There's a Message in that Bottle
©1999 by Matt Schaeffer
Dedicated to Jason Blevins
and all the other H. A. R. D.C. O. R. P. Bottle Diggers of Indiana and
It was about twenty summers ago, more or less, and heavy rains had fallen all week in Eastern Iowa. Digging for
antique bottles had been out of the question. Finally, the rains stopped and Saturday dawned, promising a beautiful day, and a great day for digging old bottles; it would prove to be one I'd never forget!
I grabbed the bottle digging shovels, hopped into my brilliant chartreuse, 1971 Maverick "Grabber" and hit the road, headed for Fishwild's dump. Fishwild's dump was a bottle collector's dream, but getting there was
always a nightmare. It was slightly over a mile from any road, deep within the recesses of an old growth timber. Certainly, its
remote and nearly inaccessible location was the reason its bounty had remained buried for nearly a century, unmolested by any shovel, save for my own. I had discovered the dump a few years earlier while foraging for
mushrooms like a feral beast during the spring of the year. Situated along the banks of a steep and very deep ravine, the dump stretched for perhaps 40 yards. Telltale evidence in the form of broken crockery and a spectrum
of embossed shards of amber, aqua, and sun-colored amethyst glass was eroding from the bank on one side of the ravine and lay strewn at its bottom. I later learned that the dump was the private trash pit of a family of former
grocers, the Fishwilds, whose ownership of the property dated back to the 1880s. Proprietors of a very successful, small town general store, the dump would prove to be a veritable chronicle of that success, ultimately
yielding all nature of interesting artifacts, bottles and otherwise, which collectively spoke of the family's comparative material wealth. I also learned from a review of an 1878 county atlas that an early wagon road had
once traversed the timber and extended along the deep ravine; even the oldest of the local folks had no recollection of it.
While visions of bitters bottles danced in my head, I stopped momentarily to pick up a sidekick. My young cousin Mikel was only eight years old, but even at that early age he was displaying the symptoms of a growing obsession
with bottle digging. Tagging along with us was Shawn, one of Mikel's friends who had stayed overnight. Shawn was a rambunctious young lad--a bit on the hyper side—and he was rarin' to go! This would be a new experience
for him. We made our way down miles of gravel road and out into the countryside, where the roads have no name. We came to a stop alongside an old and lonely cemetery atop a windswept hill. Trespassing a muddy cow pasture
on foot, ever-wary of the Black Angus bull who eyed us angrily, we side-stepped and wove our way through soupy cowpies, as best we could, and quickly made our way down to an old abandoned limestone quarry on the
other side of the fence. Breathing a sigh of relief for having survived one ordeal, we prepared for the next.
The challenge that now lay before us was to somehow navigate ourselves through a dense thicket of wild
blackberry bushes that covered the hillside before the timber's edge. Cautiously, we penetrated the thorny patch, with Shawn leading the way. The thicket was in sweet bloom, and bees swarmed all about us, obviously startled
by the presence of such strange and unknown life forms. Undeterred, Shawn pioneered a path through the bushes, forging boldly ahead. Suffering frequent agony and emitting cries of "Ouch! Oh! Oooo! Yow! Damn!!," we made
our way through the patch of flesh-eating vegetation. Finally we emerged, somewhat worse for the wear, but
essentially intact. Pausing to catch our breath, rivulets of blood tricked down our forearms. "Alas," I announced to
the boys, "such bodily sacrifices are willingly made in the pursuit of antique bottles." My platitude was interrupted
by a platoon of aggressive, biting flies who had been alerted by the promise of the sustenance oozing from our open wounds, and without further hesitation we ran for any cover that might be afforded by the woods!
Eventually winning the race against the flies, we traipsed for a half-mile through the timber, up, over, and down steep hills, and through gooseberry bushes. Finally, the timber began to give way to a clearing beyond. I assured
the boys we were "almost there." Their excitement was visible, but at the clearing, we were greeted by yet another obstacle—a jungle of broadleaf nettles, the worst
kind! We uttered a collective groan of dismay as we stood staring into a dark-green hell.
"Well boys, we've come this far. We're not gonna let this stop us, are we?" I asked.
