The Birth of a Rockhound

Treasures of Virginia soil …

I’ve been obsessed with rocks and minerals my entire life. When I was about 6 years old, I learned that magical stones called “geodes” existed, and immediately made it my mission to find one. I marched into the field behind our house and feverishly began to collect every rock that was even remotely a spherical shape (most weren’t even close). I toiled for what seemed like forever, collecting my treasures and then carrying them back up the steep hill to be deposited in the cool shade of the second-story deck that was attached to the rear of the house. I had no idea that geodes tend to form in certain locations under certain conditions – I just thought that if a rock was round(ish), it qualified as a candidate.

After my foraging was complete and I had amassed a respectable mound of rocks beneath the deck, I crept into the basement, on a mission for something that was located in the forbidden zone of my dad’s workbench – a hammer. He was at work, but I was absolutely certain that he would somehow know that I was breaking the rules, just the same. However, the allure of cracking open a rock to find glistening crystals inside was more than I could bear, and with my heart beating so hard I could hear it in my ears, I went through with the thievery anyway, promising myself that I would return the hammer before he came home from work.

Being the tender age of 6, I was not aware that there was something called the MOH’s Scale. Nor was I aware that many of the rocks I had collected would register as a 7 on that scale, only a few rungs down from the hardest natural substance on earth – a diamond – which tops the chart at a hardness of 10. Steel, on the other hand (as in the stolen hammer), has a hardness of about 5.5. I just assumed that any rock in existence would succumb quietly and without resistance to the blows of a framing hammer, even if it were wielded by a scrawny kid on an impossible mission. That was my first mistake.

Any one who knows me is acutely aware of my ability to focus on something that has captured my interest, tuning everything else out, and pursuing the goal at hand with the dedication and tenacity of a Rat Terrier going after it’s namesake. There are times that this has gotten me into trouble, and this particular afternoon would prove to be a doozy.

As I banged relentlessly on the rocks, I noticed that, with almost every blow, small showers of sparks were flying around me. I also noticed that, along with those sparks, there appeared to be tiny slivers of rock peppering my arms, legs, and face. At the time, I took this as a good sign – assuming that the fireworks and the disintegrating bits of rock meant that I was nearing my goal of coaxing one of my targets into giving up it’s secrets. However, as with my ignorance of the MOH’s Scale, I also had no idea about the nature of fracture and cleavage – I didn’t understand that those little bits of rock stinging my skin were just indicative of the fact that I could beat on those rocks for a week and wouldn’t end up with anything but a pile of razor sharp quartz slivers and no magical treasure. In my desperation to reveal the untold delight that I just knew was hiding amongst the dust covered pile of stones, I pushed on.

Thanks to my red-hot, laser-sharp ability to focus on the task at hand, I didn’t notice the sun dropping lower in the sky as the hammer came down again and again and the hours passed. I didn’t notice that my ears were starting to ring, and I ignored the fact that most of my exposed skin was stinging as if I were under attack by a hundred tiny bees. What I DID notice was the huge, shiny grill of our green 1970 Chevy Blazer as my dad swung around the corner of the house and slid to a stop in front of my mom’s prize lilac bush, less than ten feet from where I was mining for my paydirt.

Hammer poised to strike, and mouth agape, I stared through the windshield in horror. My dad, looking perplexed, stared back. Then I saw his brow furrow as he understood what I was up to, and I nearly peed my pants as he threw open the door of the truck and marched toward me.

He said something as he snatched the wooden handle from my hand, but I couldn’t make out the words. As he examined the ruined poll and face of the hammer, his face got redder and redder. I was saying I was sorry, but the words sounded as if I were speaking underwater. It was then that I began to realize that I couldn’t hear, and my ears hurt. Shortly on the heels of this, I also realized that my skin felt as if I had been filleted in a papercut torture device.

I just knew that I was going to die – if my dad didn’t kill me for ruining his hammer and spraying rock chips all over the place, then I was certain I would succumb to my self-inflicted injuries at some point during the evening. I began to cry. He scooped me up in one arm and carried me into the house, depositing his defiled hammer on the forbidden workbench as we passed.

I was turned over to the care of my mother, who drew me a bath. As I stared into the mirror, I was hardly recognizable – a dust covered, scratched up face with little rivers of mud in the places that my tears had eroded away. I think my dad felt that submerging my cut-up skin into that bathtub was probably punishment enough, so my scolding consisted of a stern warning and some dramatic finger wagging followed by a hug. My hearing returned by dinnertime, and my cuts stopped stinging by the time I went to bed, so I was able to drift off without fear that I would die in my sleep.

That was 47 years ago, and while I can honestly say that I never tried to birth a geode by assaulting a lump of quartz with a framing hammer ever again, my passion for the stones buried beneath my feet has never waned. I can’t go anywhere or do anything without scanning the ground around me. I stopped by one of my construction sites today to check on a concrete pour – as I walked along and looked at the anchor bolts, I went into Rango mode – one eye was on the concrete while the other was swiveling wildly around in search of a bit of pink feldspar or beautiful green prehnite hiding in the dirt. After staring at the concrete for a dutiful amount of time, I then wandered off and spent 30 minutes climbing gravel piles and coaxing rocks out of the mud.

I came home with my pockets full of my intended quarry, which is currently soaking in the kitchen sink. I will smile a little later as I wash the supper dishes and a bit of grit that I missed during cleanup gets caught between a plate and the bottom of the sink, making a terrible screech as it rasps along the stainless steel, a reminder of the sheer joy experienced earlier in the day as I unearthed beautiful bits of ancient geology with the unfettered delight of a child.

2 Comments on “The Birth of a Rockhound

  1. Your writing has always amazed me. I find myself laughing out loud. “Rango mode” made me lose it. Very enjoyable!

  2. Agree with Matt….your writing is so very engaging! I can just see you doing this!

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