Buried car idles as Tulsa races on

Four-wheeled time capsule to be unearthed this week after 50 years in Oklahoma soil

June 10, 2007|By Dan Barry | Dan Barry,New York Times News Service

TULSA, Okla. -- A good crowd gathered in front of the county courthouse that summer day to witness the burial of an exceptionally large time capsule: a new gold-and-white Plymouth Belvedere, containing a flag, a city directory, a case of beer, an unpaid parking ticket and the contents of a woman's purse, among other things.

City dignitaries explained that exactly 50 years in the future, on June 15, 2007, this fin-tailed hardtop would be unearthed to show the world who we were and how we lived in Tulsa in 1957. Earle Davenport of Memorial Park Cemetery had been kind enough to donate a bronze marker to be set in the ground above the Plymouth, lest we forget.

The curious event, which paired a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma's statehood with a Plymouth promotion, drew all sorts of people to Denver Avenue that day. Some thought that burying a new car was dumb. Others thought it sublime.

Teddy Baxter stared at the Plymouth, raised high before its entombment. He and his older brother, Henry, had left their father's downtown cafe to see what all the commotion was about, and Henry was explaining to Teddy that the car would be resurrected in a new century, a new millennium.

I'll never be alive, said Teddy, who was 6.

Sure you will, answered Henry, who was 19. I might not be, but you'll be around for sure.

Then Henry hoisted his little brother onto his shoulders so that the boy could inscribe his name in pen on one of the Belvedere's whitewall tires.

Gene McDaniel, who had fled the family farm at 16 and now, at 20, was doing all right for himself as an auto mechanic in the big city, was there as well. He was preening with his buddy and two young women in the 1957 black Chevrolet Bel Air convertible he had just bought. Perched high on the red-upholstered back seat, the couples could see everything.

McDaniel, who lived to race cars and chase women, considered the meaning of the Belvedere displayed before him. In 2007, he would be 70. No way would he make it.

Nancy Williams, a newlywed at 20 in a pink-and-black summer dress, proudly watching from the street as her father helped to stage the event. That was her father in the dark sunglasses, Luther Williams the public relations whiz, doing his part for posterity.

The Belvedere, loaded down with bits of Tulsa, was lowered into a concrete vault and buried. Teddy and Henry Baxter went back to the cafe. Nancy Williams went home, where she soon learned that her father had included among the buried mementos her wedding portrait. Gene McDaniel and his buddy took their dates somewhere lost to time.

What is 50 years? Something triggers our memory - an old photograph, a found earring, a plaque in the ground, "courtesy of Earle Davenport" - and suddenly we notice the change. All we can do is marvel at how time is a sly magician, distracting us with one hand while pocketing our years with the other.

If the Belvedere is in driving condition when it is unearthed Friday, its headlamps will flicker across a different Tulsa: a Tulsa that can no longer claim to be the Oil Capital of the World, but a Tulsa with a strong and diverse economy, and a population that has grown by more than 100,000 over those 50 years, to about 390,000.

The Orpheum, where Gene McDaniel once watched movies, and Bishop's, where Nancy Williams ate after dances - "Fine Food Around the Clock," its sign said - are gone, but Cain's Ballroom is still thriving, and glorious art deco buildings still define the cityscape.

Three years after Teddy Baxter signed his name to that whitewall tire, his mother died, days before turning 50. He grew up to become a quality-control supervisor for a local company and the father of two children. He goes by Ted now.

Baxter says the first 25 years after that day moved slowly, while the second 25 passed in an eye's blink. But no matter its speed, time never diminished his boyhood memory of being held aloft by a patient older brother, who turned out to be right in saying which of them would live to see the day, and who would not.

Gene McDaniel married twice, though to neither of those women in his Bel Air convertible that day. He has three children, eight grandchildren and an undying passion for cars. In fact, he kept that Bel Air convertible in near-mint condition. In one way, it seems, he managed to stop time.

As for Nancy Williams, she buried her marriage two years after the city buried the Belvedere, leaving her a working single mother of twin toddlers. But she married again, had another child, married again, then once more.

In the mid-1970s, a few years before his death, her father sent a letter to the Tulsa Historical Society, asking whoever digs up the Belvedere on the day of its resurrection to please tear up that wedding picture.

"Trying to save me from embarrassment," says the unembarrassed publicist's daughter, whose name now is Nancy Williams Lawson.

Lawson, 70, has seven grandchildren, plays golf four days a week and rarely goes downtown. But when she does, and she sees that plaque in the ground, she's a newlywed again, she's gazing at her daddy, and she's wearing that pink-and-black dress.

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