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.

A Typical Saturday on Isabelle Avenue

“Quick! Lorri – I need an earring!” shouted TJ as he burst into the house, I asked a stupid question, “Why?” “Your dad’s gonna pierce my ear!” , he excitedly answered back.

Oddly, this request did not surprise me in the least. On this particular Saturday TJ, one of Pops’ many shooting buddies, had shown up promptly at 10 o’clock to fix a broken car. At our house we didn’t call a mechanic or go to the dealership. If a car wasn’t running Pop called a friend, had Mom pick up a case of Bud and some rib eyes, and sent me or one of my brothers to the neighborhood auto parts store on our bicycle. Next came the hunt for tools – always a phillips screwdriver and a 5/8 inch wrench. If my experience is typical, I think you could repair everything from a toaster to the space shuttle with just those two tools. Unfortunately we could never find them. Pops would start a project and holler out one of our names and we would have the dreaded job of tool duty until the godforsaken project was done or until he just gave up and moved on to something else. There were days that I would empty the tool drawer, dig under his recliner, look through all the tool boxes and the shed, and still I could not find a freaking phillips screwdriver. I was so traumatized by this stress that even day I have a screwdriver in every room in my home, in both the trunk and glove boxes of my vehicle, and one sitting on my desk just in case there is ever an urgent need for one.

Always keep a few of these close by, you can never have too many!

 On this Saturday I had already made the trip to the parts store, found the blessed screwdriver, and had quietly slipped inside the house to escape tool duty. TJ and Pop seemed to be handling things just fine. I was inside cleaning up the joint because a friend of mine, Emily, from Carson City was coming to spend the night before we headed to Anaheim the next morning. All week I had been cleaning and it was a total waste of time because as soon as I had cleared the wood chips out of the front room floor I would find that Pop had spilled molten lead on the carpet – more about his odd workshop habits later, suffice it to say that tidiness was not a priority in our house. As much as my mom would have loved to have a home that looked as sparkling clean as the one on the Mop-n-Glow commercials, we all knew that was never gonna happen. Our home was clean enough to safely eat in, but far too messy to find a stinking screwdriver.

I was kind of enjoying the quiet morning until TJ poked his head through the door with his request. I went outside to find Pops kneeling in the front yard while building a campfire and rattling off as list of needs to TJ who seemed to have tool duty for this task. “I need the turkey tail, the gold collar pin, some whiskey, and a potato. Have Lorri soak that earring in the whiskey!” To be honest, this was not the first time my earrings had been commandeered, but it was the first time it happened in the front yard. My Pop was the man to see if another man wanted his ear pierced. A real man doesn’t go to the mall and ask the girl at Claire’s – a real man asks Harold after he’s had a few beers to do it with a gold collar pin over a camp fire.

I should clarify a bit about the setting. I grew up in fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. Our house was 2 blocks off Fremont Street. We were close enough to downtown to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks while sitting on our back fence. A campfire is not what you tend to expect in a neighborhood like this. You see manicured lawns and nice cars in the driveways. Isabelle Avenue was a three-block long stretch of ranch style homes built in the 50’s and 60’s. My grandparents had moved to the block in ’53 so Pop spent his teens there. We moved into a house 2 doors down in 1963.

This is me with my parents in my grandparents front yard. 2 years later we would move into the house in the background with the 2-tone sedan. Our lawn would never look this good again.

I looked through my earrings and found one that I knew I could live without – none of the earrings I lent to Pop’s friends had ever come back so I knew better than to give TJ something I was very fond of. I selected a cute pink piggy stud for him. He didn’t seem to care. He excitedly ran through the house gathering all the supplies that pop had requested. I don’t know if it was the Budweiser or the giddy excitement at the thought of getting his ear pierced, but it occurred to me that he seemed quite childlike in that moment. As he ran outside I peeked over my window seal to watch events unfold in the front yard.

