The Microscope

Never in my life did I wait so long, so hard, and so intensely for anything as I did for my microscope.

The story:

Every fall my mother received a huge mail order catalog listing every conceivable item from kerosene pumps to be fitted directly onto large metal drums to Voiglander cameras to lipstick to toothbrushes to amazing toys and children’s socks. This inch-plus-thick catalog was intended for the trade, i.e., not for the end consumer, but somehow, don’t ask me how, she had gotten past their loose applicant screening process and once a year they bestowed this treasure of a document on a member of the public (my mom) and it soon found its way into my eager and fascinated hands.

Backed up into my favorite armchair with the catalog opened up on my lap, I would live in this thing for hours, remembering from the last edition where the various categories of marvel were listed. Clothes upfront, followed by underwear (I skipped this section through the early editions as it carried nothing but pure boredom, but perched curiously in it—and its scantily clad female models, modeling, yes, precisely, underwear—later as puberty was stirring in the wings, getting ready to pounce on yet another unsuspecting young male victim).

Then came hardware, tires, tools. Then air rifles and guns, sporting goods, moving on into cameras and optical stuff. Toys in the back. Pages and pages and pages of toys. That was my early home. I would dream of being unearthly wealthy and buy ten of everything I saw, trains, cars, games. I realize now how rich I was then, living in all this wealth for hour upon uninterrupted hour. Only Mom’s insistence that I eat, and she means now—the food is on the table, Ulf, or do homework, or go to bed, would shatter these dreams.

As I grew in years my catalog residence began changing however, from way back in toy-land coming forward through cameras and watches and radios, and then, one early summer day, it jumped up and bit me.

I think I had, fairly recently, watched a show about scientific research or something, because I still knew that I was destined for scientific greatness. After all, Alfred Nobel was a countryman. A no-brainer. And in this show, it was made quite clear that in order to gain worldwide repute as a leading researcher and laboratory scientist you must have a microscope. Without it you don’t even have the right to dream. But with it, you're guaranteed a place in the annals of evolutionary greatness. And there it was, staring up at me from the optics page.

It was holy. It was wonderful. Had a revolving disk with three (or was it four?) different magnifications built in. It had a mirror that could reflect either daylight or light from a small built-in lamp up on the examined object from below. It was perfect. And it was affordable. I checked with Mom, and, yes, I had enough money in my Postal bank book (with a little, or not so little, help from her), she said. Sure, she said. So, we ordered it.

You could have led me up the golden stairway of heaven, opened the portals and let me in, it would not have matched the euphoria that gripped and twirled this boy in a dance jubilant. The early summer had never been so brilliant, the sweet smells of the freshly mowed grass never so fragrant, the sky never bluer. All joys, expectations, future and life in general had found focus and crystalized in this one object, my microscope. MY microscope. On its way. My microscope.

The catalog stated that you should expect a seven to ten business-day wait, so I prayed for a five-day delivery, hoped for a seven-day wait and knew for sure it would be here in ten. These were long days, meaningless, eventless, since all that really took place was waiting. Well, yes, I did things, rode the swings, mowed the lawn, strolled the woods, ate, slept, and generally kept up the pretense of living, but this was just a shell going through the motions. My real existence was consumed by anticipation and waiting, waiting, waiting.

We lived out in the country side a couple of miles from town and our mailman who drove a regular car—a Volkswagen station wagon, as I recall. This VW-riding guy delivered all mail, letters and small parcels alike, to our large mailbox a brisk five-minute (or not so brisk ten-minute) walk from our house. The microscope was too large, though, for the mailbox, so what would arrive would be a postal arrival notice, directing the addressee (me) to bring the notice to the town’s post office to collect the package.

There were four mailboxes in a row at one central location, serving us and our three neighbors. He normally came before one pm on weekdays and by eleven am on Saturdays. By noon any given day I had normally checked the mailbox twice. By twelve thirty I would be there again, waiting for him to arrive. And then, once I saw his car, euphoria.

By the sixth day he knew what I was waiting for, so it was with a shrug and a smile that he handed me our mail, as if to apologize for the mail-order company tardiness. Darkness. It was not here yet. From the attic of delight to the sub-basement of despair through the shaft of impatience all in the shadow of a mailman's smile. I placed the mail we did receive on the bicycle carrier, got on the bike, and pedaled back home, dejection emanating like heat from the body in one of those thermal infra-red photographs. My mother takes one look at me as I hand her the mail and says she's sure it'll be here tomorrow. Well, what else can she say?

I suffer through the ensuing day somehow, and on occasion may even, heaven forbid, forget about the microscope for an instance or two, swinging from a tree, or jumping into the water from the twenty-foot trampoline down at the beach. But it is there, the waiting covers my existence like a film. I am not fulfilled, I am only partial until my other me, my perfect me arrives in the mail.

Every morning when sentience comes knocking and night slinks away out the back door, I am filled with the rush of anticipation even before I open my eyes. Today is the DAY! For sure. Fore sure sure. I go through the motions of dressing, checking the weather through the window, running downstairs for breakfast, and checking the time. Only six more hours to go now.

This ritual repeated, day after tortuous day, the apologetic mailman and myself exchanging glances, and he handing me our mail, me handing him my disappointment. It ruined early summer. Three weeks passed. Three weeks, as in twenty-one days. My capacity for emotional rollercoaster waned. The morning's joy was guarded, hedging its certainty with the likely possibility that tomorrow may in actual fact be the day. I was hell to live with. One day we were even away when the mailman came. Swimming or something, the family enjoying the summer and its pleasures but for my incessant inquiries as to when we were going back home. Mom wanted to return just to shut me up; Dad, stubborn as always, decided to choose this particular battlefield to prove a point, and he stayed (and the rest of us with him since it was his car and he was the driver) until he was good and ready to return.

We stopped by the mailbox on the way home—no microscope.

By now my wait had grown beyond all reasonable proportions and now engulfed my entire neighborhood, my immediate family having borne the pain alone long enough. I was asked by one and all if it had come, and they all said they were sorry to hear that it hadn't and that they were sure it would come tomorrow.

Well, of course, it finally did arrive, almost as an afterthought, a month or so after we ordered it. Yes, I was happy, but not ecstatic. I took the parcel delivery notice and bicycled into town to pick it up. There was the package, my name on the label. I signed the notice as received and tied the package carefully to my bike’s luggage holder, and pedaled home. Mom smiled and asked if it had arrived okay and in one piece. Yes, to both questions.

I brought the thing up to my room and unpacked it. Installed the little battery to power the mirror illumination lamp. Found something to view (I think I pulled a strand of hair to check out the root) and I looked. Tried the various magnification levels, adjusted the lamp and the focus and looked at that root some more, and some more, and some more after that, and that was that.

I played with it for another day or two, on and off. But the truth is that the joy of owning my very own microscope had died a long and pitiful death in the shadow of the much more significant waiting.

And no, I never made world-famous scientist.


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