Fisherman returns 36-year-old message in a bottle to original owner

As temperatures climbed towards 99�, a brown glass bottle sailed through the air and landed in the Amelia River, just off the Atlantic Coast. Inside, a handwritten letter with a simple request from a simpler time.

It was June 10, 1981.

MTV didn't exist yet. It was set to launch later that summer. Anticipation was high for the summer blockbuster set to release later that week: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Grolsch beer, in its dark brown bottle and swing top, was riding a wave of summer popularity. 

It was a stifling hot summer day in Fernadina Beach, Fla. As temperatures climbed towards 99°, a brown glass bottle sailed through the air and landed in the Amelia River, just off the Atlantic Coast. Inside, a handwritten letter with a simple request from a simpler time: 

"This bottle was set adrift off Fernandina Beach, Florida on the 10th of June, 1981. To the finder I would appreciate it if you would respond as to where, when and found by whom. My permanent address is as follows on the back. Thanks, Douglas H. Stephens"

A Chamblee, Ga. address was captured in perfect blue ink on the back side of the ripped-off white paper. It stayed there for 36 years.  

June 17, 2017.

Ryan Burchett was fishing at his favorite spot on Little St. Simons with family and friends. The group was walking along the shore looking for seashells when Burchett saw a glimmer of brown glass.

"I knew it looked a little different," he said. "When I held it up to the sun, I could see a note inside." He popped the top, but the swing top separated from the cork. It fell to pieces, with the note still trapped inside.

"I thought, 'How in the world am I going to get this out?'" he said. But he had to know what that note said. Eventually, he was able to wrap the paper around a stick and pull it out. When he saw the note was more than three decades old from a beach about 40 miles away, he was shocked. 

"I think it probably landed near Little St. Simons years ago, and has been sitting at the bottom all this time, " he said. 

He was determined to follow through on that simple request, but wasn't sure where to start. A quick search showed the Chamblee address listed had been bought and sold several times since the 1980's. A friend suggested he harness the power of social media.

There was just one problem: Ryan Burchett wasn't on Facebook.

A mutual friend suggested he ask the Southeast Adventure Outfitters in town to post the note. They did. More than 1500 shares and hundreds of comments, tags, and connections later, Burchett made a phone call to the man behind the message: Douglas Stephens. 

Stephens hadn't seen the photos of his long-ago message in a bottle. He too, is not on Facebook.

Determined to help, everyday Facebook users turned into social media slueths. The original post racked up thousands of shares, comments and likes. 

It took 36 years for someone to find that brown Grolsch beer bottle. It took just 12 hours to track down Doug Stephens.

"Incredible," Burchett describes the conversation he had with Stephens. The two men shared memories of Little St. Simons and Amelia Island, where Stephens had vacationed growing up. 

Every pair of hands that touched this bottle wanted to make one thing clear: it's a great story, but not one they want people to repeat. "Don't throw stuff in the ocean," Burchett said. "It stays there forever. "

The two men connected by a handwritten request, an old beer bottle, and (reluctantly) by social media agreed to meet face-to-face.

August 19, 2017

Ryan Burchett and Doug Stephens greeted each other with a firm handshake and a pair of big smiles at a restaurant in Brunswick, Georgia last weekend. 

"You must be Doug," Burchett says as he hands the bottle to it's original owner, "I got something that's yours."

"To me, it's kind of like it's come full circle," Stephens says. "It actually reached somebody. It did exactly what I wanted it to do." It's one of those full circle moments that only fate (and a few thousand Facebook users) can create.

Stephens was once again reunited with his little piece of personal history, but Burchett was now left a bottle short.

"Im going to replace one bottle with four," Stephens says as he reveals a brand new four-pack of Golsch beer bottles.

The bottles themselves have changed over time--the glass used now is green in color instead of the traditional brown--but they still have those classic swing tops. 

The moment takes them both back to that hot summer on the coast. When summer vacations were chronicled by torn pieces of paper instead of Facebook posts. 

 

© 2017 WXIA-TV


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