On the morning of March 11, 2017, I didn’t yet know that my father was in the process of dying. I was in an AirBnB outside Buenos Aires, as far away as you could be from Vancouver General Hospital. That Saturday, from the moment I woke I felt an urgent need to write out my dad’s epic life story. It had occurred to me that he would die one day, and when he did, I would be in no shape to write his obituary. Better to do it now.
So that’s how without even knowing it, from 7000 miles away, I came to write this obituary of my father on the very day of his death.
January 18, 1924 – March 11, 2017
Dacker Thicke was born into a silver rush, and grew up in a gold rush. That explains a great deal.
He was born January 18, 1924 in New Liskeard, Canada, the unspoiled outer edge of the legendary silver fields of Cobalt. Ten percent of all the silver in the world was being extracted from a handful of mines there. At the time of his birth, prospectors were as thick on the ground as the horse flies that bit chunks out of their flesh as they dug, scooped out, bored and chipped away, all in search of one thing: silver. They persevered against the horse flies in summer, cold that defied belief in winter. Those prospectors of Dacker’s childhood were dreamers with rock hammers, and most would fail.
Just sixty miles to the north, more dreamers were staking their future on another mineral: gold! The young Thicke family moved on to Kirkland Lake, a boom town straddling one of the richest deposits ever discovered. It was the ‘Mile o’ Gold’ where the streets were literally paved with the stuff – thanks to the road-building crew mistaking a pile of gold ore for waste rock (they’d paved over the gold before their error was discovered).
If you walked to the end of the newly-paved Prospect Avenue and turned left, you would arrive at the house where Dacker grew up with his parents Chuck and Dorothy, his brothers Don and Brian, his sister Dixie. Their two-storey house had a name: Duncan Villa. What further set it apart, besides being the only two-storey structure in that pioneering time, was its majestic fieldstone fence. In the garden where Chuck lovingly tended his flowers stood a fountain of the same fieldstone, two tiers high, its base a home to goldfish until the cold killed them.
For all of that, Duncan Villa was a modest house: Chuck Thicke, a bake-shop owner and an entrepreneur, was as much a dreamer as any prospector.
Surrounded by dreamers, Dacker came of age during the Great Depression. Not that the Crash touched them in Kirkland Lake: all through the “Dirty Thirties” the mines never stopped, the bars and brothels were full, and Saturday night was always alright for fighting.
“That Harry Thicke”
Born Harry Dacre Thicke, Dacker was considered “the bad boy of Kirkland Lake”, as he chronicled (with some pride) in his story of that name. In adulthood his honesty was unassailable: he once returned to its owner an envelope stuffed with cash – at a time when he and his two children were making their home in a youth hostel. But at fourteen, it was a different story. At fourteen he was the head of a gang of criminals. His life of juvenile crime – stealing cigarettes, joyriding, acting as a lookout for a Chicago gang, spying on prostitutes – ended only when he was arrested for grabbing all the shoes out of a window display, right feet only, hardly a fitting crime to finish his career. The judge sentenced him to reform school where one of his lieutenants was already incarcerated. The gang was done.
That year in reform school, he graduated from grade eight with the best marks of his life. “I had no choice,” he would later tell his great nephew, pausing for effect. “If I didn’t study, the guards would beat the crap out of me.”
Released from reform school after ten months, he joined the waves of young men riding the rails across Canada. During the day he would beg door to door for food – “always bloody ketchup sandwiches” – and by night he’d duck behind the boxcars, playing hide and seek with the railroad police.
One ketchup sandwich too many, and he made his way back to Kirkland Lake. He found work digging ditches. Literally. He was bent over shoveling one day, his shirt tied around his waist, when his former teacher passed him by.
“Look,” she said to the students who were with her, pointing her finger at him. “If you quit school, that’s how you’ll end up – like that Harry Thicke.”
He put his shovel down and joined the military bugle corps. There was a war on, after all.
The War Years
Charlie Chow’s Hotel was the unlikely spot where Dacker Thicke’s war career began in March 1940. It was there that the recruiting desk had been established. Amidst the prospectors and miners passing through to the Beverage Room, Dacker filled out his enlistment form. He had already lied about his age to enter the bugle corps so it was no stretch to pen eighteen on the form now. He was fifteen and three-quarters.
“Harry Thicke,” the recruiter called, eying the dark-haired boy before him with the fair, unblemished skin and the nose too big for his face. Clearly he wasn’t old enough to grow a beard, let alone fight on the front lines. The recruiter stamped his form approved. “You won’t get farther than the training camp,” he warned. The recruiter was dead wrong.
A week later, kit bag in his hand, Dacker joined a group of young recruits in Swastika, Ontario. Named before Hitler was even born, Swastika was the closest railway station to his hometown. The boys with him that day had been designated Employment Platoon Number Two. The train pulled up, and took them south, to Camp Borden. It was here Harry became Dacker.
“There are too many Harrys here,” the sergeant complained as he took camp roll call. “Thicke, you’ll go by your middle name.” He looked down at the enlistment form filled out in Charlie Chow’s Hotel. Harry had misspelled his own middle name – which should have been Dacre, from his mother’s side. “It says here ‘D-a-c-k-e-r’. From now on that’s your name, Dacker.”
