By F. P. (Frank) Dorchak
It was 2:20 p.m. February 20, 2022.
I stood in the middle of my dad’s workshop, listening to the drone of the space heater switching on and off against the howling winter swirling and eddying outside the building. I imagined my dad, here, by himself…working on all his woodwork under the bright LED lighting lining the ceiling and beams…calming, classical music playing in the background…puffing on a pipe when he was smoking, otherwise not…his presence—honed from a lifetime of being underwater, in the woods, and helping and leading others—permeating everything. Hands confidently and skillfully manipulating wood to conform to his will, his specifications…smoothing it over…verifying its obedience…
Just him, his thoughts, and the wood.
I took it all in.
Dad would no longer grace this shop. The world that I knew.
Would never again shape or work another block of pine or walnut or oak. He was, as completely as the word could ever convey, gone.
He wasn’t on the phone to Homeward Bound.
Or performing yet another of his countless fundraisers and would—any moment now—pop back in through that door with the authority of a man on a mission.
Totally and forever. No more missions. His Craftsman Band Saw forever silent.
He’d always been there, but now, like the snow-filled gusts outside, his presence had become a wistful memory blasting through the landscape of Life.
Winter and the dead were made for each other.
I looked to his tools and his finished and unfinished projects. Recalled my last time in here, June of ’21. It was hard to not feel him still sitting…over there…on his stool. Planing or carving or constructing something…
Clearing his throat.
His nervous tics.
My eyes shot down to the bottom-most drawer in which laid the remnants of a violin kit. He’d bought and fashioned it together just for me. An actual, playable, violin-in-a-kit. He’d put it together last year. At 84 years of age. It was far from easy and was the last project he’d fully completed, his arthritis now far too advanced. I had only recently become a student of the instrument in 2020, at 59 years of age, but with every phone call Dad’d ask how my lessons were coming. On those occasions where I was having a particular difficulty, he’d calmly reassured me to “just keep it up…keep going…your grandfather would be proud”…
He was proud, dammit.
I wandered about the shop and touched the tools and projects he’d last handled. Recalled some of those projects: a kitchen remodel, the upstairs bathroom, all those to-scale submarines carved out of basswood and him reliving arguably the best years of his life…
I thought to my June trip, when I last cleaned up the shop for him. He was no longer able to…easily…do that for himself. His body had severely degraded from a lifetime of abuse from undersea electrocution to being tossed off a fire tower by a powerline lightning strike to who knew what else. He wasn’t much of a talker to his family, but he’d mentioned about a new tool cabinet he was to move over there, by a front window…
There are other, non-discrete, damages that also take their toll on a person.
Grief and regret.
The exhaustion of youth.
Pain changes a person. My wife told me that one.
I looked out the rear window into the dreary, snow-covered backyard.
Listened to the wicked winter that now engulfed my life.
And allowed myself to cry.
In 1967 my dad, Frank P. Dorchak, Jr., was a newly appointed NYS Conservation Department Forest Preserve Boundary Ranger. Badge number 22. Though the name changed to the Department of Environmental Conservation not long after he came into their ranks, my dad was an Adirondack Forest Ranger. He graduated from Wanakena’s Ranger School on February 16, 1966, and after a brief stint in New Hampshire, then back to NYS as the Boundary Ranger, he became Saranac Lake’s regional Stetson in ’69. He later became the Malone ranger in ’80, but was medically retired in ’95 from an on-the-job injury.
Dad died on February 13, 2022.
He was 85 and it had been congestive heart failure that had swatted him off the fire tower this time. His wife, Wanda Murtagh-Dorchak, could not be with him, because of COVID protocols. She’d been pulling out of their driveway when she’d received the call.
The loss of a life is like the loss of the most intimate encyclopedia ever created. It’s a sucking vacuum that extracts everything associated with that person into wherever it is such things go…and we’re only left with our own memories, experiences, and interpretations. No longer is that-whom-we-loved around to ask, “Hey, Dad, where were we that time you took me to work with you and we canoed through that remote boggy area?”
All their smiles and touches—their various intonations of voice—missing.
The words they used, their mannerisms. How they gave you that look. Or, you never realized until now, how they thought about you when you weren’t around, because you know they did. All sucked up into that all-too-real-world Twilight Zone.
