“Love never goes away.”

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, a message in a bottle has been returned to the family of a boy who wrote it 33 years ago and has since passed away.

It was in 1989 that 11-year-old Brian Dahl cast a message in a bottle out to sea near Oxford, Mississippi, unbeknownst to him that the bottle contained the final words his family would hear from him.

What One Man Found Floating in the Sea

torn handwritten note

The adventure began when Billy Mitchell of Big River Shipbuilders in Vicksburg, Mississippi saw a green bottle bobbing up and down out in the water.

“I’m always that way,” said Mitchell. “I always look for stuff that’s unique. I told my buddy, I said, ‘There’s a message in this bottle!'”

After 20 years in the business, Mitchell said this is the first time he’s ever come across a sealed bottle that had never been opened. With time and the help of shish kebab sticks, Mitchell was able to gently remove the aged paper from the glass bottle and let it dry out.

Much of the note was destroyed but Mitchell, along with his colleague, Brad Babb, began recreating the message from what was remaining. They were able to make out the surname of Dahl, the year of 1989, and a location of Oxford, Mississippi. They also deciphered a “please,” a “thank you,” and the message “call or phone”, all written in a child’s handwriting.

“My first instinct was ‘let’s play detective.’ We’re all kids at heart really and we could envision ourselves as that 11-year-old boy,” said Babb, a safety manager at Big River Shipbuilders. “It just fueled us to say, ‘Let’s go find this guy’ cause this is kind of a kindred spirit where, ‘Would I want somebody to find me? Yes, I would.'”

The men began calling nearby school districts for leads. They protected each piece of the torn note by taping it down to their desks. It wasn’t until they posted a photo of the note on the company’s Facebook page that the mystery began to be uncovered.

What a 11-Year-Old Boy Had Written in a Handwritten Note

green bottle with a note inside

The Facebook post was shared 127 times. A few days after the public posting, Eric Dahl received a phone call from a friend telling him about the photograph, which Melanie Dahl quickly sought out.

“It’s astounding it happened,” Eric said. “We get a message 33 years after Brian put it in the river. It’s like something in a fiction novel or something you’d see on TV,” Eric continued. “To see Brian’s handwriting from when he was 11 or 12 years old was miraculous.”

After the power of social media worked its magic, the Dahl family were on their way to Vicksburg to see the bottle. “I never thought it would take on the life it’s taken, but I’m so glad that it has,” marvelled Babb.

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While the shipyard workers assumed it was Dahl’s son Chris who had written the message, it was Eric and Melanie’s other son, Brian, who had composed the note. Brian had been an excellent athlete who beaten cancer but had died in an accident at the young age of 29.

The message in a bottle was part of a sixth-grade project in Brian’s class in 1989. Martha Burnett, now 82, was Brian’s teacher at the time.

“We had a field trip and dropped our bottles in the water, and for many years we heard nothing,” said Burnett. Her class had released their bottles into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River, with one bottle discovered years later in Louisiana. Brian’s bottle had floated an estimated 200 miles to the Yazoo River.

The Surprising Note That Brought People Together

The students had written down their names and hometown and sealed their bottles with wax to ensure a tight seal. The bottle’s survival is a testament, Burnett said, to how well Brian listened in class.

Luckily the bottle had drifted into a canal, where it was discovered by Mitchell, instead of disappearing down the enormous Mississippi River or even the Gulf of Mexico.

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

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As Babb and Mitchell heard more about Brian and his life, they took the family by tugboat to the exact spot where Mitchell first found the bottle. 

The Dahls were in awe at how a bottle from decades ago had brought them all together, with Eric saying they felt like an instant family with their new friends.

“It was a gift from on high. We’re a praying family and this is a part of God’s providence,” Eric said. “Love never goes away.”

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