After learning everything I learned in the last post, I knew I had to meet Phil in person. So, one day in August 2011, I loaded up the car and headed to Maggie Valley.
The night before I hit the road, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about everything I wanted to ask him and tell him, wondering whether we would really get along, and wondering–on the scale of crazy–just how crazy it was that I was about to walk into the home, the actual dwelling place, of a complete stranger… Is that, like, really really crazy? Or just a little crazy?
In any case, I went.
When I pulled into Phil’s driveway, I immediately saw his tomato patch and recognized the work of a kindred spirit. He was surrounded by light-blocking trees, but that wasn’t going to stop him from growing tomatoes!
Phil came out and we shook hands, and then he introduced me to his wife, Fran, and daughter, Melanie.
It’s hard to remember the details of what came next. Everything is a happy blur in my memory. We hang out in Phil’s beautiful cabin, I admire the stream out back and he shows me the bench he installed where his 97 year old mother could sit and watch the water. Back in the cabin, we just talk and get along. We look at old pictures of John and the whole family.
This was when I came face to face with John for the first time, dapper fellow:
And check this out–it’s John on the left with his wife Mary in the middle and a friend on the right, on a cruise once upon a time, accompanied by John’s message in a bottle:
Despite John’s suffering a stroke in the mid 80s, his and Mary’s love of travel never wavered. Here’s the whole family, John, Mary, Phil, Fran, and granddaughter Melanie on a cruise aboard the Nordic Empress in the early 90s:
I especially wish John could have seen this next one of Melanie, many years later, with his ancient message in a bottle. Think of the many thousands of miles this bottle traveled before finding its way back to his granddaughter–probably several trips around the north Atlantic gyre, floating along as Melanie grew up. In the above photo, they all may have cruised right past this bottle!
According to Wikipedia, the Nordic Empress cruised mainly to the Bahamas. This would have given them a chance to pass the bottle depending on where it was in its orbit around the Atlantic. Side note: In 2001, Tina Fey, my shero, was on The Nordic Empress when a fire broke out on board. Spooky stuff, and a real bummer for Fey and her husband on their honeymoon. But, everyone ended up ok, Fey recalled the incident in her book, and now I will always think of the Freeland Family Cruise as being on a ship that Tina Fey and the sender of a message I found have both hung out on. Fey and her husband could have passed the bottle, too, en route between New York and Bermuda, since it was still floating around…
Anyway, Phil and I did some posing, too:
After photos, we went to a sports bar called Legends that had fantastic burgers.
I learned at lunch that Melanie was interested in forensic science, which struck me as a fun coincidence since I took a few classes in forensic osteology in college (think of the TV show “Bones”) and toyed with going that route myself. From what I understand, she works in a lab now doing all sorts of cool sciencey stuff.
What else can I say about lunch? It was another happy blur. I got to hang out with cool people and have great conversation. It was fun and happy and comfortable. Look!
After lunch, we headed back to the cabin. I had one more trick up my sleeve.
I had brought 3 messages in bottles to show Phil and his family. One was the bottle from John. The other two were from other folks, and my plan was to have Phil and his family open one.
I thought the dark bottle on the right showed the most promise.
Phil asked how to go about opening it. I said, “Do you have a cork screw?”
In fact, I took some video. Terrible in quality though it may be, I hope it conveys some of the fun of opening a message like this. Check it out!
John was a great sender of bottled messages; now Phil and Melanie got to be openers. It’s one of those “full-circle” kind of things, you know?
And man, as soon as we got that thing open, we all turned into detectives. We took the message out into the sun to try to read it…
As for the contents of that message, I’m afraid that’s top secret for now
We scrutinized the bottle and cork:
And Fran got to work researching:
Finally, after taking it as far as we could, we decided to let it rest. The day was wearing on, and it was time for me to head back to my friends’ house in Asheville. We said our goodbyes in the sleepy afternoon, promised to send each other photos, and Phil walked me out to my car. That was it–nothing dramatic, I think, because we knew we would see each other again.
This was not the conclusion of the bottle’s journey, but, rather, the beginning of a friendship.
Phil and I stayed in touch, swapped garden photos, and I even went back to visit him in Spring 2013. He showed me the new community garden in his small mountain neighborhood, and I couldn’t help thinking of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Here is the community garden area, including raised beds:
Here are the donkeys! It seems like I’m fated to hang around donkeys, whether while hunting for messages in bottles, or hanging out with the senders:
Lovely little creeks everywhere…
Back at the cabin, Phil let me examine a pile of his father’s old message-in-a-bottle papers. I felt like a kid in a candy store!
It was nuts. John had countless penpals. There were a million letters–not just from message in a bottle finders, but from little kids he’d met while traveling who called him “uncle,” and wrote long, detailed, beautiful letters about their families and lives in the far flung corners of the earth John seemed so drawn to. He became penpals with people he met briefly in hotels in Asia, for crying out loud! He corresponded with Big Serious People who Study Ocean Currents; he wrote people who found his messages for years. What I wouldn’t give to have met him.
