My parents lost their house during the Northern California wildfires that ignited exactly a year ago. I was visiting when it happened. Mere minutes elapsed from the time a panicked sheriff’s deputy banged on our front door telling us to leave right now to the moment we drove away from my childhood home for the last time, just as the fire crested the hill behind the house.
All of the humans got out of the house safely. But the power was out, and in the darkness and chaos we couldn’t find our cat, Caesar, who had lived at the house for 16 years. So we lost him. And we saved none of the things in the house. The things we lost range from the mundane and the replaceable to things that remain, if only sentimentally, priceless.
High on the list of things that are irreplaceable for me are the sundry items that may be loosely termed sports memorabilia that I kept in my parents’ garage: ticket stubs and game programs from San Francisco 49ers and Giants games; autographed pictures of my sports heroes from the 1990s; newspapers and old copies of Sports Illustrated that I obsessively collected over years.
And then there are the things that I took from old Candlestick Park.
In 2015, during the long demolition process, I had pilfered some stadium seats and other sentimental debris from the rubble of Candlestick.
About a year later, I got access to the motherlode. The surplus stuff from Candlestick had been parceled out to various parties, to be sold or disseminated to people who would worship it properly. The San Francisco Giants, tenants at Candlestick for 39 years, received their share of the memorabilia bounty. My friend, who works for the team, invited me to a special giveaway, open only to team staff and their families and friends. In a moment of heaven I had the opportunity to gather things like stadium signs, telephones (yes, telephones), and what became the cornerstone of my collection: an original turnstile from section 37.
I was told I could take whatever I could haul away, so I loaded up my car with all of this stuff and drove it to my parents’ house, delirious at my luck.
I lost all of it around 1:30 a.m. on October 9, 2017.
After the authorities lifted the mandatory evacuation order (more than a week after we had been displaced) I returned to the site of my parents’ house to see if I could salvage anything from the rubble. My friends and I shared a dark joke that any of the stuff from Candlestick that I might find would have been saved from “double-rubble.” Digging for memories had become a relatively common activity.
I arrived without much hope that I’d find anything intact. I thought I might find the turnstile somewhere in the rubble (since it was a solid hunk of metal), so I made that my goal as I dug through the dust. I remembered its weight and how hard it had been to move, balanced precariously on a dolly as I rolled it to my car.
The turnstile had been in the garage, which was directly under an upstairs bathroom. So I started digging in that area, under what looked like the shattered remains of bathroom tiles. I found the turnstile after 30 minutes of shoveling. It was catastrophically mangled.
To my surprise and delight I also found shreds of some old programs, newspapers, a 1998 49ers calendar, and a Sports Illustrated cover from what appeared to be the edition that came out after Super Bowl XXXII, John Elway’s first Super Bowl win.
I didn’t find any of hundreds of other tiny things I wanted to save. Like the ticket stubs for dates that are engraved on my brain. Rams at 49ers, December 27, 1998. The 49ers won 38-16 in one of Steve Young’s last games, and in what turned about to be Kurt Warner’s first NFL appearance (he showed up in garbage time and was 4 of 11 for 39 yards). At that game I was wearing the Steve Young jersey that I had received as a Christmas present two days prior. I wore that jersey for almost 20 years. It too was lost in the fire.
Of course I still have the memories. But those simple things confirmed that it was all real—it really happened, and I was there.
I deemed the turnstile to be unsalvageable; I don’t know where I would put it if I had wanted to save it. My parents had recently moved to a hotel from the shelter we stayed in for the first few days after the fire, and a dirty piece of twisted metal would probably not have been welcome at a Marriott. I did bring some of the burnt paper fragments to the hotel and, along with some ceramic cups and other trinkets that survived, they formed something of a shrine to my recovery efforts.
I ended up discarding the paper shreds I saved from the ashes. They had fallen apart over the days in the hotel and made a mess for the cleaning staff.