TJ was not worried about being Pretty in Pink

First Pops got the fire really going. He took the turkey tail – yes the disgusting tail of a real turkey – and started ceremoniously parting the smoke and sending it off to each of the four winds. Seriously, is the girl at Claire’s going to even mention the four winds when she pierces your ear? Next he took the whiskey and poured some in his hands. He lifted it skyward and shouted “Watahay!” I am not precisely sure what that word means or which tribal language it belongs to, but it was his “go-to” Indian expression. He lowered his cupped hands and told TJ to put some whiskey on both sides of his earlobe. Again, is that girl at Claire’s even going to bother to bless the alcohol before she sterilizes your ear – I think not. He poured some more whiskey in a shot glass and offered it to TJ who also shouted “Watahay!” and downed it. He refilled the shot glass and placed my piggy earring in the purifying liquid. Next Pop took a 14 carat gold collar pin, I believe it had been his grandfather’s, and dipped the sharpened point into the shot glass to sterilize it. He had cut the potato in half and he poured a little whiskey on it as well just to be safe. He stuck the potato behind TJ’s ear to make it more solid and “thunk” – he pushed the collar pin right through his earlobe and into the spud. TJ’s eyes were shut tight and his teeth were clenched, but he still looked like he was smiling as dad pulled the collar pin out and put that cute little piggy earring in place. Both men grabbed another beer and sat down next to the fire across from each other. Pops went back to directing the smoke with that ass off of a dead turkey and TJ shouted “WoooHooo!” over and over. I could tell that this Saturday was a watershed moment for TJ – his life would never be the same, he was forever changed, he was pierced.

This is TJ sitting around another fire with us when we were all camping. He is panicking because his crotch is on fire.

The crazy thing about this story is that it all went on without a neighbor batting an eye. No one called the fire department or the cops. No one came outside to see where the smoke was coming from or even to see what all the commotion was about. This was just another Saturday on Isabelle Avenue, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to take note of.

For my part I started to worry about how bad the front yard was looking. Emily had never been to my house – she had never met Pops, and I didn’t want her to take a look at the front yard with the car up on blocks, a raging campfire and a few dozen beer cans and rethink her plan to bunk here for the night. Luckily I had a few hours and she wouldn’t be arriving until after dark, our “Sanford & Son” styled landscaping would be much more presentable after sunset.I went back to my cleaning and put the chaos outside out of my mind. I’d get the inside of the house spic and span and I’d worry about the lawn in a couple of hours when the car repair was completed. I spent the whole afternoon tidying up, and I was making sure the bathroom was presentable when TJ rushed back into the house. “Lorri, I need earrings, lots more earrings!”

Was TJ getting his other ear pierced? What on earth did he need more earrings for? I looked out my window to see a group of Hell’s Angels, in full leathers, parked in front of the house. My pop had a couple of shooting buddies who were Angels, Deke and Peg-Leg Larry, and apparently they had brought their friends – news spreads fast when Harold is piercing ears! Did they see smoke signals? Did they hear the calls of “Watahay!” offered into the winds? Who knows, they were here with beer, and they wanted to be pierced by the master with the golden pin.

I went back into my room and dug deep into the earring drawer. The mate to the piggy, a pair of stainless flamingoes, some cloisonné rainbows, a pair of blown glass unicorns – whew! I had them all covered! The turkey ass was brought back out, smoke was blessed, whiskey was offered, potatoes were sterilized and those angels all looked great with my Avon collectible earrings as they sped off into the night. TJ packed it in and Pop took a nap on the couch. I ran outside to make sense of the yard. Beer cans everywhere and Emily should be arriving any minute. I got a Glad bag from the kitchen and scooped up enough cans to fill a 33 gallon bag. I put out the remnants of the fire, collected the turkey ass and the other assorted tools, and put things back in order.

Pop came from a long line of couch snoozers, this is him in 1957 snoozing on the floor while his pop is crashed on the couch.

Emily arrived in the dark of night, she was quite tall, about 6’3”. Pop heard us come in and woke up for a few moments and asked if she played basketball. He went back to his snoring. We stayed up all night laughing as I told her about my day.

This is the actual car that was worked on during that typical Saturday. Pop started the campfire right under that elm tree. Who let the dog out? I have no idea.

Just a typical Saturday on Isabelle Avenue. Everyone had gone home happy and that car was still up on blocks. Maybe they would get to it next Saturday, maybe not.