The Facebook headline said, “Any idea who these charms belong to?” — above a photo of two flat metal cutouts engraved with the names “Kathryn” and “Bradley.” If I had seen the post, I would have immediately known, by the names and the birthdates below them, who these people were. In fact, I am surprised that although more than 3000 people shared the post, Facebook did not find anyone who could identify my brother, Bradley, although the metal detectrist who found the charms lives a few miles from the members of my brother’s family, near Poughkeepsie, and most of them are on Facebook.
It’s not Facebook’s fault. Bradley started calling himself “Jay,” his middle initial, back in high school. When Gary E. Kilmer, Jr., the detectrist, struck out with Facebook and detecting forums, he went to the library in Poughkeepsie to search school yearbooks, with no success. The Internet came through in the end, when he found a website that searches by first name and birthdate, and there was Bradley — who turned out to be Kilmer’s insurance agent.
Kathryn, our cousin, died in 1996. The two charms were found near the Wappinger Creek, where we swam every summer as kids. When our grandmother was visiting, she used to come along for a dip in the creek, and she must have lost the charms from her bracelet on one of those expeditions. My parents put in a swimming pool in 1974 and stopped going to the creek, so the charms must have been lost over four decades ago.
Kilmer lives in the neighborhood where I grew up, not far from the creek and around the block from the house where my mother still lives. I went by to thank him for returning the charms to us and to find out more about his hobby. Now a computer professional at the public library in Poughkeepsie, he got his start in metal detecting when he was a teenager, helping his father clean out a house that had been gutted by fire. “We were shoveling ashes through a hole in the floor,” he recalled, “when we heard tinkling. There must have been a jar of coins in the corner of the room.” They took home five buckets of ashes and sifted out the coins, which they used to buy a metal detector.
Now his nine-year-old daughter often goes detecting with him. He asks for permission from the owners of farmland, old estates, and land slated for development, and then goes out to scan the earth. “We’re out there digging up history that might well never be found otherwise,” he said. “There’s so much out there.”
Kilmer showed me three portable glass-topped display cases arrayed with the coins, forks, spoons, locks, scissors, and other items he has turned up over the years, each object carrying with it some morsel of history. “I find a lot of buckles,” Kilmer said. “The world used to be held together with leather straps.”
The oldest artifact he has found is the head of an adze — a cutting tool resembling an axe. An archeologist at Vassar College tested the object, found it to be almost 100 percent copper, and dated it to somewhere between 3500 and 5000 years old. Kilmer’s most valuable discovery was a 1793 Liberty Cap Cent, which he sold for $6000. “I couldn’t justify keeping that one,” he said.
Once he located my family, he was excited to be able to return the charms to my brother and mother. The find was meaningful to me. I had been wondering if it was really worthwhile to keep plugging away at the book I’ve been writing about my ancestors for the last five years. I asked for a sign from the beyond to let me know. Obviously, Grandma thinks I should keep writing.