A Story of Passion, Obsession, and Shady Characters
by Carl Hunsinger, USA
So, there I was, turning 50 years old and staring at the business end of a full-blown mid-life crisis. Such events follow predictable patterns. Let’s see, there were the regrets as to my career choice, trading in the old car for a sports car, continually thinking about my youth, and buying a microscope. “Wait... what?... Did he say microscope?” Yeah, I said microscope. I guess my particular version of the mid-life crisis was unusual in that it included a microscope, and I really can’t say for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that this was the first time in human history that this has ever happened. A person cruising down the road of life sees their own mortality come into the fringes of their headlights, so what do they do? They run out and buy a microscope. Even I must admit that this is odd, but odd or not, I think I can explain it. It all goes back to that thinking-about-my-youth stuff.
When I was young, I didn’t play sports and I didn’t play a musical instrument. In fact, I didn’t even play outside very much. I liked nothing better than to spend time in the house, reading science books or watching Star Trek. Stuff like that. The best times, as I remember them, were before my dad got sick and became disabled (he died a few years after that). It was before dad got sick that my parents came home one night with a bright green box from Sears. It was a wonderful box, containing a shiny black Sears microscope with chrome knobs and a swivel mirror. And there were two orange boxes of Sears prepared microscope slides to go with it (1). Sure, it was a toy microscope, but in looking back, it was one of the better toy scopes. There was no plastic anywhere. It was all metal and glass, and best of all, it was all mine. I vividly remember the wonderful smell of Canada Balsam as I opened the slide boxes for the first time. I spent many happy hours peering into that microscope in my home lab. This “lab” was really just a small wooden desk in my bedroom, but to a 10-year old introverted child with a microscope, it was a bona fide laboratory. I read every book I could get my hands on that even remotely had anything to do with microscopes or microbiology.
Time went by, as time inevitably does. That 10-year old boy grew up. As I got older, my interest in microbiology was replaced with a fascination for electricity and electronics, which led to my career in electrical engineering in the aerospace avionics industry. But never mind that. Fast-forward to four decades after receiving that first Sears microscope, where the story picks up again. It was at this point that I found myself wishing I could go back to that time when my life was simple and carefree. But we all know you can never go back. So I hatched a plan to do the next best thing. I would get myself a microscope, and not a toy one this time. I would get the kind that those books I read when I was a kid said that I should have: one with a fine-focus knob and achromatic lenses. And with this microscope I was going to track down and observe a live amoeba. Of all the micro-organisms I collected and observed as a kid, I was never able to find an amoeba, even though all of the books said that I should. But now, as an adult, things were going to be different. Come hell or high water, I was going to find an amoeba if it took me the rest of my life!
Being careful to not tip my hand too early, to prevent my wife from suspecting the full extent of my madness, I started saving money here and there, looking forward to the day when I would finally buy the microscope. Every night, I poured over eBay listings to see what was available. I read every microscope-related site or forum post I could find, to educate myself so that I would make the right purchase. Which would it be, a classic from one of the big-four makers (2), or a shiny new offering from a Chinese manufacturer?
Then one night while my wife was watching “Say Yes to the Dress” on TV, I found a Microstar IV listed on eBay that looked really good to me. This particular seller included his cell phone number in the listing, and it was a local number in my area code. This meant that I could actually look at this thing before pulling the trigger to buy it. I called him up and made an appointment to see the scope the next day. When I showed up at his house, he explained that he was a dentist who bought surplus medical goods at auction and salvage, and re-sold them on eBay as a side business. His dining room was stacked floor-to-ceiling with his inventory, and sitting on his kitchen island were three microscopes: the much-anticipated Microstar IV and two Olympus BH-2 scopes. My lust-filled eyes stopped briefly on the BH-2 scopes, but then sanity prevailed and I went to the Microstar, remembering that it was half the price of the BH-2 beauties.
But when I tried the Microstar, the focus mechanism groaned and the coarse-focus knob felt like there was sand in the works. This was a huge disappointment! Sensing this, and not wanting to lose a sale, the good doctor told me that he would sell me either of the Olympus scopes for the same price as the Microstar. He even allowed me to swap parts between the two of them to get the exact one that I wanted. There was only one objective lens between the two scopes, but I left with a huge grin on my face and with an Olympus BHTU scope, sporting that single objective, in my arms. I was 10 years old again!
When I got home, I eagerly set it on the coffee table and plugged it in, to see what this optical marvel could do. I remember the instant I looked through the eyepieces at the vast, uniformly illuminated field of view, and said to my wife in astonishment “this is the best microscope I’ve ever looked through.” I didn’t have any prepared slides to look at, but the good doctor had thrown in a box of blank slides and some cover slips from his dining room. Not to be deterred, I decided to look at something living. My wife had a small tank for her Betta fish sitting on a table near the television, and I dipped up some muck from the filter pad in this tank and made a quick wet mount. Like riding a bicycle, you never forget these things. I put the slide on the stage, and peering through the binocular eyepieces with the solitary 10X objective, I adjusted the lighting, focus, and slide positioning until I saw something moving. It was… (you guessed it) an amoeba. Well hell. I guess I can cross that one off my bucket list. I somehow thought that my hunt for the elusive amoeba would be a more drawn-out, Captain-Ahab sort of affair than it actually turned out to be.
I spent a few more nights on eBay, looking through the available Olympus objectives, until, one-by-one, I found and purchased the ones I needed. I bought a 4X, 40X, and 100X (all plan objectives) to go along with the 10X plan that was on the scope. Finally, my dream of owning a quality microscope was reality. And the total cost came in under the price of the Chinese scopes I’d been considering.
“OK,” you say, “so I get the passion and obsession parts, but what about the shady characters I was promised?” Well, how about this: I found out later that the dentist that sold me the microscope was no longer allowed to practice dentistry. He had been asked to surrender his dental license after several disciplinary actions against him, including multiple counts of insurance fraud and substandard care (including breaking a patient’s jaw during an extraction and ignoring her when she complained that she was in continuous pain and that it wasn’t healing). During this same time frame, he tried to sell steroids to two undercover police officers, and pursued them in his car when they refused his offer. He ended up running one of the officers down in the ensuing melee. And oh yeah, he also did a couple of years in prison for arson. Shady enough for you?
So here I am a few years later, and I still have that wonderful BH-2 scope. In fact, I now have seven of them. Not to mention all the various objectives, phase and darkfield condensers, polarizing equipment, and enough spare bits and pieces to fill Noah’s ark. How did this happen? Well, it didn’t take long for me to realize that since the BH-2 scopes are no longer manufactured or supported by Olympus, and since replacement parts are not available, that I’d better make sure I have myself covered for every eventuality. Throw in a liberal dose of the afore-mention passion and obsession, and an enabling microscope friend (3) or two, and it just sort of happened. Oh, did I mention the lab / microscope repair shop in the basement?
The author Carl Hunsinger would be pleased to hear from readers.
1. Sea Life and Bee, Butterfly and Insect Parts.
2. Leica, Nikon, Olympus and Zeiss.
3. Microscope friends are a thing now.
Editor's note: Thank you to Carl for allowing us to share his delightful story on Micscape which he shared on the Amateur Microscopy Facebook group page.
Microscopy UK Front
Published in the June 2017 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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