Since the fall of 2020, a glass-topped display case has been sitting next to the checkout desk in my library. Strewn across a piece of artfully arranged white fabric is a handful of what’s left of the contents of a time capsule buried on June 20, 1970, on the grounds of the courthouse lawn. There was much pomp and circumstance in the burying. Tuxedoed pallbearers with top hats carried a pine casket to be interred in a concrete vault where they thought it would remain intact until it was exhumed 50 years later.
But that wasn’t the case. The vault most certainly failed within the first year or two, and the paper contents – letters, photographs, documents, and newspaper clippings – turned to a putrid sludge. The pine coffin itself disintegrated into nothingness. The few remaining things had either been wrapped in multiple layers of garbage bags or were of a substance such as metal or plastic that withstood years of being flooded. When the sesquicentennial committee opened the vault, what should have been a day of celebration turned into a day of deep disappointment.
The committee had a small commemorative presentation in the library’s parking lot on June 20, 2020, and then left some of the contents to be viewed by interested persons. Months passed, and the time capsule was largely forgotten. Still, in and amongst the coins, jewelry, dog tags, plastic advertising incentives, and a rusted horseshoe was a small metal cylinder about the size of a shotgun shell that intrigued me. It was about 3-1/2 inches long with a 7/8 diameter. It weighed a little over three ounces and appeared to be solid metal. A piece of what looked like woven athletic tape was wrapped around the middle. I loved to hand this mystery item to people and have them guess what it was. None of us knew.
In mid-February of 2022, after the case had been here more than a year and a half, I felt compelled to solve the mystery of the little cylinder. I posted it on Reddit under What Is This Thing, and in the next 24 hours, I received hundreds of comments, only one of which seemed plausible. A former funeral home director said he thought it looked like a memory record capsule, a small, indestructible hollow tube or capsule containing a burial record in case of catastrophe or natural disaster.
Since the time capsule was actually a pine casket, I decided to pursue this angle. First, I scraped off what was left of the tape. It crumbled away, and I cleaned and lightly sanded the tube. I could see it was made of brass. I could see there was a seam in the middle of it, and a patron offered to open it for me. He had tools in his shop to do it without damaging it. When he brought it back to me, he had shined it up and had twisted it about halfway open, leaving it for me to discover what was inside. I finished twisting it, and the two sections came apart in my hands. A small scroll of waterproof vellum was inside, on which was typed the following:
Roger Burke, Mary Jean Burke, Shelly Burke and Stephanie Burke ages from left to right 29, 25, 6, 3. Roger an Embalmer and Funeral Director. Mary Jean a Nurse.
Roger is from Cookeville, Tenn. Mary Jean from Nashville, Tenn. Mary jean is a direct descendant of James Robertson the founder of Nashville, Tenn.
Some famous persons who I have buried while in Nashville, Tenn. Jim Reeves, country music Star. Killed in Plane Crash. Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Texas Ruby*, all music stars, killed in plane crash.
I immediately went to work trying to find information about the man who put this in our time capsule. I found Roger Burke, 81, on the staff page of a funeral home in Cookeville, only to realize he had just died on February 18, 2022, just a few days before I started on my journey to find out about the cylinder. I got it open on February 28, just a few days before the 59th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Cline, Copas, and Hawkins. I wish I could have told Mr. Burke of my discovery. Hopefully, he knows I found it.
*The others listed did perish in a plane crash, but Texas Ruby died in a house fire, the same month as the fatal crash