I have a drawer in my office that I’ve labelled ‘Demo Gear’. It contains a vast number of oddball items that I cart to schools when I visit as an author – stuff like a plunger, a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Albert Einstein, and various margarine containers filled with burrs, soap, string and washers.
Buried below these ‘treasures’ is a small plastic bag containing a couple of weighty items. Of all the junk in the drawer, these are the only things that have any monetary value. Not that I’ve actually had them assessed. I just know they are worth something, given the fact that they are more than 3 centuries old and had been lying on the ocean floor – part of a larger treasure – until adventurous divers hauled them to the surface some ten years ago.
Seeing the bag and its contents reminds me of an exciting story, the three month hunt it took to unravel the knotty truth, and a great lesson about writing that I learned the hard way. It’s a lesson I’ve not forgotten, but then isn’t that always the way great lessons work? We remember, like yesterday, the ones that plagued us, caused grief and hardship. Those are etched on our souls, fresh today as tattoos we bear on our bodies.
The story came to me while I was working on my book, Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery. An article in the newspaper told about Spanish treasure just discovered off the coast of Ecuador and an amazing story that was slowly being pieced together. The details were hazy – something about pirates, about a great chase 300 plus years ago that ended in tragedy. Intrigued, I dug deeper and scoured the Internet, snagging other newspaper accounts that said much the same. Figuring I had enough to flesh out the story, I wrote it and added it to the “Pirate Treasure” chapter.
I finished the manuscript and submitted it, but something about that story bothered me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first. Some inconsistencies. A few gaps in the details. Something. I just knew that I hadn’t quite nailed it.
With the book set to go to press, I dug deeper. One article cited the company that headed the salvage operation. I called their US office and got the number for the Ecuadorian one. Several phone calls later, I hit pay dirt. I was given the phone number of Biil, one of the divers. Bill was eager to talk – in his own words –“to set the record straight”. In turn, Bill put me in touch with Haig, another diver, who gave me his version of events. Haig linked me to other people involved in the operation, each just as ready to tell their side of the story.
I realized that my initial story was not only incomplete, but had been based on a number of exaggerated and misleading facts in the original newspaper articles. Reporters, working to deadline, had interviewed an archeologist hired by the salvage company. Wanting a prominent place in the articles, the archeologist bent the truth, giving more importance to his role than it deserved and skewing the facts to serve his purpose. This irked the others who now – fortunately for me – wanted to correct his biased telling of the discovery.
I rewrote my story and submitted it in time to replace the other. And what a great story it was with all the ingredients that kids love. In 1672 a galleon heading back to Spain loaded with coins and pilfered treasure had been pursued by a notorious English pirate – Bartholomew Sharpe. Unwilling to surrender the treasure, the Spanish captain deposited the crew and passengers on tiny Santa Clara Island, then purposely set fire to the ship, sending the vessel and its priceless cargo to the bottom of the ocean. Seeking revenge, Sharpe executed all 350 refugees stowed on the island. From then on the island was nicknamed El Muerto (Dead Man’s Island).
While the name survived the centuries, the full story did not. Fast forward some 350 years…divers find the shipwreck and treasure. From the evidence, historians pieced together the lost story…pirates, treasure, vengeance, death. What kid wouldn’t want to read about that?
Now about the drawer marked ‘Demo Gear’ and that plastic bag containing weighty items. As I normally do after interviewing subjects, I sent divers Bill and Haig complementary copies of the book. Bill wanted to send something back. “Do you want a few pieces of treasure to take around to schools?” he asked.
And that’s how I came to own a couple of nails from the Santa Maria de Consolacion, a 20 centimeter brass rod that once secured the ship’s hull, and two silver coins, free of encrustations, freshly cleaned and polished, and one stamped with the date 1672.
Now and then, I drag out the bag, hold the treasure in my hand, and remind myself of a few things. First, how lucky I am to be doing what I truly love to do – unravelling twisted details and telling amazing true stories. Next, I recount the writing lesson I learned. Truth has many shades, and as a writer, I should never be satisfied with superficial truth, but the truth that comes only by sifting through many layers.