The Unexpected Present

Storm Tracker and the Permafrost Tapes

Permafrost Tapes

This morning we did what normally we’ve done since our marriage and on a Sunday in August 2011, we were reading the paper about Hurricane Irene blowing through the weekend. I stayed up all night. I was the STORM TRACKER. That bold, block-capped visual plastered the tv screen every twelve minutes of actual footage and information. I was convinced the storm would do more damage than it did to us.

We were living in a second-floor rental apartment in Rutherford, New Jersey. Not like what Yuri had to go through trying to save his recording studio from water destruction in 2010, the night before the Kinderhook reunion event that he and I worked our butts off to pull off with the wind, rain, floods, and power outage. Four hundred people showed up. Music lovers out of the New Jersey/New York metropolitan area were not deterred. This time, a year later, we didn’t even worry about the basement flooding. No trees toppled over despite record rainfall and winds whipping at 70 mph.

But Hurricane Irene was large and destructive. With strong winds and spirals of thunderstorms, she was the first major hurricane of 2011 with a fury we haven’t seen in a while landing twice up the coast before wreaking havoc with severe river flooding, and fallen trees blocking vital roads.1.46 million customers in 21 counties lost power and flooding predicted in some parts of the state for another three days. We breathed a sigh of relief, turned the volume off for STORM TRACKER news, and went back to our coffee. The phone rings.

It was Yuri’s cousin, Tosia, from Pasadena. California was going through their Santa Ana winds, but we allayed her concerns for our safety. No, she said, “Everything you brought to store in the basement at my house in Jersey is under three feet of water.” Yuri dropped the phone. He turned white as visions of forty years of music, his life’s work passed before him, and the studio he worked on for decades was now immersed in a flooded basement. All the years living in a flood zone and taking precautions during potential devastation came to an end, he thought when the house was sold. Devastation came knocking. Only one thing to do– get to the Trenton area and salvage what we can. All I remember was throwing in a towel and snorkeling goggles into a bag. Ready for STORM DRAINER.

The ride to his cousins’ development should take an hour and twenty minutes. With Garden State Parkway, NJTurnpike, and major roadways flooded, it took us four hours to maneuver our way down to the development on wetlands homesite. People were pulling their water-soaked things onto the front yard. Yuri’s cousin, Natalie in a bathing suit and face mask did not harbor concern other than the water can do structural damage to houses already fragile with poor environmental planning, and cheap construction. Dismayed and furious at the lack of communication, Yuri went into engineering mode to assess the situation to get the water down. Power was still out so the sump pumps couldn’t get back on. If she just let us know, we would have come down the night before and attended to saving instead of salvaging.

I headed to the lower level. It was true. Three feet of water. Brown water. The cardboard boxes of music tapes, CDs, albums, letters, photographs, items, and artifacts from his father’s collections, turned the water into a murky brown. No visuals. I had to dive in and feel around for what is there and get it out. Natalie helped so by the end of the day, we pulled everything out from the depths where I suspect a sea monster could come up from the drainage. Mold would soon set in. We had to work fast.

Everything was tossed into tubs for us to take home. The Arlington house was empty at the time. Yuri set up a makeshift studio for his clients and his own sense of working on a new project. Fortune smiled on his Fostex X-15 analog 4-track cassette multi-track recorder yet not on the hundred so cassette tapes of original music submerged. What do we do with the tapes sticking together? If they dry out there will be no way to retrieve the original music Yuri recorded decades ago.

In desperation, I threw the tapes into the freezer. Recently, I read about century-old movie reels discovered in the Alaskan permafrost, defrosted and preserved. Could the same work for the basement tapes? I didn’t know but I was willing to try it. At the time, there were hundreds of photos to dry out. Letters, cards, and photos from his youth, Kinderhook days, bands, and musicians he played with throughout the mid-80s, mid-90s-2013 of shows with Grupo Yuri his Latin jazz quintet, into the new millennia from analog to digital.

I learned more about Yuri’s life and the depth of his work during the weeks of rescue and restoration. That’s when the intensive, diehard Archivist reawakened in my DNA. Some may ask, “Why save this stuff?” Good question. Why do people save their tickets to concerts at the Capitol Theatre? Why do people remember this time so well? Combined memories, like prayers and good vibes, are a force that remains elusive to science, yet there are kismet moments for everyone who tells a story of them being at the right time in the right place and having an experience of a lifetime.

It’s not so much a longing for the 70s to return, quite honestly it was not as nice, clean, or safe as places strive to be today. Yeah, there was the drinking age of 18 that brought in the crowds (five to six days a week), and drugs were rampant. The 1970s were a turbulent time with high-interest rates, high inflation (16%), an oil embargo (we learned to siphon gas at night), crime, war, and politics (August 1974 Nixon resignation)
. Thus, these bits of ephemera become an archival time capsule of an era that no longer exists except in our collective conscious memories and through the songs and music that came out fifty years ago. There was much diverse music cross-pollination, often a medley that introduced us to inventive cocktail recipes of music and performance styles. Culturally, artistically, intellectually enriching, and oh, so much fun.

It remains enlightening for me about a social media moment where we wrote letters and postcards, took snapshots of others, made phone calls (sometimes collect), and gathered in basements and attics to listen to the new album over and over again. The 2011 flood caused a lot of album covers to be moldy and sadly, tossed out. I have plans to make new covers for the albums we still have in our collection.

About the Permafrost Tapes: Despite advice that the cassette tapes should only be kept frozen for 48 Hours, it was four years before a chance experiment with a food dehydrator saved a tape. It played back beautifully. Yuri has since been digitizing and cataloging his archive. We’re working on this collection of a Jersey’s Own musician. And in search of a new studio.

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