Tall Tales from the Big Fish

Today my Pops would have turned 75. The King of Isabelle Avenue left us far to soon. And while I am wistful on his birthday, I like to remember the man for who he really was. He was a backyard adventurer, a big spender, a mountain man, an ear piercer, and a fabricator of tales of wonder. He could tell you something completely absurd with such conviction – I always worried that the one time I called him on something would be the one time it was all true.

I'm sure your dad probably fought a goat in buckskins on any given Saturday.

Pops was a man for all seasons – even goat fighting season.

In 2003 I received a call from my brother Max. He asked me if I had seen Big Fish yet. I hadn’t even heard of it. He said I needed to see it. A couple of days passed and my nephew called and told me the same thing – I had to go see this movie. They offered no clue as to why, just that I must see it. I made the drive to Fayetteville with a friend and bought a ticket thinking this was just another movie. As I watched the movie I was stunned. At times I laughed so hard that my sides hurt. My friend was puzzled – it was funny, but not that funny. Each scene cracked me up, but I also felt deeply for the son – he lived in the shadow of his father’s larger than life personality. He had known this man his whole life and still had no idea of who he really was. He had decided that none of it was true, that it was all a giant tall tale. I knew exactly where the son was coming from.  I saw my father as a modern-day Peter Pan – telling tall tales while his audience was transfixed, all the while knowing that it was probably all a crock.

These fish tales hit a little close to home...

These fish tales hit a little close to home…

When I was 10 my teacher asked me to write a report that would explain what Watergate was. I, like many kids in class, looked to an adult to help me make sense of the daily news reports. Unfortunately, of all the adults in my life, I asked Pop. He told me a story that more closely resembled a James Bond movie that one of political corruption. I paraphrased what he had told me believing it was fact, and was rewarded with my first and only “D”. A note at the bottom of my report admonished me to “Check your facts!!” Clearly, Pops was not the best clearing house for the procurement of actual facts.

Tricky Dick or Ian Fleming?

Tricky Dick or Ian Fleming?

Sometimes his “facts” were better than the real ones and his delivery made his fabrications seem so real. It was hard to doubt him. That day in 5th grade I came to understand that it was all baloney – his remix of truth and fiction was designed solely for his own entertainment. In retrospect even Watergate makes me smile – his version actually made a lot more sense.

Here are a few of Pops’ most memorable whoppers:

The first Corvette was not fiberglass, it was made from stainless steel. The costs were too high to manufacture so they had to go with fiberglass. Serious collectors still look for those rare steel prototypes.

Looks like plastic to me...

Looks like plastic to me…

As a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps, Pops was on a transport ship where he encountered an Admiral who told him to put out his cigarette. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. Then he took the Admirals hat and threw it in the Atlantic Ocean. He was sent to the brig and got out of work for the duration of the trip.

Adrift on the high seas?

Adrift on the high seas?

There are morse code signals being sent out through the Television. You can also hear it in the background when the car radio is on. Sometimes Pop would tell you that we were hearing secret messages meant for the Nevada Test Site while watching the Rockford Files. This one may actually be true.

If you listen very closely and drink a few Buds you might here the dash-dot-dash of a secret message...

If you listen very closely and drink a few Buds you might hear the dash-dot-dash of a secret message…

He and his friends once kidnapped Elvis from a casino and made him play a concert in the parking lot of Las Vegas High School. Elvis was flattered and happy to oblige.

Sure Kid, I would love to put on a concert for you in a parking lot!

Sure Kid, I would love to put on a concert for you in a parking lot!

He was pursued by a princess while he was stationed in the Philippines. She was a beautiful woman who was rich beyond belief.

Unlike the movie, Pops was courted by just one princess who was not a Siamese twin...

Unlike the movie, Pops was courted by just one princess who was not a Siamese twin…

While stationed in Okinawa he was living in a barracks with his platoon. The guy on the bunk above him had terrible gas. One night pops and his buddies waited for the gaseous one to fall asleep and lit matches and held them close to his boxers waiting for an eruption. When he finally did pass gas it lit up like a flame thrower. The gaseous one never even woke up during the spectacle.

