Thursday, January 26, 2012

Happy Dirtday (be forewarned: not the usual recap...)

50 some-odd years ago tonight, I hurtled head-first through the body of a woman who did not want me.

She tried, she really did. There were times she did the best she could, times when she was wondrous (I think... it might have been an act) and times she really just fucked it up altogether. Ultimately, when I was 22, she quit being my mother; she resigned; she cut me loose. I haven't seen her in over 30 years.

It was early in the morning on January 27th when I was born in Mt.  Sinai Hospital in New York City. And every year, right about now, if I'm awake – and I usually am – I sense (or imagine) a gentle wrinkle in the air, a tiny flaw in the denseness of time, that causes me to feel close to her again and sadness falls upon me like an annual shawl. It doesn't last.

About 20 minutes ago I went to bed. I stared up wide-eyed at nothing, knowing I had to just get up and write this down.

See, Dirt Girl Unleashed is where I get to figure out what it means to dig in the dirt. Why I do it.

My mother was with me the first time I did this. I was maybe 11 years old and we were down near the South Street Seaport, before it got all gussied up. I don't know why we were there. She was just really fascinated with the oldness of the area and wanted me to be fascinated too. And so I was, because I loved her wildly and I was a wide open child.

As we were walking back to the bus along the cobblestoned streets – there was no one around – I saw a hole in the ground, a small construction site. There must have been some traffic cones, but I don't remember. I just knew I wanted to go down there. Could I? She said I could.

I climbed down into the hole and began digging into the side, down below the street. There was stuff in there. Pieces of porcelain, bits of broken iron pots, curves of old, blown glass, brick, all kinds of stuff from early New York, all churned up and packed down and paved over. Excitement. I grabbed what I could and brought it home. I cleaned it up and showed it to anyone who came over.

We had a huge dictionary in our apartment – maybe the Oxford? It was housed in a stiff, cardboard box and in the top of the box was a small drawer that held a magnifying glass. That's where I kept the pieces of Old New Yorke. They're probably still in there.

Last night, I dreamed about that apartment. My mother and I were living there again, together. It was neither good nor bad, just neutral. But I looked up at the ceiling and saw that the place where the walls met the ceiling was twisted and cracked. There were other cracks too, along the floors. Soon, it would all fall down.

Tomorrow, to celebrate my birthday, I will go out into the countryside with some good buddies and turn on my machine and walk slowly through fields and forests. If we're lucky, we'll come across the remnants of an old home, or a Civil War encampment. And when I hear the signal, I'll get that sweet rush – yes, I know: serotonin – and dig down and see what the ground has for me. And I'll hold that bullet or that thimble or that button in my hand the past will thrill through me as if I'm standing too close to a bell.

And somehow, what's lost is found.

Monday, January 23, 2012

One Man's Trash...

I was going to talk about trash, since that's mostly what I dig. But this weekend's hunts uncovered a different sort of refuse and I kind of fell in love with it.

Saturday I was on my own, right here in Inglewood. Drove over to the next street where my mailbox flyers (“Hello! I'm a crazy lady! Can I come metal detect your property?”) had resulted in permission to hunt two huge yards owned by a very nice woman and her sister-in-law. I'll be working on these yards for a good while; they're that big.

Started out in back, where the owner said her son had lost his high school ring about 40 years ago. I was very excited about this until she mentioned that they were pretty sure they'd built a garage over the area where he lost it. I checked the entire perimeter of the garage, but only got triangular snippets of aluminum siding, which I hate with an almost terrifying rabidity.

The owner's great-granddaughter, a very self-possessed young lady, came out to help me and I found myself begrudgingly handing over a couple of old toys and interesting iron thingies I dug up. She really was quite persuasive, with her little bangs and fashionable attire. Apparently, this child does commercials and I can see why. I was about to give her my Tesoro Cibola and just go home. (She actually was very helpful and polite, holding my shovel and all. I do love digging with kids.)

Then I dug this.

Whit Hill, Junior Sheriff.
Don't mess with me.

Ooh, she said, I think I'm keeping that!
Hmmm. I said. Now, let's talk about it. What are you going to DO with it? Won't it just sit in a box in your room? 

(My internal monologue: It's MY JUNIOR SHERIFF BADGE! MINE! GIVE IT! MOMMMM!)

Luckily for all involved, the young lady saw my logic. Soon after, she got cold and went back inside. I spent a long time excavating a very deep hole. Dang, it was deep. Found a lot of burned wood in the bottom. I think it was a campfire or something. Very strong signal tho: the lid of some kind of large can. And, as so often happens, I filled the hole while muttering, What Am I Doing Out Here?

Dug a lipstick and a penny and went home, sore and grumpy.

