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Unearthing Old Memories

Sunday, May 26, 2013
Royalton — They recorded interviews about Michael Jackson, joked about Atari video games, and included fast-food wrappers from the 1980s.

But on Friday, when five South Royalton School graduates unearthed a time capsule that they buried as middle-schoolers in 1983, they found their artifacts waterlogged and mostly unsalvageable.

A muddy record. A soggy TV Guide that listed Charlie’s Angels. Their sopping-wet cassette tapes. Bunched-up news articles. Everything floated in gray, soupy water.

The plastic garbage can they used was dented and wrapped in duct tape. The green color had faded and was covered in dirt.

The five adults gathered around a muddy hole with a class of South Royalton seventh graders as rain dripped through the trees. They looked quietly at the excavation site.

“It’s a bit disappointing that it didn’t make it,” said Bret Ballentine, now 41 and living in Enfield. “I remember discussing all of this stuff.”

Ballentine was part of a group of fifth, sixth and seventh graders at South Royalton in 1983 who had compiled and buried objects they felt best represented their pop culture.

They buried their archive at a home off Route 107, where one of the students, Fern Rogers, lived at the time.

They wrote a letter at the time to the class of 2013 explaining the goal of their project: To give you the best idea about what our culture is like now. It included a group photograph, signatures and a map that led to the burial site.

Then they left the letter with the South Royalton School’s principal, going about their lives while the garbage can sat a foot below the earth, collecting water.

“I was anxious about this,” said Jennie Harriman, a 43-year-old photographer and art teacher who lives in Tunbridge and who was 13 at the time.

In February, Harriman said, she returned to South Royalton School, inquiring about the letter.

“But the principal had no idea what I was talking about,” she said. After doing more research, Harriman discovered that Rogers had wound up with the letter after the former principal moved on.

“Usually, I lose everything,” said Rogers, a 43-year-old nurse now living in Stockbridge, Vt., who was amazed she still had the valuable map and message.

Harriman contacted current students, and as many of the 1983 group as she could. One of the students from the 1980s, Kris Eddy, traveled from Virginia for the treasure hunt.

Friday’s gathering was one of the first times Harriman had seen and talked to her classmates since graduation, she said. A lot of them couldn’t remember exact details, so the unearthing was as exciting for them as it was for current students.

Everyone gathered at the Royalton home — now owned by Andy and Maryann Davis — around 9 a.m. A ring of students surrounded the spot where the capsule was buried and attacked the dirt with shovels.

“I like the continuity of it all,” Claire Epchook, the current students’ teacher, said with a smile. “I suspect we’ll find that kids are kids, no matter the generation.”

After 15 minutes, a young cry rang out from the hole: “I found it! I found it!” Forty-five minutes later, two seventh-graders leaped into the hole and pulled the garbage can out together.

“Wow, I have no idea what’s in there,” said Chris Knudsen, a 42-year-old graduate. “Perhaps an Atari cartridge or two.”

The students started tearing at the tape. Ballentine knelt next to the can and sliced a hole into the base with his knife. A stream of murky water trickled out.

The South Royalton School students shrieked. “Ewwws” filled the air.

“Uh oh,” Ballentine said.

They hauled the garbage can back to the school and everyone filed into a classroom. The students ripped it open. The graduates stood on the sides, grinning. Inside the can was more standing water and two smaller duct-taped cans the size of garden pots. Goop ran down their sides.

The effects of 30 years of exposure to groundwater was obvious.

“Gross,” said 12-year-old Bailey Wing. “It’s like a soupy pile of trash.” Blue race cars, cracker wrappers and mushy piles of papers floated in the dirty water.

“Is this what I think it is?” Jeremiah Allard, 14, asked.

He held up a small, blackened packet.

“It’s McDonald’s ketchup!” He fished out more artifacts. “This is kind of cool.”

Dirt splattered on the table. The essays were too wet to read, the cassette tapes unplayable. Epchook said they’d leave the record out to dry and try playing it on a turntable.

Ballentine surmised that he and his peers didn’t bury the garbage can below the frost line. Years of melted ice probably leaked into the plastic, he said. Despite the ruined artifacts, they enjoyed the nostalgia.

“Do you all remember this?” Harriman asked. “During my cassette interview, I talked about how I was all about Michael Jackson.”

“Yes, I seem to remember my sister and cousins playing a lot of Hall and Oates over and over and over and over,” Ballentine said as laughter filled the classroom.

The seventh-graders are planning to bury their own time capsule, and Epchook asked the graduates for their advice.

“If you guys are going to do this,” Knudsen said, “make sure you can safely include things that you make. The wrappers are interesting, but I would like to see the essays we wrote, or the recordings we made.”

Ballentine nodded.

“Duct tape is good, but not good enough,” he said.

Zack Peterson can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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