by Joe Tyburczy

Here's a story that has it all; humor, pathos, drama, orphans in wheelchairs, and the eventual triumph of good over the forces of evil. This is also a nifty holiday tale, well-suited to Yultide yarn-spinning, but it can be darn well retold most any time of year without ill effect.

It began innocently enough a couple of days before Christmas one year in the sleepy little town of Winchester, Massachusetts. At that time, Bill (or "Billy" as he was sometimes known) was already a sought-after recording engineer in the Boston advertising community. Whenever a local practitioner of the voiceover art took his or her place behind the microphone, it was a sure bet that the man on the other side of the glass was Bill, patiently husbanding revolving reels of Ampex tape, eyes glued to banks of dancing VU meters, ears attuned to the sounds in his headphones.

Unfortunately, as Bill's star was rising, others were falling. The extravagant and costly downtown Boston facilities of PSG Studios were more often than not completely vacant. It was long rumored that PSG dabbled in illegal videotape copying, Mexican porno, and the occasional snuff-job. These stories were due in no small part to the abrasive personality of its owner, Aldo Carelli.

Carelli resembled nothing less than a scowling, porcine frog, a visage that seemed to go hand in hand with his evil bent. It came as no surprise that the PSG building on Tremont Street was erected over the remains of a Greek Orthodox Church that had been gutted in a mysterious fire one winter.

It should be noted that in his youth, Bill had served an especially tumultuous internship at PSG. He and Carelli had not gotten along well at all. When after a few weeks, Bill resigned, Carelli and his son Max loudly vowed to "destroy his career".

But Bill never took such threats very seriously. He cheerfully plied his trade from the basement of his split level home in suburban Winchester. In the cellar at 14 Trolly Lane, flimsy card tables sagged, bent nearly double by the weight of rusting surplus recording machines and mixing boards. In one corner, a couple of stained mattresses were propped at right angles; a crude recording booth. Frayed cables snaked to and fro among the debris. Someday, Bill might afford better, but for now, this haywire lashup got the job done.

In the midst of it all, stood his pride and joy -- the Billy Barrel. The barrel had been at the center of his life ever since his days in Cub Scouts. It was not much to look at, just a 10 gallon wooden barrel painted flat green, the name "BILLY" daubed unevenly in white lacquer on one side. Even so, he prized the battered wooden container like a king treasures his crown. As such, the Billy Barrel was often pressed into service as a royal throne whenever he worked remote location recording jobs.


Besides being a crackerjack recording engineer, Bill was a soft touch, and everyone knew it. If you needed a recording job done for free, his was the first number you'd call. Hence, the First Interdenominational Congregation of Winchester had little trouble cajoling him into recording the church choir's Annual Christmas Eve Wheelchair Cripple Orphan Benefit concert.

The WheelChair Orphan Concert was a major philanthropic affair in the community, attended by several hundred of the church's faithful. Proceeds from the sale of the resulting cassette "album" would benefit the orphans as well as keep the church in heating oil during the long New England winter. This year, the choir was scheduled to sing a particularly tricky version of Handel's Messiah featuring heart-rending solos by some of the afflicted, and it was crucial that every note of this bold experiment be captured on tape.

To help him with this task was young Teddy, a twenty-something studio assistant unfortunately still shackled to PSG. While Teddy thoughfully volunteered to help Bill with his location recording chores, in an unguarded moment at work he accidentally let slip what he'd be doing on Christmas eve.

"So he's recording for orphans, eh?" mused Carelli. Thus the die was cast.

At twilight, an old Chevy crept stealthily down Trolly Lane, Max sunk low behind the wheel. As expected, Bill's aged Taurus station wagon sat parked at the curb in front of his house, loaded with recording equipment for the night's affair. It was all too easy. The young Carelli turned various delightful scenarios over in his mind.There was that old standby, the sugar in the gas tank trick. Or perhaps the simple expedient of four flat tires. But this was an occasion that called for something more special, more creative. Momentarily, inspiration struck.


