About three months ago, I was sitting on a bench outside the front door of our church when the pastor walked up. He seemed in a hurry as we exchanged greetings, then he stopped and asked a question that one would naturally expect at such a chance meeting: “You wouldn’t happen to have a metal detector?” And, of course, I replied with an answer you would naturally expect: “Yes, I do.” Well, maybe not naturally expect, but my mind immediately wondered what treasure he was seeking.


Ahh, treasure hunting. The love of it is instilled in us at an early age. Most parents at some point take their children on an Easter egg hunt or hide the eggs around the house for their kids to find. We did some of both. As the kids became older, and later with the grandkids, we organized more elaborate treasure hunts for special occasions such as birthdays. The kids received a series of cryptic clues to decipher that would lead to their birthday presents.


Treasure hunting and treasure maps appeal to kids of all ages. As a child, I fell under the spell of treasure hunting reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped.” Today’s kids have the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series. My friends and I played pirates, which included drawing treasure maps and burying treasure. You may remember years ago most gumball machines dispensed a gumball for a penny. Some machines dispensed little plastic capsules that contained a toy. Three of my friends and I decided that one of those capsules would make an ideal treasure chest.


We had scraped together about 20 cents from finding and returning pop bottles. In the mid-1950s, returnable bottles that were washed and reused were worth two cents each, which to a kid was not an insignificant amount. Grocery stores carried a large variety of penny candy, and even candy bars were only a nickel. We placed the money in the capsule then buried the capsule under some bushes in a nearby empty lot. We drew a treasure map noting the critical landmarks and carefully counted the number of steps to the treasure. We intended to add to it as we redeemed more bottles, although for what purpose the treasure was to be used is lost to memory.


Being kids, we of course were impatient to see our treasure again, so the next morning we headed to the empty lot. Using our treasure map on which “X” marked the burial location, we located the spot under the bush and dug, finding: Nothing! Had we made an error in the directions? Not likely, as we were digging in dirt freshly turned. After sifting more carefully through the soil but still finding nothing, we concluded that one of us must have returned earlier and stolen the treasure. No one fessed up. In retrospect, it is a fitting end for a pirate story. Going back to steal the treasure is exactly what Long John Silver or Jack Sparrow would have done.


Modern tools, such as metal detectors, make treasure hunting easy and fun for almost anyone who yearns to find the hidden gold. When my father came to visit in Florida, he brought along his metal detector. A fairly sophisticated model for the time, it discriminated between base metals such as iron and steel and non-ferrous metals such as copper, aluminum, brass and, of course, silver and gold. We tried it at the beach, which I thought would be rich in lost valuables, but all we found were pop tops. With Dad’s suggestion of potentially good sites, we went to a little community that had an annual art fair in a downtown park. Within a short time at the park we found coins (including older silver coins), a ring and other interesting items. The kids thought it was great fun.


Remembering the good times with Dad’s metal detector, I dropped a hint a few years ago that I would like to have one. Someone was paying attention, because for Christmas the kids got me one with the discriminator feature. The grandkids and I treasure hunt with it in local parks and the school playground across the street. We keep searching for that diamond ring, but the only items of value we unearth are coins. We collect them in a jar, and to date we have amassed the grand sum of $2.22.


Returning to our pastor’s need for the metal detector — what buried treasure was he seeking that required such an instrument? He was building a fence at his residence and needed to establish the property lot line. Generally, surveyors drive metal stakes at the corners of a lot, but over time the stakes sink and become covered. Pastor was hoping to avoid paying a surveyor to determine the lot line. I loaned him the metal detector and he successfully found the metal stakes (along with a hammer and some other items). Pastor’s use of the metal detector yielded no ancient artifacts, jewelry or rare coins, but finding those pieces of steel rebar at the corners of his property was a treasure worth $500 or more—money he saved by not needing to hire a surveyor.


Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.