Home Written work Ships rescuers find a message in a bottle and return it to the family of the late son

Ships rescuers find a message in a bottle and return it to the family of the late son


A Mississippi family has been reunited with a message in a bottle written by their late son 33 years ago.

“Love never goes away,” said Eric Dahl, 68.

Eric Dahl, his wife Melanie and son Chris traveled about 200 miles from Oxford, Mississippi, to meet the Vicksburg shipyard workers who found the bottle during an otherwise ordinary salvage trip down the Yazoo River. The bottle was completely intact and still remained sealed.

“I’m still like this,” said Billy Mitchell, the rescue diver who first spotted the green bottle floating above a barge. “I’m always looking for unique things – driftwood or whatever…I said to my mate, I said, ‘there’s a message in that bottle!'”

Mitchell became even more curious; in his 20 years in the business, he says he’s never found anything like it. Half an hour later and using “shish kebab sticks”, he says he carefully extracted the faded paper from the glass bottle and left it to dry.

Most of the note was destroyed, but he and his boss, Brad Babb, began to piece together what was left of it. They deciphered the surname Dahl, the year 1989, the location of Oxford MS, 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. We could all imagine ourselves as this 11-year-old boy,” said Babb, safety manager at Big River Shipbuilders in Vicksburg, Mississippi. “It really pushed us to say, ‘Let’s go find this guy,’ because it’s kind of a family feeling where, ‘Would I like someone to find me? Yeah, I would.'”

They stayed late at work and started calling nearby school districts to find leads. They kept every torn piece of the note in a safe place, even taped to the desk, so it wouldn’t be accidentally thrown away 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 unfold.

“I never thought it would take the life it took, but I’m so glad it did,” Babb said.

On an extremely hot and humid summer day, the Dahl family sees the bottle and ticket for the first time on a table in the shipbuilders’ office. They take a moment to examine the intact glass and read the note.

“One thing that jumps out at me is an 11-year-old boy saying ‘please’,” Eric said with a smile. “Knowing that something he wrote connects strangers really helps.”

While shipyard workers initially thought Dahl’s son, Chris, wrote the note, it was Eric and Melanie’s other son, Brian, who composed the message. An athlete who once beat cancer, Brian died in an accident at home at the age of 29.

“He was victorious in his life because of the relationships he made, the connections with others,” Eric said. “And he continues to inspire relationships.”

The message in a bottle was a sixth grade class project in 1989. Martha Burnett, now 82, was his teacher.

“We took a field trip. We dropped our bottles in the water and for many years we didn’t hear a thing,” Burnett said from his home in Oxford, Mississippi.

The class had tossed their bottles into the Mississippi’s Talahatchie River. Burnett says a bottle was found years later in Louisiana. Brian, however, floated about 200 miles to the Yazoo River.

It turned out to be floating in a channel, where Mitchell was able to find it. But had the bottle taken a slightly different turn, it could have ended up in the vast Mississippi River and possibly even the Gulf of Mexico.

“Who would have ever imagined this would happen? said Burnet. “I think it brings him back to life in a way.”

Burnett says she told all of her students to write their names and hometowns on the paper and seal their bottles with wax to keep them tight. The bottle’s survival testifies, she says, to Brian’s ability to listen in class.

Back at the shipyard, Melanie flips through the photo albums she brought from Brian. The pages show a boy who loved baseball, fishing, wasn’t afraid of snakes, and became an avid cyclist and a loving uncle when he grew up.

As Babb and Mitchell learn more about Brian and his life, they ask the Dahls if they might have time for another surprise. Babb has access to a tug and wonders if the family would like to see where Mitchell first found the bottle. The answer is a resounding yes.

As Babb takes Eric, Melanie and Chris out on the water, they all marvel at how something so small from decades ago could turn out to be so significant all these years later. Eric says they don’t feel like new friends, but more like instant family.

“He’s still with them,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s what the note meant when we found it. To let his parents know he was watching over them too.”