I’m a packrat from the word go, have been since I was a kid, even these days people see me in my daily walks, stop, retrieve some object from street or gutter, and stick it in my pocket.
My garage is no longer used for a vehicle because it’s at the back of the house built in 1742, and mere feet from the First Iron Works in America, now a National Park, and where I worked odd days in odd years from the age of 15 until my graduation from college, after service in Korea. The old fieldstone cellar stands monumentally yet, from 1742, but is not for slow times or efforts.
One of those picked-up objects turned out to be a small diary flush with writing on every page cover to cover. At that time, my eyes were bothering me, and I convinced myself that I’d never be able to read. As such, it made its way in several shifts and quick moves to the bottom drawer of an old chest in the cellar.
Even the acquisition of new glasses never brought that little book to sight until I saw a TV advertisement where an older man finds a series of letters from his father in a secret place of his attic and discovers things he had never known, about school, war, love, hate, fishing, gambling, comradeship, life on the run, life in the dark.
I went scurrying through a mass of matter until I found the little notebook, spiral binding across the top, each page numbered, and a basic familiarity with the script began to seep into my understanding.
His eye was better than his hand. Or so it appeared to me.
One grand surprise was on the third to last page, a hand-scratched map I could not read nor understand, a secret within a secret. I showed it to my son, the baby of the litter, sharp as a tack but in the slow-days’ agony of lyme disease. In two days, he was back with a list of words found in the text which had been underlined, and the subject page number and entry line on the page, like 1-30.
“That’s about as far as I can go, Dad, but I think there sure is a method to this madness. I’ll leave that up to you. I sure thought he had already cracked the code, if such be the word for it, and wanted me to find it. That’s the way he’s made. But that didn’t come out of the darkness, as it were.
I spent days at it, woke suddenly to know where North was, and that found the other three points of direction.
I was elated when I recognized the location of a local beach, knowing I had narrowed some site as reachable, local. It made me pore again over every page, every line, every word, including a plea that simply stated, “If this Histroy is ever lost or found after I’m gone, please make public my dreams to have it published. It is my worldly treasure.”
His manner of words, this last one in particular, sent my sense and nerves onto a racing mode; he was classic.
My wife Hilda said to me, harsh as an order, “Let me have a gander at that someday, Harry. I’ll give it my best read too.”
It took her less than a week of odd moments to declare, “This man, whoever wrote this, is obviously of a keen mind, but misspells certain words at every usage.” She had a list of simple words that I had seen on my own but never connected, or listed, or paid any attention to because they were so scattered within the text, my thinking a shaky hand might have committed the small sins. As above, Histroy in every count, whether capitalized or not, is misspelled. So was grainite, so easily seen in its use as granite. “I wonder,” she continued her prophesizes, if he’s a phonetic misspeller, like rocks is not only roxks in each use, but is used near granite or grainite in just about every circumstance, as is bowlder for boulder.”
She paused, as if gathering her breath for a final push, smiled as was her fashion in solution or discovery, whichever way she might look at things right in front of her. “I think there are some blind spots here, with intent, to throw readers off the trail. It’s always stones about at fingertips, but if I was writing it I’d not spell it stoanes or stoans as he might. You know the beach, and if I know you, you’d be out there now. It’s only 8 or 9 miles away in Waterford.” She added another smile, knowing how bad the weather was outside, snow for much of the day starting in early morning with a wind off the sea that we could hear against the windows in the study of the house, my hangout for brain work from early morn for a few post-midnight hours, and back to bed for a catch-up sleep, good to the last snore.
There were geniuses in my family, a pair of them. I wondered, if the histroian in this case had such a family of wonders, a collection of wild thinkers with a calm resolve at resolution. Oh, God, I loved the pair of them, and if I made a move for the door in my exuberance, it’d be Kitty- bar-the-door. We were dealing with a rare and intelligent person, one I’d love to spend hours with in my study talking about anything and everything. I’d tell him how I tried to form messages or insight with first and last words on a page, on a series of lines, seeking odd punctuation to include or separate any other leads.
There were innumerable chances for such interpretation.
He would be grand company with grand mind exercises, and more than once I wondered aloud, “What if I had not picked up that little notebook, or what if he had not lost it, or did he lose it? Really? Was it a plant for me on my daily walks? All these tormenting ideas were so involved and yet so simple at the same time. What kind of a host could I be to such a man? I felt narrowed for odd minutes, yet my mind went streaking all over the possibilities.
If he knew I had the book, that would be clue enough, but if he didn’t know, and would never know, what then?
I pined for spring, for a break in the weather, for a walk on the beach, that beach in Waterford. And in such a mindset, images galore came, the good and bad words flooding my mind, In a bright light of thought, I gasped aloud.
