John Worrell and his wife, Diane, comb their beach on Lake Erie at least once a week to clean up the clutter that washes ashore. But one afternoon this July they found treasure among the trash.
The Worrells hail from Markham, Ont., where "it's totally beat into you that you must recycle," joked Diane, so they're used to cleaning up the various plastic bottles that end up on their sandy stretch in Amherstburg, Ont. — but this one was different.
"It was green and faded and beat up with no label on it," said Diane.
'My name is William Shuford (Billy), age 12 and I'd like for you to get in touch with me.'- Message in a bottle
Like a good recycler, John tried to take the top off, but but it was stuck tight. When he looked a little closer he noticed a faded note stashed inside, so he grabbed a pair of scissors and snipped the bottle off at the neck.
As they read the carefully written message, the couple were overcome with curiosity.
My name is William Shuford (Billy), age 12 and I'd like for you to get in touch with me. My phone # is (313)-892-2399. Address [scratched out]. Please respond! Detroit, Michigan 48203
"How old is this?" Diane recalled thinking. "It was so sweet, you know, a 12-year-old boy … 'Where's the date? Is it three years old or 30?' That's the first thing that went through my mind."
John's first thoughts were a little different.
"I looked at it and said, 'We should get in touch with this person and make their day.'"
The couple called the number, but it had been disconnected. A reverse number search found it had last belonged to someone named William S., but the trail seemed to end there.
The note sat in the Worrell's house for about a week before John decided he had to do something. So he called the Detroit Free Press and asked reporter Allie Gross for help.
Message in an Uber
William Shuford was riding in an Uber in San Francisco, where he works as a head hunter and Airbnb host, when he got a message from a Free Press reporter, who asked if he was the same Billy Shuford who tossed the bottle into the river.
"I just couldn't believe it at all," Shuford said, describing how he excitedly held his phone up to show the driver a photo of the note he penned 29 years ago.
That message, inked onto a small white piece of paper, was one of several he threw into the water while visiting Belle Isle with his dad, William Sankofa.
Growing up in the slums of Detroit, Shuford remembers sitting down to dinner every night with his two sisters and their single father. He remembers playing board games, seeing his dad braiding his daughters' hair in the morning.
"My dad was everyone's dad in the neighbourhood because there weren't enough dads to go around," Shuford said of his father's kind manner.
When Shuford went off to college, he would get a call from his dad every New Year's Eve. Dad was heading down to the water, where he would stare out and say a few prayers as another year began.
Shuford returned to Sunset Point in 2014, just a few days after his father died of a massive heart attack. It's a place he will always cherish, a place where his father stood so many times, just looking out over the water.
"It's bigger than a coincidence," Shuford said about the bottle being found after all these years.
Return to sender
Shuford and John finally spoke on the phone after Gross arranged for them to talk. Both of them are fascinated by the bottle and how it showed up after all these years.
"It probably went back and forth across Lake Erie 30, 40, 50 times," John said. "Who knows?"
Shuford is fascinated by the journey of the bottle as well, recognizing that Amherstburg is not far from his father's favourite spot on Belle Isle.
"The distance between where I threw the bottle and where John found it — it's not like it went in a straight line for 29 years," he said. "I wish there was a GPS. I would love to see the path of this bottle."
John and Diane said they were happy to make William's day and have plans to send his note back to him — by regular mail, not a bottle this time.
Diane said she's considering sending out a message of her own just to see what will happen.
"I'll stick a note in a bottle and throw it back," she said. "But it might be a wine bottle."