At Camp Borden, Dacker and the other young recruits were immediately put to work setting up tents for the next batch of enlisted men. Young and foolish, they were itching for action. Three weeks of hard manual labor later, and they still had not been issued with rifles, nor started basic training. It dawned on the boys why they were called an employment platoon. “If I wanted to do shit work, I’d’ve stayed in Kirkland Lake,” Dacker grumbled.
A mutiny in the making was averted by the rumor that they were about to be shipped overseas. The Kirkland Lake recruits, thinking they were finally going to see some action, asked for a few days’ leave to say good-bye to their families. Request denied, all nineteen went AWOL. Hitch-hiking back to their hometown, they were feted as if they were already heroes. At the end of five days, the Kirkland Lake boys returned to Camp Borden with trepidation, walking through the front gates together hoping that there would be safety in numbers – or at least a more clement punishment.
The punishment never came. Only a single captain remained at the camp, left behind to meet the next batch of recruits. He told them they had missed the departure of their comrades by two days and that they had better catch up. He handed a newly-minted young lance corporal from their group, who had fully expected to forfeit his new stripes, a sheaf of papers with the names and serial numbers of the eighteen boys now in his charge. They were instructed to report to a Captain Adams at the Exhibition Grounds in Toronto. Captain Adams would know what to do with them.
It was chaos at the Exhibition Grounds, the embarkation point for the troops going by train to Halifax Harbor where they would board their ships for overseas. Soldiers were marching and gathering, crisscrossing and jostling each other to find their places, waiting for the signal to move as they smoked their last cigarettes on Ontario soil. It took some time to locate Captain Adams. When they did find him, he was being supported by two soldiers, each with an arm firmly under his to keep him upright.
“Get aboard, boys,” he ordered in a drunken slur. He waved them onto the train standing at the siding. “We’re all going the same way.” Then his head drooped, his body went slack and the two soldiers lifted him onto the train, his toes still dragging on the ground.
In the morning, Dacker woke up on an eastbound troop train with the others from Employment Platoon Number Two, most of whom, like him, were underage. They found Captain Adams, who was looking unwell, but not so unwell that he couldn’t rouse himself to vehemently deny ever telling them to board the train. He instructed them to get off at the next stop. After briefly considering their options – staying on the train, or hitch-hiking back to Ontario to do manual labor – the Kirkland Lakers decided to stay out of the captain’s way and carry on to Halifax. In any case, they fully expected that once the error was discovered, they would be sent back on the train’s return journey. At least this way they could avoid a few more days of work.
Arriving in Halifax, they stepped off the train onto the platform, uncertain what to do next. Immediately they were swept along by the crush of soldiers marching toward the ships anchored at the harbor. Miraculously, they were able to keep together. They let themselves be pushed up the gangplank. That was the point where they expected to be sent back – until they saw who was standing there with the ship’s ballast in his hands. Issuing the boarding and berthing passes was none other than Kirkland Lake’s ex-Chief of Police. Before he was fired by the town council for taking kickbacks from the prostitutes at 5 Main Street, the local brothel, he had had run-ins with all the boys, Dacker in particular, having arrested him on numerous occasions. Without hesitation, he counted out nineteen berthing passes and handed them to the boys, waving them onward. “Get aboard fellows, your traveling orders can’t be far behind.”
They crossed the ocean on the troop ship uneventfully, only to reach Bournemouth Harbor in the middle of a firefight. Full black out, the ship lumbered to shore shrouded in darkness. The soldiers crowded the decks, spellbound as above them searchlights caught the German bombers in their rays like insects in a flashlight beam. A ripple of excitement ran through the boys as they huddled in the darkness. The din of artillery guns, Ack Acks, filled their ears while flak from exploding shells dropped into the water around them.
When it was deemed safe to move, the troops were transported to Camp Aldershot, southwest of London. Waiting for their turn to be processed, the boys soon discovered that with no papers to show their status or regiment, they could not be assigned to any barracks, nor could they be issued with any pay. “Your papers must be following you,” they were told, and ushered into the camp. The boys looked at one another as the heavy gates closed behind them. They knew no papers would come. And because leave passes could not be assigned to soldiers who weren’t even supposed to be there, they were now prisoners of Camp Aldershot.
Their first order of business was to find somewhere to bunk. This was Dacker’s first scouting mission. With the morning light he located some barracks that had been left unoccupied by troops on their way to the front lines. The boys moved in that night, and stayed for a couple of weeks until survivors returning from the front forced them to decamp to other barracks. By then they had figured out how to get along while they lived in limbo. Every day the scouting team would find out which cookhouse was serving the best food, and that is where they would eat that day. They organized patrols for cigarettes, soap and razor blades, essentials they had no money to buy. The butt patrol would pick up salvageable cigarette butts in the barracks’ ash trays or on the ground, collecting them in the squad tobacco tin to be rolled into cigarettes that evening. The razor patrol retrieved from the washrooms any razor blades which hadn’t started to rust and rubbed them on the inside of a glass to sharpen them for additional use. The soap patrol pinched whatever pieces of soap they could find and pressed them into multi-colored bars.