Sunday, Cheryl was fighting a cold, so Doug and I headed out to dig. Destination: downtown Nashville,  an area behind the new convention center. The lot was maybe an acre and had just been bulldozed: dark, dark mud, filled with broken pavement and bricks. There was another guy there detecting but I didn't mind. Actually, this was my first experience of urban construction-zone detecting and I was glad for the company. For the record, I would never have done this alone.

The first thing I noticed, as we started sweeping the area with our detectors was that there, in the gross, sticky, asphalty mud, were thousands of pieces of crockery. Flowers, colors, beautiful glazes, graceful shapes. It was like being at the beach, picking up shells. I couldn't stop myself.

Here's a sampling. 

Pretty blue flowers
So delicate...
Whatever this once was, it was big.

Bone china?
Oh! I've forgotten to mention the bottles! I'm not a bottle collector, but that could change. I couldn't just leave them there...
The tall one says "Dr. W.B. Caldwell's Syrup Pepsin"

Metal-wise, I didn't do very well. I was trying out a new machine that I didn't know how to use and it was on fire, with constant signals. When I thought I had a good one, I found I just couldn't dig with my usual Home Depot mini-shovel. I needed more of a pitchfork approach in this stuff. In truth, I just wasn't physically strong enough to hunt this site. The only real “find” was a corroded metal disk. I've been cleaning it ever since I got home and it appears to be a token from the Sam Davis Hotel, which was on or near this spot and was torn down in 1985. Sadly, it's too cruddy to photograph well.


came from this...

An hour later, Doug and I found ourselves way east of town at an early 1800s home site about to be gobbled up by a subdivision. The grass was so tall it was hard to swing the machine, but I managed to bag the leg of an old, cast iron stove which looks suspiciously like a leg of lamb. (I'm fairly sure it had been dug by a previous metal hunter and left there for me. I personally think it will make a fine.... wall hanging?)

Doug pulled out a beautiful, old door hinge. I got a mason jar lid. Tired, we stood there and just looked around. We could see nothing but trees, hills and brambles, but the sound of thousands of cars and trucks just over the next ridge and plane after plane coming into BNA – not to mention a huge mountain of bulldozed earth next to us – were a reminder that the sweet wildness of this place would soon be gone.

Monday, January 16, 2012

My Arms Hurt

My arms hurt.

They do. In places that have never hurt before.

It was a good weekend. Saturday morning, bright and early, Cheryl was in my driveway and for once I didn't make her wait. We drove over to Doug's and he and the Lovely Brenda drove us all around the strip mall blightiness that is now suburban Nashville, pointing out where the farms and mansions and plantations used to stand until someone decided it would be better for them not to exist. Most are now paved over by Kmart parking lots and the like, but every now and then you get a glimpse of what used to be: a few feet of an old stone wall in between two office parks. A single ancient, towering tree and a crumbling chimney in a vacant lot filled with trash and abandoned shopping carts.

D and B had things to do so Cheryl and I got back in the car and stared at each other. Now what? Soon, we were trudging through the thick mud of a construction site (wide open) and into some deep woods. Our destination: the remains of a 1700s-era inn. At first, we weren't sure we were in the right place. It looked more like a dump. Actually, it was a dump. People seem to have been trashing this spot for 100 years or more. Rusty washtubs, pipe, construction materials, hundreds of bottles and cans, many of them really old, and of course, plenty of TUPoM (twisted, unidentifiable pieces of metal).

And yet, it was beautiful. Tall trees, blocking out the bleak, weak winter sky. On the ground, interspersed with the garbage, were the green stalks of daffodils, fooled by this warm January. I wondered who planted them.

We found the ruins, or some of them anyway: a huge stone threshold, the remains of some walls.

I spent the first ten minutes or so feeling jumpy and nervous. I'd forgotten my headphones and every beep from my Tesoro Cibola seemed loud enough to wake the ghosts of long-ago innkeepers who might smite me with their phantom fireplace pokers. I just couldn't relax. Cheryl got down to business and immediately bagged the day's first find: a sterling silver belt-buckle engraved with the letters “CBN” only in a much better font. See the picture? 
WHO is C.B.N.? Any ideas?

Isn't that pretty? I got to work.

An hour later, all I had for my trouble was an ugly, flat, corroded button and an old bottle that was small enough to fit into my pocket. There was just too much trash to accomplish anything. Cheryl, of course, found a very cool brass (?) medal-looking thing from the Willimantic Cotton Company. I almost drooled. We left. The only hope for good hunting at that site is a full-on clean up.

The next day I rode with Doug and Arthur to a Place in Tennessee (vague enough for you?) and met Cheryl there. We honked the horn as we passed the house of the nice people who'd given us permission to hunt their property, then parked and started walking up a steep path to the top of a ridge.

