Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – Real to Reel

When you’ve just turned eleven and all you can think about is your upcoming vacation marking the beginning of the holiday season, it’s a wonder you can sleep at night.

I was halfway through sixth grade. My interests were imitating the voices of my favorite radio announcers, actors, fellow students and, of course, some of my more fun-loving uncles.

Once in a while, I could convince my dad to borrow a friend’s reel-to-reel tape recorder for a few days. As he operated the complicated machine, I got a chance to play radio announcer or conduct man-on-the-street news reporter interviews.

We didn’t have much money as I was growing up, so owning such a piece of expensive equipment was totally out of the question, but I could dream. Boy did I dream!!!

It all began when my cousin Billy took me to visit a Boston area radio station in 1959. They had a machine that could record your voice and put it onto an actual long-playing record. This was just like the kind you could purchase at the record store except this one had my voice on it and those of the other people at the radio station.

From there I learned about something called a tape recorder. This machine allowed a person to capture voices, sounds and music. They could listen to it over and over again. This recording could be erased or recorded over and re-recorded. It was even more magical than the radio, which I already figured out was pretty fantastic.

When we borrowed my uncle Mike’s recording machine and I sometimes recorded the sound of radio or television programs, I simply placed the microphone near the speaker, then sat back quietly while the program played. It was only later that I learned about connecting cables to get clearer sound without background room noise.

But, as often happens, my uncle’s tape recorder was very old and it eventually developed some sort of technical problem which he was unwilling to spend money to have repaired.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed. I schemed and connived as to how we might find a way to get that Magic Recording Machine fixed. No Luck!!!

In fact, I drove my parents crazy with the subject and finally they had to tell me to quit talking about it because there was nothing they could do. To make matters worse, my mom quietly sat me down and explained that she’d talked with my dad and they’d tried to figure out every possible way to see if they could somehow maybe afford to purchase a recorder for our family. She sadly said: “Roger, they are just way too expensive. We don’t have that kind of money to afford this sort of thing.” It wasn’t like they didn’t care or understand. They were just too poor. That’s the way I heard it. My heart was twice broken.

Uncle Mike’s recorder would cost too much to fix. My parents were too poor to buy one. The prospects were about zero that this situation would change any time soon. My dad had a secure job, but it paid a consistently low wage.

I had to face facts. Deal with reality, dream about the good times I’d already had, and maybe someday, when I get a job things would be different.

Let’s see, I got 50 cents per week allowance. A new, inexpensive tape recorder cost around $175. How many weeks would that take? 350 weeks. That’s how many years? You figure it out. I’m too depressed to do the math.

So vacation arrived and I realized that what little money I had saved toward my future tape recorder was going to be needed to obtain holiday gifts for family members. Now my plans would be set back even further.

I realized I was being rather selfish about this whole thing and so I put the matter aside for a while and concentrated on trying to guess what I could get for my brother, sister, dad and mom for the holidays that they would actually like and that I could afford.

By the time I’d made appropriate gift selections every penny which I had saved over many months, toward my dream, was gone. I took some small comfort in knowing that at least the other family members would get a gift from me they would like even if I’d have to start all over again in my quest for the recording machine.

In our household there is a tradition that began some years ago. Each family member gets to select and open one gift on Christmas Eve. I don’t know where this idea came from, but it continued that year. Wouldn’t you know that year every member of the family chose to open the gift I had gotten for them. Well, they were very pleased with my thoughtful choices. I felt happy about that, but inside I felt even sadder because I had brought them a degree of happiness while
I felt somehow miserable. We know as adults this does not express the true nature of giving, but gee I was just an eleven year-old kid!!!

Finally it was time to go to bed. As I was falling asleep I wondered how many times 52 went into 350. I fell asleep without ever getting the answer.

Christmas morning arrived. The scent of freshly brewing coffee and wonderful hot chocolate filled my nostrils as I awoke. I heard traditional carols playing on mom’s HI-FI with “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” booming out in the voice of Nat Cole. I heard my sister wishing everybody “Merry Happy.” I heard my mom’s slippers sliding softly across our living room floor over to the tree where she clicked the switch to turn on the tree lights.

We all gathered around to share holiday gift giving and a wonderful morning of laughter and merriment. I temporarily forgot my sadness of the night before, and my selfish feelings about wanting and not receiving because I took so much joy and pleasure in the expressions of glee and celebration with my family on that Christmas morning.

All too soon, however, the boxes, piles of paper, bows and ribbons lay in scattered heaps on the living room floor. You know that funny empty feeling you sometimes get when the frenetic pace calms down? Suddenly, it got very quiet. The holiday music was all I could hear. No one was talking. We were all seemingly preoccupied with the examination of our gifts.

Then, I heard a very strange sound. It was like chipmunks chattering or a whole bunch of mice squealing all at once. It was as if a squad of window washers had suddenly descended on our living room walls and were making a very loud racket with their squeegees. It made me jump. I was not sure what the sounds were or what made them. Nobody said anything to give me a clue. So I said aloud “Did something awful happen to the dog”? Everyone burst out laughing. In answer, my dad took my hands, and gently guided them to something that was slowly moving around and around just beneath my fingertips

I could scarcely believe what I was touching. I exclaimed exuberantly. “You somehow got Uncle Mike’s tape recorder fixed so we could use it today to record the festivities, wow that’s really cool dad.” My dad surprised me when he informed me that the answer to that question was no!!!

I was stunned and lost for words. I didn’t know what question was left to ask. There was one very remote, but impossible question I dared not even contemplate so I didn’t. My dad provided the answer to the unasked question. “This, Roger, is a brand new reel-to-reel tape recorder. It now belongs to YOU. Take very good care of it. We believe it will change your life and that’s why we got it for you. The strange noise you heard a couple of minutes ago was the machine rewinding the recording I’ve been making this morning.”

Because of that one Christmas gift the doors and windows to a long life in the world of communications possibilities opened wide.

My life, ever since, has been all about that one gift. My parents had an understanding far beyond my years and perhaps their own, as well.

I wonder how my life would have been different if not for that gift. Just when I thought the giving had ended, little did I know then, that my life of giving had just begun.

This article was based on those original Christmas morning recordings made over 50 years ago.

I marveled and contemplated what my future might hold, as the reels turned around and around.

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