In the last chapter of our story, my father -- who possesses a massive collection of VHS recordings of his own making that stretches back to 1980 and numbers in five digits -- announced he had sold his house and was moving to a new one. He told me he was enlisting some volunteers to help with the process of emptying his old place. We left off with the possibility that precious recordings from the historical past could be left behind or thrown out accidentally. Fortunately, I heard of no complications and the process went smoothly.
The following Saturday I got a call from Dad.
"Hey, do you think
you could come down here and help me? I need some tapes
"How long do you
have before then?"
After a few seconds of silence, Dad said "So can you do it?"
You might be thinking it was poor planning on Dad's part to be calling with such a request this late. And that it was unreasonable, and disrespectful of my time, to assume I would be free to move boxes all day with no advance notice. You'd be right on both counts. But Dad just has an uncanny knack for making the worst decisions possible, and with thirty years of exposure I was kind of used to it by now. Also, he had gotten lucky by picking an open lazy Saturday where I didn't have much else planned. And with so much recorded history at stake, what else could I do?
I stood up straight, puffed my chest up and announced "BRING IT ON."
When I got to Dad's wrecked, smelly house, my father assured me the chore wouldn't take long. He also said we only had a corner's worth of boxes to clear out. I knew both statements were a lie before I even set foot on the first step, but I had come prepared for that. Sure enough, there had to be about fifty or more cardboard boxes weighed down with videotapes to the brim, and each one had to be hauled up a flight of stairs by hand, before sunset.
So we got to work. Dad and I took turns hauling boxes, staggering up the stairs, wheezing for breath and then doing it again. We both had gas masks on because the movers had exposed black mold on the walls. I wondered if it had always been there. Probably. Oh well.
We had to take each box upstairs to the kitchen. The new owner had promised to leave anything in the kitchen alone until Dad could rent a PODS container and stuff it all in there. While we were at it, I quickly checked the contents of each box and wrote them on the sides with a big black marker. Wherever these things would wind up, they'd be jumbled out of order, and I was saving myself the trouble of untangling the mess later.
As we kept digging, the tapes kept turning up in worse shape. In 2004, one year before I started converting Dad's tapes, the water heater in his basement broke and flooded it. The place was packed with trash, which stopped the flow of water from reaching most of the tape boxes, but the damage remained to this day. We were now down to ground level, and the good news was, there were only three tape boxes stored that low. But they were too far gone to save -- they were practically fused into one solid mass. One was just movies, one was an unfortunate Time Capsule loss, and I couldn't tell what the third one was. I HAVE gotten his flood-damaged tapes to play before, so I could have possibly rescued some of these with enough work -- but I had been hauling boxes for three hours and was absolutely wiped. I was taking any excuse to call them unsalvageable and quit.
Waving goodbye to Dad, I lugged home a box full of assorted taped treasures that I just HAD to digitize as soon as I saw them. The bus stop was several blocks away, and the sky looked like rain was imminent. My arms were so weak at this point that they kept giving out and dropping the box. I managed to drag it and myself all the way to the bus stop, beating the rain just in time. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, and my muscles ached for days afterward. But I wore my wounds with pride. I'd done it. I had stood up to the challenge and conquered it. I saved the tapes, and the worst threat to their existence was over.
At least for the time being.
Dad had originally said he was making a bid on a house with a gigantic basement. Instead he elected to purchase a cheaper home with one floor and then spend the remaining money on a series of outside woodsheds to store all his junk in. I now had more than mold to worry about -- the tapes were much more exposed to the elements in that woodshed than they were in the basement. I took the 90-minute trip (each way) to Dad's whenever my free schedule permitted it and loaded my cart full of tapes, then took them home and digitized them as quickly as I could. Previously I was cataloguing the contents of each tape before moving to the next one, but there was no time for that anymore. I was racing against nature.
The fortunate side to this was, in one exhausting afternoon I had taken inventory of Dad's entire remaining collection, and I knew which tapes had to be done first. A series of Entertainment Tonights from the back half of 1982 were the earliest surviving such tapes in his archive. Without the D-VHS machine, it's doubtful these tapes could have been salvageable. Tapes recorded at the six-hour speed don't age as well as those in SP, and the picture was jumpy throughout, but I got it. As I discovered interesting local clips, I started putting them on FPO.
