The thrill of the sandy hunt is their treasure

Published Oct. 4, 2014

CLEARWATER — The sun is low on the horizon, splaying yellow light across the pale blue, cloudy sky. Two small girls squeal as they chase each other along Clearwater Beach. The gulf is calm and low.

Dorothy Child notices none of this. Her head is down, her eyes focused on the ground. Her ears are tuned in to the white noise of her oversized headphones, picking up every blip from her metal detector.

Dorothy, 80, wears a highlighter-yellow shirt emblazoned with "Key West." She holds the device in her right hand and a perforated metal scoop in her left. Her husband of more than 60 years, Larry, wades behind her through the gulf, equipped with similar gear.

Some people retire and get into genealogy or take raku pottery classes. Others look after their grandkids, or avoid their grandkids and look after their gardens. The Childs have decided to fill their days with a search for nothing in particular. They spend three to four hours a day, three to four days a week, for months at a time, scouring beaches around the country.

"Retirement is not sitting in a rocking chair," Dorothy says. "It's just like the motor home in that you can get in and you can go in any direction you want."

Dorothy and Larry met in elementary school in Gary, Ind. She fell in love with Larry's blond hair and blue eyes. He fell in love with her "great set of legs."

Larry gave Dorothy his most prized possession at the time, his Boy Scout ring, and asked her to be his girlfriend. Ecstatic, she never took it off. Weeks later, though, while she was throwing snowballs, one of her mittens fell off, and with it the thick, gold-colored ring. She never told Larry. Thank goodness, he never asked.

They went to the prom together in 1952. A year later, they were married. They had five children.

Every winter the family would pack an RV — at first a rental, then their own — and travel to the Florida Keys. The early trips lasted two weeks, then a month, then two. In 1985 the couple and their youngest child, Patti, moved to Key West.

Dorothy retired at 72 from a job at the local sheriff's office. Larry, who had run an excavating company most of his career, stopped working three years ago. That's when they pointed the RV in the other direction and hit the road.

Dorothy pads across the beach in her black neoprene beach booties.

Sweat rolls down from underneath her hat and the big headphones. Her legs are lean — muscular, even — and other than the wrinkles in her knees, they hardly show aging. On fruitful searching days, she rarely notices the pain until she and Larry are finished. But today she feels the soreness in her back and the aching in her arms. After a couple of hours, the mesh pouch at her waist holds only coins.

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Beeeeep beeeeep.

Dorothy swipes her detector back and forth across the dry sand. The device emits a high-pitched sound. She checks its LCD display. This could be good.

"I love finding things," Dorothy says. "When I found my very first ring, that was like over-the-top exciting."

She can't tell you what that ring looked like, but she remembers the feeling well.

Over the past three years, the Childs have logged 70,000 miles covering 42 states on their treasure hunts. Beaches along the East Coast and some in the Midwest are favorites. New York is the best place to hunt; fewer metal detectorists means more goodies for them.

They've found more than 50 rings, a handful of watches, an 1881 penny and coins from 25 countries. The most valuable ring was worth $600.

Dorothy estimates they've put at least $1,000 in the bank, which doesn't even make up for the price of a good detector — about $1,600 — and the Childs have five (though one's broken).

"My kids think we're nuts," Dorothy says.

"They tell us these silly stories about finding something that's not of value in our minds," Patti Child says, "but for them, it was the greatest treasure."

Sometimes, she and her siblings worry. A few weeks ago, Larry was detecting on a sandbar and was swept away by the tide and had to swim to shore.

The couple can't imagine doing anything else, though. They tried buying chairs for the beach, figuring it might compel them to sit and relax. The chairs rusted.

"I'm not a sitter. I'm a doer," Dorothy says.

Dorothy knows one day their bodies won't allow for bending over sandpiles, knows Larry won't always be able to maneuver a 36-foot mobile home with a jeep hitched behind it. For now, though, they're having fun filling their days, finding other people's lost things, wondering what else is buried beneath all that sand.

Dorothy pushes in the cylindrical scoop with a foot and pulls up a pocket of sand. As she sifts through it with the scoop's lip, she catches a glint of something. She bends down and uses her fingers to free the finding from a clump of sand.

"All that for a penny!" she says.

An hour later, it starts to grow dark. As people gather their things and head back to their cars and hotels, Dorothy switches on her head lamp. She keeps digging.

Tomorrow she'll look over her findings and think about these little gifts, lost possessions of strangers. She'll wonder if she can go back to Gary one day, to the field where she threw snowballs, take her metal detector and try to recover her first real treasure, that Boy Scout ring that flew out of her mitten so long ago.