A young attorney is so determined to get married that he scales the beams of a collapsed building to retrieve a wedding ring from his office safe after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
A weary sailor serving in the Pacific during World War II delivers a short message to his worried family, letting them know he's alive and well.
A soldier in Vietnam recounts the horrors of war as cannons boom and gunfire crackles in the background.
The voices, stories and memories are recorded on audiotape and phonographs, and Emmet Robinson had made it his business to preserve them for posterity.
At King Street Recording Co., the business he has operated in Malvern since 1971, Robinson has witnessed a delightful trend: a steady increase in customers wanting him to restore and duplicate old sound recordings.
"In a nation devoted to taking pictures, there's a growing interest in the sounds of the important people and events in our lives," Robinson says.
As boomers reckon with their mortality, more people are beginning to prize the aural relics and souvenirs of their family heritage, Robinson says, and are eager to transmit them in audible form to their descendants.
"Many children have never heard the voices of their grandparents or of other family members no longer living," says Robinson, 70, in a resonant voice fit for radio.
Often, these old discs and tapes, stored in attics, basements and garages, are ravaged by time and neglect. Unplayable on modern equipment, they gather dust until they're discarded. Result: Precious memories are lost forever.
Equipped with vintage turntables and open-reel tape players as well as special computer software, Robinson has developed techniques for transferring such recordings to cassette and CD, while reducing background noise and improving sound. In some cases, he has been able to retrieve voices and music from recordings nearly obliterated by dirt and decay. (Cost: about $80 for a 12-inch disc or a tape up to an hour long).
"I'm continually amazed at the wide variety of vintage recordings that keep turning up at my studio door," Robinson says. "Each one is intensely personal, and each has a story to tell."
From these old recordings, Robinson has learned about life in the coal towns of northeastern Pennsylvania at the turn of the century, and the hardships endured by homesteaders in the Dakotas in the late 1800s.
For one client, from a fragile 78 r.p.m. acetate disc, he retrieved the voice of a woman who has since died, singing in a school musical in the early '50s. From another such disc sent to him by a couple in New Mexico, he captured the wife's sister singing the Lord's Prayer at their wedding nearly 50 years ago.
Robinson is, quite literally, a recording artist. Ford Myers of Haverford comes from a musical family whose past is chronicled in audiotapes. A couple of years ago, he hired Robinson to repair, clean, and preserve these heirlooms, including recordings of his mother, a professional singer, refining her talent.
Robinson transferred the tapes to about 25 full CDs that are "nothing short of spectacular," Myers says. "He edited them very carefully. He must have gone back and forth with me 90 times until he got everything just right. The restoration quality is superb."
Robinson has devised ways to clean mud and mildew from tapes ruined by floods and moisture, and to recover music from damaged vinyl phonographs that make the needle skip. Using a computer program, he can eliminate hissing and other noise by editing out the spikes in sound waves.
Technical skill alone is not sufficient, however. "In dealing with vintage music," Robinson says, "you need a knowledge of music."
Robinson began acquiring his musical knowledge when he was growing up in Philadelphia. In 1965, Robinson began work as manager of the Main Point, the Bryn Mawr coffeehouse that was a mecca of the local folk-music scene in the '60s. A personal highlight: On Dec. 21, 1969, his birthday, he opened at the Main Point for an up-and-coming pop star named John Denver.
He has worked during the last 45 years as dancer and instructor, singer and guitarist, emcee, voiceover artist, club manager, concert producer, actor, songwriter, television performer, and disc jockey.
Robinson has attempted marriage twice without success and has no children. Yet one need not reproduce to realize that we are the latest representatives of a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone.
Through the recordings he is salvaging and preserving, he is helping to keep that cord intact, vital, and vivid for generations to come.
"Old photographs are static," Robinson says. "People's voices have movement, and are far more interesting. Each recording provides a small glimpse of someone's life, a moment of living history."