The 4th Pip: The Columbia House Record Club — Part II
It is 1973. Red's father joins the infamous record club, a pencil is described, the lad steals magazines from the barber shop, and all hell breaks loose in the household. The Pips have arrived.
The Columbia House Record Club
In the mid-1950’s Columbia Records started a music subscription service called Columbia House. They offered a straightforward promotion: join their “club,” receive your first twelve records for free, and then pay for additional records twice a month until you’re dead. Easily half the nation fell for it. It was catching fish with dynamite.
In the year of 1973, Red was seven-years-old. He had entered the kitchen to get a glass of water with exactly three ice cubes. “You’re quite the stickler about that,” his mother commented while tidying the foyer. She wasn’t even watching him.
“I’m bored,” Red told his dad while straining at the ice tray lever.
“You are bored,” his father repeated. It was a parenting strategy he was proud of.
His father was completing a Columbia House records membership at the kitchen table, filling in tightly-spaced lines on a magazine form that only a razor-sharp pencil could complete legibly. There was an $0.08 stamp and an envelope carefully positioned at right angles in front of him.
The carefully flattened magazine itself was a private matter.
Pencils & Stamps
A “pencil” was a hexagonal wooden dowel that held graphite. By sharpening the tip, it was possible to create a semi-permanent writing implement. On the opposite end of the exposed graphite, was a material that “erased” somewhere in the range of 60% - 80% of the writing recorded by the graphite end.
The tips were in a constant war with each other over which would last the longest. The graphite end would wear down to such a smooth, wide nub that took points off of your written IQ.
While this was going on, the eraser end wore down to the sharp metal that housed it. If you didn’t hold the pencil precisely vertical in relation to the page, it would scrape through the paper and destroy the hard work of the now imbecilic, crayon-soft tip. Every pencil’s journey ended in tears and bite marks, but the remaining potential of short pencils made them impossible to throw out.
More context: in 1973, “stamps” enabled someone to send folded paper across North America and Hawaii for as low as $0.08. Stamps came with patriotic images and drawings of every richly-plumed bird in North America. If you did not put a stamp in the mail, a stamp was the smallest pieces of artwork you could purchase that was guaranteed to appreciate forever. This was how they were sold. Easily half of the nation fell for it.
Nobody thought anything of this, least of all Red’s dad who was struggling to fit the town of Woosamonsoona, OH onto the third line of his membership form.
The 12th Record
Red’s father had already ticked eleven of his twelve records record selections: Frank Sinatra (4), Perry Como (3 records), Tony Bennett (2), Bing Crosby (1) and Doris Day (1). Day’s 1965 LP (long-playing) “Latin for Lovers” made the cut for reasons Red’s father considered a private matter.
Red’s dad had already ground a fossilized stub of eraser to reverse the record count between Como and Sinatra. Sinatra now had four and Como had three. Without the slightest intention or awareness, the first eleven selections on the eraser-torn form offered a masterclass in Debonair White People.
Red’s father handed Red the brochure and said, “Now, you pick one.”
The moment shaped an entire life.
Red would later tell the other Whips in his college singing group that he was holding a glass of water with exactly three ice cubes and standing by the Formica kitchen counter when it happened.
He must have sensed he was on the cusp of something extraordinary, because he couldn’t stop scanning his options. He traveled from one end of the 1960s to the other and then past a critical 1968 hair-style threshold that took him all the way to May, 1973. The options were paralyzing.
“Alright, son, let’s pick one. This can’t take all afternoon.”
“This one, Dad.” Red pointed to Gladys Knight and the Pips record Silk ‘n Soul.
The name of the record was in The Dating Game letters — his mother’s favorite show, which was also a private matter. To a seven-year-old’s eye, the letters were bubbly and fun like a lava lamp which the family did not — and would never — own over two dead bodies.
On the album cover, the same three boy dancers and one girl singer danced in two different sets of poses. In a smaller background photo, the boy dancers were in right extension, weight shift #9, dual-hand finger snap, and in the bigger picture they were left extension #2, hip left, twirl pose, low shimmy #8.
Now, this may be hard to believe, but there was a time when a father simply said, “Then, that one it is, son.”
And the reason this is hard to believe is because it’s not true.
With the tiniest, voluntary tremor in his pencil hand, Red’s father checked Gladys Knight and the Pips A Christmas Celebration instead.
The records arrived seventeen weeks later to the month. For Red this was Christmas in September, still twelve weeks out from the P.S. 1 Woosamonsoona Elementary School Talent Show. Training began before the end of Side A. Before and after both breakfast and dinner, Red would pick up the record needle after track 2, the Little Drummer Boy, and then carefully gently redeposit it exactly after track 1. He was as exacting with the diamond needle as he was with ice cubes.
On the inside record liner, three dancing men wore flopping Santa Claus hats tipped in the same direction. Red explained to his mother that the picture was “More Perfect than Perfect.” Her attention was focused on tidying her husband’s ashtray, and she thought that Red was telling her the name of one of the Christmas songs.
“You must have played that song 432 times,” his father called up from his wingback television chair. “432” was his go to number when he was irritated and needed to quantify an exaggeration. At the time, he was removing a corn cob pipe from the smoking pipe rack below his tidy stand-up ashtray. Red’s dad got a kick out of calling the pipe holder a “gun rack” and his corn cob pipe “a hoot,” but less so that afternoon.
In his bedroom, Red wasn’t listening. He was staring a hole in the liner picture of front slide extension, elbows back, twirl ready pose #5. With additional pictures secretly “borrowed” from barber shop and library magazines, he catalogued the Pips positions, and numbered their variations with the scrutiny of an archaeologist.
It was a glorious pasttime, even if he couldn’t tell if the Pips were poised to move forward or sideways or if the pretty singer even moved at all.
He scratched the record.
He’d been a “stickler” for being careful about the record needle, but while practicing what he thought must be mid-step back twirl #8 he crashed into his bedside table and sent the needle scurrying across the vinyl. The damage was irreversible. It was like listening to a singer with hiccups.
When the tears subsided that evening, he emerged for dinner. He told the Whips later that he could only poke at his food. When it happened, he had just tossed his ice water into the kitchen sink and was staring at the three ice cubes. He was too heartbroken to even be thirsty he told his mom.
His mother suggested that someday he could become a Pip.
This was the second moment that shaped an entire life.
“You could be Red the Pip. Rip!” his father chuckled. “But don’t count your chickens because you may be in the wrong hen house.”
Red’s mother frowned “for the 432nd time.” Some of the early marital tidying had been slowing down, too.
“Rip, the 4th Pip,” said his mother, pressing on with her notion and permitting herself a feminine splash of humor.
The thought exploded. A day might come when he would dance and sing alongside the Pips. It had never occurred to him.
“How could that never have occurred to me?” he wondered. Red could be very formal when he thought out loud.
“You would certainly be in close proximity,” his father prompted.
Red didn’t answer. He wasn’t seven anymore. The hen house hurdles were obvious. He wasn’t blind. But now he had a word for what might happen.
He would become best friends with the Pips, and they would practice singing and dancing together. Possibly he could join them or simply fill in from time to time.
He would also be in close proximity to the beautiful singer with the beautiful voice.
This, too, was a private matter.
Feel something. Twice a week.