After I read The Field Book of Ponds and Streams several times, I longed for a microscope. Everybody needed a microscope. Detectives used microscopes, both for the FBI and at Scotland Yard. Although usually I had to save my tiny allowance for things I wanted, that year for Christmas my parents gave me a microscope kit. In a dark basement corner, on a white enamel table, I set up the microscope kit. I supplied a chair, a lamp, a batch of jars, a candle, and a pile of library books. The microscope kit supplied a blunt black three‑speed microscope, a booklet, a scalpel, a dropper, an ingenious device for cutting thin segments of fragile tissue, a pile of clean slides and cover slips, and a dandy array of corked test tubes. One of the test tubes contained "hay infusion." Hay infusion was a wee brown chip of grass blade. You added water to it, and after a week it became a jungle in a drop, full of one-celled animals. This did not work for me. All I saw in the microscope after a week was a wet chip of dried grass, much enlarged. Another test tube contained "diatomaceous earth." This was, I believed, an actual pinch of the white cliffs of Dover. On my palm it was an airy, friable chalk. The booklet said it was composed of the siliceous bodies of diatoms--one‑celled creatures that live in, as it were, small glass jewelry boxes with fitted lids. Diatoms, I read, come in a variety of transparent geometrical shapes. Broken and dead and dug out of geological deposits, they made chalk, and a fine abrasive used in silver polish and toothpaste. What I saw in the microscope must have been the fine abrasive‑grit enlarged. It was years before I saw a recognizable, whole diatom. The kit's diatomaceous earth was a bust. All that winter I played with the microscope. I prepared slides from things at hand, as the books suggested. I looked at the transparent membrane inside an onion's skin and saw the cells. I looked at a section of cork and saw the cells, and at scrapings from the inside of my cheek, ditto. I looked at my blood and saw not much; I looked at my urine and saw long iridescent crystals, for the drop had dried. All this was very well, but I wanted to see the wildlife I had read about. I wanted especially to see the famous amoeba, who had eluded me. He was supposed to live in the hay infusion, but I hadn't found him there. He lived outside in warm ponds and streams, too, but I lived in Pittsburgh, and it had been a cold winter. Finally, late that spring I saw an amoeba. The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park; it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was as blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere. Before I had watched him at all, I ran upstairs. My parents were still at table, drinking coffee. They, too, could see the famous amoeba. I told them, bursting, that he was all set up, that they should hurry before his water dried. It was the chance of a lifetime. Father had stretched out his long legs and was tilting back in his chair. Mother sat with her knees crossed, in blue slacks, smoking a Chesterfield. The dessert dishes were still on the table. My sisters were nowhere in evidence. It was a warm evening; the big dining‑room windows gave onto blooming rhododendrons. Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life. In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or rock collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill. When I left the dining room that evening and started down the dark basement stairs; I had a life; I sat to my wonderful amoeba, and there he was, rolling his grains more slowly now, extending an arc of his edge for a foot and drawing himself along by that ` foot, and absorbing it again and rolling on. I gave him some more pond water. I had hit pay dirt. For all I knew, there were paramecia, too, in that pond water, or; daphniae, or stentors, or any of the many other creatures I had read about and never seen: volvox, the spherical algal colony; euglena with its one red eye; the elusive, glassy diatom; hydra, rotifers, water bears, worms. Anything was possible. The sky was the limit.
--Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
Yes! So similar to my own experience I actually, literally gasped in astonishment when I read this passage a few years ago!
I hadn't asked for a microscope as a Christmas present, but my ever-indulgent parents, caught up in the "science toys are GREAT gifts for children and by encouraging YOUR child's interest in SCIENCE you will help America DEFEAT the ever-growing COMMUNIST MENACE" thinking of the early '60s, bought me a nice little Tasco number:
I am not exaggerating when I say the microscope changed my life.
My father built me a little workbench in the corner of our laundry room and it was there, armed with a relentless curiosity and a copy of Hunting With the Microscope, that I discovered worlds within worlds within worlds.
Oh, sweet Crom, the hours I spent looking at things most people never suspected were out there. I rooted around in, well, unspeakable things. And yes, I saw the fabled amoeba and yes, my parents were perfectly content to sip their coffee, acknowledge my enthusiasm, and go about their business while I went about mine (actually, Mom, uh, preferred not to know what I was looking at and from whence it came after I showed her the... things... living in the water supporting her plant cuttings).
Soon thereafter a chemistry set became an integral part of my basement laboratory:
(and here's some trivia: my Uncle John's family was the "Porter" in Lionel-Porter)
I wound up becoming a hard-core biology geek--through junior high, through high school, through college and grad school*, never abandoning the "screw simulations; let's-get-dirty," hands-on, interactive approach fostered by hours alone in a basement room looking for and staring at the next neat thing.
It was a great way to spend my time.
These days I make a living preparing microscope slides for other people. Sad to say, I rarely get to look through one anymore.
* where I, uh, graduated (ahem!) to electron microscopes.