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Family Memories Preserved on Videotape

November 28, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

RANCHO BERNARDO — Death . . . is a feeling of loss. We lost Matthew, my little brother--my first experience with death. He was on his way home from school in the first grade. He was hit by a truck and killed on the streets of Brooklyn. I'll never forget the sight of my mother and father consoling that poor Italian truck driver who had run over their son. I won't forget that, for as long as I live. -- From Tom Meagher's video biography

Tom Meagher has already lived a long life.

He's 70 now, with a fabulous sense of recall and more stories than George Burns on a roll. Meagher (pronounced MARE) decided to tell his story for posterity.

Enter Phil Clarke, a friend of Meagher's in the Rancho Bernardo Toastmaster's Club. Word got around that Clarke had a new business putting biographies on videotape.

"So many think of writing their memoirs and never do," said Clarke, a 38-year-old former real estate agent from Denver who has lived in San Diego less than a year. "This is a much easier way, something generations can treasure long into the 21st Century."

Clarke has a vision that a little girl, sitting before a vast entertainment center, might learn of her great-great-grandfather's life without having a time machine like the one in the movie "Back to the Future."

Videocassettes, bearing the stuff of ancestry, are Clarke's idea of a time machine.

Clarke looks nothing like the mad scientist time traveler of "Back to the Future." He wears crisp tailored suits, gold tie clasps and a look of innocence and intrigue whenever a client unfolds the pages of life.

He has heard some incredible things from the mouths of his mostly elderly clientele, so much so that he's emerged as a kind of activist--for the elderly.

"We're closing ourselves to an element of society, an element of life," he said. "I'm sharing this with them, and the people closest to them aren't. The irony is, the people who may be watching this in the future are the ones missing the chance to hear it now, firsthand."

That's one irony. Another is Clarke's forte depending on video technology, while television--the granddaddy of such science--is, in his view, one of the great separators of modern time. Most of all, television intrudes, he says. It forces itself into otherwise memorable conversation. It monopolizes and controls, leaving little in its wake but passive, lazy watchers.

He's not alone in thinking we have become a nation of watchers.

That may be not entirely bad. Clarke feels that video technology can be used for good, as in his experiment. It's one that others are getting into, albeit on different levels.

Dozens of video outlets listed in the local Yellow Pages offer to tape weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Only two have gone the route of video biographies. They are Clarke (Video Greetings of America) and Tom Gorman of Escondido, a Times staffer with a part-time interest in learning "what was it like, traveling across the country or going on dates in cars with rumble seats and running boards."

Clarke charges $185 for a two-hour tape, with interviews stretching over four hours, maybe five. (Gorman charges $100 for two hours, $50 for each additional hour.)

Clarke interviews the subject in his or her home. Sometimes he goes "on location," doing interviews at a favorite restaurant, a cemetery or in the living rooms of friends. He asks ahead of time for photographs and memorabilia, set up in chronological order. Questions cover such areas as, "What is your earliest memory of your paternal grandfather? What was your first experience with death? How did your parents meet? How did you and your wife meet?"

He is most astounded by how rarely such questions have been asked by the "loved ones" these people are closest to. Many clients ask that their children not see the tape--that it be viewed only by grandchildren. Many demand that the tape be locked away in a safe-deposit box until after their death.

In the course of asking such seemingly simple queries, Clarke has heard some amazing tales.

"People talk most frankly, all the way from sex habits to bitter grudges to the warmest moments in life," he said.

Common threads soon emerge. Surprisingly, death isn't the leader. The most common is the universality of human experience, regardless of the person's age, genealogy or birthplace. (The average age of Clarke's clients is 65. His youngest is 36.)

Sex enters almost every conversation, in the form of foolish memories, or wedding nights when neither party had much of an idea about what happened next.

One man sadly remembered a Japanese concentration camp in World War II, the lives of young friends snuffed out early. Many went through the Great Depression and emerged with the most noble and character-building stiff upper lips imaginable. Many lost young children to death, which Clarke now sees as the deepest, most devastating loss, the kind many never really recover from.

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