Pops at Home on Leave

Is this the face of a marine who would light his comrades boxers on fire? If this story were true wouldn’t barracks all over the world be blowing up just from the volume of methane?

He once played chess with Bobby Fisher on a Lear Jet and beat him. Specifically, he said that he lasted over 21 moves – to last longer than a dozen was technically a draw. At 22 moves Bobby would tip his King over and concede.

I actually read about a real contest where Bobby Fisher played 50 people at once, I wonder if there is a grain of truth to this tall tale?

I actually read about a real contest where Bobby Fisher played 50 people at once, I wonder if there is a grain of truth to this tall tale?

He was discharged from the Marine Corps after wrecking 13 Jeeps (Something about 13 wrecks seems to be a constant in his life story) They wanted to give him a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness but he threatened to re-enlist if they didn’t give him an honorable one.

A Jeep is one tough vehicle, unless you let Pop drive it...

A Jeep is one tough vehicle, unless you let Pop drive it…

When his parents were away for a weekend he chopped, dropped, and channeled the family sedan – a 49 Chevy.

Here's that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to "customize" it while his folks were out of town.

Here’s that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to “customize” it while his folks were out of town.

He and a buddy also took a pool liner and completely lined the inside of his parents’ convertible with is so that they could fill the car with water and drive it down Fremont Street like a mobile swimming pool. I wonder if this is what they were driving when they encountered Elvis?

Cruising this in a swimming pool makes you extra cool...

Cruising this in a swimming pool makes you extra cool…

After he left the Marines he became a police officer in North Las Vegas, he didn’t serve very long. He had 13 wrecks (again with the 13?) and was fired for shooting the Chief of Police’s cat with a pellet gun.

Did he get fired for wrecking too many of these or for harassing a cat?

Did he get fired for wrecking too many of these or for harassing a cat?

I didn’t learn the traditional lessons from Pop that most kids learn from their fathers about hard work and clean living, but I did learn some very important things. I learned that every story is important and probably bigger than it looks at the time. I learned the importance of having a good mechanic. I learned how much fun gunfire can be in inappropriate places. I learned to always keep a supply of Phillips screwdrivers handy. I learned that even someone’s flaws can be endearing at times. I learned about how important it is to really let someone off the hook. I learned that love is not a straight line – it’s a delightfully crooked path. I learned all of that and more from my Pop, the King of Isabelle Avenue.

Blood Brothers

The Carters of Isabelle Avenue – ready to rendezvous!

Over a Labor Day weekend in the mid 1970s we went to the Fort Bridger Rendezvous as a family. Pop’s best friend Steve, aka. “Poore Boy” joined us on this adventure. We didn’t have a lodge (teepee) yet. We had been going to rendezvous and shoots and camping in an old cab over camper. We pulled up to the Fort at about 10:00 at night and were politely directed away from the majestic circle of lodges in the parade grounds. Instead we were sent to the other side of the highway. Through a gate, across a cattle guard, and down a rough road – we were told to pull in and find a place. No assigned spaces, no campfire ring, no fires allowed – just any place you could find to pull in and get out-of-the-way without being too far out-of-the-way.


Our first mountain-man abode looked something like this.

In the morning we learned that we had been directed to the infamous “Alcoa Village” – a place between the centuries where those not committed enough to the 1830’s could lay their down heads inside their Mini Winnies or Six-Packs. To get the action we had to climb a step-ladder up and over a barbed wire fence and cross the highway, then it was only about a hundred yards to the lodge circle.


We were aspirational mountain men – we wanted to move out of “Alcoa Village”

The only lights at night were those at the fort. There were no lights to guide you back to Alcoa Village, nothing to light the path the port-a-podies, nothing to mark the location of the step-over along that barbed wire fence except the light of the moon in the Wyoming sky. None of these modern-day mountain men would dream of carrying a period inappropriate flashlight to make the trek – a real frontiersman would be able to backtrack their own moccasin prints in the dark to find his way back to the camper, right?

