The first thing you notice is the weight. They’re heavy. And cold, no matter the time of year, even snug inside a weathered leather case.
Looted from a stricken Wehrmacht soldier, so the story held, the German infantryman’s blood stained the satchel. A spoil from the confusing fog of war. Employed by a field general, maybe. Then given to my father by his, a birder.
To children of the sixties, spyglasses were an intriguing treasure. The king in a home full of toy trucks, cars, Jeeps and tanks. Niether G.I. Joes, army men, Major Matt Mason space stations, sporting goods nor slot-car racetracks could compete. Even tropical fish–living within luminous multicolored splendor amid flickering shades of red, blue and green–couldn’t shake the binocular’s seeming riveting allure.
Despite many Europeans’ early lens and magnification innovations, science observes the Netherlands’ Jan Lippershey as the first to build binoculars. History notes the contributions of others, including Ottavio Pinani, Cherubin d’Orleans, Pietro Patroni, Johann Zahn and Lorenzo Selva, but credits Lippershey all the way back in 1608 with the first binocular instrument.
Images, of course, travel through Lippershey’s precision invention straight to the wielder’s eyes. Distant objects assume clarity and focus.
Ours lived on a shelf, above mothball-scented overcoats, in a brown case with a worn matching strap. Opening the fitted brass metal buckle released a distinct musky tinge that finished with a strong leather note deep within your sinuses. Accompanied by umbrellas, winter hats, mismatched gloves and a Keystone projector and its chilly blue-steel reels of dated eight millimeter family films, they commanded the attention of friends navigating our hometown’s somnolent streets on post-war Schwinns, oiled mitts looped on bar ends and fire-branded Louisville Sluggers slung atop handlebars.
Binoculars magnify. That’s what they do. Through their lenses, objects and actions from afar reach the viewer. Distant images rush to meet the observer and appear near, as if now touchable. Fuzzy and blurred subjects far removed from the beholder crystallize, sharpen and develop definition. With ground glass expertly shaped and trained, the optics’ bridled light births brilliance.
In an age of taped, then digitally produced programming, they transmuted live images direct from source to viewer, silently. No batteries. No motor. No mechanical hum.
The few notations are German, the numerals Arabic. And of course, there is no manual. Nor warning labels.
Few tools in life prove more user friendly. Application is self-evident. Draw them to your eyes, balance the large metal flares with three extended fingers, and rotate the eyepieces between thumbs and forefingers.
Of course, adulthood bred skepticism. The belief the stained leather case actually bore a Waffen Schutzstaffel officer’s actual spilled and spent plasma surrendered to the likelihood the case had merely gotten wet sometime in the preceeding decades. And it’s doubtful Allied troop movements, vitiating Blitzkreigs or even tranquil earthen Germanic soil were so much as ever glimpsed through their very prisms by any beholder. Surely, the tale was energetic juvenile hyperbole.
Nevertheless, these lenses indeed swept definitive and historic visions. The moon, as viewed through the stillness of the late July sky in ‘69 as another Ohioan walked its very surface. Skylab plunging angrily through the atmosphere on its fiery Earthen return. President Ronald Reagan stumping for re-election and addressing the faithful inside Bowling Green State University’s Anderson Arena.
They served live witness, too, to the mid-seventies Cincinnati Reds’ legendary lineup–Bench behind the plate, Perez on first, Morgan at second, Charlie Hustle manning the hot corner, Concepcion in the gap and Foster, Griffey and Geronimo roaming the outfield–any true baseball fan must admit would have swept the ‘58 Yankees in four.
Moments from the Cold War fifties, scenes from the psychedelic sixties, and the majesty of the Colorado Rocky Mountains during the bad-hair, and even worse-carpet, seventies.
New technologies enabled more compact designs. The pair’s comparable utility waned in the new-wave eighties. More powerful and less bulky models prevailed. No longer metal, modern designs feature cheap plastic housings and nondescript black nylon travel bags.
They slid to obscurity in the nineties. That decade began with brutal recession and a coalition-led War and that ended with crazed financial managers investing millions in new economy startups boasting baseless business models.
Relegated then to the lonely shelves of a spartan Goodwill, I lost track of the binoculars. Some time before my old man lost his cancer battle and my mother’s victimization by a wayward gene, but after my brother and I moved out, met wives, married and began our own families, they became dispensable, expendable.
Nondescript black plastic binoculars, mass manufactured in Japan, reside in my home’s coat closet. Inside are coats, gloves and a few board games that compete poorly versus action-packed video games for my offspring’s attention. My kids seldom visit the space.
Why would they? There are no vintage projectors, storied treasures nor curiosities arresting of attention. Neither do my children cruise town on bicycles. Too dangerous. It’s a minivan and SUV world now. Ford no longer even sells sedans.
Mastering old eight millimeter films and transferring them to digital files, moving fading images from celluloid to simple ones and zeroes to be translated to light pulses and projected on a high-definition, large-screen, flat-panel monitor bring back the days, if only momentarily, when opening the closet with its grand styled knob of glass opened a story.
Viewing the old films, now mixed with music flooding through six channels of glorious Dolby Digital surround sound, I see the same hall closet. I know, viewing these movies almost fifty years later, what lies behind the door, that door, even though it’s partially obscured from the frame by my family’s Christmas tree still blinking in all its 1971 glory.
The memory triggers a nostalgic panic.
Where once families kept coat racks, formal furniture or even pianos, my family’s crammed a computer. Right in the family room, tucked in a corner. I scramble to the PC there, call up Google, and search “German wartime binoculars” as, across the room, images of my ripping open a Guns of Navarone playset provide the room’s only illumination.
And, of course, it’s only fitting, when happening upon a military memorabilia site where aficionados buy and sell seemingly worthless items for thousands of dollars–instruments of combat, implements of battle, weapons of war–I’m greeted with the same image, the same binoculars, that captured, captivated and arrested attention decades ago. The very same I’d soon see when traveling to Chicago and touring the Museum of Science and Industry.
There, the ever-popular exhibit showcasing the Kriegsmarine’s U-505 captured on June 4, 1944 by the US Navy in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy kept the seizure within one of history’s greatest veils of secrecy. Extraordinary efforts were required to safeguard the vessel’s Enigma cipher machine and knowledge Allied forces were using the machine to break Germany’s incredibly complex codes and hasten the Great War’s end.
Standing in that museum, I placed a hectic phone call to my brother. I warned he wasn’t going to believe what I’m looking at alongside a captured World War II Nazi submarine. Seated in his office during the middle of an otherwise pedestrian workday, he laughs recalling the specs and accompanying childhood tale. Then he reveals the binoculars are safe and still in the family. They’re in his basement.
Later, they’re passed to me. Closer examination subsequently confirms the binocular’s provenance. Based upon encoding the Nazis wielded to hide and protect suppliers’ identities, so important were the instruments’ value to the war effort, Zeiss manufactured this pair for the Third Reich sometime around October 1944. Who knows what actual images and events this pair magnified? The truth is anyone’s guess.
One fact, however, is certain. These dienstglas remain in the family. The binoculars, and their story, are secure. They will not be lost to posterity. They won’t be neglectfully discarded at some forsaken thrift store.
Copyright 2019 by Erik Eckel