Message in a Bottle

If you’ve ever read Thoreau’s Walden, you might recall a passage in the chapter ‘Solitude’ that goes, “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.”  Thoreau wasn’t much for small talk.  He wanted to come away from every meeting with a person, having bounded over their walls to arrive at a perfect understanding of their quintessential self.  Thoreau was obviously an idealist, and being a solitary hermit on a certain lake, may not have acquired a realistic understanding of how vulnerable and exhausting this method of daily interaction might be.  Ironically though, for being a hermit bachelor, he inadvertently commented on a common phenomenon particular to long term couples. 

In a relationship it is our stories that are the musty cheese we feed each other.  Not directly to each other any more, mind you, but to guests or friends.  In fact, to determine if you have entered into “long term” relationship status, a simply barometer is the ability to anticipate which story your partner will bring up in response to a certain train of conversation.  We all have them, and if you are married, you’ve heard the same tired stories a hundred times before, and by now can tell them as accurately as though they were your own.

So to kick off this category, here is one of my slices of musty cheese:

As children, anytime my parent’s took us out in Limpet, our sluggish wooden Poulsbo boat, my brother and I would bring along two-liter pop bottles stuffed with messages, sealed tight with duct-tape, and hurl them into the Puget Sound with dreams of hearing back from far off tropical lands.  We included our names, a self-addressed stamped envelope, and a request to write back and let us know where they found the bottle.  People almost always wrote back, but being from Bainbridge Island, we were always disappointed when they wrote back from Silverdale, Port Orchard, or Bremerton.

One day in January, though, when we brother was in the third grade, he received a bona fide letter postmarked from Antarctica.  That’s right: Antarctica.  In it, the writer described how, as a marine biologist for NOAA, he had been counting seals on an iceflow off the Antarctic Peninsula, when he happened upon my brother’s bottle.  He went on to describe what he did, and what Antarctica was like, but none of us could get past the basic fact that my brother’s bottle had made it to Antarctica!  Our family was floored.  My brother brought the letter to show-and-tell and blew the other hapless kids with their pet garter snakes out of the water.  The letter became the stuff of family legend, and as such, it secured a place alongside out birth certificates and my parent’s will in their safety deposit box at the bank.  The story remained the same for the next 20 years.

When I was a junior in college, I was reading a National Geographic and came across an article about a retired UW ocenographer named Curtis Ebbesmeyer who studied flotsam.  Specifically, he inferred the trajectory of ocean currents based on the arrival of unusual things landing ashore on the north-eastern Pacific’s shorelines.  He did this though a informal network of beachcomber’s who kept him appraised of what they were finding through his newsletter and website.  The article described how Curtis was able to map the Pacific’s currents and velocities based on the arrival of red, white and blue hockey equipment that washed ashore Washington and Oregon’s coast in the summer of 1995.  He knew where they came from, having contacted the shipping company whose vessel lost that cargo container in a storm, and he compared its origin to reports he received of sightings of the stuff on the coast.

Well, I saw this stuff too.  I was hiking out near Cape Johnson with my parents that summer in 1995 on the Olympic Coast and came across what I thought were lacrosse gloves.  Since many of my friends at the time played lacrosse, and the gloves looked so good for having been in the ocean, and because the cost of lacrosse gear was not covered by our school, I remembered seriously considering packing it out.  I also kept a journal at the time, so I had an exact date for Curtis, which I included in my report to him.  He was skeptical, because this was the earliest landfall date he had for this event, and six years had passed, but I assured him that I had documented it in my journal and I was 100% confident in my observation.

As our emails back and forth were winding down, I brought up the miraculous story of my brother’s bottle.  I think he could tell that this held a special place for my family, so he let me down gently with a quick primer on ocean currents and the improbability of anything from our neck of the woods to make it out of the Puget Sound, much less to Antarctica.  Even if it would have gotten out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and headed south, anything that made it to the equator would be blown west toward Indonesia, and that would take years not months.

By this time, as a geography major, I should have known this, but childhood logic dies hard when not confronted with cold fact.  So I asked my mom to see the letter again the next time I was home, hoping to find some clue that could explain how my brother’s crayon-written letter could have found its way back home in a letter postmarked from Antarctica.

The postmark looked legit, and the writer seemed sincere.  But then I noticed two things that didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out.  The first was the letterhead.  It was the ship’s letterhead, and like many of NOAA’s ships, it’s address stated that the ship’s home port was Seattle’s Sand Point facility.  The second was the postmark’s date – December 14th, about 3 weeks before my brother’s birthday, which he had included in crayon for some reason in his letter.  I’m guessing three weeks would be about the amount of time for a letter to get from Antarctica to Washington State in the 80s.

So as best as I can figure, this NOAA marine biologist is walking down the beach during the summer in some unremarkable corner of Puget Sound and comes upon my brother’s pop bottle.  Instead of writing back immediately, he pockets the letter, brings it along with him on his journey to Antarctica, and writes back to my brother that he found his bottle bobbing in a ice flow, just in time for my brother’s 8th birthday.  Sure he lied, but like Santa Clause or the toothfairy, it brought a bit of unexpected magic to a little boy’s world.

What I love so much about this story, is that it so easily could have been destroyed by the truth – the postmark could have just been faked or the guy a crackpot.  Instead, some stranger packed my brother’s letter to the other end of the world, taking the time to make a boy he would never meet feel really special.  So instead, the story took on a new light, and became less a tale of miraculous ocean currents, and more about the kindness of strangers, and I believe the story is, by far, the richer for it.

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