A golden Matchbox car, a pocket-sized metal frog, an unusable BIC lighter, and a couple dozen rusty pennies, wires, screws and keychains. As Grandpa George Schneider meticulously rearranges his recent findings in a circular, green tray, he purses his lips in a manner that indicates an impending insight. Stroking his shaggy, white beard, he explains, “You see, I don’t put anything back in the ground.”
We all wait to see the items Grandpa unearthed with his metal detector. We wait to hear about the key fob from a motor hotel that went out of business in 1925, or the six pairs of sandals he dug from the same one-foot hole in a volleyball court. We wait to hear how messy Grandma’s white blouse got while she sifted through dirt. We wait to hear the happiness in his voice because, when you’re with Grandpa, he’s the real treasure.
Grandpa George is a prospector. He embodies the classic stereotype with a white beard, a worn, tan hat and the tools for the job — a shovel, gold pan, metal detector, rake, pick, sledge hammer, sharp eyes and a young heart. He owns a white truck filled with dirt and stones left over from his recent adventures.
Grandpa always puts thought into his wardrobe. If he’s seeing his grandson’s band perform, he wears his “Living Statues” crewneck. If he’s visiting his granddaughter at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he wears his NASA-Issued Blue Jean shirt. One time, in seventh grade, when he came to teach my class about rocks and gems, he slowly unbuttoned his flannel to reveal his “Grandpa Rocks” t-shirt. Today his shirt reads, “Fisher Labs,” a metal detecting company based out of El Paso, Texas.
I sit across from him, set up a camera and, within 10 seconds of hitting record, he has a finger up his nose, telling me I should call the story “Mining for a Gold Nugget.” Reacting instantaneously with a hearty laugh, I turn my head to Grandma who shouts “George!” as she sips some cabernet out of a long-stemmed wine glass.
Grandpa spends his summer months in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, living in the same one-story house where he raised four children with his wife and my grandma, Natalie.
“We met about almost a hundred years ago at a dance,” Grandma Natalie giggles.
Fifty-eight years later, Grandma and Grandpa Schneider still make each other laugh more than anyone I know. She sits on a rocking chair across the room, occasionally chiming in about her husband’s hobby.
Not much has changed within the walls of the Schneider household since well before I was born — the cribbage board sits on the wooden dinner table, Grandma’s sewing room fills with wildly colorful fabrics from Jo-Ann’s, and the clean fridge is stocked full with cans of Dr. Pepper and homemade “Grandma jam.” Aside from the fresh “chicken-themed” wallpaper in the kitchen to replace the apple theme, the house remains beautifully unchanged.
Grandpa bought his first metal detector years after he retired from General Motors. After learning the basics of treasure hunting from magazines and salesmen who would become great friends and mentors, he set off on his first of many adventures. He packed up his truck and drove down the rocky street to Meadowview Elementary, the grade school all four of his children attended in the 1960s.
Swinging his metal detector back and forth, Grandpa’s actions gave birth to his new hobby. With the first swings, he adopted a passion that would not only keep him physically fit for years to come, but would also keep his mind sharp and his adventurous soul nourished.
Grandpa describes what he found on his first hunt nearly 12 years ago without skipping a beat. “Basically I found coins, I found wire, I found a lot of aluminum cans that have gone through the lawn mower and were buried, and the first time I was out I found three Cub Scout neckpieces.” He’s pretty sure they were lost by the Boy Scouts rolling down the hill.
As Grandpa gained more experience, he joined metal detecting clubs. Throughout the year, the clubs Grandpa belongs to in central Wisconsin host approximately 10 seeded hunts. The administrators of the clubs take thousands of coins, plant them in the ground and charge members to enter the competition. When a whistle blows, the treasure hunters see how many coins they can detect, dig up and collect within a given amount of time.
“You would never guess that Grandpa is more than three-quarters a century old when he swings his detector,” his granddaughter Emily Schneider explains. One of the most seasoned, yet modest hunters on the field, he swings his detector with expert hands awaiting the fateful ‘beep’ that lets him know there is something beneath.
