Two weeks and one day ago, my girlfriend and I drove up to Whiskeytown Lake, a picturesque reservoir nestled in the outskirts of California’s Klamath Mountains, to look at the blazing flames and swirling smoke of a remote wildfire towering above the water and illuminating the night sky. It was beautiful.
The following day, we, with around 40,000 residents of Shasta and Trinity Counties, evacuated the Carr Fire, which continues to burn to this day.
That morning, we didn’t think we needed to evacuate. We had seen the fire the previous night. It was distant and seemed harmless. But we had not known until later that shortly after we left the banks of Whiskeytown, the winds shifted, and the fire exploded in size, headed straight for my girlfriend’s neighborhood. The evacuation orders had not been given, but she packed up her house anyway to take her valuables to my place, across the Sacramento River, which seemed like it would definitely be out of harm’s way.
Then, that evening, the fire jumped the Sacramento River and all hell broke loose. With ash raining down like a storm of black hail, emergency vehicles speeding down the roads to evacuate citizens and fight the encroaching blaze, and chaos gradually taking hold of an increasingly panicked city, we felt like we had about twenty minutes of a safe window to pack up and get out. So we threw a bunch of things in our cars and left.
For the following several days, without any clear knowledge as to whether our homes survived, we thought about the things we had chosen to take and the things we had chosen to leave. Some of it was determined by cost and replaceability. Some of it was purely sentiment. And some of it seemed completely arbitrary. Yet, I decided to grab those arbitrary things, so there must be, somewhere deep down, a reason for doing so.
I found this to be an interesting exercise in self-reflection: what can you find out about yourself and your values by what you grab in an emergency? Had we more time, surely we would’ve taken our entire homes in a U-Haul. Had we less time (like the victims of the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County last year who were awoken in the middle of the night and told by emergency personnel to leave NOW), we wouldn’t have been able to take anything but our car keys and wallets. We had just enough time to hoard, but we had to discriminate. I have below a list of ten of the more interesting things I decided to save. In times of crisis, we don’t wait around for things to make sense, but when the smoke clears, sense eventually appears.
1. A single, whole onion.
This was perhaps the most baffling of the Saved. But there was sense to it. You see, that onion came out of my parents’ garden. My dad has always been an avid gardener, and my idyllic childhood memories are filled with moments strolling through that garden, picking and eating fruit off trees or tomatoes off the vine. Even now, as I enter the deeper part of my adulthood, I continue to stroll through my parents’ garden to which my father continues to diligently tend, as a way of communing with the fabric of my past.
That onion was the last thing I had pulled from my parents’ garden. I had never had a garden fresh onion before, and by God, not even the Carr Fire itself was going to stop me.
2. A baseball glove.
I never played sports growing up. Actually, I played soccer, or as my family would like to tell it, I played at soccer. I was the most useless person on the team for six years, picking dandelions and lazily sitting on the bench when the coach decided they had had enough of me lazily sitting on the field.
I think I might have been in my early twenties when my father threw his first football pass to me. Typically, that’s supposed to happen in father-son relationships somewhere in the six to nine years old range. But as I got older, my interest in sports increased. It had only taken me two decades to realize they were fun, and by that time, it’s tragically hard to find an opportunity to play them.
My dad bought me a baseball glove for Christmas when I was about twenty-five. I had asked for it on my Christmas list two decades too late. Regardless, I was excited to finally have a baseball glove, and my parents would sometimes find the time to go to the school or step into the cul-de-sac and play catch with their son, perhaps to let me atone for all those Iconic Americana moments I never let them have when I was younger.
3. “There’s a Duck in my Coffee,” by “The Oatmeal.”
This is my favorite decoration I have ever purchased. It combines three of my favorite things: ducks, coffee, and The Oatmeal Comics.
Look at it. The coffee is black. You can almost taste the roast with your eyes. It’s poured into a porcelain cup, the way black coffee should be, as to not taste the paper. I imagine the black coffee pouring over the whiteness of the porcelain, hot on my tongue, but not scalding. It has hints of caramel and chocolate.
And the duck – not a care in the world. There is no place that duck would rather be. Considering my chronic anxiety and perpetual discontent with life, that duck is a role model of who I want to be, floating blissfully in a cup of coffee, not a care or worry in the world.
