Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Forest for the Trees: Remembrance of Frank Dorchak by his son

frank dorchak

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.

Gone.

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!

The dichotomy.

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.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com




43 Responses

  1. Ruth Gais says:

    A lovely tribute! He would be very proud.

    Thank you!

    • Wow, how time flies. I thought I had responded to all of these, but it appears I have not. Thank you, Ruth. I am not egotistical when I say that I know he was proud of me—because he told me so (and I’d told him I was proud to have [had] him as my father). That’s what I mean about my dad…he was an apparent dichotomy until you really got into the marrow of who he is. He was tough, but he was also sensitive and loving. And people can be both. We can’t show every side to our personalities for various reasons.

      Thanks, again, Ruth.

  2. louis curth says:

    “If you really knew him…..You’d see the heartwood”, seems like a pretty apt way to describe my friend and fellow ranger.

    There is far more that I could relate about Frank and his many achievements. Suffice it to say that he was an outstanding ranger who succeeded in doing a great many worthwhile things during his years of service. Count me among those who will miss him greatly.

    • Louis:

      Thank you for your comments. I believe you also helped in getting the word out and things related to Dad’s passing at the time, and I thank you for that, too.

      When I think about ALL that Dad did, I am absolutely flabbergasted. Amazed. He did more, lived more, in his one lifetime than most people I know. He was, indeed, a superhero. He was there for the people of the North Country in and out of uniform and leaves a tremendous vacuum.

      From all I witnessed growing up with him and also hearing from others, he WAS an outstanding ranger.

      Again, Louis, thank you for your words.

  3. John Grant says:

    Thank you.
    I’ve been using my dad’s Craftsman bandsaw alot lately.

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    My father’s workshop…. I’m in it reading this…tears and thanks for reminding me/us about what is important, what has meaning.
    He would be proud of you.
    Thank you.

  5. Rob Bick says:

    A wonderful piece. I have lost both parents and my wife in the last 17 years, all far too young, and so much of what you relate rings true for me, as I suspect it does for many others. I suppose the ultimate goal is to be true to their memories and push forward, growing and learning while holding the goodness in them close and cherishing the time spent with them. Sometimes easier said than done.

  6. Thank you all for your kind comments. I keep thinking I’m all “cried out,” but then I read your comments and….

    It is tough when we lose someone we love, and for my dad, who was a huge part of the North Country, I felt I needed to honor him for all he’d done for all of you and more. He really WAS his job. Body and soul. And he was so damned proud of it, I could see it in how he responded to emergencies (not a grouse, not a curse, no matter how late or frigid it was outside) and even in how he treated the public. He really was respectful, I’d seen him in action with those who weren’t following the law. The few times I’d seen that, he merely let them off with a warning. He loved that job. He loved being out in the woods. On its waters. He tried to make Life better through his work in the woods. Thank you all again.

  7. Scott van Laer says:

    Ranger Dorchak was one of the best. I miss him. He was one of a kind.

  8. Sharon Biesele says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a man obviously well loved. I wish I could have known him, he sounds wonderful. I hope the memories you shared with your father provide you with some comfort.

    • That is so kind of you to say, Sharon, thank you. They do as much as memories can ever do, in cases like this. It is so hard to believe that he’s actually gone. I can still feel him…around.

  9. Harry Rissetto says:

    Condolences. Thank you for the beautiful remembrance.

  10. Susan Simpson says:

    Oh, Frank, that was beautiful! We can only hope that someone would write something as beautiful about us when we leave this physical world. You will miss him forever, but he is always with you. My Daddy died 40 years ago and I still talk to him and hear his voice, especially when I play dominoes.
    Well done, Frank. Thank you for sharing your Dad.

    • Thank you, Sue. Like you, and as I mentioned above, I do still feel him very much around, at times. I do even talk to him when I’m alone, sometimes. He just does not feel truly gone to me. Just in a different place. One where he’s no longer in pain and doing more good, because a force like him never really dies…just transmutes.

  11. Deb says:

    What a lovely and moving tribute. And what a wonderful man he had to be, to be so lovingly remembered. Well said.

