All that glitters is the possibility

The Baron de Castin, after whom our town is named, stashed six trunks of gold somewhere on this peninsula – according to legend. It could be anywhere, since more then 300 years have passed since the baron was traipsing around this wooded region on the Penobscot River in Maine.

And that's what I told Jim when he came to dig the leach field for our septic system. I said the same thing to Wade when he dug the foundation hole. I say the same thing to myself whenever I scratch the surface of the plow layer with my tractor.

"I'll split the gold with you, if you happen to uncover it with the excavator," I told them. It seemed like a pretty good incentive for paying attention to detail while removing topsoil, the dollar being at such a low ebb against the euro. "The baron's gold" has a very nice cachet. Treasure in the leach field! In the onion patch! Every walk in the woods another chance to strike it rich!

The legend of the baron's gold gained credence 100 years ago when a couple of woodcutters found some 17th-century gold coins washing out of a bank over on Johnson Point in the Northern Bay of the Bagaduce River. Something glittered at them as they were skidding trees to the river. It was the real thing, and old – but the coins had been minted a few years after the baron had returned to his native France. So it must have been his daughter's gold. Close enough.

It makes it tempting to turn over every rock that looks as if it might have been left as a marker, or that has 300 years' worth of topsoil surrounding it. Glacial erratics start to look like signs saying "Dig Here."

The fields and woods of Castine are littered with historical artifacts, since human habitation and warfare in these parts date back 400 years. When I move dirt from piles of solid fill to our garden, I inevitably come up with bits of old china, glass, rusty machinery, and even intact patent medicine bottles. And every so often you see someone making a concerted effort to find treasure rather than just stumble upon it.

The other evening Kenny Eaton, selectman and the third generation in his family to operate Eaton's Boatyard, was out in front of our house with his battery-operated metal detector. As he swept the metal wand back and forth, the meter in the hand grip emitted whistles and beeps, and a little LED screen conjured the manmade contents of the dirt beneath our grass: "coin," "nail," "silverware," it said, based on some sort of magnetic or vibration or sonar response to his machine's invisible wavelengths.

He drew a crowd. Our dinner table emptied, and Alex, Jacob, and Matt from next door pulled up to watch Kenny at work.

Up from the dirt came nuts, bolts, washers, nails, coins (new). We kept hoping for the uncontrolled beeping that would surely signal a large 17th-century trunk or two of 24-karat baron booty. It was not to be.

This was not our first encounter with mysterious treasure and hopeful discovery. An old livery stable used to occupy the space between our house and the Abbott School. It was a rickety old barn with heaving floors and a hay loft. We loved the old horse stalls with their nuzzled and gnawed boards and hoof-hewn floors. And we loved the old safe stashed in one corner of the barn – the kind of safe we all know and love from Roadrunner cartoons and silent films featuring bank robberies: black, immense, stolid, with a massive dial on its face. It weighed one unbudgeable ton and was probably the reason the barn was falling over.

How we longed to know its contents! But the combination had long since passed away with previous owners. No one in town seemed to know its previous owners, nor was there any external hint of its contents. So we played safecracker, listening intently for the tumblers to fall into place as we rotated the dial, again and again, just like in the movies. (Be sure to rub your fingertips on sandpaper, like the pros!) No deal. There was nothing to do but crack it open with blunt force: drills, sledgehammers, and crowbars.

We punched the bolts out of the hinges. The door still wouldn't open. Then we spent three days drilling enough holes around the dial to bend it off and bend the lock bar out of its hole so we could pry the door off. We alerted the media: This would be like opening Al Capone's vault. This just might contain the baron's gold.

Naturally, the safe was empty. Or rather, it contained nothing.

Or did it? Aside from the letdown of an absent treasure, we had also spoiled an important mystery. So long as the safe remained unopened, it contained something of greater value than gold coins: the possibility of wealth, intrigue, artifacts, or lore. So long as it was locked up tight, it could contain anything. Once we cracked the mystery of the box, it could only contain nothing.

A few nights ago, Kenny had made his way through several more backyards, patiently scanning for subterranean history. And then he returned to our backyard, around the spot where the old barn used to be, between the house and the new garage that had replaced it.

His metal detector went wild, the LED screen reading "nonferrous metal." The object setting off the alarms was long – a couple of feet at least. An old sword! A revolutionary war musket! Seventeenth-century gold!

Kenny dug down a few inches, and then hit something hard. He uncovered a few inches of shiny metal. New shiny metal. It was electrical conduit. Kenny had found the underground power line between the house and the garage.

It is better, at such times, to leave the secret inside the mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Don't open the safe; don't dig up the blip on the screen. One often hears of secrets discussed on a "need to know" basis. But too little is made of the need not to know. All that glitters on the LED readout is not gold.

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