Most lives include at least a few stories of missed opportunities. Someday I'll tell the whole story of "The Ponton in the Weeds," about a glorious old Mercedes that should have been my first car. Alas.
John Hufnagel, in a Featured Comment to the previous post, mentioned that his brother's associates in Military Intelligence several decades ago bought cheap Polaroids because "government-issued Leicas were 'too hard to use.'"
Reminds me of a little story. (Sorry if I've told this before. I've told all my stories before, I just can't keep track of to whom.)
I went to photography school in Washington, D.C., at the Corcoran School of Art (now called The Corcoran College of Art and Design). The school is right next to the Old Executive Office Building, which is right next to the White House. My schoolwork required me to photograph frequently, and I loved to walk, so naturally I walked all over the city taking pictures.
One day I found myself moseying past the huge Department of Agriculture building on Independence Avenue, on the south side of the Mall, and, as was my wont, I went poking around a bit. Somewhere, somehow, I ran across one of those bulletin boards in a locked glass case. In it was a sheet of paper that said "Public Notice—Surplus Auction." I was a poor photo student at the time, so I thought, hmm, maybe I can score something for cheap that I can use.
So I asked, and was directed to a room somewhere off in the nether reaches of the vast building.
In the room was a paltry collection of the sorriest looking old crap you ever saw. Ancient desks and broken-down desk chairs, heaps of old forms and stationary supplies—I remember a mechanical calculator sitting on a pile of cardboard boxes that looked like it dated from FDR's Administration—and various contraptions and gizmos...spectography plotters, soil sample testers and whatnot. It looked like one of the most unpromising abandoned storage lockers on that show "Storage Wars," only a little neater.
Then I noticed a kind of crisply-made wooden crate barely visible beneath various other crap. It was about the size of a big footlocker.
"What's that over there?" I asked.
The fellow who had let me in shuffled through his papers. "Cameras of some sort," he said. "Navy stuff. There are a bunch of numbers here."Could I see?
The manifest was marked:
US NAVY CAMERA STILL PICTURE KE7A 30 CT NEW, ELCAN f/2 66MM 30 CT NEW
After which was scrawled: "Outmoded, deaccession."
Know what those were?
KE7 was the designation for military M4's. And Leitz lenses—Elcan was Leitz's Canadian facility (they still make Leica lenses there, although now it's owned by Raytheon). Why U.S. Navy? No clue. 66mm? Never heard of that. Why were they at the Department of Ag? Also no clue. The ways of the Federal Government are mysterious.
Could I look? The fellow was amenable to the idea, but when we uncovered the crate a little more, it became apparent that it was screwed together. This discouraged him, and he decided we wouldn't look inside after all. It's funny—the visual of the crate with its top off revealing neat rows of pristine boxes is burned on my brain, but it's a sight I never actually saw. That picture exists just in my imagination.
Curiously, I was excited about my find, but only moderately. I really wasn't into old cameras all that much at the time...I was mostly interested in what I could do with cameras. But I'd seen old Leicas on the used shelves at Penn Camera, where we all bought our supplies, and I thought, well, I wouldn't mind using an old Leica. Especially if it was painted army green. Or navy blue. Or camo!
And if "30 CT" meant "thirty count," as I was pretty sure it did, I thought it would be a hoot, if I actually won the auction, to pass out Navy-surplus Leicas to my classmates for free! I was sure I could keep a few, give a few away, and sell the rest to Penn Camera, and come out the other side with a handy profit in my pocket.
I scraped together every dime I could put together and showed up for the auction.
It was a Thursday, as I recall. The place was dead—there were all of maybe seven citizens in the room. And virtually all of them were interested in the furniture or one of the pieces of technical equipment. (Afterwards, one guy, dressed in 1970s plaid pants, was very excited to tell me all about the great deal he'd scored on a perfectly good whatchamacallit. Did I have any idea what whatchamamcallits were worth? He was very enthusiastic, and told me much more than I needed to know about it. Nice guy, although maybe just a tad off.)
I won the crate of KE7's for $180. I think two other people made tepid bids, just on principle, but their hearts weren't in it.
But then when we were herded down what seemed like a football field's worth of endless corridor to another office to make payment, I ran into a little snag. I was told that my crate had been assigned a minimum of $300. My $180 wasn't good enough; I'd have to pay $300.
Which was fine, except I didn't have $300. I fell about $40 or $50 short of that.
So I commenced one of those exercises in futility with which you might be familiar...trying to reason with a bureaucracy. I had $260, more or less; would that do? No, sir, it says $300, and I don't have the authority—. Could I buy half the contents of the crate for half the $300? No. For the whole $260? No. Who decided on the 300 number? Could I talk to that person? (Right, like that person would be easier to reason with.)
Could I pay what I had and come back later with the balance? Sorry, sir, but the United States Department of Agriculture Requisition and Supply (or whatever it is; I don't remember) is not set up to accommodate layaway shopping for the convenience of citizens.
And so forth, and so on.
So could I just come back later with all the money? She didn't see why not.
Eight days later, I got my paycheck from my part time job, and I showed up back at the Ag Department with $300 in my hot little hand, and high hopes. I had won the auction, after all, and bureaucracies remember details like that.
I got shuffled from one room to the next, one functionary to another. Finally someone found the papers.
The verdict? Failed to sell at public auction. Discarded.
