Doris Day and the Mysterious Akai

Posted: June 30, 2011 in deejay, humor, Radio, storytelling, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Doris Day made her appearance at my grandparents’ farmhouse one lazy afternoon in the summer of about 1970. She arrived with my great-uncle Pete whom I sometimes confused with “Popeye”, the only other sailor I knew at the age of four.

Pete picked up Doris on a ship in the 1960’s where she was entertaining the U.S. Navy. She’d always seemed too wholesome to be hanging out at sea waiting for any random sailor with time on his hands to pick her up but I guess sometimes you do what you have to do for your country. How Pete managed to smuggle her off the ship nobody really knew but he had done it, and now here she was in my grandparents’ living room getting ready to sing.

The stage was a small one, about the size of a train case for those who remember luggage back before it had wheels, and judging by Pete’s lopsided walk as he carried it into the room, it was heavy. He set it on the floor, undid the front latches and lifted the lid off.

It was an Akai Terecorder, a Deluxe model reel-to-reel machine, the first I’d ever seen. We crowded around to watch Pete as he knelt beside it, plugging in cables and putting on the 7-inch plastic take-up reel. Then he took Doris carefully out of a slim, square box and put her reel on the empty spindle. Threading the shiny brown tape over and under the wheels and across the heads, Pete wrapped its tail around the take-up reel and gave it a few spins to pull up the slack. A quick twist of the “Play” lever and there was Doris Day, singing “Que Sera Sera”, right there next to Grandma’s sofa.

At the age of four, few of us know what we want to do with our lives but on that day, I knew that whatever I’d grow up to be, I was going to have me one of those reel-to-reel machines.

For whatever reason, the Akai eventually wound up at my parents’ house when I was in grade school. It lived quietly most of the time in the basement, venturing into the spotlight on rare occasions to play Doris or Hank Williams Sr.’s “Setting the Woods on Fire”. I still wasn’t allowed to touch it, aside from plugging the electrical cord into the wall.

In my freshman year of college, I took a class simply called “Intro to Radio TV”. It involved a good amount of studio work, learning to operate what at that time was the latest broadcasting equipment. Which included a standard reel-to-reel machine. We learned to thread tape, record and playback, reverb, distort, change speed, and edit. And by edit, I mean mark the spot you wanted to remove on the tape and physically cut it out with a razor blade and splice the tape back together. It was the only course I ever took where you were encouraged to bring razor blades to class and actually use them.

For the better part of the next two decades as I worked in radio, I used a reel-to-reel machine every day. What was once so fascinating over time became routine, and when reel-to-reels gave way to CD’s and then to MP3’s, the machines were taken down to the engineering room and left to gather dust next to the forgotten racks of albums and the cartridges we used to record commercials on.

In my late 30’s, I went home for a visit and ended up helping my mother look for something in the basement. As we shifted boxes and moved furniture, I saw it…the Akai, the mysterious box of wonder from my youth.

“Huh, didn’t know you still had that,” I said, nonchalantly. “What are you going to do with it?”

My mother shrugged. “I don’t know. You want it?”

“I guess. You know, if it’s in your way. Whatever.”

I lugged it out to the car, resisting the urge to skip with excitement. Which you’d have to be really strong and coordinated to do because that sucker was indeed heavy. I drove it the roughly 350 miles home and proudly toted it into the house, presenting it to my husband and waiting for him to share in my joy. He looked it over for a minute or two and asked, “Does it work?”

My smile faded a bit. “I don’t know. I didn’t try it.”

He sighed, in the way he does when he senses extra work coming his way. “Well, give it here. I’ll see what I can do.”

I have one of those husbands who can pretty much fix anything. I don’t ask how and he couldn’t explain it to me anyway, at least not in a way I could understand that wouldn’t end in an argument or at least a testy conversation. He took the Akai out to the garage and three days later brought it back in and asked if I had any reels. This time I did skip, to the closet to get Doris for a return engagement. I hooked up all the cables and threaded the tape with a practiced hand. Holding my breath, I turned the “Play” lever…and there she was. Doris Day, sounding a little bit tougher than the first time I’d heard her, the years in the basement apparently taking their toll. But she was singing, in my living room, on my Akai. Which now sits in my writing room, ready to play, whenever I’m ready to listen.


  1. Kay Vallery Young says:

    Love it–how it evokes the wonders of youth! And how they come to fruition. You made me smile on a day when there may not be many smiles.

  2. muffle says:

    Love it!! Your work always makes me smile.

  3. Ah, the great memories of youth. It’s great that you got to keep the treasured Akai that meant so much to you. I have Hank Williams, Sr.’s greatest hits on CD and when I play that I am reminded of my dad, who loved to sing along with him. Dad died in 2009 of cancer, and whenever I play Hank, I feel closer to him, especially when hearing “Hey Good Lookin'” as he would sing that to my mother. Even though they divorced when I was 13, those songs bring back the good times for me.

    • I love that music has that power to move us, in whatever direction. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” always make me think of my Mom, gone six years this year to cancer as well.

  4. Carroll Collins says:

    Very good Kelly. I remember how you liked that tape player.

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