Gold from rust: Tulsa shines, Plymouth doesn’t

The story could fuel jokes for years. Or it could cause tears, as indeed it did from the woman who organized the festivities around the unearthing of the 50-year-old Plymouth buried at Tulsa’s courthouse.

The headline in The Tulsa World shows pluck, determination and a good sense of humor: Tulsa celebrates anyway, but the Plymouth is a bucket of rust.

Tarnished gold,” is the headline.

Now we know what 50 years in a hole does to a Plymouth Belvedere.

The tires go flat. The paint fades. Hinges and latches stiffen, upholstery disintegrates, the engine becomes a very large paperweight.

But what the heck. None of us is what we used to be.

1957? Eisenhower sent U.S. Marshalls, and then the U.S. Army, into Little Rock, Arkansas, so 9 African-Americans could register to go to Central High School. That was so long ago that the Little Rock 9 graduated, became doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and even an undersecretary of Labor, and got very gray; Central High is now a National Historic Monument (though still a high school). Greg Morrell wipes grime from Plymouth bumper, Tulsa Convention Center, Tulsa World Photo by Michael Wyke

1957 was the year of Sputnik, when the Soviet Union’s orbiting of an artificial satellite got the U.S. off its collective duff to actually do something about improving schools and especially science education, and go about the space race seriously. That was then. Now the Soviet Union is 18 years dead, Neil Armstrong, the first human on the Moon is past retirement age (no Soviet cosmonaut ever landed there), and Americans without the Soviets to beat have retreated to diluting science education with woo-woo creationism.

Should we expect a lot more from an automobile whose chief distinction was its fins? Plymouth as an auto marque became a property of a German auto company before it was pulled off of life support in 2001.

Things change. When people get involved and push the right way, things change for the better, like the desegregation of schools. When people are content just to let inertia and ennui force the changes, they change for the worse, like school curricula and achievement.

One might be put in mind of Tom Boswell’s first couple of books: How does the history of the U.S. since 1957 resemble a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere? Why does time begin when you get your driving license?

They’re having fun in Tulsa this weekend, though no one drives away with the prize since the prize is undrivable. Originally conceived as a way to boost the celebration of Oklahoma’s statehood centennial, the digging up of a 1957 Plymouth presents a rich tapestry of human hopes and disappointments against which a good teacher of history might project U.S. history so that American kids get much deeper understanding.

The Tulsa World, by the way, is one of our great regional newspapers. Traveling around the nation one can generally find the Wall Street Journal in airports; since USA Today was founded as a national news summary, it’s generally available in larger towns and cities. Starbuck’s Coffee has done its part to spread the New York Times‘ national edition. Cognescenti can get these papers and read them, almost anywhere. Good regional newspapers are prizes better than good local beers, like The Tulsa World, and it’s great sister non-national, not-New-York-and-not-Los-Angeles newspapers the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, Miami Herald, Buffalo News, Denver Post, Arizona Republic, Portland Oregonian, Des Moines Register, Louisville Courier-Journal, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Raleigh News & Observer, Orlando Sentinel, etc., etc., etc.

Thanks, Tulsa! What’s next?

Update, June 2009: The website for the promotion is gone.  In internet archives I found a list of the guesses at Tulsa’s population people made.  The winner of the Plymouth?

Anyone who has information about R. E. Humberston who was born in Cumberland, Maryland on 7/8/1921 should contact Margaret Kobos in the Trust Department of the Bank of Oklahoma at 918-293-7567.

As best I can tell, R. E. Humberston has not come forward to accept the prize.


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