"No way!" yelled Shawn, and he rushed ahead into the terrible weeds in the manner of a train bound for glory.
Mikel and I stood and watched in disbelief as Shawn sacrificed himself to the wicked wrath of the nettle patch. In less than a minute he'd cleared the patch and was hollering for us to "C'mon!"
"Okay, I'll lead the way," I told Mikel. Using my shovel as a scythe, I hacked down the nettles before us in broad swaths. Swoosh, swoosh, the horrible weeds fell as we slowly proceeded. We were about midway through the
patch when Shawn obviously began to feel the effects of his savage romp.
"Ohhhhhh! Aghhh! Jeez! Ohhhh!" Help! Hellllp!"
"What's wrong, Shawn?" I yelled.
"Ohhh! I'm itchin'! I'm itchin' reeeal, reeeaal bad!" he cried.
"Well, hold on, then. We'll be right there."
Shawn's despairing voice rose above the noise of the falling nettles. I turned and looked at Mikel, who grinned,
and I said, "I just knew he'd end up hurtin' himself. Now what in the world are we gonna do?" Within seconds, Shawn was moaning, indeed screaming in agony.
"Hang on, Shawn! We're almost there!" I hollered.
"It's bad! It's itchin' BAD!" he sobbed.
"We'll, don't scratch it!" I shouted. "You scratch it and it'll just get worse!" Behind me, Mikel laughed.
We quickly made our way through the nettle patch and over to Shawn. He stood there at the edge of the weeds, arms folded and clutching himself in the torment of his pain, tears streaming down his sobbing face.
"Damn ya, Shawn," I said, "you gotta learn to settle yourself down. Now if ya'd a-just waited, this wouldn't have happened to ya.
"It itches," he sobbed. Mikel just stared, smiling.
"Well, we're ten miles from civilization, Shawn. We're in the middle of a damn forest. We don't have any medicine and there ain't any doctors way out here in the woods. I'm not a medicine man, and there's not a damn thing we
Shawn sniffled. I looked at him, nettle-bitten and shaking, standing there.
"You think you're gonna live?" I asked.
"Yeah…I guess so," he muttered, beginning. He was coming to terms with himself.
"Well, whaddaya s'pose we oughtta do, Shawn?" I asked. "We're 5000 steps from the car and about 200 steps
from the dump. Should we turn back after coming this far?" I waited for a response. None forthcoming, I asked, "Huh? What? Are we gonna puss-out now? What are we gonna do? Should we turn around now and walk a mile
back to the car, or do we wanna go bottle diggin'?"
"Ah! That a BOY," I replied. "I knew you were tougher than that. Now, just don't scratch yourself and you'll be
okay. It'll pass. But if you scratch yourself, it'll only get worse. Okay?" Shawn nodded. "Alright, let's go then. We're almost there."
Indeed, I could almost smell
the bottles! Shawn probably could have been impaled atop a steel fence post and it still wouldn't have deterred me from getting to that dump! But first, we had to make our way down one side of the
steep ravine and cross to the other side. It was a perilous little hike, I well knew from past experience. I led the way to the edge of the ravine and we paused to look matters over. It was almost a sheer, 20 foot drop to the
boulder-strewn bottom. We prepared to slide down.
"Okay, this is the hard part" I stated. "Who's going first?"
"I wanna," said Shawn. The excitement of the promised dig had miraculously cured the discomfort he'd suffered only moments before.
"Okay, be careful," I warned, "it's steep."
Shawn got down on all fours and backed up to the edge of the ravine until his legs hung over. Belly-first, he began to lower himself down. When fully extended, he clung to the top briefly, then slid down the muddy embankment to
"Ha! That was fun!" he hollered as he hit ground, springing to his feet. "C'mon! Let's go!" he shouted to us.
Mikel and I looked at each other. "I'll go next" I said. I slid the shovels, then the bucket down toward Shawn.
Carefully, I followed Shawn's example and slid, belly-first down the side of the ravine. Mikel quickly followed.
Together we stood, looking just down the ravine a ways as I pointed to where the dump was. "Let's go!" shouted Shawn, and he bolted ahead.
Mikel and I bent down to gather the shovels and bucket. As we straightened, we heard Shawn yell.
