MINERAL WELLS -- Thirty-five years ago, Army pilot-in-training Tommy Mayes landed his TH-55 helicopter in a clearing in the scruffy Palo Pinto Mountains northwest of Mineral Wells.
He stepped out of his whirlybird trainer and surveyed the area before preparing to lift off. At some point, he apparently bent over and something important fell out of his shirt pocket.
About a year ago, Peggy Harvey found that item. On Sunday, she was able to hand Mayes his Texas A&M class ring.
This wasn't just any class ring. It was special because it contained a diamond from the wedding of his mother, who died about a year ago.
"I'm sorry she's not still alive to see the ring again," Mayes said.
Having made the drive from San Antonio to Mineral Wells to be reunited with his sentimental piece of jewelry, Mayes smiled widely as he slipped off his replacement Aggie ring and slid, twisted and slightly forced on the ring he long ago figured he'd never see again.
Mayes, a 1968 graduate of Richland High School in North Richland Hills, gazed in wonderment at the ring's excellent condition, with the small diamond still intact.
He said one of his friends told him years ago that, "At some point, when you least expect it, you will get a call out of nowhere" from someone claiming they had found his ring.
It wasn't a phone call out of nowhere, but rather an e-mail out of nowhere. Mayes said he and his wife, Gretchen, had returned from a recent vacation when he had an e-mail in his inbox from Harvey, a Mineral Wells High School math teacher, asking if he had lost a class ring near Mineral Wells.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "This wouldn't happen to just anybody."
He was able to describe the ring to a Texas (A&M) T to Harvey.
Harvey began investigating to find the lost ring's owner first by looking at the ring with its A&M insignia, noting it belonged to a Class of 1972 graduate, and reading the name, a cursive inscription, on the inside of the 10-karat gold ring. She said she could clearly read the owner's first name, but the last name of Mayes was not as easy to determine.
She eventually got in touch with Don Crawford, executive director of the Texas Aggie Corps of Cadets Association. Texas A&M has a large and active alumni base, and with his help they were able to make an educated guess as to who the owner of the ring would be. Through a friend of Mayes, Harvey was recently able to make contact with Mayes.
Harvey and her husband, James, live near the end of Devil's Hollow Road off State Highway 337 between Mineral Wells and Possum Kingdom Lake in North Texas where the Palo Pinto Mountains rise and fall all around them.
Harvey, who said she "finds things," said one day she was walking on the property, in an area she had walked hundreds of times of before, but this time happened to see something shiny barely sticking up through the sand and small rocks.
"Out of curiosity I dug it up," she said. "It had sand and dirt and rocks all around it. I took it in and cleaned it up."
Once realizing what she had, she began the task of trying to find its owner.
It was with even more luck the ring was undamaged. The Harveys had cut a road across the property just feet from where the ring was partially buried. She said when a septic system was put in, the dirt could have easily been dumped on top of the ring.
She said seeing the expression on Mayes' face when she handed him the ring "made it all worthwhile."
She said she persisted in finding the ring's owner for the past year because, "I felt he'd like to have the ring back."
Maybe it was a payback of sorts. Harvey said in college she lost her high school ring. She said a man found it, tracked her down and returned it.
Mayes, a 1972 graduate of Texas A&M, was stationed at the former Fort Wolters Army base in Mineral Wells in early 1973. Fort Wolters was a primary helicopter pilots training base during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Training helicopters in those days filled the surrounding North Texas skies, and one of the tasks the young pilots had to do at times was land and take off in certain areas. Colored tires marked certain zones, and pilots had to properly land in areas that carried different degrees of difficulty.
On this day, Mayes was to land near a yellow tire in a clearing about 6 miles northwest of Mineral Wells.
"The different colors of tires signified different degrees of difficulty," said Mayes. "A yellow tire area was a pretty difficult landing area."
One day in 1973 — Mayes thinks it was probably in April — he was about to take off from Fort Wolters when he noticed he was still wearing his class ring. Pilots were instructed not to wear jewelry when flying. Mayes said he would usually remove his ring and place it in a zippered cargo compartment on his flight pants.
"I was in a hurry and I took it off and dropped it in my shirt pocket," he said. "I forgot to zip it up."
After finding his yellow target and landing, Mayes said he got out and walked around.
"I was probably smoking a cigarette and throwing rocks," he said. "I guess I bent over and it fell out."
After returning to the base, Mayes realized his ring was gone.
"I felt really bad about losing it, for a lot of different reasons," he said.
He went back to the landing site looking for it. He asked other pilots landing there to look around for the ring, but no one could find it.
About a month later Mayes was sent to Fort Rucker in Georgia to advanced helicopter pilot training, and he figured he left behind forever his cherished ring.
Mayes served in the U.S. Army for 22 years, eventually commanding a medical battalion supporting the Army's 101st Airborne during the Persian Gulf War. He retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and now works with a San Antonio "home infusion" company that helps people receive therapy and medical treatments at home.
He said he regretted that his mother did not live to see the ring again. Mayes said his father died when he was 14. His mother remarried, but gave him a diamond from the wedding ring that his father gave her so he could include it in his A&M ring.