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.
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.
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."
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.