When Bennett “Bud” Sparks sent a message in a bottle in 1964 from his post at Point Retreat Lighthouse, he didn’t expect a response, let alone one 50 years later.
Greg Anderson was going through his late father’s papers recently when he came across a typed message on a worn piece of paper.
“Hello,” the note reads. “This message is not important to you. I am in the United States Coast Guard, Stationed at Point Retreat Light Station. The station is about 18 miles out of Juneau, Alaska. If you have time to send me a letter.”
It was signed by Bud Sparks, a fireman stationed at the lighthouse for the year.
Anderson said he didn’t know when his father had found it. Anderson first found it in 1990, but didn’t think much of it at the time. He wishes he had asked, but admits it’s “a detail lost,” with both his father and mother gone.
He found it again going through a memory box his mother kept. She was very sentimental, he said.
“She saved everything from locks of hair to umbilical cords in this big crate of stuff,” Anderson said. “And newspaper from VJ Day, the Spanish American War and this one, ‘Japan surrenders.’”
He shuffled through yellowed editions of the old Alaska Daily Empire and a publication from his mother’s birthplace.
He laid the message from Sparks on the table, partially torn where it had been folded for so many years.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to find this guy?’” he said.
In contrast to sending a message in a bottle, finding and contacting Sparks again was a feat of modern technology. Anderson took to the Internet to search for the sender.
The first he found was the obituary of Bud Sparks Sr., who died in 2009.
“Bud Sparks Sr. was huge,” Anderson said — but too old to have been the lonely Coast Guardsman stationed at a lighthouse in 1964.
Anderson searched the obituary for names, then searched on Facebook for people matching the names.
He also emailed a Coast Guard historian, who couldn’t help because records for that time were still sealed.
A conversation with a representative of the National Archives and Records Administration provided Anderson with a copy of the log from the lighthouse — one page from Jan. 1, 1964.
“It was very military. Very dry. I doubt he would log that he threw a bottle,” Anderson speculated. “Might be littering.”
In his search, Anderson reached Sparks’ attorney, who helped connect the two.
Sparks called Anderson up on the phone — a more reliable mode of contact.
“I was stoked,” Anderson said. “He just called me out of the blue.”
They chatted about the message and Sparks’ experiences out at the lighthouse.
Sparks served at Point Retreat Lighthouse for a year. He was a fireman.
“You stayed for a year and never left,” Sparks said of his post in a phone interview. “We had no TV or radio.”
He didn’t say it outright, but the implication was there — at 20, being one of four men at a lighthouse got boring. Sparks said they kept eight-hour shifts: work, keep watch and sleep, repeat.
“That’s why I wrote a note, said to somebody: ‘Write me, please, write me,’” Sparks said.
He didn’t expect a response, he said.
It was the year of the Good Friday Earthquake, which caused wreckage and chaos in Southcentral Alaska and beyond.
“Everything was a mess,” Sparks said.
The note was his first time typing, and he said the vessel must have been a mayonnaise jar or something of that ilk, since soda and spirits were not allowed.
Occasionally they would watch films or hunt. He remembered hunting deer to donate to an orphanage in need of meat after the earthquake.
Sparks was in Southeast Alaska only one year, though he said he’s always wanted to go back — he just hasn’t had the opportunity.
He served in the Coast Guard a total of four years. He said his father served in the Coast Guard for 40 years, and that joining the Coast Guard was a family tradition. In the years since his service, he has been a salesman.
He had forgotten about ever sending a message in a bottle until his lawyer told him about Anderson’s search.
“It’s absolutely amazing that someone actually went through the whole cycle,” Sparks said. “Fifty years the bottle’s been out there somewhere.”
• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: A message was received correcting the title of Sparks to Fireman, technically Fireman Apprentice.