When you work for a university, summertime is cleaning season. A few days ago here at the U, we delved into the dreaded storage closet. The storage closet is where equipment goes when it's not being used. As we dove deeper and deeper into the strata of decaying technology, we uncovered some seriously nostalgic and funky stuff.
First came the 40-pound video cameras with beta-tape recorder bag and battery belts with heavy rubber coatings. This weighty outfit gives you a major get-arrested-in-the-airport terrorist look. After spending some quality time modeling the belts and video gear, we found the overhead projectors for transparencies. For those of you youngsters in the room, overheads and transparencies were what people used before PowerPoint and LCD projectors. They were just as boring, however.
The projectors were sitting on what turned out to be an old server that was most recently covered with a cloth and used as an end table. (Martha Stewart goes nerdy.) The slide projectors followed. That distinctive click-slide-clack noise that announced the next slides is indelibly etched into my brain from the many humid Florida evenings I spent listening to my grandfather narrate his holiday pictures.
Buried way in the back of a high shelf of the closet, I discovered perhaps my favorite piece of dusty fun. It was from one of those transitional technological eras when no one was quite sure which technology would win, so they stuffed everything together just in case. At first glance, with its sharp corners and IBM gray exterior, the compact boom box with a cassette player looked old and ordinary. But it wasn't. We realized that the boom box also contained a record player that oh-so-coolly slid open from of the bottom of the box. We burrowed under a few laser discs in the corner of the closet until we found a stack of 33s lurking underneath. The record player had to be twenty years old, minimum, and the needle fell into the groove of the album without a hitch.
Listening to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on a scratchy record player on a Friday afternoon in the summertime is about the best way to clean any closet. (And yes, we listened to "Whipped Cream and Other Delights," an album probably most notable for its o-so-distinctive cover art.)
Some technology is more likely to induce waves of nostalgia than others. Records have that distinctive staticy noise from dust and just the tiniest warp. That background noise makes me smile in a way that melted cassette players don't, even though my teenage years were during the heyday of the cassette (post 8-track, but pre-CD). Records had album covers to stare at. The artwork was actually large enough to see and you could read the lyrics. Sure cassette players may have been convenient and compact, but they were soulless.
As a professor once pointed out to me, record players are destructive devices. Each time the needle is placed into its channel on the record, the needle digs a little bit deeper and takes just a little bit more of the record away. To save a pristine record for posterity, you'd actually have to never play it (a tragic waste of music if ever there were one).
Often with technology, it becomes a race between the media dissolving from use or abuse and the technology disappearing into the dark recesses of a closet and quietly descending into obsolescence. As the old saying goes, use it, or lose it. Plus, if you don't use it, you can lose it too. It may just be part of the nostalgia element, but it seems sad that that devices like record players are no longer used or appreciated.
But for one shining day, those of us in on the cleaning brigade used and appreciated that record player. The end-table server on wheels and the weighty video camera undoubtedly will be electronically recycled in the coming days. But the slide projector is back on a high shelf in the box labeled "Historic Gem." I put the record playing boom box right next to it.