A couple weeks after I started doing this, I got an E-mail from someone who worked at a local TV station. He loved one of my clips and wanted to know where I found it. As he explained, the station had its own archive -- of sorts -- but it was very disorganized and not sorted very well. If it hadn't been for my site, he never would have known the clip existed. He now wanted to meet me and Dad, and possibly do a story on us.
That weekend the reporter, Nate Baker, arrived at Dad's. He waited with his camera while Dad dug boxes out of his shed. I had told Nate there was a box containing nothing but episodes of Town Hall, the local public forum program KATU used to run. He was especially interested in that box, but Dad couldn't seem to find it, because every time I visited Dad's, the shed would be rearranged. I would take boxes out, stack them neatly according to which ones I needed access to in the near future, and leave. Then I would come back and find it all jumbled again.
It took 45 minutes of digging, and I worried Nate would give up, but we did find the Town Hall box and he got some nice pictures of the collection, now that it was strewn all over the backyard. He left and said he'd notify me when the article went up.
Two weeks later, one of
the contacts I tape-trade with E-mailed me and said
"Have you heard about that guy in Oregon with the
huge tape collection?"
"No. The OTHER guy
in Oregon with the huge tape collection."
He'd even been taping the same subjects -- local and national news, Entertainment Tonight, some late night stuff. The only difference was that he started in 1986, and he had put the entire collection on Craigslist hoping someone would haul it away. It was getting national attention.
Surely he was getting hundreds of E-mails from all over the place, and my shot of reaching him was slim, but I had to at least try. I hit the Craigslist E-mail link immediately. "Hey, my dad is just like you. I have my hands full taking care of his collection, but can you let me know who wins yours? We might want to collaborate." He actually did respond -- and he agreed.
The tapes wound up being awarded to a guy in Beaverton, a town separated from Portland by the West Hills. The man who was acquiring the tapes knew what he was doing....he had made arrangements with Jason Scott of Archive.org to upload an edited version of each tape to the public, and he was making the unedited version available via private torrent sites like Myspleen. Best of all, he had heard of FPO and was a fan of my site! He fully agreed to share clips with me, and I started making arrangements to visit him and view the collection for myself.
Then he disappeared.
A month after the moving van delivered all the tapes to his private storage area, the man stopped responding to my E-mails, as well as everyone else's. Jason Scott lost track of him and he abandoned his thread on the Myspleen forums, and the info on his account says he hasn't even logged in since then. He uploaded ONE six-hour tape before vanishing, but that was it. He'd assembled a team of digitizers -- myself included -- to handle the preservation of the collection, but they were all left hanging.
No one knows what happened to him, or what happened to the gazillion VHS recordings he guarded. Did he die? Did he see a murder and have to be placed in the Witness Protection Program? Perhaps no one will ever know. All we DO know is that over twenty thousand tapes went poof, simultaneously.
By this point, it had been months since I'd last been to Dad's woodshed. Weather was getting in my way -- I was only permitted to visit the backyard when it hadn't rained for at least a week, since the ground would get supersaturated and muddy and gloppy. This is Portland and once the calendar reaches fall, we usually don't go a week without rain until late spring. I still had a lot of tapes to transfer, but I could do nothing at the moment.
Dad's fiance called and said "Have you been clearing out your father's tapes? Please keep doing that." I explained to her that I would be doing it right this second if I could, but I couldn't get to them. "Well, you need to figure something out, and fast. WE'VE GOT RATS."
Guess what happens if you continue your extreme hoarding habits, but in several open sheds instead of a basement? The rats find you. Especially in the middle of winter, when food is scarce and old socks are edible. Dad's fiance had attempted to clear out some of his junk; she opened a garbage bag full of dirty clothes and about fifty rats exploded out. It would absolutely not stand. Dad, of course, was nonplussed by this development....what harm did the plague ever do to anyone? And besides, if you have to choose between having rats around, and NOT having a 23-year-old broken rusty piece of wire tubing around -- when you might REALLY NEED IT someday -- you would choose the rats, doi.
