SANTA WAS GONNA bring the household a new video cassette recorder for Christmas. But then Santa's tightwad helper heard about a cheaper gift.
Instead of shelling out a couple of hundred bucks for a new VCR, I heard I could pay a few bucks for a cleaning kit and give the old VCR a bath. I could clean its heads.
The old VCR was so dirty that when you put in a tape, for example, my holiday favorite, "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's 40 Thieves," more "snow" showed up on the screen than there was in Vermont.
One of my brothers convinced me I could make this old VCR as good as new. Most families have a guy like my brother. He has all the "gifted-fixer" genes in our clan. He is the type who can remodel an entire bathroom in the time that it takes most of the clan to repair a faucet.
This brother told me the "snow" on my screen was caused by little pieces of dust and lint, which were sitting on the heads of the VCR. The snow could melt away if I cleaned the VCR, he said. I had already tried one VCR cleaning routine. I had used a cleaning tape, the type lubricated with a few drops of magic solution. My brother scoffed at the mention of the self-cleaning tapes. To really cleanse a VCR, he said, you have to pop its hood and swab its heads with cleaning solution. It is easy, my brother said. I should have told him, "Easy for you, difficult for me." He is a cameraman for a television station, KMBC in Kansas City, and is intimately familiar with the workings of videotape players.
Nonetheless, I decided to give his VCR-routine a try. If my little brother could do this task, I told myself, then I could too. Sibling rivalry dies hard.
Following my brother's instructions, I went to a Radio Shack electronics store and looked for a head-cleaning kit. The first kit I ended up with cost about $3. It turned out this was the wrong kind of head cleaning kit. I had purchased a kit that was supposed to clean the heads of an audio tape player, the kind that plays music in the car. This kit differed from the correct video cassette cleaning kit in one significant detail. It came with cotton swabs. Cotton swabs, my brother told me, when I called for advice, should not be used when cleaning video heads. The cotton leaves lint on the heads and could put Popeye in even more snow than he encountered before I started fooling around with the VCR. I went to another Radio Shack and bought another kit, this time making sure I had swabs made of lint-free foam.
Popping the cover off the VCR was a chore. The cover was held on by six screws. Five of them came loose with no trouble. But the head of the sixth refused to cooperate. When I turned the Phillips screwdriver, the screw head dissolved. The notches disintegrated. Bits of the screw's head seemed to have been sucked into a void. I had met up with the black hole of screws.
I tried changing screwdrivers, hoping to find one that could somehow move the screw. No luck. I even tried my time-tested solution to home repair problems, buying a new tool. Yet even the sharp, shiny screwdriver, fresh from the hardware store, couldn't budge the recalcitrant screw.
I had to call out the electric drill. As I attacked the screw with a drill bit, the screw succumbed. It popped loose.
At last, the cover of the VCR was off. Peering at the inner workings of the VCR, I was reminded of the first time I viewed the engine of a car. It was daunting. I looked around for something that looked like a head, that needed cleaning. I didn't have a clue. I called my brother. He gave me verbal directions as I journeyed thorough the interior of the VCR. He pointed me toward a whirling piece of machinery that looked like a tuna can. Next he told me to find the wires on top of the tuna can. Look below the wires, he said, at little slots in the side of the tuna can. Those little slots were where the heads lived, he said.
Dipping the foam swabs in the bottle of cleaning solution that came with the kit, I swabbed the home of the heads, using a side-to-side motion. If you swab with an up-and-down motion, my brother had warned me, you can damage the heads.
After swabbing the heads, I swabbed the rollers and cap stands, gizmos that move the tape through the machine.
Then I put the lid back on the VCR, popped a tape in the VCR and hit the play button. There was a little less snow on the screen, more like a picture of Connecticut than Vermont.
After its bath, our 10-year-old VCR might have behaved a little better, but it was a long way from good as new. It was time to find a replacement.
I called my brother again. This time I wanted to know what features to look for in a new VCR. He told me get one with a high-fidelity sound system.
So if everybody in our house is good, and if Santa's tightwad helper finds a sale, maybe it won't snow on Popeye this Christmas.
Pub Date: 12/14/96