BELLOWS FALLS -- Sean Keown was visibly excited.
It had been more than 35 years since he and a childhood pal each sent a message in a bottle down the White River from their hometown of Rochester.
And now, here he was -- standing at the Bellows Falls Waypoint Center, wearing a yellow polo shirt and a letter from the 16-year-old that found the bottle nearby. His eyes kept scanning the parking lot, looking for the young man and his mother to arrive from West Rutland so he could finally meet the individual responsible for his blast from the past.
"I think that's Justin. That's them," he said, as a dark pickup pulled in a parking space shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday. Stepping out of the vehicle were Justin Shepard, the Mill River Union High School student who had found the message, and his mother, Chris.
The parties shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and started talking about the incredible story they now share. After a few moments, it was suggested that they mosey over toward the bridge near the Bellows Falls dam, where Justin had discovered the bottle on the Fourth of July.
The nearby railroad track, which would have to be crossed to get to the exact spot the message was found, was off limits due to construction work.
Keown and Dwight DeCoster spent many of their summer days fishing, swimming and riding their bicycles near the White River in the 1970s and early ‘80s. When he was about 10, Keown's father
DeCoster's parents owned a general store in Rochester and the two buddies got two glass bottles, jotted down notes and chucked them into the water, hopefully one day seeing them again.
"They had that stuff kicking around. This was before recycling. We were playing in the river across from the store," Keown said on Monday. He had driven nearly two hours from Rochester just to meet Justin and his mother. "We dreamed of it coming back and going a long way but never really thought about it too much after that."
Though DeCoster's bottle is still MIA, Justin stumbled upon Keown's under a pile of debris below the Bellows Falls dam. He said he and his father occasionally drive from West Rutland to the village to explore around the dam. And it literally paid off a few weeks ago.
After finding the bottle, Justin said he called his mother, who was in Virginia visiting her fiancé's grandfather. They determined the message must have been written by a child and started trying to find the unknown sender.
The phone number written has not worked in many years.
"I haven't had that phone number in 25 years. I had to call my mother and say, "Was that our phone number?" And she said, "Yeah, I remember that," Keown recalled. He and Justin later spoke on the phone, but had not met until Monday.
Unlike the mandatory 10 numbers nowadays, only the final four digits were required in Rochester back then, he said.
After talking with Justin and Chris near the bridge, Keown said he was going to keep the promise he had made in his letter 35 years ago.
The message, scribed in the sloppy handwriting of a child, read "Who ever (sic) find this is Lucky. There is a reward for it. Call 767-8581. Sean Keown."
Keown opened an envelope -- which contained the letter Justin wrote to him asking if he was the one that wrote the message -- pulled out a $100 bill. Justin initially refused the money, but Keown insisted on making the whole story complete. He told the kid to buy something nice with it.
Keown said he originally planned to buy the finder a candy bar or soda, but said now, more than three decades later, he thought a cash reward was more appropriate. In return, Justin handed over the brown, pint-sized bottle (with the message included) to its rightful owner.
"My handwriting is not much better than that now," Keown said with a laugh, holding the letter.
"I'm glad that you searched for me online," he told Justin. "Everybody that I've talked to has just been amazed. I've had nothing but positive things said about this story."
Adding to the tale's mystique, both Keown and Justin's mother work in the same industry. Keown owns Sean Keown Construction and Chris and her fiancé own DeCato Contracting. The three discussed getting lunch together in the near future.
"People are just looking for a feel-good story now, with all the tragedy that's going on," said Chris, who grew up across the river in Walpole, N.H. "It was funny because everybody's been like, ‘Oh, I did that when I was a kid,' ‘I forgot about that,' ... and one guy said, ‘I got a fine for doing it.'"
Justin said he is now interested in writing a message and sending it afloat. It just comes down to finding a bottle that will stand the test of time as well as the harsh elements.
The three marveled at how far the bottle had gone. Keown said he took the Interstate highway to get down to Bellows Falls -- and the river does a lot of winding before it gets to the village. He said it is 76 miles, according to MapQuest.
Chris said she and her mother discovered the river's length years ago.
"From here to Brattleboro is about 20 miles," she said. "It took us six hours to reach Putney on the river by kayak."
Even Justin's letter to Keown took a journey through the Green Mountain State. She said her mother had mailed Justin's message, but accidentally put the incorrect stamp on it, resulting in it being sent to her house in West Rutland before she redirected it.
But the story is not yet finished.
After hearing from Justin, Keown became anxious to hear from his old school chum. A reporter found DeCoster's name on Facebook and was able to track down a phone number.
DeCoster, who fell out of touch with his pal after graduating from Rochester High School in 1985, went on to attend the University of Vermont. He now lives in Underhill -- a town about 15 miles east of Burlington -- and has worked as the director of military support for the Vermont National Guard for the past 25 years. In a telephone interview on Monday, he said he looks forward to reconnecting with his old buddy.
"I think it's really great and it's funny because everybody thinks it was Irene that (washed up the bottle)," he said in reference to the irony, as he had his hands full in August due to the raging tempest. "I can't believe it. I'm kind of in shock right now. It'll be good to talk with Sean."
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.