Friday, January 17, 2014

Oh, Doug Drake... We Will Miss You So.

I knew it was coming but… damn.

Last Sunday (January 12, 2014), Cheryl and I went to visit Doug in the hospital. After about a year of increased breathlessness and weakness, a quintuple bypass that never quite accomplished anything, a spot of lung cancer and a boatload of radiation, Doug decided he’d had enough of hospitals and went the hospice route. They were fine-tuning his oxygen levels before sending him home to his cozy and comfortable house.

We didn’t know what to expect when we walked in his room. He was lying in bed, staring at the clock on the wall.

Sick as he was, Doug lit up when he saw us and we talked and talked. I think he must have known this would be our last visit and he wanted to be sure we knew of every site he had stocked away in his massive mental archive of Sites to Dig. Names, roads, towns, stories… Cheryl took notes furiously. We wracked our minds trying to remember the questions we had for him. It was wonderful to see him so engaged and so much himself: lucid, opinionated, funny, acerbic, generous. He told us, laughing, that the oxygen he was on sometimes made him dream he was flying a fighter jet. 

I showed him a shiny, lacquered horseshoe – my first experiment with electrolysis – and when he said it looked great, I was so proud. Somehow, as old and Cheryl and I are, we felt like kids around him and basked in his approval and excitement.

As best we can recollect, Cheryl and I first met Doug Drake in November of 2011. Novice detectorists, the two of us had been heading out together nearly every weekend not really knowing what we were doing or where the good spots were. We spent a lot of money on gas in order to dig a lot of junk, but it sure was fun.

The full story of our first meeting is described in an early Dirt Girl post, “Triune”. But the short version is that Cheryl and I had arrived at a site we’d heard about, staring at a huge NO TRESPASSING sign, when a big, brown Crown Victoria pulled up beside us and a tall, 70-something guy in overalls got out.

Doug. Overalls. Ball cap.

He had the twinkliest eyes ever, made even twinklier (I like to think now, looking back) at the sight of two disappointed middle-aged ladies with detectors.

Doug Drake to the rescue. He told us to follow him and we did. About ¼ mile away, he rolled down his window and pointed to a dirt road; then he sped off.

It was a great site and I found my first (and only) truly valuable (not to mention amazing) Civil War relic. About a week later, I went over to Doug’s house to show him my finds from the past nine months. He looked them over carefully, then looked up at me and grinned and said, “I want to go metal detecting with YOU!”

Like I was a lucky charm.

From then on, we were a three-man detecting team. Because Doug was retired and Cheryl between jobs, they went digging several times a week, while I joined them on the weekends. We learned so much from him. So many times, when I dug an unidentifiable item, I’d think, “I’ll show it to Doug; he’ll know.” And he usually did.

But sometimes he’d turn the item over and over in his hands, so studiously, then look up and pronounce, “Hmm. It’s just one of them there thangs.”

Twinkle, twinkle.

Born in 1936, Doug was a member of the fifth generation of Drakes who had settled the Madison area in the 1700s. He was a born historian, a man with an intense and coursing curiosity, and not quite of this era. Today, at the visitation, his sister told me that he used to sit out in the field behind their house, just sit there, staring at the land, ignoring his mother as she called for him. As a boy, he hunted for arrowheads, then became fascinated with caves. He began using a metal detector 50 years ago and had an encyclopedic understanding of the history of middle Tennessee. On our dozens of road trips in that swaying brown Crown Victoria, (with me battling motion sickness), he pointed out hundreds of sites he’d dug years ago. Cheryl and I tried to remember them all, but it was just too much.

He and his wife, the gentle, lovely Brenda, whom he married in the early 1980s, explored farmers’ fields and deep woods and – on their own – discovered the locations of several pioneer forts then shared the information so the sites could be properly documented by archaeologists. Doug donated hundreds of items he dug to local museums and historical societies.

About a year ago, we noticed that Doug was having to stop digging and sit down a lot. 

The long hikes back to our cars really seemed to take it out of him.  It wasn’t like him at all; we tried not to worry but as the year progressed, he came digging with us less and less frequently. 

One day, though, he felt better and he and Cheryl met up south of town. After a few hours of fruitless digging, she came upon Doug leaning against a tree, grinning from ear to ear, with a rare Confederate button he'd just dug.

