A 25-year-old mystery yields clues in Cape Breton
John Pettipas, owner of Auld's Cove Lobster Supper restaurant on the mainland side of the causeway linking Cape Breton Island to Nova Scotia, is not shy.
He also has an incredible memory for faces. Even though I met him years ago, he greeted my wife Lisa and I like schoolmates when we pulled up in a sporty Chevy Silverado SS pickup truck.
"Wattarya doing, come in. Here, let me introduce you to some folks." He shuffled me into the dining room packed with American tourists who had just finished singing a rousing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner.
As the cheery visitors hoed into fresh lobster and steaming fish chowder, John Pettipas introduced me to his guests and waxed on about my past with surprising accuracy.
"Now tell 'em, and me, what you're doin' here in Auld's Cove on this fine Saturday afternoon."
The floor was mine so I held up the cover of my new book, Sowerby's Road - Adventures of a Driven Mind (www.sowerbysroad.com).
"I took the photo on the cover of this book 25 years ago at the Grand Narrows ferry in Cape Breton."
I wasn't quite sure where to start.
I went on to explain that one night in June 1978, I had driven straight through from Ottawa to a cottage I had rented across from Alexander Graham Bell's summer mansion on Bras d'Or Lake. The photo of the docking ferry, the C. Monty MacMillan, was somewhat surreal. The blurred image of the person on the deck with pointed feet, twisted torso, whirling head and blurry features has always intrigued me, so I put it on the cover of the book. And now I was on a mission to track down this Blurry Man.
"I'll guarantee you one thing, he's a MacNeil from Iona," predicted John Pettipas, as we prepared to drive off.
"What's the name of that retired captain we're meeting near Iona this afternoon?" I asked Lisa.
"David MacNeil," she mused.
An hour later we pulled up to the Little Narrows ferry landing, a half hour west of Grand Narrows where the C. Monty MacMillan had operated until a bridge was built across the half-mile channel in the early 1990s.
I showed the cover of the book to the purser, Johnny Osborne, as he collected the $5.00 fare.
"Look how tall he is," Johnny offered. "There's only one person that could be - Shorty MacNeil. He's retired now, living in Ottawa Brook."
"But eh, wait a minute. His daughter-in-law, Wendy MacNeil, is there waiting in line."
Lisa pulled the Silverado off the ferry and parked while I rode back on the ferry with Wendy. She was certain Blurry Man was her father-in-law. Her sister-in-law, Charlene, who was waiting on the other side, wasn't so sure.
With these leads, Lisa and I drove to Shenacadie and met David MacNeil, who had worked on the 40-metre, 12-car ferryboat for 20 years. He wasn't sure about Blurry Man, but figured the man in focus across from the apparition was Dan Dougall.
We visited Dan Dougall. His lovely wife, Isabel served us tea, biscuits and extensive conversation. Dan agreed the man in focus was himself during his moustache-wearing days and suggested Blurry Man was the late Neily MacNeil. Then he remembered Shorty and his analysis leaned toward his lanky former deckmate.
Dan Dougall has kept a journal every day since 1951. Everyone goes to him when they need to remember something that happened on a certain day in a certain year.
Dan's journal would obviously tell us who was working on the ferry that night 25 years ago in June 1978. Oddly enough, the journals go from January 1951 to May 1978 then pick up again in July 1978. The only month missing in 52 years of journals is the month I took the Blurry Man photo!
I wound the sure-footed Silverado SS through the twisty roads south of Bras d'Or Lake to the tiny community of Ottawa Brook.
I suspect most people have had their own Blurry Man experience. Blurry Man isn't necessarily a man though. It could be a child, a woman or anyone with whom a chance encounter has left a lingering feeling of goodwill, pride or gratitude. And we were hot on the heels of my Blurry Man, who I'd thought of for a long time.
We found Shorty MacNeil's place, a tidy farmhouse perched on a brilliant green hilltop. Buster, a playful collie, welcomed us. In the door stood a gentle giant who warmly ushered us into his home.
We chatted for an hour. His real name is Michael J. MacNeil.
"How long have you been called Shorty?" I asked, eyeing his big 6-foot 4-inch frame.
"Since 1946. When I was a lad, there were too many Michael MacNeils so every one of them got a nickname. Mine was Shorty and it stuck."
He showed us a photo of himself on the C. Monty MacMillan with his back to the camera. His stance resembled Blurry Man.
Shorty's son, Neil MacNeil, came by and looked at the photo.
"Dad always walks with his hands behind his back," he explained. I realized why Blurry Man looked so twisted - his hands were in fact behind his back.
Evidence was stacking but the clincher came when Shorty MacNeil mentioned he would have been the one who took the fare from me. At that moment, I had an uncanny flashback of the lanky crewman with Shorty's voice taking my money and wishing me a pleasant morning so long ago. I had found Blurry Man.
Soon after, Shorty politely told us he had to go. It was Bingo night across the Little Narrows at Whycocomagh. With three $200-cards, the place would be hopping.
"Good luck," I said, shaking his huge hand.
"Blurry Man," he whispered.