Dear Old Dad: May you finally find time to relax

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Carl P.J. Forkes was a man of many talents and few ambitions. He could play any musical instrument he put in his hands. He was a baritone in the church choir — in fact deep down I would guess the old man was a musician. He seemed to like two things above everything: working and being comfortable. Then came Pall Malls and coffee.

Casimir Pulaski High School, one of the places dad worked in as an electrician

He did put his family above all those things though, providing for us on his electrician’s salary from the Milwaukee School Board, made sure we saw doctors and dentists, took us out for ice cream when we had our tonsil taken out.

He probably craved comfort so much because he never experienced it until well into adulthood. He was born in Milwaukee, but spent most of his childhood years working on a farm his parents owned in Central Wisconsin. Back in the day, as late as the 1970s even, farm work was very physical, and required long hours. All his older brothers and sister dropped out of high school to work around the farm. My dad was the first to graduate from high school.

Between high school and World War II Dear Old Dad worked as a dishwasher in a Milwaukee restaurant, which is where he met our mother, Harriet Theoharris. Washing dishes in busy restaurants is no easy task today, let alone 80 years ago.

But on December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy and a month later Dad was in the U.S. Navy. Some grizzled chief asked if there were any electricians in his class of inductees and Dear Old Dad stepped forward. Working on a farm you learn a few things about everything, so he had some rudimentary knowledge on the subject.

For the next 4-1/2 years Dad spent his time in some of the most uncomfortable quarters know to civilized man: in Navy bunks on ocean-going vessels. It was tough, grueling work, 12 on, 12 off, punctuated by warfare. His second ship a destroyer escort, saw heavy action in the Pacific Ocean, from the Marshall Islands, to the Philippines, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Some of his fellow crewmembers never made it home.

Dear Old Dad in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1943

After the war, with one son at home and a grateful wife, he set about making a life, supporting his family as an electrician, eventually landing a final job working for the school system. It had good pay and great benefits. He worked there for 30 years, finally getting his pension at the age of 60. In the final years of his life he just wanted to take it easy. Mom and dad — and the two youngest brothers — moved from Milwaukee to a little town in northwest Wisconsin and settled into retired life. It was a house with tall oak trees surrounding it, plus ten acres of wood and marsh.

My parents had eight children, three of them now deceased, so they had children to raise from November 1943 until September 1982 when our youngest brother went off to college. Think of that — 39 years.

Dad didn’t live that long. He died after a series of heart attacks in March 1980. He didn’t get to spend many years relaxing. He didn’t know how to relax. Every day he went out into the woods looking for fallen trees to use for firewood. This house he and mom bought had a wood fire stove and they decided to save money by heating the place with it in the extreme winters. It did the job, but it required a lot of work.

Sort of like being on a farm when you had set chores that had to be done at a certain time of day. We never wanted the fire to go out in that stove during the winters and that required a lot of wood. The old man would go out every day to collect the chopped wood for the stove, or he would be out in the forest looking for the dead trees.

The deck Dad built on the house in Northern Wisconsin

Three months before he died I spent time with the folks. Every day we went out into that little forest foraging for fallen trees. This was a guy who smoked two packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and drank roughly two pots of coffee every day. And there I was about to die from the exertion of sawing and chopping wood. He stops and says to me, “Need a break?”

Hell no! If the old man can do it at (nearly) 60 I can do it — although in reality I was spent. When we finished and went back into the house, I collapsed in the nearest chair. But the old man was ready to do something else.

We would drive to places in the area, which is still beautiful and wild in places. In 1980 there were people who were new to having running water in the house. It would be accurate to say some places in that part of Wisconsin and Minnesota were remote and that’s what our parents liked about the area — it wasn’t a congested big city.

He was only able to “relax” after retirement for two years. He built a deck on that new house, he built up the basement — he did more work in a day than he ever did on the job. For him, that was relaxing. When you compare me to him it is obvious the apple has fallen far from the tree. Even more distinctly different: I’ve never been married, never had children. In most ways my father and I are nothing alike.

Dad and Mom at our sister Elaine’s wedding.

He was a child of the Great Depression, part of the greatest generation that saved the world from tyranny. He helped Mom raise eight kids in the post-war boom — five of us kids are baby boomers. Dad watched two of his sons join the military during the Vietnam War, a gut-wrenching ordeal for both him and our mother. When I came home after nearly four years in the Marines Dad couldn’t stop hugging me and crying. At the time I didn’t understand it. Thirty-nine years later I have a little more perspective.

In the last years of his life his one ambition was to retire and relax — in his way. I missed him a lot in the decades since he’s been gone. He was an anchor when I felt adrift in a confusing world. Dads are like that for some people, moms too.

The one knock on the old man that I will share here: When I was about 12, maybe 11, I announced I was going to be a major league pitcher, just like Warren Spahn. The old man said I was too short and would never make it. I never played baseball after that. I forgot about it too, until one day I met the Milwaukee Brewers pitcher, Teddy Higuera, who didn’t appear to be much taller than me. Then I remembered. What an A-hole.

That was the thing about dad: he didn’t want his kids to have any ambitions bigger than his. He turned down promotions at his job with pay raises that would have been good for his family. He never wanted to leave his comfort zone and he didn’t think his kids should either.


No one is perfect, not even dad.

Dear Old Dad. I don’t really miss him much anymore, but I think of him and mom every day. Dad would be 99 if he were still alive and if he was still with us I might have never left Wisconsin for California. The anchors are long gone — Mom and Dad (mom in 1990) — so I have moved on.

Rest In Peace and Happy Father’s Day.

Photos provided by Tim Forkes
Top photo: The family. Dad is top right behind two of his five sons.
The author is at the bottom, wearing glasses.