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.

The Celebration of the Pre-Bicentennial

The rockets red glare, bombs bursting in mid-air, showers of sparks falling from heaven through the thick sulphurous smoke – below it was carnage. The fallen lay strewn in every direction as far as the eye could see. As the smoke cleared, a single figure becomes visible downfield. She’s clothed in red, a rifle in her hand, and she’s running for the end zone for all she’s worth. Behind her a large bearded man yells, “Die already!”
My Pop never did anything half way – he was all-in or he was out. When we started going to black powder gun shoots at the local range, it wasn’t long before he was getting Mom to make him some “leathers” so that he could play the part of a real mountain man. Almost immediately we were neck-deep in a local club called the Nevada Frontloaders – I know, it sounds like a group of bulldozer enthusiasts, but in reality it was a group who loved shooting muzzle-loading weapons – we were called “frontloaders” because the guns we fired were reloaded from the front of the barrel – the muzzle.
The sterling silver pendant worn by the members of the Nevada Frontloaders - designed by me when I was 12.

The sterling silver pendant worn by the members of the Nevada Frontloaders – designed by me when I was 12.

The Frontloaders put on a rendezvous several times a year – basically a rendezvous is a weekend shoot at a remote location with primitive camping. Initially we all loaded into the GMC camper for these weekends, but after an enlightening trip to a huge rendezvous in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, he moved us out of the camper and into a lodge – a large canvas teepee. Now camping in a teepee is not for the faint of heart – you have to carry log poles with you – very long lodgepole pine poles, I think it took about 30 of them to set up a lodge. It took the whole family and Pop’s pal Tiny to set the lodge up.
Not your typical tent-camping set-up, a teepee requires lots of friends in leather clothes to assemble.

Not your typical tent-camping set-up, a teepee requires lots of friends in leather clothes to assemble.

An aside about Tiny – Tiny’s given name is something like Donald and I have no idea what his last name is. I’ve known him for 40 years and he is married to my mom’s cousin. The subject of his actual name just never came up. He is a very large man – I think he’s something like 6 foot 8, and he always told me that he weighed more than they could read on the scale in his doctor’s office. He used to tell us he was 5 foot 20 or 4 foot 32. He is a mountain of a man. My pop met him at a shoot and immediately started calling him Tiny. To this day he drives a car with a vanity plate with that moniker. He was the guy Pop would call if he ever needed anything. Tiny was there to help fix a car or the AC, he was there to participate in Pop’s crazy projects, he was there when my mom passed. Until the last few years he would always pick me up off the ground in a bear hug when he greeted me, and I can assure you that that’s no simple feat. He has shown up on my doorstep in the woods in a 30 foot RV with no warning and he would be welcome to do so at any time – he is a prince of a man.
This is Tiny - the tiny man next to him is not tiny. Tiny is really not tiny at all.

This is Tiny – the tiny man next to him is not Tiny and also is not tiny. He is average, although that is not his name. Tiny is really not tiny at all.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the Pre-Bicentennial – anyway…
Once we got involved, Pops drug us to almost any kind of event where he could put on his leathers and pretend that it wasn’t the 1970s in Las Vegas. We went to a historical reenactment at the Old Mormon Fort – the first settlement in what is now Las Vegas. Pops had set up a blacksmith forge in our back yard (No store-bought knives or tomahawks for us!), so he was giving a blacksmith demo at the fort. He caught the eye of a reporter for the Sunday magazine in one of the local papers, and he became the go-to guy whenever they wanted stories about a family pretending they were pioneers. Over the years Pops was in articles about primitive fire starting, blacksmithing, shooting, gun building, and even a feature that talked about the practice of trading with the natives. For this article, my mom – who was always a good sport – agreed to be photographed in a scene where my Pop was trading a local Indian two horses for her. Most of the time he just made up “facts” for the reporters and they ate it up. He was in the Sunday magazines a couple of times a year and was the resident “expert” on all things “frontier” in Las Vegas.
One of Pop's first Sunday magazine features

One of Pop’s first Sunday magazine features. Notice my brother Max in the foreground pumping the foot bellows with his period appropriate sneakers. BTW – that’s my dead-shot Mama in the upper right – more on her later.

By 1975, things were in full swing leading up to the Bicentennial, and the annual 4th of July celebration would kick off a year of events recounting our nation’s glorious struggle for independence. This was about the time when the idea of historical re-enactors first become popular. People were wanting to see history replayed in a public way. Naturally, since Pop was the go-to guy concerning all things historically inaccurate in Las Vegas, he was approached to put on a reenactment at the Pre-Bicentennial fireworks display at the Las Vegas Silver Bowl. When asked, “Can you pull off a reenactment of the Battles of Lexington and Concord on the Football field?” Pops answered and emphatic “Yes!”
The men-folk put on a show at the old Mormon Fort. Someone forgot to tell Ronnie that only tourists wear dark sox with a breech cloth.

The men-folk put on a show at the old Mormon Fort. My Pop is holding a rifle owned by my Great Grandpa Goodson and my mother inheriting it is probably the reason we got into this crazy lifestyle. As an aside – someone forgot to tell Ronnie that only tourists wear dark sox with a breech cloth.

This was his plan – all the men and boys in the Nevada Frontloaders would dress in their “leathers”. They could pass themselves off as “colonials” or “patriots” with the simple addition of brown tri-corner felt hats to their ensembles. Now “leathers” were not tied to a specific historical style – the idea was that you hand sewed some skins together to make shirts, loin cloths, leggings, or pants. You made something that someone with no sewing machine could have made out on the frontier, never mind that Lexington had been settled for over 120 years by the time of the American Revolution, Concord had been around even longer – they were no more the frontier than Las Vegas was 200 years later. Now of course these “patriots” needed someone to fight – Pops had a solution for that too. My mom was a seamstress and pattern cutter so all she had to do was make British red-coat costumes for all the women and girls in the Frontloaders. After all, there were no squaws at the battle of Lexington and Concord.
This is a shot I took of my Pop while he was getting ready for a photo shoot with the paper - these are the horses he was going to trade for my mother. I rode those horses growing up and he definitely got the better end of the deal.

