Mack Williams: The earthwork of ’61

  • Posted: Monday, June 24, 2013 12:39 a.m.

The following recollection dates from about 1961 and deals with digging a hole. The digging of holes is usually done with planting in mind, but this one involved a search for treasure.

There was a small clearing in the woods between our house and that of neighbor Paul Ritchie, the clearing being not very far from the “Via Appia” of our lives back then, the Old Concord Road. Somehow, several of us neighborhood kids got it into our heads that treasure was buried in that spot. Not far from that place, a year or so before, I had happened upon a “natural” treasure which boys sometimes find when exploring the woods: a squirrel’s skeleton, mostly complete, with skull, but it was on top of the ground and wasn’t the inspiration for our digging.

I can’t remember if that sinking of pick and shovel was inspired by one child, or if it was a case of simultaneous group mass hypnosis (or hysteria). Perhaps the mere presence of a slightly clearer space in the woods was enough to generate our imaginations (“cleared” forest space being always potent for the imagination, i.e., North Carolina’s “Devil’s Tramping Ground.”)

No purposefully stained, faux-pirate parchment map with faded cryptic symbols (or invisible lemon-juice writing made readable by a flame’s heat) was brought forth to inspire our dig. If there had been, it would have been highly questionable, since the Saint Paul’s Community is quite inland from where Blackbeard and other pirates used to hide out. (Even though there are a couple of graves at Thyatira Presbyterian Church upon which skulls and crossbones are inscribed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those lying there were “pirates.”) I like to think that we children of those days were more imaginative, lacking the need of concrete things for our inspiration; but maybe we were just more gullible.

In reflecting just now about our reason for digging, I suddenly remember a former neighbor’s pet in Yanceyville which would dig up his owner’s yard, seemingly on the instinct that a mole might be passing through below. Dogs smell things that we cannot smell, and hear things (silent dog whistle) to which our ears remain deaf. This pet was a male Dachshund, the breed developed in Germany for rooting out badgers. Such digging, on a “hunch” (probably a “scented” one), in his case, was “genetic,” making his digging more noble than that of our hole excavation. There was nothing in our genes to make our digging particularly expected, or worthy of praise.

As I remember, the sum total of our combined efforts put the bottom of the hole only one foot away from the same level as that occupied by a corpse. Although not quite “corpse level” when I stood in it, upon its completion the level of the surrounding forest floor was over the top of my head, but after all, I was the shortest boy in the neighborhood (and probably still am).

The sum total of what was brought up consisted of no more than a “fishable” quantity of earthworms, small rocks (nothing special, just milky quartz) and the amount of soil expected from a hole of that size. By pure chance, this area, outside of my yard, wasn’t “graced” with rocks as numerous or as large as those immediately surrounding my house, or we could have probably only dug the equivalent of something often mentioned in murder mysteries: “a shallow grave.”

No one complained about what we found, and it seemed that our joint effort was beneficial to all. When exercising, endorphins are released which give the exerciser a sense of well-being. Perhaps the communal exercise of digging that hole produced “endorphins of community,” uniting those few kids in that little section of the Old Concord Road just a little more than they were already.

In guidebooks, the remains of Civil War earthworks, consisting of trenches and mounds, are noted, as are the rermains of the trenchworks of World War I in those guidebooks devoted to them. (What we dug would have made a commendable foxhole in any war.)

Judging by recent pictures of some of those “diggings” of long ago battlefields, time and weather have not been kind to them. In the case of our hole;, however, the lesser number of passed years might mean that time is still its “friend,” sort of.

Perhaps, in that area of ground just off the Old Concord Road, in the Saint Paul’s Community of the Old North State, can still be seen some traces of the “Earthwork of ’61” (twentieth century, not nineteenth).

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