Reel to reel

R

I’ve always been intrigued by the sci-fi inspired idea that every sound wave that’s ever been produced still exists somewhere out there in the ether, if we ever had the technological wherewithal to call it back home. So, imagine my astonishment when my wife and I came upon a recording of our 22-year-old selves which we assumed had left on its voyage to Alpha Centauri about 54 years earlier.

            The story of the discovery is worth telling because it weaves together so many parts of our long and, as my church-going friends say, blessed life together. We had a summer-long courtship – a term straight out of Jane Austen – outings to romantic places along the New England coast, concert excursions to a music camp near Tanglewood, bachelor-cooked dinners. Then I was off to San Francisco to complete an internship that was part of my doctoral program in clinical psychology, while Rosellen remained in Cambridge to fan the dying embers of a soon-to-be abandoned English Ph. D program. We weren’t sure whether our summer romance would survive the trials of time and distance, but we promised to write and talk before I headed west in my recently purchased 1957 Ford Fairlane with 70,000+ miles on its odometer and, as I learned later, nary an oil change in its history. Consummate New Yorker that I was, I had only recently learned to drive, so even with two relief drivers eager for a cheap route to their west coast homes, this cross-country trek was one of the more daring moves in my moderately risk-averse life – no roller coasters, no deep water dives, no one night hookups.

            The letters began to flow as soon as I settled into my one room apartment near Haight Ashbury, not yet the flower child capital it was soon to be. Those letters probably still exist among the boxes of correspondence we’ve exiled to a remote storage locker, but the phone calls came to an abrupt end when Rosellen was informed by the phone company that she had run up a $ 200 bill, an unimaginably astronomical sum for someone living on a $1500 graduate fellowship. Instead we began exchanging reel-to-reel tapes – all you could talk indulgences for the cost of cross-country postage. Lovers in the cell phone age have it easy.

            Fast forward three years to 1965. (Spoiler alert: our courtship bore fruit. We were married by then.) We had landed in Mississippi to teach at a historically Black college. The cruel Jim Crow society of the Deep South was cracking, and we were there to assist in our own small way with its dramatic and sometimes violent demise. Somehow, we had enough prescience to keep an audio diary of what we were witnessing, using the same reel-to-reel technology that had recorded our transcontinental pillow talk.

            40+ years later, we realized that these tapes might have some historical significance and deserved to be preserved and become part of the record of this pivotal period in our collective history. We got the name of a sound engineer with enough political history of his own to be intrigued by the material we described. Off went the tapes and back came a professional quality set of discs wrung from those tapes so brittle they had to be warmed in a convection oven to keep them from cracking. One copy went to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which for some mysterious reason, houses one of the country’s largest civil rights archives. The other copy went into a box of miscellany unceremoniously housed under a table in our front hallway.

            It was in that same box that I went fishing recently for a copy of the DVD of the graduation speech Barack Obama delivered in 2002 to the first graduating class of a charter school of which I was the founding director. Barack was only a lonely state senator then, but his star was already in ascendance. I was fishing for that disc at the request of a very thorough historian who was writing a book about Barack’s Chicago years and was vacuuming up every shard of detail he could find.

            The net I cast for Barack’s recording also snared some unexpected bounty – an envelope resting next to the Mississippi discs simply labeled Marv and Rosellen. It took me a moment to put the digital clues together. The tapes we had sent off to the sound engineer had, unbeknownst to us, included one of those half-century old transcontinental recordings. He had dutifully digitized it, along with the Mississippi material, but had, thank goodness, placed it in a separate envelope which saved it from becoming an interesting, unaccountable curiosity for researchers in the Wisconsin archives to puzzle over. Until now that envelope had escaped my attention.

            So here we are on our couch in Chicago, unexpectedly encountering our 22-year old selves, magically returned to us from their trip to Alpha Centauri and back. Most of what we’re hearing would hardly be of interest to anyone besides us and, possibly, our daughters, who may one day be curious about who these people were whom they knew only in their deceptive adult disguises. There are long dissections of foreign films, popular enough at the time to be showing on both coasts – Bunuel’s Viridiana and Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers. The exchanges skirted the edges of pretentiousness and sometimes threatened to drown us in its icy waters, but we were demonstrating, however awkwardly, that we might just have enough conversation to fill the coming 50+ years.

