Try to reel through the long-gone sounds of your life.
Remember the lazy whir of a rotary dial, the whiny fret of a cassette tape rewinding, the crackle of a needle at the end of a record? When I think of lost sounds, I most readily conjure up the metallic whoosh and thunk that the clutch of a Volkswagen Beetle made as gears shifted. That sound, the rippled roar of the bug's engine and mind-rattling static between radio stations accompanied every ride of my childhood. New technologies produce new sounds: cheerful computerized pings, the dull pulse made by a cell phone vibrating on a wood table. These sounds, too, will fade one day, to be replaced by future trills, drones and pongs.
Other sounds meant more to me than those made by machines: the pitch of my cocker spaniel's bark, my mother's lilting voice, my grandmother's accented English. It's the long-gone voices I have the hardest time conjuring.
Not too long ago, old sounds and new ones collided in my life. I was doing research for a novel about my Italian great-grandparents when I discovered recordings made in the 1930s through a WPA project called "California Gold." Ethnographers lugged recording devices across our state, capturing the folk music of more than 20 ethnic communities, including in my Italian family home in Martinez. Six decades later, by chance, I found those recordings archived in a Library of Congress website. To my amazement, I was able to listen to my great-grandmother and her family talk and sing, their scratchy Sicilian cadences streaming through computer speakers. When I played the recordings for my grandfather, he wept. He hadn't heard their voices since the late 1950s.
Some sounds have been lost for good, some we can only hear in our mind's ear. But now, we can easily record every sound. My grandfather captured this radical new twist on aural memory when he turned to me, having just heard his mother-in-law's voice after 50 years, and said, "Well, imagine that! The dead can talk."