When the World Came Into Focus — Literally

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I was talking to a nephew the other day. We were comparing notes about the first time we put on glasses and saw the world in it all its beauty. Both of us were about the same age — 8 years old. For me, that means a half-century of wearing spectacles. Without them, I am at the mercy of errant barbers who take off my glasses before the trim and then ask me what do I think about the results. How would I know? Children can make funny faces at me with aplomb. In fact, pretty much anything much beyond arm’s length is a blur without glasses.

Years ago, I read “The River of Doubt,” a nonfiction account of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing 18-month journey down a tributary of the Amazon that had never been explored. He was 55 at the time and was trying to recover from losing a presidential campaign running as a third-party nominee under the Bull Moose label. Author Candice Miller at length describes TJR’s famous near-sightedness, which made him a mediocre marksman at best.

I looked a passage back up the other day, what Roosevelt said about the first time he put on glasses, and the world came into focus. Those glasses, he wrote, “literally opened an entirely new world to me. I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles.”

Fifty years ago last fall, I experienced that same feeling of clarity. I was an eight-year-old third grader. My teacher figured out I couldn’t see the blackboard unless I sat in the front row. She advised my parents to take me to an optometrist.

I sat in an imposing medical chair, my legs not long enough to even bend down over the curve of the seat. I could hardly find the eye chart on the opposing wall, let alone read all but the largest black “E” at top, maybe a row or two lower. He went through the routine while flipping lenses in front of my eyes, one by one. “Is this sharper? Or this one?” This was a test I was intent on passing.

Getting eyeglasses in 1963 took a while, like most anything of substance. About a month later, my mother announced my glasses were ready. They were brown-plastic horn-rims, likely the least expensive on the racks. My parents were frugal by necessity. The optician put the specs on my tiny nose, made minor adjustments, pronounced me ready to see the real world.

It was late September in Concord, N.H., the picturesque city in which I was born and still cherish visiting. The leaves were beginning to turn, since autumn gets a minimum month-long head start on the season here in East Texas. Foliage season in New England is over by mid-to-late October, unless autumn has been unusually mild. Here, where the foliage isn’t as spectacular but still appreciated, it’s more of a near-Thanksgiving event.

I walked outside the optometrist’s office, which was in downtown Concord, a few blocks from the golden-gilded Capitol dome. My maternal grandfather ran a Shell station maybe 100 yards away, where I loved to hang out. My godfather owned the town’s leading drug store nearby. I looked upward with my new glasses and became nearly dizzy. The beauty of those leaves turning apple-red, squash-yellow, and burnt orange, took my breath away.

I soon learned the high price of being careless with my glasses. Our crazed Airedale named Willie once ate a pair — lenses and all. That left me squinting for at least a week before another set could be secured. I lost another pair in the surf at Galveston, while on a Boy Scout trip after we moved to Texas. That earned me the wrath of my mother because of the cost — notwithstanding the miserable few days left on the trip when I couldn’t really see how much fun everyone was happening.

Like Teddy Roosevelt and untold numbers of myopic children before and since — including my nephew — I was amazed to actually see the world’s beauty, which heretofore seemed a bit fuzzy. I enjoy wearing glasses. At night, when I’m tired and the world is weighing down, I can put them aside and go to sleep. And the burdens of the world become fuzzy and indistinct.


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