August 18, 2022
“Love never goes away,” said Eric Dahl, 68, who—with his wife Melanie and son Chris traveled about 200 miles from Oxford, Mississippi to meet the shipyard workers in Vicksburg who found the bottle during an otherwise ordinary salvaging trip on the Yazoo River.
“I’m always that way,” said Billy Mitchell, the salvage diver who first spotted the green bottle floating above a barge. “I always look for stuff that’s unique —driftwood or anything … I told my buddy, I said, ‘there’s a message in this bottle!'”
Mitchell grew even more curious; in his 20 years in the business, he says he’s never once found anything like it. Half an hour later and with the help of “shish kebab sticks,” he says he gently extracted the wilted paper from the glass bottle and let it dry out.
Most of the note was destroyed but he and his boss, Brad Babb, started to reconstruct what was left of it. They deciphered the last name Dahl, the year 1989, the location of Oxford Mississippi, a “please”, “thank you,” and a phrase that made them laugh: “Call or phone.” It was all in a child’s handwriting.
“We’re all kids at heart really. We could all envision ourselves as that 11-year-old boy,” said Babb, safety manager at Big River Shipbuilders in Vicksburg, Mississippi. “It really just fueled us to go and say, ‘let’s go find this guy’ cause this is kind of a kindred spirit where, ‘would I want somebody to find me? Yes I would.'”
They stayed late at work and started calling nearby school districts for leads. They kept each torn piece of the note in a safe place—even taping it down to the desk, so it wouldn’t be accidentally thrown out by someone cleaning up. And they talked about it day and night at work and at home. But it wasn’t until they posted a photo of the note on the company’s Facebook page, which was widely shared, that the mystery began to reveal itself.
“Never thought it would take on the life it’s taken, but so glad that it has,” said Babb.
On an extremely hot and humid summer day, the Dahl family saw the bottle and note for the first time sitting on a table at the shipbuilders’ office. They take a moment to examine the unbroken glass and read the note.
“One thing that jumps out at me is an 11-year-old boy saying ‘please’,” says Eric with a smile. “Knowing that something he wrote is connecting strangers, that really helps.”
While the shipyard workers initially thought the Dahl’s son Chris had written the note, it was Eric and Melanie’s other son, Brian, who composed the message. An athlete who beat cancer at one point, Brian died in an accident at home at the age of 29.
“He was victorious in his life because of the relationships he established, the bonds with other people,” said Eric. “And he continues to inspire connections.”
The message in a bottle was a sixth-grade class project in 1989. Martha Burnett, now 82, was his teacher. “We had a field trip. We dropped our bottles in the water, and for many years we heard nothing,” said Burnett from her home in Oxford, Mississippi.
The class had launched their bottles in Mississippi’s Talahatchie River. Burnett says one bottle was found years later in Louisiana. Brian’s, however, floated an estimated 200 miles to the Yazoo River.
It happened to float into a canal, where Mitchell was able to find it. But had the bottle taken just a slightly different turn, it could have ended up in the vast Mississippi River and possibly even the Gulf of Mexico.
Burnett says she told all her students to write their names and hometown on the paper and seal their bottles with wax to keep them tightly closed. The bottle’s survival is a testament, she says, to how well Brian listened in class.
Eric, Melanie, and Chris all marvel at how something so small from decades ago could prove so meaningful all these years later. Eric says they don’t feel like new friends, but rather, like instant family.
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