This is a shot I took of my Pop while he was getting ready for a photo shoot with the paper – these are the horses he was going to trade for my mother. I rode those horses growing up and he definitely got the better end of the deal.

As a 13-year-old girl, I can’t say that this idea excited me. I was given a pair of white men’s trousers that had been cut off at mid calf, an old pair of tall black equestrian boots, a tri-corner hat, and an exquisitely tailored red-coat – that and my 1841 reproduction Mississippi Rifle competed my costume. Me, my mom, and about 8 other women-folk from the Frontloaders made up the terrifying British forces. One girl was actually someone’s cousin, visiting for the summer who had been convinced to come along and relive history with us at the Silver Bowl.
Another publicity shot of the Nevada Frontloaders - this was taken about 30 minutes before my Pop decided to grow a beard.

Another publicity shot of the Nevada Frontloaders – this was taken about 30 minutes before my Pop decided to grow a beard. He would not be seen clean-shaven again until the 90’s.

Now July in Vegas is hot – that’s pretty common knowledge. What you may not know is that July and August are the “monsoon” season in the Nevada desert. The name has always cracked me up – locals say it with such sincerity. Most of the local annual rainfall of four inches falls during the 27 days of the “monsoon”. Living in a place where the annual rainfall is measured in feet has probably added to my less than earnest thoughts about the “monsoon” – even so, rain in the desert, any rain is a big deal. The rains start in the mountains west of town and by the time it hits the valley floor the water is already rushing down from the mountains. The ground doesn’t absorb it and it races across the valley and it can be deadly. People who don’t see rain regularly often don’t take moving water seriously.
July of 1975 was a very bad monsoon. The 3rd and the 4th of July saw three inches of rain race across the valley. This happened at a time when the valley infrastructure had no means in place to direct water. It sounds crazy today, but they would build an underpass below grade and just close it if the rains came. City planners thought nothing of leveling big tracts of city owned desert for development without giving a thought to drainage – after all it doesn’t rain very often. On the afternoon of the third, wall of water raced across the strip – it relocated over 300 cars from the parking lot at Caesar’s Palace to multiple locations east of the strip. It all happened really fast – and by late afternoon all the water was gone – that’s why they call it a “flash flood”.
This is an image of the Strip right after the flooding on the third of July 1975 - can you say "Monsoon"?

This is an image of the Strip right after the flooding on the third of July 1975 – can you say “Monsoon”? Hey, I thought Andy Williams was busy inventing Branson in the 70’s – what gives?

As I stood in my bedroom watching the water race across our neighbor’s lawns across the street on the “low side” one thought cheered me – perhaps the fake revolution would have to be cancelled. No such luck – Pops got off work at around 4 and we headed out to the Silver Bowl for a rehearsal. Pops laid out the plan to the thirty or so male colonials and the ten girlie red-coats. The red-coats would set up in a classic kneeling and standing formation on the western 20 yard line. The patriots would rush towards us as we took aim and fired one volley. Now we were not shooting actual bullets – we had loaded our muskets with about 10-15 grains of black powder and packed it down with a wad of toilet paper. When you fired, the thought was that the toilet paper would be vaporized before it exited the barrel – but I can attest to the fact that it can survive the inferno. After our volley the whole end of the stadium filled with white smoke from the gunpowder making it impossible for anyone to see the brave patriots charging our meager ranks. As the smoke cleared we regrouped as tiny tp snowflakes fell from the sky. The British were penalized 15 yards for excessive smokiness and we started play again from the 35 yard line.
This is the kind of smoke that comes from firing black powder and toilet paper - inside the Silver Bowl the smoke just hung there.

This is the kind of smoke that comes from firing black powder and toilet paper – inside the Silver Bowl the smoke just hung there.

In our street clothes we worked out the spacing for the show the next day. The Astroturf was wet and it was almost walking on top of a blister. After a quick walk through we met on the sidelines where Pop told us the plan. The British would take that first volley and then make a hasty retreat as the patriots charged forward. Our job was to fire, retreat, and fall down dead on the Astroturf as toilet paper shots rang out behind us. It was going to be a rout – there would be no survivors.
As Pops went over the details I looked down at the plastic turf at my feet – I was standing right near the edge of the fake grass behind the visitors bench. As I pressed my feet into the turf I saw water spill out at the edge – the Silver Bowl is built in the flood plain known as the Vegas Wash and all that water had passed around and under the stadium. As I looked closer, I saw something move, and then I saw more somethings move. I locked onto the movements and saw dozens of smallish light-colored baby tarantulas squirming in the wet Astroturf! Apparently they lived under the plastic fake grass and all that water had forced them above ground. Needless to say, I freaked out and tried to stomp on them before they could crawl on me. I pushed the toe of my shoe into the turf over one and I watched in amazement as it just crawled right out from under my shoe – the rigidity of the astro turf seemed to give it enough wiggle room to get free. This was my worst nightmare – the place was crawling with them. As we drove home that evening all I could think about was the next evening when we would march out on that field – I was going to have to play dead on plastic grass with creepy fuzzy alien-looking spiders everywhere! My skin crawled every time I thought about it.
There were dozens of these delightful creatures everywhere -

There were dozens of these delightful creatures everywhere – I considered wearing a has-mat suit under my red-coat.

The next evening we would reenact that famous heroic battle there under the lights of the Silver Bowl. As we got dressed in the locker rooms I mused that we British had about as much chance tonight as the UNLV Rebels football team would have in that very stadium playing just about any opponent that fall. Yes, it would be a rout, but would I have the courage to be a brave little soldier and drop dead in that spider infested turf to celebrate my nation’s birthday?
The British lined up on the Patriots 35 yard line. They fired their volley and the Patriots charged from the end zone. My mother played the part of the general – let’s just say for complete historical inaccuracy that she was General Cornwallis, anyway, she was the head red-coat in charge. I watched her as we turned to run up field towards the 50 yard line. The patriots fired, but instead of dropping dead my mother reloaded – right there at midfield. She raised her rifle and fired. Boom! Immediately 4 patriots dropped dead! My father growled, this wasn’t in his very carefully crafted fake history plan – but once you’re dead, you’re dead. You can’t get up – you have to stay dead.
My mom could sew up a storm - she made her dress, these drapes and even helped upholster that couch - a real renaissance woman. She could also kill 4 rebels with a single load of toilet paper.

