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."

Besides all that underground coinage, in the three years he's been at it, Buckner has unearthed a cast-iron toy soldier, some steel matchboxes, a handful of bent forks, some rusted belt buckles, a few rings. His biggest score was an 1891 silver dollar.

"I don't spend any of the money that I find," he admits. "I just throw it in a big bucket. One of these days, I'll have more stuff than I know what to do with, but I'll just keep it--this is what I've found. I can look back and say, 'I've done something.'"

I know, you're thinking this is stupid.
You're thinking, "Why would anyone spend hundreds of dollars on a machine that looks like a Weedeater, and then hours roaming around a filthy vacant lot, just to dig up the same amount of change or bric-a-brac anyone could easily steal from his parents, spouse or significant other?"

I say this to you:
You have not experienced the innate thrill of hearing that mechanized, throaty bleep from the machine that has become an extension of your arm--your very being--and then digging into the unforgiving terra firma itself to wrest a 1918 penny from the clods.

Which is exactly what I did within five minutes of arriving at our first excavational location, a corner expanse at 14th Street and Roosevelt where somebody's home once stood. Buckner came over to verify my claim.

"That's a find, bud," he acknowledged in the solemn tones of the seasoned hunter. As he walked away, Buckner--the old pro--tossed a remark over his shoulder:

"Hey--when you're digging in that dirt with your hands, watch out for syringes."

It brought me back down to earth.
Such are the barbed perils that await those who delve into no-holds-barred metal detecting in the bare patches of downtown Phoenix, where dying palms and financially challenged citizens mingle with the buried change of those who are now ghosts, at best.

Still, after a taste of action like that, I understood what it was all about. I found it easy to ignore the puzzled stares of Hispanic women walking past, juggling infants and plastic sacks of groceries. I paid no attention to the red-faced bums and withered junkies who cut across the sweep of my Fisher, shaking their heads in befuddlement.

From a house blaring rap music across the street, a young guy with a shaved head emerged. Paranoid suburban white man that I am, I instantly developed a scenario in my mind where he was somebody bad who was figuring that we were undercover drug-squad cops posing as metal-detecting penny searchers on a stakeout, and we would soon be eating hot lead. He stared at us for a while, then went back inside.

Time passed. I kept hearing Buckner's formidable XLT making sounds a lot sexier than my Fisher M-55. His was like Pac-Man after eating all the blue ghosts, or a manic, Middle Eastern bagpipe. I'd look over at him, and I was always sure the ultrasensitive heel of his machine was over a Spanish dubloon. I couldn't believe he wasn't doing some kind of spastic, wiggly-boned victory dance along with the orgasmic rhythm of that $1,000 detection wand.

But no. He was cool. He was calm. He was Minnesota Fats after pocketing five balls on a break. He was The Man With No Name sauntering to the saloon after emptying both barrels in 12 guys he didn't like. He was Sean Buckner, scooping out the wheat pennies, scoffing at the pull tabs and already sensing the next score, two feet away and four fingers deep into the dirt.

Meanwhile, for me, the dew was rapidly dripping off the lily, as far as my 79-year-old corroded Lincoln was concerned. I spent five minutes and ounces of adrenaline exhuming a car stereo speaker. I dug out a Colt .45 screw top. I found some nails, bent in an interesting way, I guess. A .22 bullet, unused. If shards of broken glass were valuable, I could have been a millionaire; they came up like barnacles, bound in the dirt with everything.  

I was starting to realize that maybe I didn't have the Zenlike patience it took to really understand this "hobby."

I suggested we leave for more monied pastures.
We found a house a few blocks away that was boarded up; Buckner said it looked good. He noticed that there were no telltale signs of upturned earth, a sure indication that the spot had already been hit. The detector people are out there.

It's a strange feeling, I found, a mixture of voyeuristic embarrassment and dangling-carrot fascination, going over a disused front yard, trying to find something metal that somebody dropped on his way to work in 1956.

My machine let out a deep bleat. It sounded good. I dug. Buckner came over to supervise. About a foot from the weathered side door of the house, I pried up a car-window handle.

"Oh, yeah--'72 Nova," he said, shrugging. "I used to have one."
In the backyard, I waved my machine over some dog feces, white with age, and a half-eaten burrito that glistened with what looked like a fine sheen of sweat. The Fisher sounded nothing underneath. Then, a few feet away, Buckner's XLT squealed like a stuck computerized pig.

And the man dug out a 1948 silver dime.
This may fall under the heading of "I guess you had to be there," but it was quite a moment.

"I didn't realize we were under a clothesline," he said. I could almost see the light bulb blink on over his head. Sure enough, we were in between two T-poles of silver-painted iron once joined by the thin white rope of a clothesline.

"You can find tons of stuff here."
Well, you don't have to be Perry Mason to figure that change drops out of pants hung upside down, but it's one of those things that you probably don't think about too much.

Unless you're metal detecting. And the coins were certainly there, all lined up in the ground where the garments had been hung to dry. A '78 penny, a '75 penny; apparently, whoever lived in this sad house prior to the last 20 years did not have the luxury of disregarding pennies enough to leave them in his pants when he did the wash.

So. Beneath the ground, things dwell.
Some dime a man with a stained rayon shirt lost one day. Maybe a quarter that hit the dirt with this girl Sharon's uncle's keys when he fumbled them out after getting fired and venting with Tony over beers at the Blue Fox Lounge that got ripped down 18 years ago. Or the silver dollar that spent 14 minutes deep in the purse of the woman who worked the counter at Goldwater's in the early 1890s and died of a heart attack on her walk home from work, spilling the contents of her purse willy-nilly onto the unpaved sidewalk. Or those four million pull tabs and bottle caps from every stupid beverage available since Tab.

They are all down there waiting quietly for some patience, and a trowel, and a Spectrum XLT. And Sean Buckner.


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