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No one answered my phone call. I was jittery before I tried the number—I always get a little shaky when I’m on the verge of finding a sender.

Maybe it’s the coffee. I am, admittedly, an addict.

I Love Coffee!

So the number didn’t work. Out of service. Wah wah.

This is the crazy thing about messages in bottles: half the time, finding the bottle is the easy part—it’s finding the person that’s difficult. Just check out this example from Norway, which even includes the full name, age, and city of the sender!

Now John’s message contained enough information for me to be hopeful about finding him. It did not, however, include a date. As a result, I knew the only hope I had for dating this message was to figure out the age of the bottle.

I had learned about “date stamps” when trying to date the Beachcomber message in a bottle, and this bottle had numbers and letters embossed on the bottom, too:

Freeland Date Stamp

Out of all the numbers there, the “77” seemed like the most likely candidate for the year of manufacture. I figured “AT” indicated the the plant location, while “15” could indicate anything–the bottle style, a code for a particular assembly line, etc. But the crazy part is that even the number “77” could be a code rather than a date. Nevertheless, my best guess was that the bottle was made in 1977.

But I wasn’t totally sure. The bottle and the paper looked old enough to be from the late 70s, but I needed more evidence, so I turned to YouTube. Here’s what I found.

First, a fabulous commercial from the 60s. Note that the bottle caps are all pop-tops, and that the shape of the bottle isn’t right:

Vintage 1960s Canada Dry Commercial

Then another, possibly slightly later but no less fabulous commercial, with the same problems about bottle shape and capping technology:

Late 60s or Early 70s Canada Dry/Quinine Water Commercial

Then this humdinger:

Canada Dry Spring Dance Commercial

Then this one—still too early, wrong capping technology, wrong bottle shape:

Early 70s Canada Dry Commercial

Finally, I found this one–check out the bottles at the end!

Early 70s Canada Dry Mixers Christmas Commercial

Now, look again at John’s:


Now a split screen:

Freeland and Canada Dry Bottles Side by Side

Finally! The right era! So I could rule out the 60s, and focus on the 70s.

As a side note, did you notice how the bottles got bigger in that last video? I speculate the reason is that once they switched to a screw top design, consumers were able to open the bottle, drink a bit, then recap it and save it for later and have it still be pretty bubbly. In those older pop-top bottles, it didn’t make sense to make them any larger because once you opened the bottle, you had to finish the whole thing or else waste whatever you didn’t finish. However, I may be giving soda companies too much credit there—I don’t think wastefulness is something they’ve ever been particularly concerned about. Look: first they all stopped taking bottles back from consumers once they’d been emptied (which had been a brilliant form of recycling); then they phased out glass almost entirely and now make enough throwaway plastic bottles to help choke a bazillion albatrosses with bottle caps and chunks of plastic.

After falling down the YouTube rabbit hole of old Canada Dry commercials and videos of the plastic apocalypse, I decided to get back to work finding John.

Despite the creepy amount of information about folks we can all find on the web, it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to find John by searching for his name. That’s when I decided to pull out my favorite old trick—the one my dad came up with: contacting a newspaper local to the sender’s address to ask for help.

When I emailed the folks at the News Chief, a paper in Florida whose coverage includes the Cypress Gardens area, they were totally into it! I spoke with a reporter named Donna Kelly who did some sleuthing and discovered that Cypress Gardens Realty did not exist any more—that Coldwell Banker bought them back in the 90s. “But,” she wrote in an email, “some of the Cypress Gardens Realty folks are now with Coldwell.”


She said she needed a few days to talk with some folks who might know something about John.

I spent the meantime obsessing over the Canada Dry bottle, emailing Canada Dry for help dating it (oddly, even they couldn’t tell me much about it, which may say something about corporate amnesia), and generally waiting on the edge of my seat to hear back from Donna.

Then on the morning of July 11th, 2011, Donna wrote to say that she believed she would be able to find John and that she believed he was still alive. However, by the time I spoke with Donna on the phone that afternoon, she had learned the truth, which was that John passed away in 1996 at the age of 84. 15 years before I found his bottle. I was 12.

It took the air out of my lungs. I mean, I always know that there is a chance–especially with older messages–that the sender may have died before I could find them. But knowing this possibility doesn’t make it any less sad when it really happens. This was a real person who sent a real message in a bottle and I really found it. I didn’t know John, but I could have known him–I would have known him. I would have been able to ask why he sent this bottled message.

But he was gone.

Donna told me, however, that she had located John’s son. I spent the rest of that day (the 11th) thinking about this bottle, about John, how I would never get to know him. I wondered: how am I supposed to feel? It’s not as if I’d lost a friend or a family member–in fact I hadn’t technically “lost” anyone at all since I didn’t know this man! How, then, could I explain the fact that I felt a sense of loss? As far as I know, we don’t have any vocabulary to describe the feeling of losing someone who could have been a friend… Is there any way to describe this? The death of a potential friend before getting a chance to meet them? It’s not a great feeling, I can tell you that.

