Thursday, January 17, 2008


Having a brother half a dozen years older than I created a bit of anxiety in the growing up department. From my earliest memories around age four up to age 13, I was always envious of what Craig could do or what he had that I didn’t. Perhaps that’s why I spend so much time as an adult reminiscing about my childhood; I didn’t really appreciate it when I was experiencing it. Instead, I kept yearning for that time when I would be Craig’s age and could do what Craig did or have what Craig had. I was forever projecting six years into the future. A perfect example of this age envy is in the area of electronics.

My brother was always a bit of a tinkerer (and still is, but the equipment has changed from transistors to microchips). So while I was asking for G.I. Joes and Big Wheels, he was asking for stereos and recording equipment. I remember his massive chrome and black reel-to-reel tape recorder, about half as tall as I was at the time. Something so huge that did so little would seem absurd today, but in the early 70s, this was what every swinging bachelor on TV had on his book shelves. It looked cool, but was really intimidating for a small kid.

That’s why Panasonic was the cool electronics company for anyone under the age of 12. During the early 70s, Panasonic (or National Panasonic) put out devices that were completely in line with the “mod” aesthetic. Instead of boxes made of chrome and black plastic and faux-wood, their products were molded out of brightly colored plastic in smooth, curvy shapes. They looked like toys, but still played music or recorded sounds like the more sophisticated devices did.

The first Panasonic product I remember coveting was those spherical transistor radios. They looked like one of those laser-spouting balls that Luke Skywalker trained with, but re-imagined by Walt Disney. My friend Linda had one, and we would loll away many a summer’s afternoon listening to the crackly AM signals floating out of the ball’s tiny mono speaker. The cool bonus to this radio was that it had a chain attached to it for easy portability. We didn’t use the chain to carry it around, though. We held the radio up by the chain and spun the little sphere around while songs were playing. The repetitive Doppler effect made every song sound like Tommy Roe singing “Crimson and Clover.”

A few years later, Panasonic came out with portable cassette recorders that were shaped like small boxes with rounded corners. The day-glo colored plastic made the thing virtually indestructible, and the retractable handle and light-weight design was perfect for a kid to tote around. Best of all, it had a built-in microphone so you could record your friends and family without them knowing. As soon as I got my little recorder for my tenth birthday (which was bright red, not blue like the one pictured), I set about recording my friend’s candid conversations. This was shortly after Watergate, after all, and there was a certain air of espionage about the whole thing. I remember capturing one gem from my friend Kevin while we listened to my other friend Nick speak to his Greek family a few yards away.

“Ya’ know what?” Kevin declared. “I can’t understand one word of that Greek stuff. NOT ONE WORD!”

Really, Kevin? It’s like they have a different word for everything, huh?!!

Later on, I struck up a friendship with a school mate, Johnny, and we would hang out at his house after school. With my trusty recorder on hand, we would make up the audio equivalent of Mad Magazine movie and TV parodies. And as hard as it might be to imagine, we were actually less funny than Mad Magazine, although we thought we were hilarious.

The process went as follows: we would pick a movie or TV show to satirize, think of an opening gag, turn on the recorder, state the gag, turn off the recorder, think of the next gag, turn on the recorder, say the gag, turn off the recorder, and so on until we had the whole show. When it was played back, it sounded something like this:

(Click, scrape, crackle)

Johnny: "Hey Inspector Krojak, did you take a bath this morning?"

Me: Why? (snicker) Is there one missing? (chuckle)

(Crackle, scrape, click, pause, click, scrape, crackle)

Johnny: That killer was a dead shot. How did he miss you? (giggle)

Me: I looked down to pick up a penny (chortle) and the glare from my head blinded him. (snort)

(Crackle, scratch, clunk, click)

This went on for about 10 minutes when we finally ran out of hilarious quips. We thought we were so funny, we boldly played some of our sketches to our fifth grade teachers. Looking at their slack-jawed expressions, I soon understood the saying, “I guess you had to be there.”

Electronics continued to grow smaller and more sophisticated, but the concept of whimsical, fun design went out the window. Granted, a lot of what passed for cool in the 70s was pretty tacky, but we quickly shifted to the other side of the spectrum where only black or white boxes with lots of buttons could be seen as serious electronics. It wasn't until the late 90s and the introduction of the iMac that we would see the fun brought back to home gadgetry.

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