  12. H.Seyfried says:

    This was a wonderful tribute to his loving dad.Loved reading this and the love shared for all these years with each other.We must never take any day for granted.Nice to see the I love you each time they spoke.Sorry for your loss though it was last year it is not easy and may his memories help keep him close to your heart. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Events like these have many take stock in their lives, which is probably one of the things we’re supposed to do. We should all never take our lives for granted. The years fly by quite quickly, and before you know it…

  13. ADKresident2 says:

    Damn. You’re a good son. He would be and I’m sure he was, proud.

  14. Gary Lee says:

    Nice Frank, its hard to let go but all this helps. Stay safe, Gary Lee

  15. Peter ODell says:

    Absolutely beautiful.. I have printed this out so I can read again.A wonderful father who made a lasting impression on a wonderful son RIP and God Bless

  16. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “He was 85 and it had been congestive heart failure that had swatted him off the fire tower this time. ”

    “The loss of a life is like the loss of the most intimate encyclopedia ever created.”

    > In reading what you write above Frank I see a lot which reminded me of my dad, ie…. puffing on a pipe; congestive heart failure (which sent my dad off two years ago this past January 11 at 95); ‘intimate encyclopedia (my dad was a walking encyclopedia); etc. I have felt and known what you share above and so eloquently express.

    “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.”

    > Yes, and that is what it should be about! About getting past our differences, about coming to understanding and seeing the uniqueness in others, getting past their imperfections, their differences, and as you say, ” 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.” Why does it almost always seem to be this way, that we become aware of what we could or should have said, or done, before they left this plain? I suppose it’s all about learning with each new experience, about maybe getting it right before our own time is up, about maybe becoming better ‘us’ in the meanwhile. Thank you for sharing. This hit home with me!

    • Thank you, Charlie, for your thoughtful insight. This is what Life is about, and it is about so many things, but it is certainly not about “perfection.” One look out the window confirms that. We are each put on this Earth (based on each person’s beliefs) for our own, personal reasons, and it is up to each of us to figure out our own way through it. But Life IS a collective…and we all effect everyone else. Maybe our mistakes will enable another to better their life. Doing good in both thought and deed affects everyone else.

  17. Eric Hancock says:

    Thank you for writing this wonderful tribute. I hope that in reading it I’ve honored such a full and meaningful life, at least in a small way.

  18. Thirty-some years ago, when I would go driving with my grandfather (my Dad’s dad) after his wife passed, there were times he was driving, we’d be laughing and talking, and he would suddenly burst out into tears and a full-on bout of crying.

    Then that was it. He’d be done.

    I’d turn to him and ask him what was wrong, and he would apologize and tell me that that’s what would happen: he’d be fine one moment, then the next, a memory of my grandma would hit him, and he’d just lose it.

    This is how I am, now: I’m fine until I’m not.

    It is as it should be at this point, but I thank each and every one of you for your contributions to my emotional state. You are truly wonderful people.

    Though I have not (Yet? I keep telling myself I’m going to do so…) responded individually to each of your comments and honoring of my father, I AM reading them and I am deeply and unapologetically moved by all of them. I thank you for having taken the time to remember and honor my father. Many of you directly knew him, and I am amazed-but-not-surprised by your sentiments and can’t thank you enough for expressing them. It is also wonderful that it brings some of you back to your own family members who have passed. People are never truly gone when we hold them in our hearts.

    Again, I may not respond to each comment, but know that I AM reading them and taking each and every one of them to heart and cannot thank each and everyone of you enough.

  19. Ruth Gais says:

    I’m a hospital chaplain and sometimes family members apologize for crying at the death of a loved one. I say to them that there is no need to apologize for loving someone; the saddest times are when there is no one to cry.

    • “Archeological masculinities” need to be unearthed and examined for what they were–without prejudice–and a new understanding of what it is to be a person-of-whatever-identity needs to be implemented. Express your love as you can, but do not be afraid of showing it. We need far more expressions of love in this world.

      Thank you, Ruth.

  20. Nathan says:

    i was slowly reading your tribute and i smiled many a time. Frank sounds so much like my long departed grandfather, “Teddy friend” running the Newcomb ski tow for the kids to have something to do in winter. Grandpa was forever making ski’s for kids who couldnt afford them, fixing his old truck, milking a cow, raising chickens, victory garden, he just always seemed to know how to fix or make something. Teddy was always helping neighbors. hearing your rememberances just struck a cord within me, when the adirondacks was a much harder a life. winter travel was truely dangerous, snowbanks 8-10 feet high, roads were compacted ice and sand hiding the asphalt many inches below. every old timer was good at fixing things, cutting wood and surviving a very hard, harsh life. But family love was plentiful and memories are treasured.

