There’s nothing so nice as being a Thing-finder. It’s a wonder there aren’t more people that take it up. They’ll be tailors and shoemakers and chimney sweeps, and such like—but Thing-finders, no indeed, that isn’t good enough for them!
—Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (1950)
Pull the heavy book from the shelf and open it. Life, bound periodicals, January-March 1958. Here’s a story about French chickens trained to smoke cigarettes and work math problems, a crime organization caught smuggling gold bars into Saigon via canned apricots, a guard in Sierra Leone checking between a mine worker’s toes for hidden diamonds. And here’s an ad for toothpaste. “Enter Gleem’s Treasure Hunt, Win $25,000 Cash,” the text invites. “Just find the hidden treasure on this map!”
This isn’t a real map, so you can’t get lost. No rivers or roads, no settlements, so even though the ground is littered with two pistols, a scimitar, cutlass, mace, hatchet, ax, pick, dagger, pike, and a rifle, you can imagine it deserted. The only person pictured is a man atop the crow’s nest, pointing his spyglass to sea.
You remember Pippi Longstocking, I bet, with her giant shoes and tight red braids, living without parents in the ramshackle Villa Villekulla with a monkey named Mr. Nilsson and a horse named Horse. How she rolls cookies out on the kitchen floor, flips pancakes so high that they stick to the ceiling, licks cocoa from her chops and says “Waste not, want not.”
One time she rescues two children from a burning building, doesn’t understand why they’re upset, and assumes it must be stomachache. When a bystander asks why she isn’t crying herself, she answers “I never cry.” Not even when she thinks of her mother, dead since Pippi was a tiny baby. “Don’t you worry about me,” Pippi is in the habit of saying aloud to her. “I’ll always come out on top.”
In my favorite chapter, “Pippi Is a Thing-finder and Gets into a Fight,” Pippi goes treasure hunting with Tommy and Annika, law-abiding neighbor children who are the straight men to her comedy. She’s going to Find Things, and she’s done it before; the book’s first chapter contains a beautiful description of a cabinet of curiosities that I’ve been trying to emulate, consciously or not, since I was about eight. A “huge chest with many tiny drawers” contains “wonderful birds’ eggs, strange shells and stones, pretty little boxes, lovely silver mirrors, pearl necklaces,” and other delights.
No time to waste: “What are we going to do now?” asks Tommy. “I don’t know what you are going to do,” Pippi answers, “but I know I can’t lie around and be lazy. I am a Thing-finder, and when you’re a Thing-finder you don’t have a minute to spare.” Of course Pippi can do as she likes thanks to the suitcase full of gold pieces left to her by her doting sea captain father, “formerly the Terror of the Sea.”
The treasure chest flips open with a bang, its hinges dewy with oil, and the coins it contains are light enough to hang in the air when you toss them. A pirate’s rump and booted feet bob in the air where he’s dived in. All the male characters, even the boy hefting the $5,000 Fourth Prize chest, wear pirate garb. But the woman shoveling $10,000 from a treasure chest wears a fetching blue dress fitted at the knee to show off her calves. This is money for its own sake—no buying here, just the glinting hoard itself. Which means that the biggest part of the appeal must lie in the finding. Finding that can happen, maybe, if you examine the treasure map. Like the characters, the map has a cartoonish flatness; by looking unreal, it signals that it has been made as a puzzle, one with a solution. Someone did hide a treasure, you dare to hope, beneath the sand-colored outline of the island, printed on paper slick with kaolin clay.
Start at point of cutlass, the map demands. Follow the easy clues below. A full tube of toothpaste protrudes from its box, rigid as a missile, red cap firmly fixed, GLEEM emblazoned on its side. Where did you hide the treasure, artist? Beneath or beside the stiff-legged cow, the alligator marooned far from shore or swamp? I stagger across the hot yellow sand, the ground featureless and without contour beneath my sandaled feet, but alive, maybe, with a secret. Will I hear the hollowness if I stand on the buried box? I carry my shovel with me, its hickory handle smooth in my hands.
Did Proctor and Gamble really give out the prizes they promised? Would the increased sales from the promotion have justified the cost? Maybe I’m getting lost in the details. The reason I’m obsessing over toothpaste right now, trying to get my answer right even though the sweepstakes deadline passed in May 1958, isn’t because of the promise of riches or the jolly drawings, not even the one of a clipper ship made out of Gleem toothpaste boxes, its decks stacked high with more Gleem, a Flying Dutchman manned by bandits serious about their dental hygiene. GLEEM Toothpaste: Fight the Enemies of Your Mouth. It’s because of the map and its compressed, tidy world. “The map is part of your official entry blank,” the ad reads. “Be sure to include it with your entry.”
Said Robert Louis Stevenson, “I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe.” Just by existing, the map promises another, more rational world, where requirements and rewards are clearly marked. “We shall see what we shall see,” says Pippi. “One always finds something.”
