Life After Richard Howey

by Joseph B. Kelly



I am well aware of the audacity of this title, and possibly even more so, the audacity of submitting an article to this magazine. While this magazine suggests that it accepts articles from all levels of microscope knowledge and interest, I am only beginning to be an amateur. At the same time I feel strongly about what I am going to share. What I bring to this story is a willingness to participate in activities without really knowing what I am doing. This willingness led me to start playing golf when I was approximately 50 years old and to start playing the violin when I was 55. I am now 67 and I got bored with golf and still play the violin and viola in community orchestras and quartets.

As a child I did not develop an interest in science, or much else, other than being what is today called oppositional and anti-authority. I was one of those young people who came alive academically in college and then got side tracked again until graduate school in my mid 40’s. That was when I began an interest in reading science. So all this leads up to being 67 years old with no real science education but a willingness to follow an interest no matter how crazy other people think it is.

Immediately after Christmas of 2008, I found myself in Chicago with my wife and daughter and her family. My wife and I arrived at the Field Museum in Chicago as it opened for the day. What an exciting place. We wandered through various exhibits before the crowds built up. The exhibits were wonderful. In the lower level of the museum we wandered into and through a permanent exhibit that illustrating the hidden world of under the ground and in the soil. I started out not being overly interested and then became entranced by the activities that illustrated what was going on in the soil at microscopic level. We had a wonderful day and a wonderful visit to Chicago wandering through museums.

On the drive home I said to my wife that I was going to get a microscope and spend some time seeing what I could view. My wife, being a saintly woman of great patience, only raised her eyebrows slightly. She asked me how I was going to start and I told her that our friend Kurt Schmidt who is a retired science teacher had a microscope and he regularly viewed things through them with his grandchildren. I intended to ask him to show me what there was to see. As that sounded a little less crazy than just going out and buying a microscope, she calmly dozed off.

Our friend Kurt was happy to show us what one could see through the two microscopes that he had. One was a stereoscope and one a compound microscope. We looked through both and I was amazed at the world that began to be revealed. We looked at an insect under the stereoscope and at pond scum under the compound microscope. It was fascinating and I was hooked. Now I wanted one for myself. Where did one go to buy one? I looked on the internet and became quickly overwhelmed and I looked locally and was not impressed with the quality. My experience at buying stringed instruments had taught me how vulnerable a person who was just starting out tended to be. I wanted to talk to someone who really knew microscopes.

I mentioned my burgeoning interest to my friend Norman Kjome, who is retired from working in a laboratory at the University of Wyoming. Norman immediately said, “Well I am going to put you in touch with my friend Richard Howey in Wyoming.” I thought, “Oh boy, here we go. I am never going to get a microscope at this rate. Why didn’t I just order one on the internet?” Because Norman is such a great friend I decided to follow through on his contact until at least I got a brush off. Little did I suspect……..

Within 24 hours I received an e-mail from Norm’s friend Richard. Calling this missive an e-mail is accurate, but it does not do it justice. This was a long, extensive treatise on the negative aspects of buying a new microscope as many or most of the lower priced models were made in China or India and not always reliable. In addition Richard made it VERY clear that he recommended people starting with a stereo microscope and that one should look for a used model of one of the older more solid brands. He also suggested that I might want to take a look at this really interesting online magazine called Micscape. Well, to say that I was blown away by the e-mail would be an understatement. This first e-mail suggested looking for a microscope on e-bay and in fact there was a used Olympus on e-bay right then that he would buy himself, except for the fact that he had four of that type. When I read that I could just imagine the eye-rolling in Richard’s living room.

Now, I am relatively inept at using a computer, andI had never used e-bay due to some strong misgivings. I have another friend who has been burned twice with major purchases through e-bay. With some trepidation I called Norman to discuss the situation with him. Norman of course responded that he had already ordered the microscope and if I did not like it, he would keep it for himself. I was shocked, thrilled and amazed, all at the same time. In addition to purchasing the stereo microscope on e-bay, Norman had bought a copy of an out of print book on beginning microscopy from Richard. I was really excited and only marginally aware of the spousal eye rolling that was going on in our modest living room.

