The walls of my Ohio childhood carried many pictures. They had World War II aircraft, Captain Marvel drawings, the Lone Ranger’s color photo (autographed). These images changed over time according to the tides of juvenile interests. But one constant through all those years was a map of the world.
My father would point out various lands, which were farther away than even Pennsylvania. And on that map we would trace in crayon where I had traveled. Up until one gray day in June over a half-century ago those colored lines were confined to the North American mainland. But then we boarded an ocean ferry for a vacation venture to the island of Nantucket out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Standing on deck with sticky salt air ripping at my Cleveland Indians windbreaker, I remarked over a totally new sight for me—the complete absence of land of any kind in any direction. My father noted that ocean ships could travel a week or more in the same direction and never see land. Until that moment I thought Lake Erie was pretty big.
My father always had to my ears an amazing ability to utter apt instructive phrases. When to my screaming dismay our cat had killed a bird, he told me about something called “instinked.” Barely moments after I had mustered the courage to ask a beautiful eighth-grade girl—I forget her name now—to accompany me to the movies, I was rejected. As I hung up the phone, my father just happened to enter the kitchen and observed, “There will come a day when you won’t even remember her name.”
So I was not surprised really when, absorbing the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean and the vast world that surrounded it, I heard my father utter a seemingly spontaneous idea. “Let’s put a note in a bottle and toss it overboard to see who finds it.”
I admit freely that I have been slipping notes into bottles and tossing them overboard ever since. Call it a hobby, an avocation or maritime littering, it’s not as strange as it might seem. I suppose some could consider it seaborne spam. But I prefer to think of this eccentricity as reaching out, safely, curiously, innocently, to someone you don’t know yet. It’s my small effort to preserve a modicum of serendipity in a world quickly cocooning itself within precise search terms and passwords.
We called it “doing a bottle.” With my father and without, I’ve lobbed hundreds of bottles into the world’s seas, lakes, even dammed rivers from boats, bridges and banks. I’d watch them move away in the wake or on the waves as long as I could, as if watching a child safely to school. They carried a simple message for strangers: I tossed this into the water on such-and-such a date. Write and tell me where you found this.
It no longer surprises me to receive replies. About one bottle in 10 produces a response. Their voyages range from one day (the Missouri River) to 18 months (from Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence to France). Most trips last months, like one that traveled Japan’s coastline, another drifting down the Saint Lawrence River or one that went from mid-Atlantic to the southern coast of Iceland. Several bottles tossed within the Inland Passage north of Vancouver were found in days along the beaches of numerous islands there.
Some people sent their pictures. All finders want to know the voyage’s origins, a detail I purposely omit from the notes to encourage a response. Some replies come by email now.
Beachcombers are the typical finders, often youngsters who, my theory holds, are more observant and curious down there at sand level. (In recent years, however, their parents have grown more cautious about contacts with strangers even—or especially—by email.)
My favorite reply came from a Diet Pepsi bottle carrying two business cards tossed from an iceberg-hunting patrol plane circling 1,000 feet over the site of the Titanic sinking on April 15, 1982, the tragedy’s 70th anniversary. About 18 months later a French schoolgirl named Chrystelle Barraud on a family beach outing just off Bordeaux found it, covered with barnacles amid a pile of seaweed. That bottle prompted a lengthy penpal exchange of bilingual letters between her school class and myself, covering everything from holidays to favorite television shows.
But if I’m honest about it all, the point of the bottle-tossing is not really, as I once thought, to get a reply. The point of the bottle-tossing, as I now know my father intended, is to unleash the imagination of the tosser. Imagine today mailing a letter with no name on it, no address, no country and no ZIP code. And then imagine months later, after long forgetting the dispatch, getting a friendly reply from a real person. This is no 19th century pirate novel with seafarers stranded on an isolated spit of sand. This is for real. Someone you don’t know and will never see discovers something you set adrift for them to find without knowing the who or where.
So many childhood nights after my father’s ritual bedtime reading he would tuck in the covers and head for the bedroom door. There he would turn and, with his hand by the light switch on the wall decorated with pictures of airplanes and a heroic cowboy, I would hear his last words of the day before darkness enveloped my room. “I wonder where our bottle is tonight."
So many nights I would drift off to sleep then, imagining the exotic places far beyond Pennsylvania where our bottles might be floating right then, carried by gentle ripples and malevolent breakers closer and closer to the hands of an unsuspecting someone who never imagined receiving a maritime missive and knew nothing of the upcoming rendezvous.
I imagined the bottles floating forever in inner space wherever the elements willed in this direction and that, borne by the winds and the waves and then, accidentally, landing on a deserted beach. There they sit and sit, waiting and waiting for someone to come along, someone with the curiosity, the imagination to look inside a piece of litter. I imagine some unfound bottles resting there still, while high tides and storms retrieve others and re-launch them on a supplementary journey to somewhere.
Some potential finders may overlook the barnacled bottle waiting, partially buried, and, thus miss their chance for unexpected discovery. Once I got a letter from a sailor off Rhode Island who read my note through the bottle and then re-tossed it to find someone else. So I know such things happen.
Some nights I still wonder if any of those bottles from my childhood nearly 60 years ago are still bravely bobbing along on waves that carry them slowly to places I’ve not seen—yet—and into hands that weren’t born when the idea of “doing a bottle” was first broached by a father on a windblown deck.
After all, who can say they’re not?
Andrew H. Malcolm is the father of four grown bottle-tossers and author of several nonfiction books including The Canadians and Mississippi Currents: Journeys Through Time and a Valley.