Backseat Soundtracks and Sisters in the Summertime

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Taylor McCumber

As I wasn’t much for reading books back then, I had two options. I could annoy the living hell out of my older sister or I could listen to my Walkman. It was a tough decision. 

In the back seat of my parents’ 1982 Ford Thunderbird (blue), there was a strip of vinyl upholstery running down the middle, and it was not to be crossed. You could not rest your arm there. You could not put your stuff there. You could not so much as reach across it to stick your spit soaked finger into your sister’s ear. 

The vinyl strip denoted an invisible wall dividing the car in half. The price for trespassing was a screaming sibling and angry parents. There were so many different ways to make my sister mad. She’d yell and my dad would yell and so I’d knock it off for a few minutes ... before doing it again. 

In short, it was awesome. 

However. On the loooooooooooong drive between Eau Claire and Up North every weekend in July, the screaming and the reprimands ceased to be interesting somewhere around Rice Lake. And that’s when the Walkman came out. 

The portable cassette player. A little plastic box with four buttons and a volume dial. A gift from the Summertime Gods. 

As long as the AA batteries lasted, I remained relatively distracted from bugging my sister. I could just pop the spongy foam headphones (orange) upon my ears and press the PLAY button with a satisfying ka-chunk.

Through my Walkman, I crossed the threshold into a sonic cathedral built upon a foundation of perpetually vibrating synthesizers, its soaring towers held aloft by the soaring vocals Kenny Loggins and Rick Springfield and the saxophone stylings of Clarence Clemons. Dazzling light would blast from stained glass windows, projecting the faces of Cyndi Lauper and Peter Gabriel into the nighttime sky as purple rain fell to the earth. 

So many synthesizers. So very many.

As long as the AA batteries lasted, I could be somewhere else. I didn’t have to be bored in the too-hot backseat of my parents’ 1982 Ford Thunderbird (blue). I could be anywhere. I could feel anything. The never-ending farm fields and blacktop highway became vague memories of another boy’s life. 

But even if the batteries began to fade, and the music morphed into some kind of slowed down, Satanic version of itself, I still had one last chance to rock. 

If I was lucky, I could push both the FAST-FORWARD and PLAY buttons at the same time, and the sped-up audio would sometimes magically compensate for the hamstrung cassette mechanics – AND POOF – I’d get about 60 seconds of (almost) normal sounding audio. Until my batteries lost their juice. Forever. 

It was voodoo.

The Sony Walkman is 40 years old this summer. And I feel like my sister should light a candle – light a candle for all the minutes and hours of car trip torture from which she was spared, thanks to the merciful machinations of the portable cassette player.

Eventually, my headphone jack just couldn’t take it anymore. The connection went bad. And no amount of twisting and bending and electrical tape could bring it back. And by then, an army of compact discs had come rolling over the horizon. By then, my sister had a driver’s license and better things to do on the weekend. I no longer saw her sitting next to me in the back seat. I could no longer scratch and pick at her for some attention.

I guess the technology got better. The music got better. Car trips in the hot summer sun got a lot less grueling. But I miss it. Of course I miss it. They don’t make that kind of magic anymore. 

Not that kind. Not anymore.

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