and pleasing personality, and above all she loved to sing.
Sometimes it doesn't take hours to figure out a storyline. It's not just what's said in a tape, but how it's said, that can be meaningful. An answering machine message , for example, can offer in mere minutes enough information about the sweet, close relationship between two people.
One of the funniest recordings Christensen owns features a boy singing the Beatles' "Help," followed with "Baby You Can Drive My Car." Really, you have to hear the 8-year-old with a lisp and runny nose, singing about how he's "not so self-athurred,"to appreciate it. Afterward, Michael, that's the boy's name, follows his uncle and grandparents around the house with his recorder.
Michael: "And now we're going to have a conversation with — oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy — Uncle Sam! Hahahahaha!"
Grandma: "You get Uncle Sam to say something."
Michael: "Uncle Sam. Will you might wanting to say something?"
Uncle Sam: "What do you want me to say?"
Michael: "Anything you want."
Uncle Sam: "Well, well, Michael's a pretty good boy when he's asleep."
Michael: "Well that sounds very good. But now we're going to go to another person whose name is Papa and he's my grandpa. Well Grandpa, have you got anything to say?"
Grandpa: "Yeah, I say I'm glad to be here, glad you're feeling fine this morning, and we will see you later after I shave."
Michael: "Well, we got one more person here."
Grandma: "And that's Mama."
Michael: "And that's the voice you just heard who is gonna be talking. But first I gotta stop for a minute to get off my coat. I just got here you know. And now we're gonna see what we can do with her. Well, Mama, what are you doing today?"
Grandma: "Well I'm doing dishes right now. You know what doing dishes looks like?"
Grandma: "Well that's what I'm doing."
Michael: "Is it very fun?"
Grandma: "Very what?"
Grandma: "Well, not really. There's other things I have done that's more enjoyable."
Michael: "Name one."
Grandma: "I don't know what it is."
Michael: "Uh, going in a plane? Like that?"
Grandma: "Yeah, I like to ride planes."
Grandpa: "And this is Papa. I'll tell ya what I'm doing! I'm doing lifts here at 35 miles an hour!"
Michael: "And now we go back to Uncle Sam and his secret cornbread-making. How do you make that delicious cornbread?"
Grandma: "You should talk to Uncle John on that thing. Talk about someone who can talk up a storm."
Michael makes noises of bombs exploding and arms firing.
Michael: "And now we're gonna see the ending of Star Wars! Here's my second, ahhhhhhh whooo! Let's go!"
Michael: "You got one! You got another! I'm gonna blow up a planet! Folks, that's all I got and I'm gonna let you hear that over now, OK?"
This is the crux of adventure listening: We easily recognize the softness of sincerity, the tight tone of resentment, the distracted excitement of youth, in the voices of total strangers. No matter how different our circumstances, we hear echoes of ourselves in others. Confirmation of how connected we are across boundaries of place and time — therein lies the magic.
Rehousing of cassette tapes and digitalization were completed by John Smerek of White Room Studios, Collin Dupuis of My House of Trouble studio and Zack Rosen at WDET-FM Detroit Public Radio.
Note: Despite efforts to identify all voices, some spellings in this story are strictly phonetic. Transcriptions were edited for length and clarity.Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]