4. A map of Europe in 1724.
My uncle lived in Santa Rosa until his house burned down last year in the Tubbs Fire. The authorities gave his community minutes to get out. The fire destroyed everything.
My girlfriend and I returned to Redding recently to find our homes safe, although covered in ash. When you come home to everything, it begins to feel ridiculous to think about the things you took, because thankfully it was all for naught. We are lucky. Some people came home to rubble. Some people haven’t been able to come home yet at all.
It’s hard to fathom the idea of complete material loss. Even in the worst moments of fear that I had lost my house, I knew I still had a car full of things with value and meaning. My uncle doesn’t have to try hard to fathom that idea though, because he did lose everything. Some fires don’t wait for you to pack a car.
I never visited my uncle’s house very often growing up, but when his wife, the mother of his children, was diagnosed with ALS, our family found time to visit more often. In his house, he had a large map of Europe circa 1600 hanging from the wall. I loved that map, and when I’d visit, I’d spend a lot of time just looking at it.
You see, it was an old map of Europe in my grandfather’s house that got me interested in European history when I was younger. Each nation has a story. Each border has a conflict. When you look at how maps shift, you’re looking at how civilizations clashed, how people moved, and how ideas changed the geography of humankind. This map led to many of my academic pursuits today, and my uncle’s map hearkened back to it.
And then, in flames, it was gone.
My mom, knowing how much I liked that map, found this map of Europe in 1724 at an antique shop and gave it to me as a gift. It doesn’t just call back to my own scholarly development, it’s not just a relic of my mother’s sentimental thoughtfulness, it stands as a tribute to my uncle and his lost sanctuary. A link, no matter how tenuous, is still a link.
My uncle has admirably found the strength to move on and start fresh. This is a new era for him. It has been inspiring to see the City of Santa Rosa rise from the ashes. I trust Redding will do the same.
5. Portraits of my mother’s dog.
When my mom was my age, and when I was born, she had an Irish Setter. It was our family dog, and while I don’t remember it well, she remembers it very fondly. We have had different dogs since then, but part of her heart always yearns for her old Irish Setter, so she decided to get another one, not necessarily to replace the irreplaceable, but perhaps as throwback at the very least. A reboot.
But of course you can’t replace a dog. Molly, the new Irish Setter, was obstinate and untrainable. As a puppy, I hated her. Like all puppies, she was annoying and destructive. She didn’t play in a way that made sense to us humans, and between bursts of energy, she was a limp noodle who lay comatose on the sofa.
She was, however, completely non-aggressive, sweet, and loving. And she still is.
She also has epilepsy, liver disease, arthritis, and dementia.
In 2014, I moved back to my parents’ place after Grad School, and slowly began to decay, emotionally and psychologically. My parents are loving, and home was comforting, but returning home is a blow to the personal narrative that life moves forward, and that the past nine years hadn’t been just a dreamy waste of nonsense and futility.
Molly is the creature that kept me stable. We formed a friendship that got me through some of my hardest months. There’s not much else to say. We’ve all had pets. We share a bond only possible between human and dog. Calling a dog a best friend doesn’t quite capture it. She’s my dog friend.
My girlfriend, in a wonderful gesture, decided to paint and draw for me these portraits of Molly. It meant a lot for me to see her appreciate my connection to that dog, and it warmed me to see her reach into an old hobby to demonstrate that appreciation. As all adults seem to intuitively know, between work and television, old hobbies are the first to go. There was no way I was going to leave them behind in a fire.
We don’t know how much longer Molly has in her, but in me, she has my lifetime.
6. Pet pictures.
This needs no explanation. See above.
I don’t really know what possessed me to grab this mixed six-pack of unrelated beers, but I did. It would have been one thing if they were expensive, or barrel-aged, or some sort of fancy limited edition microbrew signed by the brewmasters. But no, they were just some local cans and a couple bottles of German Lager.
Although, the German lager I had bought in Texas upon visiting Austin for one of my best friend’s wedding. It was a lager I had tried for the first time months before, when my girlfriend and I took a trip out to Austin to visit them, celebrating their engagement. I found the lager to be delightfully flavorful, but still crisp and refreshing. Wholeheartedly recommended.
