TAMPA — Metal detectors wave in the air as the men listen intently for a cue: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...
And 20 people are off. Slowly. They listen for the beep, beep that could be a silver dollar or a coin in the sand. They hope to hear what sounds like a phone ringing in the headphones connected to their detectors.
That sound could mean something. Could be treasure. Could be junk.
The West State Archaeological Society is a fancy name for a group of 45 members who simply call themselves treasure hunters. They meet every month to show off and discuss the history of their finds around Tampa Bay. The club started in the early 1970s. Most members are men and their wives who ended up joining, too.
"Pretty pathetic, ain't it?" jokes Barry Inman, 56, the club's vice president. "A bunch of old geezers trying to fight over stuff."
They met Sunday at Picnic Island for the club's annual bash: a raffle, baked beans, sausage and slaw. But the main event is the hunt, and small orange flags surrounded a section in the sand with $350 worth of silver and other treasure buried in it.
Hunters keep their eyes on the ground. They scan the sand and listen through their headphones for 19th century dimes, a silver watch and six tokens for prizes. One man carries a shovel. Others dip scoopers into the sand, then shake and sift.
Richard Schemit has put back at least 10 items he already owns. Schemit, 48, has been a member for 15 years, and at home there's a walk-in closet filled with knives, old tools and Zippo lighters.
He said he was born with a love for it. As a kid growing up in Cocoa Beach, the top drawer of his dresser kept all his finds. Dead lizards. Fossils. Old apothecary bottles. Junk.
All that experience trained his ears well. Schemit knows when his metal detector is picking up a coin or just another dirty tab from a beer can. Once, he found a 14-karat gold men's ring that weighed nearly an ounce. He cashed it in for $725.
The hunters love their junk and treasure as much as they respect their oldest member, Woody. During club auctions, where mystery sets could be worth a lot or not, bids for Woody's sets are always high — sometimes $100.
Lewis "Woody" Woodworth, 88, joined the club in the early 1970s when he moved from Ohio. His wife, Esther, also joined.
Woody said it's simple, good fun.
At home, they have so much loot from years of hunting, including bottles from the Second Seminole War and fossils, that all Esther can say is, "Oh boy!" If they find a lot recently left empty by a demolished building, Woody will be there.
"I go and screen like an archaeologist," he said.
Like the Woodworths, Tammy Inman, 44, joined along with her husband.
If it were up to her, she'd be in a quilting club. But her husband, Barry, begged a year for a metal detector. Then he lost his job as a metal fabricator, and she said he needed something to make him happy.
They researched stores selling metal detectors, and they met Philip Myers and Jocelyn Myers, who recruited the Inmans to the club. Jocelyn described the club as the "nicest bunch of people."
Now Tammy is on the club's board and writes the newsletter. Barry is vice president and his love for treasure hunting continues to grow. Any pile of dirt is fair game.
"I do love junk," Barry said. "The junkier it is, the more I like it."
At Sunday's hunt, Barry finds a watch. He pockets a few coins he uncovered, and token No. 3 for the raffle.
The hunt is over in about 40 minutes, though a few stragglers persist.
But most members sit down to laugh about the terrible raffle prizes they've offered each other. Metal detectors are down, and they enjoy what they really treasure here — the company.
Ileana Morales can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or email@example.com.