"O! I'm stuck! HELP!"
There, about twenty feet away was Shawn. Could we believe our eyes? Was he really
stuck up to his hips in mud?!
"Oh, good lord!" I exclaimed, increasingly perturbed. That kid was bound and determined to ruin a perfectly good
bottle digging outing. I ran over toward him and stopped, staring in disbelief. Sure enough; he was ass-deep in mud, with a helpless expression on his face.
"I'm stuck," he said. "I can't get out."
"Try," I ordered.
"I can't. I'm stuck. Can't move my legs."
"Ohhhhh, Shawn…what next?" I groaned. "You gottalearn to wait. If you'd a-just waited, this wouldn't have
"Well, get me out. I'm sinking" he replied. "Please?"
Now, that was something that hadn't crossed my mind. What if he wassinking? God only knew, given the rains
we'd had that week, how deep that quagmire was. Momentarily, I panicked. "I gotta get this kid out," I thought to myself.
Carefully, I made my way to the edge of the quickmud. "Okay, Shawn—I'm gonna reach over there with this
shovel. Now, you just grab it and hold on as tight as you can and I'll pull you right out." I extended the blade of the spade toward him and he did as he was told.
"Ready?" I asked.
I pulled. I pulled harder. Nothing happened. I pulled as hard as I could. Suddenly, Shawn lost his grip and I fell backward into a complete somersault. Mikel let out a gut-busting laugh as I took the tumble.
"Jesus, Mikel, don't laugh. This is serious. Go over there and get that big branch." I glanced a little way down the
ravine toward the dump. The rains had washed all kinds of glass out from the side of the ravine, and it sparkled in the sun. Momentarily, my mind was filled with the image of a five-gallon bucket brimming with bottles—blown in
mold medicines, bitters, old embossed whiskeys, cobalt blue poisons…
"Here." My reverie was interrupted as Mikel held the big branch toward me. Taking it, I sunk one end into the
black quagmire, next to Shawn's immobile torso. I couldn't hit bottom. "Maybe I can pry you out," I said. "Grab
the branch there and just kinda push down on it and try to pull yer legs up at the same time" I instructed. Shawn did as he was told. After five minutes of this, it became obvious that the plan was futile.
"Gawd." I stood looking at Shawn, occasiionally casting a furtive glance up the ravine toward the dump.
"What are we gonna do?" asked Shawn.
"Well. Let me think…Hmmmm…I dunno. I guess you're just gonna have to stay there, Shawn. Tell ya what; Mikel and I will go check out the dump, and you just stay there and don't move, okay? We'll just be right over
there," I said, pointing to where the glass was gleaming.
Shawn puckered up and started to bawl. "No! Don't just leave me here! I think I'm sinking!" He was crying by
now, and as hard as it was, I knew I had to put aside my selfish interest in bottles and find a way to get the kid out of that quickmud. I reposed on a boulder and tried to think. Mikel snickered. I was becoming bent out of shape.
After a minute, I rose, grabbed the shovel and extended the handle to Shawn.
"Here. Take this." Shawn reached out and took the shovel. "Dig."
"What??" he asked, puzzled.
"Dig. Dig your little ass out of there, Shawn. You're the one who got yourself into this mess, now you just get busy and dig yourself out of it," I scolded.
Dejected, Shawn sunk the shovel into the greasy mud and, grunting with the effort, scooped a spadeful of mud out from around himself. I watched as the mud around him oozed into the small hole, quickly filling it again.
"Keep diggin'," I ordered. Shawn took another scoop. Again, the thick greasy mud filled the hole. Again and again, Shawn sunk the spade into the mud, grunted, and lifted the heavy spade. Each time, the mud around him
filled the hole as quickly as before. Scoop, grunt, ooze. Scoop, grunt, ooze. I stared in disbelief, wondering what to do next. I'd exhausted all my resources, not to mention my patience.
"Well, I guess I'm gonna have to go for help," I stated. The boys said nothing. "Shawn, you've managed to get
yourself stuck tighter than a bull's ass in fly season, and there ain't no way we're gonna be able to get you out without some help. Now, I'm gonna have to walk back to the car and drive to town for some help. We'll have to
get a rope, I s'pose. Mikel, you think you can stay here with Shawn and keep him company? I shouldn't be too long."