In any case, on July 12th, things got crazy in a hurry! This was me and Donna on July 12th. First, Donna:

“Hi Clint,

I’m getting ready to call Mr. Freeland’s son, who now lives in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. I’ll call you right after I talk to him.”

Then, me:

“OK! I’m leaving work now and will be walking home in rain, so I might have to call back in a few minutes, but it won’t be long.”

Then Donna:

“Hi Clint,

You should be getting a call from Phillip Freeland this evening. He is a 69-year-old retired municipal administrator and educator.”

And then, I waited. I stared at my phone, read the email from Donna again, and waited. I paced. Literally, paced—like in a movie. Honest-to-god pacing.

Then, of course, I poured a glass of wine. And that was when Philip called.

I was so excited that I was just laughing constantly! This always happens when I talk with a sender for the first time. I start laughing before I finish my sentences, which I think makes it hard to understand me. I know what’s happening but I can’t stop it—I’m too damned excited and nervous! You’d think I was being tickled to death…

Laughing on the Phone

I guess my chortling was somewhat coherent, because that Phil (he goes by Phil) didn’t hang up. He began to tell me about his dad, John, who sent the bottle.

John sent a BUNCH of these bottles. Hundreds, at the least. Not only that, but several have been found! As a matter of fact, John became pen pals with the finders of his bottles. Phil told me that John kept these letters, and that he’d try to find them sometime. None of the bottles had been found after this long adrift, though.

Phil speculated that his dad worked for Cypress Gardens Realty and Insurance (the business on the card in the bottle) from the late 60s or early 70s into the early 80s, which was consistent with what I was thinking about the age of the bottle (1977).

The next thing I learned was that although John had passed away in 1996, his wife was still alive. She was 96, and about to turn 97. Her name was Mary, and I immediately dreamed of meeting her. Mary had recently moved to North Carolina from Florida, and lived close to Phil. She was there when this bottle went overboard back in what, 1977? I know this because Phil explained that his parents traveled the world together. And I’m not talking about luxury-liner cruises—I’m talking about stuff you can’t even really do anymore, like hitching rides on cargo ships and merchant ships and stuff like that. Once, decades ago, they even ended up on a ship off the coast of Libya, which was not especially comfortable territory at the time. When Phil told his mom that I’d just found her husband’s bottle all these years later, she got a kick out of it, but didn’t seem terribly surprised. John, according to Mary, “was always throwing those things overboard.”

We went on to discuss our lives and realized, unbelievably, that our families have kind of been weaving a crazy dance around each other for a long time leading to this moment. I don’t even know where to start with this sort of thing, so I’m just going to use a list, borrowed from Donna Kelly’s article:

“…The more Buffington and Freeland talked…the more connections they found between them.

Both men had lived in Chicago at one time. When Freeland and his wife visited the city eight years ago, they took a boat tour on the same company and route where Buffington once was a tour guide. [Well, I was a deckhand, not a tour guide… But yes: same boat, same route!]

Freeland had lived on Bahama Boulevard in Cocoa Beach, just miles from where Buffington’s mother attended college.

Growing up, Buffington spent five summer vacations at Grenelefe Resort in Haines City, where Freeland occassionally played golf.

And when Buffington looked up Winter Haven [the address on John’s card] on a map, he realized it was just miles away from where his late uncle, Zane Wilson, owned a restaurant [in Lakeland, FL].

“I looked on the map and saw Lakeland and said, ‘No way.’ I snatched an orange right out of an orchard right there,” Buffington remembered.”

[Phil later corrected me that oranges and grapefruits grow in “groves” and not “orchards,” the only word I knew for a bunch of fruit trees growing in one place]

But the craziest thing of all, I think, is this:

My friends Arielle and Devin, who lived 5 minutes from Richard Kaplan (another sender whose message I found) on Long Island, relocated to Asheville, NC in 2009 after I visited them and Richard on Long Island.  In Asheville, they lived about 30 minutes from Phil Freeland.  This meant that Arielle and Devin, having moved hundreds of miles, had not only lived within a few minutes’ drive of two senders whose messages I’d found, but, crazier still, the only two I’ve found who used business cards.  It’s true that Phil didn’t send the business card, but his mother lived in Maggie Valley, too, and she was certainly with John when he sent the bottle. And here’s the best part: John was a realtor when he sent this message in a bottle; today, Arielle and Devin are realtors! Maybe a map can better illustrate the supreme craziness of this coincidence:

Freeland Walsh Kaplan Map

After Phil and I got off the phone that night, I knew I had to meet him in person. I dreamed of combing through the letters and maps his dad kept regarding messages in bottles. Maybe I could determine exactly where and when this bottle was sent! When I learned how close Phil lived to my friends in Asheville—an area in North Carolina I visit often and love—I started planning my way there.

Oh yeah–remember that whole “our families were weaving a crazy dance around each other” thing? Check this out:

Mom at Cypress Gardens

My mom, who was with me when I found the bottle, hanging out in Cypress Gardens with my sister and brother about a year and a half before I was born. John E. Freeland was almost certainly working in Cypress Gardens the same day. Wonder if they saw each other? Also on this same day, his bottle was already adrift at sea.

Click here to read the third and final part of this story.

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