I imagined the seawall at the beach. Then I saw five granite stones at the base of the wall, equal distances apart, as if they had been placed as markers or separators, where hundreds of bathers and sun-tanners on fair and sunny days could take turns sitting against those huge stones, eyeing walkers, paraders in slim swim suits, athletic swimmers, and the eternal line of the ocean out there on the circling horizon, some mornings I thought I had been blinded by its mighty appearance, a universal hammer pounding deeply into my eyeballs, surgeon’s work.
“April,” I espoused; “I’ll be there in April, early in the morning, with a spade, and no metal detector to draw people swarming around me, waiting for the grand hallelujah, an escape to anywhere and everywhere on the first train out of the station, or a miracle flight to a brighter beach in the Pacific or down in South America, home to heathen and heroes since the foreseeable end of WW II, maybe Hitler’s remains gone with the fire ants swarming him with the vengeance of millions of people across history. It showed that I was the new student in the class of the diary keeper, the small treasure found in the gutter, stashed away for innumerable years of my own darkness.
So, in the process of revolutions around our Earth, the sun burst one morning atop Waterford Beach, and I was there with a spade, alone on the beach “cool as all outdoors” as my father used to say with a snicker.
I dug one foot out from the first grainiet, no fear of that monstrous stone’s tipping upon me, cascading other portions of the wall onto the beach. In the chilly air, I was down two feet when the numbers hit me and I knew, for sure, that I’d find nothing of value after looking at my yield; countable bottle caps, a portion of a watch band might be a hundred years from a wrist, a rusty nail without its wooden home, salt and erosion having worked its way through that pairing, the remains of a lost wallet whose paper pages had rotted within the leather skin sections on the very same route (not even an owner’s name visible), three marble aggies once I would have stolen for my own collection of more than a hundred found in the earth on my own property and housed in a frame hanging on a wall with a child’s worn ankle-high shoe exposing an ailment of some kind, an antinganting nailed by the owner or the carpenter for good luck onto a construction beam of the 1742 house, that is now my home, for good luck I had dubbed it Viola’s Shoe, hanging yet on my study wall.
Three days later, after incessant rains kept the beach clear of people, and still in morning’s darkness, I was tossing sand from two feet in front of the second grainiet, when the beam of a flashlight found me in its core.
“Hah,” a heavy voice sounded, “I spotted you a few days ago and wondered what you were up to. Town laws say nobody can dig up this beach without written permission from the Park and Beach Board to search for a lost personal possession. What did you lose, sir? Do you have a written warrant to dig here on the beach? I am Officer Walter Coleman of the Waterford Police Department, at your service. Now fill me in on the story you’re about to spin for me. I am really interested.”
The policeman had an unusual warmth and interest about him, saying he was a kind and considerate man, would make a good companion at a card table or a friendly fan at a high school athletic confrontation, the winner going home with a good feeling in his bones.
For much of that morning, I told Officer Coleman about the found diary. His interest was thorough, sensitive, to say a word, sensational to a hunter of goods.
“Sir,” he repeated, I am an historical bug, but one with single subject, which from my earliest days has kept captured my interest. It’s a compelling interest in Mary, Queen of Scots, who lived
December 1542 until February 1587. She was also called Mary Stuart or Mary I of Scotland, and she reigned over Scotland from December 1542 to July 1567. Her father was James V of Scotland and her mother was Mary from Guise, and like me, she was a Roman Catholic.
The wonder of casual contacts with interesting people hit me again; I had found, or made contact with, two of the most interesting people one person could meet in this life. The policeman bristled with life and his single interest, and I assumed there was a story behind him, and yet to come.
Shortly it unfolded. “The good queen during the battle of Langside, south of Glasgow in 1568, presented to a kinsman, one Walter Coleman, a special medal and chain she had personally designed for the warrior and his heroics. It was stolen from the family, by a bugger of a thief, sometime in 1631 and brought here, where story says it was lost in a coastal area, much near or in the small settlement on the sea known as Waterford thence and ever, The time was about that of Major Appleton of Ipswich, who made a speech about the other Crown, and the same time of the Iron Works gearing up its history, both events occurring over the rise in Saugus We have no more than a drawing of the valorous award within the family, several of them, in fact, depicting different points of view or particular attractions to other artists. It would be worth millions if found, you can bet your bottom dollar on that. With my personal permission, as long as there are no crowds around, you can pursue your dreams. If you find anything I am interested in, we can celebrate with a Dilly Dilly, if you know what I mean.
And so it was, 5 feet out front of grainiet #5, and 5 feet down to keep the mathematics on an even keel, I felt the shiver come up the handle of the spade as its tip rang on a metallic object.
The hurry grabbed me by the throat and I dug feverishly to finally bring to the surface, the container with its lid rusted in place after who knows how many years of burial in the salty sand.
Officer Coleman was not about, but I called him and invited him to my house. “The lid on the container is rusted in place and I will not try to open it until you are here.”
“Thank you, good sir,” he replied, “I’m not sure what we’ll find, but I’ll bring a drawing of my hopes, and we’ll have a Dilly Dilly for sure, no matter the outcome.”
My day was up in the air instead of five feet down in the sand.