Long-lost buried treasure can still yield great rewards

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

It was a lazy, fun-in-the-sun day at the beach until my 10-year-old brother, Forest, came running down the sandy shore.

“Come, hurry,” he panted with saucer-size eyes. “I found something!”

Rachel, my sister, and I raced with our parents as we followed Forest down the beach.

Sticking out of the sand was what looked like the remains of a steering wheel. We started digging and soon found a whole steering wheel. After more digging, we had a steering column.

With that discovery, we dashed to our beach house and gathered shovels, hoes, and anything that looked like it could dig. After hours of digging, we uncovered a dashboard, two seats, and the revelation that we had found a Jeep.

Our imaginations kicked into high gear as my siblings and I — ages 12, 10, 8 — envisioned driving home in a Jeep.

Then Jeep-possession turf battles began. Ownership was seriously contested, based chiefly on the pioneer tradition of “finders-are-keepers.” Forest even played his “only son” card and advocated the “first-finder” clause as most relevant. We dug and debated — but mostly had fun pondering the Jeep’s origins and its new place with our family in the future. The day ended with high hopes and determination to finish the job the next day.

The whole family was up at dawn. Laden with shovels, we raced to the beach to complete our archeological expedition.

But the Jeep had disappeared.

Overnight, the tide had come in and erased every trace of our Jeep, which the natives said had broken loose from a string of World War II abandoned military vehicles placed offshore years ago to prevent beach erosion. We were devastated.

Through the years, though, our family discovered that the true treasure of that experience was and is still with us. We’ve learned that the real treasure is not always what it first appears. Our treasure was not in the prize, but in the process of digging for the prize.

We continued our family beach trips almost every summer, even after we lost Forest in a water-skiing accident at age 17. During each vacation, we would stroll down the sand and someone will say, “Remember Forest’s Jeep?”

And we would, smiling as we silently recalled that the treasure was not in our fantasies, but in our togetherness, and in the joy of digging and being together as family.

Mom and Dad are gone now, too. And my wheelchair prevents those lazy shoreline strolls on the sand. But when my sister and I perch on a ship deck or a cottage porch and peer at a sandy shore, we still say, “Remember Forest’s Jeep?” And those magical words time-warp us back to more than a story about what could have been; it anchors us in the loving memory of what was and will always be a special family experience.

And we affirm, as my father once wrote, that “Our treasures are more often found in the pursuit than in the prize; in the process than in the possession.”