Reel-to-Reel.jpg

The vintage Sony TC 500 can be maddening to operate. But finally getting to hear what’s on the old tapes is worth the struggle.

Growing up as a preacher’s kid, I did not always listen closely to what he was saying from the pulpit. It did not occur to me that I might ever wish I could flip a switch and hear my dad preach again.

The switch has arrived.

In the years since my father’s death, I have occasionally looked through his files of handwritten notes and sermons. They’re scripts written in his voice with certain passages highlighted, underlined or in all caps for emphasis.

If a line was to be repeated, it was written twice. He would study the completed work by reading it again and again — even preaching under his breath — so that he could then stand up and deliver it without notes. I witnessed him doing this when I would hang out in his church office as a child.

A lot of people can put in the work and study and practice to hold an audience’s attention. Few possess the drive, talent and gifts required for doing it two or three times a week for more than 50 years. Dad did that as a pastor, and for most of those years he also kept a full schedule as an after-dinner humorist.

I’ve been writing silly observations into a weekly newspaper column for 25 years. If I were to deliver a column out loud, it would take maybe three minutes. Dad was masterful at working three-minute offbeat observations into his oration to liven up a 30-minute theological message.

For a long time, I’ve been wanting to hear him doing his thing again. There is a batch of reel-to-reel tapes among Dad’s belongings, but the machine that was used to record them is long gone.

Functioning reel-to-reel players are difficult to find these days, but I managed to snag one at an estate sale recently. It’s a 50-pound “portable” Sony. I’ve set it up on my mother’s dining room table, where Mom and I have started listening to those old tapes.

Tape machines of any sort are foreign to my digital-age daughters. That makes me feel old, but I’m young enough to have never fiddled with a reel-to-reel machine before now. Fortunately, YouTube has operating instructions.

The first tape I put on has demo recordings from Dad’s songwriting years during the ’70s. Another one seems to be a random recording of WABC radio station in New York City from the ’60s. It includes a cigarette commercial jingle with the line, “Pall Mall’s natural mildness is so good to your taste.”

The third tape that we threaded through contains an entire church service from July 28, 1968, at West Albemarle (North Carolina) Baptist Church. The recorder’s microphone must have been positioned directly under Dad because his singing was well above everyone else’s during the hymns.

So great to hear. I could almost see him rocking up on his toes like he always did during the hymns.

The sermon was a real rafter-raiser about how every day is Judgment Day. And to think that there were certain parishioners who gave my dad a hard time for not preaching on that subject often enough.

Labels on several of the other tapes indicate more sermons to come. It’s nice sitting in church with Mom again.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com.