My self-addressed postcard came back to me in the mail today, which meant that someone had found my message in a bottle.
It probably wasn't the greatest literature, but the messages that my 4th and 5th graders and I had sealed into glass bottles, using hot glue and marine epoxy and launched into Penobscot Bay, Maine, in early May, had preoccupied our writing classes for several weeks.
What kind of message do you put in a bottle being entrusted to the tides and currents?
Almost all the kids mentioned their favorite sports team - the Red Sox - as well as the sports that they themselves play.
"Castine is small, but we have our own Little League team," wrote one of the baseball aficionados.
Weather was also a crucial topic: "It's hot here in July and August," one wrote. "Cold the rest of the year."
And they talked about their hometown in curious demographic and geographical terms. A bottle-finder would learn that Castine is old ("We were in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars"), that "our school is small," and "we're on the Atlantic Ocean." Plenty of leeway for interpretation.
We enclosed a map with more specific regional highlights in case detailed aids to navigation were required when the bottle was found. And Courtney, in a very optimistic gesture, used an online translator to render her brief note into French and Italian. One hopes that nothing was lost in translation. We looked at the Gulf Stream on our map, and it could happen. Mrs. Belyea, our art teacher, suggested Irish might be a good bet, too.
"When the bottle is found" - now that's optimistic. Andy Chase, a professor of nautical science at the maritime academy in town and an experienced sender and receiver of bottle messages, gave us encouragement. He launched a bottle from Horseshoe Cove one summer and received a reply from a person in Maryland.
Of course that bottle might just have landed on another local beach and entered the late summer Route 1 auto "current" heading south. But Andy also once picked up a bottle in the middle of the Atlantic, out in the Sargasso Sea. It had been launched from a cruise ship three years before and was still afloat. A time capsule!
As we talked about what to put in our bottles, my thoughts focused on the embedded metaphor. In the school newsletter during our launch week, I wrote, "We send and receive 'bottles' daily, dropping messages into currents, streams, and eddies of all kinds. We also pick up the same."
When you put it that way, perhaps it is the stuff of great literature. Any bottle and any message is a chance contact, an adventure of fantastic possibilities.
"Imagine," I said to the class, "what you would like to find inside a bottle washed up on our backshore beach. What would make really interesting contents? That's what we'll slip into our bottles - prepared for the real and imaginative waters we ply."
We studied the map at school with fervor and enclosed postcards and other whimsical items intended to amuse an unsuspecting beachcomber on some foreign shore months or years hence. Our bottles, too, might be time capsules.
Dustin was concerned: "What if we don't live here anymore when someone mails us the postcard?" I assured him I would track him down.
When we walked down to the town dock with our bottles, ready to hurl them into the outgoing tide, kindergarten parent Randy Flood happened to be there, working on his boat Argo. He was preparing for a trip into the Gulf of Maine to moor weather buoys, and he had a great bottle story.
"When I was 10," he told the 4th- and 5th-graders, "I dropped a message in a bottle in Muscongus Bay while I was fishing with my father. Ten years later, I got a letter from a woman in Galveston, Texas ... with my message in it."
Randy's story bolstered our hopes that a bottle from Maine could circumnavigate the Atlantic Ocean, since a bottle could only get to Galveston from mid-coast Maine by going clockwise to Europe and back along the equator. A time capsule indeed! We studied the map at school some more, adding Muscongus Bay and Galveston to the list of possibilities.
Randy took four of our bottles to give them a head start a few miles offshore. A week later, a digital photo arrived from him.
He was throwing our bottles off the Argo, somewhere in the Gulf of Maine, with a whale-shaped island in the background. He included his GMT time and coordinates and asked us to figure out his location. The kids went to work. It was Monhegan Island.
Then I got the postcard. A man named Jim Willwerth had retrieved my bottle.
"I found one of your bottles 2.5 miles east of Hampton, N.H., while lobstering," he wrote. "Contents were Todd Nelson's business card, a button, a dollar, poems ["Eaton's Boatyard," by Castine poet Philip Booth], a baseball card, and small trinket. Very interesting."
We found Hampton on the map. In a little over four weeks, the bottle had traveled a couple hundred nautical miles south. So much for the Gulf Stream taking it to Ireland or France - but an interesting end to a mini-odyssey.