My mom could sew up a storm – she made her dress, these drapes and even helped upholster that couch – a real renaissance woman. She could also kill 4 rebels with a single load of toilet paper.

This break from the plan gave me hope so I reloaded and fired into the crowd of Patriots – but alas, no one fell. Shots rang out from about the 45 yard line and I saw my mother fall. Rifle at the ready, I scanned the field and saw that I was the last red-coat standing. More shots rang out and I just couldn’t make myself fall. (Everyone knows that muskets in that time were notoriously inaccurate.) The fear of spiders proved to be more potent than the fear of my Pops. I turned down field, rifle in hand, and made a run for it. As I crossed into the end zone and ran under the uprights the fireworks show started overhead. As all eyes in the stadium left me and looked skyward, I could still hear my father yelling in the distance, “Die already!” I chose not to die that day and didn’t stop running until I hit the locker room.
When this man chases you across a football field, you had better haul ass if you don't want to die with the spiders.

When this man chases you across a football field, you had better haul ass if you don’t want to die with the spiders.

We had done the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord proud and tarantulas still give me the creeps, even today.
Belated Happy Birthday America!

Tales from the Diggins – Part 3 – Then and Now

The Last Summer

Around 1973 our summers in the wilds of northern Nevada came to an end. That summer Grandma and Grandpa made two trips north. On the first they went alone and met Uncle Ronnie and Herb the geologist to do the required assay work. After a week assaying Ron and Herb headed north to their homes in Oregon. Grandma and Grandpa spent another night before heading south to our home in Las Vegas – at least that was the plan.

In the morning they got into the pickup, and it wouldn’t start. Grandpa was pretty mechanical so he spent a couple of hours trying to get the engine to turn over, but it was no use. By noon they made the call, they were going to have to hike out.

In the days before cell phones there were few options. The truck had a CB in it but they were down in a valley and were unable to raise any response. Since they needed the truck to power up the CB, hiking to the nearest rise was not an option either. They decided to hike to the nearest ranch homestead hoping to find a telephone. The nearest paved road was 60 miles, the nearest town, Midas, was 25 – so they headed in the direction of Midas.

We did not have “hiking” gear at the Diggins. We wore heavy work boots to protect our feet and had shower shoes for showering in the spring. Grandma and Grandpa made that trek in those heavy boots carrying as much water as they could manage in the canteens. When they came across a homestead that night, they had walked 17 miles and their feet were blistered and bleeding. The rancher let them use the phone and they spent the night. In the morning the rancher took Grandpa back to camp to get the truck running. They had to put it in 4-wheel drive, lift it off the ground, and wrap a rope around a suspended wheel several times – they put the truck in gear and did a mid-air version of a push start with the rope on the tire. Once it was running Grandpa went back to the ranch and picked up Grandma and headed for the nearest city to seek medical attention.

Pops and a buddy had driven north and met Grandma and Grandpa in Battle Mountain, Nevada – a bit over 100 miles from the mine. They were both in a lot of pain and were in no shape to drive. Once they could travel Pops got them both home safe and sound where they recovered from their ordeal. I remember running into the house to see them and both of them had bandages on both feet. Grandma said that even her blisters had blisters. Hearing the tales of their trek only magnified both of them in my view – they really were amazing, they could do or conquer anything.

Late that summer they took what would be their last trip to the Diggins with my youngest brother Ronnie. He recalls this trip as the beginning of our grandmother’s progressive illness. She had rather suddenly developed swollen joints that her doctors assumed were caused by rheumatoid arthritis. They were actually caused by a toxic drug interaction – Grandma’s doctor had prescribed 2 meds for her that were toxic together. We later learned that they were listed in the Physicians Desk Reference as toxic in combination. Even though her pharmacist tried to alert her physician to the dangers, he arrogantly insisted he was the doctor and knew what he was doing. His arrogance and ignorance cost my grandmother her mobility and nearly her life before it was over. In less than a year we would be waiting at Loma Linda as a doctor told us she might last 24 hours if we were lucky. She did last another 25 years, but her life was changed forever after that summer and our memories of our Grandma changed from those of triumph and wonder to memories of hospitals and nursing care. Being the oldest, I have always been unwilling to set aside the wonderful woman who inspired me in place of the reality of her declining condition. I needed that woman who could do anything in my life, to see her reduced to a woman who could not stand without assistance was heartbreaking for our entire family.

She fought the good fight against her symptoms – she survived because of her own stubborn will to live. At Loma Linda she told me, “This crap won’t kill me, I won’t let it”, and I believed her. As her body declined she fought on, but when I think of her whole – strong, vital, and loving life – I think of those summers at the Diggins.

Uncle Ronnie continued to keep the claim active until the mid 80s. Going there without Grandma and Grandpa didn’t seem right for us. The Diggins faded into the place where childhood memories are stored. The chapter was closed.

Our Return to the Diggins

In 2009, my brother Max and I made the trek back to the Diggins. He and Pop had made the trip a couple of years earlier – they mailed me a box of rocks and a bottle of water from the Spring that I still have at the house. They had scouted out the route and spent a part of a day up there. I was so excited to hear that they had found it – Max and I began to plot a return ourselves.

I took my vacation over Memorial Day that year and we made the drive north. We made arrangements to stay at the Midas Saloon – the very same spot where Grandma had taken me to buy a creme soda on our weekly drives for supplies and to make phone calls.

The Midas saloon is virtually unchanged. You can still get a cold brew and some ice. The have guest houses and we stayed here during our visit.

The Midas saloon is virtually unchanged. You can still get a cold brew and some ice. They have guest houses and we stayed here during our visit.

When we were kids Midas had 11 school aged children in town. This was one child short of the requirement to keep their one-room school-house open. At the height of the Gold Rush there were 30,000 people living in Midas. Today there are 11 year-round residents. Summers see about a dozen more. The Saloon is the hub of the town – they serve dinner, drinks, and great conversation every night from May through September.

