By Brandon Lingle
September 26, 2016
Imagine a boy’s dispatch to the world riding a strong winter current across the Atlantic, battling squalls, wind, and waves to float into calm harbor waters. Think about it catching glimmers of sun as the harbor boat idles close, carrying a worker who shouts to his colleague and then leans over the side to rescue the lone traveler from the sea.
In 1985, when I was eight, my father helped me seal a note inside a bottle. We tossed the green glass from the pier in Goleta, California, and within a week, a student at a nearby college sent me a postcard. Disappointed the letter hadn’t traveled farther, we tried again. On our second attempt, a family friend dropped the bottle into the gray Pacific from the offshore oil rig where he worked.
In 2013, I asked my 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old twin boys if they wanted to send a message in a bottle. Ian said, “There’s no point. It’ll just sink.” But Casey and Carlee, our daughter, went to work. Casey wrote, “It’s a big ocean out there.” Carlee wrote, “I’ve been really wondering where the ocean would take my bottled note.” They decorated their papers with suns, sea stars, fish, clouds, and sailboats. On a windy December day, halfway across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, I threw their creations into the choppy brown water. We watched their messages drift in the current as a red and black freighter steamed past.
On the drive home, I thought of my father, dead for seven years, and pictured his hands sealing the wine bottle with red candle wax all those years ago. I wondered if the wax still resisted the sea’s relentless drive to pull the bottle under.
Almost two months later, we received an email about Casey’s bottle from Victor, a harbor worker: “I found this morning a bottle in the water at the Valencia’s Port, Spain, with a letter and pictures.” Casey and his siblings smiled with the news.
We wrote Victor back. I wanted this to be real, for the plastic water bottle to have traveled unaided nearly 4,000 miles in just 52 days. That’s 76 miles a day, or three miles per hour. Consider the average speed of the North Atlantic Gulf Stream flowing at four miles per hour, and it starts to sound plausible, but I had doubts. For the kids, though, this minimiracle seemed completely normal and none of them doubted its authenticity.
Casey brought Victor’s note and photos to school and showed his class. Beforehand, I printed him a map and drew a line from the Chesapeake to Valencia, Spain. He was proud. He believes, and thanks to him, I believe too. I never received a response to my childhood call into the world, and I like to think it’s still out there wandering the abyss like a radio wave in space just waiting to be heard.
Brandon Lingle is an Air Force officer whose essays have appeared in The New York Times’s At War blog, Guernica, and The North American Review, among other publications. These views are his alone.