From facilitating an Aristotelean thought experiment, to sending out that famous SOS to the world, to being the main plot line of a late ’90s box-office hit (that everyone seems to have watched except me), a message in a bottle never fails to fascinate. Though, we wonder, does anyone actually send them?
Yes, says Chad Pregrake, who's been uncorking bottled-up finds for nearly two decades from riverbanks, log jams and piles of trash. Pregrake is in the business of river cleanup, and from the expected Snapple bottles and soda cans to the unexpected bathtubs and refrigerators—about 800 fridges so far—Pregrake has seen it all. Occasionally, amid the mounds of trash, he's found some message-shaped pearls.
Now, Pregrake and his wife, Tammy Becker, are also in the business of curating. Currently tucked away in an alcove at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the duo’s traveling Message in a Bottle exhibit reveals forgotten and long-encapsulated secrets gathered along the Mississippi and its tributaries.
“Everyone has heard of them, and they are fascinated about them, but they just didn’t realize they actually exist,” Pregrake tells Houstonia.
The idea of making an exhibit out of Pregrake’s river finds came from his friend and host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe. Quit talking about it and just do it! Rowe told Pregrake. So, with the help of his wife and a handy woodworker to encase the finds, Pregrake has put approximately 50 letters on display. Despite the stereotype, themes of love and affection are hardly the norm.
“You find some other pretty weird things that could be taken as notes that maybe people are ready to end it all,” says Pregrake.
An excerpt from one such message: “My name is [illegible deletion] and I’m 12. Please look down. What a life I feel like dying. I wish someone could help me. You might be the one that will help me…”
With that in mind as you meander through the exhibit’s pillars, don’t be surprised to find other oddities like strands of hair or Bible pages soaking in oil. Some letters were penned as a cry for help, others cast off simply for entertainment, and, in one case, crafted to put a hex on an unlucky soul. That mean-spirited care package consists of thin nails, a sandy substance, and a letter with a name innumerably repeated (thankfully, the bottle remains sealed).
“People don’t realize how deep some of those messages are,” Pregrake says. “Nobody ever thought they would be found, and some people aren’t always in the best place when they’re writing them.”
“With [the exhibit] being in Houston, who knows if someone will be connected to one of those bottles that’s in there,” adds Pregrake. “It’s always interesting to see what’s inside.”
Message in a Bottle, thru May 13. General admission tickets from $15. Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Dr. 713-639-4629. More info and tickets at hmns.org.