When people get attached to things, things get interesting.

In 1985, a guy named Carroll H. Howard was in the Bahamas being towed behind a boat when he hit a wave so hard his class ring flew off and sank in 25 feet of water.

They were a mile offshore: no point searching.

The gold ring (College of William & Mary '68, with "SAE" for Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity) had huge sentimental value. Carroll's dad, a telephone lineman, had died in '64 and his mother, a store clerk in Leesburg, had saved $350 to buy him the ring.

He'd worn it every day.

"My mother took the news much better than I'd expected," Carroll recalls. "She said it was God's will and that I could always get another." He did, and "it's been a continuing reminder of how much she loved me."

Ethel Virginia Howard died in 1994, and it seemed the story of the ring was laid to rest with her.

But one night early this year, Carroll got a startling phone call.

An SAE fraternity representative was on the line.

He'd been contacted by the office of a guy in Sarasota, Fla., who'd been snorkeling in the Bahamas in the late '80s and had found a class ring in 25 feet of water a mile out.

Scott Stenzel had tried to find the ring's owner many times over the years, calling the college and elsewhere -- to no avail. He thought the owner was "John Roberts," inscribed inside the ring, not knowing that was the manufacturer.

So for years the ring sat in a jar on an office shelf -- until the advent of the Internet, when one of Stenzel's enterprising employees contacted SAE and learned Carroll was the student ("CHH" was also faintly inscribed inside the ring) who'd been both in SAE and a '68 grad.

"I couldn't believe the good news," Carroll recalls. The SAE rep gave him Stenzel's number, and he called the next morning.

Then, another twist:

Stenzel, who owns an interior design service, told Carroll he'd been ecstatic to learn the owner's identity -- but when he looked in the jar, the ring was gone!

"He simply couldn't believe it," Carroll says, "and could only surmise -- as he told police -- that [someone with access to the premises] had stolen the ring a few weeks earlier when he was on vacation, and pawned it."

Carroll, a 56-year-old federal employee, felt grateful anyway.

"I concluded that the whole incident was God's way of showing me a lot more than the value of a ring. What Scott and his employee showed was the basic goodness and love that exist in people.

"Scott did the best he could [and], if only for a little while, I knew that my mother's ring was found."

Now personally I'm not a class ring kind of guy, but Carroll's story -- he wrote in, then we talked -- touched me.

Scouting the Web, I came upon "Class Rings Lost and Found," which made clear the emotionality people attach to these objects.

"My name is Jason Whitman and I am creating this Web site," the webmaster writes, because "I was on an international flight from Pittsburgh to Frankfurt in December 1997, when my ring fell off my finger."

He never found it.

The site contains search advice, and details about rings lost and found:

* 1953: "Initials 'MLS.' Lost approx. 1956 at a military site at Camp Lejeune."

* 1969 'L' High: "The initials are F.H. It still has red yarn wrapped around it (sizing it down), signifying it was probably worn by the owner's girlfriend."

* 1971 St. Agnes Nursing School: "My mother-in-law had a 1971 class ring [but] it was sold to a pawn shop. . . . We've started searching for it."

* 1957 Liberty High: "I gave my class ring to a boyfriend over in France. I have never seen him since [and] would love to have my ring back."

* 1968 University of Virginia: "Accidentally thrown over the side of the USS Stanley in 1981 in the Indian Ocean in clothing worn during a crossing-of-the-line ceremony by a person who was keeping it 'safe' while [the owner] was having to crawl through garbage."

I called Jason, who turns out to be a 29-year-old disabled Army vet. Running the Web site and watching his five kids while his wife works takes most of his time.

He says he started his site after seeing a story "where they found a class ring in the belly of a shark and it had been lost for 47 years."

I called Scott in Sarasota.

It was actually his partner who found Carroll's ring, he says. "I thought it was really cool, and it would be neat to find the owner."

But later, after several failed attempts, Scott's partner was diagnosed with AIDS and he wore the ring "as a good-luck thing that he felt would help keep him alive.

"I said, 'When you die, I want to give it to its rightful owner.' When he became too thin and emaciated to wear it, he kept it in his jewelry box. When he died, his mom gave me the ring, and finding the owner became my quest."

Now, Scott fears, it "may be floating around somewhere in the Sarasota pawn system."

Yet he's grateful for the role the ring played in his life. "It was a source of strength for my friend -- a little retainer of hope that he held onto."

After his friend died, Scott continued trying to do the right thing- -- find the rightful owner.

His efforts reminded me of John Walter Wayland's "The True Gentleman," a passage that all SAE fraternity members learn:

"The true gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety . . . whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own . . . a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe."

Maybe they should make Scott an honorary member.

To report class rings lost or found, visit www.geocities.com/hit_man_j/index.

Carroll Howard has a replacement class ring for the one he lost. Still, when he learned the original was recovered, "I couldn't believe the good news."Scott Stenzel made a vow to return the ring his partner had found snorkeling off the Bahamas. Years later, his employee found the ring's owner, Howard.