Smiling like he has a secret to tell, Grandpa leans in close. Signaling for me to bring my ear over, he whispers, “In the last competition hunt, I come in third in the state, so I was pretty proud. Of course, in the women’s division, your sister Emily beat me. She come in second.” He chuckled like a proud parent who just saw straight As on a report card.
However, every time Emily asks him to recant the time she beat him, suddenly he has “no memory of it ever happening.” And with a wink, that’s that.
As Grandpa started spending more time with his White’s Metal Detector, he began taking the grandchildren along. One by one, his seven grandchildren joined his adventures, to discover the “incredible buried treasure trove” in Grant Park or find “the gold that the pirates buried” underneath the Milwaukee County playgrounds.
Grandpa would hand us a trowel and an apron and we would become his diggers. The metal detector would beep and our hearts would race. We’d rush over to the spot, bend down and dig like we had struck oil. Our imaginations would run wild with possibilities. The beep could signify a chest full of gold coins, a diamond ring or, even better, a new toy to play with.
Of course, we would normally leave with a few aluminum cans, some wire and bottle caps, but they were treasures nonetheless. Occasionally we would find buttons, pins and barrettes. However, on special days, we would find coins. Thinking back, I have a feeling Grandpa would toss coins from his pocket, just to see the look on our face and experience the excitement in our hearts when we picked up a bright, shining nickel out of the sand. He would never admit it.
But, as Grandpa taught us, treasure is treasure. We would bring our findings home, show Grandma, and she would “ooo-and-ahhh” over our treasures, picking up every rusty piece of wire and scuffed up coin and reward us with fresh, homemade cookies after our long days in the sun. I would excitedly bring the items I unearthed home to show my mom, who would patiently sit and watch as I showed her all of my findings, but then she would politely tell me to wash my hands as soon as I was done.
“I think it just brings the whole family together,” Grandpa says.
Today, he takes his four great-grandchildren out on “hunts.” They scope out “special spots” to treasure hunt, and, if they’re lucky, they get to go out alone with him. Nobody seems to mind leaving their brother or sister at home if it means you get Grandpa’s undivided attention.
Aside from knitting his family together, Grandpa’s hobby allows him to engage in a whole new circle of friends. He looks up to experts in the field and befriends men and women who are just as passionate about the sport as he is.
Specifically, Grandpa looks up to his friend, Peter, a professional prospector, who recently found two Celtic coins in England, each valued at approximately $20,000 a piece.
“I said to Peter, ‘You’re pretty lucky finding those,’” Grandpa recalls. “And Peter said, ‘Yeah, I was lucky to find those two little gold coins.’” But he explains that Peter described a three-foot pile of trash he dug up to find them, and about two weeks of hard work.
Although Grandpa may not admit it, he, too, has dug up some valuable treasures. He has found dozens of rings, gold bracelets and necklaces. He and my sister Emily even found his nephew’s lost wedding ring at the bottom of the lake. He has found valuable coins that are no longer in circulation and bullet shells from the turn of the century.
However, when I asked him what the most valuable artifact he has found is, he started talking about tin cans.
“You can take an old tin can that was probably produced in 1900 and find a lot of history,” Grandpa says with his eyes lit up.
Value, in Grandpa’s terms, is not monetary, it is intrinsic. He can look at a gold ring and simply admire its beauty, but he finds more joy in finding a tin can, observing how it’s put together, examining the way it’s soldered shut and learning about the time period in which it was produced.
That’s what I love about Grandpa. The beautiful jewelry he unearths will immediately land on his wife’s finger or his granddaughter’s wrist without a second thought. However, he will spend hours researching, cleaning and admiring a rusty piece of metal. He will store it in his basement and bring his grandkids down to the musty underground workshop to give them a history lesson. I can recall him placing rocks in my hand and saying, “that’s dinosaur poop,” and watching me complain about how gross it was that he tricked me into touching it, or “that’s a piece of petrified wood,” then quickly transitioning into the history of the Paleozoic Era.
Everything Grandpa finds has history, a story. Everything he finds fell into the earth solely for him to uncover. Everything he finds is “interesting.” His findings are filled with insights about a world before us. He looks at every piece of metal he picks up like it is the most valuable finding in history.
And the way Grandpa looks at his findings? Well, that’s the way we all look at Grandpa.