Such…devastation…is life changing. Like ripping out your own heart.
Dad’s encyclopedia was vast. Held many chapters.
He’d never been defined by any one thing unless that thing was action. Always on the go, a man in the service of others. His mind was always working, right up until his death.
When I spoke at his funeral in Malone, I pronounced my dad a superhero. He saved lives, bettered lives, and in worst cases, retrieved them. He was wholly ingrained into the North Country community, a community of his people, despite his Yonkers origins. Not only was he a Forest Ranger/police officer, but he was also a father, a brother…a son and a husband…a small-business owner, a singer, actor, poet, master woodworker, Navy veteran, veteran’s advocate, artist, leatherworker, excellent cook/baker/griller/chef, adjunct college instructor, author, sheep farmer, PI, environmental consultant, and as he put it in his book, Periscopes in the Adirondacks, a “general pain-in-the-ass.”
As I wrote the above, I noticed something sneaky that caused me to laugh out loud: if you make initials out of Dad’s book title, you get “PITA.”
What are one of that initialism’s decryptions?
“Pain In The Ass.”
So, I guess, we can also add humorist to his list of accomplishments.
It’s easy to get lost in all of Dad’s many distinctions and decorations and not see the man behind the trinkets.
Humanity loves to define and elevate, kneecap and criticize. Pass judgements. Those are easy. What’s harder, and far more profound, is to see past all the bright-and-shiny and understand the marrow of an individual.
A man who, for reasons of his own, had been driven to perform on the behalf of others.
A man who sought out adventure and lofty goals, yet never attained the zenith of any one of them.
A man…with regrets.
A man who tried—in his own way—to better Life as well as areas in his life that needed correction, but wasn’t really sure how to go about making all those needed corrections…and sometimes actually ended up making things worse.
A man who outright barreled through Life…only to, much later, slow down and take stock.
As we age…as we progress through life…our priorities shift, and perhaps much like Kierkegaard’s religious death-bed postulation we can apply a more secular perspective: that to truly know oneself…one’s view of one’s life as-a-whole…only happens at the very end.
My father was not so much a “hard man” as a sensitive one, a sensitive one layered within the dense stratification of archeological masculinity as he wrestled with his own shortcomings. He lived in a rough-and-tumble world, dealt with rough-and-tumble individuals, and did rough-and-tumble work, but if you really knew him…penetrated his rough exterior…you’d see the heartwood.
Deep down, if we’re all brutally honest with ourselves, we’ll see that we are all to some degree sensitive in our own right. But it is precisely for this reason that we pushback and act tough to protect ourselves and our feelings. Save face. If we really are as tough as we portray, we wouldn’t need to lay it on, now, would we? And you can see that in my dad’s book, where he talks about how “men don’t cry” (baring a feeling), followed by the immediate and manly fist pounding of “Bullshit!”
Since when do Manly Men sit back and stare off into the distance and weep?
Apparently more often than we think, if my dad is any indication.
None of what I’m saying is news. It’s in his autobiography. And it is with this autobiography that dad had finally not only opened up to the world but (more importantly) to those closest to him. He’d finally exposed these hidden dimensions of his Larger Self in ways he simply couldn’t bring himself to do when he’d walked this planet’s woods, streams, and asphalt. And it is by his intentional or unintentional example that we must learn to not wait until we’re each lying in our own caskets to display our innermost selves, openly emote, or, by God, tell someone we love them.
When we’re alive there’s always time.
Until there isn’t.
There’s time to change, to become more open, to better communicate. My dad tried to do these things. We always said “Love you” whenever we signed off from the phone, e-mails, or left to return home from our trips. I was always so much more proud of him when he started doing this. Our last words to each other were precisely that: “Love you.”
Is there a better way to leave this world?
So, as I looked out that little, framed wintry workshop window into all that snow and looked to the trees out back there…as I inhaled the workshop smells and relived the memories of my father…as I listened to that heater switching on and off…I knew my dad was far more than all of his decorations, woodworking, and things he did or didn’t do. He was a man…just like any man (or woman)…who did the absolute best he could with his 31,232 days on Earth. He was of good intention. He was of incredible energy. He was possessed by a powerful drive to always do more.
His was a full life.
A life fully lived.
And he was my father and your Forest Ranger.