Because they didn’t exist officially, the nineteen remained blissfully free of regular work duties – no scrubbing latrines, no digging ditches, no k.p. But they didn’t have any money either. Luckily for them, an officer, assuming their regiment would catch up to them, took pity on the boys and gave them all jobs cleaning the officers’ quarters. With their newfound pocket money, Dacker and his companions were able to frequent the NAAFI canteen in the evenings.
This went on for two months until the now sixteen-year-old Dacker fell in love with a blonde-haired angel of a girl, two years his senior, who worked in the canteen. He didn’t have a hope in hell with her once an officer elbowed him aside to make his advances. Forgetting about rank, Sapper Thicke punched the Sergeant-Major in the face. The older officer called for the military police to arrest him on the spot.
After spending a lonely night in the stockade, Dacker was awakened by two burly guards. Behind them, the aggrieved officer was yelling orders. The guards pulled him to his feet. “Prisoner and escort, tenshun! Left turn. Halt. Right face.”
Dacker found himself standing at attention before the camp’s commanding officer. The Colonel looked from the young prisoner before him to the armed escorts who held his arms then back again. He shook his head. “Dismiss the guard, Sergeant-Major,” he said reproachfully.
Then he invited Dacker to sit down. “For Christ’s sake, how old are you, Son?” he asked, leaning closer to look at him. “And what the hell are you doing over here? You’d better tell me the truth or I’ll kick your ass all over this camp.”
Dacker confessed everything, and that day the Kirkland Lake boys were issued with identification papers, new uniforms and, finally, weapons, not to mention full back pay and a 14-day-pass to travel anywhere in the British Isles.
The Kirkland Lake boys were dispersed. Perhaps not all survived, but Sapper Thicke, 20th field company of the Royal Canadian Engineers, 2nd British Army, went on to spend five-and-a-half years fighting in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Detailed as a reconnaissance man for much of the war, he was assigned an army jeep in which he traveled ahead of the advancing troops to scout out food, a billet for the night and a working brothel.
Dacker was awarded the Military Medal in the battle chronicled in “A Bridge Too Far”, but declined to let his story to be told. This is the government’s official version:
Recommended for the Military Medal, in recognition of gallantry and utter disregard for his own life and setting an example of bravery to his comrades which was directly responsible for the operation being carried out according to plan.
On the night of the 26th/27th September 1944 at Map Reference 683759 Arnhem Sheet No.6 NW/W 1/25,000, storm boats and assault boats were being used to evacuate Airborne troops, the Dorset Regiment, and casualties from the North bank of the River Neder Rijn. On the North bank a factory was burning furiously which lit up the entire South bank of the river. This particular point was used on two previous nights for assaults across the river and it was being continuously watched by enemy snipers on the far (North) bank. Immediately any movement on the near bank was seen by the enemy, flares were sent up and concentrated machine gun fire was made.
A flood bank with a 12 foot roadway on top of it had to be crossed and this was in direct view of the enemy. It was necessary to cut down three strands of thick wire on two fences on either side to allow the storm boats to be carried across the road and down the 400 yards of open country to the beach. Sapper Thicke without hesitation walked up to the wire and by bending it many times with his hands, and in direct view of the enemy, broke the wire. He immediately went across the road and continued the work on the North side of the road and removed the strands of thick wire with wire cutters and with a shovel removed the iron post.
Immediately after this was done he joined the carrying party and assisted in carrying the first storm boat to the beach. While this was being done, the enemy brought heavy machine gun fire on the party. When the next storm boat was to be launched, Sapper Thicke tried to join this party even though he had not been detailed to do so. Again, when volunteers were asked for to cross the river in assault boats, Sapper Thicke was the first to volunteer to make the hazardous trip.
“No Sir, I’m Not Going Sir”
Less than a year after the “Bridge Too Far” offensive, the 20th Field Company was preparing to clean up one of the islands in the Ems Estuary. Sapper Thicke was to be a cox’un on Boat 23, one of the sixteen-foot storm boats that would cross the Estuary, driving the German troops even further back. Just as the army trucks were about to take them to the assault boats they had launched the previous evening, the company Sergeant-Major halted the vehicles. He lifted the tarpaulin at the back where Dacker was sitting. “Thicke, grab your bag and get on that truck over there,” he said, pointing to a vehicle facing the other way. “You’re going back to Canada.”
“No Sir, I’m not going Sir,” Dacker replied.
“Like hell,” the Sergeant-Major responded. “That is a direct order from HQ. Your five years are up. Now get your ass on that truck.” Then he turned to Dacker’s good friend, Gus, a nineteen-year old farm boy. “Gustafson, you’ll take boat 23.”
Within minutes, Dacker was on the other truck, watching out the back as the company he’d lived with and fought with for the last five-and-a-half years drove away in the opposite direction. Just twenty-one, he had grown up in the war. While fighting didn’t scare him, now he was petrified.
