Father’s Day: Remembering Dear Old Dad 36 years later

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It never occurs to me to write something about Father’s Day because my father has been gone for 36 years now. Not to mention, I’ve never fathered any children myself. But what I gather from my family members and friends who are fathers is that there is no greater joy in their lives than watching their children grow up.

Of course, judging from my youthful days, there are a few moments of … despair …

But for the most part the dads I know love their kids and they are — rightfully so — at the very top of their list of priorities.

Growing up our mother had a thing about the word “kids.” Don’t know what it was about, baby goats are called kids I guess, but for a while mom didn’t like calling children “kids.” Maybe one of my sisters can decipher that one.

The back of the house were we grew up in Milwaukee, WI
The back of the house were we grew up in Milwaukee, WI

There is one guy I know, no names here because he doesn’t need me to cause him any embarrassment, he wrote a list of his top priorities and his children didn’t even crack the top five. He thought about that for a moment and then put them at #3 … “Number Three,” I asked?

Doesn’t matter what his top two priorities were, I was curious as to why his children — who he really, truly dotes on — weren’t number one, like every other father I know.

He thought about that question for a bit and didn’t have a reasonably good answer, for himself. Suffice to say he’s done a lot of soul-searching and now his kids are at the top of his list — with his wife.

It’s interesting to me because by all appearances, be it in action or words, this guy puts his children and wife at the top of his list — he just didn’t think that way. The reasons why are for him alone to dissect and act upon, if that’s what he chooses to do. There is no judgment from me. I am no paragon of virtue, not by a long shot.

Growing up in Milwaukee, WI I thought it was my duty to drink enough beer to make up for all the non-drinkers so we could keep our city’s gallons per adult per year average — 49 gallons per adult per year, highest in the nation at the time —higher than everywhere else, especially St. Louis, home of them effin’ Cardinals. … and Anheuser-Busch.. Screw Budweiser and Michelob, I’d say, but with an F bomb.

And a bottle of beer was incomplete without a shot or two of whisky to go with it — Jack Daniels preferably. A nice Andeker with a shot of JD — that was the ticket, or so I used to think.

When my father died I was deep into my drinking days, drunk just about every day. On the days when I wasn’t drunk, I was recuperating from the days when I was, but usually that didn’t last very long.

Dear Old Dad like to be physically active — and he smoked two-three packs of Pall Malls a day and drank at least a pot of coffee per day. As a result, at the age of 62 he had a series of heart attacks.

Dad in the U.S. Navy, in Honolulu, HI during WWII.
Dad in the U.S. Navy, in Honolulu, HI during WWII.

Now, I could have traveled the 400 miles to visit him and help Mom and my sisters care for him while he recovered, but I didn’t. I stayed in Milwaukee and did my usual routine: drink, work, drink, pass out, repeat.

When he had that final heart attack about 10 days after the first one, I was deep into that routine, thinking I should be up there, be there for him, as he had been there for me so many times. Dad was the guy who drove me to the induction center when I entered the Marine Corps. He hugged me in the car when we arrived and he was a bit emotional. That seemed out of character for him. When I came home on leave in the winter and passed out in a snow bank he came out after midnight to get me home.

When I called home and spoke to him about going across the Pacific Ocean, he told me to have my fun, but be careful and told me things about what he did when he was a sailor in foreign lands. Every time I went home on leave he was proud to hug me and tell his friends and when I was finally discharged he picked me up at the bus stop and cried as he hugged me.

He told me how our mother had cried for three days after I left to join the military, had me all set up for a union card with the local IBEW in Milwaukee after I got out.

And three months before he died, as we chopped wood on his Northern Wisconsin property, we talked about life, my life and my choices. He didn’t judge, he was no saint when he had been my age. When he was 24 years old he was hunting Japanese submarines in the Pacific. When he wasn’t doing that he was drinking and carrying on like he was a single man. That’s what we talked about, and about what it was like to be a civilian again, trying to get by in a world that had no rules, no authority — no esprit de corps. Even if you didn’t like a fellow sailor or marine, you had his or her back, no matter what. Cardinal rule, ask any veteran: Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Air Force.

Yep, that’s what we talked about. It’s been our private conversation for 35 years. He tried to give me some guidance because I was swirling down the drain.

So when he died I stayed drunk and high for nearly a month, every day and night, before, during and after work. Buzzed on the way to the funeral in Webster, WI, buzzed while there, wasted on the way back and blitzed during the rituals and family time in Milwaukee. That’s how I honored my father when he passed away.

Curious thing: for two or three weeks after he died I could walk into any bar, tell the bartender we just buried my father and it was free drinks all night. After about two or three nights of this it became apparent my dad’s death was boom time at bar time. — until I tried it on a bartender for the second time. That was embarrassing — two weeks after I first used that line.

For many years I felt guilty about it until about 15 years after he passed I went to his crypt in Milwaukee and made my peace with him, or at least my memories of him.

Dad and Mom in 1979
Dad and Mom in 1979

He was a good guy, with all his flaws. We all have flaws of course, but sometimes we forget our parents had good qualities too. The old man was a jokester — mom was a better jokester — dad could play any instrument after putzing with it for a few minutes. He was a singer, a very good baritone and he and mom could cut a rug. They grew up and spent World War II dancing to big bands.

He had a lot of friends and hundreds turned out for his funeral.

But mainly he was our dad. Built a camping trailer and tried to give us a good life for all his years. We went camping at Spectacle Lake in Wisconsin nearly every year. Some years we camped in Spooner, WI to be with members of his family.

Dad was the son of Hungarian immigrants who came here just before WWI. He was the first of his brothers and sisters to graduate from high school. He could have gone on to college, but during the Great Depression it was financially out of reach for him. Plus, he grew up on a farm and working with his hands was a way of life.

That desire for hard, manual labor skipped over me. I’ve done it of course in several foundries, not to mention working on the same farm where Dad was raised.

Thanks to Dad (and Mom) I loved Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodwin and others. Thanks to Dad I became a voracious reader, reading Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and too many others to list.

One year the old man bought the family’s first stereo. He set it up in the living room so if we wanted to listen to rock music — literally all of it — we had to do it with Dad in his chair reading a book and Mom in the kitchen doing mom things. They heard it all, including the Zappa, Mothers of Invention, Fugs and the first Woodstock album with the famous Fish Cheer by Country Joe McDonald. Dear Old Dad did eventually buy headphones …

Neither parent batted any eye. They let me go see the James Gang and the Mothers of Invention concerts by myself. Dad even picked me up a couple of times.

There’s so much I could write about the Old Man, Dear Old Dad, but who has time to read it all? Let’s just say I was lucky to have my dad, Carl P.J. Forkes.

Happy Father’s Day Old man. Thanks for everything.

Photos provided by Tim Forkes
Top photo: Carl P.J. Forkes with his five sons, circa 1971.