                        As a fledgling psychologist, I was carrying a full load of patients, all of whom were older than me, and all of whom were battling demons that had yet to invade my relatively sheltered life – chronic depression, multiple abortions, the crippling strictures of fundamentalist religion. (I was closer on that one, having recently come out of a period of adherence to the dictates of Orthodox Judaism. On the tape I confessed to a feeling of fraudulence, pretending to play a role that required wisdom I had yet to attain. I’ve since come to realize how prevalent this sense of inauthenticity is among people who seem so confident in their professional disguises, dreading the moment when their costumes will be stripped away, revealing their true and meager selves.

            One of the questions that emerges from an encounter with your early self is whether you are the same person you were then. Is there a through line to the story of ourselves or are we a collection of still photos, desperately seeking a binding schema, as happens when we report the disjointed images of a dream. My life has consisted of the predictable series of life cycle events, which are at once generic and idiosyncratic – marriage, children, the death of parents, professional successes and failures, geographic relocations. In my case, my current self is recognizable in the 22-year-old boy/man pressed into that disc in the tendency toward reflection, the self-doubt, the gentle, somewhat unassertive manner, which have persisted and colored all of those stages.

            The discontinuities that would have made me unrecognizable to my early self are the result of external events, the forces of history that intersect with my own personal history. The recordings pre-date by almost exactly one year the assassination of President Kennedy. This turbulent decade had begun with the sit-ins in the South, which were already raising questions for me about why I was entering graduate school when it was clear that history was happening elsewhere. As a child of the Holocaust years, I was haunted by the question of whether in the eyes of history I would be judged like the German bystanders who did not act against the evil and injustice in plain sight. Rosellen and I were so focused on shoring up and testing our still fragile relationship that hardly a word about politics or the events of the day was evident in our taped conversations. Yet, who we were and were about to become was shaped by those events. The civil rights movement, the emerging feminism, the anti-war movement, the battle for educational equity and more diverted us from the course our lives were taking. They provided the backbone and the sense of purpose that were shaping new selves recast by events in ways we could not have imagined. We were like the shards of glass the Kabbalists believed needed to be brought together to make the world whole again, and it was the fire of the times that would fuse these fragments. 

Listening to the voices of these two young people – the voices, not the content opens a different line of reflection about the continuity of the self. Proud Brooklyn boy that I was, I entered Harvard determined not to let that culture of privilege and entitlement force my accent, that marker of the real me, to be subdued. That battle has to be judged a draw. The voice we hear is still definitely Brooklyn at its core, the roughest edges not yet filed down to the state in which they exist today – an unmistakable core of Bernie Sanders Brooklyn, with a slight overlay of “their” more sophisticated, more “American” sound.

            For Rosellen the story is different in ways that return us to the question of continuity of self. She has always contended that before we met, she had no noticeable New York accent. Her earliest years were spent in small Pennsylvania towns where, to my New York ears, the speech sounded generically American newscaster. Lo and behold, Rosellen was right. Our speech had begun miles apart, and over the years we have been drifting toward some linguistic mean, a case study in miniature of the homogenization of speech that is slowly blunting the rich differences that could once pinpoint one’s place of origin with uncanny accuracy.

A Coda: Five months after we exchanged these tapes, we were married in New York and Rosellen joined me for the last six months of my psychology internship. When it was time to return east to complete my graduate work, we decided to conclude our Western adventure by driving north through Oregon and Washington, then across Canada to our final destination in Massachusetts. On the second day out, as we crossed the California border into Oregon, after a day of driving on a road hugging the steep cliffs that make the area so breathtaking,  I lost control of the car and swerved into the oncoming lane and back twice, barely missing two cars heading toward me before careening off the road and coming to rest in a field after flattening a small tree. I can still see the saucer-eyed terror of the passengers staring at me in horror from behind their windshield. All of us had been spared a nightmarish end.

            Shortly after we returned to Boston, we came upon an obituary for a young recently married couple killed out west in an automobile accident. It was an eerie encounter with our avatars, and as we listened to our taped exchange, we were drawn to revisit that long-ago tragedy. How different these innocent conversations would have sounded if the intervening years had been disrupted by a cataclysmic event like the one we had narrowly averted. The two young people who were and weren’t us automatically assumed the luxury of a long and happy life stretching out before them. This is, in fact, what has been granted us, but how innocent most of us would sound before we were ambushed by darker realities.

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Marv Hoffman

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