Cassette Memories


I had my wisdom teeth removed on Monday, only about 25 years later than I probably should have. What can I say, I tend to put things off. Thankfully, it went much better than I was afraid it would, although the actual process was pretty disconcerting. I elected to have a local anesthetic only, rather than being “put out,” the thought of which gives me a major case of the wiggins. We all have our irrational fears, don’t we? The local was effective enough — I felt very little in the way of pain — but the numbness wasn’t total, and I was completely aware of everything the oral surgeon was doing. Especially when he was prying underneath the stubborn bottom teeth with a miniature crowbar, and wiggling the pliers back and forth until the little buggers finally cracked free of my jawbone. And then there was the unforgettable snapping sensation when one of them broke, followed by more prying to get the remaining portion out. I have to admit, I took a certain macho pride in remaining awake and enduring all this, especially after the surgeon patted me on the chest and told me I was very brave, and very few of his patients elect to do it that way. Brave or not, though, the adrenaline surge left my hands shaking and my heart racing for a good 30 minutes after the last tooth came out, and I really dislike that sensation.

My recovery has been smoother than expected, too. Several friends had warned me to expect the absolute worst, and I took the entire week off on their advice. But as it happens, I’ve had very little pain, bleeding, or swelling, and I started experimenting with actual chewable food only two days after the surgery. So much for all those horror stories I’ve heard.

Still, I’m never one to complain about time spent away from the office, and I’ve managed to get a lot done around the house in the past couple days. Specifically, I’ve made some significant steps forward in the overwhelming and seemingly never-ending process of reclaiming my living space from all the crap I’ve accumulated over several decades of packrattery. Today, for instance, I’ve been going through boxes of audio cassettes — most of which I long ago upgraded to CD, none of which I’ve actually listened to in years — pulling out the small handful that have some sentimental value as objects and tossing all the rest in the donation box. It’s been an interesting walk down memory lane. Generally speaking, I don’t give up my preferences easily… if I once liked something, there’s a very good chance I still like it. But not always.

For instance, is it really possible I was once an Air Supply fan? Apparently, as I have two of their albums and a greatest-hits package. I don’t think I’ve had the slightest interest in hearing Culture Club since 1985 or thereabouts. And given my modern-day disdain toward country music, the four Alabama tapes I’d forgotten I ever owned were something of a surprise. And then of course there were the two Chicago tapes. I’ve loathed Chicago since that one horrible summer back in my multiplex days, when their greatest-hits CD played for three months straight, every single day, from open to close, continuously rubbing salt in the wound of a recent breakup with every single overwrought ballad and maudlin heartbreak song until finally one afternoon… something happened to that disc. Now, I’m not admitting to anything here. All I’ll say is that CDs look remarkably pretty the way they flash in the sun as they sail off a movie-theater roof across a parking lot that looks impossibly black and glossy with its fresh coating of asphalt. Needless to say, those Chicago tapes aren’t anything I want to hold onto. (For the record, they were Chicago 16 and Chicago 17, every Chicago album being oh-so-imaginatively numbered, rather than titled.)

But then there are the tapes that still actually mean something to me, the ones that hold volumes of sense-memory wrapped in their clunky plastic casings, their smeary labels, and their too-tiny cover art. Handling Olivia Newton-John’s Physical once again reminds me of how deliciously rebellious I felt listening to something that got the local prudes all huffy, how early I made my choice to stand apart from Utah’s dominant culture, and how much of that choice came from simply liking things people around me told me I shouldn’t like. (Yes, Olivia Newton-John was once subversive here in the squeaky-clean Utah of the early ’80s, as ridiculous as that now sounds.) Asia’s Alpha brought back long afternoons of solitary adolescent brooding on my old backyard rope swing, my refuge from the confusing, hurtful world of middle school. The long out-of-print soundtrack to the long-forgotten movie Teachers triggers images of times spent with my buddy Kurt Stephensen, who gave me that one for Christmas one year. Bob Seger’s Night Moves did constant duty on my old Walkman as I stalked the hallways of Bingham High in my army-surplus trenchcoat, my hands jammed into my pockets and a pair of cheap 7-Eleven Ray-Ban knockoffs covering my eyes (these days, I’d no doubt get thrown out as a security risk, looking like that). Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night recalls afterschool make-out sessions with a certain young lady in the back of my ’70 T-Bird, parked in South Jordan City Park with the hot spring sunshine flooding through the windshield. Little River Band’s First Under the Wire was the soundtrack for several long summer-vacation nights spent chewing the fat with the Skinner boys as we camped in my family’s boat underneath the endless Milky Way. Sammy Hagar’s Cruisin’ & Boozin’ was the first (and last) item I ever shoplifted. Karma got even with me, though; the tapedeck in my Dad’s Bronco ate the damn thing the first time I tried to play it. I managed to pull the tape out of the machine without breaking it, but it was stretched and never sounded quite right again.

