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Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It!

Early this season, a group of volunteers from the Grenell Island chapel came to our cottage to move the Baldwin organ from our little cottage to the chapel. Gary’s father, Bob McElresh, died in June. The square grand piano, which he played for decades was donated to Boldt Castle in 2003. Now his Baldwin organ resides in the Grenell Island Chapel. Bob’s love for music will continue on.

On a sunny Sunday in August, the Baldwin organ, as well as new hymnals, were dedicated in the chapel. My husband, Gary, and I were on hand for the dedication. Little did I know that our family and neighbors would be an integral part of the sermon…but not because of the organ.

The Grenell Island Chapel season runs from the first week of July through the first Sunday in September. In that 10-week season, visiting ministers of varying denominations come to Grenell to hold services. That particular Sunday, the Reverend James Brown, a Presbyterian minister from Harrisburg, PA was the guest minister. Jim is not new to 1000 Islands, nor to Grenell. Jim came to the islands often as a young lad. He and wife, Nina, honeymooned in the islands 46 years ago. The rented a cottage for a few years and eventually purchased a cottage at Thousand Island Park 40 years ago.

Rev. Brown started his sermon with a modern day parable titled “Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It” from a book of the same name written by Gregory Knox Jones. The story told of a golf course in Calcutta where monkeys would drop out of the trees, scurry across the course and play with the golf balls, which were in play. All efforts to control the monkeys proved futile, so the course adopted the policy of, “playing the ball where the monkey dropped it.”

The Rev. Brown then set out to describe how Grenell Island is like a golf course in Calcutta by saying, “Island dwellers have much to teach each other and mainlanders about taking things as they come. Let me tell you a story that makes my point.”

As the Rev. Brown then began describing the events of July 29th, a smile crossed my face. I had been hiking at Wellesley Island State Park that day and returned to Grenell to find the rest of my family in the midst of a rescue mission.

The Rev. Brown explained that on July 29th, his son was married at the Grenell Island Chapel. The bride, Maggie Gelineau, is from southern California. Maggie tagged along when Rev. Brown was guest minister at the Grenell Island chapel last year. She fell in love with the fairy tale chapel on the remote little island and decided this is where she wanted to get married.

Dorothy Topping, who keeps the schedule for the chapel, had put a notice in the Grenell Island Community House earlier in the week to let islanders know if they heard the chapel bell ring on the 29th, it was to announce the happy nuptials, not to spread the alarm that there was a fire on the island.

“The real drama came when a boat ferrying a dozen of our weddings guests, including my wife Nina, began to take on water over the transom as it rounded Hub. I was on the dock and was a bit puzzled by how high the bow was as it made its way to the Hind’s dock.

Nina was more than puzzled as water lapped over her shoes. The pilot of the boat, who is nameless, but is here in the congregation this morning, said quietly as the boat labored up to the dock, ‘You’ll need to get off quickly’ and gave Nina and the others more than his usual gentle assist. Everyone got off.

Then the boat settled to the bottom of the slip in 3-4 feet of water. The guests made their way to the chapel, including the owner of the boat who looked a bit crestfallen and the wedding commenced.

The monkey had tossed this particular ball where no one expected, and more than a few of us at the wedding were thinking that this was a mess that would take several days to rectify. But this was not to be the case. This is where Grenell Island chutzpah came into play.”


As the wedding began, Grenell Islanders sprang to action. The Rev. Brown was not the only who had noticed the odd angle of the boat. Paul Willey, a guest of Stu and Helve Clough, had noticed the aft of the boat abnormally low in the water and had directed the pilot of the sinking boat to pull up to the very end of the dock, so it would be in the shallowest part of water…probably saving the engine.

Helve then alerted my husband who was mowing the lawn at the Grenell Island Community House that a boat sunk at Hind’s dock.

Stu was quickly on hand to assess the situation. The transom was low and the people who had been standing in the aft of the boat had allowed water to pour in and fill the boat as they crossed from Thousand Island Park. Stu, who is always in the midst of some wood working project, measured the opening, quickly disappeared to his workshop and quickly crafted a temporary wooden dam to place over the low opening in the transom. He returned to the boat with the improvised damn complete with towels and rags as “sealers.”

My daughter, Michelle, and her husband Don were visiting that week and noticed Gary’s quick return and asked what was wrong. When Gary reported that a boat had sunk, they did what most island people do when they hear of a neighbor or even of a stranger in peril, they dropped everything and rushed to see if they could help.

