THE message from a high school acquaintance I'd not seen in 20 years was a surprise. ``I have an envelope full of things I'm sure belong to you,'' wrote Cheryll Dunn, who is now an assistant dean at the University of Cincinnati. ``Please let me know that the address is correct and I will send your materials and tell you an interesting story on how I obtained them.'' I didn't think Cheryll could have anything of great importance, so imagine my astonishment when I opened her parcel and found my high school diploma, honor roll certificates, programs of plays in which I'd appeared, my class graduation picture, and photos of friends and teachers -- all of which I'd thought were stowed away in my attic.
It turned out these keepsakes had been crisscrossing the continent for years. Shipped in the mid-1970s from my parents' home in Alabama to mine in California, they ended up in the dead letter bin at the Los Angeles Post Office and might have remained there were it not for a University of Cincinnati return address on the tattered envelope that held my diploma. My mementos were accordingly sent to the university, accompanied by a Postal Service form that explained: ``The enclosed was found loose in the mails at this office and cannot be associated with any empty envelope or wrapper. We are unable to determine the cause or location of its original entry into the mails. We regret that at this time no additional information is available.''
At the university, Cheryll told me, the parcel went from office to office till it landed on the desk of Adele Kipp at the registrar's. That was more than three years ago.
Mrs. Kipp found from university records that I was neither a former student nor a graduate. She sought assistance from my high school, which is in Cincinnati, but the school doesn't keep its graduates' addresses.
``I don't know how many Schmidts I called trying to find you,'' she told me during a recent phone conversation. The number could have been huge; about 700 Schmidts are listed in the Cincinnati phone book.
After more than a year of unsuccessful detective work, she contemplated returning the parcel to the Post Office, but decided she couldn't. ``I'm a very sentimental person,'' she told me. ``I knew that if those things were mine, I'd want them back. I just hoped you were the sort of person who would, too.''
So Mrs. Kipp sifted through my things once again, searching for clues she might have missed before. She read through the four play programs, with their long lists of players and staff, but found nothing noteworthy on the first three. On the fourth, for George S. Kaufman's ``First Lady,'' performed by the Junior Players of Walnut Hills High School on April 28, 1961, she recalls, ``I just happened to luck out when I recognized Cheryll Dunn's name'' among the scenery painters.
Cheryll agreed to check with high school acquaintances to try to locate me, but had no success. There was one other hope: The Class of 1962 would hold its 20th reunion in about a year, and Cheryll thought I might attend. ``So,'' she says, ``I waited. But you didn't come.''
The affair's organizers, however, had been in touch, and had my address.
And so my high school mementos are now safely home again. ``I hope they refresh some old memories,'' Cheryll wrote in a note that accompanied the package.
Indeed, they do, but their value -- enhanced by their odd travels and this remarkable story of human kindness -- is now far greater than for mere memory's sake.