If you've always doubted the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Wizard of Oz, the following story has your name on it. Yes, Virginia, somebody actually found a bottle with a message stuffed inside it.

On Sept. 15, Lisa Turner of Alexandria was merrily canoeing on the James River southeast of Charlottesville with her friend Charlie Jett when she spotted a bottle bobbing along. Inside was the following note: Oct. 6, 1982

We are doing an experiment to see how far a letter in a bottle will travel. If you find this letter please return it as soon as possible with your name, where you found it and the date. Thanks a lot. Mrs. Lavender's Third Grade, Huddleston Elem. School.

It had taken two years, 11 months and 18 days for that message to float 75 miles to southern Fluvanna County. But thanks to Lisa, the kids in Huddleston, Va. -- a small farming community near Roanoke -- finally had their answer.

Only trouble was, they had forgotten all about their experiment.

Nancy Lavender, their teacher, had cooked up the bottle experiment in 1982 in connection with some reading the class was doing. Her 22 students prepared seven bottles with messages inside. Nancy drove the seven bottles to Lynchburg, Va., 30 miles northeast of Huddleston, and kerplunked them into the James.

But when there were no replies, the kids went on to fourth grade, and fifth, and sixth grades, and the whole business slipped everyone's mind.

Now, however, the 22 Huddlestonians have written to Lisa to thank her -- and to invite her to visit. Lisa says she isn't sure she can make it, since it's a five-hour drive. But if Lisa cared to go by water, she might think of the journey this way:

It would be about a 12-year float.

Today being Halloween, the following story won't present a problem as of tomorrow morning. But last week, when she wrote to me about it, the situation certainly gave pause to Carolyn Cecilia Davis of Northwest.

Like many of us, she was delighted to see that her local Giant Food store had removed candy from one checkout lane -- and had posted a sign telling the world so.

But Carolyn wonders why at the Chillum Giant, the Halloween candy display was set up across from the candy-free lane.

One more reason why Metro's rush-hour fare structure poses more problems than it solves:

Christine Peratino is a 17-year-old high school student in Silver Spring who left school early one day recently to keep a 2 p.m. doctor's appointment in Chevy Chase. Her mother had duly given Christine the $2 she would need to ride the train from Silver Spring to Friendship Heights and back.

But neither Christine nor her mom remembered that at 3 p.m. the fares go up. So when Christine arrived back at Silver Spring at about 3:45 p.m., she found herself 65 cents short.

The kiosk attendant listened to Christine's story and snapped, "Well, what do you expect me to do about it?" He refused to lend her the 65 cents and refused to accept her school ID as collateral. His only suggestion: that Christine beg the 65 cents from another passenger. His parting shot: he would have her arrested if she didn't pay the full fare.

A passerby overheard the discussion and gave Christine the additional 65 cents. She barely made it back to school by 4 p.m., as she had promised. To say the least, her impressions of Metro -- and of the kiosk operator -- are poorer than they used to be.

Does it even need saying? If Metro fares were the same around the clock -- as fares are in almost every other city in the world -- none of this unpleasantness would have happened.

New one doing the rounds in the wonderful world of larceny:

A thief lifts your wallet. An hour later, he calls to say he has found it and is mailing it back to you right that red-hot second. Deeply relieved, and blissfully reassured that mankind is marvelous, you don't bother to put a "stop" on the credit cards that were in your wallet.

Which is exactly what the thief wants.

In the few days it will take you to realize you've been conned, the thief will have run up thousands of dollars worth of credit card purchases.

True, you'll be liable for only $50 worth on each stolen card. But somebody will have to eat the difference; the stores will munch in the short run, you and I will in the long run.

Moral: If you lose your wallet and you receive an "I'm mailing it" phone call, ask to pick up the wallet in person. If the caller refuses to meet you, you can and should cancel your credit cards right away, thus saving lots of heartache -- and even more dollars.