And then there’s the homemade mixtape with the magazine-ad photo of a sailboat for a cover. That one stirs up feelings I once had for the same girlfriend whose rejection contributed to the Multiplex Chicago Incident; she made the tape for me when she left for college, the transition of our “perfect” romance (or so I believed it was) into a long-distance love affair, and the beginning of the end for us. I recognize only one song on it, Modern English’s “Melt With You.” She and I never did share much in the way of music.

So while the majority of these dusty old outmoded forms of media are on their way to the thrift store — assuming they even want them at this late date — there are some that are going right back into the shoebox they came out of. I’m trying to amend some of my obsessive materialism… but let’s not get crazy here!


Get Off My Lawn! (Literally!)

When I was a boy, I thought living on the route of my hometown’s Fourth of July parade was just great. (Why, yes, I did like Frosted Flakes as a boy. Why do you ask?) But then, things were different then.

For one thing, the parades were held in the morning, and on the actual holiday, rather than on the evening of the day before as they are now. In those halcyon days of the mid-1970s, Riverton was just a sunbaked farm town where the local good ol’ boys whiled away their mornings over cups of joe and slow-burning butts at the counter of the local cafe, and there were as many tractors and combines running up and down the main drag as pickups and cars. Back then, our Independence Day revels began at dawn with the sounding of the yellow, barrel-shaped air-raid siren that used to be crouched on top of a telephone pole behind the town hall. Which just happened to be kitty-corner across the street from my house. If you’ve never heard one of those things, take it from me, there isn’t a living creature on this planet that could sleep through their unholy Banshee’s wail. I remember sitting straight up in bed with my heart hammering away inside my rib cage, year after year, and my dad answering the Banshee with an eruption of profanity that would have left human-shaped shadows singed into the walls, atomic-bomb style, if anyone had been unfortunate enough to be standing at the foot of his bed. After a couple minutes of this clamour, the siren would fall silent, and then, while our ears were still ringing, along came the old sound truck. This was a green 1950s-vintage panel truck with four huge, horn-shaped PA speakers mounted on the roof. The driver — I’m sure my parents could tell me the guy’s name, as he was undoubtedly one of those good ol’ boys from the cafe — would be yammering away over the speakers, exhorting everyone in town to get up and come on down to the city park for an old-fashioned pancake breakfast. My dad usually had some very specific ideas about what that guy could do with his pancakes; I don’t recall my parents or me ever going to that community cookout. The three-person Bennion clan always made our own holiday breakfasts.

