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The Great Bottle Battle


Matt Schaeffer

Revised 5/2000



Perhaps it is an innate characteristic of children's nature that, at some time or another, they harness the curiosity and imagination, so typical of youth, to engage in the unbounded spirit of exploration.  Adventure always awaits those who imagine the possibilities beyond a mundane, day to day existence. 


So it was that, embraced within the natural splendor of rural Eastern Iowa, it was a foregone conclusion that my neighbor Chris and I were destined to become collectors.  Where we lived, there were no large parking lots, no malls or throngs of people, no din of traffic—indeed, virtually no traffic at all along the dusty gravel road that wound its way past our houses.  The nearest "city" was a three-mile bicycle ride away, and although it boasted a population of merely 400, you could still get a cherry phosphate straight from the soda fountain at J&J Sundries.  Simple things seemed to afford the greatest satisfaction.  Instead of concrete, Chris and I were ensconced in a fertile expanse of black-soil fields, gently rolling hills cradling coolwater streams, and limestone bluffs that punctuated the landscape here and there.  This terrain provided ample domain for our exploratory escapades.  Despite relative isolation, we were never bored.  Curious and possessed of imaginative minds, we epitomized the meaning of "free spirit" in the days of our youth.


Often hurriedly--and sometimes haphazardly--we would tend to our routine chores.  For me, it was typically weeding the garden, mowing the lawn, feeding the cats, or emptying the "slop pail" under the old apple tree where I also dug fish worms.  Chris, whose father owned about a thousand acres, more or less, in the vicinity, had greater responsibilities, it seemed: feeding the geese, gathering the eggs from the henhouse and washing them, perhaps cultivating corn or soybeans, and (much to his dismay) practicing the trombone until his mother was satisfied that he'd achieved perfection.  We generally went about these inconvenient, bothersome duties with minds completely absent from the task, instead engrossed in the thought of our eventual escape into the surrounding countryside in quest of adventure.  In retrospect, the chores were instrumental in heightening our anticipation of the prospect of a day's exploration, and when we finally earned release, the experience of freedom was much sweeter for having waited.  At the opportune moment, we would burst from our respective premises in the manner of a track sprinter, leaving all other competition for our time behind.


Once together, impulse was our only guide.  We would range at will, far and wide into the vast unknown.  Mobility was no obstacle.  Astride our bikes with banana seats and chrome sissy bars glinting the summer sun, we would beat a dusty path down the gravel road until curiosity overcame us.  Wherever we chanced to stop, an adventure always lay in waiting.  Frequently we would return home only as the fuchsia glow of a setting sun threatened us with the impending darkness, to worried mothers who insisted that they were about to summon a search party for us, always fearing the worst.


Perhaps driven by a primordial hunter-gatherer instinct reminiscent of archaic hominids, Chris and I were expert scavengers.  Early on, we came to recognize the strategic value of a quick and calculated diversion.  Lesson Number One in parental management was to always bring something back to show—"evidence equals diversion."  Accordingly, we would delight in watching our mothers' stern, worried faces melt into an expression of intrigue as, in a cunning move certain to gain their approval, we would procure the unpredictable bounty of our day's scrounging.  Arrowheads, agates, perhaps a sack of morels or a stringer of fish, gravestone rubbings, wildflowers—all served the purpose of supplanting our mothers' concerns over our tardiness.  We also quickly learned that some discoveries were better received than others; on the few occasions when such routine bounty had eluded us, we might, for instance, carry home a dead coon or possum from the road, if we were lucky enough to find one.  We would quickly be dismissed, whereupon we would carry the putrid carcass down to the "Pet Cemetery" we had established in the old foundation of what had once been a chicken house, next to the apple tree under which I dumped the slop-bucket.  There we would give it a decent burial and erect a headstone crudely-hewn from limestone slab.


So it was that Chris and I were drawn into friendship by an intense, mutual curiosity that manifested itself in any number of diverse hobbies.  Between the two of us we collected everything, from cloth tags torn from discarded clothing that we would retrieve from the nearby county dump, to paper labels torn from empty cans.  Our rooms overflowed with the spoils of our collective instinct—rocks, postage stamps, coins, radio parts, old books, arrowheads, leaves, nails, decomposing insects in empty peanut butter jars—all of which were treasures to us, but a formidable impediment to our mothers' insistence on sanitary living!