London was on fire by the time he got there. The war had ended, and giant bonfires burned throughout the city, piled high with anything combustible. Swans from the parks that had made it all through the war were now being roasted on sticks.
Amid the crowds in Trafalgar Square, Dacker improbably spied someone he knew, a Lieutenant from his old company. “What happened in the Ems?” he asked. They had been expecting eight percent casualties.
“Sixty-five percent casualties,” the Lieutenant told him. As the boats launched, he explained, winds blew their smoke cover back overtop them. Boats careened into each other, knocking soldiers overboard. With their heavy equipment, the fusiliers went straight to the bottom of the estuary. Gus Gustafson, who had taken Dacker’s spot on boat 23, was one of the dead.
Dacker the Dasher
On his return from the war, Dacker found it hard to adapt to civilian life. He’d been a hero in the war, but now no jobs called on his ability to time German machine gun fire, no help wanted ads asked for a daring reconnaissance scout. He tried his hand at different businesses. When one after another the businesses failed, he found work as a waiter. With the money he earned, he got his pilot’s license, and helped put his younger brother through medical school.
Alone one Christmas Eve, Dacker took himself out to the buffet at Toronto’s Brown Derby restaurant. The cashier was Helen Thorburn. He recognized her right away as they had once worked in the same bar in London, Ontario. “Dacker the Dasher,” she had called him (without irony then). She had a round face, brown curly hair and a button nose. She saved him a large piece of Christmas pudding.
Three weeks later, Dacker and Helen were married. Helen’s friends, Count and Countess Bicaku of Albania, were their witnesses. When he phoned his parents in Kirkland Lake he told them, “I got married because I want to start a family.” He was 29 years old.
Dreaming of this new life as a successful family man, Dacker threw himself into business once more, starting, and ultimately losing, the first car wash in Canada, a paving business, a company that made pre-fabricated steel buildings, and so on. Two bankruptcies followed, and worse.
Some of the failures were spectacular, like the liquid manure. Capped tightly in glass containers, the organic fertilizer continued to expand until one day the bottles started erupting. Sitting on store shelves, the bottles exploded, drenching everything in liquefied shit. Sometimes Helen and Dacker just had to change their phone number, but that time they had to move out of town.
It would take him five years to get a start on that family he wanted. After the birth of his daughter, Lori, he had to wait another five years before his son, Brad, was born. Brad got their mom’s brown hair and button nose. Lori got their dad’s black hair and the Thicke nose.
In Toronto, the Count and Countess Bicaku lived with them on and off, because, as they told Dacker, it would not have been fair to favor an Albanian. Dacker supported everyone, but just barely. He had still never reached the peak of his wartime years. His dreams of becoming a success, of becoming a Somebody, were not coming true. Broke, unable to pay the rent on their townhouse, the time had come for Dacker to move the family from Toronto back to his hometown.
“Well Kids, Now We’re Free”
Kirkland Lake was where the family fell apart. By then the town’s gold was almost exhausted, just like the silver in Cobalt. As a result of the mines, Cobalt’s landscape was permanently scarred, its lake drained and turned into grub stakes. As for the pristine body of water that Kirkland Lake had been named for, it had long since been filled in by mine tailings and was now known as The Slimes. In the blighted mined-out town, the bars stayed open, but not much else did. Instead of lining up on Fridays for their salary packets from the mines, the men lined up at the welfare offices.
Dacker found work of back-breaking difficulty planting trees. There wasn’t much else he could do to support the family. When he couldn’t take tree-planting any longer, he got a job in Southern Ontario selling cablevision door to door, and commuted home on weekends. One week the sales were so poor he had to sell his typewriter to make the rent.
An unhappy Helen found solace in one of the few miners who still had work in Kirkland Lake. “You always wanted the children,” she wrote Dacker one day, on her way out of town. “Now you can have them.” The new man she left Dacker for had found work in a another mining town, where the gold was still plentiful. Overnight, Dacker became a single father to a four- and a nine-year-old. By 1969 he was a divorced father of forty-five. In an unusual move for that time, a judge awarded him sole custody of his children.
He left cablevision sales to go on the road selling hearing aids because he could take the kids with him. Back and forth between Toronto and Kirkland Lake the family went. Up north one winter, he loaded up his twelve-year old daughter with Christmas trees, left her at a gas station parking lot, and came back that night to see how much money she’d made. (He let her keep it.) Later on, moving between Brampton and London, Ontario, where his two brothers lived, he would sell snooker tables, swimming pools and coffee machines. Picking up junk and selling firewood would always be his fall backs.
In the early 70s, Dacker had bought a farm with a loan underwritten by Veterans Affairs which his daughter named The Rocky T Ranch. He entertained his children’s friends, as many as thirty at time, with hay rides and stock car races in summer, sleigh rides and snowmobiling in winter, hunting for partridge in the fall and fishing for pike and pickerel all year round.
There were chickens and goats, horses and a young bull who thought he was a horse, following along slavishly on trail rides through the pine forest as far as the abandoned prospector’s cabin. All the animals fit quite nicely into the house, a fact the small family discovered one evening, coming home from a movie to find them all inside, pooping on the carpet and the few pieces of French Provincial furniture Helen hadn’t taken when she left.