Max reflected in the mirror at the Midas Saloon

Max reflected in the mirror at the Midas Saloon

We ate there and slept in the guest cottage in the back. The whole town came out that night and we made connections with people whose parents and grandparents were in the area when we prospected on our claim in the 60s and 70s. Apart from Las Vegas and Reno, all of Nevada is really just a very spread out small town. Connections are everywhere. In that little Saloon I met people who lived on the same street where I bought my first home, I met a guy who knew my Uncle Ronnie, I met people who knew where our claim was because they had explored and loved those same hills. Nevada is like that.

This is the lock on the door of the Midas Jail - the door was open when I visited.

This is the lock on the door of the Midas Jail – the door was open when I visited.

Midas has modern homes and very old structures – the original jail still stands. Sadly the school-house burned down a few years ago. My Grandma took me to see it when I was about 8 years old and it was sad to learn it was gone.

Midas was known as the Gold Circle during the boom years of the 19th century. This supply shack has obviously been rebuilt recently. The owner carefully replaced all the old steel license plates. I have one of those plates on my wall, my Grandma talked the owner out of it on one of our visits.

Midas was known as the Gold Circle during the boom years of the 19th century. This supply shack has obviously been rebuilt. The owner carefully replaced all the old steel license plates. I have one of those plates on my wall, my Grandma talked the owner out of it on one of our visits.

After a night of catching up and telling stories, Max and I headed out to find the mine and make our own connections. As we left Midas we passed a colorful barrel mailbox – there are many like it up in the wilds – a home-made box that can hold lots of mail.

This is a mailbox outside of Midas - I wonder if it was a barrel box like this that my grandparents saw after that long hike, letting them know that help was close by.

This is a mailbox outside of Midas – I wonder if it was a barrel box like this that my grandparents saw after that long hike, letting them know that help was close by.

One of the first familiar sights we saw was a sheep herder’s camp. It has been in use as long as anyone can remember. I remember seeing these pens filled with sheep on the Jeep rides into the Diggins – the fence has been moved because the course of the creek was altered by a flood some 20 years ago – but it is essentially in the same spot.

This is the old sheep herder's camp - it's still in use when they bring the herds down from the hills. You can get a sense of the size of the sage from this shot - Max is 6 feet tall an the sage comes up to his shoulders.

This is the old sheep herder’s camp – it’s still in use when they bring the herds down from the hills. You can get a sense of the size of the sage from this shot – Max is 6 feet tall and the sage comes up to his shoulders.

Our first stop was Rock Creek – the very same spot where these adventures took place. The creek swells to a level that is impassable when the snow melts and the effects can be seen in the deterioration of the road.

Rock Creek today - the course of the creek has changed - in the 60s the creek was about 50 feet further back. Our camp was on the other side of the creek nestled in against the tall sagebrush.

Rock Creek today – the course of the creek has changed – in the 60s the creek was about 50 feet further back. Our camp was on the other side of the creek nestled in against the tall sagebrush.

Another view of Rock Creek Campsite – that taller brush midway up on the right was the site of our camp, the site of toilet accidents, snake sightings, and practical jokes on Uncle Ronnie.

Rock Creek today - still about 2-3 feet deep.

Rock Creek today – wider than it is deep at this time of year.

After getting the lay of the land and comparing recollections we loaded back up and pressed on into the hills to the Diggins where these adventures took place. The site was recognizable from the road – this reversed guard rail was used to guide the Caterpillar and was probably placed here in the late 70s by Uncle Ronnie.

This guard rail in the middle of nowhere was designed to keep the Caterpillar from edging too close to camp.

This guard rail in the middle of nowhere was designed to keep the Caterpillar from edging too close to camp.

The original Diggins Campsite today…

This is the road that runs right through the DIggins - the same road that boasted a Lake Minnie Haha sign back in the day.

This is the road that runs right through the Diggins – the same road that boasted a Lake Minnie Haha sign back in the day.

The same road back in the day…

Welcome to Minnie Haha

This sign welcomed visitors to the wonders of Lake Minnie Haha.

We camped to the left of the road, the Lake was to the right. Lake Minnie Haha is still there, though 40 years of snows and sediment have reduced her size considerably.

Over the years it's filled with sediment, but the mighty Toejam has not completely reclaimed Lake Minnie Haha.

Over the years it’s filled with sediment, but the mighty Toejam has not completely reclaimed Lake Minnie Haha.

Here’s a shot of Minnie Haha in its prime taken from the opposite shore…

Grandma in ner namesake lake with the first grizzly in the background.

Grandma in her namesake lake with the first grizzly in the background.

We built structures for working the mine on site. One of them was a grizzly. This one was likely built towards the end of our time at the Diggins.

This is the grizzly - it's basically a sifter for large rocks. They would use the loader bucket on the Caterpillar tractor to dump a cut of ground over - the large rocks slid down the rails the smaller when through and would be processed in the sluices. These things were constructed onsite.

This is the grizzly – it’s basically a sifter for large rocks. They would use the loader bucket on the Caterpillar tractor to dump a cut of ground over – the large rocks slid down the rails the smaller when through and would be processed in the sluices.

The original grizzly was located right next to Minnie Haha – its foundation is still visible today…

This is the first grizzly on the banks of Lake Minnie Haha - Circa 1967

This is the first grizzly on the banks of Lake Minnie Haha – Circa 1967.

Toejam creek fed into Minnie Haha at one time, but today the course of the creek is changed – it runs about 30 feet beyond Minnie Haha.

On the banks of the mighty Toejam we staked our claim - today the creek is almost unchanged.

On the banks of the mighty Toejam we staked our claim – today the creek is wild once again.

May remnants of our time at the Diggins remain – the signs of daily camp life are everywhere. The arid nature of the high desert allows metal to degrade very slowly. I found one of my galoshes over near the creek. These items are still there – it’s like our own private ghost town.

The remains of many meals of beans and wienies.

The remains of many meals of beans and weenies.

My Grandma loved Squirt - and there is still evidence of her here at Minnie Haha.

Litter does not ordinarily make me smile. My Grandma loved Squirt – and there is still evidence of her here at Minnie Haha.

Primitive Potty - apparently Uncle Ronnie left this for us - it beats squatting

Primitive Potty – apparently Uncle Ronnie left this for us – it beats squatting. No pooping by the creek – you had to carry off your own waste to a better place.

