The first time I met Roy Stahl, I had been sitting in my garage for six hours straight. His small pickup, with camper, pulled just past the driveway on the side street of our corner lot. The truck’s windows were down and a western swing song that I had never heard blared so that I couldn’t make out what was on the radio a few feet behind me.
With his ample sideburns and temples graying like Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico, Stahl was no less than twenty years my senior, but called me “sir” in a way that made me think he treats everybody the same. He spoke in a streak, like someone who’s trying to fit three seconds of life into every second of the day. He was looking for cats—toy cats, ceramic cats, flower pots with cats on them—and he stopped by our garage sale to see if we had anything for him.
He said he volunteered as a DJ at retirement homes, playing doo-wop, Motown and R&B mostly, under the name Fat Cat Sounds. He displayed novelty cats around his setup and gave them away when he thought it might make someone’s day. He said a lot of other things but I didn’t have the focus to listen as quickly as he talked, while customers milled around in my garage. He quickly noticed the small toy metal detector hanging on the wall, and he was off talking about his other passion.
He was a member of the Austin Metal Detecting Club, and in Houston visiting his mother, herself a metal detector enthusiast. In the course of three minutes, I heard more about metal detectors than I thought there was to know. The different brands and preferences, styles and codes—it didn’t take long for me to know there was more to know than I ever could.
I told him about how I was forced to dip a toe into his world in the first days of 2006, when I ran to Target to buy that little metal detector, to help me find one of the only truly irreplaceable things I have ever owned.
I don’t consider myself an artistic person but at some point before my wedding in 2002, I decided that I would like to design my own wedding ring. It was inspired by my parents’ wedding bands that were simple yellow gold, with etched interlocking circles all the way around. Like most couples, my parents have not yet gotten to the “happily ever after” part, but they’re forty years in and they continue to try. I designed my ring—white gold with raised interlocking circles, and thin yellow gold bands on either side—to remind me of the work they’ve done and how that might be an idea that my then-fiancée, Amy, and I could build upon.
That ring and Amy’s were made by an exceptional craftsman, Marek Bejm of Beyms Studio in Dallas. Marek’s daughter Sylvia was one of Amy’s closest friends growing up, and having her wedding rings made by her friend’s dad had been one of those wedding daydreams that brides bring with them from childhood. The rings came out better than we had hoped, and I decided that I would let the design be a surprise for my parents on the wedding day.
After the wedding, while the guests made their way from St. Austin church near the UT campus to the Caswell House on West Avenue for the reception, Amy and I turned to our respective parents. I remember my parents’ reaction as I showed them. Mom went for the Kleenex, already on standby from the ceremony, while dad pinched the bridge of his nose between his eyes, and turned away. I may have cried too. A little.
As Amy and I built our life together, eventually moving from Austin to Houston and then from the Houston Heights to Spring Branch, I only took the ring off for a few minutes each day. In the pictures of our first son’s birth, there is the ring. Whether I was working at the office, working in the yard, or working the TV remote, the ring was there.
Then on New Years Day 2006, while taking down Christmas lights, in our front yard, it disappeared. I remember everything about that experience—where I was standing when I realized it was gone, the unusual feeling of my finger—a breeze where the ring should be, the sinking in my gut.
I had a scare a few weeks earlier, when the ring got caught in a stack of gift bags, but that wasn’t enough to motivate me to resize the ring. I found it right where I lost it that first time, and didn’t give it much thought after, but this was different. I searched for days. I even went back to that stack of gift bags. Nothing. I ran out and bought the little metal detector and obsessed for a few days.
Eleven weeks later our second son was born, and it was amazing. The ring, the loss of an object, was the last thing on my mind. At home with two boys, thirteen months apart, the search, already an infrequent hobby, came essentially to a halt. I never stopped hoping but I couldn’t justify hours crawling around in the front yard while there were bottles and diapers and burps and a paying job to attend to. I also knew that as time passed, finding my ring became less and less likely.
I would look back on those pictures of my youngest son’s early months, though, and see the glaring absence on my left hand. When we took pictures with the older son’s, say, little baby hand holding my giant dad hand, the ring was always there. We took similar shots with the new baby, and it wasn’t. No one else may have noticed but I did, and I felt a sense of disappointment with myself that I had let that happen. The ready-made heirloom that I designed was lost because I didn’t have the sense to just leave it on the counter while I worked in the yard on a cool day.
When I raked or weeded, I thought of the ring. I just put it in a yard waste bag, didn’t I? A hundred times, I would walk through the yard and a glint would catch my eye, and I would fall to my knees and run my fingers through the grass. Nothing came up. Every time, I thought about the inscription that my wife secretly had Marek carve inside and my heart would sink again, just like it did on New Years Day 2006.
