Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Message in a Bottle

The scanned photo you see above was discovered by a beach resident the other day while pawing through a few old boxes rescued from the hurricanes of the last two years. Although the picture was damaged, you may still be able to make out a piece of paper in the hands of the young boy, Charlie, and a glass bottle being held by the young girl, Amy. (The ages given are as of 2001 or 2002).

The story behind the photo goes back almost four years ago to this day. Way back at the end of 2001, the web site of the Pensacola Beach Residents & Leaseholders Assn. received an email from England. Brief mention was made of it in a newspaper column the PBRLA webmaster used to write for the weekly Islander Newspaper.

Today, of course, the PBRLA web site, the webmaster, and the Islander Newspaper for that matter, are no more -- thanks in large part to Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis.

The email purported to be written by two young girls who said they lived in England. They were wondering if there might be someone named "Miss Baker" who lived on Pensacola Beach. The message explained that the children had found a glass bottle on Camber Beach, which is in southwest England. The note inside was so faded it was hard for them to read, but they were able to make out the name of a "Miss Baker" or "Miss Barker."

It seemed improbable that a bottle thrown into the northern Gulf of Mexico at Pensacola Beach could make its way nearly a thousand miles south, round the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and come to rest safely on the rocky shore of Camber Beach, U.K. So, a correspondence ensued to verify the tale.

Sure enough, the proof came back in the form of a series of messages and, eventually, a very nice letter from the mother of two of the children, along with a packet of photos. Other details which are remembered after all this time are that the mother mentioned she was employed as an environmental specialist for a housing project in England. The bottle had been found by her daughter, Amy, and son, Charlie. Their friend, Annie, used her computer to help them find Pensacola Beach on the Internet.

The mother also reported that she was having computer problems. Sure enough, within a few months all contact was lost. Full names, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information disappeared in Ivan's winds and waves.

Eventually, the story from this side of the ocean was unearthed, too. Every year, the popular PBES 4th grade teacher, Miss Baker, encouraged her class to keep individual diaries. One year -- about 1997 or thereabouts, as we dimly recall -- two boys in the class decided to try dropping a bottle in the Gulf with a message. On a single piece of lined school paper they wrote the names of their school, Pensacola Beach Elementary, and their teacher.

The boys' first efforts to send the bottle on its way were disappointing. It kept washing back to the beach with the waves. One day, the father of one of the boys decided to go fishing on his boat. The boys got the idea to hitch a ride and drop the bottle overboard once the boat got beyond the near-shore waves.

They heard nothing more of it until the emails from England started coming years later. Indeed, the boys had almost forgotten the whole thing, although the mother of one of them said she might have managed to keep her son's school diary from that year.

The story seemed to some beach residents a wonderful excuse to plan a party: Fly the whole family over, have some big-wigs give them the keys to the beach, have the boys return the bottle to its rightful owners, and then celebrate. Surely, they thought, beach businesses and the Chamber of Commerce would want to contribute to an airline ticket fund, offer free hotel accommodations, and otherwise support the idea.

Sadly, the answer was no. They wouldn't. Not unless network television coverage was guaranteed. The Chamber did contact a New York producer at ABC who gave it her best shot. But in the end, so she reported, the story just didn't have enough sex, suspense, or pathos to appeal to network decision-makers or their advertisers.

That bottle must be somewhere in England, even today. Now that hurricane-damaged businesses on Pensacola Beach are trying to climb off their knees and attract foreign and domestic tourists once again, maybe the time has come for a reunion of bottle and beach boys.

There's still no sex in the story. Not much suspense, either, other than whether the three kids from Britain ever can be found again. As for pathos, however, we've got plenty.

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