Many hobbies came and went with the ebb and flow of our interests, as costly but unsuccessful experiments would sometimes spell a quick end to further inquiries.  Such was the case with our experience as budding aviators whereby a significant number of runaway remote-controlled airplanes flew beyond eyesight and disappeared forever into tall cornfields.  Try as we might (imagining that we were searching for Amelia Earhart), we never found those planes.  Similarly, after days of tedious and painstaking assembly, a paper, one-eighth scale hot air balloon kit immediately became a raging inferno upon its christening launch in the goose pasture west of Chris's house.  Our meager allowances simply could not withstand such disasters.


As we teetered on the brink of financial ruin, we suddenly discovered a new hobby that gradually assumed prominence and, indeed, evolved into an obsession over time.  Most importantly at the moment, it didn't even cost us a dime!  It all began by happenstance nearly thirty years ago on a summer's afternoon, as I was scrounging through an old, ramshackle barn that was being torn down in the neighborhood.  Determined to assist in the process, I began tearing boards off the inner walls in a contest of strength.  The rusty square nails groaned as they reluctantly gave way to my attack.  As I pulled on a lower board, several bottles tumbled out of their century-old resting-place within the wall.  My immediate instinct was to smash them, but as I bent down and picked one up I recognized that there was something very peculiar about these bottles. They were unlike any that we were familiar with.  They had "glass writing" on them, cork tops, and several were aqua blue in color.  Curious, I gathered them all into a rusty old pail and carried them home. 


For about a week, the pail sat on the front porch amid the seventeen farm cats which lazed in the summer's evening heat, their only sign of life an occasional switch of their tails.  Eventually my grandmother spotted them.  As was her nature, she gave me an exciting discourse on the significance and value of my find, imparting the story of traveling medicine men, peddlers of sundry cures, elixirs and oils in an age long since past.  She explained embossing, mold seams, enclosure types, and other bottle trivia useful for knowledgeable collecting.  Inspired, I decided that I'd start collecting old bottles.  After all, I reasoned, I could find plenty of them for free!  I showed the bottles to Chris, who decided that he'd start a collection, too.  In that manner, a new hobby was born.


Thereafter, Chris and I shared a singular, primary objective: to seek out and hoard all old bottles we could lay our hands upon.  Together we traipsed the countryside, inspecting gullies, creek banks, and other likely places for the hints of dumps which might yield treasures.  We had a lot to learn about bottles, though.  The first few summers we sweat ourselves to trim figures while digging (actually "sorting") in circa 1950s-60s trash pits, complete with aluminum Hamm's beer cans and ubiquitous Clorox bottles.  The probability of there being anything collectible in such pits didn't seem to matter at all—we were driven by mere possibility.  After some time, we gradually realized what signs to look for in determining whether a dump was worth investigation, and thereafter we became very adept at discerning the signs of a promising spot. 


As our knowledge of bottles grew, we felt increasingly "sophisticated."  The large quantity of ABM stuff that we'd gathered came to be regarded as "scrubs."  Now, we experienced untold joy foraging through the refuse of a previous century and comparing bottles as they were carefully extracted from the good earth, often at depths of several feet.  We journeyed vicariously back through time as each new specimen came to light.  Of particular interest to each of us were the peculiar medicines of the time: Hall's Catarrh Cure, Trask's Magnetic Ointment, Dr. Miles Restorative Nervine, Kemp's Balsam for the Throat and Lungs, Chamberlain's Colic, Cholera and Diarrhea Remedy, Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery, Healy and Bigelow's Kickapoo Indian Oil. 


Colorful shades of amber, aqua, cobalt, green, and prized sun-colored amethyst gradually filled our bedroom shelves.  The rocks and books were taken down and stashed away in boxes to make room for our burgeoning collections.  Every available space was expropriated to make room for more and more bottles.  Much to our mothers' delight, the horrid, decomposing insects in their peanut butter jars were tossed away into the junk!  When not digging or scouting the countryside for new places to dig, we experienced joy just ogling each other's bottle collection.


Then, one fateful early summer day, the mutual pleasure we derived from our hobby was shattered by the onset of envy which reared its insidious head as Chris excitedly displayed his latest find.  Boasting and beaming proudly, he held forth in his hands an aqua blue Fletcher's Castoria, blown in mold, which he had retrieved from one of our dumps during a solo-dig.  I was devastated.  My heart pounded and blood pulsed, as my mind became awash in a torrent of jealousy and anger.  Chris had violated the most preeminent and sacred tenet of our personal code of bottle-digging ethics—that digging in any dump to which we had shared and equal claim of discovery should always be done together, so that one might not have an unfair advantage over the other in the quest to accumulate.  As he stood before me, an image emerged in my mind's eye; I envisioned him, shovel in hand, occasionally glancing furtively over his shoulder as he skulked off to "our" dump—perhaps even digging in my hole!  What nerve!  Alas, the injury that I felt as a result of this transgression was grievously compounded by the fact that he had actually found something!


