Friday, August 31, 2007

VIII. Digging adventures 5

As noted in my initial piece on the subject, I (and Mike) learned on our very first hunt a rule that governs the relic-hunting crowd: Never hunt relics on federal property, nor on other property where it is illegal to do so. If you take a metal detector onto federal property with the intent to hunt, you’re subject to arrest, imprisonment, and a huge fine. It doesn’t matter that government property is the peoples’ property. The federal government has assumed it has control of the land and all the relics therein/there under, and the government and its Ranger representatives will take great joy in arresting you and pursuing you via the courts, regardless of your most innocent of intentions.
This latter assertion is indeed fact, for some employees of the federal government, and particularly the National Park Service, exhibit extreme malice toward relic hunters. That, of course, brings on a story or two of my encounters with some of the more aggressive members of that group.
Some months after our first expedition with a metal detector, son Mike and I located a ravine near the Vicksburg National Military Park, behind Confederate lines, that appeared to have potential. I’d talked with nearby landowners, and although there were several, had obtained the necessary permission to hunt the area of most interest.
On the next opportune day we parked alongside a county road leading into the park, but well outside its lines. Soon Mike watched the birds and occupied himself with a knife and sharpened stick spears while I scanned a hillside above the ravine with my detector. On the hillside on the opposite side of the ravine were the NPS boundary stakes; I made sure to keep well away from them.
Sometime later I noticed a Park Ranger’s vehicle passing on the road near where I had parked. As it slowed near my VW, then turned and drove the opposite direction, I paid it little attention; I knew I was not on NPS property. However, several minutes later, suddenly, from behind a nearby tree, a Park Ranger sprang, hand on the pistol at his waist, shouting at the top of his lungs, “You’re under arrest! You’re on Park property!”
Needless to say, I jumped ten feet into the air at the unexpected interruption. When I fell back from the treetops, I stared at the Ranger in amazement and said, in a not-so-friendly tone, “What the hell are you talking about? I’m not on Park property.” Pointing across the ravine, I continued, “Park lines are way over on that ridge.”
“No, they’re not!” he shouted.
“Yes,” I replied, “they are. You want to go over and see?”
“Give me your metal detector,” he demanded, reaching for it with one hand while keeping the other on his gun.
Things had happened so fast that I hadn’t thought about Mike, but just then I felt him wrap both arms around my leg. I looked down into the face of a little boy filled with terror, crying his eyes out as he shrank from the sight of the armed, loud-mouthed Park Ranger. I lost my temper then.
“You %#*@& piece of %$#?@!” I screamed at him, “You have scared my little boy half to death! And we’re not on Park property, you %#$*@!”
“Let’s go,” he said, pointing back toward the road.
I gave the Ranger my detector, comforted Mike as best I could, told him things were going to be fine, then gave the Park Ranger an unholy blessing as we were marched from the ridge to his car. Mike and I were placed in the back seat and driven to the Visitors’ Center at the VNMP.
The Visitors’ Center (the old one that’s now been razed) had a huge room below the main level that was apparently used for meetings, conferences, etc., and which contained two or three long tables alongside of which were rows of chairs. I know my memory has magnified the event, but it seems now that the tables were as long as a football field. The Park Ranger had notified the City Police, the Sheriff’s Department, the Superintendent and his staff of the National Park, and maybe the FBI and CIA for all I know, for several representatives of these and other organizations were soon seated near the center of one long table. Mike and I were told to sit opposite them. So it was twenty-five people on one side of the mile-long table, little Mike and myself on the other.
We were grilled. Why were we there? How long had we been there? Did I know it was unlawful to relic hunt on Federal property? Did I know the penalty for hunting on Federal property? Did I know that the VNMP had recently purchased property in that area, and that even if it wasn’t marked, I was still guilty of breaking a Federal law? Did I know the penalty for threatening a Federal officer?
They kept it up for a good forty-five minutes. I denied being on VNMP property, they insisted I was. Since they were obviously ignorant, I offered to go out there and show them where the lines were; they would have none of it. In the end they gave my detector back to me and told me they would notify me as to how my “case” would be resolved. My last words were, “Either you send me a letter of apology, or I will sue you.”
Mike and I went on home, where I talked to him and assured him that it was all a mistake, and that everything would be fine. He and I laughed about the whole thing.
A few days later I got a letter from the Superintendent of the VNMP stating that I had not been on Park property, but with a warning that I had better not ever let that happen. The latter left me fuming again. I considered taking legal action against them, but finally shrugged it off. My main concern was Mike, and he seemed to have recovered from the incident – he even had new words in his vocabulary.
I continued to hunt that same area, and several months later once again came under Park Ranger surveillance. I had come out of the woods and was placing my metal detector in the trunk of my car when I heard a rustle on the hillside far above me. There they were. Two of them. They had been watching as I hunted the ravine (and I had made a point of hunting to within two inches of their lines). I waved gaily at them, locked my detector in the trunk, drove inside Park boundaries, got out, waved at them again, then got in my car and drove home. They did not, by the way, wave back.
The spot we were hunting behind Confederate lines produced a rare pewter Confederate eagle button, the only one I have ever dug, and the first of two examples of collided bullets that I’ve found over the years. The collision of the two fifty-eight-caliber Minie balls is distinct and obvious, and an extremely rare find, for although the bullets were flying during the siege, the chance that any two would meet in flight and join together is infinitesimally small.
My relationship with Park personnel has improved since that time. I now know many by names other than %$#?@. A while back I drove into the Visitors’ Center, unaware that my metal detectors were in plain view in the back of my SUV (man, vehicles have come and gone!). After I drove from the guardhouse to the parking lot, the gate guard called in the Rangers, who found me in the gift shop studying a book on the war. “Oh, it’s you, Malcolm,” the Ranger said when he saw me.
“Yeah,” I answered, puzzled by his remark. “What’s up?”
“Your metal detectors are in your car. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to bring them in here unless they’re disassembled?”
“Oh. Heck,” I answered. “Guess I forgot.” The Ranger sighed and walked away.

1 comment:

Mr Barton said...

Superb! Fantastic.
Lot of interesting information.