How Vincent O’Keefe’s quick trip to the beach became a grand journey through time.
People rarely declare they know the meaning of life. So imagine my surprise when I recently bumped into an old friend named Jack who did just that.
Jack had always been a quirky, humorous character, and when I saw him he was doing something I’ve always considered quirky (and nerdy): walking around with a metal detector and a spade. As we quickly caught up on each other’s families, I asked him if he wanted any more children.
“Yeah! Having kids is the meaning of life! Well, that and metal detecting,” he replied.
Vintage Jack, I thought, as I rediscovered how much I’d always enjoyed his odd sense of humor. But as he started raving about the amazing items he had found over the years, it became apparent he was not kidding. In fact, his passion for metal detecting made me reconsider my labeling it “nerdy.”
Around the same time I saw Jack, coincidentally, my daughter Lindsay had been requesting a metal detector for her tenth birthday. I had been resisting due to price and prejudice, but after Jack’s enthusiasm I decided to get her a reasonably affordable detector designed for kids. As with many gifts for tweens, I was doubtful she would use it much.
I was wrong. Ecstatic upon opening it, Lindsay begged that we get started. Feigning enthusiasm, I scanned the manual and our quest began. (My wife had even less interest in this endeavor than me, so she let me fly solo.) Fortunately, we live near several public beaches, which are ideal spots for detecting since people—and their metal objects—come and go and the digging is easy.
As we approached our first beach, I grimaced: Here I was doing something I’d long frowned upon, with a garden trowel in my hand no less. It was a cool day and we had light jackets on, but the trowel was too big for my pockets. I tried to avoid eye contact with fellow families out for a walk, but my daughter was bouncing in front of me, so you do what a parent has to do.
Then, it happened. Our first beep!
“Dad! Dad! We got something!” Lindsay exclaimed. Wow, that was quick, I thought. As I dug the trowel into the sand, I had to admit this was an intriguing development. Maybe we’d find some coins on our first try? Or jewelry? Or even a Native American artifact?
Nope—part of a washed-out beer can. But Lindsay remained excited and implored me to keep everything we found in my jacket pockets to show Mom later. At least we’re helping the litter problem, I reasoned.
A few minutes later, another beep! Dig, dig, another can fragment, this time soda. Then another beep, and a rusty nail. Then another beep, more can shrapnel. By this point, my spirits (and jacket pockets) sagged.
I did notice, however, that several families around us—especially children—were curious about our fishing for gold in the sand. Some were even starting to follow our path and ask if they could help. (Far from unpopular nerds, we were budding rock stars!) The manual said we could use headphones to “prevent the sounds from annoying bystanders,” but the beeps were almost as alluring for kids as ice cream truck music. Almost, of course—let’s not get crazy. Still, our lackluster results continued, and I announced that we’d have to leave soon.
Alas, the next can shard changed everything.
This piece of detected metal featured one of those “old-fashioned” pull-tab openings from my childhood. In those less environmentally aware days, you pulled off the tab at the top with your index finger but then wondered where to dispose of it. If there weren’t a garbage can nearby, the tabs often became litter.
Considering my reaction, you would have thought the pull-tab top of that buried can was Proust’s madeleine. Warm memories of my childhood bubbled over me: R.C. Cola, Faygo grape “pop,” soda mustaches on my siblings, Little League baseball games, fizzy spit-takes with my buddies, my parents taking brown grocery bags from our rusty, wood-paneled station wagon…
“Dad!” Lindsay said, snapping me back to the present. But I knew from that moment, Jack had a point. And maybe those snarky bumper stickers that used to declare “Life’s a beach, then you die” were wiser than I thought.
As my fingers traced the pull-tab opening on that sandy border between land and sea, I knew my daughter was right too: I couldn’t wait to go home and show Mom.
Photo: jeffpearce / flickr