Then one day, just three weeks after Dacker had let the fire insurance slip, meaning to put that check in the mail, the farmhouse burned to the ground. The barns were untouched, but the fire wiped out the house and everything in it.
“Well kids,” he said to Lori and Brad as he looked at the embers of their former home. “Now we’re free.”
They climbed into their Volkswagen van and headed west along the TransCanada Highway. With no particular destination, they averaged just a couple of hundred miles a day. To save money, Brad and Lori slept in youth hostels while Dacker camped outside in the VW. What they economized on hotels ended up going towards the dinners Dacker cooked every night for anyone who was hungry. The hitch-hiker’s network spread the word. By the time they hit the Rockies, sixty young people were waiting in the park to be served one of his famous dinners.
Crossing the border into British Columbia, a couple they picked up hitch-hiking told them about a small city on Vancouver Island where it rarely ever snowed. After forty below winters in Northern Ontario, it sounded like the tropics. They drove their VW van onto the BC ferry, and once on the other side, took the TransCanada Highway all the way to Mile 0, on the Pacific Ocean. They were home.
They found a youth hostel in Victoria to take them in, their money nearly exhausted. One day while making his final withdrawal from the bank, Dacker spied a thick envelope on the floor near the teller. With old army scout instincts, he picked the envelope up, slipping it into his pocket. Outside, he pried it open to investigate the contents. The envelope contained more cash than he had seen in a long time. He started to count the bills on the seat of the van in front of the children’s wide eyes. When the money was all laid out, Dacker pulled out a pension stub. Without hesitation, he went back into the bank and paid for a certified check so he could mail the money back to the pensioner.
A couple of days later, Dacker counted out ten quarters, almost all he had left, and walked over to the phone booth across from the youth hostel. By the time the quarters were spent, he had rented a house in Cordova Bay (talking them out of a deposit), found a school for the kids, found some firewood he could buy, already chopped, and placed an ad to sell that same wood at a markup. He was in business again. That night they all celebrated.
Once he had sold a few cords of wood, Dacker put in more ads to find cast-off furniture, and furnished two of the bedrooms in Cordova Bay for boarders. As soon as he could, he bought horses, and a dirt bike for Brad. They weren’t exactly hippies, but close. Twelve-year-old Brad had long chestnut locks. Lori went to high school with an eagle feather in her hair.
One day Dacker called Lori out of school because he’d found a load of near-perfect flowers at the dump. Not long afterwards, she quit high school to start Lori’s Flowers and Photos, which would later pay for her university education.
With his ongoing classified ad – “Single father seeks unwanted household furniture” – Dacker managed to pull on enough heartstrings to open a junk shop on the main highway going into Victoria. When Brad turned sixteen, together they started running an auto glass company out of the same store. To the chagrin of the city Councillors, every month the shop turned into more of an eyesore.
Still dreaming of gold, Dacker rented a nearby building and hired Pinky, a mechanic and a drunk, to construct a centrifuge to extract gold that was too fine to capture using traditional methods. One night Dacker caught a youth breaking into his building. He found out his name – Kenny – and the next day went to his foster parents’ house to offer him a job in the junk store. “I have to give him a chance,” he said. “No one ever gave me a chance.” Kenny continued to steal from him.
As for the gold machine, it might have worked. Dacker would never know because when he was finally testing it on the riverbed where he fully expected to find his fortune, it started to rain. To keep the rain off Kit, the Vietnamese mechanic who replaced the perennially drunk Pinky, Dacker held his coat out as an umbrella. Kit tinkered wordlessly on the machine, pouring find sands in at one end and crouching down to adjust the speed of the centrifuge at the other. Suddenly the belt from Dacker’s coat caught in the flywheel. The coat flapped around and around, and with each turn it was slowly destroying the gold machine. After it died, Dacker didn’t even try to salvage it. But it never stopped his dreams: the next machine would be even better, when he built it. (He didn’t.)
Every day the traffic on Douglas Street streamed past the auto glass and junk store. The City Councillors ratcheted up the pressure to close him down, but Dacker would not give in. Far from it: he created a new eyesore.
Scrap metal prices were going through the roof at the time. Dacker decided to start recycling cars. He rented a lot off Bay Street and started filling it with junkers. When cars, piled three high, filled the lot to overflowing, he called the scrap metal company on the mainland to tell them he was ready for them to send the crusher. The person on the other end of the phone informed him that the waiting time for the crusher was three months. Dacker wasn’t about to pay three more months’ rent on the lot. “Go rub salt in your ass,” he said, and slammed the phone down.
