Craftsbury’s underworld was unknown to me until two of its secret servicemen guided me into the town’s treasure filled depths.
In early June I discovered a narrow footpath leading to a cool, windowless room underneath the Craftsbury Public Library. Inside I found Tom Twetten, a trustee of the Library, presiding over cartons and cartons books, 8,000 of them, all donated for the annual Book Sale, a fund-raiser for the Library. He looked me in the eye and said that as his volunteer book sorter, I’d have first dibs to buy any title I fancied.
“Uh oh, that’s dangerous,” I murmured, my home shelves already bulging.
“Danger is good,” Tom replied, his eyes twinkling slightly, whereby we got to work, palming title after title, determining: Fiction? Nonfiction? Ordinary $1? Or prime $2-4? Or, even better, signed by the author? Or better still, a rare first edition? Or distractingly interesting, a Girl Scout badge book from 1926.
“Hmm,” Tom says, examining its inner pages, “I’ll have to look it up, it may be worth something.”
Sometimes from the abundant dross, a gold nugget surfaces, such as once, while pawing through some books for another fund raiser Tom found a folding map of Michigan that fetched over a thousand dollars at auction.
Even with boxes and boxes of dross, like earthworms whose labors enrich the soil: our underground toil pays off.
The afternoon before the day of the sale, all our sorted books are bucket-brigaded out of the basement—each carton of novels, of cookbooks, of travel books and so on is swung from the arms of the Librarian’s husband to the arms of a young woman with turquoise hair to the arms of a man with a knee brace to the arms of Susan the Librarian to the truck bed of a young farmer, again and again, out they come, box after box, until the truck is packed and our grotto hollow.
Just before Tom and I part ways, our undercover work of sorting accomplished, he prepares to emerge by donning a pair of aviator sun-glasses. The menacing dark lenses on this otherwise mild faced elder man suddenly impart him with the look of someone with a high-level security clearance. He smiles faintly at this thought, then strides off to meet up with his wife at her Zumba class.
Days later, I encounter Dave Linck. A longtime member and former president of the Historical Society, Dave is an authority on the dirty little secrets of Craftsbury’s past. With the help of his metal detector, Dave has spent much of the last six years listening to the vehement beeps signaling the presence of treasures sleeping in our soil. Recently, he introduced seven protégées to the art of uncovering the loot. The eager recruits followed Dave and his metal detector across the historical society’s lawn like seagulls after the trawler. When the metal detector’s electronic beeps became constant and shrill as a kettle on boil, the children dropped to their knees in anticipation and began jabbing the turf with a trowel. All told, they uncovered a (pre-hidden) mercury dime, a lucky Irish penny and a Sacajawea $1 coin. A mere pittance compared to the booty Dave’s discovered in the yards and fields across town. In the historical society’s basement (another mysterious underworld) his finds are arranged in groups: thimbles, buckles, locks, bullets (“some of them haven’t even been fired”), watches, knives, hose ends, buttons, and my favorite: a whole fleet of toy cars. “Including this one,” Dave says, “The one I found out by your big tree.”
I look at it and imagine a child in the 1940s playing out by the oak, then being called in for supper, abandoning his car, and somehow losing track of it in the tall grass, as the oak grows and the years pass. Then Dave hears it 70 years later as he sweeps his detector around what’s now my lawn. The earth beneath us seems a mysterious storybook. I trace the fender of the car with my finger, wondering whom that little boy grew up to be?
All photos/art by Julia Shipley