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The Pleasure Is the Treasure : With Metal Detector, She Finds Coins, Rings--and Peace of Mind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pauline Maxwell gets up with the sun each day to start her search. That’s when it’s cool. That’s when it’s quiet. And there aren’t too many people around to block her way.

Maxwell, a Rossmoor retiree who has been combing county beaches with a metal detector for more than two decades, doesn’t know exactly what she’s looking for. She just loves the hunt.

“People say to me, ‘What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?’ I’m going to repeat what a friend of mine said: ‘Peace of mind,’ ” smiled Maxwell, 64, as she passed the $600 device back and forth over the sand near the Newport Pier early one morning last week.

“Then again, finding a gold ring is nice. Anything gold is nice.”

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Carrying a lightweight black-and-yellow wand, with headphones strapped to her ears and a belt full of equipment and collection bags around her waist, Maxwell is one of hundreds of treasure hunters who dot Southern California beaches throughout the summer.

They are a mysterious lot, toting expensive high-tech equipment to uncover old pennies and bent bottle caps. But every once in a while they happen upon something special.

One of Maxwell’s comrades at the West Coast Prospectors and Treasure Hunters Assn. boasts a $5,000 diamond-and-sapphire ring; another has enough gold bands to fill a bracelet-sized key ring. Dozens say they collect as much as $150 a month in coins buried under the sand.

Maxwell herself won the club’s monthly “most unusual” prize last winter when she uncovered a set of brass knuckles.

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“Who knows how things get lost, but everybody loses things at the beach,” Maxwell said. “Nothing ever disappears from the beach. It goes down, and it goes out, and it comes back. Nothing really is ever lost. It just gets pushed around.”

With more than 200 members, the group meets monthly so members can display their finds to each other. They publish a monthly magazine, Grub Stake, and as part of a national network of prospectors’ groups, lobby Congress to keep public lands public and beaches clean.

Once a year, there’s a picnic in Mile Square Park with a scavenger hunt for specially placed coins. And today is “zero-tide day,” a pilgrimage to the coast by flocks of prospectors taking advantage of the month’s lowest tides to search sands usually hidden under water.

People “think we’re nuts, but we’re not. It’s a hobby like any hobby,” Maxwell said. “People have to do something,” she added, pointing to scores of beach-goers nearby enjoying the early morning sun.

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“Look, people are riding bikes. They walk down to the water and collect shells.”

On this morning, Maxwell meanders slowly along some truck tracks near the water, then moves up to the shade by a row of beachfront homes. So far, she’s found $1.27--including a 50-cent piece--a mangled paper clip, five bottle caps, a fishing sinker, a little red pocket knife, one hoop earring (probably not real gold) and a paper-covered twist tie.

Manufactured by White’s Electronics, in Sweet Home, Oregon, Maxwell’s metal detector weighs about five pounds. The silver disk at the base contains coils that create an electromagnetic field, explained Jeb Smith, a senior technician at the company.

Whenever metal is present, the field is altered, sending a “beep” to Maxwell’s headphones through the control box strapped on her hip.

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Beeps come every few steps, and Maxwell leans down to the sand with her metal scoop. She digs a hole, constantly rechecking with the detector to find the exact location of the hidden treasure. She moves some sand, then more.

It’s a Kit-Kat wrapper. Oh, well.

“It’s just a little exciting when you dig . . . and you wonder what it’s going to be,” Maxwell said as she leaned over in response to another beep. “Sometimes it’s a ring, and sometimes it’s the top of a can.”

Once it was a lottery ticket. Lots of times it’s matchbox cars or picnic utensils or soft drink cans, which she collects and gives to the club to cash in for equipment, such as coin cleaners. Last week Maxwell found a German coin from the 1950s, and a $5 commemorative coin she almost mistook for a game token.

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Lately, more than one club member has found a single rose, held up by a metal wire, under a dusting of sand. Inevitably, Maxwell said, there’s a condom wrapper--with its fine metal coating--a few feet away.

“I don’t really much care (what I find,” Maxwell shrugged. “It’s just fun.”

Born and raised in San Pedro, Maxwell has lived since 1957 in the Rossmoor house where she raised two sons and where her husband died after 40 years of marriage. Since retiring a year ago, she spends most of her time gardening, redecorating, metal detecting and listening to radio shock-jock Howard Stern.

“I wake up to him every morning. He makes me laugh. This morning he was talking about his mother,” she laughs, “and he was talking about a chicken he used to own named Pecky.”

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Maxwell began her endless search for hidden metal goodies at age 43, when a doctor told her to walk regularly to relieve blood clots. She began on weekends, but now she goes nearly every day.

“I look at some of my contemporaries who have arthritis and I say, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you? Get out on the beach and walk!’ ” she said. “I have great legs. I have good muscles. I can bend better than most 65-year-olds.”

The fancy detector paid for itself--in coin, of course--within a year. She’s not doing it for the money, though.

“I always liked to believe in magic, and this is as close as I’ve come to magic,” she said as the detector beeped in her ears. “This thing goes over the dirt and finds metal things. That’s magical to me.”

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