An idea came to him. He rented a Caterpillar, climbed up into the seat and drove over the first car. Groaning, it collapsed under the weight of the Cat. He drove back and forth a few times until the vehicle was completely flat, then started on the next. When he was done, he looked over the result. It was a mess. Fenders and doors were sticking out everywhere. The scrap yard would never take the cars like that. Not willing to admit defeat, Dacker hired a welder with a chiseled jaw to neaten things up by shearing the doors off, then rented a forklift to load the cars onto a flatbed semi-trailer. The cars would have made it to the scrap metal yard on the mainland if only the sparks from the welder’s torch hadn’t embedded themselves into the cars’ upholstery. Fanned by the wind as the semi-trailer raced down the highway, the load burst into flames just as the vehicle pulled onto the lower car deck of the ferry. When the fire was extinguished, the BC Ferries slapped Dacker with a lifetime ban.
Not long afterward, the City of Victoria finally managed to close down his junk shop. They cited him for lack of parking, because of what happened with his truck. In retrospect, a livestock auction may not have been the best place for him to have purchased a vehicle in the first place. The brakes were faulty, as Dacker discovered after parking the truck – not yet insured – on the hill behind his junk store while he ran inside to check on an address. At the bottom of that hill was a yacht dealership. As Dacker watched in horror out the back window, the truck started to roll down the hill. It gathered speed, plowing through the chain link fence. It hit the first yacht, which was up on blocks. The first yacht careened onto the second yacht, which knocked over the third yacht.
It was time for Dacker to find a new business.
Lori, a university student, had left home again. The first two attempts hadn’t worked out for her: each time, Dacker and Brad had followed her.
As a single father, Dacker was always close to his children. “I wouldn’t trade you for a whole herd of Shetland ponies,” he often told Lori and Brad as they were growing up. They were confused by the comparison – Shetland ponies? – but the sentiment they got. Still, when Lori was fifteen things became a little crazy when they were living with Dacker’s older brother, so she moved out. She started sharing an apartment with an older girl from Kirkland Lake. But, when you love your kids more than a whole herd of Shetland ponies, you don’t want to be separated from them, so Dacker and his son started sleeping at Lori’s new apartment. Her roommate swiftly became her ex-roommate and Lori was once again living with her family.
This same pattern was repeated when Lori was a first-year student at the university of Victoria. She rented a house, this time with four girlfriends. First Brad came, then Dacker said there was no point living in a house without his children in it. He got rid of everything he owned, except his new typewriter and his clothes, so he could sleep in his station wagon in Lori’s driveway. At least that was the plan. He wouldn’t be any trouble, and would only come in to use the bathroom. That lasted just six hours. The first night, he came in to watch TV and fell asleep on the couch. Within days, Lori’s four housemates moved out. “We didn’t plan on sharing a house with your father.”
Lori finished two university degrees and afterwards (perhaps understandably) moved to Europe. She was bucking the trend of both sides of Dacker’s family to move away from the Old Continent. (The inventor William Henry Thicke, his paternal great grandfather, had emigrated from East London in 1873, and Dorothy Hannah Dacre, his mother, was a WWI bride from Leeds.) It was probably the right time to move since Dacker had begun experimenting with the design of his female condom, which entailed an embarrassing assortment of wooden models, as Brad found to his horror one day when he brought his new girlfriend home.
With Lori in Paris and Brad decamped to the interior of British Columbia, Dacker moved into an abandoned electrical power station near Vancouver. He slept on a table in the lunch room and showered with icy water, reasoning that it would help him adjust better to the cold of the unheated station (it didn’t). To make money, he rented the building out as a film set to TV shows like MacGyver and Highlander.
At 60, he moved into a motor home on the banks of the Fraser River and tried his hand at salvaging logs that had separated from their log booms. After a time, he obtained a license to do it legally.
One chilly morning in his motor home, he thought he was turning on the gas stove to make his breakfast, bacon and eggs as usual. In fact, he was turning the stove off, the gas having been on all night. He lit a match and held it over the burner. The motor home blew up. Luckily Dacker had been standing at the epicenter, where the explosion was weakest. When his burned skin healed, his face would be wrinkle-free for the rest of his life.
Homeless now, he spent a winter living in a red pup tent outside Honolulu. The next winter he found himself in Maui, living in Irene’s boarding house, whose only rule was, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” With his gift of the gab, he came within a hair’s breadth of convincing the Maui city council that he was capable of developing the whole dock area, until someone recalled they had seen him sleeping under that very same dock.
When his War Veteran’s pension kicked in, Dacker realized he could devote himself full-time to becoming a Somebody, without having to worry about making money to live. He moved to a Mexican fishing village named Boca de Tomatlàn, just south of Puerto Vallarta, convincing the family of a local fisherman to let him park outside their house. Luis Estrada, who shared a two-room house with his wife and eleven children, would drink away most of the money Dacker paid him, so Dacker made sure to give the money to his wife Isabella instead.
Living in a van might have given some people pause to consider if buying horses was the right thing to do. Not Dacker. He was going build a Mexican version of the riding stable business that he had in Kirkland Lake, the Rocky T Ranch.
Taking control of the two horses he had purchased, he tethered one down by the river and decided to ride the other to the beach. The half-wild horse instantly reared up, and tossed him onto the rocks. While his painful broken ribs healed, he paid the Estrada family extra to nurse him back to health. As for the horses, he had to pay the owner to take them back.