"Sure." Mikel grinned. "Hey, can you bring us back some peanut butters or something?" he asked.
I shook my head in amazement; leave it to Mikel to think about food when his friend was on the verge of being
swallowed alive by quickmud!
"Yeah," I'll bring back something to eat. Okay boys, here's the plan. I'm gonna run to the car, drive to town, and
find someone to help us here. It'll take about an hour or so, but I promise I'll be back. Shawn, don't wiggle or you'll get yourself stuck worse. Mikel, you keep Shawn here company until I bring help."
The boys were silent as I turned and struggled up the side of the ravine. Finally at the top, I ran through a mile-long
nightmare in reverse: the sea of nettles, the gooseberry bushes, the thorny, bee-infested blackberry bushes, and finally past the wary, angry-faced bull amid the ocean of cowpies. I got to the car, near-exhausted, and raced back
to town. Along the way, I decided to go straight to Don Jansen, the local firechief. It was just about noon, and the feed mill where he worked was closing. I rushed in and found Don and some of the other men leaning up against
the counter, waiting for quittin' time.
"Don, I need help!"
"You sure do!" he replied.
"Really! I do! Now, you're not gonna believe this…See, I took a couple boys bottle digging this morning. Well,
one of them is stuck up to his waist in quickmud. I tried, but I can't get him out."
The guys at the counter erupted in laughter. One exclaimed, "Bottle digging??!! What the hell?? What the hell's
bottle digging?" The laughter mounted as they looked at Don. "Well, Don, looks like your Saturday afternoon's planned for ya!"
Don turned to me and said, "Stuck in quickmud
? Where in God's name are ya?"
"Fishwild's timber," I replied. About a mile in, off the road, out by the Mineral Hill Cemetery. You know—out where that old quarry is."
"Oh, fer chrissake. How'd you git yerself into that kinda mess? I thought I'd heard everything. Bottle digging, out in the damn boonies, stuck in quickmud. Sheez. Ain't you guys got nuthin' better to do than that?"
I wasn't going to answer that question! "I'm not kiddin', Don. The kid's stuck tighter'n hell, and he's bawling his
brains out. Ain't no way one person can get 'im out. We better take a rope or something. I left both of 'em out there alone, so we gotta go now."
"Well, okay then," Don laughed. As we hopped into my car, Don directed me to stop at the fire station. There he grabbed a rope and a come-along and, spewing gravel all the way, we made our way back out into the
countryside. Again I parked at the cemetery, and we crossed the cow pasture and headed toward the timber.
"Watch out for that damn bull, Don. He's been looking ornery both times I came through here. And the
cowpies—careful. Don didn't say a word, but just followed silently behind me. We made our way across the pasture, through the old quarry, and came to the blackberry thicket.
"Jesus Christ, Matt. You mean, you guys actually went through this stuff?
"Yeah. But we're almost there, Don."
"I hope to God," he replied in disbelief, as we carefully turned and twisted our way through the tangle of blackberry briars. We passed through the timber and the path through the nettles. Don was beginning to suck air
from the rigor of the trek.
"Holy Mary, Mother of Christ," he gasped. You guys sure know how to get yourselves in trouble," he huffed.
"It's right over there, Don." I pointed, toward where the ravine was.
We walked through the last of the underbrush and paused at the edge. I could see Shawn 25 feet up the ravine.
Don stared into the abyss from the top of precipice.
"For Gawd's sake. What in the hell were you guys thinking, anyway? What the hell you doin' clear out here in no-man's land?"
"We're going digging. There's a old dump down there, and we're gonna dig for bottles. See—Shawn's right down there."
Don looked up the ravine.
"Hey Shawn! Help is here!" I yelled. Shawn raised his hands overhead and waved, a gesture of "S.O.S."
Don and I carefully slid down the treacherous embankment and quickly made our way over to Shawn. "Hey!
Where's Mikel?" I asked.
"He's over there digging," Shawn sobbed meekly. "He just took the shovel and left me here by myself, right after you were gone."
I looked toward the dump and saw a hint of Mikel's red shirt behind the base of a large tree near the top of the ravine. Dirt appeared to be flying everywhere.