Camp life in the 60s typically took place in June and July – a bit more arid than our Memorial day trip.

Camp in the late 60's just above Lake Minnie Haha

Camp in the late 60’s just above Lake Minnie Haha

This tailings pile sits on the site of the original camp – we moved camp to Rock Creek in order to make room to work with heavy equipment.

This is a tailings pile - the processed earth.

This is a tailings pile – the processed earth.

One of of the things I remember were the giant bumblebees and wildflowers along the creek. In the Spring the wildflowers are still stunning. Some things never change.

Wildflowers on the shores of Minnie Haha

Wildflowers on the shores of Minnie Haha

After surveying camp and finding a couple of arrowhead tips we ventured up to the spring where we would get fresh water and the meadow where we hunted game birds and shot jackrabbits (and where we shot the window out of the truck!).

This rusty pole is a survey marker for a section of our claim. Max is shooting flowers in the meadow.

This rusty pole is a survey marker for a section of our claim. Max is shooting flowers in the meadow.

Max was shooting some of these beauties…

Wild irises filled the meadow.

Wild irises filled the meadow.

The spring is on the hillside above the meadow. This is a view from the meadow up towards the spring on the left side of the photo. The red rock is where we got our drinking water, the dark rock halfway down the hill is the site of our shower.

This is a view from the meadow up towards the spring on the left side of the photo. The red rock is where we got our drinking water, the dark rock halfway down the hill is the site of our shower. This quaking aspens have been there for over a century. My grandfather carved our names into one of them near where he saw names of pioneers with dates from the 1840s. He also found a wagon wheel hub up there when I was a kid.

This quaking aspens have been there for over a century. My grandfather carved our names into one of them near where he saw names of pioneers with dates from the 1840s. He also found a wagon wheel hub up there when I was a kid.

Toejam Creek runs through the meadow and it was a bit marshy so we left the Jeep on the far side and hiked across the meadow and up to the spring. You can just barely make it out at the base of the hill. We spent evenings here racing the Jeep across this vast meadow and shooting up jackrabbits. Today the meadow hosts cattle and wild horses.

This is a view back towards our Jeep in the far distance. We are at the red rock on the spring.

This is a view back towards our Jeep in the far distance. We are at the red rock on the spring.

After a day of adventure we headed back to Midas for another evening at the Saloon – we headed home the next day and took a more eastern route through Elko where we encountered this confusing signage configuration…

So should I enter or not - Nevada is typically less passive-agressive than these signs indicate.

So should I enter or not – Nevada is typically less passive-agressive than these signs indicate.

So Close, but Yet So Far

The summer of 2011, the year after Pops died, we decided to make another trip back. Both of my brothers wanted to make the trip and we wanted to introduce the Diggins to the next generation of Carters. Max, his youngest son, and I would ride up and scout the route in from the east via Elko. Ronnie and his kids would join us the next day at the highway and we would all travel into the Diggins together from the west.

The Saloon in Midas had no vacancies so we stayed the night in Elko before heading into the Diggins. We had mapped the routes in and out on a GPS on our 2009 visit so it was as simple as selecting the location from our POI list on the Garmin, or so we thought.

As we left the highway we passed through the community of Tuscarora. There is an artsy feel to this little burg in the middle of nowhere.

As we left the highway we passed through the community of Tuscarora. There is an artsy feel to this little burg in the middle of nowhere.

In the distance you can see snow on the peaks of the mountains – this looks pretty innocuous, but up close the snow caused issues that we had not anticipated.

This is an example of the roads we encountered - this one was actually pretty good. Some required us to get out and see if we could spot the tire tracks.

This is an example of the roads we encountered – this one was actually pretty good. Some required us to get out and see if we could spot the remnants of tire tracks.

As we got higher into the mountains the snow became more ominous. We would take a route and find it blocked by snowdrifts 6 feet deep. It seemed we would spend a fair amount of this trip backing down hillside trails. Eventually we decided to just go to the top of a hill and take a look back to see if we could find a way through.

We drove to the top of this ridge to scout a way past the snowfall - it was like being on top of the world.

We drove to the top of this ridge to scout a way past the snowfall – it was like being on top of the world.

The hilltop afforded us this view…

On top of the hill we can see the road we need to get to - that sagebrush before the road was 4-5 feet tall.

On top of the hill we can see the road we need to get to – that sagebrush before the road was 3-4 feet tall.

We sent Brian out to scout ahead and we drove down the hill – this is true offloading. At one point we were driving over sagebrush 3-4 feet deep. but we managed to get to the road below.

My nephew Brian scouts ahead to see if we can navigate to the roads below.

My nephew Brian scouts ahead to see if we can navigate to the roads below.

Once we hit the road we drove through a quaking aspen grove and into a meadow. We could see that the road was being cleared ahead of us. We met up with Bob – a miner from a family who owned the nearby Falcon Mine claim. Our grandparents knew the Falcon owners as neighbors. It was another small town Nevada connection.

We met up with Bob in the meadow and compared notes

We met up with Bob in the meadow and compared notes.

We met up with Bob along the trail - he was starting to work his parents claim that they have been working since the 20's. From the stories he told I think my grandparents could have played cards with his parents on those summer nights so long ago. He guided us through the maze of old mining roads.

This is Bob – he was starting to work his parents claim that his family had been working since the 20’s. From the stories he told I think my grandparents could have played cards with his parents on those summer nights so long ago. He guided us through the maze of old mining roads.

Bob and his crew gave us a tour of the Falcon Mine and Camp – they had a permanent camp, something I think we would have had eventually if my Grandma had not gotten sick.

So close, but yet so far. The diggins is about two miles from this spot - just on the other side of the second ridge. This is part of the nearby Falcon Mine Claim.

So close, but yet so far. The Diggins is about two miles from this spot – just on the other side of the second ridge. This is part of the nearby Falcon Mine Claim.

During the snow melt in the spring the creeks can really move - this bridge leads to an old miners camp.

During the snow melt in the spring the creeks can really move – this bridge leads to an old miners camp.

You might want to make a visit to the powder room before we venture further into the sagebrush.

