The Case of the So-Called Conker: Mundane Mysteries #1

Dirk Zane leaned an elbow against the door frame.

“Hey, doll,” he said.

Patsy looked up from the carrot she was chopping, halting the gleaming blade in mid- air. There he stood, as if guarding the basement doorway. The dark stubble on his jaw was shot through with silver. He arched one eyebrow sardonically.

“What’s up there, big guy?” she asked nonchalantly.

He let out a long breath. “My bun feet,” he said, “are missing.”

Involuntarily, her eyes shot down to his battered sneakers.

“Very funny, Toots,” he said. “You know what I mean.”

He lifted his chin and jerked it toward the basement. She put down her gleaming blade and followed him downstairs.

All the cabinet doors were open; boxes were moved, their contents spread across the floor. He’d obviously been searching.

“I had a bag of wooden bun feet,” he rasped. “I want to take these cupboards off the wall, put the bun feet on the bottom, and make them into freestanding bookshelves.” There was a long, pregnant pause, and he added, “But the bun feet are nowhere to be found.”

For the next half hour, they searched the dark recesses of the house’s lowest floor. They didn’t find the bun feet.

“Maybe,” she said, “they’re out in your garage workshop.”

“Yeah. That’d be a good resolution.” He bent his head toward her, one eyebrow quirked. “But I’m afraid there’s more than simple misplacing going on here. To be thorough, though, I will have to go check.”

He swaggered up the steps, one hand patting his shirt pocket. Empty.

Then he remembered that he didn’t smoke, and never had. He dropped his hand to his side, coughed lightly, and headed out the door.


She watched him go, confident he’d find those bun feet. He was the best private dick she knew; they made a good team.

She bent down to pull out the drawer that held her food containers. The carrots were chopped and needed to be put away.

But something was strange. She found two small glass containers of just the right size.

But the tops were nowhere to be found.

She found three lids to just-the-right-size plastic containers.

The containers were gone.

She got down on her hands and knees and pulled out drawers. Perhaps containers and lids had fallen behind. Perhaps they were in the dishwasher.

Maybe the boy had left them in a bedroom.

She searched everywhere.

When Dirk came back into the house, she was sitting on the stepstool, shaking her head.

“The containers,” she told him. “They’re missing, too.

It was a desperate afternoon. Dirk and Patsy spread papers out on the dining room table. They listed where the missing objects had been last seen.

They plotted all possible scenarios.

They interrogated the boy, who was no help whatsoever.

They went outside, separately, and struck up innocent conversations with unsuspecting neighbors.

But as Dirk noted, at the end of the day, they were no closer to finding the bun feet or the containers. If anyone knew anything, they were good. They were VERY good. There wasn’t a hint or a whiff in their comments that could lead Dirk and Patsy to the missing stuff.

“Doll,” he said, “something’s rotten in Denmark.”

She nodded.

“I’m going for a walk,” she said.


She set off, striding, tensed, but, as the sunlight filtered through the falling leaves, she found her shoulders relaxing. Finding things: it was what they did.

She knew that she and Dirk would uncover the missing items.


Her foot struck a chestnut and sent it spinning into the street, its brown skin gleaming, its off-white belly a dull contrast. A memory jiggled, and then surfaced.

They had watched an episode of Escape to the Chateau the night before. The UK ex-pats had called the chestnuts “conkers.”

“Huh,” she had thought then, and now she stopped and looked at the chestnuts spread out on the sidewalk before her.

Growing up, they’d called these horse chestnuts.

Now, they lived in buckeye land.

But across the ocean: conkers.

Where did all these names come from?

THIS was a mystery she could solve. She headed home to her computer.


She started with the oldest term, and found that chestnut trees were brought to the United Kingdom in the 1500’s. The first game of conkers, though,–a game played with the chestnuts–wasn’t officially recorded until one was played on the Isle of Wight in 1848.

The author of the article she read speculates that there might be three reasons Brits call chestnuts ‘conkers’:

  • The term MIGHT come from an archaic colloquialism meaning “hard nut.” (Chestnut really AREN’T a hard nut; they are a soft one. But they are hard enough to sting like the dickens, she thought, if someone whips one at your noggin. “Hard nut,” she mused. Maybe she’ll start calling Dirk, “Conker.”)
  • The players of the game may have morphed the term ‘conquer’ to show what they were planning to do to their opponents.
  • And it just might be, the author speculates, that ‘conker’ is what a chestnut sounds like, when it hits a hard surface—including someone’s rocky skull.

So, in the UK, the name of the game came also to be the name of the nut.

“Conkers,” Patsy murmured.
“The History of Conkers”


She moved on to the name she knew the nut by as a child.

Here again, she found there could be two reasons for the term ‘horse chestnut.’ When the chestnut breaks away from the twig it grows on, the loss of its stem leaves a scar on the tree. And that scar, she was surprised to find, is horseshoe shaped. If one looks closely, the article told her, one can even see tiny nail marks.

The other thing is this: In the days before modern veterinary medicine, horse-handlers ground up chestnuts and fed them to their horses when those horses had bad coughs. There were medicinal properties in the resulting brew that actually did cure those horse-coughs.

But the ground chestnuts were not for everyone. Huge horses could digest them. To other creatures, though, the chestnut was pure poison.

“Those are two good reasons,” Patsy thought, “ for the name ‘horse chestnut.’”

She moved on to learning how chestnuts in the Midwest came to be called ‘buckeyes.’


The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jeff Seuss writes that native peoples called the nut a buck eye (hetuck in the native tongue) because it does indeed resemble the eye of a deer.

But outsiders used it as a term of derision for Ohioans. The buckeye, they said, was a soft, native-born nut…just like the people who live in Ohio.

But Ohioans appropriated the term, making it mean what they wanted it to. THEY said that buckeyes were good to look at. They were tough to kill. They were a valuable resource. Being a buckeye, then, was a very good thing.

This all came to a boil when William Henry Harrison (who was born in Virginia but claimed Ohio as home) ran against Martin Van Buren for president in 1840. Van Buren-ites said Harrison was “…better suited to sit in a log cabin and drink hard cider.”

Again, Harrison’s supporters turned the insult into an accolade. They created a kind of logo for Harrison; in it he was depicted near a log cabin (made from buckeye logs.) On the walls, one could see strings of buckeyes. There was a barrel of good hard likker close by.

When Harrison supporters marched in parades, they carried buckeye canes and rolled whiskey barrels. They proudly claimed the name, “Buckeye.”

Seuss tells us that Ohio State made the buckeye its mascot in 1950, and Ohio adopted the buckeye as its state tree in 1953.


Patsy spun her chair away from the computer and went to share her findings with Dirk. He listened thoughtfully, then reached a gnarled hand to rub her shoulder.

“Nice work, Doll,” he said. “That’s why all the different names for a chestnut. That’s one mystery solved.”

They splashed some hard liquor into highball glasses and clinked. Then they gulped down the rotgut, and they went to watch Ted Lasso with the boy.

Solving the other mysteries, they agreed, would wait until another day.