My childhood amateur archaeology career had begun, oddly enough, due to culinary ambitions. That was when two whole slant-shadowed summers transformed my backyard into the location of the neighborhood hot dog and hamburger joint.
The venture soon proved to be not as popular as my original business plan had predicted, however. This wasn't because of the service-- which was fast and enthusiastic. But largely to its stick-and-leaf hotdogs and mudpat-and-leaf hamburger menu.
Local tastes had simply not caught up to such progressive, organic cuisine.
So, like many small business owners, by my third summer I realized I needed to re-examine my vision, or close up shop. Which lead to my repositioning the firm into an extensive mud-based bakery operation, with multi-layer mudcakes frosted liberally in creamy mud frosting, and decorated with luscious mud swirls.
These confectionary masterpieces baked in the sun and towered and teetered on plastic thrift store dishes I'd bought using my fifty-cents-a-week allowance from nightly dishwashing detail.
The best part of this operation was that my supplier was the Way-Back Yard, a small unmowed field behind my family's actual backyard and near the railroad tracks. It was ideal because this supplier always delivered on time, never ran out of what I needed, and only probably had a little bit of lead and tetanus and Lyme disease running through it.
It was during supply acquisition that I found myself in the midst of unexpected archaological wonders.
See, for over 40 years, the Way-Back had drawn neighborhood children, sly illegal dumpers and the occasional King of the Road passing through on the way to train-hopping adventure. What started as a search for better batter quickly unearthed surprise.
The lure of easy riches and the love of serendipity encouraged me to abandon my bakery aspirations and shift into these more historical, scientific pursuits.
Why, I unearthed slivers of broken bottles, and entire beer bottle caps-- their graphics swirly and faded, speaking of brands that came and went before I was ever born.
I found most of a bucket-- a sizable chunk of metal held only together with rust.
And I uncovered a shard of this most amazing rainbow-infused glass, which my mother told me was from the carnival prizes they gave away long ago. It was just cheap junk, she said-- tacky-- and I shouldn't waste my time with it. It was not treasure, as I had suggested. It was not something to be admired.
But I rinsed it off, anyway, and tucked it into my jewelry box with the ballerina in it. The ballerina spun on her toes, her reflection in the glass fragment seeming to shimmer in dazzling circles like a carousel.
I liked it better than the arms and torso I dug up, anyway. A good scrubbing showed that they had been bits of GI Joes, who in the heat of battle had met with unfortunate circumstances and eventual disembodiment.
After I found a head, with a peach-fuzz crewcut and a beard, I had hoped to find enough pieces of Joe to eventually Frankenstein them together into one complete Real American Hero-- so my Barbies would have some company. My only Ken had been disabled due to my cousin Sticky's overly-enthusiastic attentions ("crrrrrack!!!"), and his leg had been duct-taped on for most of his life.
But alas, the Joe situation proved to be just another disappointment for Barbie. A head, torso and assorted arms did not a boyfriend make. At least not one that could take her dancing.
Still, my interest in excavation continued. Like any good archaeologist, I understood patience was at the core of the occupation. I could dig for days and find nothing-- reverting in those lulls to the occasional mud-cake creation.
But perseverance would eventually pay off. I did my dad a service by locating one rusted-out half of his long-lost Buck Rogers raygun. A deed which, in some ways, brought life full-circle.
And then there was the time just a bit of metallic emerald green flashed in the dark loam.
Jewels? Pirate booty? Hidden spoils from a long-ago Jimmy Cagney style bank heist?
I brought the little round faceted item to Dad like Queen Elizabeth might have been presented the coronation crown. With pomp, dignity, a Bounty paper towel...
I even washed the thing off first.
"I think it's just a bicycle reflector," my dad said meditatively, showing none of the joy he'd displayed during the earlier Buck Rogers pistol recon mission.
Still, the earth-emerald was deposited in my jewelry box next to the piece of carnival glass.
Well, decades passed and about two years ago I was walking through the Frick antique car museum, looking at the handsome cabs, the early Fords, the surreys with the fringe on top. And as I was admiring the upholstery, the chrome, the artistry of less-bustling times... my eye caught a very familiar flicker of green.
And there, on the side of one of the headlamps of a 1920s car was...
My beautiful faceted gem.
I still have it, by the way. It sits in my living room in a bowl of shiny beads and glass spheres-- proving true treasure really is in the eye of the beholder.