You might want to make a visit to the powder room before we venture further into the sagebrush.

In the desert metal like this can stay outside for decades - these shoes were hung outside of an old bunkhouse near the Falcon

In the desert metal like this can stay outside for decades – these shoes were hung outside of an old bunk house near the Falcon

Midas Nevada mining equipment parked at the Falcon Mine's camp.

Midas Nevada mining equipment parked at the Falcon Mine’s camp.

Earthworks like these mark the locations of older claims - this is likely a part of the White Horse Claim

Earthworks like these mark the locations of older claims – this is likely a part of the White Horse Claim

One of Bob’s buddies offered to guide us towards our claim – the water levels were high and eventually we had to give up. They had also tried to get in from the west through Rock Creek earlier in the week – getting to the Diggins was just not going to happen on this trip.

This video shows a bit of our adventure to find the mine – we didn’t get there but we had an amazing day.

On the way out of the hills we encountered some of the wildlife that makes this area so very special…

Antelope are everywhere these days - during our mining days they were a rare site because ranchers thought them to be a nuisance.

Antelope are everywhere these days – during our mining days they were a rare sight because ranchers thought them to be a nuisance.

Our home away from home is now where the deer and the antelope play

Our home away from home is now where the deer and the antelope play.

On most of our trips we catch a glimpse of some wild horses - these magnificent animals run in herds all over northern Nevada.

On most of our trips we catch a glimpse of some wild horses – these magnificent animals run in herds all over northern Nevada.

Like all my trips, I indulged my passion for rocks – the Diggins is the place where I fell in love with rocks – the variety there was and is so stunning.

I may be dumber than a box of rocks - but who could leave these lying out there in the desert.

I may be dumber than a box of rocks – but who could leave these lying out there in the desert?

Beyond the Diggins

One of the things I take away from our adventures in the north is a sense of independence and self-reliance. I like to think that I have followed in Grandma’s footsteps and found a path by trying things I never imagined I could do. I still love a challenge and I know I got that from her. Her powerful influence on me as a young girl informed the way I think about women and about myself.

Scenes like this made me believe that my Grandma could do anything - after all here she is literally shaping her world.

Scenes like this made me believe that my Grandma could do anything – after all here she is literally shaping her world.

Furthermore, I believe these experiences have shaped my brothers as well. They were younger, but the experience of living in the wilderness – hunting, working, exploring – has shaped us all.

Recently my brother Max wrote a post about a sexy tractor. My eyes filled with tears as I saw his granddaughter riding on a tractor with his wife Karen – one of the captions read “Karen showing that she can do anything”. I thought back to how much that image meant to me, and now Alexa will have that same image of a wonderful crazy woman who can do anything. I hope that one day Alexa can share that same wonder and independence with her granddaughter.

Here Karen, Max's wife shows her granddaughter that she can do anything.

Here Karen, Max’s wife shows her granddaughter that she can do anything.

This is a wonderful gift, more precious than any gold or silver you might dig up – and it’s a gift I hope is passed down forever.

Just looking at these photos is making me long for the hills – I feel the need to get back to my roots, I hope that we can make that trip again soon and take Alexa with us.

Tales From the Diggins Part 2 – Rock Creek, Rattlesnakes, and Uncle Ronnie

This is the second in a series of three posts – the first can be found here.

The Rock Creek Landslide

After our first summer at the mine we moved our camp to Rock Creek, about 5 miles from the Diggins. Giving up so much flat ground to build camp on made it hard to navigate the big machinery. Camp was still made up of zones – my folks and another couple, the Laughlins stayed in our GMC Jimmy with a cab over camper. The Laughlin kids,  my brothers, and I stayed in a large tent nearby. Grandma, Grandpa , and Uncle Ronnie had a tent next to ours.

This is not our camper or our camp or our flag or our lake - but we did have a huge cabover camper on top of an old Jimmy.

This is not our camper or our camp or our flag or our lake – but we did have a huge cab over camper on top of an old Jimmy.

Camping at the creek kept us close to water and away from the dust at the mine and it was a short drive over to the mine each morning. We had some high sage that created a break from the clearing at the creek side.

For bathroom facilities we had a fold up stool with a toilet seat on it – the idea was that you could attach a plastic bag to capture your droppings, but we were out in the wilds where lots of animals pooped – so what was a little people poop in the mix?  When you needed to go you would take the stool and hike up the hill beyond the sage thicket. The hillside beyond the thicket was pretty steep but their was plenty of privacy.

I can't believe they still make these - better than squatting in the sagebrush!

I can’t believe they still make these – better than squatting in the sagebrush! This style potty is best used on flat terrain.

One morning we were all asleep in the tent early in the morning. We were awakened by the sound of my mom screaming and the sounds of breaking tree limbs. She had taken the little stool up the hill and found a spot on the hill. Mom was very private and camping was something it took her a while to get comfortable with – all that togetherness could be a bit overwhelming . She faced uphill and settled in. Unfortunately the stool gave way and flew out from under her. She crashed to the ground and slid downhill backwards through the stool and her own stool. For me it was a cautionary tale about being on solid ground before you let loose.

Does a Barbi poop in the woods? Yes, but it took some practice to get it right.

Does a Barbie poop in the woods? Yes, but it took some practice to get it right.

Lorri the Snake Spotter

One day I was playing in the creek – catching minnows in a bucket. I carried the bucket up towards a shady spot just past the tent. As I walked along the side of the tent I spotted it – the last 8 inches of a rattlesnake as it turned the corner around the tent ahead of me. I yelled, “Snake!!” and Pops and Kenny came running. They had already finished the day’s assay work and had been enjoying a couple of Buds in the shade on the other side of the creek. They heard my call and came running.

This is what I saw as it slithered around the tent in front of me - Yikes!!

This is what I saw as it slithered around the tent in front of me – Yikes!!

Kenny got there first and saw the snake going under the tent – to stop it he did the logical thing. He stepped on it’s tail. He yelled to Pops to grab a gun. Pops came literally with guns a-blazing, his 45 and extra clips in hand. The snake turned back towards Kenny and Pops fired into the ground missing both the snake and Kenny’s foot. The snake turned back towards the tent and darted head first underneath the floor of the tent.

