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Archive for Thursday, October 21, 1993

MESSAGE INBOTTLE

October 21, 1993

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A sixth-grade class project -- putting messages in bottles -- finally paid off for a Lawrence woman more than 12 years later.

Some of us did it as children -- scrawled a message on a piece of paper, stuffed it into a bottle and tossed it into the water, hoping someone far away would find it and read it.

For Melissa Foster, the date was May 26, 1981.

Her sixth-grade teacher at Schwegler School, Debbie Cummings, had come up with an interesting project to study river systems for fidgety students on the last day of school.

Cummings had each of the students write letters, stuff them into plastic soft drink bottles and seal them with wax.

After school, Cummings drove down to the Kansas River and sent the bottles on their journey, in hopes that someone might find them and write back.

Most everyone forgot about the bottles.

Two years later, one message written by Della Clayton, turned up in St. Louis. But the rest of the students' bottles apparently floated into oblivion, or were found, read and discarded.

The years drifted by. The students went on to junior high, high school and college over the next decade.

Foster went on to play basketball at Lawrence High School and at Kansas City, Kan., Community College. A spinal injury upended her basketball career. Now 24, she's recovering from the injury and taking classes part time at Johnson County Community College.

But Wednesday's mail brought Foster back to the sixth-grade project.

A letter came from Jason Housman, a high school student in Charleston, Mo. Housman wrote that his father and a friend had found the Foster's bottle on Monday in Cairo, Ill. He sent a copy of the dog-eared message found in the bottle.

"He thought it was neat that it had made it all the way to Cairo, Ill.," Foster said.

Foster said Housman's letter didn't give her any other details, so she planned to write back to discover what the circumstances were when they found it. She guessed recent flooding along the Mississippi may have contributed to the discovery.

"It's been 12 and a half years. That's why I thought it was kind of neat. I wrote in my letter that I was 11 at the time," she said. "Obviously from my letter, I didn't expect it to get very far. It says, 'I'm writing this bottle letter because I'm wondering if it can travel any place out of Lawrence.'"

Foster said what was ironic was that on Monday, she was visiting Della Clayton, the other girl whose letter was found and they were talking about elementary school memories, including the bottles.

"Then this pops up," she said.

Foster telephoned her former teacher Wednesday night to tell her about the discovery.

"I was real tickled when she called me. It was a fun group and it was my first teaching year," said Cummings, who still teaches at Schwegler.

Cummings said she hasn't repeated the project because she realized later it contributes to river pollution.

However, "it's kind of fun to know that the river works," Cummings said. "I think we were hoping one would drift to the Gulf of Mexico."

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