It was going to be the highlight of the summer of 2010: an elaborate beachside treasure hunt for my 5-year-old grandson Cade, whose trip through Disneyland’s “pirates of carrots and beans” — as he calls it — had enthralled him with all things skull-and-crossbones.
“Remember to wrap the plastic around the candy before you bury the treasure,” my first mate suggested as, shovel in hand, I prepared to head into the thick shore pine near our Yachats beach house.
“Aye, aye, mate,” I said.
At 56, you feel a little stupid walking off with a shovel in your hand to bury treasure for your grandson. You also feel a little proud.
And for anyone who thought I’d gone, uh, overboard on this venture, I offer this in my defense: at least I passed on my initial plan to guide him to the buried treasure with an elaborate video in which I was going to dress up as a pirate and be filmed at the hand-made wooden wheel of a friend’s Fern Ridge sailboat.
Instead, I had scaled back and decided Cade would get the clue the old-fashioned way: in a washed-ashore bottle, of course.
I found a good spot to dig in a large cave-like area beneath a canopy of shore pine. Perfect.
Or so I thought.
The shovel bounced off the forest floor as if the dirt were tire rubber. Decades of tree-growing, I soon realized, had made for an intricate network of roots that had become the silvicultural equal of the L.A. freeway system. But finally I found a good, well-secluded spot to dig and, after 30 minutes, had a hole dug deep enough for the treasure to be found by Cade and his 2-year-old sister Avin: gold-wrapped chocolate candy, water blasters, glow-in-the-dark sticks, bubble gum, beach balls, American flags and a blow-up raft — the usual pirate booty.
My whole body was pitted out. Who knew being a pirate was so demanding?
Upon my return to the cabin, my first mate didn’t care that I looked like Robinson Crusoe in Year Three. What she cared about was that I was still carrying the plastic in which I was supposed to have buried the candy.
“Three weeks in the ground — it’ll be gross,” she said.
Never mind that the candy was safe inside an old tool chest, I returned to the burial ground and dug up the hidden treasure to add the safeguard. I wrapped a package in plastic, reburied it, cloaking it all in pine needles, twigs and branches so nobody would stumble across the scene in the three weeks before we would return.
I was halfway back to the beach house when I realized it: I’d wrapped the blow-up raft, not the candy, in the plastic.
Oh, well. It’s not like Johnny Depp didn’t make a few mistakes. It would be my little pirate’s secret.
Three weeks later, the entire family arrived at the cabin for the Fourth of July weekend. I took great liberty in planting clues with Cade, talking endlessly about how pirate ships would sometimes send messages of buried treasure in bottles.
“He gets it, he gets it,” my first mate finally intoned.
What she didn’t get was that how there was something deeper going on here, how as a grandfather I was, on some subconscious level, trying to make amends for elaborate dad-sons schemes that had flopped a generation ago. Like 25 years ago when I worked for weeks on an elaborate skimboard custom fit for Cade’s father, then 6 — and on the big day we tried it, the board caught an edge in the ocean’s shallow water, kicked him into the icy froth and he went off wailing in tears, leaving me to imagine that therapist’s scene 30 years hence: “Well, I guess my dark side emerged the day my father had me test this skimboard he’d made for me … .”
Now, decades later, I would make up for that failure. A handful of us were wading in the surf, Cade among them. Inside the pocket of my hoody sweatshirt it was safely tucked: the wine bottle inside which was the treasure map, complete with directions done in rhymes.
Some 60 feet away, Cade’s attention was clearly elsewhere. I flung the bottle into the surf.
Or so I thought.
“I saw you throw that bottle, Bob-bob!” said Cade. “That’s no pirates’ bottle. You threw it in the ocean!”
“Well, yeah, I — it probably came from a pirates ship and then I just — .”
“You threw it!” he said. “I saw you!”
Never mind any good intentions. I was the wizard of Oz, having been caught by Dorothy and pals.
Cade’s parents, including the now-grown-up kid who once rocketed into that icy surf courtesy of the skimboard I made, noted that I was a vessel in distress and, like the Coast Guard, came to my rescue.
“Cade, look, a treasure map,” said his mother. “Let’s go find the buried treasure!”
“No,” he said. “I want to stay here. This is fun!”
He ran off, frolicking in the surf. And I was left thinking how you can’t orchestrate fun or excitement or mystery for children; they have to find it on their own. They are — these delightful souls — as unpredictable as the sea.
Eventually, we made our way to what we’d dubbed the Ewok Forest to search for the treasure. The treasure that I’d hidden so well in burying that I now couldn’t find. Honestly.
I tried to hide my subtle concern but it didn’t get past Cade and Avin; my puzzlement became their puzzlement. Where could the treasure be? How could we find it? Would we find it?
Suddenly, the buried treasure had developed an unintentional story line. It had become a true mystery. And the two children had dived into the story with all the gusto of a sailor cannon balling over a ship’s side. When we finally found the spot and my shovel hit the top of the old tool chest, Cade’s eyes grew to the size of silver dollars.
He and Avin opened the tool chest, eyes wide.
The not-in-plastic candy had survived. The skimboard tragedy of 25 years ago had been buried for good. The sail of my soul billowed with fresh winds.
“This,” said Cade, “is the best day of my life!”