On Aug. 13, at just about 6 p.m., Cyril Sparkes plucked a scratched up, clear plastic Sprite bottle from beside a wharf at the boat basin in St. John’s harbour.
In thirty years working on the water, he had never found one. Now he had one — a message in a bottle.
“I walked out the side of the wharf and looked down and I saw the white paper inside,” he said, sitting in the kitchen of his home on Southside Road a few days later, showing the note he found on the white paper, telling his story to The Telegram.
Sparkes said it was actually a sliver of bright green colour beneath the white that really caught his eye at the waterfront. A colour photo was eventually freed from the plastic container, along with the note. The photo was of a class of elementary school students.
According to the message — written in German and accompanied by an English translation on the same page — the bottle was from a Grade 1 class in Ueckermünde, Germany.
“Today we want to send you this message in a bottle because we have found one a few weeks ago and we were very pleased about that massage in the bottle,” read the English translation.
There was no email address. Sparkes used the address and name of the school to try finding it.
Online, he came across a photo of a building that he believed might be the school in question. Yet, the windows had been beaten out and there were visible burn marks on the outside of the building, as though it had been gutted by flame and then abandoned.
“I don’t know if the school was condemned or if it was a fire or what happened,” he said, having contacted The Telegram for a hand in solving the mystery.
“I’d like to find out where it come from or who sent it and how long its been kicking around,” he said, providing a copy of the letter and the photo.
As it turns out, the damaged building was not the school the children had written from. It was, in fact, a business that had been operating in the same community.
With the assistance of spokespeople at Memorial University of Newfoundland, The Telegram connected with Pia Banzhaf, who has done work at the university here but is also a student of German literature working to complete her PhD. She is fluent in German and agreed to assist as a translator.
Despite some false starts and mis-dials, a phone call to a number found for the school ultimately went through. We reached Frau Carola Fiß, the teacher with the Grade 1 class.
“She is very surprised. Very pleased. She said the children now have entered second grade and they haven’t travelled widely,” Banzhaf explained following the phone call on Tuesday. “That’s why, she says, the children will be all excited when she tells them the bottled has travelled so far.”
Not all of that travel was by sea. The school is located in a town in the Northeast of Germany, near the border with Poland. The closest sea would be the Baltic Sea and, even from that point, making it to the Atlantic Ocean would have been difficult.
“One of the children has a grandfather who gave the bottle to a sailor friend and he dropped this bottle into the Atlantic somewhere. No one knows where,” Banzhaf said.
They did know when, however. The bottle was sent out into the water Aug. 4.
“It has never been done before at this school,” Banzhaf said of the “message in a bottle” project.
The teacher said she had played a beachfront game with the students — a treasure hunt with a buried map. The game led to talk of bottles being found with messages inside. It was decided the class would send out their own message and a picture, to see what might come of it.
Speaking with the teacher, Banzhaf explained where she was calling from. In German, she made the point of saying St. John’s should not to be confused with Saint John, New Brunswick.
“They will look on the map and they want to know where all of this is,” Banzhaf said, repeating the teacher’s reply.
“She said she hopes, for the children, Mr. Sparkes is going to respond and send a photograph of himself with the bottle.”
Sparkes said he is having the photo and letter framed. He plans to write the children back, but is considering sending it by email.