Besides the Estradas, Dacker also developed a great friendship with Ivan Applegate, a handsome young businessman who was paralyzed from the neck down when, as an eighteen-year-old, he had taken a dive off the cliffs where “Night of the Iguana” was filmed. With Ivan as his inspiration, Dacker decided to adapt fishing boats – pangas – so that they would be accessible to people in wheelchairs. He spent the next few years giving the lion’s share of his war pension to a local mecanico, Chano, to cut holes in the side of his progressively larger boats for wheelchair ramps. He also paid Chano to install accessible bathrooms on the open decks of the converted pangas, with plastic shower curtains for privacy. The result of Chano’s efforts was unseaworthy boats which were not only ugly, but which listed noticeably to one side. These listing boats with their shower-curtained handicap-accessible washrooms would be moored in front of the beach in Boca so that tourists could enjoy their langostino and mahi-mahi while wondering when those ugly boats that marred their view were going to start taking on water.
When all was said and done, Dacker had adapted four boats for people with wheelchairs, all painted yellow and blue and all named “Il Lori” (grammatically incorrect in any language, but Chano had not seen fit to inform his boss). It was a disappointment to Dacker when no disabled person would ever set foot – or wheel – on the boats. Still looking to make his mark, he built a dock for the town, painted it green and mounted it with a sign, “Regalo”: present. Never used, you can still see its decaying green boards next to the proper dock the government built a dozen years later.
Lori replaced the red Toyota with a small motor home, then a larger one. Dacker had Chano take a chain saw to the first motor home, cutting it in half so he could turn it into a fish and chip stand. Inside it was fully equipped with new restaurant equipment, but outside it was a monstrosity, a front of aluminum, the sawn-off back now framed in scraps of wood. He parked it on a hillock in the middle of town where everyone could see it, every day, while he experimented to find a good batter recipe.
The last motor home Lori bought him was parked under palm trees by the river that ran into a lagoon that in turn ran into the ocean. He was in his 80s, but still climbing up to the roof of his motor home where the eggs his chickens laid would bake in the sun if he didn’t get there in time. In winter he would shower with a garden hose, outside where the traditional Mexican families could see him soaping up in his baggy white underwear. In summer, he would climb into a boat filled with rainwater to take his bath. When he wasn’t swearing at Chano while they adapted and re-adapted the boats that would never go out, he would lie in his hammock reading book after book, using his cane to keep it swaying.
Yet for all his eccentricities, Boca’s “Gringo Loco”, as Dacker was known, was loved by the villagers for his generosity. He was the unofficial ambulance, and the money lender (who never asked to be repaid, and so never was). When he traveled to Canada he would come back to Mexico with trailer loads of clothes, wheelchairs, glasses and hearing aids that he would give away. He once met a young girl who needed a glass eye, and paid her way to Canada for the operation.
And he wrote. Story after story, book after book, he churned out his real life adventures and imagined adventures, inspired by things he’d lived and things he’d dreamed, dreams in which he was successful, desirable, important. A Somebody.
One year his ex-wife, Helen, came for a visit with Lori and her grandson Farrell. Even though Helen was at the beginning of the Alzheimer’s decline that would rob her of herself, and Dacker was closer to ninety than eighty, both exes remembered their old grievances exceedingly well. But that didn’t stop them from playing cards together.
Dacker lived happily in Mexico until his 87th year. He had three beautiful women friends – Jo, Eve and Christina – who let him spoil them from time to time.
He had little ailments, nothing serious. Refusing his daughter’s insistence that he go to a proper doctor – “I’m not going to no expensive doctor” – he instead consulted with a doctor connected with the local pharmacia who charged just three dollars. The competing drugs he was prescribed damn near killed Dacker.
Christina had seen him just the day before. They had gone shopping, and then she left him at his motor home while she made her way across the bridge to her house. That night, he wasn’t feeling well, but he didn’t ask for help. By morning, he was in toxic shock, literally hours away from death, and starting to fall into unconsciousness…
But he lived. He lived because that day, of all days, it happened to be his birthday.
Lori was calling from Paris to wish him a happy day. He managed to pick up the phone, but he was too weak to speak. He put the phone down. Lori went into a panic, but her son, Farrell, had the presence of mind to call back. “Get help,” Dacker said, and passed out. Lori phoned every person she knew in Boca. The grandson of Luis Estrada, the fisherman, arrived to break the door open. Larry, a neighbor, called an ambulance to take him to the best hospital in Puerto Vallarta.
After three weeks, amidst exponentially mounting medical bills, Lori arranged for help from Veteran’s Affairs. All she needed to do, they told her, was get Dacker back to Canada. A medical airlift was out of the question, so she went for a cowboy operation. A rogue Mexican doctor was hired for the rescue. He had to spring Dacker from the American hospital, which was trying to prevent him from leaving, not wanting to lose their cash cow. The rogue doctor had wheedled his way into the hospital, and now he was making his getaway with Dacker laid out on a stretcher. Before the Administrator could stop them, Dacker was loaded onto an unofficial ambulance, which sped away to the airport, siren wailing.