Then it was time to get ready for the parade. Dad would put our lawn chairs out in front while most of the townsfolk were still wandering toward the park in search of pancakes, but I don’t recall there ever being any particular sense of urgency about it. Nobody would think of squatting on a lawn that didn’t belong to them, at least not without asking permission, or at least not until the parade was underway and everything became fair game. Around nine o’clock or so in the morning, the normally busy road in front of my house would become eerily still. And about 45 minutes later (the parade has always started about a mile from my house and it takes a while for the slow-moving procession to reach the Bennion Compound), the floats and marching bands and horseback companies and fire engines would begin to stream past. Teenaged beauty queens beamed at their neighbors, salt-water taffy and little boxes of Chiclets and Bazooka Joe rained down on the children lining the street, and the same antique cars and novelty acts we saw every bloody year would roll past, and the spectators would wave and clap and smile as if it were the first time. These parades of my hazy, sepia-toned memories comprised our friends, our neighbors, people we knew… they were family, often in a literal sense — it was a small town, after all — but always in a metaphorical one. Back then, the parade was a ritual that seemed to actually mean something; it wasn’t just a way to occupy the kiddies with gathering free candy for an hour (although that was certainly an aspect of it). The parade reinforced a sense of belonging to something: a place, a community, a town. And when it ended, there were old-fashioned, homespun activities all day in the park, cheesy midway games and hamburger grills and plastic wading pools filled with iced watermelon and friendly horseshoe-pitching competitions, all of it leading up to the big finale, the fireworks that would fill the sky just after sundown. Rude awakening aside, Riverton’s Fourth of July used to be a pretty low-key, and yet thoroughly satisfying, affair. It was cornball, yes, but it was also organic and homegrown, and it was good.

That’s how it used to be.

Today, I still live in the same old house, and the parade still passes right in front of it, but practically everything else has changed. Riverton is now just another anonymous suburb, with a population several times the size of what it was during my childhood. And our small-town Independence Day is now such a Big Damn Deal that it has to spread itself across two days instead of one. Now, instead of fun and games provided by the Lion’s Club and the local church wards and the familiar good ol’ boys, there’s a traveling carnival every year at the park, and concession stands selling national-chain fast food, and the fireworks are electronically synchronized and spectacular. Everything about the Fourth is bigger and more professional now, more sophisticated… and somehow it’s less than it was, too. It feels… commercial. Store-bought. It isn’t ours anymore, it’s just something we ordered on Amazon. As for living on the parade route… well, that’s turned into a royal pain in the tuchus.  The fun little small-town event that used to bring us closer together has metastasized into an overblown, stress-filled competition in which inconsiderate jackasses will do whatever they can to ensure themselves a seat, because there are now so damn many people living in this town and everyone wants to bring their kids to the parade for that free candy, but the route is still only a mile long, and seats are a precious commodity. People start staking their claims with chairs and coolers and yellow caution tape days before the parade — this year, they made their appearance a full week ahead of timet — and people just leave them there all up and down the road, unwatched eyesores, to mark their territory. The competition doesn’t end there, though; I’ve personally witnessed soccer moms jump out of their SUVs, toss aside someone else’s chairs, and set up their own in the same spot. The whole sad, sorry spectacle makes my stomach turn. It’s just a damn parade, people.

I don’t remember when this whole thing became such a BDD. It’s come on slowly, over the space of a couple decades, like that tired old saw about the frog in the pot of water that’s gradually heating up. I only know that for at least the past decade, I have been obligated to set out my own chairs at the first sign that the land-grab is beginning, or risk having squatters we don’t know and didn’t invite plant their crap in my park strip for seven days. Because they would, without a second’s thought. It isn’t that I mind sharing my frontage with others — hell, given my work and commute schedule, I don’t even get home until the stupid parade is half over, so somebody may as well use the space — but I do mind the way people don’t even bother to ask. They just swoop in and drop their junk and expect you to put up with their placeholders sitting on your property for a week, and then they and their rambunctious little carpet monkeys show up for the party you didn’t want to throw, and they get huffy as hell if you ask them to make room for you and your own invited guests, or request that they not make a hellacious mess with their Subway wrappers and Super Big Gulps and juice boxes. And inevitably when it’s all over, they leave behind a pile of garbage that I have to pick up and put in my bin, because these disrespectful freaking slobs apparently don’t see anything wrong with expecting strangers to clean up after them.

And I guess that’s the difference… in the ’70s, most everybody in town knew each other, or at least knew of each other. There weren’t that many people here, and we interacted with each other pretty regularly, so you couldn’t really get away with being an ass. Today we’re all mostly strangers, isolated in our cul de sacs and our hermetically sealed vehicles, and our hermetically sealed lives that mostly happen far away from the places where we cook and sleep. Nobody really cares anymore about inconveniencing somebody else, because they’re not likely to bump into you at the grocery store, and even if they do, they won’t recognize you. With a population count of nearly 40,000, how could it be otherwise?

