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 – from Isabelle Avenue to the Ozarks

I mentioned in my post The Candle Shoot that I host a memorial Candle Shoot in Pop’s honor every year on the Saturday closest to his birthday. This year as in the two previous we were blessed with wonderful and unseasonably warm weather, almost like Pops was watching over us.

The Stone House Shooting Gallery – by candlelight

This year, my God-brother Jot (I don’t even know if that is a real term or not, but we have used it since Jot was born) joined us – it was great to have someone else there who knew Pops. When Jot talks about the old days he refers to Bruce, his father, as “Dad’ – my  father, his Godfather, is “Pops”. Pops gave Jot his very first gun, a Remington .22 rifle, when he was a youngster. They were fixtures in each other’s lives even though they lived in different states. When Jot’s father passed away, Pops hopped in the Jeep and drove to Winslow to be there for Jot and his younger brother, they were just 10 and 13. Pops made a promise to be there for Jot on the day he was baptized and he never imagined that he would need to keep that promise – but he did. Over they years they stayed in touch even as they lived on different sides of the country. When Pops learned that Jot was living just a few hours from me he even gave me treasures to bring home to him.

This is our family a couple years before Jot came along - my baby brother Ronnie is the bun in the oven. Mom sure looks like she likes Max - she really did.

This is our family a couple of years before Jot came along – my baby brother Ronnie is the bun in the oven. If Mom sure looks like she likes Max – it’s because she did. Why did she let me out of the house wearing those sox?

Bruce and Pops had been friends since I was a toddler – they both worked at the Nevada Test Site, or the Proving Grounds, as it was called in the 1960s. Bruce is a part of my earliest memories – vague ones of him playing chess with pops while I played in the living room on Isabelle Avenue. Bruce was pretty stylish – tapered slacks and a pompadour. I remember thinking he might be that man from the TV with the guitar who wiggled a lot.

This is not Bruce. I often got people in my real life confused with those inside the televisions set when I was a child - heck, I thought Jackie Kennedy was my Mom.

This is not Bruce. I often got people in my real life confused with those inside the television set when I was a child – heck, I thought Jackie Kennedy and my Mom were the same person.

Bruce got married and moved away to Winslow, Arizona – you know the place with the street corner with girl in the flat-bed Ford (Jot hates that song). When Jot was born we made the trip to see his baptism – it was the first time we were ever in a church. I was eight and my brothers were 3 and 5. When the congregation started singing Max sang the only song he knew by heart – Old MacDonald – he sang it loud and proud. I couldn’t sing because I was giggling so hard.

Bruce and Jot - spiffy sideburns.

Bruce and Jot – Bruce was way cooler than Elvis. Jot is a bit taller than this now – otherwise he looks pretty much the same.

Growing up the family came for visits – Bruce, his wife Penny, Jot, and his little brother Jed. The adults would go out for a night on the town and I would get the job of babysitting them along with my little brothers – me and 4 boys. Yikes!

When we drove east to see Mom’s family a stop to spend time in Winslow was always on the itinerary coming and going. I think Jot and Jed looked at the house on Isabelle Avenue as a place of strange wonders. A place where you might find a small parrot peeking out of Pops’ beard, where there might be a 20 foot teepee in the yard, or where you might see a cannon fired in the middle of the street. Talking to both of them as grown men, it was clearly a special place and we weren’t almost like family, we were family.

Mom and Pops among the muskets in our front room on Isabelle Street.

Mom and Pops among the muskets and skins in our front room on Isabelle Street.

Back to the Candle Shoot. It was great to have good friends and family there. My friend Candy helped me set up and was out running errands when she called to see if I needed anything. I asked her to pick up a few emergency candles and she showed up with a full case of those wedding candles that they use in candelabras – they burned slow and I have enough candles to last at least a decade.

Caleb takes a shot.

Caleb takes a shot.

I had a fire pit out in the yard near the shooting table and Jot would tell stories while we took turns shooting. I think young Caleb was inspired by Pops just a bit. After shooting candles for a couple of hours he suggested we try something more difficult than shooting through the wick of a candle. First it was 3 inch black targets by candle light with open sights – very tough and he kicked my butt. Next 1.5″ targets on an optic green background in the dark. I didn’t even bother. I had shown him a pile of coins that had been shot including a nickel that Pop shot and he was excited by that idea – let’s shoot quarters in the dark! Caleb, my friend Judy, and I all decided to give it a try. We placed a flashlight 30 feet from the target as our only light source. Judy hit a dollar coin and then folded a quarter. I was three for three – two of which I put clean holes in – Caleb matched me and added one for his girlfriend as a souvenir, but he was just getting started. Before the night was over he would put a hole clean through a dime!

This is exactly the type of shooting Pops loved. He had an idea once that it might be possible to split a bullet in two by shooting at the blade of an axe and hit two targets at the same time – he built the target and pulled it off. Finding a more difficult challenge was a part of his DNA – the more difficult and outrageous the better.

Pops sported a mountain man look long before the teepee went up in the front lawn.

Pops sported a mountain man look long before the teepee went up in the front lawn.

Pop seemed to have been born without the usual sense of caution that keeps us from doing crazy things. Linda his cousin always talked about their adventures with BB guns. She says, “When we were kids he would have me hold a wooden match in my fingers and he would shoot it with the BB gun. It never occurred to me that he might miss and hit me. He never missed. I always trusted him.” Funny thing, when we were kids and desperately wanted that Red Ryder BB Gun, Pops told us they were more dangerous than a real gun because kids treated them like toys – wonder where he got that idea?

Pops used little Linda for target practice - she was happy to help out.

Pops asked little Linda for help with his target practice – she was happy to oblige.

This year’s Candle Shoot was just the right mix of nostalgia, challenge, and fun – it was missing only one thing, and that was Pops – but he was certainly there in spirit.

I think we did the old man proud.