His woman was unconvinced. And the hammer was now thrown down. Dad now had a limited amount of time to clear the sheds of EVERYTHING that was in them -- INCLUDING the boxes of tapes -- or she was going to toss them out herself. This put me in the uncomfortable position of having to stammer out, "Uhh, uhh, you really can't do that, historical significance and all, I need the tapes, uhh...rats are kinda cute?" Currently, I lived in a small apartment downtown and couldn't take in that much.
I went over to Dad's to see how much I could take at the moment. We agreed to find some SP tapes that would be quick to dub, and each cart a dolly-full to my place by bus. I knew exactly what I wanted to preserve next. ....But I couldn't find it.
"Dad, where's the
Town Hall box?"
Dad would sometimes
shuffle his hoarded junk from one shed to the next.
"Can we check and see if it's in the area behind the
Dad admitted that he
couldn't really track down everything, because recently
his girlfriend had tried to tidy up the sheds somewhat,
and invited the neighborhood kids to help her lift
things, and thrown away some garbage----
At this point I figured my days of preserving the VHS recordings were numbered. It took a lot of pleading to convince his fiance NOT to touch any more of them, but Dad's trash was attracting vermin and she wanted the sheds cleaned out ASAP. Dad's latest brilliant idea was to move all the tapes to the back porch and cover them with a tarp -- that offered even less protection than the shed.
Fortunately, in a moment of split-second timing that can only be proof of divine interference, I got a call from the manager of a highly desired apartment complex I had entered the waiting list for three years prior. A one-bedroom unit was finally open, spacious and with its own storage area. I told Dad, he told Fiance, she was placated -- for now.
The week after I moved
in, I heard from Dad. "She says we have three
I was correct. All these years later, Mom wanted absolutely nothing to do with Dad. She flat-out refused access to her car, with magnitude. "DON'T YOU SEE WHAT HE'S DOING?? HE'S MANIPULATING YOU!!" she hollered into the phone. I tried to explain storing the tapes was MY idea and they had to be preserved. "If you let him store those, he'll use you to hoard more junk, I swear!" Not implausible, I knew, but not on my watch. It was just the tapes.
With my busy schedule, I didn't have multiple hours of each day to devote to carting tapes. Fortunately Dad, who was retired, did. For the next twenty-one days, he appeared at my door multiple times a day with a dolly-full of boxed tapes. I would then take some of my moving boxes and re-box the tapes (because the old boxes were in terrible shape and had shared company with rats), then haul them to the storage room. We worked on a strict schedule, divided the loads mathematically, and he managed to deliver the last box just in time.
And as Mom foretold, he came back a day later unprompted with some boxes of warped records. I told him no and shooed him off.
Now, with the tapes safe and warm within my new apartment, there was at last NOTHING between me and my chosen destiny of preserving 80s and 90s history. ....Unless I suddenly needed to find a good VHS player in 2018.
All the work I had put the D-VHS player through these past few years was starting to wear it down. The tracking was going haywire and giving a jumpy, screwy picture. I tried cleaning the machine inside and out with rubbing alcohol, but the problem remained. It was the moment I'd been dreading, but knew was inevitable. If you watched the Techmoan video that I embedded last time, you know that D-VHS machines weren't built very well, despite the fancy expensive tech within, and most have capacitor issues. It was a matter of time before mine did.
I asked around the Internet: "Where do I find a VHS repairman in this day and age?" People had a few ideas, but none Google hadn't already informed me about. And most of Google's listings were out of date...I would call these places and they'd inform me they no longer serviced VHSes.
There aren't a lot of places you can turn to that are full of people gifted with VCR knowledge, even on the Internet. I found what looked like a respectable forum, made an account and explained my dilemma. Nearly immediately, I got a private message in my inbox from one of that forum's most prolific posters.
"Don't bother fixing it. I mean, you SHOULD fix it, because it's valuable, but you don't have to right now. I have the PERFECT machine for you." This guy made a living -- or at least Big Mac money -- buying broken high-end VCRs off eBay, piecing them back together and selling them again for twice as much. I'd seen his listings and the typical VCR from him went for $400 to $450. I certainly didn't have that much to spend on a VCR, and told him so.
