Let There Be Light

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

Let There Be Light

It's the latest in evening wear, and the world will never be the same
By Randy Wayne White

I was surprised it wasn't easier to convince my old friend Elston that if he joined me in purchasing night-vision goggles, not only would his own pathetic existence be considerably revitalized, but he could also assist me in pioneering traditionally dark venues and revolutionizing outdoor recreation, not to mention the quality of American life as we know it.

"Too much money," Elston said. "If I want to see at night, there's a thing called a flashlight."

I found his attitude disappointing. I had known Elston since high school, and he was never one to shy from experimentation. Indeed, it was precisely because of his love of experimentation that, in the freaky days of the early seventies, we embarked on different paths. I chose a wholesome, productive life and went to work. He chose a beat-up Volkswagen Microbus and went to Berkeley. I'm not going to sit here and accuse an old friend of living in communes and collaborating with hippie scum, although I suspect that's just what Elston did. Nor am I going to accuse him of ingesting many dangerous and illegal chemicals--although, even now, his eyes narrow if an Advil bottle so much as rattles in the next room.

I won't accuse him of any of these things, because an unfair God has allowed Elston--along with many of his counterculture accomplices--to become a respected member of his community, a man of property and portfolios and serious administrative perks. Elston lives in an exclusive Florida yacht club enclave. He leases his vehicles. He attends functions.

I had the catalog open, showing him the goods. "Night-vision capabilities," I told him. "We've been waiting for this all our lives. They sell binoculars, monoculars, high-resolution weapon scopes. They've even got border guard field glasses."

But I was most interested in the MPN 35K night-vision goggles with the infrared illuminators, the ones once used by Soviet tank commanders. "Easy hands-free operation," I told Elston. "A superb night optics system. Strap them on your face and night becomes day." Because I thought it might awaken his old pinko sympathies, I added, "All this stuff is imported from Russia. Approved by the politburo."

Elston spent a few minutes scanning the catalog before saying, "Those poor bastards. Their marketing instincts are even worse than yours." He tossed the catalog aside and said, "I'm in the mood for some Ben & Jerry's. Have you tried the new Cappuccino Chocolate Chunk? I hear the president loves it."

I felt like slapping the man. "Gad!" I said. "I'm trying to help you here. Expand your consciousness. With a pair of night-vision goggles we could...we could do things we've never done before."

"Yeah?" Elston said. "Like what?"

I cast about for just the right approach, discarding perfectly reasonable activities like viewing nocturnal wildlife, spying on neighbors, turning out the lights and scaring the hell out of party guests. Finally, I settled on a scenario that was guaranteed to provide maximum leverage. I said, "We can go out in the boat at night and sight-cast to fish."

Elston was an enthusiastic and gifted flats fisherman, and I could see that I had struck a chord. "Fly-fish at night?"

"Exactly. I've never heard of anyone who's tried it. Not with night-vision goggles. As a professional outdoorsman, I feel it's my duty to blaze the trail."

"You know," he said, mulling it over, "most of your ideas are idiotic--but this one has potential." The coast of southern Florida, he noted, had become one big floating zoo. "Every time I go out," he said, "some yahoo runs across my fish, or there's already somebody on my spot. It seems like every yuppie in the world has bought a fly rod and a flats boat."

"But at night," I said, "we'd have the bays and the creeks all to ourselves. Most of those guys are afraid to go out at night. Plus, isn't that when you people attend functions? All we have to do is strap the goggles on and, presto, we'll be able to see tarpon rolling. Or take them to your ranch in Montana and sight-cast to trout."

In a more businesslike tone, I added, "When you think about the hours a night-vision system will add to your recreational day, it's a damn good investment. Very sound."

Elston was making a gesture of dismissal. "Would you quit worrying about money?" he said. "I'll just put it all on the platinum card."

As it turned out, some of my plans for the night-vision goggles weren't exactly revolutionary. Kimberly Johnson, vice-president of marketing for Moonlight Products, the country's largest importer of Russian optics, broke the bad news to me. "People have used them for all kinds of things," she told me from her San Diego office. "Bird-watching, camping, night hiking. Since Russia started producing affordable night-vision systems, they've become extremely popular." But then Johnson wanted to know: "Why did you think people bought them?"

I told her that I had the vague impression that they were used by militia groups and goofy paramilitary types.

"No," she replied. "A lot of people buy them so they can keep an eye on their property at night. But mostly they buy them for recreational use." She said her customers have used tanker goggles for cross-country skiing and mountain biking, among many other sports.

"How about for scaring the hell out of party guests?" I asked.

"Probably--they're pretty popular with the Hollywood types."

Damn, I thought, and then offered up my fishing idea.

Johnson seemed confused. "The optics systems can't see through water," she said. "Not unless it's clear. Don't fish live in deep water?"

It was the typical response of someone who has spent too many years in California. I explained to her that, in tropical littoral areas known as flats, big gamefish, such as tarpon, often moved into shallow water to feed. It was not unusual to catch hundred-pound fish in water that was less than four feet deep.

"In that case," she said, "you should be able to see the fish at night, too. It's just such an unusual idea. I've never heard of anyone doing that before."

