Sometimes, the past pays a visit at just the right time.
Forty one years ago, a shy, tow-haired 12-year-old hatched the kind of plan kids on lazy summer vacations do. He wrote three notes, wrapped them around sticks, tied them with string, and sealed them into glass Pepsi bottles.
Steven Smoot flung the three bottles as far as he could into the water off Salisbury Beach, certain they would be found years hence by strange people in faraway places.
As the boy learned pretty quickly, childhood certainties have a way of slipping. The first bottle was found within a month or two, nearby at Plum Island.
Years passed. Smoot grew up, taking up the law career his parents always intended for him. Life brought love and loss.
Then, last week, the second bottle showed up, washed up just down the coast on Wingaersheek Beach after Hurricane Sandy.
“I thought it was going to land in a far and exotic land,” Smoot laughed, sitting in his law office Friday. “Wingaersheek!”
Smoot reckons the bottle was buried in the sand for four decades before Sandy kicked it up. A more romantic theory has it floating for 41 years, all the way round the world and back again.
“That’s less probable,” he concedes.
Photographer Mark Kanegis and his daughter Elise had been walking the beach after the storm, looking for treasures Sandy dredged up. Elise, 13, spotted the bottle, but Kanegis was not impressed at first. He was about to throw it away when he spotted what looked like dried-up pulp inside. He broke the bottle, carefully unwound the paper, and saw the writing — earnest, listing to the left.
“To whom it may concern, who ever finds this note Please take note of where and when you found this note . . . Steven F. Smoot, 35 Doonan St. Medford, Mass, 02155 U.S.A.”
“The whole thing was so unlikely,” Kanegis said. “I almost threw it away. The note almost broke apart and we almost lost his name. The next day was the nor’easter, and the moontides would have washed it back out till who knows when?”
Kanegis found Smoot’s number in Boston. The attorney, now 53, remembered the day he threw that bottle into the ocean: the fact that his older brother had gone off for a drive with some friends leaving him at loose ends; how he’d carefully rinsed the bottles; the picnic table where he assembled his missives; the way one of his launches bobbed back to shore, forcing him to heave it out again.
Those days had been much on Smoot’s mind even before the call from Kanegis. An aunt had recently died, and his cousins had just given him a bunch of photographs from when he and his brother Donald were kids. He spread those pictures out on his desk Friday: there were the brothers, two years apart, dressed up and grinning wildly. There was Donald in his swim trunks making like a muscle-man, with a goofy Steven crouched between his legs.
Donald died suddenly a couple of years ago. The pictures hurt. “I was very weepy about my brother,” Smoot said.
Then the call from Kanegis, right on time, connecting Smoot to his childhood, and to his brother, with an immediacy that jolted him.
“The probability of this happening is almost infinite to me,” Smoot said. He keeps thinking of the things we leave behind in life, and of the comfort they bring. He recited a few lines of a Longfellow poem that has been stuck in his head.
Footprints on the sands of time,
Footprints that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother
Seeing, shall take heart again.
There is a third bottle out there. Smoot now fully expects it to show up, eventually.
“I’m expecting another call when I’m 90,” he said.