Learning to see

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

“Look here, son,” Daddy said as we waited to walk to Sunday school.

When I came over, he handed me a clear plastic disc.

“A magnifying glass,” I said, looking closer at the measuring worm dangling from his web.

“That lens will do more than magnify,” Daddy said, as he reached up, pulled a dry oak leaf and handed it to me.

“Hold the glass about six inches above this leaf,” he said. Move it around ‘til you throw a picture of the sun on it.”

I turned my back to the sun, held the glass over the leaf and moved the glass away from the leaf. It took me a few tries to get the glass parallel to the leaf, but when I did, a really bright spot appeared, about as wide as the lead on a first-grader’s pencil.

“Don’t stare at that light,” Daddy said. “It will ruin your eyes. “Don’t even look ‘til you smell the leaf burning.”

So I turned away to protect my eyes. Pretty soon I smelled the odor of the oak leaf burning.

“Can I look now?”

“Go ahead,” Daddy said, “but don’t stare.”

Out of the side of my eye I saw the tiny hot spot burn clear through the leaf.

“Always be careful with fire,” Daddy said, putting out the tiny one with his thumb and forefinger.

“Let’s see how long it takes to catch fire,” he said, finding another dry leaf. “I’ll count while you focus the sun on the leaf.”

After I got a sharp image, Daddy counted off the seconds; he got to “one thousand and six” before we smelled fire.

After it burned through the leaf, he put that fire out, too.

“Can I keep the magnifying glass, Daddy?” I asked

“Yes,” he said. “But not right now.” He slipped the magnifying glass back in his pocket. “What did you learn here?” he asked.

“That a magnifying glass can burn a leaf?”

“Yes,” he replied. “What else?”

“It threw a picture of the sun on the leaf?”

He nodded.

“And it magnified the strength of the sun.”

“By focusing the sun’s image on the leaf,” he smiled.

After that, my sisters came, and we all walked to Sunday School.

About a year later, Daddy learned that the moon was going to eclipse the sun, so we tried to make a looking glass by smoking up a piece of clear glass, but when we couldn’t get the glass black enough with the smoke from a kerosene lamp, Daddy said we would have to miss the eclipse.

“Our eyes are too fragile,” he said.

“Like a leaf?” I queried.

He laughed. “Just like a leaf,” he said. “The lens of your eye would focus the sun on the back of your eye and burn it in. Then you might lose your sight.”

When I was just a child, I found Daddy’s eyeglasses on the mantel and put them on, even though the earpieces ran way past my ears. I put on his shoes on that day too.

Although Daddy’s size 12s were much too big for me, I could walk in them, despite the fact they slid back and forth on my feet — but I could not wear his glasses, because they made my stomach queasy as my eyes tried to level out the tilt in the floor. When I told Daddy what I had done, he said wearing the wrong lenses was not good for my sight.

When I was in the 10th grade, I decided I needed some glasses of my own.

“Why?”my parents asked.

“My head hurts when I read.”

So Daddy took me to an eye doctor. When I told the kids at school where I was going, they said the eye doctor looked like Cary Grant, drove a Lincoln, and owned a house on the lake, and was said to have lots of girlfriends.

We found his office fitted with carpeted floors, leather chairs and piped-in music. His assistant, who looked like a movie star, got our names, then issued us back to one of the private waiting rooms. I wondered if she was one of the doctor’s girlfriends.

When the doctor came in, he looked like Cary Grant, right down to the glasses.

“What’s going on with your eyes?” he asked.

“My head hurts when I try to read,” I answered

“You definitely need glasses,” he said.

In the examination room, Dr. Cary had me sit in the chair beside his measuring machine to read letters from a chart on the wall, then he pivoted his refractor so that I could look into it. It was fitted two discs, with six or eight lenses for each eye. He had me place my chin in the strap, twirled lenses and made clicks as he examined my eyes.

“Is this clearer … or this? “This or this?” he asked, then wrote numbers on a pad as I answered. After he finished, he moved to his desk and transferred his notes to another pad.

“Here is the prescription for your new glasses,” he smiled. “My assistant will help you choose your frames.”

She helped me with at least six pairs before I finally chose the dark rims, which made me look like Cary Grant. The lab would need a week to grind my lenses, then I could come back and have my new glasses fitted. Daddy paid the bill before we left.

When I tried on my new glasses, the image in the mirror looked even better than I had remembered, but when I took them off, looked around, I couldn’t tell the sharpness of his assistant’s eyes changed at all. I put my glasses on again, with the same result. That I needed glasses, I was sure. But after wearing them for a week, my headaches had not gone away.

“What’s going on here?” I thought to myself.

I found out when I rode with Daddy to have his blood pressure checked. This doctor’s office had the words “James Osmond, M.D.” and “Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat” on the window.

After Daddy and Dr. O. finished talking about high blood pressure, Daddy mentioned that I had new glasses.

“Oh?” Dr. Osmond asked. “Do you mind if I look at them?”

When I handed them over, he placed the lenses under an instrument that looked like a microscope.

“Hmm,” he said as he examined my right lens. “One-fourth of a diopter.”

“Hmm,” he said as he examined the left one. “One-fourth of a diopter.”

“What does one-fourth of a diopter mean?” Daddy asked.

“It means both lenses have no more magnifying power than window glass. “

“Not much correction?”

“Virtually none,” he said, then turned to me.

“Eyeglasses should be both aesthetic and practical,” he said “Yours are in the former group.”

Then he turned to Daddy, “Could I ask who prescribed these?

Daddy told him.

“These glasses are useless,” Dr. O said. “And the doctor who prescribed them should be reported.”

He handed the glasses back to me.

We didn’t report Dr. Grant, of course. But I stopped wearing my glasses right after that, because lenses were not what I needed to take away my headaches. A one-half dab of mentholatum under each nostril at night for a few weeks, took care of that.

Learning to see took much longer.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.


Leon Smith

Contributing columnist