That day marked my first conscious experience of envy, and I was determined to avenge the awful feeling.  In its powerful grip, envy robbed me of my innocent state of mind, and it brought with it a notorious bag and baggage, greed and rivalry.  The Great Bottle Battle had begun!


Thereafter, the hobby took on an added dimension of competition motivated by greed.  I scurried hither and thither in search of new dumps, each of which I secretly excavated with mole-like compulsion.  My collection burgeoned rapidly, an arrogant display of one-upsmanship.  I was determined that Chris be subjected to each new acquisition, in that matter punishing him repeatedly for his own unprincipled action.  His groaning and whining indicated that I was successful.  Chris soon retaliated by procuring a large box full of nice, mold-blown embossed bottles that his father had purchased for him at a farm auction for a pittance price.  Such underhanded acquisition was the equivalent of biological warfare, for the purchasing of bottles, too, was a serious violation of our ethical code of collecting.  Try as I might to convince myself that those bottles were essentially worthless because of the dishonest manner by which they came into Chris's possession, I inevitably found myself wishing that each and every one of them were sitting on my shelf.


As it turned out, so deep was the animosity, and so great were the lengths to which we'd go to mount an offensive against each other, that The Great Bottle Battle entailed risks to life and limb.  During the course of the battle, I experienced the tribulation of a close encounter with rabies.  One afternoon, driven to the point of trespass by the hope that I might find something to boast to Chris about, I sneaked into an old barn and began scrounging for bottles.  Instead of bottles, I found a wild barn cat.  I stalked the cat, eventually cornering it, and as I lunged to grab it, it bit me.  My mother was aghast with fright when I casually mentioned that I'd been bitten by a wild barn cat.  Immediately, she summoned a posse; they gathered at the house, questioned me as to the cat's description and general whereabouts, and proceeded to hunt the poor beast down.  Within an hour, they were back, carrying the cat's corpse.  I verified that it was indeed the cat that had bitten me.  It's body was taken to the veterinarian, who decapitated it and sent the head to Iowa State University for testing.  We sat by the phone awaiting the series of calls informing us of the results of the tests.  During that time I was repeatedly castigated for my ignorance in messing with wild animals, and was given just enough of a description of "long needles and multiple shots in the abdomen" that I began to feel like lead.  Finally, the phone rang; the first test turned out negative, as did the rest.  Unfortunately, The Great Bottle Battle had claimed the life of an innocent bystander.  I longed to give the cat a decent burial in the Pet Cemetery, and in the absence of its carcass, the least I could do was to construct a limestone monument in its memory, which I did.


The spirit of competition and collector's rivalry prevailed for the remainder of that summer and until the snow and frozen ground terminated our digging and necessitated a cease-fire.  With the advent of the spring thaw, a thawing of relations ensued.  As nature renewed itself that spring, so too, Chris and I renewed our bond as collectors.  As insidious and pervasive as jealousy was, it could not erode the bonds of camaraderie that time and a shared hobby had forged between us.  Hostility set aside, together we again struck out in quest of antique bottles.  Soon afterward, I purchased my first bottle price guide, Kovel's, and discovered that Chris's Fletcher's Castoria—the bottle that had precipitated the entire conflict—was worth a paltry fifty cents! 


Once more together, Chris and I ravaged the countryside with our shovels.  Our collections grew to immense proportions, posing a new and growing concern for our mothers.  The seeds of envy which lay dormant would occasionally burst forth during times when one had outstanding good fortune working a hole.  Particularly challenging for me was the time Chris dug his wonderfully-embossed Thompson's Wild Cherry Phosphate, a deep-amethyst Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Restorer, and a honey-amber, applied top "Crystal Brewerage" with an embossed eagle.  And Chris literally sobbed when I dug up two Dr. Von Hopf's Curaco Bitters in one day, among other nice finds.


Nearly thirty years have passed, and although now traveling divergent paths in life, Chris and I embody within us the spirit of our youth.  Perhaps the propensity to compete, borne of collector's rivalry, has imbued within us the qualities instrumental for success in this world.  Certainly, as we grappled with the negative emotions of envy, greed and rivalry, we eventually discovered the value of emotional self-control as a predicate of friendship, a valuable lesson in its own right.  Ultimately, we "signed" a treaty of sorts, ending The Great Bottle Battle on the night of Chris's high school graduation reception.  Forever embellished in my mind is the glow that spread across Chris's face as he opened my present to him on that night—a Dr. Von Hopf's Curaco Bitters!



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