Pops ran inside the tent and started shooting into the floor wherever he thought he might see snake movement. Amazingly on the second clip he managed to hit the snake. Kenny pulled the lifeless serpent out from under the tent by it’s crushed tail. Just to be sure Pops emptied another clip into the thing. Through all that gunfire Kenny never flinched – the bloody rattles were his trophy, a reward for his bravery. After all this the two men decided a shovel was the right tool to decapitate it – I wonder why they didn’t start with a shovel in the first place.

This is the right tool for killing a snake - it keeps you at a reasonable distance and saves ammo.

This is the right tool for killing a snake – it keeps you at a reasonable distance and saves ammo.

The rest of the time we camped there I was paranoid about a snake getting into our tent through one of the ten bullet holes in the floor. I used a whole roll of duct tape to seal up that mess so that I could sleep at night.

Snake Sealer for a bullet riddled tent.

Snake Sealer for a bullet riddled tent can make you rest a little easier

Poor Uncle Ronnie

My Uncle Ronnie was born without a suspicious bone in his body. This made him an easy mark for my Grandma. She loved to play tricks on her favorite nephew. Ronnie was not actually our uncle – he was Pop’s cousin and since Pops was an only child he was about as close to an uncle as we had in our everyday life. When Mom was pregnant for the last time her and Pops decided to name the last baby for either Uncle Ronnie or his wife Aunt Sharon. Ronnie was a boy so the honor went to Uncle Ronnie.

Uncle Ronnie with my brother Ronnie as a newborn - he was so proud.

Uncle Ronnie with my baby brother Ronnie as a newborn – he was so proud.

I guess when a family names a kid after you, you expect that you have a certain level of trust. Ron was so unsuspecting that he never saw anything coming. That summer at the Diggins Grandma managed to get him almost every day. First, she made a lemon meringue pie for his birthday – she knew it was his favorite. She presented it to him after dinner and told him the whole thing was just for him. He smiled from ear to ear. He took a fork and tried to cut into it but he just couldn’t get the fork to go through. He tried a knife – it seemed like a very tough pie. Now he was trying to be polite – smiling and trying not to show that this was one tough pie. He continued to struggle for about 20 minutes before Grandma confessed that it wasn’t a pie at all. It was a piece of foam rubber from the upholstery shop that she had baked a meringue on top of.

It may look tasty, but it's tough as nails.

It may look tasty, but it’s tough as nails.

The next day Grandma made breaded steak for dinner, one of Ronnie’s favorites. As we all dug into our steak Ron noticed that his was kind of stringy. Again, he was trying to be polite until he discovered that he had been served a breaded dish rag.

Is that a dishrag inside that golden breading?

Is that a dishrag inside that golden breading?

This was followed by dish soap in his coffee, open sardines under the seat of his truck – it went on and on. I honestly think that Ronnie enjoyed someone putting that much into getting one over on him.

Aroma for the drive home.

Aroma for the drive home.

The night before we left I saw Grandma leave the sleeping tent with a flashlight and a screwdriver. I followed but kept my distance as I saw her remove Ron’s hubcaps and put rocks inside before replacing them. The noise must have been terrible once he hit the pavement. He thought his wheels were actually coming off. He pulled over to check the wheels and found a note from Grandma taped to the inside of the hubcap – “Gotcha! From Aunt Minnie Haha”

This is Grandma with Uncle Ronnie's son Michael - she never pulled any tricks on Mike.

This is Grandma with Uncle Ronnie’s son Michael – she never pulled any tricks on Mike.

Their tete a tete was one that was good-natured fun, but was mostly at poor Ron’s expense. If she could pull off that many gags in the wilds of the desert you have to know that they happened non-stop when they were back in civilization. But they had genuine affection for each other. She never stopped coming up with new ways to get him and he never stopped trusting that he would be eating real food. Occasionally he was right.

Aunt Sharon with the three of us - she was a lot of fun even if none of us were named for her. One time she taught Max all the wrong names for the silverware while mom was away for the day. Mom was not impressed.

Aunt Sharon with the three of us – she was a lot of fun even if none of us were named for her. One time she taught Max all the wrong names for the silverware while mom was away for the day. Mom was not impressed.

That summer was one of discovery. I discovered that pooping in the woods took planning. I discovered that there really could be snakes under my bed. I discovered that Duct Tape can buy you a little piece of mind. I learned that there is a sucker born every minute and one of them was named Uncle Ronnie.

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.

Pops and the Grass Cutting Machine – A Story of Hope

I hadn’t planned on writing a post about race, but as I perused Facebook this morning and saw all the MLK quotes and memes. It made me think about what my experiences in the 60s and 70s, the attitudes I heard growing up, and how things changed over the years.

Remember the show “All in the Family”? That was our house – my Pop was a younger version of Archie Bunker. He also had a ridiculous chair that no one else was permitted to sit in.

Pops Chair was almost this ugly.

Pops Chair was almost this ugly.

When first I started school I remember picking up that he did not care for me to have friends who looked different from me. My very first school friend was a girl named Frances who was from Mexico and spoke no English. We communicated by drawing pictures and walked home from school together every day. She lived on the next block over. Pops made it clear that she was not welcome at our house and that he was glad to live on a block completely composed of people who were white like us. I remember thinking that if he got to know Frances that he would like her so much that he would love for her to live next door! It made me feel a little sick inside to know that he did not feel the same way. Mostly I felt sad for Pop – Frances was a wonderful person and he would never know that.

This was about as much diversity as Pops was willing to tolerate in the 1960's

This was about as much diversity as Pops was willing to tolerate in the 1960’s

In 4th grade – about 1970-71 – I was asked to write a report on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I went to the encyclopedia to look him up and he wasn’t listed anywhere. Our Britannica set was from 1948, so that was understandable. I asked Pop about him – and he was not happy to discuss the subject. He spit our a string of epithets and curses in regards to Dr. King, it angered him that I would even be asked to write about King. He told me a crazy conspiracy story about a n****r who planned to fake his own death and come back from the dead on Easter. The plan went wrong and now he was a martyr. I knew I would get nothing useful from Pop.

