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Down by the seashore, sifting sand,
the Metal Man saves the day
People lose things on the beach all the time. Car keys. Glasses. Spare change. "Whenever anybody loses anything they come in here wild-eyed" says Donna Scott, manager of the Land's End Motel in Cannon Beach. And what does Donna do?
She calls Metal Man. "And he comes running," she says.
Rich Mulcahy is Metal Man. It's not a secret identity, just a nickname Donna gave him a few years ago, after Rich had made one more amazing recovery of one more lost, important object. There are folks who think of Rich as a hero, though. The woman in Colorado who lost a family heirloom ring from her fiances family. Rich found it. Rich nearly always finds what he's looking for. And he's been looking nearly all his life.
"We were always kids who had projects sand collections," says Rich, who's 57. Today he lives on the north end of Tillamook County, but he grew up near Olympia. "We went out many weekends" when he was in grade school and junior high, "hunting for agates, jasper and petrified wood." They knew a spot where they'd find fossils.
"It was a really impressionable time," he says. "I think a lot of things you do with your parents you carry on" as an adult. "As hunters, seekers, finders, you always enjoy being outdoors, looking for things."
When Rich was a young adult he thought "it would be fun to dive and look for treasure like Mel Fisher." But the famed treasure hunter looks for shipwrecks in warm seas. In the Pacific Northwest, the water is very cold.
Rich became a high school English teacher and track coach instead. When he retired a few years ago, he started spending time on Oregon beaches with his metal detector and his "right-hand dog."
What he found fascinated him. Not the rusty nails and pennies and pop tabs. It was the historic artifacts that got Rich hooked on searches: old coins, old toys, old jewelry.
Rich began studying at history centers along the coast, the learn "what the area looked like years ago and get landmarks where gatherings used to be. Years and years ago, large crowds from Portland came to the coastal towns. There were vehicles all over the beaches and tents and lots of activities. Those are the times when people were losing personal odds and ends, like they do today. But the conditions have to be just right to find them."
Rich looks for places with erosion that have a long history of human habitation. Places like Newport and Lincoln City, Seaside and Astoria. He looks for anything of historic or intrinsic value. "Old silver is always a target. Those coins turn gray." And once in a while you'll get a gold ring. Four or five times a year you'll get a ring with a nice stone."
When that happens, "you have a moment." Whose hand last wore the ring? How long did that person search for it? "Was is lost in argument, or swimming in the ocean?"
Rich says he focuses on dunes, or banks, "about 16, 17, feet high. As these banks collapse, you have a lot of material that falls out on the beach. That's where you find the good stuff."
The oldest thing Rich ever found was "a Roman coin." He had it authenticated; the coin "was from the reign of Septimius Severus," head of the Roman Empire from 193 to 211 A.D. "It has his face and an eagle on the back. And it was a bronze coin, about the size of a dime."
How the coin got to the Oregon coast is a "complete mystery," Rich says. "I did find it after a big storm, and a tremendous amount of dune had fallen onto the beach."
It's almost impossible to believe the coin was swept around the world to our coast. "But with all the sea traffic up and down the coast for hundreds and hundreds of years, this could have been someone's token that they lost."
Rich has found gold dental crowns in the sand, which even he thinks is odd. "I scratch my head over those finds. Do I go to the police? Or figure somebody was having a corn cob feed on the beach and just lost a crown? It's very strange."
Rich doesn't hoard his finds. From the beginning he's kept a journal with a thorough record of discoveries. He photographs everything. And then, except for a few items in a safe deposit box, he gives them away.
Some go to his children and grandchildren. More will go to historical societies. "Hotel keys go to the hotels. Car keys, cell phones, things like that go to the police."
Best of all is when Rich finds something someone has been desperately searching for. It happens all the time. Hotel manages up and down the Oregon coast know what to do when something has disappeared into the beach sand. They call Metal Man.
On his own dime, Rich drives up and down the coast to save the day. He won't accept reward money, gas money or, when he ends up mailing a found item to someone far away, reimbursement for postage.
John O'Connell and his wife, Nancy Goodman, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Rich to accept a reward after he became their hero.
"My wife and I were on our honeymoon," says John, a writer in Poncatello, Idaho. "I'd had my ring on for all
of about a week."
The couple was at Cannon Beach, "making beef stroganoff on the beach. We had the blanket set out. The tide was pretty low and we were playing Frisbee." It was getting dark. "I said, one last throw." As John threw, his wedding ring flew off his finger. "The second it slipped off a big wave rolled in." John and Nancy searched for the ring until it was too dark to search anymore, then half the next day.
Meanwhile Donna, the manager of the Land's End Motel, had put in a call to "Metal Man" Rich. By the time he got there the couple had left. Rich called them several times and got details about exactly where they'd been. He began a four-day search that ended with the discovery of the ring.
"We had friends over and were telling the story of how I lost the ring," John says, when the phone rang. It was Rich. John returned to his friends and said, "Well the story has a new ending."
Rich has made friends with some of the people he's helped. He's learned a lot of history, researching his finds. Best of all, his hobby has given him a new identity: He's Metal Man. Here he comes, to save the day.
- Margie Boule
The Sunday Oregonian