    I very much harmonize with your memories of your dad, and also the workshop that symbolizes them and sadly stands without it’s master and screams at me of warm memories and and family lost. sadly this is part of our lives and as we go along we loose those people we prize the most.

    • Thank you for your memories and comments, Nathan. I do remember the Adirondacks of the 60s and 70s. All of what you said about the Adirondacks I do remember first-hand! My dad and grandfather were two of those who know how to just about do or fix anything. It always amazed me. And it was fun learning from my dad and grandfather. Unfortunately, since I’d left home in 1979 I’m not sure how much of all that I’d learned has been functionally retained, though I do seem to be able to fix a wide variety of things off-the-cuff by deconstructing them. Except engines. Not a car guy. But maybe that’s typical with “folks of a certain background.”

      I also remember, as a kid, Dad taking him with me on so many trips into the woods, either while he was working or any of the other times, either off duty or some other reason he had to be in those woods. We’d go to these little shacks that people stayed in, and I was always amazed at these tiny buildings (“building,” which was saying a LOT for what these structures were, most not much bigger than a lean-to or outhouse!) that people stayed in. I remember thinking how tough they had to be to do that in all kinds of weather–and just what were they doing out there in the first place?! As I look back on it now, there seemed to be a whole lotta shacks built out in the deep woods that no one ever really talked about! But I loved it when Dad, and sometimes our neighbor, Marie Mussen, took me with them to seek these huts out or explore the greater Adirondack woods.

      And I never complain about the weather. So many people seem to these days (among other things), but to me it’s just part of what you sign up for by living where you do. And “cold”? Yeah, I remember those Adirondack COLD days of deep negative numbers and their wind chills, snow that sounds like Styrofoam, perhaps a month of no sun, and I was out it them pretty much every day, since we raised some livestock, and, well, I just being out in all kinds of weather…but it was all a part of growing up in those mountains. In high school I loved running cross-country meets in the rain and mud. I loved pitting myself against the elements!

      And I miss my dad always out in the shop doing something. Day or night. Or knowing that wherever I was…he was most likely still out in his workshop…doing something. Now I know exactly where he is, but it’s for an entirely different reason.

      Thanks, again, Nathan.

  21. louis curth says:

    F.P. (Frank): Your recent comments about your dad were a wonderful elixir, especially during the Christmas season. Back in the day, Regional Director Tom Monroe encouraged DEC to open its doors at Ray Brook and welcome in the community to join us for our annual Christmas party. It was a great idea!

    Among the highlights of this event was the singing of Christmas carols led by your dad’s singing (accompanied by my wife on guitar). This was followed by visits from Smokey Bear (aka Eddie Samburgh) and then (drum roll) a visit from Santa Claus. Frank and another DEC employee, Darlene Thornton, deserve much of the credit for the success of these annual parties.

    Frank also played a leadership role in our Forest Preserve Centennial celebration and much, much more. There’s a nice photo of him and Tom and Commissioner Williams in my centennial ranger history which is now available at this free on-line book site for anyone interested:

    https://nysl.ptfs.com/aw-server/rest/product/purl/NYSL/s/7908436a-cf33-443b-ab06-a06a0d1c952f

    Merry Christmas to you and the memory of your Dad.

    • Bob Meyer says:

      Re: centennial ranger history.
      WOW! Am I interested? You bet Louis! I just downloaded the PDF and will greatly enjoy reading it through. THANK YOU!

    • Thank you so much, Lou. I remember Dad mentioning those Christmas parties off and on, now and then. I also knew Eddie. He came around the house a lot and I’d met him a fair amount when Dad took me to work with him, especially up into the St. Regis (I believe it was) fire tower. Twice? I made Darlene’s acquaintance while setting up my Dad’s services and all. Dad truly loved all that stuff–and he loved his job. Looking forward to reading your book…thank you for the link.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours and thank you for mentioning my dad in the well wishes.

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