This story is in the Growing Up New Jersey collection, a series of vignettes slouching their way into becoming a book. See more vignettes in this collection at the Short Stories &c. link above.
Give a kid a tape recorder, you know, one of those devices that took little plastic reels of magnetic tape and had a microphone you held in your hand, and it was just an invitation to head down the rabbit hole.
I had one of those things, one of my proudest possessions, and my cousin Tommy and I would spend endless hours entertaining ourselves with it. Mostly what we did was create our own mock radio show, which we dubbed the Frankie Foodle and Tommy Truckman Show, using the radio names we gave ourselves.
The late 1950s were kind of a golden age of free-form radio, especially in the rock’n’roll segment where we mostly dwelled. Northeast New Jersey was under the powerful radio waves of all the New York stations, and the sounds of Murray the K and, later, Cousin Brucie Morrow reached us nightly. It was like a radio paradise.
Modeled on those programs, the Frankie Foodle and Tommy Truckman Show could have been a contender. Well, it could have been, had its raucous, rollicking format reached beyond my little red tape recorder and my bedroom. But that’s all we had, a little red tape recorder and a couple reels of tape, and no 75,000 watts of pure unbridled broadcasting power. So we got to listen to ourselves. Not that it wasn’t fun, since it was, but our programming never got out onto the airwaves. I think we might have been famous if we could have broadcast the Frankie Foodle and Tommy Truckman Show, but we’ll never know.
We used to do crazy stuff that we thought was entertaining. We especially had fun with some of the mock commercials we’d put on, none so much as the one that mimicked the TV commercials of one big New York bank. At the end of those commercials some coins dropped, making a little clatter, and a voiceover would say, “The bank with the hometown touch.”
Well, who could resist. We loved to mimic that commercial. But when we dropped coins, it wasn’t just a few, like in the Chemical Bank commercials. Oh, no. I had a whole jar of coins, and when we dropped them, and dropped them, and dropped them, our “hometown touch” went on for minutes. It was a veritable avalanche of coins, an outpouring of pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters that often morphed into a cacophony and, boy, it sounded great on the tape. We never tired of mocking that commercial, and each time our cascade of coins grew longer, louder, and crazier, as one or the other of us did the voiceover in our best radio announcer voice, “The bank with the hometown touch.”
Tape recorders always held a fascination for me. Don’t know why that was, but I guess it was the promise of recording real programs, making real music, generating sound tracks for films. The Frankie Foodle and Tommy Truckman Show probably got me started on what I could do with tape recorders.
All this led up to a round-the-world trip we took when I was 15. We got to Hong Kong, which at that time was sort of Ground Zero for all things electronic or at least electrical, and there was the most amazing Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder, four tracks, gauges and buttons and everything. And the price was such that my father actually decided to buy it for me and have it shipped back to us in the U.S.
The world works in mysterious ways, and as those ways would have it that tape recorder arrived on the very day when I had to present my report card showing I was flunking Latin or Trigonometry or some damned thing. My grades had turned pretty funky in high school, a stark contrast to what they were in grade school, and my parents, both being teachers, just couldn’t adjust to this turn. So when my father saw that report card he vowed he was sending the tape recorder back. I didn’t believe him, but that tape recorder, still in the shipping box, never even left the trunk of his car and I never did get to see it. It was about the cruelest thing my father ever did to me.
We hear about Spielberg and other famous filmmakers starting at an early age, and some of them had pretty crappy grades, but their fathers didn’t lock their cameras or recorders or whatever the hell in their car trunks and send them back to Hong Kong. In fact, Spielberg’s first film, which he made when he was about 11, was called The Last Train Wreck and recorded his model trains crashing together after his father threatened to destroy them when the younger Spielberg repeatedly crashed the trains. He figured from then on he could just watch the film of the trains crashing and not have to actually smash them together.
I wonder how my personal history might have turned out differently had that tape recorder arrived a few days earlier than it did, or if my grades had been better then they were, or if my father had a longer fuse than he did.
Oh, well. At least there is the Frankie Foodle and Tommy Truckman Show to look back on, and its avalanche of coins and its hometown touch. Some things can’t be taken away.