Unlike many of the other Clique members, Gish is willing, even enthusiastic, to be that mentor; he’d like to see metal detecting grow. He acknowledges that most veteran treasure hunters want to keep “their” hunting grounds secret and are typically loathe to share knowledge. He says, “I want to promote the hobby. But I won’t let you hunt with me unless you meet my criterion, which is that you must return an item if it’s returnable.”
What’s “returnable”? To many treasure hunters (and, I confess, would-be beachcombers like me), “returnable” items are limited to those things whose repatriation is forced by the point of a gun or the prospect of imminent incarceration. But that’s not how Gish sees it at all; in fact, he goes to extraordinary lengths to reunite owners with their lost lucre. If an item is especially valuable, he may “sit on it” for up to six months, perusing lost-and-found ads on craigslist, in local newspapers, and through other sources.
Gish told me that, on occasion, he’s actually commissioned by an owner to look for a missing piece of jewelry or a watch. More often than not, the quest is a “crapshoot,” but not long ago, he found and returned a $4800 engagement ring for a woman who’d heard of his expertise. He doesn’t charge them but now and then receives a tip for success; at times, “They’ll just put it in their pocket without so much as a thank you.” But he doesn’t care. “The best thing about treasure hunting is the feeling I get when I’m able to return something to the owner. That feeling is indescribable.” That’s not to say, however, that every master of the detector is willing to undo your carelessness for free; Frank Trutta’s rate is $60 for two or three hours of work — inherently reasonable (some would say downright cheap), given recent repatriations of expensive rings, one worth $44,000.
Some things, of course — notably, items bereft of distinguishing marks or unique characteristics, especially if lost years ago — are indeed unreturnable and may gleefully be assigned to the pile marked “finders keepers.” Jim Hill, owner of Treasure Trove in North Park, reasons, “Say you find a nice 14-karat-gold chain on the beach. It’s like every other bracelet or necklace you can find at stores all around town. What are you going to do, trace it?” And so it goes: Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned finders, expensive hunks of metal — the stainless-steel diving watch you bought at the duty-free shop in the Caribbean, the gold ring your wife snagged at Nordstrom — may find their way to auction after a careless jaunt to the beach. Gish (who says that over the years, he’s found three or four rings worth over five grand apiece) recently sold a “nice four-figure, 1000-foot diving watch” on eBay for a “fair price.”
Not every valuable find goes to auction; many veteran San Diego treasure hunters prefer to amass modest collections in display cases, while others, like Bruce Campbell, a psychologist for the Santee School District, choose to wear their bounty. In Campbell’s case, it’s a piece he calls his “Mafia” or “pimp” ring, consisting of more than a carat of high-grade diamonds set in 31 grams of gold and appraised at $3200; he uncovered it on a North County beach in 1999.
As a child growing up in Kansas City, Campbell developed a fascination for Civil War memorabilia and fossils. Decades later, after moving to San Diego in 1980 just shy of earning a doctorate, he turned to the beaches. For him, the lure of treasure hunting is the relaxation that comes with, as he puts it, “using a different part of my brain.” A contemplative man with a gentle demeanor and an advanced degree, he’s been immersed in the hobby since the mid-’70s; he’s a member of the Coinshooters’ Clique, as well as an occasional attendee at meetings held by the Prospectors’ Club of Lemon Grove.
Campbell describes his occupation as both analytical and “highly stressful.” His head-shrinking tenure was punctuated a few years back by proximity to the notorious 1998 Santana school shootings. He says that the hobby is a good way to unwind, though not necessarily socialize. Noting that Campbell differs from most treasure hunters (club-affiliated or not) in his temperament and level of education, I quizzed him about his fellow detectorists, as they’re sometimes called, asking if he fit the “profile,” as it were. He replied that although he enjoys hanging with buddy Paul Dragos at the “Clique,” he’s rather atypical, except, perhaps, in his attitude about returning items to owners. “Maybe it’s my background; my father was a [Harvard Law School–educated] judge, and my mother was a Mennonite. I was always taught to be honest.”
Campbell recalls one return story in particular. “I was hunting at Presidio Park a few years ago when I found a 1966 class ring from Mt. Miguel High School. It was huge — big enough to put a quarter through it, and it was engraved with initials. I contacted a secretary at the school who looked through an old yearbook. There were pictures of two guys with the same initials, one of whom looked like he might be pretty big. We contacted him, and sure enough, he was a short, fat guy who’d lost the ring ‘ice blocking’ — sliding down a hill on a block of ice. He was elated to get it back after all these years because, apparently, his wife had accused him of giving it to a whore in exchange for her services.”
Campbell realizes that he’s an atypical Clique member but says that the group — while undeniably plebian — isn’t close to the bottom of the barrel. To find the bottom-dwellers, he recommends hanging out with the old coots at the Prospectors’ Club, whom he good-naturedly characterizes as “beneath blue-collar.” Most treasure hunters are neither contemplative nor well educated; as a rule, they’re taciturn blue-collar retirees — ex-military or military-industrial-complex guys without even undergraduate degrees — rough around the edges and not given to self-analysis. According to Jim Hill, “Folks who use metal detectors are mostly outdoor types who like hunting and fishing; there aren’t a lot of doctors or lawyers.” In order to understand the psyche of “the type,” I spoke with one man, another Coinshooters’ Clique member, described by Russ Gish as someone who “eats, breathes, and sleeps metal detecting.” Treasure Hunter X, as I’ll call him, didn’t want his name used but told me, “Everybody will know it’s me anyway.”