“Bringing Camp to Dad… One Last Time”

By: Bruce Mallette

Volume 18, Issue 2, February 2023

It was February 2005. My 83-year-old Dad and I sat in the sunroom at my parents’ cottage in a tiered living retirement community in NC. As always, Dad’s thoughts turned to the family’s seasonal camp on Chippewa Bay, NY. The camp viewed Singer Castle, Chippewa Point, Cedar Island State Park, and beautiful sunsets over Mallorytown Landing, ON. The camp was full of memories. It was Dad’s happy place; peaceful, rurally remote, and where he had sat for decades out front, in a vintage metal patio chair, as he read a book, watched the River, passing ships, fishermen, Canada geese, Blue Herons, and chipmunks. As we talked, Dad said something I had not heard before, “I’ve never seen the camp in winter.” More on that later.

The camp was built in 1946, mostly out of 2”x10” boards taken from military airplane equipment crates from the Rome (NY) Air Depot. Dad’s parents bought the camp in 1956 when I was three years old. An early memory for me was the outhouse at the property line marked by a barbed wire fence that kept out Mr. Fitton’s grazing cows. My grandfather and Mr. Fitton had been in elementary school together in Ogdensburg around 1905. There is a picture somewhere of me sitting in that outhouse, looking like Rodin’s The Thinker.

Around 1960, my grandfather built a storage shed and a new 2nd bedroom. The BIG improvement came when he installed a septic system and renovated that 2nd bedroom into an indoor bathroom. Another wonderful advance came in 1988, when Dad built an outdoor shower. In 2019, a local artisan, Holly Davis, made a sign for the shower that was repainted in the original camp colors of white with navy blue trim.

For the 32 years prior to the outdoor shower, we went out 800 yards to a 0.25 acre uninhabited island with one scrawny tree and a few bushes. It had a long, slightly sloped shoal off one end. We would wade waist deep with Ivory soap, since it floated and would not sink while we were washing. Later on, it was also a swimming location.

Here I am standing on the shoal off Ivory Soap Island ready for a swim. [Photo Author's Collection]

As we talked in the sunroom, Dad expressed his ongoing disappointment at his absence from camp since 1998 . . . 7 long years. His elective knee replacement in 1996 developed a staph infection, damaged his kidneys, put him on dialysis 3x a week for the next 20 months, and caused persistent swelling in his left knee. Dad was absolutely devastated by this health news at age 74. He reflected on his yesteryear of athletics and adulthood fitness.

He played baseball at North Syracuse High School and received the Syracuse Herald-Journal Outstanding High School Pitcher trophy for two no hitters in 1940. At Syracuse University, he was awarded the Devil’s Own Trophy for all-around athletic and academic skill. While there, a NY Yankee scout signed him for the Yankee’s Norfolk (Va) Tars. But, instead of pitching to 18-year-old catcher Yogi Berra on the Tars, WWII called, and Dad reported to NJ to begin 42-months of military service. He was ace pitcher for Camp Edison in the Signal Corps, named Leading Pitcher in the Diamond League, and pitched two no-hitters for the Army Air Corps team while in Wiesbaden, Germany.

After WWII and finishing his Syracuse journalism degree in 1946, he played 7 years of pro baseball, mostly in AAA leagues, was invited to spring trainings with the NY Yankees (1947 and 1949) and the Brooklyn Dodgers (1950 and 1952), and made the 1950 Brooklyn team that included future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and owner Branch Rickey who had brought him to the Dodgers in winter 1950. His career ended with the 1951 and 1952 seasons on the Dodgers’ AAA Montreal Royals, where he had a 23-4 pitching record and was named to the International League All-Star Team. Future Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Walter Alston were with those Montreal teams.

After baseball, his career as a journalist earned his 2002 election to the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame, housed at UNC. Later, Dad was the inaugural inductee into the Cicero-North Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame in 2012 and was inducted into the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame at NBT Bank Stadium in 2013.

Dad also reflected on the 1998 tests that revealed his kidneys had kicked in enough to get off dialysis. The doctors gave their ok to visit camp, but cautioned that his kidney issues would resurface. For now, he was headed back to camp, and he was elated!

During that 1998 visit, he called me with several camp issues confusing him. So, I took a flight up to camp the next day to assist him. A successful visit it was! We got the old 1969 Evinrude motor working, which powered my late grandfather’s 16-foot 1956 Cadillac Daytona aluminum boat; fixed the boat steering; built a new and safer pump house cover; built a wood ladder off the end of the dock; and went fishing where Dad’s classic shout - “I got one!” - echoed across the water as he hooked a Northern Pike. It was happy days again at camp.