In April, my dear friend, Terri Sarris, a film and video artist at the University of Michigan, came down to Nashville to shoot footage for a short film about me and my metal detecting life. It hasn’t been edited yet, but I have a strong feeling that a lengthy interview with Doug, seated in the doorway of an ancient smokehouse, in a Tennessee holler, will be a highlight of the finished piece.

Frank Pahl, Terri Sarris, Doug Drake during filming
in Doug's incredible Basement Lair of Antiquity.

 Doug's bypass took place over the summer and he never really recovered from it. Then an xray revealed the spot on his lung. To me and Cheryl, at least, he seemed quite unsentimental about it all. Sometimes, he came to a site with us and just set up a stool and watched us dig, his oxygen tank in the grass beside him. As the weather turned cool, he began selling and giving away his finds, his detectors, his bottles, his books, his maps. 

Early December. Dealer Chase Pipes inspects
Doug's collections of bottles, books and ... stuff.

(In the video above, Doug takes a break from selling his bottles to recall an amazing site...)

After about an hour, we could tell Doug was getting tired so we wrapped up the visit. I patted his arm, but Cheryl said, “Doug, I know you don't like to be hugged but I’m going to hug you anyway.” And she did. We really thought we’d be able to visit again once he got home.

Tuesday, an ambulance brought Doug home and set him up comfortably in his chair. The hospice nurse left. Brenda puttered around for a bit, then checked on Doug. He was gone.

In the midst of life… yup. Sigh.

The visitation this morning at the Madison Funeral Home was filled with folks from throughout Doug’s life, laughing and talking and crying and thinking. Then, we went outside into the cold, January gray, we got in our cars, turned on our flashers, and headed downtown with a full police escort.

I’d never driven in a funeral procession before. Here in the south, it means that all traffic stops as you pass by. Police cars speed past you to block the intersections as you sail through red lights. It was pretty impressive and I felt strangely proud that all these strangers were stopping to honor my digging buddy without even knowing who he was.  (Some of these Southern rituals – like children saying “Thank you, ma’am; I enjoyed it” when they leave the dinner table, and stopping traffic to honor the dead – are worthy and good.)

We drove to the Nashville City Cemetery where the Drake family plot was purchased in the 1830s by Doug’s great- great-grandfather, Henry Hollingsworth, who was then the mayor of Nashville. The line of cars drove slowly between the ancient stones and past huge, old trees. We stood, shivering, under a small canopy, where the casket lay draped in an American flag. (Doug served his country in the Tennessee National Guard and in the United States Air Force as a young man.)

 A young soldier stood some distance away, under a tree, and played taps, so sweetly. (That’ll make you weep for a tough old digger any time.) Two other soldiers folded the flag and presented it to Brenda.  We sang Amazing Grace. A minister said a few words. The pallbearers placed their corsages on the coffin, then Arthur, another of Doug’s digging pals, added a bullet.

And it was over.

Cheryl and I went to a meat ‘n’ three, because funerals make me hungry like nothing else.

The part that’s so hard to grasp – and it’s hard to grasp every, single time – is that he was just here. And now he’s not.

It’s just one of them thangs...

Friday, January 3, 2014


I know I’m not alone in celebrating the passing of 2013. It was a rough year, as careful readers of Dirt Girl know. Let’s recap:

1.     My daughter’s illness last January.
2.     The death of my beautiful Rottie girl, Chloe.
3.     The passing of the great John Stoecker – a terrible loss to my circle of friends.
4.     Losing my longtime job (they immediately rehired me as  “temp” with no benefits. Classy.)
5.     Giant August storm = four feet of water in the basement. Again.
6.     Al’s emergency gallbladder surgery – a bill our new, crappy health insurance is disputing because we went to the “wrong hospital.”
7.     My detecting skills seem to have crawled under a rock.

That’s right.  I’m just not finding anything lately. I tried SO HARD to dig something memorable or at least vaguely interesting so as to have a scintillating end-of-year Dirt Girl recap for ya.

But no.

The past few weekends, Cheryl and I have been trolling construction sites as more and more ancient farmland south of town is carved into curlicued streets dotted with vaguely chateau-like houses for the moneyed many and their granite countertops.

