Friday, August 31, 2007

II. First experiences with a metal detector

Back in 1967 in Vicksburg, where I was a young Engineer working the startup of Mississippi’s largest power plant, I “caught the disease.” Working twelve-hour days or nights didn’t leave much time for leisure activities for any of us, but, somehow our plant Maintenance Supervisor found time, mainly when he could grab a few minutes during the weekends, to search the hills of Vicksburg with his Metrotech metal detector. Every Monday morning he would share his coffee break with us Engineers, and always would he have a button, or a cannon ball, or some other relic of the War to garnish his tales of the latest hunt. My interest was aroused, of course, but the man was far too smart to share too much, especially his digging spots. I bugged him long and often without success. He knew that once a digger’s spot becomes known, it will be swarmed by other diggers like hornets to a nest.
I had a wife and two children, all three in school, so I had little left each paycheck to waste on such foolishness as metal detectors. I investigated the various machines on the market and found my budget far too slim to afford a Metrotech or similar “really good” detector. I was something of a tinker, though, and when I discovered that a Heathkit detector kit could be purchased for $60.00 or so, I had found my means of entry into the world of treasure hunting. With screwdriver and soldering iron I assembled the Heathkit and tested its effectiveness in my backyard.
The next sunny weekend afternoon, my son Mike in tow, the two of us ventured forth with Heathkit and shovel in our 1965 VW to a spot I’d noticed along old Confederate Avenue where the grass was mowed and where our Confederate patriots just had to have entrenched themselves. I knew such was true, because cannons and monuments indicating just that were everywhere. Together Mike and I plodded almost solemnly to where the monuments indicated our boys had fought, a gently sloping hill near one of the cannons. I unlimbered the detector, put the head to the ground, and soon got a signal. “Mike!” I shouted after a shovelful of earth, “A Minie ball, I think!” Mike was as overjoyed as I, and together we intently scanned the earth. In a moment we had another Minie ball. “Mike, this is gonna be easy!” I told my son, “Just wait ‘til Monday, when I show that Maintenance Supervisor what we’ve found!”
I’d noticed an old black man and his wife seated on the front porch of their house immediately adjacent to our hunting field, but I’d paid them no mind, even though they seemed quite interested in our activities. The old man sat pulling on his pipe, blowing clouds of smoke into the air, while his wife watched us. As I dug for my third Minie ball, I heard the old man calling to me, “Hey, you! You and that boy!”
I was far too busy digging War relics to bother with him.
“Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?”
The old guy was obviously jealous of my skill with the detector, so I looked up, gave him a toothy grin, and went back to digging.
“You fool!”
Now, this was too much. What in the world was wrong with the old guy?
“What?” I shouted at him, turning. “I'm busy. Whaddaya want?”
“You darn fool,” he shouted in return as he stabbed the back end of his pipe in our direction. “Don’t you know you’re digging in the Military Park?”
I had heard that digging in the Vicksburg National Military Park was against the rules.
“They’ll put you in jail!” he shouted. “They’ll fine you a thousand dollars!”
“Jail,” I whispered softly to Mike. “I think I heard about that.” I looked at my son. “You and me, Mike. Sharing a cell. And a thousand dollar fine…”
I gently raked dirt over my latest hole and paused to reflect as I scanned the horizon to make sure no Park Rangers were about. I said to Mike, “Son, maybe we better find another spot to dig.” Mike already had hold of my hand, tugging me away. “Yeah, Daddy,” he said earnestly, “Let’s go.”
Mike and I pretended we had planned to leave all along as we slunk back in the direction of our VW. We waved a gay bye-bye to the old man and his wife and drove on home with our two Minie balls.
The Heathkit detector, I soon found, while pitifully insufficient at ignoring small bits of iron, like nails, had an advantage over the more-discriminating Metrotech in that its depth capability was superior. I found that by very carefully tuning the two pots located on the head (I soldered small copper wire “knobs” onto them) I could achieve good “ground balance” and substantially improve the detector’s ability to locate deeply buried objects. With practice I learned to differentiate (somewhat) between the sound of small nails and the other “good” signals. Mike and I were ready for another expedition.
On a Saturday morning we climbed once again into our VW and headed for a hillside owned by my employer (I had done some research!) near the lines held by the Confederates during the siege. Mike played in the leaves that covered the hillsides while I hunted. With every Minie ball I dug my excitement grew. I felt sure this area had been hunted by other diggers, but they had apparently missed quite a few relics. Or was the Heathkit that much better than the other machines?