While we are not deprived in any way, we do live modestly. One aspect of the spousal eye-rolling was a concern for how much all this was going to cost us. The stereo microscope that Richard had recommended and Norm had purchased was at a very reasonable price. Besides, because it was Norman who had purchased it she could not object. A tactic others could use, by the way. When the Olympus stereo zoom microscope arrived it did not arrive at Normans home, but rather it arrived at the shipping depot approximately 60miles from his home. It would be another week until the delivery could be made to his home. Instead of waiting for the next scheduled delivery, Norman drove the 60 miles in each direction and picked up the microscope. It is beautiful. It is an instrument that speaks of quality manufacture and technical proficiency. I was and am thrilled.

After e-mailing Richard and thanking him for his assistance I received another lengthy reply talking about things that could be done with this microscope and suggesting that I would want to locate 20x eyepieces on e-bay as soon as possible. I was pretty happy with the 10x eyepieces, but I certainly was not going to doubt Richard. I drove my patient spouse almost crazy with constantly running up to the room where the microscope is housed to view various things. Dog and cat hair, various insects and parts thereof and in the middle of dinner I ran off with grains of salt and pepper. Salt by the way is a wonderful starting point for beginning microscope viewing. I left coffee grounds in the machine until colorful growths appeared and then snuck some up to the room to see. The eye-rolling became somewhat more pronounced. I became slightly more secretive in what I was viewing upstairs. After all, there was no need to gross her out. It was in her best interest not to really know.

I was fully aware at this point that Richard’s advice was to spend significant time with the stereo microscope before branching out to other areas of the microscope world. I, however, was not prepared to wait. I wanted to look at pond scum and the rest right now. I e-mailed Richard and asked for some advice on purchasing a compound microscope. I had picked up the term “compound microscope” from the book Norm had purchased from Richard. I was starting to talk the lingo, but without really understanding what it meant. Richard responded to my e-mail question almost immediately with a long missive that once again stated that he did not approve of the newer models and that IF I REALLY MUST HAVE ONE, he was going to put me in touch with a friend of his in Fort Collins, Colorado, who is a microscope technician of the first order. Oh, oh……..I had done it now. I had entered the realm of the professionals and did not know how to get out. The eyes were rolling pretty vigorously at this point.

I sensed that Richard thought I should spend more time with my stereo Olympus before going the next step, so I waiting a full 24 hours before contacting his friend Nik Berrong at Rocky Mountain microscope in Fort Collins, Colorado. I thought I was being very patient and restrained. Nik Berrong was very warm and friendly and said that he had already talked to Richard about me. He asked me how I knew Richard and I sensed that he thought Richard was pretty special and that my knowing him was a fortunate thing for me. I told him the rather long story and admitted that while I really did not know Richard personally that apparently 6 degrees of separation seemed to be a real concept. Nik Berrong is also one of those people that after only a short contact you know you are talking either to a bona fide expert or one of the better con artists in the world. When he talks about microscopes I seem to only comprehend about %25 of what he is saying and probably less of what he actually means.

My discussion with Nik was invigorating because he seemed to be full of knowledge, and disturbing because the main factor in purchasing a microscope seems to be the amount one is prepared to spend. This fact brought disturbing thoughts of the world of stringed instruments. In purchasing a stringed instrument, the quality of the sound is so subjective that it is not directly related to the quality of the instrument . The musician can identify a sound they like, but are rarely in a position to know what the instrument is valued at. Only the dealer knows that. An uncomfortable position I have been in a few times. When Nik asked me what I was prepared to spend my mind said I would like to spend $500 and my mouth said $1,000. I could see the eye-rolling in my mind. I wouldn’t look at her to see what her eyes were really doing. Nik was very understanding and said that he did not carry instruments in that price range but that sometimes one could find things on e-bay for a good price and that he would be willing to keep his eyes open and to advise me on anything that I found. There was absolutely no pressure and no negative judgment. I was devastated. He was so knowledgeable that I really wanted to buy from him.

