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Pieces of the past

It was not an easy task at age 90.

Beckye Quesenberry stood at the edge of a pit which, until the big fire, was her modular home in Mountain View Estates in Talent. Now it was just some girders and a deep carpet of ashes.

Two men, Allen Walters and John Peterson of Southern Oregon Metal Detecting — doing the work gratis — dug around by hand in the debris, showing her hangers that might indicate a closet, and a light fixture that indicated a bathroom.

They were getting close, she said. The precious heirlooms were in a pot on her dresser, so they all should be in one spot. They were.

“Here’s a bracelet!” crowed Walters. “This is where the fun begins!”

Quesenberry said it was “just a bunch of stuff,” but what really mattered were three diamond rings given to her over the years by her parents to commemorate birth, wedding and death.

Then there was the baby ring. Yes, babies used to get rings. In a cup of rubble handed up to Quesenberry was a tiny ring. She brushed away the scorched debris and, her chest heaving, she whispered, “It’s MY baby ring.”

“It will clean up, Mom, and be good as new,” said her daughter, Kathy Quesenberry, 70, as she put her arm around her mother.

Kathy was burned out of her home in Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix.

Soon, they found one of the other sought-after rings. Then Beckye’s “favorite” opal earrings emerged.

Peterson held up an Indian arrowhead. Beckye said, “My father gave me that when I was a little girl.”

“You guys are like miracle workers,” Kathy told the searchers. “This is just magnificent for my mother.”

Beckye, who was a kindergarten teacher in earlier days, located a favorite bird statue sitting on a stone engraved with the word “live.” It was a guiding totem for a difficult day.

“It’s a little late in life to start over, being 90, but I guess I will,” she said. “Life goes on. You take the best and forget the rest. That’s what I always told my children.”

The detectorists worked between girders that used to support the home, using a set of three screens to sift rubble through finer and finer mesh, then handing up the recognizable items in a bucket for the women to identify. Because the rubble was full of metal junk, they were unable to use metal detectors other than a hand-held “pin-pointer” about the size of a flashlight.

“It’s literally like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Walters. “For me it’s like a high. When you find something, you get that buzz, an adrenalin flow.

“John and I swing (slang for moving detectors back and forth) and find lots of stuff. You get down and dirty. Digging by hand is not as easy as with a detector, but you find lots of stuff in the third screen, with quarter-inch mesh.”

The men view it as a service, helping people in their community who have lost everything.

“We are Samaritans first,” Walters said. “I believe in karma. We are adding onto our karma credit card, keeping the balance in life and living in the moment.”

Most people who lost homes in the Sept. 8 firestorm, said Peterson, “have convinced themselves, probably rightfully, that they will never see their stuff again. There is a lot of luck involved.”

But the reward for finding treasured keepsakes is worth testing that luck.

“They tell us that we’ve helped them a lot. They’re disoriented, looking at the ruins,” Peterson said. “But it gives people closure. Most jewelry cleans up amazingly well, and you can wear it again — and that means a lot.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Allen Waters, left, and John Peterson used metal detectors to help locate a diamond necklace and other jewelry at the home site of Beckye Quesenberry in Talent.