By Cookie “Chainsaw” Randolph
In the movie Message in a Bottle, Robin Wright finds one at the beach, goes in search of its author, Kevin Costner, and as with all Jonathan Sparks creations (The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, et cetera) we’re dragged through a gauntlet of disease, despair, doom and death-a diabolical formula Mr. Sparks has mastered that makes us feel simultaneously shitty yet somehow life-affirmed; as in we’ve endured two hours and 11 minutes of emotional torture without killing ourselves.
Personally, I prefer more cheerful films like Sophie’s Choice ( Meryl Streep’s wacky homage to parenting) or Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood’s side-splitting tribute to euthanasia).
Do messages in bottles ever actually wash up at the beach? Well, for starters, recently a soccer ball belonging to a Japanese teenager, propelled across the Pacific by last year’s Fukajima tsunami, washed onto the shores of Alaska (sadly, the goal was disallowed because Hawaii used its hands). Like the soccer ball, most bottles you find at the beach these days qualify as debris, the byproducts of litterbug sailors and careless beachcombers.
But there was a time when tossing bottles into the water was more socially acceptable. I submit to you a true “message in a bottle” story that even Jonathon Sparks couldn’t make up (mostly because it doesn’t involve quite enough death and despair-some, but not to his standard).
On September 9, 1914, Private Thomas Hughes, 26, was crossing the English Channel to fight in World War I. He stuffed a message into a bottle and threw it overboard.
Two days later, Hughes was killed in action, never to see his wife or two-year-old daughter Elizabeth again. Eighty-five years later, in March of 1999, fisherman Steve Gowan noticed something caught in his nets on the River Thames when he was fishing for cod off the Essex coast. It was a green ginger beer bottle with a screw-on rubber stopper.
I can only assume before he opened it, Gowan looked around to make sure comedian Demetri Martin wasn’t standing right behind him, or Jonathon Sparks wasn’t lurking around to seize another sappy screenplay opportunity. Fortunately, it turns out Martin didn’t have a gig at the River Thames Improv that week, so he wasn’t anywhere nearby. And Sparks was presumably at one of Santa Monica’s 359 Starbucks at that moment with his laptop, inventing new, cruel ways to make chicks drag guys to the Cineplex.
The coast being clear, Gowan opened the bottle and discovered Private Hughes’ letter. Blown away by its contents, he felt honor-bound to seek out Hughes’ family.
Correctly assuming Hughes’ wife had died by then, Gowan found his way to New Zealand, which is not only an incredibly long way to go for cod, but also where Hughes’ daughter Elizabeth resided.
The joy for Elizabeth was difficult to describe. After all, it was a mind-blowing moment, plus her Kiwi accent was really thick and Gowan kept getting texts from his wife wondering where the f#ck he was (I might be projecting a little bit here).
Suffice it to say, in her hands was a hand-written note from a man she had only heard stories about. Perhaps written in haste on choppy seas, Private Thomas Hughes’ message was simple, yet touching:
“Dear Wife, I am writing this note on this boat and dropping it into the sea just to see if it will reach you. If it does...look after it well. Ta ta sweet, for the present. Your Hubby.”
And to the eventual recipient, father. "I think he would be very proud it had been delivered. He was a very caring man,” Elizabeth said.
A real-life tearjerker-Jonathan Sparks should stick a cork in it.