Fresh Ideas: Message in a bottle

Whenever I’m in Michigan I go to North Muskegon to visit my childhood friend Ruth and walk the shoreline of Lake Michigan. This past August when I was there walking along the wet strand, my eyes on the gentle waves rolling in from the west northwest, the sun behind my back, I was startled to see a glass bottle bobbing in the surf toward me.

All I had to do was wade in up to my knees, reach over and grab it. So I did.

The bottle was corked and had a thin orange ribbon threaded through the cork and fastened to several purple rolled-up notes.

What a delight to actually find a message in a bottle — something I thought possible only in romantic movies, not real life! Immediately, I had the inexplicable sensation destiny had tapped me on the shoulder, that the note in the bottle had the potential to change my life. But this was ridiculous, wasn’t it? I didn’t believe in predestination or “fate,” although I did believe in accidents, in randomness, in the “luck of the draw,” or “unluck,” as the case may be. But why should discovering this bottle make me feel as if a fairy godmother had waved her magic wand and covered me with fairy dust?

By the time I reached Ruth’s house, I was despondent. We examined the bottle closely. By all rights, if the bottle had been in the lake any time at all, the notes inside should’ve been wet. But they weren’t. Ruth suggested I take the bottle home and let my 10-year-old granddaughter Savannah experience the thrill of reading the message. It seemed a good idea, but what little we could see of the words in one note: “bottle,” “let go,” and “God,” caused us to speculate about the soundness of the writer’s mind. Did we want her to read some crazed message? No.

Finally we decided to read the notes ourselves, but we couldn’t fish them out. What to do? Ruth got a newspaper which she wrapped around the bottle and with a hammer in hand we went into the garage and positioned ourselves over the garbage bin and gave the bottle several hard whacks. It broke into pieces and we had the notes.

The three notes were from a man who in one note asks a girl he’d met 3-4 years ago on that beach “to turn around and marry me!” In the other two notes he writes he regrets things didn’t work out, but he’ll love her, whom he calls “Little One,” “till the End.” No date on the notes, no name, either, just his initials, “DWR.” Was he hoping the girl would find the bottle or was he simply trying to “move on?” His messages were contradictory — something my granddaughter Savannah pointed out when I did show them to her recently.

Finding the message in the bottle continued to trouble me. I thought about my life, about all that had been out of my control: where I was born, and to whom; the tentacles of war which killed or dispersed family, possessions, erased my country and finally brought me to America as an immigrant. I feared these events had made me life’s puppet. Did I believe all the “good” accidents in my life had been unearned and therefore undeserved? Is that why I had felt “special” in finding the message in the bottle? It was a sobering thought.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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