Gary brought a big pail and a sump pump. Don and Gary got into the boat with Inga Falterman, Stu & Helve’s daughter. The three bailed like mad, but to no avail. Water was still pouring over the temporary transom dam. Jim Holden, another islander had arrived on the scene to help. Gary and Jim got in the water and struggled to lift the end of the transom.

The boat was very heavy. As my mathematically-minded husband calculated, because a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds and there were probably 250-300 gallons of water in the boat, that he and Jim were lifting quite literally, a ton of water. Add to that the weight of the boat and the two people inside bailing. Somehow, the two men were able to muscle the boat high enough out of the water so the temporary dam could do its job.

The sump pump now had a chance to replace the bailers. Once pumped out, there was nothing to do, but clean up the water mess with sponge and towels.


By the time the ceremony was over The Lady Slipper was at the dock, floating once again.  The engine, a Yamaha outboard, had not suffered any water damage and as Rev. Brown put it, “This story would be on par with the Red Sea Crossing if the motor had started, but a discharged battery kept that from happening for another day.”

The rest of the wedding party and guests were ferried away in other boats. Helve who had custody of her 1-year-old grandchild, while others lifted, bailed or crafted temporary dams, wrote down the names of everyone and the details of the event and passed the information on to Paige Steiding, Grenell Island’s, young writing prodigy and Thousand Island Sun Grenell Island correspondent.

The story of the sinking and raising of the Lady Slipper was first told to the world in the Grenell Island Column of the Thousand Island Sun. It was not the first, nor I doubt the last retelling of the story. As the Rev. Brown said in the conclusion of his sermon:

“This wedding ball was played where the Grand Monkey of Life placed it. This is part of the challenge of island life, isn’t it? You take what comes and rely on the resources at hand to make the best of it. You need each other. No one is an island. No boater stands alone. The story of the sunken ‘Lady Slipper” will be told in our family ages hence. It will become part of the lore of this blessed island, I’m sure.”

Rev. Brown is right. Island life provides us with many challenges: weather, boating difficulties, water levels, invading wildlife, etc. It is the challenges we face together that creates many of the joys of our community spirit on Grenell. On the island, we play the ball where the monkey drops it.


By Lynn E. McElfresh

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, often writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life.  We have learned a great deal over the past year from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends.  This month Lynn wrote to say she had already started on another topic for September when she realized that the sermon that week was about her family… and suddenly she had a new story to share!  Lynn, like all our authors spends a great deal of time for TI Life. We certainly appreciate her efforts. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.

Posted in: Places, People
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Dorothy Topping
Comment by: Dorothy Topping ( )
Left at: 7:33 AM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Nicely done, Lynn. It's a great story and typical of Islanders helping one another.
Dick Greene
Comment by: Dick Greene ( )
Left at: 9:44 PM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
I enjoyed Lynn's story of Grenell, Josh (vs. John) and Maggie's wedding, and the drama of water transportation. I'm the anonymous pilot who ferried guests to the wedding and, while I appreciate Jim Brown's omitting my name from his sermon, this seems like a good time to "come clean".

The facts are well - and kindly - presented. I would only add that it's at least unsettling to hear "my feet are getting wet; is that supposed to happen?" while the borrowed, wedding guest laden boat you're driving is still 100 yards from the dock!

Jim Brown, boat owner Gault Farrell and I have been good friends for 50 years. So it was a pleasure for me to help with water transportation from T I Park to Grenell and it was no surprise that Gault generously allowed me to substitute his larger boat for my small outboard when my inboard's cranky ignition kept it tied to the dock.

I'm grateful that some wet shoes and a few good stories are the worst outcomes of what might have been a lot less pleasant. And I'm especially grateful for the remarkable ingenuity, resourcefulness, and willingness to literally jump in to help of Grenell's island community.

If there are lessons to be learned here, they are that with the right attitude, abilities and "island spirit," a potentially serious situation can be remembered as a good story - and. of course, that the load should be kept well forward on an outboard.

Dick Greene
Thousand Island Park
Comment by: Jaime ( )
Left at: 10:10 PM Monday, September 20, 2010
I am a member of Jim Brown's church in Pennsylvania, though I currently live in Atlanta. My parents got this link from Jim and forwarded it to me. I thought you would enjoy knowing that your lovely story is being read by people all over the country.

I hope I have a chance to visit Thousand Islands some day!