Then, a foreshadowing event occurred. I asked if he wanted to go swim at what he called the “sandy bottom." The sandy bottom was located 150 yards out front, had no vegetation, and a depth mid-chest on his 6’ 3” frame. It was about 50x15 yards in size. Dad observed it was like his community pool at home! He said he felt exhausted the past few weeks, his left knee was still swollen, and he thought he should not go to the sandy bottom. I nudged him by saying I’d take our raft and tow him out, and once there he could stand up, hold the raft, and watch me swim at the sandy bottom. He agreed, still commenting on his low energy level.

Dad by the new dock ladder ready to go to the Sandy Bottom in 1998 [ Photo Author's Collection]

My visit to camp was completed, and I flew home. Mom and Dad headed home down I-81. They were happy to have returned to camp and were talking about a return next year. On their drive home Dad had a terrible, first-ever, angina attack. When they got home, his cardiologist confirmed Dad had major artery blockages. Quadruple bypass surgery was scheduled. Adding insult to injury, after the bypass surgery his kidneys went back to needing dialysis again and then in 2003, he had a pacemaker inserted.

Since Dad and Mom could not get to camp after their 1998 visit, I decided to take camp to them. When my wife Julie and I were at camp from 1998-2005, I called Dad at 8pm with what he called the “camp report.” I learned from Mom that he made sure to be in his TV chair waiting promptly at 8pm for the call. In addition, Julie was an excellent videographer and brought back lots of camp videos. He loved it. He felt as if he was there, almost.

Thus, in our sunroom discussion in February 2005 when Dad said he had never seen camp in winter, what was needed was obvious. Julie and I made plans to fly to camp and bring him “winter” pictures/videos. When we told him of our plan, he said, “It’s been a miserably cold and snowy winter up there.” Our response, “Already made the plane reservations, have a car rental, and a motel, too.” His smile was immediate.

Camp, 2005 from the Water [Photo Author's Collection]

Off to camp Julie and I flew in late February. We parked up above the steep, narrow, one car wide hill leading down to the gravel, half mile dead end camp road. We feared we would not be able to get down it safely in the snow, nor back up. We hiked down to camp and found a winter wonderland. Everything, everywhere, was white as far as we could see. Mostly overcast, flurries, cold, breezy. Pure white. We learned the next day that Chippewa Bay ice was over 30 inches thick.

We took pictures and videos of everything, including walking out to the island where we used to take our Ivory soap. Only our footprints and deer tracks, dead silence. We were surprised how far we could walk out safely. There was only a small unfrozen part of the channel in front of Singer Castle. We later attended the annual Alex Bay Polar Bear Dip.

With our winter journey complete, we flew home and put pictures/videos on a DVD for Dad. He was excited beyond belief. He had more questions than a kid in a candy store. We taught him to rewind, freeze frame, etc. He was mesmerized by what he saw and watched endlessly, Mom said. It brought “winter” camp to Dad’s warm sunroom 700 miles away.

The winter camp pictures were an extension of our nightly summer camp reports. Dad was happy, smiling, and felt as if he was there, almost. He was eager for future summers to see more pictures, videos, and receive nightly calls.

Nine months later, we had a family lunch and dinner together on Thanksgiving Day 2005. The next day, Black Friday, Dad went to his third dialysis of the week, came home, and late that evening had a heart attack and died. It was devastating to the whole family. As has been said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”

It has been over 17 years since Dad’s death. Each new trip Julie and I take to camp remains special, full of memories, and appreciation. Appreciation for all my parents and grandparents did keeping camp going. January 30, 2023 would have been Dad’s 101st birthday. Whenever I sit in that same metal camp chair Dad sat in for decades watching the River, I know without question he is still there, will always be there, and in my heart each night I create another daily camp report.

I’m so glad we brought “winter” camp to him for one last visit.

By Bruce I. Mallette

Bruce Mallette has been visiting the St. Lawrence River since 1956. The 3rd generation family camp on Chippewa Bay is the home of endless family memories. He continues a long lineage of Mallette associated “River Rats” with 1 generation from North Syracuse, 2 generations born in Ogdensburg; 6 Quebec generations in Rigaud, Oka, Vaudreuil, Ile de Montreal, Lachine, and Ville Marie; and 1 who moved from Saint-Coulomb, Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany, France to “Montreal” in the late-1600s.

Posted in: Volume 18, Issue 2, February 2023, History, Essay

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