Certain details have been changed. Like the fact that there was a zebra farm nearby. And a monastery. That should throw all you site stalkers off. (No really. I did change some details. Or did I?)

After quite a lot of trudging, we reached our destination: a lovely grove of trees. This was officially Cheryl and Doug's site and they'd done a good job “preparing” it (i.e. removing as much fun stuff as they could) before inviting us in. This is the way it's done, and it's totally ok and understandable. I was just grateful for a chance to hunt this nice hill.

Within my first three minutes: a 58 and my very first uniform button! Also dug a gorgeous iron head of a sledgehammer and set it beside a noteworthy tree to retrieve later. What a doorstop it will make!

From there, the pace slowed somewhat. The four of us spread way out. After three hours of straight detector-swinging in fairly thick underbrush, I was dehydrated, hungry, in severe arm-pain, and starting to lose any edge I had. A couple of times, I got totally hung up in brambles and cut my legs trying to get loose. At one point I got up from digging a bullet and looked down to realize I'd lost my jacket – which included my phone. After much moaning and under-the-breath cussing and thrashing about, I found it. I also kept getting lost, for as the planet turned and the sunlight changed, the woods seemed to look different. At one point, I heard a lot of gunshots and retreated rapidly, heart pounding. For the record, folks, deer season is OVER.

But still, it was funner than fun. CRAZY fun. Don't know why. Don't care. Here's a pic of me and Cheryl having fun in the woods. 

Lady Diggers Whit and Cheryl

Isn't Cheryl adorable??? I'm so glad to have an awesome digging buddy who totally understands.

The day's take:
1 really nice BUTTON!
3 58s
1 William's cleaner bullet
1 fired (smashed) bullet
1 piece buckshot
1 brass piece of saddle decoration
1 fossil (not metal, just found)
1 sledgehammer head, forgotten, alone, leaning against a tree, somewhere in Tennessee

Still have some cleaning to do...

Friday, January 13, 2012


This one isn't earth-shattering, but it was instructive in some gentle ways.

A couple of days ago, I was down the street checking out my neighbors' yard. It was cold and I knew I wouldn't be out there long. Dug a few wheat pennies and the usual TUPoM (twisted, unidentifiable pieces of metal). Over by the driveway, got a good, solid signal and there, about 4 inches down, was a dog tag.

Dog tags are among my favorite things to dig; I've found 4 or 5 of them but this was the first that states the name of the dog: Babe.

It said, "I belong to Joe Corley" and gave the address -- one street over from me -- and the phone number, which only had six digits. 

As I stood there, thinking about Babe and Joe and who they were and what kind of dog Babe was and maybe it was Joe's first dog when he was a kid and maybe Babe had gotten lost and never found his way home and there were boyish tears and grief, or maybe joyous reunification over there on Winding Way, or maybe none of that happened and maybe Babe just enjoyed a life freer than most pets today, wandering the neighborhood at will, and maybe had a pooch over here on Camellia Place he liked to visit, or maybe a little old lady who gave him bacon and maybe, maybe, maybe...

OK, I never finished that sentence.

As I stood there maybeing, wondering, the neighbor whose yard it was drove up and I showed her what I'd found in her yard. I teared up a bit for some reason, feeling the rush of connection with the past, wondering if there was a reason for it all, something I needed to do, a message to deliver.

Came home and immediately googled Joe Corley. Turns out Joe was well-known around here, a respected businessman who owned a lot of property around Gallatin Road. A really great guy. A dad. Unfortunately, I learned all this from his obituary. Joe died last October. But his son, Russ, a local minister, was easy to find so I emailed him.

A few days later, Russ drove by to pick up the tag.

I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it be emotional for him seeing Babe's name again, on a shiny circle of stainless steel that had once hung from her warm, soft dogneck, tinkling slightly as she ran through the neighborhood, catching the sunlight on bright mornings? Would it catch his throat to see his dad's name engraved in the metal?

In fact, it was a calm and cordial exchange. He looked at the tag briefly, then put it in his pocket. Babe, Russ told me, was a boxer, a really nice dog who lived to be 13 years old. She died in the early 1960s: 50 years ago. Yes, Russ and his siblings had fun growing up over there on Winding Way. There were creeks to explore.

We talked about the weather, music (he saw my guitar). He warned me to be careful on my metal detecting adventures (he'd read my blog). Then he thanked me, we shook hands, and he left.

And in the silence after the closing of the door, I felt a little foolish. Like I'd been way too invested in his reaction. As if the magic of finding Babe's tag – or what felt like magic anyway – was just something I made up. And that sensible people would have thrown that tag in a plastic box with all the other tags and not thought about it again. That sensible people never would have been out there looking for it in the first place.