This is Pop’s pal Meathead (Rick). He is not in this story but this is the only shot I have of Fort Bridger. Rick had such a reverence for history.

After supper we all headed over to the lodge circle. It was stunning. The lodges all were lit like lanterns on the parade grounds. Their campfires glowing from inside. About a half hour after dark Mom sent my brothers and I back to the camper. Wwe complained just a bit, but to no avail – back to the camper while there was still some light left. We went back and went to bed. We were all dressed in our earliest versions of leathers and it seemed odd to leave that circle dressed as we were only to climb into a camper to sleep. We all had red woolen long-handled underwear to sleep in – not so practical in combination with a port-a-pody in the dark, but warm and toasty for sleeping inside the unheated camper.

Toasty warm woolen underwear

Mom had made the trip back to the camper and I had finally fallen asleep in my sleeping bag when I heard a loud thump and a growl. I looked out the window and saw my pop had not quite hit the top rung on the step-over and had his foot tangled in the top wire of the fence. He had fallen face first over the fence with an open bottle of wine in one hand, and he had somehow managed to keep the bottle upright – not spilling a single drop. He was nearly incoherent and probably could not have crossed that fence in the daylight in that state – even then he had his priorities – even if you’re upside-down, make sure you keep the booze right-side-up!

Never spill a drop!

Poore Boy was right behind him – Steve was only about 150 pounds, but he managed to get Pop untangled and upright. Pop did his part – smoothly rotating that open bottle while Steve rotated him back into an upright position. The two men moved to the tail gate of the pickup and decided that rules or no rules, even an Alcoa Camp deserved a real campfire. They scrambled around in the dark in between the other campers looking for firewood and rocks to build a ring, waking up half the camp. By now my brothers and I were up and sitting on the tailgate watching the action.

Pop’s and Poore Boy make fire for the paparazzi

They drank, they foraged, they made fire – even if they were condemned to Alcoa Village, there was no disputing they were powerful mountain men, part of a tribe, even brothers – that’s it! They hit upon the idea that they should become blood brothers. Not tomorrow after they sobered up and bathed, right now at the illegal camp fire in Alcoa Village with no disinfectant save that precious open bottle of wine.

Pops and his big knife

Pops was a big guy and he always carried a big knife when he was playing the part of a mountain man. He pulled his bowie-knife from the sheath on his belt and handed it to Poore Boy. He extended his wrist and Steve sliced it open. Steve handed the knife back to Pops and he did the same to Steve’s wrist. Poore Boy said, “Damn it Harold, that’s not gonna be deep enough, it’s hardly bleeding.” Pops took another swipe at it, and at Steve’s urging a he took third pass. Now it was gushing. I remember seeing the white tendons visible through the open wound on Steve’s wrist. Mom was freaking out looking for the first aid kit that we left on the kitchen counter back in Vegas. Steve and Pops were perfectly calm as they pressed their wrists together over the campfire. Once they were officially blood brothers Pops began to panic Steve was bleeding all over his shirt. He was feeling no pain, but pain wasn’t the immediate problem.

Someone in a neighboring camp made a suggestion – Steve’s wound could be effectively wrapped in something we were bound to find available from one of our neighbors – all we needed was some duct tape and…a maxi pad. Pops took charge and went from camper to camper asking if anyone had a maxi pad – Imagine a 250 pound guy in fringed leathers covered with blood pounding on your door at 3:00 am looking for feminine hygiene products – would you open the door? Finally he found a neighbor willing to open the door who had a pad to spare. They poured some whiskey over the open wound and mom wrapped his wrist with the pad and secured it with duct tape.

Everyone should have this and some maxi-pads in their “Blood Brother” emergency kit!

The next morning we tried to get Poore Boy to go into town and get stitches, but he was having none of it. Instead they sent me and Mom, the women folk, into town to get more pads. Steve spent the rest of the rendezvous wearing his “period appropriate” dressing –  and a blood stained shirt.