Digging in the Dirt

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.

20 comments:

JD at I Do Things said...

What a beautiful post, Jen!

You really took me back -- to my own childhood and yours. I can see and feel the Way-Back and remember how it felt to play outside in the summer, sometimes with friends but often alone with my imagination.

That's amazing that you just happened across your beautiful emerald at a car show! I like pretty, shiny things too. The cheaper the better.

And now I'm hungry for a hamburger. Extra leaf, please.

Jenn Thorson said...

JD- Oh, I'm so glad.

That kind of quiet, imaginative play did have a certain kind of... FEEL... didn't it?

As an only child without a lot of kids living near me, I played by myself most of the time. The benefit was that it really allowed time for contemplation and being creative.

sharonheg said...

Great post and yes, it brought be back to my childhood too. There was an area at the end of our block that we called "The Dump". It was actually a construction site that had been started...trees knocked down and removed but there was that whole summer when I was...10? 11?...that construction wasn't happening yet. We played there ALL the time. Good memories...thanks for bringing them back to me!

Jenn Thorson said...

Sharon- Thank you for sharing YOUR story... I love hearing about the places we kids used to find compelling. It seems we could make SO MUCH then of so little.

Aloysius said...

I used to have a buck Roger's pistol too ! It was golden and had a red bulb at the end of the barrel and it went chewn-chewn.

Well, your dad was partially right eh - I remember those kind of reflectors when I was growing up.

Truckers in Saudi Arabia would take pride in decorating their trucks in bright colours and reflective sheets - and these reflectors and later lights and LEDs were not to be missed.

Similar to Sharon's account, when I was 4, we moved to our new neighbourhood - where I grew up. Our building was completed but everything around was still being built.
There was a plot where they planned something - but it was left as is for years ! I used to play soccer there and find many treasures - which my mom hated !

All these years, I am still surprised the plot is still empty - some good Samaritans (who I am guessing I know) even planted a few trees - bless them ! [Google Map]

Jenn Thorson said...

Jaff-- er, ALOYSIUS (ahem)-- I didn't realize they were making those kinds of reflectors for so many years.

What kind of stuff did you find and horrify your mom with? :)

Beer Drinker said...

We had the railroad tracks in the way-back yard, but no dump. Just lots of blackberries in the summers.

But there were some dumping areas near my grandparents' house. We used to save the old glass Coke bottles that were not broken. Still have a few.

Fast forward--I found a diamond outside my office a few months ago. It was intricately cut, but how was I to know if it was real or not? I asked a guy from my office and he said, "Are you asking me because I'm Jewish?" That was the end of that!

Aloysius said...

Well, they still make stuff back in the east that disappeared in the west a long time ago - and I believe technology takes its time going around the world.
Actually high speed Interned is still a novelty in Saudi Arabia - one of the world's richest countries LOL

Well, I found old rusty keys - lots of keys - I don't know why I liked taking keys home !
And there were discarded electronics - wires, small motors, bulbs - which I'd take home to create my own electronic projects - they all involved a motor - I loved it.

Jenn Thorson said...

Beer Drinker- We had blackberries and raspberry bushes back there, too! Very cool about the coke bottles... and re: the diamond-- did you finally get someone to verify it was actually a diamond? Kinda sounded like you must have... In spite of the coworker ostracism. :)

Aloysius- You were doing early recycling! I recall finding a key or two myself. What is it with kids and keys? I think we always imagine finding some amazing item that the key will unlock.

Anonymous said...

When we moved into the house we had built I was about four. It was after a bad flood so tons of junk was left in mounds in our backyard. We had someone come through level out the yard and just bury the stuff further down. Plus there used to be a farm at one time.
Every year my father would plant a garden. We would start tomatoes insides and plant other things outside when it warmed up. I love going out there and help him dig up the garden. I found all sorts of treasures. I found a horseshoe, old lock, and old nails. Then there were things like pool balls, bathroom titles and even a piece of siding. I didn't keep the siding but I had hung on to the titles and ball for a while. I still have the horseshoe and lock and I think and old intact bottle.
I even started my own flower garden back there for a while. We also had black rasberry bushes that my Mom planted and the birds help seed the rest of the nieghborhood. I love going back there to pick rasberries and blueberries when the birds didn't get them first. We tried strawberries but the rabbits wiped those out before we had a chance. Those were great times! Thanks for the memories!

Jenn Thorson said...

Sue- Thank YOU for sharing yours with us. The images are really beautiful.

I honestly had no idea when I wrote the piece how many of us would have such parallel childhood memories-- I love it!

Anonymous said...

I also wanted to mention the interesting sink holes we got as stuff settle in our backyard. Yes I know I grew up in Mine Hill where there were lots of sink holes from cave ins but there were no caves under our yard. We would joke abut how probably the washing machine door busted to create the one sink hole or the pool table must have sagged.
I did know the girl though who live on the next street over whose whole 1st floor sunk 200 ft overnight while they were sleeping. Stupid insurance try to blame it on act of nature even though there was a sink hole that happen in the backyard and in the driveway from over cave ins. Something my friend's family didn't know about when they move there. Once you looked at the hole in thier house though you could tell the cave was man made.
I also made mud cakes and things when I was little I just never thought of making a business out of it. I always pretended I was playing house. I would even use flowers to make diferent foods since we had a field full of daisies and queen anne's lace near our backyard. It was also fun to put those flowers in dyed water and watch them change colors. I would make all sorts of colors with food dye and make my own colorful bouquet of flowers.

ReformingGeek said...

You missed your calling. You should have been an archeologist.

You should get a treasure chest for all your goodies!

Chris@Knucklehead! said...

When I was a kid, all toys had multiple uses. Lincoln logs became makeshift drumsticks, Legos became football players, pickup stix became deadly weapons "DON'T PLAY WITH THOSE LIKE THAT! YOU'LL PUT YOUR BROTHER'S EYE OUT!"

Sorry, flashback.

Jenn Thorson said...

Sue- Oh, I recall folks having issues with sink holes in their backyards there-- very few of them as I could recall were pool table collapse-related. :)

Reforming Geek- Well, I didn't keep the bucket or the Joe pieces. Not really sure what happened to them actually. The only thing I still have is that reflector. I'd just never imagined getting to see really where it came from. That had made my day!

Chris- Oh, absolutely. If it couldn't also be used to make noise or to hit other kids with, well, you obviously weren't trying hard enough. :)

MikeWJ at Too Many Mornings said...

Fantastic post, Jenn! I love it that you kept the gem and then found one like it decades later on the headlight. I love old stuff myself, and would love to have that headlight working and mounted somewhere in my pool room. Maybe near my Seeburg Select-O-Matic. Awesome!

screwdestiny said...

That was a great story. I like that you eventually found out what it really was.

Jenn Thorson said...

Mike- Well, you can bid on the full headlight in the picture on Ebay. :)

Screw Destiny- It was a surprise to me as well... How often do we actually get an answer to things like this?... At the museum, the friend I was with was wondering what was wrong with me-- why I was getting so excited. :) "LOOK!! It's that green thingy!!!"

CatLadyLarew said...

Treasure! What a find. I'd love to see how you pieced together the GI Joe parts. Barbie meets Frankenstein... LOLZ!

Axenolith said...

That light reflector piece was totally cool. We metal detectorists will often find objects (metal of course) that are un-identifiable. These are known as "Whazzits" and remain so usually until a "guru dude" (generally someone in the upper 5th percentile of local detectorist's age bracket) looks at it and can identify it.


That back lot probably still has a MOUNTAIN of cool stuff in it :-)