On June 15, 2007, a gold and white 1957 Plymouth Belvedere will be dug up from the lawn of the Tulsa County Courthouse. The car, which was brand new when it was buried in 1957 as a part of Oklahoma’s Golden Jubilee celebration, will be unearthed during the commemoration of the state’s centennial. The car is supposed to be awarded to the person who made the most accurate guess in 1957 of what Tulsa’s population would be in 2007. The guesses were recorded on microfilm that was sealed in a container inside the car. If the person who offered the most accurate estimate is deceased, the car is to be awarded to his or her heirs. Here’s hoping that the best guesser is still alive. That would be cool.
I buried a time capsule of sorts once myself, back when I was a boy of about eleven. I made a list of some great truths that were very important to me. They were so important that I wanted to preserve them in some dramatic fashion. So, I wrote them, in ink, on a piece of wide-ruled notebook paper. Then I carefully folded the paper and placed it inside a Mason jar, which I closed as tightly as I could. I dug a shallow hole out back of my father’ utility house, placed the jar in it, and covered it with dirt. I don’t remember if I had a specific date on which I intended to unearth it; perhaps I planned to dig it up to commemorate some special day such as my birthday or the last day of school or the end of the Little League baseball season.
What I do remember is that within a few days I had forgotten all about the jar and the deep secrets that were sealed within it. I don’t recall how long it was before I thought about the jar again. One day I did, though, many, many months later. I was messing around in the back yard when I walked over the spot where I had buried the jar. I remembered. I grabbed a shovel and excitedly dug in the spot where I had hidden the jar. Finding it, I tried to remove the lid, but I couldn’t. It was rusted shut. So, I broke the jar. Excited now, I slowly unfolded the paper, only sort of noticing that it was damp.
The ink had run. The writing was indecipherable. The secrets that were so important, that I had gone to so much trouble to hide away until I was ready for them again, were gone. After I thought about it, I wasn’t too bugged by the situation; I reasoned that if I couldn’t remember one thing that I had written on the paper, which I couldn’t, nothing there must have been too important to me.
To this day, though, I still wonder what I wrote on the piece of paper that I put in the jar that I buried in the back yard behind the utility house. I still wonder if what I had written would have helped me in any way when I dug it up, had I been able to read it. Or, might what I had written there have embarrassed or befuddled or shamed me?
People, I think, do the same sort of thing all the time. We all have stuff from back there somewhere that we did and that we didn’t do, that we said and that we didn’t say, and that we tried and that we didn’t try. It’s stuff that we buried. Some of it we buried on purpose and some of it just kind of got buried without our doing too much about it. But we do go back and dig it up. Or sometimes it just gets uncovered, like ancient burial ground that gets unearthed during a modern construction project. Whether we dig it up on purpose or whether it just turns up, we have to decide what to do with it, because the past is a funny thing. Sometimes we treat something from back there as if it was the worst thing that anybody ever did. Sometimes we treat something from back there as if it was so good that nothing else will ever compare with it.
When July 15 rolls around and the folks in Tulsa dig up that 1957 Plymouth Belvedere, they’re not quite sure what they’re going to find. If they’re able to find the person who should get possession of it or that person’s heirs, they don’t really know what the condition of the prize will be. It’s possible that the car will be in pristine condition, in which case it will be quite valuable. But, because it’s not known how much moisture got into the vault, it’s also possible that the car will be ruined by rust.
Here’s what I hope: I hope that the car is in pretty good shape but that it has some fairly significant rust damage. Then, it will be an appropriate symbol of the past. What we dig up from back there that we remember as perfect and shiny and wonderful probably isn’t. What we dig up from back there that we remember as a big pile of rust probably isn’t. The truth is that the past is like the present. It’s a mixture of good and bad, happy and sad, helpful and hurtful, and successful and unsuccessful. It’s in pretty good shape but it has some rust on it.
Sometimes the buried stuff should just be left alone. But when it can’t be, it can be seen as a significant part of who we are and where we’ve been. The worst thing we could do, though, is to let it take our attention from who and where we are right now. The buried stuff is all right if we keep our heads about us when we’re around it.