While my sainted spouse was somewhat relieved , I contacted my friend Norm and put him to work looking on e-bay and I went back to exploring with the stereo microscope and having a good time. I was becoming increasingly aware that reality in the human world is entirely a matter of scale. The fact that we normally did not see scales or hairs or a glossy coating on something did not necessarily mean it was not there. I had talked about this somewhat abstractly in the past, but now I was actually seeing it. When a person looks at sand under the microscope it is very easy to see how the addition of heat to sand results in the formation of glass. My sainted spouse was starting to relax and was enjoying looking through the microscope in spite of herself. She was a little disturbed when conversations between us would often include references to Richard and Nik as if they were old friends. Of course I was keeping up an e-mail conversation with the two of them as I reviewed possible purchases Norm had been unearthing on e-bay.

Needless to say, I was being very patient. After two whole weeks I sat down with my sainted spouse and with sad doggy eyes said that I had some money in my tool fund (I am an amateur woodworker) and what would she think if I put that money into a QUALITY compound microscope? Her first question was “How much quality was necessary to view the things I wanted to view?” This was a tricky question, because of course I could view the things I wanted to see with the less expensive instruments that were made in China and India. I immediately began reminding her of her late father’s philosophy of not buying very much but when one did buy, quality was a paramount consideration. With a gentle, knowing smile, the saint responded with, “You work hard and if you want to buy a QUALITY microscope, go ahead. I just ask you not to go overboard. “ I very carefully did not ask her to qualify what overboard meant.

Later that afternoon I called Nik and asked him what I could get for S2,000 dollars because maybe I could go that high. Nik said he would check his inventory and get back to me. Within 24 hours Nik e-mailed me that he had a rather nice “Fully reconditioned Olympus BHA Binocular Microscope with: WK10X eyepiece set; Quintuple revolving nosepiece on dovetail; RH, Low-Drive, Graduated, Mechanical Stagew/Speciman Holder; Achromatic/Aplanatic Condenser w/Obligue Illumination capability; D plan Achromat Suite (4X, !0X, 40x, and 100X oil); Three 6V-30W Lamp; Dust cover; and Instructions. “ The part I understood was the part about including instructions. Nik also said that he had been using their personal BHA system for 25 years and preferred it over many more expensive systems at their disposal. What is all this about a system, I thought I was looking for a microscope? I was completely sold and called him immediately and said, “Yes I want this.”

What had I done? I just spent $2,000 dollars when I could have spent $500. I went home and was pretty quiet. She never asked and I never said how much I had spent. We settled in to wait for the new baby to arrive. The microscope was shipped to my office so that I was sure someone would be there to sign for it. I had to work the whole rest of the day after delivery was made and you can be sure I was not thinking about work. When I arrived home and brought the box in the house my wife asked if we could please eat first before I disappeared with my new child. I was not sure what she meant but I was careful not to make a fuss as she could have asked me what I paid for it. Nik had given me e-mail instructions for opening the package and it was like unwrapping a Gordian knot. When I finally very carefully cut the last piece of bubble wrap away and took off the dust cover, I was stunned. It was absolutely beautiful in the way only a precision piece of equipment can be beautiful. I would never say that it was as beautiful as a baby, but………. . It was beautiful.

I also found myself absolutely terrified of it. It was so beautiful and looked so complex that I immediately went out of the room and shut the door telling myself that I did not have enough time right then to learn how it operated. The new baby sat for three days until the weekend when my friend Kurt came over and brought the first samples of pond water. Stentors and pond fleas and protozoa and a whole exciting world opened up in a few minutes. Kurt had brought his spouse with him and the four of us spent more than an hour lost in the world in a drop of water. We were all thrilled. Within a couple of days I was frantically e-mailing Richard a description of something absolutely amazing that I had seen. Richard patiently e-mailed back that this was not likely something from outer space but instead was probably a colony of vorticellid. I, of course, can go on and on with the amazing discoveries and thrilling world that has been opened up to me by the kindness and patience of this group of people who have made all this possible. My close friends, Norman Kjome and Kurt Schmidt, along with the amazing microscope man Nik Berrong of Rocky Mountain Microscope Corporation are certainly deserving of special thanks. The magical Richard Howey deserves some special honor from the world of microscopologists for taking the time to communicate with a rank amateur in such a way that a passion is kindled and fanned into life. With friends like these, a life can hardly be anything but filled with joy and wonder.

All comments to the author are welcomed.

Joseph B. Kelly

6725 S. Lakeshore Dr. Cedar, Michigan, USA 49621


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Published in the May 2009 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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