"Okay, then, Shawn. Now we're gonna try to get you out. Whaddaya think, Don?
Don stared at the mud in mute disbelief. "Never saw anything like this. I've heard of quicksand before, but this is
quickmud, alright. Just like you said—quickmud. Boy, he's stuck good, isn't he?"
"Yeah. See, I told ya. I wasn't kidding, was I, Don?"
"Nope. Sure as hell wasn't. I still can't believe you boys got yourself into this kinda mess. What the hell were you thinking, anyway? Never mind. Let's see if we can get him outta there."
I stood by as Don directed Shawn to tie one end of the rope around his waist. "Get that knot good and tight there," he ordered. Looking around, he walked over to a young elm tree close by, fixed the come-along to it, and
threaded the other end of the rope through it. I glanced up the ravine and saw the occasional flash of Mikel's red shirt behind the big tree. Dirt was flying. Inwardly, I hoped he hadn't gotten into a good pocket of bottles.
"Okay. We're gonna pull yer ass outta there, boy. Now, it ain't gonna be fun, and it might even hurt a little. Just want you to know that, so yer prepared. Okay? Ready?"
"Yeah" Shawn whined meekly, not knowing what fate might have in store for him.
"Okay. Here we go." Don ratcheted away on the come-along, taking up the slack in the rope. Shawn winced
noticeably as the rope began to tug at him.
"Just hold on to that rope there," he ordered. Shawn did as told, the rope tightening ever more.
"Matt, you might have to help pull a little." I got in position and, in the manner of a tug of war, assisted Don and the
come-along in the effort to extricate Shawn from the quagmire that held him. Shawn started to grimace as the rope tightened around him. Now more slowly, Don ratcheted the come-along and I tugged with all my might.
"I feel it!" yelled Shawn. "I'm coming!"
Don laughed. "Okay boy, we're gonna git ya out. Just hold on a few more seconds!"
Reluctantly, the mud began to yield its victim. Shawn slowly rose through the thick muck and, with an audible "sucking" sound, was finally pulled free from the morass that had imprisoned him for nearly three hours.
"Yaaaaayyyy!" Shawn exclaimed upon his release from the quickmud. "We did it! I'm free!"
Thankfully, he was free, but what a mess! His pants were soaking wet and caked with a thick black coat of Iowa
mud; even worse, in the process of being pulled free he'd lost both of his boots! Smiling, he stood before us barefoot, a spectacle nearly indistinguishable from the greasy soil, a veritable mud creature from the black lagoon!
Were it not for the fact that we actually knew that the creature we were staring at was a human being, we'd have turned in terror and fled screaming, distancing ourselves from the dreadful-looking beast.
"Good work, Don! You did it," I congratulated him. "Well, I s'pose I'll round up Mikel now and we'll get you
back to town." I was dying to get over there where Mikel had been digging so feverishly. Perhaps it's a sad commentary on my character, but I was already jealous at the thought of what that eight-year old boy might have
found in my absence. Carefully avoiding the quickmud, I made my way toward the sound of the shovel working against glass. I ran. Don and Shawn followed lazily behind me.
"Mikel? Mikel!" I yelled. "Hey! Finding anything? I thought I told you to stay with Shawn!"
"I did. He was just right over there. I got bored and wanted to dig."
Now I stood at the base of the slope, looking up at Mikel. He was on his knees, crouched low in the hole in which he'd been digging.
"Well, did you find anything?" I asked again. Inwardly, I prayed that he hadn't; or at least if he had, I hoped they were common ones. After all, I reasoned, this was my dump, and he was my
guest. Indeed, I had intended to assert my right to decide the ownership of any bottles we might find. Of course, it followed that I had planned to
lay claim to any that were worth claiming! Unfortunately, the day hadn't gone quite as planned… My thoughts were interrupted by his reply.
"Oh! You're not gonna believe this!"
My heart sank. My pulse quickened. He
had found something! Damn him, anyway!
"What?" I asked, panting with jealous over-excitement, my arms rising involuntarily above my head.
Mikel turned and smiled. "Look!" he said, reaching up into the deep grass above. He held up a square, dark-amber bottle, about ten inches in tall. My eyes widened and my heart raced, as I immediately recognized the
conventional shape and color of a bitters bottle.
