When the Bedtime Story Went on the Blink

I'm behind the wheel of our minivan. It's evening rush hour, and I've been running errands with my son, 12, and daughter, 14. We're stopped at a long traffic light. On one side of us is a pickup truck, sitting high on shiny shocks, and bouncing to the gangsta beat pulsing through its stereo speakers. On our other side is a car with an open sunroof and a radio tuned to Mariah Carey.

Around us, heads bob to a variety of rhythms, and thumbs drum in time against steering wheels. Our fellow commuters are totally tuned-in and cool. We, alas, are not. We ride in a state of compromise. I like the classical music station; my kids are partial to ''real rock.'' We settle on ''oldies but goodies'' - Beatles, Supremes. Memories for me, a decent beat for them.

Today I decide to mix things up a bit, and pop a library cassette into our tape deck. On it, National Public Radio's Bailey White reads stories of her native Georgia. In a drawl scratchy as a pair of woolen long johns, Bailey White begins spinning her wonderful tales of the simple life of an unmarried schoolteacher in a small Southern town.

''Eeew! What is this?'' Anne and Roman ask in unison from the back seat. They were expecting Monster Hits.

''It's Bailey White, a famous storyteller.''

Anne and Roman aren't all that surprised. When they were little, I'd visit the children's section of the downtown library and flip through the collection of long-playing records of actors and actresses dramatizing famous stories in resonant voices: Boris Karloff intoning ''The Three Little Pigs''; Carol Channing telling of ''Frederic the Mouse.'' I'd check out these LPs, bring them home, and record them on tape for my children's listening pleasure.

My husband and I continued to read stories aloud to them at bedtime. But when Anne and Roman were tucked into their little beds, and the room they shared was all stillness and shadows, I'd slip a tape into their cassette player, say one more ''good night,'' press ''Play,'' and tiptoe out.

There was one hitch. The records I got at the library were scratched and warped, or sticky from spilled apple juice. I did my best to weed these out ahead of time. But sometimes I missed a gouge or two, and when I played these discs on our turntable at home the needle bounded across the record or skated toward the middle with a resounding ''bbbbbrrrrrrpt.''

Sometimes, too, I'd push the ''Record'' button and then leave to take care of something else. So I wouldn't always hear the stories I'd recorded, such as Glynis Johns's version of ''Peter Pan.''

''How about 'Peter Pan' again?'' I chirped one night to Anne and Roman, freshly snuggled in their beds. As I held the tape, Anne stopped me.

''Noooo!'' she wailed. ''Please, Mommy. No, not that one. Anything but that one!''

Her brother in his crib tightly clutched his teddy bear and nodded in agreement.

Anne's intensity startled me.

''Why not, Donut?'' I asked, crooning her nickname and touching her cheek.

Anne took a deep breath. ''Listen to it, Mommy,'' she said as ominously as a tiny-voiced four-year-old can.

I listened. The first few minutes were fine. Glynis Johns's voice rose, fell, and paused for effect as she set the scene for the story of a boy who never grew up. Then I heard several ''pops,'' a few hisses, and the garbled words, ''It must be ... da gerk. It must be ... da gerk,'' hiccuped over and over for the rest of the tape - more than 30 minutes of a recorded scratch.

I pictured my children lying there on those other nights when I'd played ''Peter Pan'' - sleepy, confused, wondering who in the world this character ''da gerk'' was and why his arrival needed to be announced 2,037 times.

After that, we screened our selections more carefully.

Now along comes CD technology, and the only scratch on this tape is Bailey White's voice, telling stories about eccentric relatives and old horse trainers, country fairs and flying saucers.

White's vivid prose and crackly accent fill our van. In the rear-view mirror, I see Anne and Roman. Their expressions tell me that these two modern, middle-American kids think I've lost it. ''Can't we listen to something else?'' they plead.

Bailey launches into a story about a big white oak snake she found in the bluebird house on her farm. She takes the snake to her first-grade classroom as a visual aid for a science unit.

It becomes quiet, eerily quiet, there in the back seat. Anne and Roman have given up their protests. They stare out the tinted windows. Headlights from the other lane flash across their faces.

Meanwhile, back in Ms. White's classroom, the snake has escaped.

''It is almost impossible to find a snake in a literature-based elementary school classroom,'' she says. ''I scrambled through student portfolios and unfinished projects on the cut-and-make table. I shifted all the clay whales waiting to be fired and unstacked all the shoe-box swamp scenes. The bell would ring in five minutes.''

We turn into the driveway. The garage door lifts. I pull in, shift the van into ''Park,'' and reach to turn off the ignition.

My two ''Top Forty'' kids come alive. ''Hey! Whoa! Wait!'' Anne sputters, adding meekly, ''Can't we hear how it ends?''

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