At a recent centennial observance in Corona, workers armed with electric drills, shovels and a metal detector burrowed into the earth and found, much to their surprise, dirt--nothing but lots and lots of dirt.
The Riverside County town thus joined the ranks of dozens of cities--Santa Fe, N.M., Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, to name a few--that have failed to retrieve buried time capsules over the last couple of decades.
That doesn't include the state of New Jersey, which lost its bicentennial time capsule before planting it--only to find it a month later in the basement of the state Casino Control Commission.
Corona most likely is the individual record holder in the fumbled-capsule category because it has misplaced 17 containers of memorabilia that had been deposited by high school classes dating back to the 1930s.
While one Corona Centennial Committee member half-jokingly offered a $100 reward for the items ("dead or alive"), some townsfolk speculated that the boxes were accidentally carted off and destroyed during previous construction work in the area. If so, Corona is in good company; the same thing happened to San Francisco, which left its capsule in the dump several years ago.
Corona's loss illustrates the problem inherent in any time capsule, a peculiarly American novelty that first gained popularity during the 1876 centennial: Since the container is usually buried by individuals who won't be around when it's due to be unveiled, how will anyone know where to find it? Or when to start looking?
A Times reporter trying to find information about Los Angeles' bicentennial capsule, for instance, was transferred from the city's Public Works Department to General Services to the city administrative officer to Building and Safety to the mayor's office, where a spokesman finally admitted:
"No one seems to know. We called the person who did the p.r. (public relations) for the time capsule and she couldn't remember where it's buried."
A Times investigation of old newspaper clippings subsequently determined that the Griffith Park Observatory is the home of the capsule. Just in the nick of time, too. It's due to be opened in 91 years.
Another cylinder lies beneath the 10-year-old Triforium music box downtown, but no one seems to know when it is supposed to be raised. But, if it ever is, it's bound to intrigue future generations with such treasures as the 1976-77 proposed city budget and biographies of the Los Angeles City Council members of that era.
James Kusterer Jr., a Sedalia, Colo., chemical engineer, believes he could relieve the time-capsule anxiety of such cities as Corona and Los Angeles.
Kusterer, a former consultant to the Library of Congress, not only produces specially built metal containers at prices ranging from $1,000 to $1,800, he also logs their locations and dates of unveiling.
"I have a list of 440 capsules with the exact map coordinates where they can be found," said Kusterer, whose recent clients include the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"They (the coordinates) are in bank trusts, which are set up so that they expire when the capsule is scheduled to be opened," Kusterer explained. "Then those banks will inform some ranking officer in the town, such as the mayor, assuming that the banks are still in business."
Even if the banks are still banking, Kusterer admits that he will have departed the scene before anyone can determine whether his system works.
"Oh, well," he said with a laugh. "At least I don't have to worry about repeat business."
Kusterer first realized there was a need for a capsule index when he went to work for the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, which was planning the nation's 200th birthday celebration.
Almost 5,000 cities asked the bicentennial group if it knew of any time capsules in their backyards and, if so, their whereabouts. No such record could be found, and only 1,846 of the cities were successful in uncovering them, Kusterer said.
One happy ending occurred later in Long Beach during demolition of its old YMCA building in 1980. A local banker who had attended the structure's original dedication helped find a 59-year-old copper box embedded in a cornerstone.
Among the contents was a message from one T. E. Neff, who had supplied the capsule. It said: "When this box is opened, please pay T. E. Neff $5." (The YMCA located Neff's heirs and duly forked over the money.)
Longmeadow, Mass., had no trouble finding its time capsule, either. The container was dug up at the demand of irate Polish-Americans three days after its burial after the disclosure that its cargo included a book of Polish jokes.
Kusterer estimates that there may be as many as 3,000 other time capsules in the United States, about 60% of which will never be found.
Just how concerned Americans should be about these lost-in-earth items is, of course, another question.