The ironic thing is that the damn parade isn’t even any good anymore. It’s degenerated into little more than a long line of politicians in convertibles and jacked-up 4x4s with the names of businesses on their sides, and wave after wave of military and law-enforcement vehicles. It’s almost enough to make me want to stay at the office and put in some overtime…


The Girl with the Grey Eyes… and a Friday Evening Video

Her name was Christine, or maybe it was Christina with an “a” — I’m afraid I don’t quite remember which — and she had eyes the color of an overcast sky just after the rain has stopped. For all the books I’ve read in which characters have grey eyes, she’s the only real-life example I’ve ever encountered. Curiously, she didn’t like them very much. When I first met her, she was covering them up with cosmetic contacts that turned them a rather ordinary brown. She lost one of those lenses at some point, and for a while she sported a startling, two-toned Jane Seymour look. Eventually she gave up and just let her real color show.

We had a class together our freshman year of college, back in the fall, winter, and spring of 1987-88, an honors philosophy course called Intellectual Traditions of the West. That was a great class, one of the very few I took during five years of undergraduate studies that I still have distinct memories of. It was a bit of a pain, schedule-wise, because it was held from 5 to 7 PM, three nights a week, whereas the rest of my classes were at more traditional times in the morning or early afternoon. I was a commuter student who lived some 25 miles away, so I couldn’t very easily run home during the downtime, or do much of anything else, either, except hang around in the union or at the Marriott Library or on the grass under a tree somewhere, and just wait. Looking back, though, I think the oddball time was a big part of why the class was so memorable. We handful of earnest freshman honors students who were still on campus after the grounds had grown quiet and the shadows long with approaching sunset enjoyed a kind of esprit de corps that I never felt in any other college class. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the most friends I ever had among my U of U classmates were people from that class.

A couple of those were long-established friendships from high school, Keith and Cheryl. Then there were my fellow Trekkies: a guy named Jaren, and his friend Melonie, and the Japanese kid who doodled a new rendering of the starship Enterprise during every two-hour class period. He had a whole notebook full of them. There were a few others who’ve now dimmed in my memory to hazy faces without any distinguishing information attached to them, but I can still sense some residual affection for them, so I know I must’ve enjoyed their company at one time. And then there was Christine. Christina. Whatever.

***Text Missing***


Ancient Memories and Weird News

The other day my brain wandered all the way back to a dim, cobwebby memory of my childhood in the 1970s, to something I thought I recalled seeing in those long ago days of macrame’ and man-perms… a made-for-TV movie that had something to do with two kids and a sea turtle into whose shell they carved their initials… and then as grown-ups these two encounter a gargantuan monster turtle, which naturally enough is revealed in the very final shot to be their turtle, for it still had their initials in its shell…

Now, I tend to have surprisingly good recall of the stuff I saw and heard as a kid — uncannily good, according to The Girlfriend, who despite being only two years younger than me remembers practically nothing of the ’70s — and my memories of TV are often especially clear, despite not having seen some of this stuff since it was originally broadcast. There was, for instance, an episode of Space: 1999 in which a monster pulled screaming astronauts underneath its body and then spat back a smoking, human-shaped pile of cinders. (It’s called “Dragon’s Domain,” and looking at the comments over on YouTube, it appears I wasn’t the only one who was completely traumatized by it.) And then there was an episode of the Patrick Duffy series Man from Atlantis in which people were infested by mind-controlling “spores” that looked like little blue lights. I remember KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park and The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (which also featured KISS, interestingly enough). Hell, I even remember a cheapo TV movie about Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues fame going up against a submarine-based laser weapon controlled by some kind of alien. All of those things are — and always have been — pretty clear in my mind. I’ve always known that those experiences did happen, that those movies and episodes existed. I retained at least a vague idea of the plotlines and casts and titles. But this turtle thing… all I had of it were the kids and the initials carved into the shell, and that stinger ending. I couldn’t remember a title or a plot. Just… images. I briefly wondered if maybe I had dreamed the whole thing — there are certain, very intense dreams I had years ago that I still recall in flashes, and I considered the possibility that this turtle movie was one of those.

