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.

I don’t recall buying a horse

Tina –  my $50 wonder horse

Around 1970 Pops started hanging out with a lodge buddy named Jim. While they were at lodge meetings on Friday nights the rest of our families hung out together. Soon we started spending weekends together. Jim’s oldest was named Ben. He was about my age and had been taking riding lessons. He had the loan of an experienced gymkhana pony and was competing in 4-H.

One Saturday we all went out to spend the day at the stables where Ben trained. Like any nine-year-old girl I was crazy about horses. I spent the whole day petting ponies and watching Ben practice barrel racing and pole bending on Sunshine, the 15-year-old welsh pony he was training on. As the day turned into evening, the owners of the stables hosted a neighborhood BBQ. Since ribeyes and Bud was on the menu, Pops was happy to stay and mingle with the neighbors. As the evening wore on Pop became louder and louder. Soon he was talking to a woman from the next lane over about a horse. My heart leapt – she was telling him about a small bay mustang, saying how it would be the perfect starter horse for me. I crossed my fingers behind my back as Pop put his arm around me and asked if I would like to have my own horse. Of course I would like it – I practically squealed at the idea of not just borrowing, but owning a horse of my own. The lady offered to show it to us the next day and Pops decided right then and there – he didn’t need to see that horse – he opened his wallet and gave the woman her asking price, fifty dollars cash. I was beyond thrilled.

The next morning we got a phone call. I heard Pops say, “I think you have the wrong number. Why, yes that is my number.” He pulled his wallet from his pocket, inspecting the bills inside. “Funny, I don’t recall buying a horse.” The woman from the night before was calling to remind him that he had promised last night that he would pick up the mare this morning first thing.

Pops called Jim who connected him with Aleda and Fred, the owners of the stable where we had spent the day. They made arrangements to board our new mustang and Aleda agreed to give me riding lessons starting right away. Within 2 weeks I was competing in my first event. Soon I was running a whole slate of events and winning ribbons. The man who forgot he bought a horse hung each and everyone on the wall overlooking his corner in the living room – my personal wall of fame.

Weekly gymkhanas became the norm for us. I spent the next year and a half competing in 4-H. I started running against other 9 year-olds and then moved up to ten and eleven year olds. I was doing pretty well. I brought home ribbons every time out. My horse, Tina, was not very large. If she did not have shoes on she was just short enough to be considered a pony. We were running her against a few ponies but most of our competition were running quarter horses or thoroughbreds. I’m sure all of them cost more than fifty bucks. Within the bounds of 4-H Tina was doing OK. One parent politely told my Pop that I was “under-mounted” to face any real competition.

I, for one, was not buying it. I believed that like anything else, practice makes perfect. If I tried hard enough and put the work into it – we could be bringing home blue ribbons every week. I just needed to practice more. After all, Tina and I were regularly beating Ben and Sunshine (we had a foot in height so it wasn’t exactly a fair contest). Aleda was a pragmatist. She knew I had serious limitations and that it was important that I loved riding more than I loved winning. She decided that it was time for me to enter a “playday” – a wide open gymkhana not regulated by 4-H rules. Instead of competing with about 10 kids in my narrow age bracket, I would compete against over 50 who were under 15 years old. Tina and I ran our hearts out, but we never placed higher than 12th in an event.

I was devastated. I had never had a day where I didn’t break the top five, where I wasn’t in the running for high points. I was disappointed that I had not tried harder, practiced more, executed better. Aleda was all smiles – 12th out of 50 was better than she had hoped for, but I was having none of it. There are no 12th place ribbons. I was going home empty-handed. Aleda sat me down and explained that I was going home with new experiences – riding in front of a larger and noisier crowd, doing my best and not quitting, believing in Tina. She told me that I owed it to Tina to enjoy the experience – Aleda was a wise woman.

Being that this was an open event, my Pop entered some of the adult events. He had watched me for a couple of years and had no worries about learning the patterns. I knew Tina knew that patterns and she could get him through it. We had a bunch of Pop’s buddies there that day and they had been having a good time in the stands. Since this was not a 4-H event, there was no need to hide your beer in a thermos – you could just drink in the open – and drink they did. One of the last events of the day was a complicated pattern called the quadrangle. It was like running a four-leafed clover with very specific turns. Pops had no clue which way to turn on which pole, and in his state I wasn’t having any success telling him before the event.

He got into the starting area and took off. Tina wasn’t used to carrying someone so large, but she ran it full-out anyway. Pops was not the best rider, he didn’t move with the horse. At the first pole when Tina leaned into the curve Pop didn’t and he flew off and landed in the dirt. The crown let out a simultaneous gasp. Tina continued on to the next pole riderless, and as she took the turn the crowd began to cheer. By the third pole they were on their feet, and when she made that final turn towards home the sound was deafening. As she ran through the timer she hunched her back and let loose a flying buck, she had completed the most complicated pattern without any help from a rider! She may have been small and underpowered but at that moment she was the finest horse in all the land. In the coming months and years I would have people come up to me and ask if Tina was the famous “quadrangle” horse.

Quadrangle Pattern – Tina knew it by heart

The “quadrangle incident” was late in the day and between the pep talk from Aleda and the crowds adulation over Tina, I had a new perspective. Pops saw it a bit differently. He knew I wanted to win and that I was used to bringing home some hardware. He had taken a very visible fall and had a bruised ego. We loaded up the horse trailer and he left Tina’s transportation to Aleda and Mom. He would drive me back to the stables. The two of us could commiserate together.

We pulled out of the arena grounds and headed north up Nellis Boulevard. Back in the day Nellis was a lonely road filled mostly with cowboy bars. We stopped in at the first one we saw. Pops lifted me up onto a bar stool and ordered me a Shirley Temple. While I sipped it down he told the bartender how I had tried my best, how I had ridden my heart out and come up short. After about a half an hour we headed out again only to stop at the next bar, and the next bar, and the next – stopping a dozen times on the way home. My sweet silly Pop was helping me to drown my sorrows. It was long after dark when we finally got to the stables. Pops was completely shot. He passed out on Aleda’s couch while she and mom made some supper for us. I snuck outside and hugged Tina’s neck hard. She had given her all and I never loved her more than I did that day when we won nothing.