At the outset of their hunt, Annika asks Pippi what kinds of loot Thing-finders look for. “Oh, all kinds,” Pippi replies. “Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snapcrackers, and little tiny screws, and things like that.” She stumbles over a rusty can: “What a find! What a find! Cans—that’s something you can never have too many of.” Tommy and Annika are unimpressed, but later they find a notebook and a coral necklace that Pippi surely stashed ahead of time. Generous Pippi, hider of treasure and creator of story, hot-souled author of her own life.
When the artist sketches the map, she creates a world and seeds it with animals and tools. No, there’s nothing buried beneath the sand. But a mother will breathe onto her child’s fine hair as he draws a careful line from rum cask to palm tree. Will fill out the spaces for solution, for address, with a ballpoint pen; will detach a perforated stamp from a sheet, lick it, press it to the corner of a #7 envelope. Slide it into the mouth of a blue postal collection box, squat as a chest and as firmly bolted in its place on the street corner. The mail carrier walks up, ring of keys in hand, and unlocks the box.
Then one Wednesday I figure it out. Twenty-five thousand dollars in 1958 works out to about $205,000 today. What could make the promotion worth it to Proctor and Gamble? The fine print: “In case of ties, which are probable, tying contestants will be required to complete a statement dealing with Gleem…..Statements will be judged on the basis of originality, sincerity and aptness of thought.” Say you solve the puzzle and send in your entry, along with lots of others. “In case of ties, which are probable,” you write a statement about Gleem. Ad copy comes in by the bushel, and someone sifts through it, picks out the best material, and sends the writers token prizes for their tying entries. It turns out that the treasure is us, what we think about Gleem. “Sincerity” is a point of judgment, a mark to meet.
Why does learning this disappoint me? The treasure map, perennially-appealing, is better than winning the lottery; you feel like you earned it. But maybe the people whose jingles about Gleem got used by Proctor and Gamble didn’t feel cheated. Maybe they got paid for their words. I have always wanted to be a Thing-finder. That’s why I page through the bound periodical in the first place, hunting what someone else left behind.
In the desert outside San Diego, near the Salton Sea, there may or may not be an ancient wrecked ship, its teak hull skillfully carved by Vikings, its hold crammed full of black pearls. Or maybe it’s a ferryboat, or Noah’s Ark, or a Spanish galleon, or part of King Solomon’s navy, or a wheeled scow that once carried salt.
A constellation of legends having to do with this ship has been traded around in sketchy newspaper accounts, magazine articles, and blog posts for the better part of two hundred years. One account claims that a prospector named Butcherknife Ike found the ship in 1905 and promptly disappeared with a cache of fabulous pearls. Another claims that a farmer found the ship in 1917, sold its plundered jewels in Los Angeles, and used the ship’s timbers to fence his pig pens.
“My point is I know where this site is, the month and day the full moon will cast its shadow marking the treasure cave,” the poster to one blog promises. “If anyone out there knows anything relating to this subject, contact me,” he says. “My friend Vern has since passed on, and we never did make it back to the subject location like we had hoped to.” Ocotillo, cholla, lechugilla; I can see the washes and gullies smeared with shadow on a moony night. Another seeker writes “there must be something to this lost ship as no man would search for it all these years unless he knows something that’s NOT been printed.” Writes another poster: “Be aware the desert will show you many things don't be alarmed or scared, just experience it and move on don't dwell on was it real, or not?Above all don't lose or doubt your sanity, should you venture out here alone.”
As for me, if the ship exists, I hope it stays lost. Leave the skunked rum in the ground, chunks of chalky lapis shot through with sour gold. Because to flip the hasp on a casket of pearls is to free the salt fumes burning the sailor’s eyes, the splintered deck of the ship, the desert sky that sucked the water out of Lake Cahuilla and stranded the ship far from the gulf’s unpredictable tides. If you believe the story, someone onboard that ship watched the current slacken, the water grow shallow and bright, his fellows die. Then he left the boat and walked west until he came to the mission town by the water. He knew that for a Thing-finder to win, someone else has to lose.
And so along a riverbed, a stone hits another stone, and a chip of quartz shears loose. The current catches the speck and carries it, drops it, picks it up again. It naps in the river delta as decades spill into centuries, until finally a big storm comes along and pulls it out to sea. Where in the brackish shallows a sharp-edged oyster sucks water into its fringy mouth and admits a clear speck of quartz. Tumbles the grit over and over within its own body as a pearl diver practices holding her breath until she’s lightheaded. Again and again she slips beneath a green swell of water, forces herself down into the dark water with strong kicks and the oysters she finds, she wrenches loose from their footings, tucks into a net bag, and carries back to the surface. Knifes open the lip and fingers the slick meat, feeling for a lump, a sheen.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in Orion, Oxford American, Poets & Writers, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. She teaches at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.
Monroe Township, OH.
Most people have only been there if they're lost. That's where I'm from.