There was only one way to be sure… so I fired up the Google-ator and typed in three words: “tv movie turtle.” And lo and behold, one of the very first items it returned was a cult-site review of something called The Bermuda Depths:

Broadcasted on Friday, January 27, 1978 on the ABC Friday Night Movie, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS is an American made-for-TV movie that was released theatrically in some foreign countries soon afterwards. Often sought out as the “giant turtle movie” or “that movie with the girl with glowing green eyes” by and Ebay searchers who cannot remember the film’s title…

Well, that’s all I needed to read. The review goes on to describe in great detail a story that doesn’t ring even small, unobtrusive bells. But I know that was my turtle movie. And from the sound of the review, it was very surrealistic, which explains my impression that it could have been a dream.

Curiosity aroused, I clicked the mouse a few more times… and learned that, of course, this thing is available on DVD as one of the manufacture-on-demand offerings from the Warner Archive, only $14.95. I filed that little tidbit away, thinking I may take a gamble one of these days and buy a copy, just to see what the heck it is that’s lurking in the musty corner of my memory. And that’s basically where this story would’ve ended… if later the same day I hadn’t spotted a news item about a man finding a turtle into which his son had carved his initials… in 1965.

Sometimes the echoes and resonances get to be a little spooky.


In Memoriam: George Carlin

Carlin as I choose to remember him...

I don’t know if teenage boys still go through a phase where they’re obsessed with comedy albums — my guess would be “not,” since the “album” is an endangered species these days, and stand-up doesn’t appear to be quite the cultural force it used to be — but back in my increasingly far-off youth, it was almost as if every thirteen-year-old male in the country was issued one at the door as he left that infamously awkward, boys-only puberty lecture in seventh grade. You know, the one where red-faced PE coaches mumbled dire warnings about how we were going to start “noticing hair in new places” and we’d need to start showering every day if we wanted girls to like us. Maybe the comedy album was supposed to be a consolation prize for having just been made to feel impossibly icky about our own bodily functions. Here’s a record, kid; go listen to somebody making fun of the stuff you’ll be obsessing over for the next few years.

We all had our favorite comedians in the middle-school crucible of the 1980s. As I recall, my buddy Keith liked the absurdities of Steve Martin, while my neighbor Kurt Stephensen grooved on the earthy ‘n’ crude acts like Richard Pryor and the up-and-coming Eddie Murphy. I liked those guys just fine, but my comedy hero during those harrowing early-teen years was George Carlin.


Indy and Me

The funny thing is, I don’t even remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark when it first came out. That’s odd for me, because I can recall the circumstances and specific theaters where I saw every other major landmark film of my childhood: the Star Wars trilogy, the early Star Trek films, Superman, Tron, The Black Hole, hell, even Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. But not Raiders.


Back in the Good Old Days…

This looks familiar...

Man oh man… this photo of an 1983-vintage home computer desk, which I just spotted over at Boing Boing, brings back a lot of memories. A lot of memories. I didn’t have exactly this same set-up — I had the Atari 800XL instead of the 800 model pictured here; my peripherals were a bit more spread out around my bedroom; and I never had a set of those groovy Burger King Jedi glasses — but there’s an extremely familiar vibe emanating from this image. I don’t even have to close my eyes to journey back, to once again hear Sammy Hagar blasting from my old Fisher cassette deck as I bang away at the clickety-clackety keyboard (sometimes I miss the weirdly satisfying noise and effort associated with that old keyboard; modern ones are so mushy in comparison…), working on one of my embarrassing early short stories that all seemed to be ripped-off Doctor Who plots infused with some good old-fashioned teenage angst. The hard copies of those stories disappeared long ago, but I think there might still be electronic ghosts of them around, locked away on the dozen or so ancient five-inch floppy discs I know I’ve got somewhere in the Bennion Archives. If only I had a working five-inch drive and the know-how to capture the data to my modern PC! Embarrassing or not, I’d like to see them again…

