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The Bottle Battle

Nov 1998 bottle digging story by Matt Schaeffer, Email:

Perhaps it is an innate propensity of childrens' nature that, at some time or another, they harness the curiousity and imagination, so typical of youth, to enagage in the unbounded spirit of exploration; adventure seemingly always awaits those imagine the possibilities beyond a mundane, day to day existence. So it was that, embraced within the wondrous rural splendor of Eastern Iowa, it was a foregone conclusion that my neighbor Chris and I were destined to become collectors. The gently rolling verdant hills cradling their coolwater streams, the limestone bluffs, the fertile fields--all provided ample domain for the exploratory escapades of childhood and the development of our far-flung interests. Despite relative isolation, we were never bored. Curious and possessed of imaginative minds, we epitomized the meaning of "free spirit" in the days of our youth.

Often hurriedly--and sometimes haphazardly--we would tend to our routine chores: weeding the garden, mowing the lawn, feeding the cats, emptying the slop pail under the old apple tree where we dug our fish worms (the era was PGD--"pre garbage disposal")... We went about these inconvenient duties with minds absent from the task, instead engrossed in the thought of our eventual escape into the surrounding countryside in quest of exciting adventures. In retrospect, the chores were instrumental in heightening our anticipation of the prospect of a day's exploration. Never the less, at the opportune moment we would burst from our respective premises in the manner of a track sprinter, leaving the competition for our time behind.

Once together, impulse was our only guide, and we would range at will, far and wide into the vast unknown. Mobility was no obstacle; astride our bikes with banana-seats and chrome sissy bars glinting the summer sun, we would beat a dusty path down the gravel road until curiosity overcame us. Wherever we chanced to stop, an adventure always lay in waiting. Frequently we would return home only as the fuchsia glow of a setting sun threatened us with the impending darkness, to worried mothers who insisted that they were about to summon a search party for us, always fearing the worst!

Perhaps driven by a primordial hunter-gatherer instinct, Chris and I were scavengers wedded to our task, and early on we came to recognize the strategic value of a quick and calculated diversion. Lesson Number One in parental management was to always bring something back. Accordingly, we would delight in watching our mothers' stern but worried face melt into an expression of intrigue as, in a cunning move certain to gain their approval, we would we would procure the unpredictable bounty of our day's scrounging: arrowheads, agates, perhaps a sack of morels or a stringer of fish, gravestone rubbings, wildflowers. On the few occasions when the normal bounty had eluded us, we would carry home a dead animal from the road, whose carcass we ritually consigned to the "Pet Cemetary" we had established in the old foundation of what had once been a chicken house. Whatever the case, it seemed that our fascination with the world around us would yield to nothing. However, we also quickly learned that some discoveries were better received than others!

So it was that Chris and I were drawn into friendship by an intense, mutual curiosity which manifested itself in any number of diverse hobbies. Between the two of us we collected everything, from labels off discarded clothing that we would retrieve from the nearby county dump, to labels torn from empty cans. Our rooms overflowed with the spoils of our collective instinct--rocks, postage stamps, coins, radio parts, old books, arrowheads, leaves, decomposing insects in empty peanut butter jars--all of which were treasures to us, but a formidable impediment to our mothers' insistence on sanitary living!

Hobbies came and went with the ebb and flow of our interests. Costly but unsuccessful experiments would sometimes spell a quick end to further inquiries. Such was the case with a number of runaway remote-controlled airplanes, belonging to Chris, which flew beyond eyesight and disappeared forever into tall cornfields. Try as we might (imagining that we were searching for Amelia Earhart), we never found those planes. Similarly, after days of tedious and painstaking assembly, a paper, one-eighth scale hot air balloon kit became a raging inferno upon its christening launch in the goose pasture! Such were expensive disasters that our meager allowances simply could not withstand!

Thus, each teetering on the brink of financial ruin, we discovered a new hobby which gradually assumed prominence and, indeed, evolved into an obsession over time. It all began by happenstance nearly thirty years ago on a summer's afternoon, as Chris and I were scrounging through an old, ramshackle barn that was being torn down in the neighborhood. Determined to assist in the process, we began tearing boards off the inner walls in a contest of strength. The rusty square nails groaned as they reluctantly gave way to our attack.

As I pulled on a lower board, several bottles tumbled out of their century-old resting place within the wall. Perhaps typical of young lads, our initial instinct was to smash them, but as I bent down and picked one up I recognized that there was something very peculiar about these bottles. They were unlike any that we were familiar with. They had "glass writing" on them, cork tops, and several were bluish in color. Curious, I gathered them all into a rusty old pail and set them aside, and we quickly resumed our antics on the loose boards of the old barn, none the wiser for what we had found.

