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Dad's Unwritten Messages

June 20, 2004

It seems to happen on weekends, when news is slower and competition for newspaper space easier. There's another little story about someone who put a message in a bottle, threw it into the sea years ago and now has heard from its finder far, far away. Sometimes they're poignant stories -- parents receiving a child's bottled note years after his unexpected death. Sometimes it's a student's note. Or a profession of love.

Once, in a time far, far away, right around Father's Day, a father suggested that his little boy pencil a note to a stranger and they'd throw it off an ocean liner together. This was before video games, so it seemed very exciting. The father found a bottle and sturdy cork. The boy composed a careful note, providing the date and a return address but not the launching place, hoping to ensure return by a curious finder. Hours later, the message in a bottle was launched into the turbulent wake of a large ship. Such launchings became rituals, whenever the two were anywhere near water and the sterns of ferries or motorboats. Even a bridge would do.

They were enticing moments. Moments, unknowingly, to learn optimism and hope. Silent moments too, usually. Neither father nor son wanted to disturb the mystery or wonder. Those times became an integral part of their relationship, a ritual with assigned roles of comfort, curiosity, with not many words and not just on Father's Day.

"Let's do a bottle," one would say. And so they would -- the bottle, the cork, the rolled, dated note (with a copy, figuring the finder would want to keep the original). The pair would stand by the water unaware of others and the hopelessness of such launchings. They'd watch the bottle drifting out of sight on a voyage to somewhere. Maybe.

Over the years, many notes came back, one in 10 maybe -- fishermen in Iceland and Japan, a driftwood hunter in Quebec, picnickers in France, swimmers, boaters, yachters off Rhode Island who read the note through glass and relaunched it.

When the boy grew up and had little boys of his own, he repeated the protocol. Some messages returned. Many have not -- yet.

Many long-ago nights, the father would tuck his son in and read a story. Then, just before switching off the light, he'd turn back to the boy in the bed and quietly say, "I wonder where our bottle is tonight." The boy would drift off to sleep in the dark then, dreaming of all the exotic places their bottle could float. Often around Father's Day, the former boy still imagines the bottles out there -- and the unwritten messages the departed father sent through them to his child.

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