Pleasanton Weekly

Column - January 8, 2010

Buried treasures aren't easy to find

by Jeb Bing

A buried treasure has always captured the imagination as something to find that's fun, but finding theirs was a bit more physically challenging for TJ McGrath and his family for over the New Year's weekend. Buried in the McGraths' backyard of their Foothill Knolls home just ahead of the onset of the 21st Century -- and the ominous threats that the start of 2000 might bring -- the McGraths placed "items of interest" inside a 5-gallon plastic paint bucket, sealed it tight and buried it deep in the backyard for opening 10 years later

The time to uncover came and, like in "Raiders of the Lost Arc," the McGraths took shovels in hand to unearth the time capsule that everyone remembered was buried there. Or was it there? Or there? Even with a picture of the spot shown in a photo taken at the end of 1999, the first deep dig found nothing. So they moved a few feet in a different direction and dug again.

Joining in the "fun" was McGrath, sales manager for Lindsey Olive; his wife Sheila and their sons Thomas, 22, a chemical engineering senior at Santa Clara University, and JT, 16, a junior at Foothill High School. Also digging or supervising was McGrath's mother Rita, his brother Bill and his wife Mary Beth, neighbors George and Cis Puricelli, girl friends of the sons and other friends. It was quite a crowd of diggers, but as one hole after another was dug, part of the crowd started leaving -- Rita back to her assisted living home, Bill and Mary Beth back to their hotel and finally, after five hours with darkness and rain settling in, most others left, too. A curious neighbor across the backyard fence, concerned by all the dug holes he saw from an upstairs window, even called to see if a water main had broken.

The search was made more difficult because the backyard had been landscaped with new sod put down during the 10-year period, so most landmarks were gone. Still undeterred, the McGraths kept digging, by now obsessed with finding the buried pail before the new year came.

Looking at the family photo that everyone thought had been taken at the burial site 10 years earlier, JT sought other documentation. Searching through the attic, he found an old home video that included a clip of the great dig of 1999. It showed the site in the center of the yard, not near the base of the home chimney where the snapshot had been taken. So the digging resumed and by 12:30 a.m., with much of the yard now dug up, JT and Thomas struck pay dirt, retrieving a muddy but still sealed pail with all of their items still in tact.

Among the treasures were love notes from TJ and Sheila to the kids, a Sports Illustrated swim suit edition from 1999 (TJ says he knows nothing about that keepsake), a Sony Walkman, Pokemon cards, itemized grocery store receipts and a PG&E bill showing that costs have continued to escalate, and favored mementos of TJ's father William F. McGrath, who died three years ago and the man TJ says could have found the exact spot where the time capsule was without a photo or any landmark.

In spite of the frustrations, hours of digging, a bad back and the work ahead to repair his dug-up backyard, TJ encouraged everyone to do it again. So last week, the family gathered to place items of interest from 2009 in a new time capsule to be recovered in 2020. Everyone had a one-quart Zip-Lock baggie to fill, and each contributor also placed sealed letters about themselves, their aspirations and messages to the others in the capsule. It's now reburied with exact details about its location carefully tucked away in a kitchen drawer. As long as someone remembers where the buried treasure map is located, the recovery effort 10 years from now should be easier. McGrath expects that with his sons now 22 and 16, there could be more family members by then to help in the next big dig.

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