"Ain't it neat? "
"Yeah," I replied, "cool." He laid it back on the ground.
"Let's see it," I quickly ordered, reaching up toward him.
"Okay. Here--it says something on it." He handed it to me. I looked it over. Damn…
"What's it say?"
"Uh, Prickly Ash Bitters." Save for the dirt, it appeared mint.
I set it down carefully, off to the side. "Anything else?" I asked, trying to mask my growing anxiety.
"Oh, I found gobs
!" The excitement in his voice was undeniable. Again he reached up and brought down another bottle that appeared to be aqua in color. "Here's one of 'em!" he exclaimed. "It says something on it, too!" He
handed it to me.
"What's it say?"
I wiped the dirt from the sunken panel and read it. "White Wine of Tar Syrup."
"I found more! Wanna see 'em?"
"Sure." Inside, I was torn apart, despairing at the many, many times I'd gone digging and sweat like a butcher in a
dirty hole, at times cutting my hands to ribbons, only to come up empty-handed. Now, here this eight-year old had struck a bottle bonanza in the short time I'd been gone! He handed down another bottle.
"That one has glass writing on it, too. What's it say?"
"Iowa Brand Vinegar and Pickling Works. Davenport." I set it down alongside the Prickly Ash and the White Wine of Tar.
"How 'bout this one?"
"Dr. Kennedy's Medical Discovery. Roxbury, Mass."
"These bottles with glass words are really neat!" One after another, he began to hand down the bottles he'd
excavated in less than two hours, demanding that I read the embossing on each. As I read each one, I felt like I was being turned and roasted on the devil's spit in the depths of hell.
"Browen's Rat Killer, Wakefield & Co.," "Gargling Oil, Lockport, NY" "McLean's Strengthening Cordial,"
"Parker's Hair Balsam," "Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic"…I stood dumbfounded, speaking a litany of nineteenth century embossed bottles.
"Oh yeah! This one has a glass Indian on it!" He handed the large aqua corker to me.
"Healy and Bigelow, Indian Sagwa."
Don laughed. "No way! Lemme see that!" I handed the bottle to him and he studied it closely.
"Sure nuff, there's an Indian on it—right here on the front!" He pointed to the Indian in the headdress on the face
of the bottle. "I'll be damned!"
"Wanna see the rest?" Mikel asked. I couldn't hardly believe there were more!
"Sure!" Don yelled, his interest piqued. He stepped up the slope and reached out. Mikel handed him a bottle.
"Hall's Catarrh Cure," Don laughed. "This sure was a sickly outfit!" Mikel handed him yet another bottle.
"Hmmm…Arlen & Co., Clinton, Iowa. This is a funny-shaped one, and heavy
as hell. Whaddaya s'pose came in that?"
"That's an old soda pop, Don," I replied, recognizing the distinct Hutchinson shape.
"G-Zuzz. Amazing. Ain't ever seen anything like it. Imagine—drinking sody-pop outta something like that! Hell,
now that there'd build yer arms!" Don seemed to be getting into these bottles. Mikel handed another one down.
"Fletcher's Castoria. Whew! Now, I remember that stuff! Good lord! Lip's broke on this one."
I could scarcely believe that, finally, there was a scrub in the bunch! Mikel handed down yet another bottle.
"Kemp's Balsam for the Throat and Lungs, this one says."
Whew! I already had a couple of those. Maybe there still was a chance to work out a deal with Mikel, after all.
"You aren't gonna believe this next one," Mikel assured us, beaming. "It's really
My eyes nearly flew from their sockets as Mikel held up the next bottle. My pulse seethed and blood coursed as he spoke.
"See? It's kinda shaped like a log or something. It has words on it too!"
"Here!" I said, stepping in front of Don and up toward Mikel. "Let me see that one," I added, trying to conceal my
excitement. I knew damn well what it was! I took it away from Mikel, clutching it tightly. My heart throbbed uncontrollably as I held a bottle I thought I'd never touch, even in a lifetime of digging.
"What's it say?"