Our favorite blue-eyed foreman had told us about a barn they’d recently torn down and we set out to find it. After a massive directional misunderstanding sent us nearly to the Florida panhandle – on foot – we turned around and found the barn, right next to our cars.

And not far from the barn, in deep woods, after crossing a sweet little stream, I came upon this:

Who lived here? It's not on my 1878 map.
I yelled to Cheryl and we got to work. Our own secret home site!!!!


We’ve spent three days there and don’t have a lot to show for it. Part of the problem is the EVIL THORNS.

There was one point where three thorns were stuck into the tender back of my left hand, pulling the skin into pointy little pyramids. “Oh,” a part of my brain thought, “I should get a picture of this, since I’m certainly not digging anything worth photographing.”

But then, the pain was too great and I abandoned the plan. Also, a large amount of my hair was being pulled out by other thorns. Instead, here's a vid of the site. Note the beautiful fireplace. Bulldozers were just on the other side of a piece of plastic. 

We did come across a tiny, old cemetery, abandoned, its stones toppled and broken. (We plan to go back and do some clean up and try to get all the names.) It's a bit of a mystery. The cemetery is very close to the remains of the house. As in too close.

William Holland was born August 3rd, 1800.
I can't find him. Can you?

Here are some of our finds. Not very impressive. Lots of iron, lots of junk. Lots of thorns.

Yup. Round things.

Suspender clip. Only nice thing I found.
This is sweet too. Coin silver plate.
Cheryl's haul. I need to copy her settings, clearly.

Random item I found near my house.
What is it?????

Oh! I almost forgot! My buddy, Tom, from the Middle Tennessee Metal Detecting Club, very kindly took one of my old ax heads and did electrolysis on it! 

By "electrolysis,", I do not mean that Tom removed unwanted hair from the ax head. This is an example of a really unfortunate synonym. In MD parlance, “electrolysis” is a process involving  a battery charger, baking soda, water and various wires to remove rust from nasty, crusty items. Tom did a swell job and I am in the process of learning how to do it myself. I have almost everything ready to start, including an embarrassingly large pile of rusty nonsense outside my back door.

A few days ago, thoroughly grumpy due to my bad luck of late, I spent a cold and lonely day driving all over the Nashville metro area looking for places to dig. Al had given me a new Garrett pinpointer to replace the one I lost last Christmas and I needed to practice not losing it. Found a house being renovated and the guy in charge said I could dig. Here's the result:

Before and after. Hey, it's better than nothing.


Yesterday, the first day of 2014, was sunny and warm. Cheryl and I decided to take a break from wilderness. We headed to a park on the other side of town. A few months ago, I’d found a Civil War button right by the street.

Here's my take from the park:

Oh, the glamour, the glory of it all.
Even I cannot imagine an art project that
could make use of these.
These, however, look strangely lovely, don't you think?

83 cents. I think. Who cares.

Mystery ring (I've dug these before and
have no idea what they are), strange tags
and a token for a free car wash that I may
try to redeem, as my car is filthy.

This quickened the old pulse.

Til I turned it over. Nice. Thanks, 2013.

Later, I was nosing around the edge of a nearby schoolyard when a man approached. Would I like to detect his back yard? Why, yes! 

And that was how Cheryl and I ended the first day of the new year: digging with some adorable children (one named WHIT!) in a really cool old neighborhood. Hopefully, this contact will lead to more permissions.

Detectorist-in-training, rockin' the Fisher F 75.

Who knew that a Garrett pinpointer could
elicit such unbridled delight?
Coolest find of the day! WHAT IS IT?

Also cool. Part of a locket???

So, here we are at the start of a new year.  The last one was challenging, but loveliness emerged from it too. My daughter is fine and strong. I had a houseful of family for Christmas. Chloe is flying free, safe in the arms of eternity; neighbor she attacked greets us cheerfully and says he rarely thinks about what happened. My job? Well, I haven’t made peace with that. We’re going to wall off the basement doors so it never floods again. Al’s all healed up, and the songs of John Stoecker remind his friends to “Enjoy the Ride.”

Speaking of songs, I'm working on a record of metal detecting songs. Here's one. I dug it up.