The August sun had climbed high in the clear blue sky, and the heat rose sharply from the scorching rays of the early afternoon light. From the top of the dune at 23rd Street in Surf City on Long Beach Island, I could see motionless parents lining the beach in an endless stream. Their children played noisily in front of them, closer to the water’s edge. Vacation memories under construction, and for some of them a story in the making.
I was wearing my headphones and I carried a canvas beach bag to store my gear and my most recent discoveries. I am a metal detectorist and it was much later than usual; far past the normal quitting time for my high-powered coin shooter and I. However, this day had started out to be so special that I chose to extend the joy of being alone with my thoughts and vivid recollection of a precious encounter.
My sense of hearing was straining to detect a certain "ping" from my machine that would indicate the presence of some lost or discarded metal artifact, when instead I heard the loud cry of a frantic woman who came running up from the ocean side of the sand dune. She was waving at me as she hopped barefoot across the hot sand.
The pretty, young, bikini-clad brunette turned out to be a reporter for a small, rural New York newspaper. She quickly explained that she had come to the Shore of Long Beach Island to interview a MDT like myself, but she was unable to find any of my kind in three days of searching.
The aggressive young woman barely took the time to introduce herself. In fact, I can't remember her real name. Her whole dialog revolved around either giving orders or complaining about how everyone was getting in (and out) of her way inconveniently. Inwardly I laughed. My moment of profound self-indulgence came to an abrupt end.
I will refer to her as Emily.
I proceeded to explain to her how most metal detectorists work the beach either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. However, this information didn't seem to have any affect on this very focused young lady. "Tell me", Emily commanded, "What was the best discovery that you have ever made"?
Although this is a perfectly normal question for an MDT to be asked, the answer to this question was at the heart of what had occupied my thoughts for that entire morning. For an instant, I found myself caught off guard. My mouth opened but no words came out.
My pulse quickened.
My mind raced to sort out an objective response, rather than an emotional one. To my surprise, the following story, almost complete now, started to roll off my lips for the second time that very day.
Emily reluctantly permitted me to continue with my story. I could see in her determined countenance that she wanted answers and not a story. If I had stuttered once, she would have pounced on any misplaced words like a cat pouncing on a mouse that strayed to close to a lightning-quick reflex. As I continued, however, Emily's fierce facial expression softened to a look of stationary bewilderment.
“Just after sunrise that very morning. . .”, I told her, I left my vacation home on 12th street in Ship Bottom and headed south down Long Beach Boulevard on Long Beach Island. I started out around the midpoint of the 18-mile long island determined to walk one segment of its many public beaches.
Normally, my twelve - year- old son, Michael accompanied me, but he was tired and decided not to go. This bothered me very much, because I enjoyed both his fellowship and his help. Michael willingly volunteered to do the digging while I operated the metal detector.
I start off each day with a little prayer and the hope of some new adventure. Little did I know that when I selected what seemed to be an arbitrary street in Beach Haven, turned left, and parked my car that I was inching my way closer to such a wonderful yet unusual encounter.
I walked the beach slowly, beginning at the entranceway and moving towards the ocean until I ran out of real estate. I then thoughtlessly turned towards my left and set a parallel course in motion that guided off of my own preceding row of footprints.
This beach was unusual because it was loaded with large balls of tin foil, which distracted me. Also, as I progressed down the beach, I found very few coins and one cheap toy ring that surely mocked my efforts to recover a diamond ring for my deserving wife.
I was about to give up on that stretch of beach, when all of the sudden I discovered numerous silver coins. My discouragement turned to encouragement. After almost an hour, I decided to limit the range of my search at a rock jetty that intersected the beach just a few yards ahead of me.
Everything was proceeding normally until I came upon a small section of the beach that was circular. Children had apparently built a sand castle complex, which had remained mostly intact overnight. Suddenly my metal detector rang out uncommonly loud.
I approached the site cautiously as if the object was ancient. “Like archeological tell”, I envisioned, “which was about to yield up some rare and exotic artifact”.
I probed the location carefully with my small spade. Near the surface of the soft sand lay the sharp pointed end of a new, heavily bladed knife. This discovery was most unusual, because as I tested dropping the knife, I discovered that the knife’s handle would only bury itself with the pointed end up, if the sand had been both softened and raised.
Most of the surrounding sand would not have naturally concealed the knife if it had been dropped with the pointed end up.
I reset the knife gently into its original hole, and as I pressed it down, the handle easily attempted to rebury itself. I could only assert that a night-fisherman had dropped the switchblade on the preceding evening. It seemed new and was completely free of rust.
I then started to think about my discovery as I resumed my search. About how, even with sneaks on, I could have been stabbed, if I had taken one more step. And heh! I then realized that a barefooted person like my son could have stomped on that castle before I found the knife. I placed the switchblade carefully into my canvas bag.
