On the mile long walk back to our cottage from the beach, I thought about what story the bottle told. Maybe it was a sailor on a merchantman that ran aground on the sandy shoals in a storm and he didn't think he was going to make it home. So, he wrote a note to his wife telling her goodbye. Or perhaps, should it be older, it could have been the Captain of a schooner caught by pirates who let him write a note to his dearly beloved before forcing him to walk the plank. It could have been many things, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought I would leave it untouched. That way it would allow my imagination to wander and create different stories about what that bottle and its content mean.
Arriving back home, my big sister was the only one there and I just told her I was back and I was going next door. My retired Coast Guard officer neighbor. Mr. Culpepper, was sitting on his patio before the heat would rise and I thought he could tell me more. He knew the Atlantic like the back of his palm and I was hoping he would add some more information about my find in addition to what Mr. Harris told me. He waved as I walked up and asked what I had in my hand.
"It's a bottle with a note in it, Commander," I said, "and I thought you might be able to tell me where you think it might have come from. It was in the edge of the water so it must have washed up after yesterday's nor'easter."
This kind and smart man took the bottle and slowly turned it around, looking at the bottom and the wax sealed cork at the neck and asked me if I wanted him to open it and pull out the note. I told him no, that perhaps I could change my mind someday, but I thought leaving it as is would stir my creativity. You see, I already had interest in writing stories and the Commander was the source of many that I tried to make notes about for later. He continued to look at the bottle and ponder, then he scratched his head and looked at me and began to talk.
"I'm no bottle maker, Son," he opened, "but I believe this one is from Europe originally. Perhaps it's Spanish because it has an M on the bottom which could be for Madrid, but whether it is or not I am pretty certain it is from Europe since the neck is different from ours and it is also heavier. I also would bet it's between fifty and one hundred years old because by then they had mastered more of a mass production than they had earlier. It likely was used for wine. Now, I don't want you to go thinking that means it floated all the way from Europe because that's nearly impossible. But it could have been from Cuba and was picked up by the Gulf Stream, then blown ashore in a storm. It's as good a bet as any. Hope that gives you some ideas and if you decide to open it, the added wax will make it tricky so bring it to me and I could do it without breakage."
Well, I took it back home with me to Virginia and never opened it. But it did allow my imagination to run wild and free and it did inspire me for a couple of essays that I had to write later. When I left for college, it was on my dresser but when Mom decided to give up the big house and go smaller, it disappeared. So I wonder to this day what the message could be. Mom was always a little more skeptical, saying that probably a little boy like me down the beach had thrown it in the ocean and it drifted up the beach to me. I still cling to the notion that it was something more dramatic and later, when married with two little children I had a similar experience that told me I should have opened the bottle.
My mother-in-law had an antique desk that she was having appraised. The appraiser told her in advance to empty it out so he could examine it completely to be accurate. As I took out one of the drawers and emptied it, I found a false bottom in the drawer and lifted it. There underneath was a letter, aged and folded, and I carefully opened it and read it. It was written by a soldier for the Confederacy, sick with dysentery in the swamps between Richmond and Williamsburg defending Richmond from the advancing union forces. His letter was written in April 1862 and he was telling his sweetheart that he might not make it home to York County from the war, that he was fearful of death. I gave it to my mother-in-law who also read it and she would have the appraiser look at it, too. When he did, he said it was authentic, judging from the age and wear of the paper and the style of writing and choice of words by the soldier.
Wow, I thought. I guess I really messed up with that bottle. But then I remembered, that bottle is what got me interested in writing and had it not been for the way I dealt with it, even today I would probably never have opted to be a writer in my later years. At least it gives me something to think about and perhaps I better write the story of what I hoped it represented. Isn't it amazing how one small event can stick with you for life?