I had already stated how many VHS tapes I still had to convert -- at least 31 boxes full -- and he was sympathetic enough to lower his offer to $300, "plus the remote."
I won't deny I had reservations about spending three Benjamins on something from a message board, but the guy had been there a long time, there didn't appear to be any complaints directed at him, and most importantly, he was the first person on Earth to give me an actual knowledgeable answer about why so many of Dad's tapes had that tracking problem.
From late 1990 through mid-1997 there is this issue with Dad's EP tapes where one line of noise will ALWAYS appear onscreen no matter how you adjust the tracking controls. This plays havoc with hi-fi audio, which needs completely clean tracking to play properly. I was forced to use the mono track with these, which always had a hiss or a hum and never sounded good, but the buzzing on the stereo track was worse. My initial assumption was that it was due to age, but that theory didn't truly hold up when a tape from 1988 played far better than a tape from 1995. What the man told me was this: "Your dad's VCR slipped out of alignment."
Inside a VCR, there are two rods on both sides that the tape wraps around. Like a magnet to a Juggalo, I'm not precisely clear on HOW they work, but their main purpose appears to be tracking-related. It turns out on some VCRs they can, over time, slip out of alignment and record tapes a bit wrong, so that they only play perfectly on that specific machine. It also turns out it's fully possible to adjust the rods in any VCR to recreate the situation the recording came from, and eliminate the seemingly un-eliminatable tracking lines. The right rod makes subtle adjustments, the left rod makes drastic ones. The bad news: this activity requires an oscilloscope, and a specialized pronged screwdriver not sold in stores.
"But you don't really need the oscilloscope," he told me. "That's only if you want it restored to precise factory settings. When I send you this VCR, I'll throw in the pronged screwdriver free of charge. All you have to do is turn the rods a bit, and bingo." I couldn't believe it was that simple...and that I'd already converted 1991, 1994, and much of 1993 in mono before finding this out. DANGIT.
How could I say no? But I couldn't exactly say yes either. "I don't have $300 to give you right now; is it all right if I pay in installments?" He was fine with it as long as I was willing to wait until the machine was fully paid for before he sent it. It was a deal...
Now came the long waiting game; while this transaction was taking place I couldn't digitize a single tape. Sure, I could use one of the lower-end models I'd collected, but that seemed like a wasted effort if something better was on the way. So all the tapes had to just sit there in the storage area for months while I gathered up the money, then paced back and forth nervously over the fate of the package. $300 was a lot to blow on a risk like this. He hadn't given me a tracking number and I had no idea if it was coming through USPS, UPS or FedEx. When an entire month passed with no sign of it, I started to worry it had been delivered to the wrong address or been stolen from my porch. Or that the whole thing was a scam and no package was coming at all.
I PMed him again with my concerns, and after one solid nail-biting week passed with no reply, he finally got back to me: "They sent the package back to me because I hadn't paid enough postage." Also, he'd been sick. He re-tested the machine and shipped it again, and this time I demanded a tracking number and got it.
A giant package stamped FRAGILE on all sides came to my door two weeks later. I signed for it, brought it inside and tore through 8-inch-thick bubble wrap. The unit looked like it'd seen better days, but a test tape proved it was fully functional. At least, that's what I thought until I tried one of the buttons on the front and found that none of them worked. Couldn't I just use the remote? In common circumstances yes, but not when I was trying to get perfect tracking. The auto-tracking feature would often get it wrong and I'd have to enable the manual tracking feature by pushing two buttons in at once. The D-VHS worked like this. This new unit was supposed to.
I sent another PM: "These front buttons feel mushy and they don't do anything." He said back "Buttons on that model normally feel mushy. Try pushing them in harder." I pushed the Stop button in.....so far that it got stuck inside and wouldn't come out. "What do I do NOW?" I PMed. "Open it up, take some pictures and let me see the inside," he said. When I unscrewed the front open, a plastic piece fell out. Now I was certain I was screwed.
