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Camp Van Vac

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Thinking of Buell Tubbs on Father's Day


My Dad would never have put me in a Longboard Baby Stroller, the kind advertised on It looks radical, and the promo says, “get your child hooked on the adrenaline rushes from an early age with some crazy downhill rides,” on the stroller with a skateboard on the back for Dad. The copy actually says, who wouldn’t want their kid “whizzing down the streets at dangerous speeds?”

Not my Dad for sure. I’m browsing a Pinterest site featuring gifts “For the Awesome Dad” on Father’s Day, thinking of my Dad, Leonard Buell Tubbs, who was born on November 18, 1913 and died December 1, 2005. How times have changed. Dad would have been quietly puzzled by the red skull-and-crossbones ice cube tray, slippers shaped like tanks, a Zippo hand warmer and the Sam Adams Octoberfest beer milkshake.

In his day, parents pragmatically carried the baby in the crook of an arm or on a shoulder. Ice cubes came out square, slippers were wool lined if you were lucky, and you drank a Bud or maybe a gin and tonic in the company of couples your own age while sitting on the dock laughing at your troubles.

Buell served in the Marine Corps during World War II, stationed in the frostbitten Aleutian Islands off Alaska, where American troops struggled to stay warm without today’s fleece, mukluks or Thinsulate. Northern Minnesota winters couldn’t have been any warmer, and I know that on many days his hands and feet still felt that Aleutian chill.

My Dad and Mom, Winnie, took over Camp Van Vac from my great aunt and uncle in 1947. He brought a Marine Corps drill instructor’s discipline, a Depression Era frugality and determined work ethic to the simple log-cabin resort. By the time he retired in 1984, he’d taught hundreds of cabin cleaners how to fold hospital corners on bed sheets, sweep the spiders from an outhouse, run an outboard motor and find Crab Lake Portage through a tangle of islands on the west end of Burntside. When, as a teenager, I got tired of being told to “Do it over right,” I finally gave in and paid attention to every last detail of cabin cleaning the way he did.

Camp’s guests didn’t see the DI instructor. They were impressed by the quiet man in the khaki pants and shirt who could split wood all day, took them to find blueberries on the rocky islands and could portage a hundred-pound green canvas wooden canoe over the mile-long uphill-both-ways Crab Portage. He could steer a canoe, straight as a jet. Plant a garden to harvest a respectable crop of green beans. Cook up a pot of stew that lasted a week, with a can of beans or handful of spaghetti added to the kettle as needed.


Though he didn’t talk a lot, he’d impress us with his knowledge of the woods and lake, or often surprise with a twist. “How many bears do you suppose are out there,” someone asked him across the front desk at Camp. “Well, it doesn’t take very many to make a dozen,” he said.


Once we filled the pickup with bags of trash to head to the dump, but found it closed for the day. We backed the truck into a garage stall, but the door wouldn’t quite close around the hood. We fastened it as well as we could. When the bear appeared, my Dad climbed up on the old garage’s tin roof, armed with fire crackers, which he lobbed toward the bear every time it appeared. The old bear would back up, just around the turn in the road and wait awhile before making another try. My Dad held out for a couple of hours before the mosquitoes drove him off the roof. Sure enough the next morning we found trash strewn down the road and a dirty diaper smeared on the truck windshield. I don’t remember him complaining.

I’m always struck by the stories guests tell me when they reminisce about my Dad. They arrived late at night to find the cabin warm because he’d built a fire in their woodstove. They were lost on the lake and he searched in the rain in his wooden Kennedy until he found them and towed their boat back to safety. Kindness. Quiet competence.

He and my brother Don scraped all of the cabin logs from years of kerosene lantern smudge and smoke and left them with a varnished finish that still glows. They formed cement blocks and constructed a sauna, built and rebuilt docks after ice damage in the spring, and hauled ice blocks out of the lake in mid-winter to stock the old ice house.

Looking back I remember the daily comforts he provided me, getting up first on school days in the dead of winter to turn up the heat. He’d make my oatmeal, warm up the old Volkswagen and drive me out to the school bus at the end of our gravel road. A few times the overnight snow was so heavy that we had to walk out on snowshoes. I remember those times, too, when he picked me up from the bus. I’d be tired and crabby from the day, and he’d sing to me all the way back to the house.

If my Dad were here today, I know I’d show more gratitude than I did on those tired afternoons. And we wouldn’t be celebrating Father’s Day with some goofy gift from Pinterest. There’s no need for the Longboard Stroller. The beer milkshake sounds gruesome.

Maybe we’d start the day with a bowl of oatmeal, then boat out to an island and check out the blueberry crop. It’s been a cool spring. He’d be feeling the chill. Looking back at the catalog for likely presents, maybe I’d consider the Zippo Hand Warmer. Maybe their fleeciest men’s slippers. It would need to be something quietly, warmly awesome.