What? Discarded?!? As in, thrown away? When?
Yesterday. I.e., one week from the auction date.
Well, you know how that goes, too. I couldn't quite give up on it right away, but I had to face facts eventually. My crate of Leicas had gone to oblivion.
More's the pity.
Ever since then, from time to time, I think about them. Somewhere, buried deep in one of the landfills around Washington, D.C., there is a well-made, screwed-together wooden crate of brand new, never-used Leica M4's with matching 66mm lenses—poor virgin cameras that never got to take a picture. Slumbering, they are, deep in the Earth.
Another one that got away. To quote my old friend Paul Kennedy, who was a teacher at the Corcoran at the time: "You know what they say: Oh well."
UPDATE from Michael Perini: "Elcan designed the Leica Elcan 66mm ƒ/2 ultra-high resolution lens for U.S. Navy. According to some literature, the lenses were used by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during the Cold War."
More from Japan Camera Hunter. (Thanks to Michael.)
UPDATE #2, April 2: Okay, I admit it—this post is almost entirely fiction. April Fool. Hey, I can't take the day off on two holidays in a row, can I?
I did hear a rumor of a guy scoring some used military Leicas at an Ag Department auction when I was in photo school, but that's as far as the facts go.
How did I do, though? This was my biggest fiction project in a while!
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
LJ Slater: "That's one of the most gut-wrenching stories I've ever heard, and that's no joke! Too bad about the date today, though."
Mike replies: What, are you referring to the fact that it's Otto von Bismarck's birthday?
Dennis: "66mm ƒ/2...the missing portrait lens for APS-C! I can see why you'd still remember that story so vividly. My stories run more along the lines of opportunities that I should have passed up."
Hugh Crawford: "You know that 70mm Combat Graphic I keep going on about? That came from the Department of Federal Property Disposal Assistance at a Signal Corps base that closed in N.Y. in the '70s. I bought that and a 4x5 olive drab Speed Graphic, both in fitted Halliburton cases, plus a Leica M3 with a 50mm Summicron, for six dollars apiece. They had huge piles of them (I later was told that most of the Combat Graphics in existance, 2,000 or so, were in that pile), not to mention 4x5 and 8x10 enlargers in fitted suitcases and so on.
"The only problem was that I could only buy as much as I could carry because I had hitched a ride with a volunteer fire company, and two suitcases plus a Leica was about it. Still have both the Graphics. The Leica got stolen, but I never really liked it. Not bad for $12 though. I went back a couple weeks later with a friend who had a 501c(3) tax exempt organization to do a little more shopping, but they had cleared out the 'camera junk' to make room for thousands of hospital beds."
Mike replies: And you know who designed the Combat Graphic? Hubert Nerwin. No kidding.
Rick Wilcox: "Mike, I was a U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate back in the early '60s stationed in Naha, Okinawa. The base lab had a pretty good compliment of Leica M3's, 4x5 Speed Graphics, and Rolleiflexes. Not a bad lot.
"But one day I discovered, on a back shelf, during a pre-inspection cleanup, the find of the century. A 4x5 Graflex Super D, the original single lens reflex. I was elated. When I looked at it in the light, I noticed a 'F.U.R.' tag on it. That was Navy supply jargon for 'Failure and Unsatisfactory Report.' The tag included a checked box indicating it was earmarked for destruction. This was nuts, I thought. I went to the CPO (Chief Petty Officer) and asked if I could have it. Short answer: no. Fine. Could I buy it from the Navy? No. I was livid. Even then, at 20 years old, I knew this was a collector's item. Still is, or could have been. I went round and round with the powers that be, but to no avail. I watched on the appointed day when that camera, along with several others, were summarily smashed and destroyed with repeated blows from sledge hammers. The hammers were (purposely, I'm sure) yielded by Navy supply depot personnel, who could have cared less about any, and all, old cameras. I ranted and raved about the stupidity of the process and got put on report. I was later scheduled to have a Captain's Mast. I would have ended up spending most of the rest of my enlistment in the brig, had I not come to my senses and 'seen the error of my ways.' I recanted my opinion of my section leaders, was forgiven and sent on my way. That single experience killed whatever thought I had entertained about a military career.
"To this day, I still find it hard to get rid of a camera. All my old, unused cameras are stored inside a built-in bench seat under an upstairs bedroom window in their original boxes with original documents. Not one of them has a tag or sticker resembling a dreaded 'F.U.R.' tag. I guess this could be considered hoarding."
Mike replies: Let's call it "preservation" and call it even, Rick!
Bahi: "Yours was the only April Fool I've fallen for in years. Not only did I believe it, it didn't even cross my mind that it was anything but true. And I read it twice. Shocking."
Mike replies: (*chuckle*)
Chris W: "I was taken in by your tale partly because of a story told to me by a former boss. He was a radio operator in Lancaster bombers during WWII. When hostilities had just ceased, his plane was ferrying supplies across Northern Europe and they got ordered to accept the surrender of a German airbase in Norway. The plane landed at the airbase and the German commanding officer formally surrendered to the skipper. The Germans noticed that the plane crew were smoking and lamented the fact that they had run out of cigarettes weeks ago. It just so happened that the plane was carrying crates of cigarettes as part of its cargo and they agreed to a swap. And what did the Germans have to exchange? You guessed it—a crate of Leicas!"