The Sound of a Cassette Tape Being Eaten

And other musings on mechanical devices.

Things seen and heard in particular times and places imprint deep in the subconscious. Whether it is the time or the place that holds greater primacy — I cannot say. You never really know what has imprinted until, many years down the road, you happen to recall some little thing from the past that has never quite gone away. The memory of it is surprisingly vivid.

As an older millennial, much of my early childhood transpired without the internet or cellphones. I fell asleep listening to audio stories on cassette tapes. The play button, which had to physically be pushed down until it clicked into position, would sometimes wake me up with a loud click when the cassette reached the end. The play button would be forced to release once the internal gears of the player met with the resistance of the end of the cassette ribbon.

I’d reach over to flip the cassette to the other side. The button to open the player door was always the last in the row of lever-like buttons and easy to find in the dark. The cassette cartridge made a distinct rattling noise as it was flipped and reinserted into the door. The clunky plastic-on-plastic sound of the cassette sliding into place was oddly satisfying. An audible click acknowledged the door’s closing and I relied on my muscle memory to find and press the play button once again. I wouldn’t hear the pop from the second side of the tape as I’d be fast asleep by then.

Participating in the clicking and clacking of the tape player was part of my evening ritual that lulled me to sleep. The gear-driven mechanics were just as significant as the stories and songs they helped play. In fact, I can recollect the sounds of the equipment better than any of the stories or songs I used to listen to then.

While I generally embrace quieter things, there is something I miss about these physical and mechanical sounds. Pressing a triangle on a glass screen provides no tactile feedback — no memory of that participation to remember a few decades years later.

Of course, some sounds induced panic — particularly the sound of a cassette tape being eaten. This happened when the ribbon of the cassette got tangled in the player head. Sometimes this caused the sound to elongate as the gears strained under the resistance of the bunched-up ribbon. The pace of the story would slow and the voices would become eerily unnatural as they deepened. Other times it would cause squeaks and whirs as the ribbon was pulled through the player head speeding up the voices and raising their pitch. The tape-eating was also accompanied by an unnerving crackling sound as the ribbon was crinkled and mangled.

I’d frantically hit stop and hope that my only physical copy of this story was not permanently ruined. It was a careful art to untangle the ribbon and put things back in order. A hexagonal pencil fit nicely into the gear allowing it to be turned to rewind the ribbon into the cassette. This required a careful observation of gears, mechanics, and awareness of how things were put together.

Mechanical Worlds

Beyond the sounds, the mechanics of these things also fascinated me and provoked my curiosity.

I recall opening the flap on the front of a VCR and peering inside with a flashlight. It was otherworldly — like a futuristic city with buildings and structures with purposes I couldn’t fathom. My ability to watch a movie depended on a vast universe of spindles, gears, and springs. I could sit down and look at a tape player or VCR and see how some of the mechanisms fit together. I noticed what things turned when I hit play, I could observe how springs might work to eject something or open a door, and I could appreciate the physical complexity of the devices.

More modern devices are also built upon a vast universe of advanced technology, but you cannot see it. Their complexity is hidden in motherboards and in unseen lines of code. You never get to look behind the curtain.

My kids were recently curious about taking things apart and discovering what was inside. They were completely fascinated by the gears, wires, and spindles that went into an old remote-control car. They were completely disappointed to take apart an old smartphone. They found nothing of real interest aside from an assortment of flat panels and a thin piece of glass.

“Where is all the stuff that makes it work?” my three-year-old son inquired.

Our Relationship With Things

This isn’t to suggest that one time was better than another. It is simply interesting for me to notice that I remember such things so vividly. What was it about those mechanical devices that seemed to leave me with distinct memories so many years later?

I recently rebuilt an old vintage bike for my daughter that someone on our street was throwing out. I was completely fascinated with the mechanical engineering that goes into a simple coaster brake hub on a kids' bike. It is a very clever 3-position system that is easy to take for granted. Why does the bike engage the chain when you pedal? What allows the wheel to freely move even when you stop pedaling? Why does pedaling backward engage the brake? There is a tiny mechanical system that accounts for all of this.

As the world turns more and more into 1s and 0s, I want to better appreciate the relationships I have with physical things. Things that click together, the tools I use, instruments I play, and other devices built upon clever and under-appreciated engineering. I can’t say that it is the same for everyone, but the memories I have with physical things are the ones that seem to last. I don’t think we are meant to solely engage the world through our visual cortex via screens. We are meant to engage our whole bodies, tinker with physical things, and be active participants in the tangible world.

I hope I’m living in a way now that will solidify meaningful memories. But I guess there’s no way to know what will imprint on me until, many years down the road, I recall some little thing from the past that has never quite gone away.

A fellow observer on the journey through life. Trying to cultivate a deeper way of being in the world.

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