Here’s a response from a finder who wrote to John 2 days before Christmas, 1984 ( I was less than 1 month old):
For hours, I plowed through the letters, photographing each because I couldn’t read them all with the limited time I had. John kept notes on envelopes exchanged with senders–he would write things like “Sent check 9/8/88” meaning that he had sent along the promised $2.00 to the finder. Sometimes, his wife Mary helped and left him notes on his correspondence, like: “Sent card 7/27 saying you would write her when you return”.
In truth, I was looking for some direct connection to John in these papers. I wanted a picture of him holding my specific bottle before throwing it overboard. I wanted detailed notes on when he tossed this bottle–I wanted some way to nail down precisely when he sent it. My heart jumped into my throat when I found this:
That’s the EXACT SAME business card as the one I found in my bottle! John used a million different cards, notes, stationery, etc., to send his messages, but out of all the people he heard back from, none had found this particular card except me! I knew this card was the key to dating the message, if only we could date the card! Later, Phil spoke with one of John’s old colleagues who thought the card was from the mid 1970s.
The date stamp on the bottom of the bottle indicates that it was made in 1977. Interestingly, every single message in this pile of John’s papers sent after 1977 promised $2 for a response. My message only promised $1. John’s earlier messages (going all the way back to 1949!) promised only $1, too. Could it be that I found one of that last messages promising only $1? If so, that meant that John finally decided to account for inflation after about 25 years of sending messages in bottles. This is what I believe, and I therefore assign a “send date” of 1977 to this message, taking into account this information as well as the Canada Dry commercials and other evidence from the first post and second post on this message in a bottle. I found it in 2011, making it roughly 34 years old at the time of recovery. Cool. Thanks to John for leaving a paper trail that allowed me to figure this out!
Here’s a 1949 message that was returned, believe it or not:
When I finished photographing everything, I was overwhelmed and had to sit down. Phil, Fran, and I chatted while I gathered my wits, and soon it was time to leave again.
Driving home, I thought about a lot of things that I’m still trying to sort out. I was thinking about “the butterfly effect”–you know, the idea that a small change in one place (a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere) can cause big changes down the line (a hurricane somewhere else).
I present John Freeland’s butterfly effect: Somewhere out there are a bunch of people who have been touched by John, influenced by his gregarious spirit in ways that cannot be measured. I mean, what is the value of a penpal? Does having a penpal make you smarter? Friendlier? A better asset to humanity? I think so, but it’s just a feeling. It seems to me that interacting this closely with people from cultures different from your own makes you open up to people outside your comfort zone. It makes your heart bigger, loving more kinds of people than just the kinds that look and talk like you. For example, John could not have had much reason to care about the weather in the coastal towns of India before meeting the people he corresponded with–but I’d bet money that once he had these penpals, he worried every time a big storm or earthquake, etc., rocked the hometowns of his penpals, and I’d bet money that they worried about him and his family in return. To my mind, being able to expand the circle of your affection to distant people and places is a good thing, and something we need more of. That is part of the value of penpals.
There is no way I can ever know the full scope of John’s impact on the world. Maybe there wasn’t much of an impact; maybe there was. In a sense, John’s legacies, like everyone’s, are complicated. I guess I haven’t mentioned this yet, but when he was in real estate, he developed land in Florida that, I’m sure, some would have preferred left in its natural state. In Kentucky, there’s a popular bumper sticker that says “Progress destroys the Bluegrass forever”. Dark, right? But that’s the fact of the matter–there’s only one Bluegrass region, only one central Florida, etc., and once those places are paved, they are gone and that’s it. He also sent countless messages in bottles, which many think of as litter. On the other hand, he routinely shared the light of friendship with total strangers, building cross-cultural bridges everywhere he went, and brought joyful surprises into the lives of everyone who ever stumbled across one of his bottles. Do we not all leave both love and sorrow in our wakes?
We all behave in complicated ways, loving and hurting both people and the environment. John’s cards led me and several other people to wonderful places we never could have imagined, and I am grateful for that. I have new friends, and I am grateful for that. This, too, is John’s legacy. I am incredibly lucky to find these messages, and I know that there are more Johns and Phils and Frans and Melanies out there, and that I will meet them, and for this, I am perennially grateful.
When I think of the beach where I found that bottle, covered with the toxic garbage we have all collectively sent there, and I think about the beauty that came from that bottle and meeting the Freelands, I can’t help thinking: there is hope. When confronted with loneliness, or terrible pollution, or the overwhelming anonymity of living in a big city and trying to matter, there is always hope.
This is a lot to think about; many lives have been impacted, and many people connected. All because one bottle splashed into the ocean 36 years ago.