"Oh, just Tippecanoe. These are real, real common," I lied, trying to play cool, running my finger around the bold
mushroom lip, detecting not even so much as a pinhead chip. I turned the bottle around and saw no evidence of any damage. "Neat shape though. Too bad it's so common."
"Well, by gosh, I ain't never seen nuthin' like
that," Don interjected, "and I'm damn near 60."
Ignoring the comment, I turned to Mikel. "What else?"
"That's all of 'em."
"Well, you did decent. Not great, but decent." I kind of kicked at the dirt and glanced again at the Warner's Tippecanoe still in my hand. "Whattaya say we pack up and get Don back to town?"
"Yeah," Don replied, "I s'pose we should. Never did call the wife to let her know what was goin' on. She's probly already summoned a search party fer me."
Carefully, I gathered the horde of bottles into the bucket, adding plenty of dirt to keep them from banging around and damaging each other on the way out. The log-shaped Warner's Tippecanoe remained firmly in my hand,
however. The boys grabbed the shovels, and we stopped briefly at the elm to retrieve the come-along and the rope. Nobody seemed to notice, let alone wonder why I toted the bucket with one hand while cradling the
Warner's Tippecanoe in the other.
Don turned to Shawn. "Well, I sure hoped you learnt yerself a lesson today, fella. What wouldaya done if you'd been out here alone and gotten yerself into that there mess? Ya gotta think
before ya do crap like that!" Shawn grinned and nodded. He'd been awfully quiet.
Our motley assemblage struggled through the wilderness and made its way toward the car. Miraculously, Shawn
made it through the blackberry patch barefoot, without so much as a scratch or thorn in the foot. There was no sight of the menacing bull, and by the time we reached the car Shawn had dried somewhat. We scraped much of
the caked mud off his pants. Regardless, I made him take his pants off and ride home in his underwear so that the
vinyl seat of my brilliant chartreuse, 1971 Maverick "Grabber" wouldn't get too dirty! I put the shovels and the
bucket in the trunk. Nobody even noticed that I wrapped the Warner's Tippecanoe carefully in the blanket in the trunk and tucked it safely down into the fenderwell. All aboard, we headed back to town.
"I'm hungry," Mikel announced. "Did you bring those peanut butters?"
I'd forgotten all about the peanut butters; after all, a kid had been drowning in quickmud, and I had been in no
state of mind to remember peanut butter sandwiches!
"Nope. Sorry. But we'll get you something in a few minutes as soon as we get back to town." We drove in near
silence the rest of the way. I don't know what the others were thinking, but I was trying to hatch a plan for getting that Warner's Tippecanoe.
Minutes later, we were back in town, where we stopped at Don's house, thanking him profusely for his assistance in rescuing Shawn. I noticed his wife peering through the screen, seemingly evaluating our questionable character
from a position of safety behind the door on the front porch.
Don got out and turned to me. "Hey," he replied, "you boys wouldn't be so kind as to let me know when yer goin'
diggin' again, would ya? I just might like to tag along--That is, if ya don't mind…"
"Sure," I assured him. "I'll be sure to let you know."
We thanked Don again, and he closed the car door. We slowly drove off.
"I'm starving." Mikel hadn't forgotten about those peanut butters. Nor had I forgotten about that Warner's Tippecanoe bottle.
"Say, Mikel, tell you what." I paused, pondering a plan. "Tell, you what, little buddy. I know you're real hungry.
And you've been real good today. Whaddaya say we drive on over to Hardees and get some real food? Hot, juicy burgers…french fries…maybe even a chocolate shake, if you like. Wouldn't that be nice, huh? Would you
like that?" I waited for a reply, hoping, praying…
"Yeah," he sighed, "but I ain't got any money." He sniffled.
"Aw. No problem, Mikey. Tell you what--I'll make you a deal. I'll pay for both of you; you can just pay me back with some of those old bottles. Whatcha think of that plan?"
Mikel thought it over momentarily, his stomach growling and mouth watering at the thought of hot fast food from Hardees. All the while, Shawn had been sitting in his underwear in the back seat, listening. Now overcome with
food lust, he leaned over and whispered in Mikel's ear, "Do it! Do it, Mike!" I glanced into the rear view mirror as the boys whispered to each other.
