Function over form

It is a classic conundrum, do we choose form over function, or is it function that takes the lead with form soon to follow? Last week I uncovered a relic that was once an integral part of my existence.

We have what the architect who drew the plans I followed in building our home 27 years ago called a “bonus” room over the garage.

It was our son Brian’s room for many years and is now a guest bedroom. He was an avid collector of Breyer horses as a kid, with several dozens of them still stacked on a couple of bookshelves on the west wall of his old room.

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As I was searching for something last week, I discovered one of the bookshelves was a well-traveled piece of furniture I’d built back in the summer of 1976. The dark redwood stain was still in place, with just a few scuffs from riding in the trunk of my 1969 Rambler American, and later my 1978 Ford Fairmont.

As a college freshman, I headed out with everything I owned for Laramie in late August the previous year. Those possessions were a single duffle bag of clothes, a Coast to Coast .22 bolt-action rifle, a 12-gauge single-shot Iver Johnson shotgun, a nine-inch black and white television, and my prized possession, an AM/FM 8-track deck with a pair of 12-inch speakers and an external turntable. Everything fit easily in the back seat of that tiny, underpowered Rambler as I left home for the first time.

The dorm rooms in Crane Hall were primitive by today’s standards, they were primitive by 1970s standards as well. Just a concrete block walled rectangle with no shower, sink, or cooking facilities and just a small closet on each side.

The closet shelf fit my stereo perfectly and I was able to run longer wires for the speakers. My roommate, the second semester, Rudolph Eugene Lepera III (that’s right, the third) had a bad habit of playing a few old scratched-up LPs of his on my turntable. (Who am I kidding, Rudy majored in bad habits before dropping out) They were so worn out that they skipped constantly. Rudy’s solution to the skipping problem was to stack coins on the stylus. I came back from class one day and found about $1.35 in quarters, nickels, and dimes stacked on the stylus. The records didn’t skip, but the stylus quickly wore out as it cut grooves in the albums.

We didn’t have refrigerators, computers, or any other entertainment device aside from the rabbit ears on my tiny television, the 8-track tapes I packed in from my car or my limited record collection. Communicating with the outside world came from a black, rotary dial phone hanging on the wall.

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Space for a pair of 19-year-old knuckle draggers was limited.  After that first year in Laramie, I decided to build a combination bookshelf and stereo cabinet to make more room in the closet.

My roommate the second year was Ray Davies, a Crow kid from western South Dakota, and a much better roommate than Rudy who hailed from some radioactive pile in New Jersey.

Riverton had three lumber yards in those days, Sunset Lumber, A.D. Martin, and Aldridge Lumber. My mom and dad were constantly adding to their house on the farm and were regular customers at all three stores.

I had a great summer job cutting and stacking 2x4s for Louisiana Pacific at their planing mill south of Monroe in Riverton, so for the first time in my life, I had some disposable cash. I stopped by Aldridge Lumber after work one day and picked out some pristine 1×8 lumber for a combination shelf.

It’s interesting that almost half a century later, those boards remain straight without the slightest hint of a warp.

With my dad’s Black and Decker, 7¼-inch skill saw, his drill, and a handful of dowels I carefully followed the plans I’d drawn with a 12” ruler and a piece of blank, white paper. I laid out the dimensions to fit the speakers on the left and right of the bottom shelf, with a wider area in the middle for record albums. The upper shelf was exactly the dimensions of the AM/FM 8-track deck, and the other openings were set for standard 8×10 college textbooks.

I cut all the parts, dowelled and glued the joints with just a few finish nails then applied a heavy redwood stain to the entire project. It’s still the same today as it was 46 years ago when the glue and stain dried for the first time.

Getting it to Laramie was a bit of a challenge. I was years away from my first pickup truck, so it was the trunk of the Rambler. I tried to design it so it would fit in the back seat of that two-door nightmare, but I just couldn’t get the numbers to work.

One thing we had a lot of on the farm was baling wire. Not the tie wire some call baling wire today, but the real thing, that heavy gauge wire you could pull a truck with. I slid one of my blankets over the edge of the trunk, lifted the shelf into place, and looped baling wire through the two sides of the latch, twisting it until it was tight. It made the 225-mile trip to Laramie without an issue.

Four years later, I graduated and signed a teaching contract at Niobrara County High School in Lusk. The shelf went with me, only this time, it was in the trunk of a four-door 78’ Ford Fairmont.

It arrived at my basement apartment with nary a nick or scratch in the largest city (1500 people) in Niobrara County.

My style of stereo improved that first year in Lusk with a high-end Pioneer system replacing the old AM/FM 8-track. Everything fit in the spaces I’d originally built except the tuner, which was easy enough to place on top.

In the world of Sirius XM, MP3s, YouTube, and digitized music, with myriad FM and AM stations to choose from it’s hard to believe that I spent so much time on a specialized shelf for my audio entertainment system, but I did, just as my entire generation did in some fashion.

My albums grew from just a handful to several hundred during my college years and those first few years in the classroom. Garage sales, the Curiosity Shop in Laramie, and a few record stores filled that space between the speakers for my wide selection of LP records.

Some may think I’m delusional, but an LP sounds better to me than a CD or an MP3 version of the same song. There is a clipped presentation to digitized music that you don’t find in those old analog LP records.

As an aside, you can’t eat off a CD or an MP3 either. One night we ran out of clean dishes in my apartment on Grand Avenue in Laramie, rather than wash the sink full of cheap crusted China, we ate our spaghetti that evening off album covers. They still had the plastic on them, so we didn’t have to worry about warping the albums inside and were easy to wipe clean.

Form over function, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, and the level of need of the user.

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