Going Underground

To be perfectly honest, I didn't do it to uncover the long-hidden cache of rare coins that would send the children that I will probably never have to the finest colleges money can buy. Nor did I do it merely to have just another, hopefully interesting experience to write about.

It started as much more than that. Let me explain.
I'd see them as I was driving along some downtown street. Sometimes a lone soul, sometimes groups of two or three or four, trundling with great seriousness through trash-strewn vacant lots, sweeping what appeared to be Weedeaters back and forth in front of them, just inches above the ground. And on their ears these people wore large pairs of headphones wired to the Weedeaters.

They always managed to look a bit silly, yet filled with a deep sense of purpose. Two things that I appreciate in any activity.

One day I pulled over for closer inspection. The devices were not Weedeaters. They were metal detectors. I asked one of the people what he was looking for in that patch of dirt and yellowed weeds next to Jefferson Street. He continued sweeping, face concentrated as a mohel in midcircumcision. So I yelled at him. Finally, he removed his headphones and walked on over.

His name is Sean Buckner, and he explained that he was combing the soil for coins. Was he finding anything? Sean reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of what were mostly dusty pennies, but could be--with the next swipe of the detector--complemented by an ancient silver dollar, a gold ring, or some other small but valuable bit of dropped and forgotten human ephemera.

He gave me his number and promised to take me out on a detecting expedition. As I drove off, suddenly all those empty lots and bombed-out foundations and crumbling abandoned buildings I passed were possible sites of hidden treasure, waiting scant inches below the ground. Waiting for me and a cunning Weedeater to dig them up.

Here are a couple of interesting background details about Sean Buckner that make him qualified to be an excellent detector of metal: He was in the Air Force for five years, stationed in Wichita, Kansas, where he monitored guidance systems on short-range nuclear attack missiles. He is also the "third or fourth cousin" of Pretty Boy Floyd. Here are a couple of interesting background details that make me qualified to be an excellent detector of metal: I once gave Yogi Berra some matches, and my favorite food is beef jerky.

That's the thing, see--you don't have to know anything special to become a player at this. Or, as Sean says, "Anyone can do it!"

Despite that the detector I rented was nothing special, a Fisher M-55, he assured me that I'd "find some stuff, no problem."

Buckner's machine is a Spectrum XLT, the Cadillac of detectors, in case you didn't know.

"They've become so advanced, they can detect the different types of targets that you're looking at," he explains. (A "target" is something you want to find, as opposed to, say, a bottle cap, which is "trash," something you don't want to find.) "I can tell you if it's a penny, a dime, a quarter, a half dollar, a nickel, a piece of foil, a pull tab; my machine will tell you. There's a visual display, and the accuracy is over 90 percent." The XLT cost him in the neighborhood of $1,000.

That's a lot of buried change, but Buckner, who says he does just fine in real estate, thank you, has other reasons for his hobby.

"I always had the desire to find things," he reveals. "Actually, I'll tell you what. I'm more of a gambler than I am anything else. It's kind of weird because I look at it in that light. It satisfies my need for gambling. You never know what you're going to find, and you're not going to lose anything. I go out to Harrah's once in a while and spend three or four hundred dollars. I could go out with my detector and find a 40- or 50-dollar coin, maybe a thousand-dollar ring, you never know. And it's good exercise, it gets you out. And what it does for me, it relieves my mind. When things go bad at the office, I can go out and not think about things. It's my way out."

Yeah, it's about exercise, tension relief, inner peace. But there's something else behind the therapy-colored glasses.

"It's addictive as hell," Buckner says honestly. "My buddy that I go out with, well, he don't go out every night, but he'll go out at 10, 11, midnight, one o'clock in the morning. That's how strong the need is. I try to limit it."

Bear in mind, however, what "limiting" is for our man, who has spent as much as 12 hours straight troweling up long-lost change and reads the gurgles and bleeps of his XLT anywhere from four to seven days a week.

"I set goals for myself," he emphasizes. "I like to find about 1,000 coins a month, from pennies to dimes to everything. A lot of people will say, 'Well, that's just a penny.' Well, to me, that's not just a penny, that's a find. That's a target. I found that. How much is it worth? Well, it's worth a thousand dollars to me."

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