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.

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The Candle Shoot

Our backyard was not an urban oasis. It was not a landscaped sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of life. It was a crazy obstacle course surrounded by a 6 foot cinderblock wall.

Our backyard was rarely pretty enough to photograph - a couple inches of snow dressed it up nicely.

Our backyard was rarely pretty enough to photograph – a couple inches of snow  and – Viola! it’s dressed up nicely.

You entered through a 12 foot wide sliding glass door off of our living room – the three panel wide door was partially obscured by the worlds largest fake mediterranean couch. The slider opened onto a large concrete patio. It had an awning cover salvaged from Grandpa’s house. In addition to the standard issue BBQ grill there were a number of other items on the patio, under the awning protected from the desert sun. Dog food bowls, a giant sewing machine cabinet, a home-made metal forge, mini bike parts, and huge assortment of tools – actually anything that you might need to tinker with at a moment’s notice.

Our covered patio housed a variety of essential items - one never knows when they will need a sewing machine or a pottery wheel.

Our covered patio housed a variety of essential items – one never knows when they will need a sewing machine, a shop vac, or a pottery wheel.

There were always a variety of dogs and other pets. Rabbits, birds, a skunk, quail, ducks – Mom was an easy touch, she rarely said no to a new pet.

Amazing creatures abounded in the great outdoors that lay behind our house on Isabelle Avenue

Amazing creatures abounded in the great outdoors that lay behind our house on Isabelle Avenue – this is Faux Pas playing in the scrap wood pile.

Off to the left there was an old clothes line. After we upgraded to that new-fangled clothes dryer Mom used this area to grow a vegetable garden in. Mom loved to garden, prior to getting the new dryer this farmer’s daughter managed to squeeze strawberry plants or artichokes into the flower beds, so a six-foot-wide patch of the earth was the equivalent of inheriting the family farm. She tilled and weeded everyday until the fall harvest was over.

To the right there the washroom/workshop/storage room/metal shaving museum tucked into the side of the house. Along the fence line there was a barn-shaped metal storage shed – it housed the lawn tools, welding equipment, and possibly all the missing Philips screwdrivers and end wrenches. It was like a vortex. Tools went there to die. On the roof you might find the hide of last year’s deer as Pop experimented with methods for tanning leather.

This is a tanning experiment in the front yard - more successful than the hides left to dry on the roof of the shed.

This is a tanning experiment in the front yard – more successful than the hides left to dry on the roof of the shed. This also served as an impromptu educational exhibit for children walking past our house to the elementary school at the end of our block. Yes, Virginia, that was Bambi. Ahhh the circle of life.

My pop had a foot thick slice from a large pine tree on a stand in the middle of it all. It was a target for us to practice throwing tomahawks at. I know that the tomahawk target is practically standard issue in most backyards – right up there with the BBQ grill. I’m sure there was one in your backyard too.

Tomahawk Target - one of the backyard essentials

Tomahawk Target – one of the backyard essentials

We threw tomahawks and knives several times a week and visited the emergency room at least once or twice a year.

This is not our backyard, but we did this back there. Note Max's way cool waffle stompers.

This is not our backyard, but we did do this back there. Note Ronnie’s form and Max’s awesome waffle stompers.

We always had a dog or three back there so there was always poop to scoop. The dogs back here were “outside” dogs and they included the very creatively named “Goldie.” She  came to our house when I was six and died peacefully under the old clothes line when I was in my early twenties, having lived a full and exciting life. In her prime she had stopped and cornered a burglar who had broken into the house next door. She was a sweet dog as long as you came into the yard through the house. Over the fence or through the gate meant that you were an intruder. This didn’t bode well for the unfortunate meter man who happened to come when no one was home.

This is not Goldie, this is Minka - she spent her formative years in our backyard on Isabelle Avenue.

This is not Goldie, this is Minka – she spent her formative years in our backyard on Isabelle Avenue. A caffeine addict from puppyhood she drank several Big Gulps each day.

All in all it was place of utility and chaos. After a long day of car repair, Budweiser, and New York strips it was the place where many a Saturday night took an interesting turn.

One autumn Saturday we had the whole crew there. Poore Boy, Red, TJ, Tiny – I think they had attempted to repair a car earlier in the day – they may or may not have been successful, I can’t recall. Pops fired up the grill and sent us all out into the backyard with shovels to scoop up the dog poop. He had something different in mind for the evening, and it required a clean yard. After dinner he had us arrange lawn chairs out in the middle of the yard facing the brick wall behind the clothesline. My brothers and I threw a few tomahawks – Pops and the guys had a few more Buds.

Right about dusk Pops showed us what he had up his sleeve. He brought out a 2X4 with 3/4” holes drilled about 12 inches apart. He set up on the ground and placed an emergency candle in each hole. You know, those candles you keep in the pantry in case the power goes out. He lit the candles and announced that we were going to have a candle shoot. We used .22 caliber rifles to attempt to shoot out the flames on the candles. The idea was not to hit the candle and knock it over – the idea was to snip the wick with the bullet, snuffing out the flame.

The idea is to shoot at that little gap between the candle and the flame - poof!

The idea is to shoot at that little gap between the candle and the flame – poof! It’s dark!

Remember – we were not on a farm or out in the country – this is downtown Las Vegas. Oddly, location was not one of the considerations that Pops contemplated when he devised his little spectacle.

