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May 21st, 2011. The sun is blinding. Even the wind coming off the ocean is hot. My mom and I stand blinking in the sun beside a rusty green truck that looks dead parked by a small beach.

We have come here for beachcombing, so we wander down to the shore. After just a few minutes of walking, we decide to pack it up because there doesn’t seem to be much here other than trash and incredible heat. Mom heads straight back to the truck, and I say I’ll be there in a minute. We had planned to cover half the beach, but, being obsessed with covering every square inch of sand, I decide to walk the last 50-yard stretch we haven’t seen yet. Here’s what it would have looked like to watch us from above:

Mom and I take slightly different paths back to the truck.

Mom and I take slightly different paths back to the truck, which happens to look like a race car in this bird’s eye rendering.

There’s the usual depressing garbage: water bottles in every stage of decay—brand new, old and crusty, shredded, torn in half, some full of cigarette butts, like so:

I realize that littering may not be this person's biggest problem... But still--come on!

I realize that littering may not be this person’s biggest problem… But still–come on!

Some bottles contain diabetes lancets, others are all crumbled away but the cap. Then cigarette lighters. Shoes. Light bulbs—so many light bulbs! Refrigerators. Car spoilers, for crying out loud!

This is a spoiler, all right...

This is a spoiler, all right…

It takes a lot to bring you down in a place this beautiful, but sometimes the trash can do it. I’ve taken a lot of photos of plastic trash on beaches, but the only ones that seem to really communicate how grotesque the whole situation is are the ones of baby dolls and doll heads. For example:


Creepy, hey?


Think mannequins are creepy? Try stumbling across the decapitated head of one staring straight at the sky on a deserted island. Then you will know creepy.


By the way, here’s another look at that first baby head, exactly one year after that first photo was taken.  It’s still sitting there, slowly crumbling into smaller and smaller pieces that will never biodegrade. I’m not sure which picture is creepier–the first one in which the baby’s head is whole and staring at you, or this one in which its face is busted out and breaking down to become part of what Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation calls “the plastisphere”?

Baby Head One Year Later

All of this is running through my mind as I trudge along. It’s amazing how many thoughts can crowd in on you in a short time. Walking this little stretch of beach before heading back to the truck, I’m thinking “All this trash, all this trash! What am I doing here? What is ANY of this crap doing here?! This is ridiculous. I am looking for some beauty and some human connection among all this wreckage and the sun is cooking my brain and all that’s here is sorrow and severed mannequin heads. Madness. I am a madman! Mumble mumble mumble…”

Then BAM!

Taking the long route pays off.

Taking the long route pays off.

There it is, under a dry dead bush—the kind of bush buzzards might nest in deep in a desert—a message in a bottle! No doubt about it, all the required parts are here: bottle, paper, writing. I decide not to radio mom, opting instead to snap a few quick photos and hit the road.

John E. Freeland's Bottle, In Situ

The sun is so bright! Can you see the bottle? The sun is so crazy that the bottle almost becomes invisible!

Can you see the bottle? The sun is so crazily bright that the bottle almost becomes invisible!

When I get back to the truck I show mom the bottle and we speculate, as always, about who this could be and whether we could find them.

The day is so hot that the moisture inside the bottle fogs the glass. One side of the card is plastered to the glass, and is easily readable. But the fogged glass makes it hard to read the other side of the card. We stand in the bright light, squinting, sweating, holding this thing up to the sun at fifty different angles to try to read the back of the card. Finally, we make it out:

“To anyone finding this card: Mail it to me and retrieve by return mail an American dollar. John E. Freeland”

And on the front of the card:

John E. Freeland

Cypress Gardens Realty & Insurance

Imperial Building

290 Cypress Gardens Blvd.

Winter Haven, Florida

Then the card gives Freeland’s Business and Residential phone numbers. Check it out!

John E. Freeland Front of Card

John E. Freeland Back of Card

No website, no fax, not even a cell phone number.  I know from the moment I read the card and examine the bottle that this is not someone I will find on facebook. This message is old!

One thing I love about finding older messages like this one is how humbling they are, and how challenging. With new messages, senders usually include their email addresses—or even if they only include their names, I can often find them online. Most folks who have sent messages in the last 10-15 years are on some kind of social media. This is not always so with older messages. And I always wonder: Will I ever find this person? Will they be alive? Will I get to ask John E. Freeand why he sent this message in a bottle?

Often, with newer messages, if I have a person’s name, I can not only find them on facebook, I can springboard from that and find them on twitter, myspace, pinterest, flickr; I can look up newspaper articles they’ve appeared in; I can find where they live and work through linkedin. These powers still feel new and strange to me. They help me make the connections with senders that I so desperately seek—but at what cost?

Finding an older message like John’s takes me down a peg, though, and I have to confess—I like it. I have to resort to organic means of searching, like calling the phone number on the card, and, if that fails, calling a reporter in the region of the card’s origin to help me out. This means that in the process of seeking meaningful human connection (with the sender), I end up engaging in meaningful human connection along the way to find these folks, with reporters, county clerks, even tax assessors!

So there I am, bouncing along in a rust bucket truck with my mom, cradling a very old message in a bottle. I know my mission: protect the bottle, get it home, and get on the phone to Florida.

John E. Freeland left me his card, after all, and I intend to keep our appointment.

Click here to read part two of this story.

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Me with John E. Freeland's Bottle on the Beach