I was feeling very thankful about the way things were going. I was counting every blessing when I noticed a fisherman headed for a nearby jetty with a large surf rod ready for action.
By the time I finished sweeping the remaining distance of the beach, the young man was already fishing. I stopped, as always, and asked my standard fishing questions concerning tides, bait, and how his rod was rigged. Suddenly, two young girls walked quietly up from behind me and started shouting "Daddy, Daddy!" with enthusiasm, and in near-perfect unison.
Their father, who was also facing the ocean, was as surprised as I was that both of his little girls (about 4 and 5 years old) were standing with him down on the beach at 7:30 in the morning.
"Mom and grandma want you to take us out to breakfast," the oldest child explained, emulating her mother's insistent tone and posture. Even I could feel their mother's eye peering down from one of the apartments that overlooked the narrow beach.
Daddy was vague and non-committal in how he answered the girls, who both turned and left. Daddy defiantly re-baited his line and cast it back out into the ever- hungry ocean. And we continued watching the rod for any sign of a strike.
Having exhausted our small talk, he took notice of my metal detector and asked me the grand question of the day, "what was the best thing that you ever found with that?” nodding his head in the direction of my metal detector.
My eyes traced my path back up the beach where I had discovered the knife just minutes before, and to my surprise the fisherman's two young daughters were jumping and tumbling on the sand castle mounds, which they had completely destroyed.
As I looked at his daughters, I reached for my bag and retrieved the knife whose blade was still extended, because it was packed with sand.
"That it!" he said with apparent disappointment in his voice.
"No," I said, still looking at his girls who remained within the six-foot circle that was once a sandcastle fortress. "The knife is only a memento of the real gift that I found on this beach, just this morning. The real gift is in the timing of Gods grace. You see, I found the knife exactly where your girls are playing on the beach with the open blade of the knife pointed up like this."
I showed him the angle of the knife as I had discovered it in the sand.
He put his fishing rod down in its rod holder and walked with me just up the beach where his daughters continued their horsing around. I showed him my tight line of tracks that my size15 sneakers had recorded leading up to the edge of the sand castle, and then I marked the spot of my discovery with an X.
This was exactly where his daughters had been playing. Their little foot-and-body prints had obliterated my tracks, and the hole from the knife that I had left intact.
The two girls, who had retreated from the circle when we arrived, watched us quietly until the eldest one suddenly remembered her mission. She asked "Daddy, are we going to breakfast now?" "Yes," their father said, as he thoughtfully wiped the sand off of their clothes.
When we returned to his fishing equipment, he began reeling in his line and I asked him to look up and down the beach. A few people now began to dot the distant landscape of the narrow beach, but none of my fellow detectorists could be seen among them.
"I know," I said, "that you would rather be fishing right now, but what do you think the odds are that I would have selected this stretch of beach at random and drove over two miles to come here and find the knife in the same six-foot circle that your girls chose to romp in? There are worse places a man could be than going out to breakfast with the girls."
"I know," he said with a shaken voice, "thank you for choosing this beach, this morning."
And with girls and fishing tackle in tow, he hustled his way up and over the dune where they passed from my sight. Daddy and his healthy little girls were going out to breakfast.
Leaving me behind with my memories and a story of a morning never anticipated and for which I will remain ever thankful.
Now, Emily, the reporter, was looking more nervous than the young father had looked only hours before. So when she failed to notice that my story was over, I said "WELL?" with a tone deliberately elevated to a level of mild annoyance. This seemed to thaw her out of some sort of catatonic trance.
Suddenly revived, Emily commanded me to stay where I was. She then ran back across the hot sand where she grabbed her bag and returned so fast that I could never have escaped her. She hastily gave me her business and private phone numbers and asked me rather kindly if she could please bring a photographer over to my house that evening. Emily wanted to capture my story for publication in her newspaper.
Instead of developing my story with Emily, I decided to write this story myself and share it with whoever would be willing to read it as a part of my testimony.
This is one of many stories that I have written thus far where God's grace was at work either in my life or in the life of someone I had met. In all of them, if some one were to ask me, "what is the greatest discovery that you ever found?" I would answer "grace" every time.
Grace is worth more than gold and diamond rings, yet grace can't be found with a metal detector or any kind of sensory equipment.
It is a gift of God's unmerited favor that defies our explanation, but always deserves our thanksgiving.
I have often wondered what must have been said during the breakfast that followed the fisherman's departure. His little girls were surprisingly quiet yet attentive during most of our discussions. I would guess they had a lot to say once they saw mom and grand ma.
Or maybe their father spent his morning like I had done just thinking how remarkable God's grace can be. Who can say?