It was also Johnson who gave me a brief tutorial on how the goggles work. You don't really look through a night-vision scope, she told me. Instead, what you see is an electronic image on a phosphor screen. At night, an image intensifier draws in all available light (stars, moon, streetlights) and amplifies it thousands of times. The first night-vision devices, she explained, were developed for snipers during World War II. They were "active" systems that required an infrared illuminator and a detector that converted the infrared light into an image visible to the human eye. It was during the Cold War years that the U.S. military developed passive light-amplification systems. Today, the United States is still the leader in night-vision technology, but the third-generation American systems are expensive--anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000. So it is Russia, with its cheap labor and capitalism-happy excommie exporters, that has finally made night-vision technology affordable. The MPN 35K tanker goggles sell for only $999 a pair.

Johnson told me a lot of other stuff, too, using words like "photo cathode" and "microchannel plate" that meant nothing to me. But I had all the information I needed. I was going to be the first to use night-vision goggles to fish for tarpon. I was going to revolutionize my sport. America was waiting.

The first thing Elston did when our goggles arrived was pull the blinds and turn out the lights. As I hastened to get my face mask adjusted, I could hear him padding around in the darkness. His cook, Laurita--the poor lady--was with us at the time, and I listened to her speak in a nervous, pleading tone: "Is that you, Mr. Elston? I can't see...anything. You're scaring me, Mr. Elston!"

I heard a wicked little laugh, and then moments later I felt a hairy hand grab my shoulder. "Boo!"

I elbowed Elston's hand away. "You idiot! You almost made me swallow my gum!"

"Wow!" Elston said. "What a rush! I can see your aura, man!"

I was fighting to get my goggles on, but somehow I'd gotten the straps all wrong. "Knock it off, Elston. You're starting to scare Laurita."

I heard Laurita's voice: "Why is he acting so strange, Mr. Randy? Please, may I turn on a light?"

I finally got my own goggles in place. I hit the power switch and flipped the binocular caps off, and the room was instantly illuminated. It was like viewing the world through a psychedelic tunnel bathed in a jade-bright glitter. Hit the infrared switch, and a powerful beam swept back and forth with the turreting of my head. The walls of the kitchen seemed oddly bent and slightly out of focus. But I could see Elston plainly enough, looking like some spooky cyborg. Laurita was across the room, her back pressed against the counter. Her eyes were Polaroid white, and her lips were pulled back in a terrible grimace.

I said, "Laurita? Here's some advice. One: Grab a skillet. Two: Don't swing unless you're sure it's Elston."

Several nights later, when we were out in his high-tech flats skiff, goggles in place, Elston said, "Sight-casting to tarpon--this'll be easy!"

It wasn't. Not at first, anyway. We couldn't seem to get the things focused properly. Turned out there were four focus adjustments, not two, as I had assumed. It also turned out that there was a slide device for adjusting the distance between the eyepieces to match the width of the user's face. All of this was key to the user's enjoyment--particularly when the user was being rocketed at 40 miles per hour through twisting creeks in the middle of the night.

One thing I didn't like about the goggles was the way they reacted to an unexpected burst of channel-marker lights or even to house lights on the mainland; to each incandescent bulb the goggles added the illusion of a streaking meteor's tail, a fiery arc that shocked the eye.

Once, when Elston noticed me clawing at my face in an effort to get the damn goggles off, he said soothingly, "Hey! Just ride it out. Be mellow. I've been through this hundreds of times. Don't panic--that's the main thing."

Yes, Elston was right at home in that hellish world of starbursts and swirls. Even so, our first two attempts at fishing with the goggles were complete busts. Worse, we were nearly killed when a cruiser came speeding down on our lightless boat. I had to shove Elston from the controls and run the skiff onto a sandbar--a brilliant maneuver that, typically, he did not understand or appreciate. I had to explain to him: "Just because we can see them doesn't mean they can see us, you nimrod!"

By our third trip, however, I was beginning to feel comfortable. It was a moonless night with bright stars. As Elston steered, I sat with the goggles in my lap, looking at the charcoal hedge of islands and the void beyond. Then I put the mask on: The islands became distinct entities with individual mangrove trees; the void became a bright expanse of water and unlighted channel markers. On one of the islands, I watched raccoons foraging. On another, I saw a colony of roosting frigate birds.

Elston ran us within 50 yards of a school of tarpon and then poled us closer while I waited on the bow with my rod. I heard the fish before I saw them--tarpon often make a hushed gulping sound when they breach the surface. Then I could see the fish plainly: chrome-bright animals with wild, horse-size eyes, everything hazed in green light.

It was an extraordinary experience, all the stranger because Elston had brought along a tiny laser pointer that presumably he used at board meetings. Without the goggles, the beam was invisible. With the goggles, though, the laser became a pencil-thin conduit that was perfect for targeting individual fish.

"Isn't this great?" he kept whispering. "You want to talk about mind expansion? This is mind expansion."

It was certainly weird. As the fish moved through the shallow water, they created sparkling wakes of bioluminescence. The goggles magnified the glitter, so casting to the tarpon was like casting to fish that lived among the stars.

I felt a nudge and saw a gigantic, nebulous swirl. I pivoted hard, feeling the gathering weight and velocity of an unseen fish. And then I was watching a four-foot-long tarpon tail-walking away from the boat, slinging water that was a molten gold. As the fish ran, I yelled to Elston, "Didn't I tell you? Things will never be the same again!"

Elston hooted. Then I heard him say, "Revolution, man!"

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