Dacker’s friend Jo was waiting on the other side. She met Dacker and the doctor at the airport, squeezing them and all the medical equipment into her small car for the short trip to the emergency department of Kelowna General Hospital. Dacker had sealed his friendship with Jo one day in Boca when he rescued her from the torrential rains. The part she always mentioned was how he hadn’t stopped to put his clothes on first. She was caught in the rain, running for the store, when he saw her from his outdoor shower. Still covered in soap, he got his umbrella and raced up the hill after her. Umbrella in hand, he waited, dripping by the shelf of Doritos in his speedo, to shelter her all the way back home.
The Gravy Years
Lori moved with her family from Paris to Vancouver so that for the first time in many years, they would all be living in the same place. They went to the Cirque de Soleil and many, many restaurants. (“Now that sex is over, eating is the only pleasure I have left.”) Dacker visited Paris and even went back to Mexico one more time, for closure. “I could have died in Mexico,” he said. “The rest is gravy.”
He was striving to be a Somebody up until the very end. He believed it would happen. He could see it so clearly. He hired a part-time assistant to help him. He called her “The Girl” because even after three years, her name (Andria) escaped him. He pinned his hope on two inventions. One was his Dak sticks, which were chopsticks held together with candied ends to make them easy for children to use. But he could never get the candy recipe right. He decided that he and The Girl should focus on his second invention, his mini bidet (patent pending). After testing different models, they finally chose the one that would be Dacker’s Original Mini Bidet. They ordered thousands from manufacturers in China and took out Google ads to try to sell them.
In his last days in the hospital, Dacker said, “Lori, I’m going to make you and Brad multi- millionaires. There won’t be anything for me, you will have it all. I want you to have it all.” His breaths were labored now. “What kind of … car … do you want me to … buy you?” he asked Lori. It was the same question he always asked: did she want a Mercedes, a BMW, a Ferrari?
He was going downhill quickly. When he had spent a night in Emergency just a month earlier, he was still flirting. After a young nurse asked him, “Mr. Thicke, do you live alone?” he replied “Are you coming on to me?” But this time he was too weak to flirt. The only spark of Dacker shining through was when the nurse asked him to stick out his tongue and he brought out his old party trick: sticking his tongue out then turning it upside down.
That was his last trick. Breathing was becoming harder now. His stiffening heart was pumping so hard just to keep him alive. “Dad, you still have another chapter of your life to write,” Lori told him. “Don’t give up.”
Then, on the morning of March 11, just before Lori was due back from a week’s visit to Argentina, he slipped away.
At the end, Dacker would have been comforted by his beliefs. “Every night of my life I pray for my family,” he would say. “I don’t want to be without them in heaven.”
The Year of Dacker
Dacker Thicke was born in a unique time and place in history, at the confluence of a silver and a gold rush. Growing up surrounded by hopes and dreams made him the man he was, someone who hustled every day of his life to realize his dreams, someone whose unending hope defined him. “This is the year of Dacker,” he said year in and year out, without the slightest shred of irony. Once in a while, a doubt would flicker over his face and he’d say, “I don’t think I’m ever going to make it.” That loss of hope was scarier to his children than the craziest of his crazy schemes. They were relieved when the doubt would disappear. “I thought last year was going to be my year, but I was wrong, THIS is the year of Dacker.” Once he said that, all was right with the world again.
The year of Dacker would be when he was finally a Somebody. He didn’t realize he already was one. He was the character everyone remembered, and talked about, his schemes and adventures interesting even to people who never met him. (We have it on good authority that some of the wilder Dacker stories were transcribed onto index cards by the director David O. Russell.) He was loved by his family and his few friends, alternately entertaining and exasperating them. Even if some of his good works, such as the wheelchair accessible boats, never came to fruition, others did change lives. A Vancouver newspaper once called him a local Santa Claus for good reason. A Mexican girl who used to push herself along in the dirt now can move around in a wheelchair thanks to him. And she’s just one of many. Another girl was able to come to Vancouver for an eye operation. His donations of glasses and hearing aids helped people who could never have afforded the devices to see and hear better. Whether it was a stranded motorist, someone who needed a meal, or even small businesses that needed a loan, “No” was just not in his vocabulary.
He taught his children right from wrong, and that you have to act with integrity, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. He taught them to value success, but not to worship money. He taught them that children were the best thing in life. He taught them that anything was possible. (“I can’t” was the one thing you could never say in his house.) He taught them to work hard, but mostly he taught them to dream big: he showed them that even if you didn’t make it, imagining it was part of the fun.
Dacker Thicke is the author of four books. Named after a novella of the same name, Piper to the Rear is a collection built around his war experiences. Unique and Outrageous is a book of his short stories, which are, as the title suggests, both unique and outrageous. Life Giver Life Taker and Atoll Haven are both novels based on his dream of being a desirable and successful man: a Somebody. He held onto that dream to the very last of his days.
Dacker Thicke, born of dreams of gold and silver, lived an adventurous life for ninety-three years, pursuing his dreams with the passion of a true believer. He never realized that his biggest yearnings had already come true: he was a Somebody.
We will miss him.