A Hierarchy Of Worth

I spent a large chunk of my youthful summers by the sea shore. There’s a little community on the Maine coast where, back in the fifties, my Grandfather built a vacation house to take his sizable family on weekends. How a man from the hills of New Hampshire came to find this place is another interesting little bit of history. As a very young man thrown into the armpit of a hellish war, he made a friend. Both of these young men had become captains of large, specialized landing craft in MacArthur’s island hopping campaign. The branch they belonged to was the Army’s Combat Engineers and the fact that they both survived to the end is a minor miracle in its self.

His good friend was named George, though most everyone, with the exception of myself, called him Skip. I was a little kid and in those days, a child did not refer to an adult by nickname. George had grown up not merely on the coast, but on the water. He was a lobsterman by trade. One of a rugged bunch of men who made their living harvesting bugs from the ocean floor. George was gruff, big and instantly likable. At some point during the war, he told my Grandfather that if they ever got out alive, he should come see where he lives. George thought he might like it. He was right.

After they all came home, my Grandfather bought a piece of property from his friend’s mother-in-law, just across the street from George’s own house, in fact. The two friends set to building what would become our family’s cottage. Fast forward about twenty years and now there was a little boy, tottering around in the grassy lawn looking for toads and bugs. That, was me.

That place was magical to go to. By the time I was old enough to walk down to the little market in the village on my own, or ride my bike to the sea wall down front, I knew exactly where to go to find the most sought after kid-treasure of the ocean. I knew where the sea glass was.

I always remembered being amazed that it was there just for the picking. It was like finding jewels on the beach left behind by a careless lady, just waiting to be scooped up and dragged away by the incoming tide. The part that I liked the most was that just finding it wasn’t enough. For it to be any good, it had to be “done”. No sharp edges, no clear, unscuffed bits and yet, not over cooked either. The pieces had to be big enough not to slip through the hole in the corner of your pockets. It was like sifting for diamonds.

We had a particular place that we liked to go to and the few of us who knew about it, guarded its location carefully. It was set up as the perfect mechanism for grinding glass into jewels. A natural outcropping of rock funneled the sea through a small gap where the stone was warn smooth by a billion waves. As the sea surged in, it ground what ever it pulled along over a blanket of fine sand and pea sized rocks. We called it “The Gates” and it was natures polishing wheel on the Southern Maine coast. The gates look directly out to sea, but for some reason, an amazing quantity of glass was refined and deposited there and for those of us who knew the secret, we were its stewards. All this would have been a boon for any treasure seeker but there was another surprise. This place was rich in one of the rarest of commodities: blue sea glass.

There was a hierarchy of sea glass that was pretty universal. Kids could understand it and take to it quickly and no one who I ever heard of, disputed where the various colors were on the list. From the least to most sought, they run like this…

Light Blue,

Oddities were bits of pottery with intricate designs or glass colors that were just so rare that they belonged on a list of their own. The oddity that was claimed the most was red glass, but calling it common is not right. It was simply the most common of the rare. I can say that I’ve probably only come across a dozen or so pieces of it in my life. You never expected to find them but when you did, it was big news.

No, blue was the color to look for. The pieces were usually small. Smaller than any of the browns, greens or whites. Nothing back then was still being sold in blue glass jars and so what we were finding were the remains of inkwells, old medicine bottles or bits of depression glass. They had been rolling around with the sea for a long, long time and had been reduced to tiny fragments that were easily missed. A honed eye could find them, though. So, like a bunch of wet footed truffle hunters, we scoured the sands at The Gates, sun burning the backs of our ears and chins welded to our chests. When the incoming waves finally chased us off our patch and the last glance down was torn away, our eyes focused upwards and we would go home to count our bounty.

First came the sorting. Color piles were made and sandwiches were provided by smiling mothers. The potato chips and pretzels were always a little soggy from the humidity but it was never minded by the happy hunters. After that, the vetting process began. Pieces that had been picked up in haste were scrutinized by the group and if they did not pass muster, then they were voted down. They were not done yet and need to be returned to the ocean. The piles must all be of high quality. Then, the trading began.

“How many light light blues for that good blue piece?”
“I have a white that looks like a horse’s head. I’ll trade you for five big browns.”
“This once still has some pattern to it. Any one want to trade? What do you have?”

It was a great way to spend a summer day.

Now when I walk the beach, I can’t help but look down. In various boxes, forgotten to the basement or shed, sit bags and bags of old, hard won treasures, far too special to dump. I don’t need any more sea glass but I still can’t seem to keep my gaze away from my feet for long. I’m more particular about the pieces that go into my pockets now and try like hell to leave most of it where I find it, but old habits die hard. Blue is not as rare as it once was, now that it’s back in bottling use. I tend to walk past it now. An old bottle rim will stop me though, as will a piece with some printing on it. Though I don’t get down to the family cottage much anymore, I have found little places here and there near my new home. The pickings aren’t as good, but then again, no place ever could be. Some day soon I’ll have to make a pilgrimage back and be sure to bring my treasure hunters in training. Once they get a little older, I think they’ll be good at it. After all, they’re closer to the ground and have better eyes than the veteran, showing them the ropes.

