Noteworthy Surprises

IT was tucked under one of the windshield wipers. Written on a torn fragment of brown paper bag, it read:

JANET

Sorry I was LAte to many trails tryed main one's will try to get

Ahold of you LATeR.

Your Buddie,

Burt.

Being British, I normally call them ''windscreen'' wipers. But then this was our hired American car - so, windshield it is. The car had borne us like a deific chariot from Denver to Colorado Springs, and here, in the burning afternoon sun, it was waiting for us when we returned from a touristic meander around the red-stone outcrops, the naturally formed towers, pinnacles, and climber-clinging rock faces of this ''Front Range'' moonscape known as ''The Garden of the Gods.''

I was amazed that someone had left us a note - until I read it and felt obliged to consider whether my name was or ever had been Janet. Moving with lightning perspicacity along this train of thought led me to the conclusion that the unofficial communique had been left on the wrong vehicle. Janet isn't even my wife's middle name.

Two things have since bothered me about this note. One is that Janet has never seen it (I took it home with me). The other is to do with privacy. Should I have read it? And should I now mention it in print?

I have decided on balance that Burt would certainly have used an envelope or at least topped his epistle with ''CONFIDENTIAL'' if he had not been prepared to take the risk of it falling into alien fingers that might, in turn, turn out to be those of a shameless publicist like myself.

But why did he choose our car? Does Janet drive an identical machine? Or did Burt, perhaps, insinuate his amiable message under the accessory of some neighboring car whose owner had also not been Janet and thought it best to pass it along to another nearby wiper whose owner might be?

I was put in mind of this yesterday morning when I walked once again through the wood in our local park in Glasgow with the dog. Suddenly, I saw a piece of paper with writing on it, loosely attached to a tree trunk. Naturally, I assumed it was either for me - or Janet. In fact, it was for neither of us.

It seemed that there had recently been some kind of treasure trail through the woods, and the clues had been posted arboreally en route. This clue had two parts. First, some instructions of a geographical kind and, second, a puzzle. This was presumably to keep the hunt's participants intellectually satisfied. I feel no hesitation in making this puzzle public property forthwith. It read:

When Howard is twice the age he is now, he will be three times the age he was three years ago. So what age is he now?

Well, to my great surprise, later in the dog walk, I worked it out. I am sure I know how old Howard is now (even if I haven't any idea who Howard might actually be). But just think! If I had not walked past that particular tree trunk at the time I did, you too, my reader, might never have had the opportunity to solve this puzzle or subsequently to subject your friends to it.

Messages sent except by conventional methods such as the mail (either electronic or good old sack-and-trudge) can have an element of the dodgy about them. You cannot be completely certain they will be read by, or only by, the person(s) for whom they are intended. You cannot be certain they will ever be read at all. Isn't it in one of Thomas Hardy's novels that a note pushed under a door never reaches its intended recipient because it unwittingly vanishes under the mat on the other side of the door - a fateful event leading to dire consequences?

There are occasions, of course, when unusual ways of sending messages are the only choice. In ''Winnie-the-Pooh,'' for instance, when Piglet is ''entirely surrounded by water'' he resorts, as others in stress have done, to the message-in-a-bottle routine. And even though it is the brain-little Pooh who sees it floating by and can't read it, this bottled ''missage'' does eventually lead to Piglet's sort-of rescue.

Writing articles (and presumably also larger and longer things) for publication is, I often feel, not unlike placing a message in a bottle. You have no idea who, if anyone at all, might read it. You try to make it make sense and you write with the assumption in mind that it may touch some universal chord or echo some common experience with whoever it is that fishes it out of the water. Sometimes it does - and, I imagine, sometimes it doesn't.

Now, I can't entirely help wondering, once again, who will scan these words once they are in print.

Or will they simply bob out to sea and head for the distant horizon? Maybe I should stick them on a tree, or under a wind ... er ... shield wiper.

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