The glossy hunting catalogs of this still-new century are full of pages touting the wonder of German optics. Clarity! Precision! Workmanship! I’m sure glossy catalogs for yachtsmen and bird watchers and private eyes contain the same spiel.
Binoculars, for instance — you can, with perfect fidelity, observe which Dall sheep is the trophy, spot keel-wrecking shoals, watch birds, or spy on nude extra-marital romps, all for a most reasonable four figures. Twice as much as my grandfather paid for his 1937 Plymouth sedan before the Second World War. Half as much as I paid for my 1964 Plymouth Barracuda in the early going of the Vietnam Conflict.
“It’s only numbers,” a successful friend of mine told me once when I complained that I would never understand economics. A pack of cigarettes costs more than a carton did when all my friends and family smoked, for example. If it’s only numbers, then the whole inflation thing is a racket by the haves to screw with us have-nots. But we knew that anyway, didn’t we?
But this is really about a certain pair of magical German binoculars that didn’t cost me a dime and yet exhibited all the advertised glories of the class. German engineering! Teutonic precision! Aryan superiority!
That last term has submerged like a skulking U-Boat beneath the waters of political correctness, but we can read between the lines, can’t we? I once had a landlady of German extraction, a warm, funny, shrewdly observant woman who did me many kindnesses. Once she summed up the minuses and pluses of a situation under discussion with breath-taking speed and objectivity. I said in a kind of awe, “Ruth, Germans are what we had before we had computers.”
I think I hurt her feelings, though I meant it admiringly.
My admiration for things German began with the war trophies my GI father and uncles brought home from the Second World War for me to play with. The quality of leather and laces fitted inside my Nazi helmet to adjust it to the wearer’s head was superior to American baseball gloves. Pirsig, who equated motorcycle maintenance with Zen, argued that quality exists first, before anything else, including the recognition that it exists. I couldn’t have defined quality on a bet at my young age, but the dead man’s helmet-webbing spoke it through my fingers.
The trophies represented a kind of circle of life and death. The Bosch took my grandmother’s fiancée with mustard gas when she was a teenager. Her sons by her subsequent husband, whose veins coursed with unreconstructed North Carolina Cherokee blood, brought her trophies as the equivalent of scalps for the lodge pole. She liked to open mail with the JugendKorps dagger whose late owner had no more use for it. Don’t think young children don’t understand these dark currents beneath the surface of daily things.
I could go down the list of well-made items, knife by camp stove by canteen, but my grandmother’s war-trophy binoculars would top it. I liked to sit in the living room and watch cars go by out on Walton Way through the totemic binoculars. American productivity and dogface doggedness had trumped Aryan superiority when it counted. With the extreme hubris of the very young I had no doubt that the Soviets would be next to bite the dust, with our D-Day general in the White House.
Cars were worth looking at. New Studebakers that looked to me like they should go both ways at once; vast Kaiser-Fraisers, big as land yachts; full-size convertibles like the blue Plymouth one of my uncles owned, elegant as a Chris-Craft speedboat; shark-sleek Mercurys, dark and fast; and all the high-wheeled white-sidewall prewar classics that still were in service, typified by Packard.
Because I was very young I thought it was cool to watch this passing parade through the wrong end of the magic binoculars. Somehow that was more fun than watching them the right way. Even backwards, every miniature detail of the cars was perfectly transmitted by those superior German optics. It was like an ever-changing matchbox-car movie.
Far, far away down the dark tunnels of the binocular tubes, the tiny cars passed before my eyes. I noticed that for some reason each time one of the cars reached the center of the focal plane, its chrome and paint would glint in the sun. It was as if a heliograph from another dimension was wink-winking some special secret message just to me. I never tried to decode the message. I liked it that the signals were cryptic.
The first time my family went to Florida on vacation, I saw cars driving on the wide white sand beach. I loved the ocean and the beach and seagulls and everything about the coast. Back home when I got out the binoculars, I could sit there and imagine I was watching cars on the beach, looking through space and time like Prester John in Africa looking through his magic mirror. It took very little effort for my ears to conjure the thump of surf on the sand where the cars were dispatching their signals to me. Sometimes I could hear the cry of sea gulls very faintly.
Sometimes the living-room curtains three hundred miles from the Florida beach would stir gently with the onshore wind, and I would smell salt.
Maybe the long-vanished German who built them was not only a craftsman, but a wizard.