Friday, August 31, 2007

IV. Digging adventures 2

One thing I learned very early was that it pays to always get permission to hunt anyone’s property, preferably in writing. That helps avoid embarrassing confrontations with angry landowners, and perhaps keeps one out of jail. I must admit that there have been times when I have been so tempted by the sight of a hilltop freshly cleared by heavy equipment that I couldn’t help but pull over and check it. I have met landowners in this fashion who have been most tolerant, and others who have been downright nasty. Thus it’s always best to avoid confrontations by getting permission first. The lesson has been taught me well, for I have been guilty of allowing my gusto to overcome my appreciation for honorable behavior. I will share with you a couple of my most anxious moments, and not share with you a couple of other incidents that I choose not to recall.
The first one wasn’t really my fault. A friend had asked me to reconnoiter a spot with him that he felt had been a Union artillery emplacement, and which might yield a few Confederate artillery shells. It turned out the area was just behind a Vicksburg church parking lot, upon which we parked our vehicle. Together we walked into the woods and explored a mound of earth that was very likely just what we were looking for. We decided we would come back with our detectors the next day. As we walked from the woods back onto the concrete of the parking lot, I heard a scream of fury.
She was the type of woman you immediately know not to mess with. I know this type well (she wasn’t the first). She wore baggy half-thigh shorts and an open front shirt whose tails flopped as she walked, and which exposed the center of her flat-chest bra. Like most of these exceptionally mean old bats I’ve come across, she sported those heavy creases in her rough-textured mug that were furrowed there by sun, smoke, frowns and curses – you’ve seen the type. Her shoes were loose, and they flippity-flapped as her knock-kneed jaunt brought her rapidly in our direction. She had the ever-present (I’m sure) filter-less cigarette flopping from her lips.
Just the appearance of the old gal would have normally scared hell out of me. Worse, I now surmised, she was wagging a pistol in her right hand as she trailed a stream of smoke and swore. It was no normal pistol. I know that the heat of the moment, and time, have combined to exaggerate the thing in my memory, but I would swear today that that pistol had the longest barrel of any pistol I’ve ever seen. It must have been two feet long.
“You ^%$#@!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “What the hell are doing on my property?”
I raised a hand to protest our innocence – my buddy had permission, right? The woman kept right on coming, wagging that long-barreled pistol and streaming clouds of smoke. When I heard the engine roar behind me, I knew I’d better jump aboard or be left to die.
“Don’t you come back here!” the “lady” screamed as I jerked the car door open and leaped inside, “You ^%&@# better not come back on my property!”
“You #@&%?!” I told my pal as he squalled away. “You told me you had permission to walk that property!”
He just shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Guess we’ll forget about hunting there,” he said – as if that weren’t quite obvious.
The other example of non-permission fiasco that I’m willing to share occurred in the hills north of Vicksburg. Our company had cleared the right-of-way under our high-voltage power lines where the lines cut through a section of Confederate entrenchments that had been under fire from the Union gunboats back in 1862 and 1863. Obviously, I was eager to dig a few large cannon balls, so I headed that way after work one summer afternoon. There were no other hunters around when I arrived, a fact I thought strange since clearing of the area was common knowledge. What the heck? More for me.
I unlimbered the detector and had hunted for about thirty minutes in the cleared area beneath the power lines, very near the highway, when I noticed a pickup truck that had pulled over and parked near my own vehicle. I continued my detecting, but with an eye in that direction, and watched as a large gentleman in rough clothing stepped from the truck. He stood for a moment and beat at his dusty clothes, not even looking in my direction, and I sighed with relief; the guy had probably just pulled over to take a whiz. But as he reached inside and plucked a rifle from the gun rack that most local hunters around Vicksburg have installed over their rear window, I realized it was not a whiz that held his interest, but me.