Suddenly Mikel exclaimed, "Okay, sure! That sounds like a deal!"
"YES! I blurted," slapping the dashboard. This excited the boys; my excitement was for far different reasons than
theirs! "We're off to Hardee's, boys!"
I sped the fifteen miles to the neighboring town and pulled into Hardees where Shawn, still in his underwear,
received startled stares and giggles as we paused at the window of the drive-thru. The boys ordered nearly $10 worth of food, but I knew I was getting one hell of a deal! We sang merrily on the way back home. Everyone was
in such a great mood!
When we got back to Mikel's place we had to figure out how to get Shawn in the house. It was understandable
that he was worried about people seeing him in his underwear in broad daylight. I remembered the blanket in the trunk. I opened the trunk and carefully unrolled it, feasting my eyes again, and in disbelief, on that dark-amber
glass jewel, the Warner's Tippecanoe. I carefully removed the precious object and placed it on the front seat in the car. Shawn wrapped himself in the blanket and sped into the house. As I stood and looked at Mikel, pangs of guilt
began to well up within my soul, threatening to overcome me.
"Well," I mumbled sullenly, glancing at the bucket brimming with antique glass in the trunk. "I reckon we better
divide these bottles up, huh?" I looked at Mikel.
"Naw, you can have 'em," Mikel replied nonchalantly, smiling.
Shocked, I asked again, "Don't you want any
of them?" Again I stared into the open trunk, noting the Prickly Ash Bitters jutting above the bucket's rim.
"Nope. It's your dump anyway. You can have 'em."
I couldn't believe my ears. Only a mere eight years old, Mikel was exemplifying the epitome of bottle digging etiquette. As for myself, well, I was ashamed of myself.
"Besides, you took us to Hardees." He smiled. I smiled back sheepishly.
And so we parted. I sped back home to clean the bottles. What a haul! The Fletcher's went into the trash,
possibly to be found in another century by another digger, and hopefully under more conventional circumstances! The rest were nearly mint, including the Warner's Tippecanoe, which had not so much as a ding or a stain. I
placed the bottles, whether common, not so common, or rare on my top shelf. Twenty years later, they remain there.
The events of that day, while bizarre enough in their own right, continued to unfold for years in unpredictable ways.
As he grew older, Mikel quickly lost interest in antique bottles, but retained an interest in people, and currently attends the University of Iowa in quest of a bachelor's degree in Psychology. Shawn, always intense, lived hard
and fast, and chose to die young, committing suicide at nineteen over a failed romance. Don caught the bottle bug,
and disregarding all bottle collecting protocol, "invaded" my dump and cleaned it out in two seasons! A few years
later, he succumbed to an ubiquitous cancer, and his collection was dispersed among his heirs. I may never know what he found, but hopefully it will have meaning and be enjoyed by another generation. As for myself, I moved
around the Midwest in pursuit of a dream of higher education, a dream I'm still chasing as I prepare to write a doctoral thesis in education.
I sit here and stare at the Warner's Tippecanoe, and there's a message in that bottle. The bottle has grown older, as have I, although it has aged comparatively better. With time's passage it has become even more cherished.
Today, its value can be measured only in priceless sentiment. Over the years I've come to recognize that the greatest thing about collecting antique bottles is not the quantity of bottles you amass on a good day's dig, much
less the book value of those bottles. Rather, it's the memories. And most precious among those memories are the ones of those occasions when people who may otherwise have no common interests come together, whether by
design or by chance, to share the experience of a dig. It's strange, but over twenty years, more or less, have passed since our four lives intersected in the experience related heretofore, but the events of that fateful day are as
vivid as if they had occurred just yesterday. And like those favorite bottles on my top shelf, the memory of that day retains a special place, too--on the top shelf of my mind.
About the author: Matt Schaeffer resides in Wellman, Iowa with wife Diane and their three children. Now 40,
Matt has collected bottles since 1970, still digs avidly, and tries somewhat unsuccessfully to specialize in 19th
century medicines and cures. He wishes he had more space for antique bottles, and wonders daily what he's ever
going to do with the 400 NIB late 70s & early 80s "vintage" Avons he inherited from his grandmother. Should you wish to comment on this story, Matt can be reached at email@example.com
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