The world's worst hobby.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Aug. 18 2003 10:42 AM

Full Metal Racket

The perverse thrill of metal detecting, the world's worst hobby.

Listento Emily Yoffe discuss this topic on NPR's Day to Day.

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After this episode I realized I needed help. I turned to my neighbor, Philip Dobak, a retired physicist and known metal detectorist. He told me one of his latest neighborhood finds was a 2,000-year-old Hebrew coin. I had a sinking feeling that I was now going to have to tell his lovely wife that Phil needed a neurological exam, when he ran across the street and returned with the coin. I was relieved to see it was hanging from a chain and mounted in the center of a silver Star of David. I asked to look at the rest of his treasures and he brought out a 4-inch-square box spilling over with a decade's worth of found objects.

It had the talismanic power of a shaman's chest. There was an 1879 U.S. silver dollar, British pennies from 1928 and 1938, a Chinese toy soldier circa 1940, a 1931 coin commemorating the 100th anniversary of the McCormick reaper, a class ring, a gold watch, a silver heart-shaped locket shot repeatedly with a BB gun, a wedding ring (I wondered if these last two were a set). The box filled me with a desire to release such lost things from their unwitting graves.

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Phil said his favorite place to detect was the grassy strip that runs along the street side of many D.C. sidewalks. He called them a "renewable resource" constantly being refilled with dropped items. We went to such a strip next to a nearby park. Phil adjusted the arm length on my Tracker IV, resulting in the immediate relief of what was becoming a debilitating case of metal detectorist elbow. When the detector beeped Phil took out his knife, peeled back a divot (which he later carefully replaced), and revealed a piece of metal. In a half-hour we found a bottle cap, a piece of fence, a fist-sized mass of iron, and 53 cents. As we dug up our last quarter a woman opened her front door and held the collar of a straining dog.

"Are you from the city?" she called out.

"No, ma'am," answered Phil.

"Then I hope you're not digging up my yard."

"No, ma'am."

The confrontation exposed the underbelly of metal detecting: You have to do it either on public or private property, and neither the government nor the property owner necessarily wants you digging around like a colony of monkey-pox-infected prairie dogs.

Despite my newfound expertise, without Phil my further forays were a bust. A trip to a friend's yard where my daughter had dropped a ring the year before resulted only in the discovery of the sewer pipe. An attempt to find my editor's wife's lost engagement ring at a playground turned up one rusted nail. By this time my daughter was not only bored with metal detecting, she was appalled. On the way to the car from the playground I tried detecting on the grassy sidewalk strip.

"Stop it, Mom, someone might see you," my daughter said.

"But you're the one who wanted a metal detector," I said.