Examining the pictures, he said the front circuit board had become loose, preventing contact with the buttons. "JVC fastened it in with these shoddy plastic pegs, and they were already loose....I had to superglue them back in before I sent this." As for the plastic piece, it was a clip meant to secure the front display to the rest of the unit..and it was one of four, so as long as the other three were there to hold it in, things would be fine. Well, not entirely fine.
Despite his best efforts to pack it well, the VCR had been banged up during shipping. The physical trauma wound up undoing all the work he'd done reassembling the machine, and I would have to glue it all back together if I wanted to use it. Of course, I was not him. I knew nothing about electronics assembly or VCR repair or even how to properly glue something. He said he would make a step-by-step guide, with pictures, using a similar model as a guide. It took him at least a month to get around to it; in the meantime I still couldn't digitize a single tape.
There were six prongs that were supposed to hold the circuit board into place. Superglue hardens fast, and all six had to be positioned exactly perfectly so they'd match the place where they tore -- otherwise it would be uneven and probably not stay together. It was an impossible job for just one man, or possibly two. I tried my best, but the glue didn't even hold. And it got worse: when I screwed everything back together, the VCR booted up in a different mode and wouldn't switch to playback. There was a button to make it functional again, but like the Stop button, it was stuck.
"You'll just have to manually go in there and push the button directly on the circuit board, while the machine is on," he said. "Uh....won't I die?" I replied. "The electirical current doesn't work that way!" he said back. "You won't even feel a tingle; I promise." So I started positioning the VCR to disassemble it again. And THE ENTIRE LEFT CORNER SNAPPED OFF IN MY HAND. Can't say I've had that happen before.
The next few weeks were like this. I'd come to him and say "Okay, I made it worse, what do I do?" And he'd tell me what to do. And I would do it, come back and say "Okay, I made it worse, what do I do?" and he'd give me more instructions. And I'd do them and then I'd come back and say "Okay, I made it worse, what do I do?" It was brain surgery by way of telephone, and it was a complete disaster.
But I eventually got it working. I never told him how, because I figured he'd be sore with me, but I finally fastened the circuit board into place and made all the buttons responsive, through one miracle method:
And I got about seven tapes worth of goodness out of it before its tracking became unruly and it stopped working on a technical level. $300 well spent. But he was right about one thing...the tapes really did look good.
I had been begging him all this time to take pity on me and let me send this monster back to him. He would find the parts more useful than I would -- he could probably build another completely functioning VCR out of them -- and he had four more high-end units that he hadn't sold. "If you send me one of them, I'll send you this thing back." He initially wasn't willing to do it, nor was he open to returns, but he finally agreed to send me another VCR for the heavily discounted price of $125, shipping fees waived, as an apology. I really wanted all this to end and I agreed to the deal.
The second VCR, thankfully, arrived in one piece. It's slightly lower-end than what I was previously sold, and I get static noises whenever there are wrinkles in the video (the way Dad treated his tapes this happens a lot), but it is the best I can do at the moment.
The fact that this collection has survived to this point is a complete miracle. Their numbers have dwindled over the years and they have faced total destruction several times. The only reason the majority of these tapes exist at all right now is because my dad's only son turned out to be media-savvy enough to care about their value. My sister doesn't want anything to do with them, and Dad doesn't even know how to use a computer, let alone post a Craigslist ad, so no one else would even know they were there. It's particularly galling that the record of television in Portland could have been TWICE AS BIG as this, yet somehow 25,000 tapes slipped into the ether. Mother Nature has had it out for tape collections for a long time, and I'm not sure what her problem is. Maybe someone fed her the wrong butter or something.
I'm still not pleased with the quality I'm getting from these transfers. But I'm exhausted and weary. I've had enough. I've done all a man can do in that direction and I am done with it all. I'm just going to have to accept that some of these tapes are going to look and sound like butt.
What would solve my problems is if I could venture down to Ye Olde Circuit City and purchase a shiny new videotape player, never used and complete with warranty. But that is no longer an option, and what little options I have will only get worse. No one makes VCRs anymore, and GOOD VCRs are far rarer. There wil come a day when someone finds a VHS tape and has no way of finding out what its contents are, and that day could come sooner than you think.
If you have tapes of your own, I would look into getting them transferred sooner rather than later, because it's all downhill from here.
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