The scotch, however, unlike most of this list, is oddly monetary. Sure, there is sentiment behind the scotch – some were gifts – but on the whole, if you’re calculating value, that picture is $300 alone. There’s no way I’m gonna get drunk enough to spend that much on scotch again.
8. An assortment of garish Hawaiian shirts.
I don’t know when it started or how, but there was a time in my life I loved wearing Hawaiian shirts. This time lasted for the better part of my late teenage years into my mid-twenties. The only reason I stopped was because I don’t want them to fade in the wash. Also, I concede, I look better in other clothing.
In the midst of my phase, I would tell people, “My shirts are interesting so I don’t have to be.” I was later informed by a girlfriend at the time that I should probably light my Hawaiian shirts on fire and opt for the trendier, fashionable look of wearing plain button-downs with rolled up sleeves, preferably with little doohickies on the shoulders – a fashion that really tells people, “I know how to dress, and also I have doohickies on my shoulders.”
She was well-intentioned. She wanted me to look better. She wanted me to make better first impressions. There’s nothing wrong with that. But these shirts were my style! They were my identity!
I don’t wear them often, but hell if I’m going to let them die in a fire. Take that, fashion!
9. A single rubber ducky.
I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but you’re reading a blog written by someone who calls himself “Doctor Quack.” Spoiler alert: I might like ducks. In fact, liking ducks is a rather well-known part of my real life identity. Truth be told, I’m not too obsessed with ducks, I just like them, but don’t let my apartment fool you, because I probably have no less than one hundred duck-related items in it, from duck blankets to duck bag clips and even duck push pins for my duck poster.
People have been giving me duck-related items since I was in the third grade, when I had a pet duck. Over twenty years later, I’m still receiving duck gifts. It hit a peak over a year ago when I hosted a family in my apartment for several months. The kids, knowing I had an affinity for ducks and also knowing I really didn’t need any more duck paraphernalia, took it upon themselves to play a long and drawn-out prank. They began hiding, one by one, ducks in my house.
At first, it was discreet. A rubber duck would show up in the bathroom, unaccounted for. Then it was a duck stuffed animal on the bookshelf. Before I knew it, all my bag clips were replaced with duck bag clips. My soap dish was a duck soap dish. My normal push pins were replaced with duck push pins. I even wound up with a duck loofa.
Sentiment aside, I needed to save at least one duck from this era. Just in case the house burned down, I needed that duck to tell the future repopulating ducks of this glorious duck golden age, so that the Age of the Duck may continue in the lore of the next generation of household ducks.
10. My grandfather’s violin.
I don’t know if my grandfather played violin. I know none of his kids played violin, and none of my siblings play violin. And yet, at some point as my grandfather was dying, my brother and I received an old violin, and we were told it was his.
My brother and I have traded off possession of the violin. Neither of us are violinists, and yet we’re both drawn to it enough to ask each other for it from time to time. It just so happens that eventually I became a music teacher, and so it was due time for me to learn violin. That is when I laid claim to it, and in a way it became mine.
The violin is a rather curious connection to my grandfather’s past because we had never known him to be a musician. He was a business magnate in real estate, and functioned as a strong patriarch of the family. We called him “Big Al,” and his three favorite things were family, business, and Crown Royal. Cal Bears and the US Marine Corps might be on that list too.
I have no further explanation on the violin. It remains somewhat of a mystery as to whether or not he actually played it, or whether or not it was actually his or just in his possession. Sometimes I’d like to think he had that quiet, sentimental side only exposed during times of musical practice, or that the violin is some sort of heirloom descended from our Ashkenazi Jewish roots. Regardless, it’s a symbol of the enigma, the myth of the man who carried my surname.
There were other things too: bank statements, my passport, and other such things of varying degrees of importance. But these ten things struck me as fascinating to myself. I’d love it if it didn’t take a crisis to understand value, but alas, we are only human. Like a forest, every so often, we need to burn a little lest we explode in catastrophe.
Again. We are lucky. We have our homes, and when the ash settles, it’ll be too easy to forget the value beneath the dollar. But each item in a household does have a memory, an association, and a meaning beyond which we, the onlooker, can perceive. We can learn a lot about ourselves by which things we risk time to save, and for those who were unable to save anything, you have my deepest sympathies. You have already learned more about yourself than I ever hope to need to about myself. May you embrace the freedom to start anew.