As darkness pressed in, the evening turned raw and cold. A frigid chill known locally as the "Montreal Express" swept down from Canada, but inside the First Interdenominational Congregational Church, all were snug and warm. The choir, resplendent in red velvet robes, stood proudly behind its ornate balustrade. A phalanx of wheelchair cripple soloists sat poised before directional microphones placed on the altar. Facing them in pews filled to capacity were 650 moist-eyed parishoners, handkerchiefs at the ready. In the rear of the church, Bill assumed his place behind the Nagra recorder. It was three minutes to showtime.

He signalled his assistant. "Hey, Teddy. Gimmie a fresh reel of Ampex".

Teddy obediently passed him a tape box.

"This one's empty. Gimmie another".

But that one was empty, too. And so were all the rest. In a stroke of evil genius, the eldest son of Aldo Carelli had deftly removed every reel of recording tape from its cardboard container a few hours earlier.

"Jeezus, Bill. We got no tape!" squealed Teddy.


Bill sat stunned as the seconds ticked by. He scanned the sea of happy faces in the hall. None of them knew the profound disaster that was about to befall them. The Pastor beamed from his pulpit. The orphans creaked happily in their wheelchairs. The parishoners clutched their wallets and checkbooks. How could he tell them there would be no recording tonight? No album to sell as promised! No proceeds to pay for heating oil! The orphans would go hungry! And it was ALL HIS FAULT!

Or was it?

"Carelli!" Bill exploded, realizing he'd been had, and by who. He lept from the Billy Barrel in anger. WHANNNNG! Something slapped him in the shin. "Oh Jesus". One of the retaining hoops of the barrel had sprung free, flapping ridiculously in the air. Bill's anger cooled as he instinctively stooped to repair this precious artifact of his Cub Scout years. He recalled the Scout motto, drilled into him as a child. "Be prepared," it insisted, "at any moment to do your duty, to face danger, and to help others".

Thinking quickly, Bill hatched out a plan.


"Yeah, Bill?"

"Run out to your car and bring me all your 8-track tapes".

"Yuh, okay, sure".

Moments later, Teddy came back with an armload of the boxy cassettes. "Now what?"

Bill shoved an empty Nagra reel at Teddy. "Pull the tape out. Wind it onto this".

Teddy looked at his 8-tracks in disbelief. These bulky, outmoded relics of the 70's were worth some serious cash on the collectors market, and Teddy had one of the most coveted stashes on the East Coast; Grand Funk Railroad....Iron Maiden....Seals & Crofts. Some were virtually priceless.

"No way, man!" he huffed.

"OK, look" said Bill, levelly. "You decide what's worth more. Your stupid tapes, or," he gestured at the crowd, "not totally wrecking Christmas for these people".

Teddy thought about this. His resolve seemed to soften.

"Orphans" Bill reminded, "Crippled ones".

With moments to spare, the pair set to work, cracking open the plastic cassettes like lobster shells and spooling the burgundy threads of 1/4" tape onto reels. Bill joined them end-to-end with swift, expert splices, his Wilkinson razor blade gleaming in his fist. Seconds later as the choir burst forth with the first note of Handel's Messiah -- Bill's Nagra rolled.


As you may well have guessed, the concert went on as planned, vast sums of money were pledged to the wheelchair orphans, and the First Interdenominational Congregational Church was plucked unaware from the jaws of disaster by Bill's quick thinking and resourcefulness.

Aldo Carelli and his son were eventually exposed by an FBI sting operation while attempting to sell slipcovers made from the pelts of endangered species. A huge ring of shady characters went off to jail with them. Soon after, PSG studios closed its doors. But not before every last piece of state-of-the-art digital recording equipment was put on the block for pennies on the dollar in a public auction. And guess who was in the front row, cheerfully bidding on every item?