The forecast for Friday, July 9th, 2021 was full sun with a high of 72 degrees. I figured it would be like most days metal detecting… a gamble. Would I come home with anything noteworthy? Or would it be a morning where I simply got out and under the waters of Geneva Lake, some time to mingle with the panfish and smallmouth bass, sand, and seaweed.
After sliding into my wetsuit and loading the car with my gear, I was off to detect at my favorite beach. Little did I know that today’s find would transport me back to the year the Beatles first performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Surgeon General reported that smoking may lead to lung cancer.
Detecting around a swim pier is slow, sometimes tedious work. I’m not sure the order of my finds, but along with a half-dozen bobby pins, washers and nails, and hair ties, I pulled up a 1941 Mercury Dime and two junk rings.
My next find was almost effortless. It was in fact only a few inches under. After a bit of stirring and pushing aside debris, I revealed gold—big gold—a bulking, shining class ring. I studied it underwater, looking for a stamp inside the band. There it was, “10K”. Jackpot! And then I noticed three letters stamped into the band in ornate cursive, “F.E.C.”
Connecting lost items with the owners is rarely easy. But, this ring was different. I not only had one piece of evidence- the initials F.E.C.—but I also had a year—1963—and a high school from New Jersey.
I stared at the Google search engine box and typed in Bogota High School, New Jersey. I quickly found the high school and began to look for phone numbers, maybe of the high school librarian. I figured there was a dusty yearbook from 1963 that someone could leaf through on my behalf, looking for a name that matched my “F.E.C.” As it turned out, there was a sparkly digital version of the 1963 yearbook that I could swipe through all by myself. Just pages in, I got to the senior photos: black and white faces of eager high schoolers, ready to break out into the world, just as the Beatles would soon be breaking into the hearts and homes of Americans. I slowly studied each name. Finally I was rewarded with the entry I needed—in all caps—FRANCIS EDWARD CONDON in a white shirt, dark tie, and tweed sport coat.
I now had a name and face, albeit a face from 58 years ago. If he was alive, he would be nearing 78 years old. Could I find him, or at least his family? That would come, but months later.
For months off and on I tried searching online. People-finding services all turned up dead ends or those much younger or older than Mr. Condon. On September first, I was directed by other metal detectorists to try the website True People Search. Minutes later I had five phone numbers for a 77 year-old Floridian named Francis E. Condon.
I stepped outside and into my driveway to get away from the clatter of four children. After dialing the fifth and final number I expect the same dead end. “Hello?” a woman’s voice answered.
“Hello, I replied. I’m looking for a ‘Francis Edward Condon.’ I think I have something that belongs to him. Is he available?”
Over the next few minutes I spoke with Mr. Condon, my voice jumpy with excitement. It was clear after two questions that this was the man I was searching for.
Question 1: Have you ever been to Lake Geneva, WI? Answer: Yes
Question 2: Did you ever lose anything there? Answer: Yes, my class ring.
There was a big celebration on my end. But a bigger one was coming.
“Sir, I have to ask, when did you lose it?” (After all, Lake Geneva is a tourist town, with lots of visitors.) In my mind’s eye I could see an older man, fingers wrinkled with time, gripping the white edge of the swimming pier. Perhaps he had been watching his grandchildren showing off their very best cannonballs. His hands were clapping vigorously as a smile shot out of the water. “What did you think of that one, Grandpa?” And then, the sound… plunk! The empty spot on the ring finger, the weight of 8 grams of gold, suddenly missing.
But none of the above fantasy was true. The hand that lost the ring was young and vigorous, grandchildren were decades in the future. The hand… and the ring, were from a newly-enlisted soldier in the spring or summer of 1964. Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, and Jeff Bezos were unknown in 1964—they were busy being born.
This high school ring, the one I held in my hand, dropped into Geneva Lake in 1964 and fell out of sight for 57 years. My mind was swimming.
* * *
Mr. Condon received his ring back on Sept. 13th, 2021. He slipped it on and sent me a photo of his smile.
People often ask, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?” My reply is always— stories. I know that’s not what they want to hear, but I would trade any ring, coin, or old button for the story behind it. Most of the time the story goes untold. This is one I have enjoyed telling over and over again, and it never ceases to amaze me every time I tell it.