I carried the bucket of bottles home and set it on the front porch amid the seventeen farm cats which lazed in the summer's evening heat, their only sign of life an occasional switch of their tails. Some days later my grandmother spotted them. As was her nature, she gave me an exciting discourse on the significance and value of my find, imparting the story of traveling medicine men, peddlers of sundry cures, elixirs and oils in an age long since past. She explained embossing, mold seams, enclosure types, and other bottle trivia useful for knowledgeable collecting. In that manner inspired, a new hobby was born.

Thereafter, Chris and I shared a singular, primary objective: to seek out and hoard all old bottles we could lay our hands upon. Together we traipsed the countryside, inspecting gullies, creek banks, and other likely places for the hints of long-buried dumps which might yield treasures. We experienced untold joy foraging through the refuse of a previous century and comparing bottles as they were carefully extracted from the good earth, often at depths of several feet. We journeyed vicariously back through time as each new specimen came to light: Hall's Catarrh Cure, Dr. Miles Restorative Nervine, Kemp's Balsam for the Throat and Lungs, Chamberlain's Colic, Cholera and Diarrhea Remedy, Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery, Healy and Bigelow's Kickapoo Indian Oil...

Colorful shades of amber, aqua, cobalt, green, and prized sun-colored amethyst gradually filled our bedroom shelves. The rocks and books were taken down and stashed away in boxes to make room for our burgeoning collections. Every available space was expropriated to make room for more and more bottles. And much to our mothers' delight, the horrid, decomposing insects in their peanut butter jars were tossed away into the junk!

One fateful day, the mutual pleasure we derived from our hobby was shattered by the insidious onset of envy which reared its ugly head as Chris excitedly displayed his latest find. Beaming proudly, he held forth in his hands an aqua blue Fletcher's Castoria, blown in mold, which he had retrieved from one of our dumps during a solo-dig.

I was devastated, my mind awash in a torrent of jealousy and anger. Chris had broken the sacred and preeminent tenet of our personal code of bottle-digging ethics--that all digging be done in partnership so that one might not have an unfair advantage over another in the quest to accumulate. As he stood before me, an image emerged in my mind's eye; I envisioned him, shovel in hand, occasionally glancing furtively over his shoulder as he skulked off to "our" dump, and perhaps even digging in my hole! What nerve! Alas, the injury that I felt as a result of this transgression was grievously compounded by the fact that he had actually found something!

That day marked my first conscious experience of envy, and I was determined to avenge the awful feeling. In its powerful grip, envy robbed me of my innocent state of mind, and it brought with it a notorious bag and baggage, greed and rivalry. The Bottle Battle had begun!

Thereafter the hobby took on an added dimension of competition motivated by greed. I scurried hither and thither in search of new dumps, each of which I secretly excavated with mole-like compulsion. My collection burgeoned rapidly, an arrogant display of one-upsmanship. I was determined that Chris be subjected to each new acquisition, in that matter punishing him for his unprincipled action. His groaning and whining indicated that I was successful.

The spirit of competition and collector's rivalry prevailed for the better part of one summer, a veritable war between two collectors, but fortunately good triumphed over evil. As insidious and pervasive as jealousy was, it could not erode the bonds of camaraderie that time and a shared hobby had forged between us. Hostility set aside, we renewed our partnership in quest of antique bottles. Soon after, I purchased my first bottle price guide, Kovel's, and discovered that Chris's Fletcher's Castoria was worth a paltry fifty cents!

Together once more, Chris and I ravaged the countryside with our shovels. Our collections grew to immense proportions, a new and growing concern for our mothers. The seeds of envy which lay dormant would occasionally burst forth on days when one had outstanding good fortune working a hole. Particularly challenging for me was the time Chris dug his wonderfully-embossed Thompson's Wild Cherry Phosphate and a "Crystal Brewerage" with an embossed eagle. And Chris literally cried when I dug up two Dr. Von Hopf's Curaco Bitters in one day (unfortunately, I broke a third), among other nice finds!

Those were the days. Time has passed, and although now traveling divergent paths in life, Chris and I embody within us the spirit of our youth. Perhaps the propensity to compete, borne of collector's rivalry, has imbued within us the qualities instrumental for success in this world. Certainly, as we grappled with the negative emotions of envy, greed and rivalry, we eventually discovered the value of self control as a predicate of friendship, a valuable lesson in its own right. Moreover, we learned to share. Forever embellished in my mind is the capacious smile that spread across Chris's face as he opened my present to him on the night of his high school graduation reception: a Dr. Von Hopf's Curaco Bitters!

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