What a lost Christmas tape from 1968 can teach Kansas City about holiday joy
In the early 2000s, a musician found a tape documenting a Kansas City family's Christmas celebration from the 1960s. Now, this time capsule of bygone joy is a gift to the people on the tape — and everyone else who listens.
You never know when joy will appear. That's part of what makes it feel magical, and why seasonal expectations of cheer don't always materialize.
You can't manufacture joy. You just have to be there for it. And yes: savor it. Being present is the minimum requirement.
At least, that's what I've always thought.
But as we enter another holiday marked by pandemic uncertainty and fear, I'm reluctant to make even the most basic proclamations about the limits of joy, or the circumstances under which it can find us.
So I'm going to tell you a true story about a Christmas tape. It's a story that made me consider the possibility that joy can be captured, stored and revived. We can lose it and have it turn up again, unexpectedly.
And sometimes, joy that wasn't even yours to begin with can catch you by surprise, at the push of a button.
It's the early 2000s, and Kansas City musician Billy Smith stumbles on a Magnavox reel-to-reel tape recorder at a thrift store, with a pile of tapes right beside it. This home-recording equipment, dating back to the 1960s, is fully outdated. But for a musician, the quaint machinery holds some appeal, and it only costs a couple bucks.
"As a part-time musician, I thought it would be a good idea to pick up this thing and maybe record some of my own music," Smith tells me, years later. "I popped in some brand new batteries and, cleaned off the tape heads with some rubbing alcohol. I popped in the tape and, and I was about to push record, but I decided, you know, well maybe I'll see what's on here. When I first pushed play. It was pretty immediate... that what I was hearing was a family at Christmas."
Instead of recording over this vintage tape, Smith becomes mesmerized by it.
"I always just kind of imagine them in this really warm, cozy house," Smith says. "I can just see Uncle Peter, sitting at a dining room living room table, maybe, and all the kids kind of running around."
Smith keeps the tape, listening to it year after year while wrapping presents, to get himself into the Christmas spirit. Over time, he becomes curious about the family.
Uncle Peter is the guy who's running the machine, and serves as the tape's narrator. First, Uncle Peter is trying to figure out how the contraption works; you can hear him monkeying around with the buttons and levers while his wife reads the instructions.
Once he gets the hang of it, Peter sets about getting everyone hyped about the holiday, inviting the children to step up to the mic. They take turns singing songs, like "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." And they also tell the tape recorder about themselves and each other — which is how Smith realized he was listening to a family from Kansas City.
"I'm pretty smart in school," announces a young boy, over the sound of a harmonica. He states his name, Michael Alpough, and his address: 5729 Garfield, 64130.
Smith makes a few attempts to find the Alpough family through the internet. But he keeps hitting dead ends, misspelling their last name in his searches.
"So I kind of gave it up after a while and I just kind of let it be what it was for me," Smith says. "But sometimes there would be friends over and I'd be like, 'You have to listen to this tape, it's just amazing.' And, and every time it got the same reaction, like, 'Oh my God, Billy, you gotta find these people.'"
Then Facebook comes along, with an autofill function in the search field. So Smith decides to give it another try, and when he starts typing in the last name he heard in the tape — A-L-P-O — the correct spelling appears: Alpough.
Just before Christmas 2014, Sonya Alpough sees that a guy named William Smith from Kansas City is trying to friend her. She thinks it's strange, but her daughter tells her, "Mom, that's just Facebook."
Sonya is already at her parents' house for the holidays when she gets the call from her brother.
"And he's like, 'Sonya, you're not going to believe this.' And he starts telling me the story about this guy that friended him, that he had found this tape," Sonya recalls. "I had just arrived at my parents' house in Tampa. I'm from Missouri, O.K.? So I drove all the way to Tampa and Michael's telling me this story as I'm sitting in the guest bedroom with my parents, and I'm just screaming. I'm like 'What?! You're kidding me.'
"Because on the way down to see my parents, I was telling my kids that we had these tapes my dad used to make, but he lost them. And I wish they would've been able to hear it."
Smith sends the Alpough family not just the tape, but also the player, so they can listen to it. But letting go of both wasn't easy.
"It's probably like my favorite possession that I've ever bought," Smith says. "Especially from a thrift or for probably less than $5. But I know that it's theirs. I know that it holds a lot of deep meaning to them."
First, though, Smith uploads the audio to Soundcloud so he can keep revisiting it, in digital form.
Uncle Peter — Sonya Alpough's dad — isn't sure what to make of this tape from 1968. On the recording, as the night goes on, he's having a lot of fun playing Etta James on the radio and singing along, waxing philosophical, sounding a little bit buzzed.
But his children and grandchildren love it.
"There was so much innocence, and so much love, so much unity. It wasn't tarnished, you know, it was all, it was just pure," Alpough says. "You know what I mean? It was raw."
What you hear, listening to this lost tape, is people not just gathering with each other, but returning to themselves.
In the seven years since the Alpoughs got their tape back, Sonya's mom — the woman reading the instructions — has passed away. Sonya's dad is now the last member of his generation alive in the family.
"All the elders are gone," Sonya tells me recently. "So it especially means a lot to my generations, my cousins, because we can share our culture, from when we were kids."
There's also something timeless in the banter on this tape. Something so simple and universal that even a stranger can tap into it.
And when it comes to surviving hard years, Uncle Peter from 1968 has some wisdom for that:
"Although the family's not as close as they should be — well, that's family. Some get rich, some get poor. I just happened to get poor. Who knows, but it's been a wonderful Christmas. Why should I try and change it? Because I'm sure that before everything's over, we'll get together. And that makes me very happy. And as long as the kids can be happy, the kids got toys, who cares?"
As for me, I'm crossing my fingers for a 2022 where joy comes easy.
I couldn't express it any better than Sonya's mom, delivering a New Year's wish for her own family, on a tape recorded decades ago: "I wish everyone the happiness throughout the whole year."