I never bothered to learn Atari BASIC, and that mysterious activity known as hacking held no appeal for me. I didn’t have any idea what you could do with a computer, really, beyond writing lousy adolescent fiction. It wasn’t much more than a sophisticated toy, so far as I could see. (That attitude probably wasn’t helped by the fact that you used an ordinary television for a monitor; if you got bored with whatever you were working on, you could just change the channel and watch Gilligan’s Island or whatever. Which I guess isn’t much different from hopping online and seeing what’s shaking at Boing Boing, when you think about it…) I was savvy enough to recognize that the Atari Writer word processing program was far more convenient than the old portable typewriter I’d been using in my pre-computer days. I saved reams of paper by editing and perfecting — well, rewriting, anyway — my work before printing it out. But if someone had told me then that our entire economy and a pretty sizable chunk of our culture would one day revolve around these toys… well, people did try to tell me all this was coming and I didn’t believe them. I thought computers would never amount to much more than fancy typewriters. Some would-be science-fiction writer I was, eh?


The Last Trolley Theater Calls It Quits

The Salt Lake Tribune‘s film critic Sean Means is reporting that the Trolley Square Cinemas will go dark by the end of the month, a casualty of the extensive renovation project that is converting Trolley Square from an interesting, funky, uniquely Salt Lake shopping mall into a less-interesting, brighter-lighted, and no doubt utterly homogenized shopping mall. There is no word on whether a new movie theater will be incorporated into the redesigned Trolley, but my hunch is that there won’t be. And that seems like real shame to me.


The Disappointment… Oh, How It Burns!

My parents maintained a pretty liberal movie policy when I was growing up. Unlike a lot of Utah households, “R” movies weren’t automatically prohibited from our home simply because of their rating. Instead, my folks — well, my mom, since Dad was never much interested in movies — would do a little research and maybe a preview screening to find out exactly why the movie was rated R. Bad language was no problem, since she correctly assumed that I’d already heard every naughty word in the book (and quite a few that no one’s bothered to write down) while hanging out with my dad in the garage. Violence was likewise allowable, once I got old enough to stop having bad dreams brought on what’s now euphemistically called “intense content” by the MPAA. (For example, she flatly refused to let my uncle take me to see Alien on the big screen when it first came out — I was around nine, as I recall — but she gave her blessing for me to see it on video a couple of years later. Looking back, I think that was a wise decision. I love the flick now, but at nine… well, I probably would’ve had nightmares for years.)

Sex, however, was a little more complicated. Mom generally didn’t get upset at brief flashes of nudity or Benny Hill-style innuendo. (I guess her thinking was that if I was laughing, I couldn’t be getting too many ideas, or maybe she just liked the fact that Dad and I, who generally had so little in common, both enjoyed Benny’s hijinks.) But she became very uncomfortable with anything more, well, educational. This, of course, made such movies intensely appealing to me. However, being a good boy who always followed his mother’s wishes — i.e., a kid who was prone to fantastic bouts of guilt at the thought of “getting in trouble” — I never tried to sneak around behind her back like some kids would’ve. If Mom didn’t think I ought to see something, I didn’t see it. And that’s how I missed out on a landmark movie called Porky’s.


Adolescent Daydreams…

Remember that yearbook photo I mentioned a couple weeks ago, the one of ZZ Top that my buddy Kurt Stephensen captioned so as to suggest that he, I, and our mutual friend Chad Skinner were the guys with the furry guitars? Well, here it is:

Ah, the fevered imaginations of 14-year-old boys...

I know this is probably of interest to only three guys in the whole world — one of whom is typing this, and the other two may not even know this blog exists — but seeing this shot again after so long brings a smile to my face. It takes me right back to a time and a place when you defined yourself by what music you listened to, being cool was paramount, and your highest ambition was to own a muscle car with a tape deck. A cassette deck, not one of those crappy old 8-track things that were still floating around in ’84. The car would probably have to be done up in gray primer because you couldn’t afford actual paint, not after installing that Blaupunkt. Not that that mattered, though, because the chicks would dig it anyway. We had no solid evidence of this, but it was obvious, right? Because chicks dig cars, man… just look at those ZZ Top videos! They wouldn’t lie to us, would they?