Precious Metal

Unearthing trinkets, buried treasures, and a half-eaten bakery item

SHORTLY BEFORE I got married, a close friend warned that once I was wedded I’d find out things about my husband that would shock me—things that I had never thought to ask or even think about. In her case, after four years with her husband, she suddenly discovered he couldn’t pronounce the word colander.

This came to mind when my husband, Ron, casually announced one day, “I used to have a metal detector.”

I froze. I tried to appear curious, though I’m pretty sure my countenance was actually a rictus of horror. My brain was flooded with images of elderly men in plaid shorts. I imagined their white legs and knobby knees, sandals with black socks, enormous headphones that made them look like geriatric Princess Leias as they waved wand-like devices over patches of dirt, seeking buried treasure. I thought such creatures were mythological.

Oh, please, I prayed, don’t let Ron mean the kind of metal detector you walk through at an airport. That would mean a whole other sort of weirdness.

But there it was. I had been living with a metal detective (detective-ist? detectivor? detectorator?). Good gravy, I didn’t even know what to call such a person.

“Hobbyist. They’re called metal-detector hobbyists,” Ron said, as he waved a copy of the neighborhood paper, which was advertising a hunt for local whatever-they-ares. He was thrilled at the prospect of revisiting his beloved pastime.

“But we’re too young,” I wailed. “We’re only in our forties!”

How fortunate that I’m completely non-judgmental. (Although the virtue does have its downsides, like the burden of judging judgmental people.) All I knew was that somewhere along the way, metal detectives had become punch lines, clichés of eccentricity. And though I may be a Rock of Love addict, and though I may ruthlessly clear an entire sheet cake of its frosting once in a while, I had some dignity to maintain. I managed to compose myself. I was willing (barely) to experience metal-detecting firsthand before I arrived at any damning conclusions. Then I’d condemn the whole thing.

So one Saturday morning, we arrived at a rural clearing where the local detectives club was gathering. A picnic table was arrayed with an assortment of treasures that people had discovered from previous outings: Morgan coins, Depression-glass bottles, screws and nails, small toys, all manner of costume jewelry—a pair of black socks. Before I could say anything, Ron explained that sometimes things are found in the dirt when you’re digging around for the metal object.

I sat in the shade and watched. At the very least, I thought, why couldn’t this activity come with a nice uniform, like golf or tennis? As Ron, who had borrowed a metal detector, set off through the grass, I followed, mincing my way through the field in kitten heels. After a few minutes, he handed me the device and, in exchange, I gave him my fashionable handbag to hold. I began swinging the metal detector like it was a scythe and I was determined to get the harvest in.

“Keep it close to the ground,” Ron said, gently guiding my motions. Soon I was thoroughly focused on a single patch of earth. My handsome, strapping cowboy of a husband stood patiently with my shiny pink purse on his arm as I stared at the ground, awaiting the magical beeeeep that signified a hit. I began to see things I’d never really noticed before: tiny yellow flowers, the graceful entanglement of grasses and weeds, the way humble dirt can sparkle.

Beeeeep. Well, the only thing I hate more than sweating is bending over, so Ron took over, shaking handfuls of dirt through his fingers, smoothing the item over his palm. He held up an aluminum beer cap, then a dime, and a half-eaten pastry.

Hmmmm, an activity that involves beer, money, and bakery items? I was warming up to this detecting thing.

Nearby, someone discovered a partially rusted button, no bigger than the tip of my pinky finger. The folks gathered around us burbled with excitement, and there was speculation that it might be from the uniform of a Union soldier. My husband suddenly explained, in great detail, how a local regiment had once passed through these parts.

Now my consternation was of a different sort. How ignorant I seemed—not just of our country’s history, but of my husband’s knowledge of our history. I began to see those people as amateur historians, with a soupçon of archeologist. They dove right in and got their hands dirty, excited by the mere possibility of discovery.

After a long afternoon, we drove home, our treasures in my purse. (I can’t tell you how hard it was to leave the pastry behind.) It had been a good day for Ron, and he had indeed surprised me. Now if only he could just find something useful, like some stock certificates—or a sofa.