8 Responses

  1. My childhood was like yours for a while (from when I was 6 until about 8 ) until my family moved away from the coast. I used to spend all my free time scouring the shore for little crabs, looking for caves (found one once) or just fishing.

    We didn’t have much sea glass in my area but I can understand the attraction.

    Your glass hierarchy sounds like the same sort of thing we had for marbles when I was a kid.

    Thanks for the story, it brought back a lot of happy memories.

    Yay! I love bring up happy memories! Thanks for the compliment!
    As for the marbles, Yup; we had them too. Somewhere in a box there’s an old Crown Royal Whisky bag (you know, the blue one with the gold braided string) with all my best aggies, cat’s eyes and shooters in it. When Short Stack and Lulu Belle get old enough, I’ll be sure to show them the game.

  2. I didn’t put that emoticon in, I was trying to say “from when I was 6 until about 8” but with brackets


  3. Isn’t it great that when we were kids, the world was safe enough for us to discover it on our own? We have a house in a island in South of France, and by the age of 8 or 9, I would be gone all day with a band of little friends my own age.
    Nowadays, if I had kids, I would watch them like a hawk. Too many crazies out there.
    I’m like you Mr. Prawn. I keep everything that ever meant anything. When I die, people will go over my earthly possessions and think I was nuts. In the basement of my mom’s house in Brussels, I still have tiny bottles of long gone evaporated perfumes made with the petals of my mother’s roses. With them, the memory of my mom’s face when she discovered her roses reduced to buds, and the memory of my brother’s face when I told my mom he was the culprit. He was well into his thirties when he forgave me for the abuse I inflicted upon him during his childhood. What can I say? Children are cruel.
    Go dig up in your basement! I’d love to see a picture of your oddities!
    Good job on the story. Made me feel totally nostalgic…

    “Go dig up in your basement! I’d love to see a picture of your oddities!”
    Ohh. Now that’s a task worthy of being inflicted by Pat! You know, I just might do that. I was wondering about my next post!
    I know what you mean about feeling safe and exploring as a kid. Actually, it’s the primary reason why Action Girl and I moved to where we did. It’s kind of an insular place were you know your neighbors and kids roam free. It reminds me a lot of my Grandparent’s cottage in setting. Thanks for the Kudos! Do you still have the house on the island?

  4. Oh yes we still have it. My family had three for decades. We sold the large one about 20 years ago – which was a pity because it shared a wall with the village school. The police would live there during the summer. I would invite tons of friends and we would all live there for the month of July. At night, the cops would climb over the wall and party with us – HARD. I don’t know how they ever got hired! They would provide us with stuff difficult to find on the island!
    My mother kept my grandmother’s house and my cousins Marc and Gerard own the other one.
    My mother tried to breach the subject of selling the house last Christmas and she dropped the subject when she saw my face. If I did not have the dogs, I’d probably live in Porquerolles a few months out of the year.

    And YOU called ME an evil little wanker!? Partying with the cops and ingesting illegal substances?! Did they help with the gun running and prostitution rings as well? Good grief!

    The place sounds wonderful though. Someday, SOMEDAY I’ll be able to afford European travel again. (yah, right…)

  5. Great memory.
    The property I lived on as a child had an old Chinese dump on it. (circa 1900) I used to discover strange old bottles poking out of the ground. I loved those bottles; but they are all somewhere else now 😦

    Ross, It’s both a blessing and a curse. I’m very good at keeping track of all my stuff and what that means is… I have too much of it. At least you got the joy of finding and rescuing them. I hope someone is enjoying your discoveries!

  6. I have a bottle that contains sea glass from the Maine coast. Betcha’ can guess where!

    I don’t know exactly where the bottle is, though. Probably in a box that wasn’t unpacked after our move in 2002.

    I can only guess how much sea glass is packed away “safely” in my basement. Scares the heck out of me just to think about it. I could probably tile my bathroom floor with it all.

  7. What a cool idea!

    Leave it to kids!

  8. That brings a lot of memories. When I visited Dominican Republic I use to visit a beach that was near my house. It was a different beach because it was covered in big almond trees and there was always a nice shade. I would find these sea glasses just like the ones you have in the picture. I use to love taking them home. I use to also take the sand too. See the sand there was a very dark sand and it was due because it had very high iron levels. So the sand was VERY magnetic. I use to put a lil bit on paper and on the other side put a fridge magnet and watch the sand move. I love your story.

    The iron rich sand is great! I would have loved playing with that! One of the things that always got me thinking was how he Native Indians used to trade particularly nice shells as a type of currency back before the white man came. I always figured that they would have loved sea glass too. I remember thinking that it wasn’t fair that they couldn’t get one (sea glass) with our the other (Europeans).

    After reading your comment, I’m daydreaming about fresh almonds. Yum!

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