Soon I heard a huge blast from the Heathkit that could be no Minie ball – unless there were a hundred of them in one spot. Carefully I dug down a foot or more. When the shovel struck solid iron, I called Mike over. Together we finished uncovering a projectile – pointed on one end where a brass fuse protruded, strangely spiraled towards its hollow bottom. “It’s a cannon ball, Mike,” I said proudly. “Our first cannon ball!”
“But, Dad.” Mike looked puzzled. “Cannon balls are round.”
He was right. Wasn’t he? “Not a cannon ball, then, Mike. Something fired from a cannon, though.”
So excited were we that we toted our “cannon ball” and Minie balls to the VW and headed for home to try and learn more about our find. Mike sat in the front seat beside me, the projectile in his lap. As we wound our way through the curves of Confederate Avenue he turned to me and said, “Dad, do you think this thing could still blow up?”
I hadn’t really considered that possibility, but I thought about it and answered as truthfully as I knew how, “I guess it could, Mike. But I’m sure it’ll be okay until we get home.”
Mike very gently laid the shell beside him on the front seat, climbed into the VW’s back seat, and rode there the remainder of the way home. I was amused, but I was soon warned that projectiles from the war CAN explode.
I learned that the “cannon ball” was a 3.8” James Rifle shell, Type I, with a James percussion fuse (the Supervisor nearly had a stroke when I showed it to him and casually asked what it was). Eventually I drilled and washed the black powder from it. It’s now in my son’s collection, and one of his most treasured artifacts.
Not a week later, back on the relic trail, I dug a strange button, one whose obverse consisted of a bird apparently feeding its young, and upon whose reverse were inscribed the words “Extra Rich.” I had no idea what it could be, so next morning, certain that the Supervisor could identify the thing, I nonchalantly flipped it onto his desk before him and asked if he’d ever seen anything like it. Talk about stroke time! The poor guy nearly fell from his chair as he exclaimed, “Good God! A Louisiana Infantry button! Where’d you find it?”
I can’t begin to describe the joy I felt at his words. This relic-hunting business was like a competition, and the more the opposition squirmed, the more fun it was! Between the button and the James shell, my friend the Supervisor had become somewhat anguished. Soon, he had ordered and assembled his very own Heathkit metal detector.
I was on fire now. The “treasure bug” had bitten me, and I had contracted the disease. The late sixties to early seventies was a perfect time to dig relics in Vicksburg, for construction of the new Interstate Highway 20 was underway, housing projects were springing up all around the siege lines – clearing the ground for easy hunting – and people were generally quite willing to permit digging on their property. With each day bringing exposure of new stretches of what had been a part of Confederate and Union lines during the siege, I soon had a growing collection of relics of the War, including many artillery shells. In fact, the search for artillery shells became the primary objective of my hunts. Over the course of the next four years I dug ten, twenty, and thirty-pounder Parrott shells, flat-top and chill-nose Parrott bolts, James shells and bolts, types I & II, Hotchkiss shells and bolts from 3 to 4.2 inches diameter, spherical shells and shot in calibers 6-pounder, 12-pounder, 24 pounder, 32 pounder, 42 pounder, and 8, 9, 10, and 11 inch diameter, 3 inch, 3.67 inch, and 4.2 inch Schenkl shells, 3 inch and 4.2 inch Mullane shells and bolts, 3 inch Reads in bolt and shell, 6.4” tear-drop Read bolts, and Archer bolts, besides several tons of fragments that occupied a growing portion of my backyard. I also began a collection of the various types of Minie balls, specializing more in the rare Confederate bullets than in the more common Union types.
In 1971 I was transferred to Jackson, Mississippi, and in 1974 to Greenville, Mississippi, to start up the new Gerald Andrus power plant; duties and distance drastically curtailed the amount of time I was able to devote to hunting relics in Vicksburg. Perhaps I benefited from the relocation, however, as I learned that treasure exists in many different forms. I became a coin-shooter, a bottle-digger, and a flea-market fanatic. I developed a love for rare books, particularly of Southern origin and content, and became more appreciative of antique furniture and the art nouveau. I never lost my love of relic-hunting the Vicksburg area, though, and when I returned there in 1978, my love affair was renewed.


Dixie Rebel said...

Just got back from Vicksburg today. Found a few Minnie balls by the river.

Malcolm said...

Funny how the river always uncovers a few relics. Did you eyeball them, or use a metal detector??