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by William H. Benson

November 16, 2017

     About fifty years ago, my dad lost his wallet while driving his tractor in a field. From a neighbor named Sam, he borrowed a metal detector, because he had some dimes and quarters in the coin purse in the wallet, but the field was too big.

     Twenty five years ago, on November 16, 1992, in Hoxne, England, Suffolk county, a tenant farmer named Peter Whatling lost his hammer. He called his neighbor Eric Lawes, and he brought over his metal detector. Instead of Whatling’s hammer though, Eric found buried treasure.

     Lawes contacted the police, and the next day archaeologists from the British Museum arrived with shovels, roped off the area, and began to dig. In the process, they found Whatling’s hammer.

     Their final inventory included 569 gold coins, 14,272 silver coins, 24 bronze coins, 29 items of gold jewelry, 98 silver spoons and ladles, 4 silver bowls, 1 silver beaker, 1 silver vase, 4 pepper pots, and even some toothpicks. The items, plus the hammer, are now on display in the British Museum.

     By the inscriptions on the coins, the archaeologists determined that an unknown person, from the fourth or fifth centuries, when Rome still controlled Britain, had buried his or her treasure and had failed to retrieve it. In November of 1993, twelve months after the discovery, the British Museum and a few private donors paid Lawes £1.75 million, the hoard’s estimated value, and he shared a portion of his windfall with Whatling.

     Most of us are not as fortunate as Lawes. We go to work, eat, relax, sleep, care for our children, and our lives drift on. Nothing extraordinary, and no buried treasure in our backyard. Yet, some people are more resourceful. They envision what others cannot.

     In Russell Conwell’s story, Acres of Diamonds, he tells of two men in the Middle East. One is Ali Hafed, a dreamer, who wants to find diamonds. He sells his farm, leaves his family with a neighbor, and sets out to search for diamonds. He travels through Palestine and Europe, and ends in Barcelona, where in despair and rags, and unable to find any diamonds, he hurls himself into the sea.

     Meanwhile, the man who bought his farm, leads his camel into the brook that flows through the garden, and finds a black stone lying on the white sands at the bottom of the brook. It was a diamond.

     Conway says, “Had Ali Hafed remained at home and dug his own cellar, or underneath his own wheat fields or in his own garden, instead of wretchedness, starvation, and death by suicide in a strange land, he would have enjoyed ‘acres of diamonds.’ Let every man or woman here, if you never hear me again, remember this, that if you wish to be great, you must begin where you are and what you are.”

     Wise advice.

     In the Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, the king’s three sons displayed a talent for assembling clues and arriving at conclusions. For example, they suspected that they were following a camel, that it was blind in one eye, that it missed a tooth, that a woman rode the camel, and that she was pregnant. Soon, they caught up with a one-eyed camel that missed a tooth, and a pregnant woman.  

     In 1754, the English author Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity, a word he borrowed from that ancient fairy tale. He noticed that the princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

     Serendipity, a virtue. Walpole called it a “gift,” this ability to discover something unforeseen and unknown, something amazing, when in pursuit of something else.

     Harvard University accepted both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and yet both dropped out after their sophomore years. They had enrolled in Harvard to pursue a world class education, and yet, each caught a vision of a business, and by “accidents and sagacity” they found diamonds.

     A common question that most young people face is, “Do we stay here, where we grew up, and try to build our lives here, or do we move elsewhere?” A farmer once complained that his county’s two biggest exports were wheat and kids. Indeed, a village’s children move to the towns and cities to find educations, jobs, houses, and a life, and some return to the village, but not many.

     Thanksgiving approaches. It is not a long step from serendipity to gratitude. Both words include certain emotions. We feel astonished, amazed, proud of our families, and we pause to reflect upon all that we have received from this joy-filled thing called life. We set out to live, and all this came with it.

     Five years after my dad lost his wallet, I was on the tractor in the same field, and I saw something odd. I stopped the tractor. The leather was gnarled, the dollars in tatters, but the few coins ok.