Monday, September 06, 2010

Fortune And Glory

Spent an enjoyable day with my mom yesterday, doing one of the things that we do best: treasure hunting. Our treasure hunting takes on many forms, but of course all of them center around one basic theme: finding The Big One.

I was brought up to be a treasure hunter. Ever since I was a kid, Mom and I have attended various flea markets, antique stores, and auctions. We're looking for things to add to various collections, of course: comix, records and Magic cards for me, Krome-Kraft and other bric-a-brac for Mom. But we also keep our eyes peeled for that One Big Find, the one that, if it won't let us retire in style, will at least bring a hefty profit on eBay. Mom had a good one once, a trumpet purchased at a local auction. She spent, I dunno, maybe a couple hundred for it, but followed its pedigree to discover that it was a super-nice example of a pretty rare horn. When she listed it on eBay she had bidders from all over the world peppering her with questions, including one guy from Europe who claimed that, by the photos at least, the horn she was selling was nicer than the one in his instrument museum. She ended up selling it for several thousand bucks, a-thank yew verrah much.

We got into metal detecting in the later '80s, and spent the better part of a year knocking on the doors of century-old houses in town, asking the owners if we could run the machine over their yard. Perhaps surprisingly we almost always got a "yes," but I think the owners were also hoping for The Big Find, maybe Uncle Henry's buried cigar box of 1933 double eagles. When they saw the (usually) pitiful collection of pull-tabs, rusty toy cars and wheat cents we'd pulled from under their lawn, they generally shrugged and told us to keep it. We got pretty good at finding stuff, but we were late to the party, so to speak. Metal detectors first came to cultish public use in the '70s, and THOSE guys (whom we referred to as "first wavers" with sullen jealousy) could show you coffee cans full of silver halves and class rings. We were happy enough to find Indian cents, an occasional silver dime or quarter, and the rare day-maker like a seated Liberty dime or walking Liberty half.

One time Mom took the detector to some mud piles that had been dredged from the local culvert running through town, and kept stumbling upon little green Coke bottles and the like. She eventually returned the detector to the car and started picking up the bottles. That spawned a NEW fascination with us: bottling. And that's what we spent yesterday doing.

Bottle hunters are a less common breed than metal detectorists, on the whole. There are the guys in super-old cities like New York, who plunge 10-foot long steel rods into the ground looking for (gulp!) old outhouse holes that were typically filled in with bottles. THEY find genuinely old and valuable stuff. Here in Michigan, though, it's mostly looking for old township dumps or trash heaps over riverbanks where folks used to toss their garbage. We started with our OWN trash pile, yes, over the riverbank, the idea being, apparently, that "nature will take care of it." We dug through mountains of rusty tin cans and what appeared to be an entire Model T, in pieces, but we pulled out plenty of bottles too. For a Baptist family that claimed alcohol was The Devil, my dad's parents and grandparents sure seemed to consume their fair share of Frankenmuth Beer!

We've specialized since those days, preferring to keep embossed bottles that once held beer, milk, soda or "medicine." Some of those - like yesterday's bottle that claimed it's contents could "cure consumption and ailments of the liver - are pretty scary. Ditto the Burnett's Cocaine bottle that I once pulled out. Hmmm…cocaine as medicine. Take THAT, Johnson & Johnson! We've never found The Big One, the one that would make the Antiques Roadshow folks do a double back-flip. On the other hand, Mom's kitchen cupboards are topped with lots of things that we found & liked: blob-top beer bottles from Saginaw, Bay City and Grand Rapids. Milk bottles from tons of little dairys all over the Thumb, all of which have long ceased to exist. And, we have a ready source of milk bottles from the old Michigan State College Creamery, in E. Lansing. We had a fair amount of success selling those in the past; a one-pint example got bid up between two "playahs" at Christmastime, and ended up selling somewhere north of $250. But basically it's just an exercise in having a good time, talking to each other, never knowing whether or not the next hint of glass will turn out to be The One that sets you for life. Good times.


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