He slammed the truck door and, holding the rifle at his side with one hand, the barrel pointing straight at his foot, he began to walk in my direction. At this point I decided to mentally reexamine the logic I’d earlier used to convince myself that “right-of-way” meant something like “ownership.” I came to the sudden conclusion that maybe I’d been fooling myself; “right-of-way” might mean something like the “right to run power lines,” not the “right to hunt relics…”
I wasn’t so scared that it was me taking a whiz now, but I was close. The man and the rifle kept getting bigger and bigger – especially the rifle – as he came on. As he neared me I recognized him – a boilermaker – a boilermaker who was working an outage at my plant!
The latter discernment might have made me feel safer, except that this particular boilermaker was a well-known nutcake. Everybody knew he was crazy. The only reason he was still in the union was that they were afraid to blackball him. One rumor had it that he was guilty of several unsolved murders in the area.
“Hey there, Carl (not his real name),” I said quite nervously as he neared me. He stopped when I spoke his name, and stared at me as if trying to figure out how I knew he was “Carl.”
“Just metal detecting.” I said lamely with a big toothy grin.
“Hmmm,” he said after a moment, frowning. No, correction, I couldn’t tell if he was frowning or if the look on his face was just confusion. God! I thought. This guy really is nuts! He’s gonna kill me!
“Yeah, it’s me,” I said good-naturedly. Good ole Malcolm. Just one of us guys. “Trying to dig a few of them little Minie balls. Bullets.”
He stared at me. And stared at me. And stared some more. When he suddenly let loose a stream of soggy tobacco juice that landed near one of my boots, I darn near ruined my jeans.
“I know you,” he said in such a soft voice I could barely hear him.
“Yeah! The plant! Baxter Wilson! Plant Manager!”
“Huntin’ bullets.”
“Yep. That’s my hobby. I always cover my holes, too. Never know I was here.”
“Huntin’ bullets.”
I didn’t know whether to answer in the affirmative again or just grin so he would think I was as crazy as he was.
He looked at my boots, shook his head a couple more times, then repeated, “Huntin’ bullets.” Then he turned without another word and walked back to his truck, got in, and drove away.
Talk about relief! I sat down on a stump for awhile to let my nerves calm a bit, and thanked heaven for my reprieve. What a brush with death! I was lucky I wasn’t covered with 30-caliber holes!
But, as I’ve said before, I have the disease. And I’m crazy. I perked up. I proceeded to use the same logic any idiot digger would use. The cowboy hadn’t said I couldn’t hunt his property, had he? In fact, his reluctance to shoot me was as good as written permission-to-hunt, wasn’t it? Darn! I had permission to hunt this property as long as I wanted! And I had it all to myself! If any other relic hunter came out here, old Crazy Carl and his trusty 30-06 would change their minds, wouldn’t he?
I got off the stump and went back to relic hunting.
As an aside, this area was the site that was heavily shelled by Union gunboats during and before Sherman took a licking at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou and during the battles of May, 1863, as that well known barbarian, U. S. Grant, moved to encircle Vicksburg. I eventually dug enough six-pounder solid balls, rings, bolts and plates to assemble two complete stands of eight-inch grape. Big balls (8”, 9”, 10”, and 11”) and hundred-pounder Parrott shells were also recovered from this site.
One other folly that resulted from failure to gain permission to hunt a site deserves to be mentioned. It occurred when my friend, the aforementioned Maintenance Supervisor, was observed scanning the grounds around a very old church in Warren County. He had hunted this area a number of times without incident, but in this particular instance the person who witnessed the event decided to write a “letter to the editor” of the Vicksburg Evening Post. The letter was published, and in it the man was accused of everything from trespassing and grave robbing to the destruction of valuable archeological artifacts. The writer recommended further that there be a law passed to put an end to such activities. That article affected the local relic hunting populous to some extent, but to my friend, a very sensitive person, it was devastating. He abandoned the hobby; only years later, when I returned to Vicksburg from Greenville as Plant Manager of Baxter Wilson, did I convince him to pick up his metal detector again. I took him to Warrenton, where he dug quite a few US buckles and Mississippi buttons. I’ll never forget that Maintenance Supervisor. He was the type of friend you seldom find and always need.

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