Isabelle Avenue is on the left hand side about half way up - perfect spot for a shooting range.

Isabelle Avenue is on the left hand side about half way up – perfect spot for a shooting range.

Everyone, kids included took turns and with a bit of practice, everyone could snip the wick. I know I felt like Annie Oakley the first time I did it. As the evening wore on the guys would shoot a bit, drink a bit, shoot some more. Round by round the snipping became tougher and tougher. By about 9:00 the only ones able to make the shot were me and my brothers. The excitement was wearing off with each miss. Something was needed to liven this party back up and Poore Boy had an idea.

Nothing like a little amplified music to add ambiance to the sound of gunfire.

Nothing compliments the sound of gunfire like amplified music.

He took Red inside and they brought out my brother’s electric guitar and amplifier. Red plugged in the guitar and started playing – he turned the volume up to the max and started playing the Star Spangled Banner – Hendrix style. Poore Boy emerged from the sliding glass door with a 12 gauge. Everyone laughed – you can’t shoot a shotgun in your backyard in downtown Las Vegas! Steve didn’t seem to care. He loaded it up, leveled it at those candles and fired – BOOM! Flames, wax, buckshot – all spattered against the brick wall, with the sound of the shotgun only barely modulated by the national anthem. Their eyes went wide, the guitar went silent – then without speaking they grabbed their guns and ran into the house giggling like little girls. They all sat silently in the living room waiting to hear the sirens that never came.

Here's a shot of a candle shoot in my yard - a safe and legal 4 miles from the city.

Here’s a shot of a candle shoot in my yard – a safe and legal 4 miles from the city.

A family tradition was born that Saturday. At my place there’s a Memorial Candle Shoot every year on or near January 29. There will be grilling, good friends, candles, and gunfire. Guitars of all calibers are welcome. Shotguns are prohibited.

Stop by if you’re in my neck of the woods.

Boys in the Hood – Eric the Not-so-Great

Directly across the street from us lived a couple who were almost the same age as my grandparents with kids ranging from their mid twenties down to a boy a year or so older than me. Eric was more socially awkward than Paul and he had a more than a little of that Lord of the Flies thing going for him. He would gather up a small group of followers and pick on the youngest or weakest in the group. I was usually not a part of this group – boys only. But I did have to deal with Eric on one occasion.

Ronnie at about 7 years old. Today he’s 6’3″ and fights his own battles

My youngest brother Ronnie (he told me in his 20’s he preferred “Ron” – I have been ignoring his wishes for over 20 years and last Christmas he capitulated and admitted he doesn’t mind the moniker) was the object of Eric’s derisions. Ron was about 7 and was one of the younger boys on the block. I was about 12 so Eric would have been 13 or 14. Ronnie came home with chewing tobacco laced saliva in his hair – Eric had gotten all the boys to try some Skoal and he had directed them to use Ronnie as a spittoon. Pops pulled me aside and told me that I had to take care of this – if he did he would go to jail. He reasoned that since I was under 14 years old, it was legal for me to be the protector for my brothers (I have no idea about his rationale – I was barely five feet tale and about 90 pounds – Eric was well into puberty and much stronger than me) He made it clear that picking on Ronnie was not acceptable and it was my job to protect him.

I started taking care of Ronnie at an early age

I had never been in a real fight. I tussled with my brothers but never had a serious knock-down-drag-out with them. Being the oldest I was not allowed to ever hurt them and paid the price if things got too rough. Frankly I hated physical fighting – it wasn’t my style, but there was a baby brother who had to be defended.

Here I am, about 12 years old – looking a lot like Danny Partridge in a dress

I heard some kids at school use the term “calling out” when talking about fighting – so I decided to “call out” Eric. I stood squarely in the middle of the street and yelled at the top of my lungs, “Eric, I’m calling you out! Get out here right now you big chicken!” I had a way with words even back then. Eric came out his front door and my heart raced. He was so much bigger than me, but this wasn’t about me – this was about Ronnie. He came out and stood toe-to-toe with me. Looking down at me he asked what I thought I was going to do. I told him that I was going to make him pay for picking on Ronnie.

Cheesy Budweiser Tee does not make you the king of the neighborhood

He laughed and I noticed that he had on his Budweiser tee, I knew it was his favorite – he always bragged about it. I reached up and grabbed his collar and pulled down towards the ground as hard as I could. You could hear the seams in his beloved tee give way. His face turned red and he clenched his fists. I was ready to cover my face with my hands when I saw that he was getting ready to kick me. Kicking is not real fighting, only girls kick. I took one step back and brought my hands up to about waist level and waited for his foot to come at me. When it did I grabbed hold of his ankle and lifted it towards the sky as I rushed towards him. His other leg gave way and he dropped on his butt with a thud. He started to back up like a spider with his hands behind him. I reached down and grabbed what was left of his collar and said, “You want some more?” “No!” he said. “Don’t ever even think of spitting on my baby brother again, or there’s more where that came from!” I shouted. I turned on my heel and walked back into my yard towards the front door.

My brothers with their bad-ass big sister

In the kitchen window I saw my mom laughing hysterically. I looked back over my shoulder to see Eric’s mom doing the same in her kitchen window. From that day on I was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. The boys on the block would tell new kids not to mess with Lorri’s brothers because she would mess you up. A reputation built without ever throwing a punch or kicking like a girl.