Standing there in my garage in March 2009, I gave Roy Stahl the abridged version of the story. I told a perfect stranger that one of the few objects in the world I have an emotional attachment to was lost in my front yard. His eyes lit up. He told me he’d be glad to look for it on a future visit and all he would ask in return is a letter. Some cities and counties are more restrictive on metal detectors than others, and his club is working to build a case to have those laws relaxed. I agreed to the simple terms, thinking that if he found the ring and made off with it, I wouldn’t have it any less than I did right then.
Weeks passed and I didn’t hear from Roy. He called at one point and left a message but I was in a rush, forgot about the message, and just never got around to calling.
I didn’t give my ring much thought either. I would still run my fingers through the grass when a glint caught my eye, but after Hurricane Ike and high water in the neighborhood just a few weeks earlier, I didn’t have much confidence that I would see the ring again.
Then on the evening of Saturday May 23, the doorbell rang, and there was Roy Stahl. He caught us just back from a day at the beach and said he was in town to visit his mom. He didn’t write down our address and wasn’t sure if he could find us again but he drove by and knew immediately that he was in the right place. He had brought his equipment with him and was eager to start the hunt on Sunday afternoon, after church.
The next day after lunch, there he was. His wife, Michele and their daughter were with him and each had their own machine. They held them over the ground and expertly waved them around. Occasionally they would hit the ground and start poking around, only to find a pull tab or a charm from the collar of a dog named Cindy, or a piece from our yard’s surprising collection of spent ammunition. Each time one of the hunters would probe around with something that looked like a cross between an ice pick and a screwdriver; specialized equipment for dirt poking. At the very least, I thought the yard will get some much needed aeration.
An hour or so later the rain rolled in and put the project on hold. As they packed up the detectors to keep the equipment out of the rain, Roy told me he would be back, and that it wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when.” If the cursory search didn’t turn up the ring, step two was setting up a string line grid to ensure that every inch of the yard was checked. Beyond that, he knew people in Austin who would be drawn by the thrill of the hunt.
I was flattered, but unsure. I saw the work and trusted they would take care of the grass—a first for our grass—but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to have a crime scene/archeological dig in my front yard. All for a ring that could have easily, I thought, been sent off in a sack of leaves.
The rain didn’t last long, and as I walked through my kitchen, getting ready for company, I saw Roy back at it. He wanted to bop around, he said, while he had the chance. If nothing turned up on this Sunday hunt, he said he would be more methodical when he returned on Monday, Memorial Day.
I bounced between our friends who were visiting and Roy. I took him a bottle of water, and he shared stories of his past hunts, both for objects of value and their unsuspecting owners that Roy sought out to reunite with their long lost treasures. Apparently, “finders keepers, losers weepers” is not the law of the state of Texas, not as far as Roy and his fellow metal detectorists/ treasure hunters are concerned.
Some time after 5:00PM, I left the kids playing in the backyard with friends to again check in on Roy out front. As I turned the corner, I heard Amy inviting Roy to come through the house to find me out back. I called after him, and he turned with his hands held up over his head. There it was.
That ring sat out just under a shrub for three years, four months, and twenty-three days. Roy found it below some pine needles, a few inches of Asian jasmine, and an inch or so of dirt. He looked every bit as excited to hand that ring to me as I was to accept it. I realized shortly thereafter that my ring had spent almost as much time in the yard as it had on my hand. I had been wearing it for three years, six months, and three days when it fell off.
We took a few pictures—the ring back in its little old hole, Roy and I with the ring, and the detector that spotted it. I couldn’t believe he found it. I couldn’t believe I had it back. I couldn’t believe that as much as we hear about why we can’t trust people, that a neighbor in the most absurdly broad sense of the term, a stranger, really, from 150 miles away, would do this. For the thrill of the hunt, a real desire to help someone out, or just for a good story, whatever Roy Stahl’s motivation, I am really glad to have met him.
I can see how it was a risk, inviting a fast-talking stranger into my yard and letting him poke around. As much as we talked on the two days we knew each other, there’s much I still don’t know about the man. I told him about the loot, sitting out there waiting, and he could have made off without me ever knowing. More than that, I have a family, and my first job is always to protect them. Just the idea made Amy nervous and the whole time I could see why. We’re not trained to trust. Even optimism in this era is more often cautious, when it used to be wide-eyed.
Sure, we have to make informed and measured choices but sometimes the only way for things to turn out the way they’re supposed to is to make a down payment of trust. It seems trite to say that there are more people in this world who want to help folks than there are who want to take advantage of them but that’s something that Roy Stahl reminded me of that I don’t want to lose sight of. As my boys grow, I want them to hang onto that too. I don’t know if this story is uniquely Texan, but it begins with a pickup truck blaring western swing, and ends with someone doing a favor that will never be forgotten for a guy he doesn’t even know, and that’s probably pretty close.
P. Jacob Lipp is a writer in Houston.