I vaguely recall listening to him talking to a pollster on the phone about who he was planning to vote for in a presidential race – I cannot recall the year. I only recall him saying that he had no idea, now that someone had shot his choice – I have always hoped he was talking about Bobby Kennedy and not George Wallace, but to be honest I’d bet it was Wallace that inspired that reaction out of him.

In 1972 forced busing was instituted in Las Vegas to finally fully integrate public schools. Schools in African-American neighborhoods were converted to “Sixth Grade Centers” and the students in that neighborhood would be bused every year except sixth grade. White kids were only bused in sixth grade. Some committee somewhere thought this hair-brained arrangement was equitable.

This was Boston - but it happened in Las Vegas too.

This was Boston – but it happened in Las Vegas too.

My Pop was not on board with the idea either, but for other reasons. He could hide his Archie Bunker-ian tendencies by saying that busing made no sense – we lived three blocks away from a perfectly fine elementary school. Behind closed doors his language was somewhat more colorful. His solution to the problem of having his kids bused to “N-town” was to place us into a Christian school for the duration of the year that we would be bused. The irony of this was totally lost on Pops. He also declared about this time that if any black family (my words, not his) moved onto Isabelle Avenue, that the neighborhood would be ruined, unsafe, and that we would have to move.

That day finally came in the mid 80’s, long after Archie Bunker was consigned to syndication. The house across the street was purchased by a family of four relocating from Zaire. Isabelle Avenue was to be their very first address in the United States. They were totally unfamiliar with American culture, American cuisine, and American lawn maintenance. They cut down the shady elms in the front and back yards and built a huge fire pit off the back patio. The did not cut their front lawn at all – in fact they seemed to revel in it’s lush depth. I’m not talking about grass four or five inches deep, I’m talking about grass grown tall like wheat ready to harvest. It came up over their knees and was waist deep in places. The back yard did not require any mowing or harvesting because they brought in a young goat and kept it back there.

Grass this tall was too deep for Isabelle Avenue

Grass this tall was too deep for Isabelle Avenue

Lawn maintenance aside, they were a lovely family. Each Sunday they wore bright white clothing to church. Mom, Dad, son, and daughter looked like something out of another time as they walked to the car. They all were very polite, uncommonly so. The young boy wandered over to our yard one day when mom was picking the strawberries out of her garden. He was completely fascinated by their bright color. Mom picked a basketful and sent them home with him. Anyone who talked gardening was a friend to mom.

At Easter time they butchered the goat and roasted it in the pit in the back yard. They walked across the street to invite Mom and Pops, but they politely declined. Pops could talk a big game, but when it came down to it he could not be rude to someone face-to-face when he was sober. As summer started it became clear to the family that letting the lawn grow like a crop was not the accepted method of landscaping in their new neighborhood and the dad came across the street and knocked on our door. Pops answered and the gentleman asked, “Mr. Carter, could we kindly borrow your grass cutting machine?” Pops replied, “No.” The neighbor said, “But we need to cut the grass, it is far too long.” Pops responded, “No, you can’t use the mower because it is too tall, it will bog down the blades.” The man left and returned to his house with a puzzled look.

Pops came out of the backyard and headed across the street with the weed-eater and showed his neighbor how to use it to shorten the lawn enough to mow it. Together they weed-eated, mowed, edged, and watered the lawn. It was a thing of beauty to see the neighborhood finally fully integrated.

They lived on Isabelle Avenue for many years. They were so very kind to Pops when mom died. In the early part of this century housing values went through the roof. Houses that sold originally for twenty or thirty thousand were selling for ten times that. The family from Zaire cashed out and moved on. Pops stayed put even though I urged him to think about selling and buying some thing closer to me. Those worries about integration taking down housing values seem pretty silly now. I think America is a great country and love the idea that the first black family on the block made a killing in real estate!

In 2008, Nevada changed its presidential primary to the caucus format. My pop and his wife volunteered to be delegates to the state convention. Initially they had supported Hillary Clinton (Democrat or not this shocked me – that Archie Bunker could support even the idea of a female president) but as delegates they were obligated to cast their votes for the candidates that won from their local caucus. They were Obama delegates. Not only did they cast their delegate votes for Obama, they started volunteering for his campaign. This was the first time my Pop had ever participated in the process beyond casting a vote or accepting a yard sign. The man who wouldn’t permit me to attend a school in a black neighborhood was now supporting the man who would become our first black president!

Maybe there is hope after all - people really can change.

Maybe there is hope after all – people really can change.

I recall during that election that Pop spoke so excitedly about Obama and even mentioned the monumentality of electing a black president. He seemed proud of his country as he watched it come to pass. It was like I was listening to a different man.

I can’t say how this change happened, it probably was a process. I’m sure that time had a lot to do with it, but I also think a sweet family with an overgrown yard might just have been a catalyst for change.

Almost Like Part of the Family – From the Ozarks to Isabelle Avenue

As a photographer, sometimes I like to look at photos and sort them in non-linear ways, I think you can learn more about how you see the world by breaking them up in sets that have atypical things like color or objects in common.

A few years ago I started going through my Grandma’s old Cox family photos. I started sorting them by family members and began to notice a pattern. I noticed an awful lot of snapshots that included an important part of the family – the family car. The history and migration of my family can be traced through those photos of the Coxes and their cars.

1920’s

My Great Grandfather Charlie Cox and his boys pose in their work clothes by the car.

My Great Grandfather Charlie Cox and his boys pose in their work clothes by the car.

This photo was taken in the late 20’s in the Ozarks. It looks like the boys were coming in from working in the fields north of Branson, Missouri. Charlie started his life on a farm in Missouri and this looks to have been taken in the area where he grew up.

This is the earliest image I can find with family members posing on a vehicle.

These lovely Cox ladies are dressed up and posing on a railroad hand truck - I have some other railroad shots with a similar look that were taken in Branson, Missouri.

These well dressed Cox ladies are dressed up and posing on a railroad hand truck – I have some other railroad shots with a similar look that were taken in Branson, Missouri sometime around the turn of the 20th century.

My ancestors were mostly farmers but they also worked on building the railroads in Missouri and Arkansas. This family heritage would be carried on by my Great Grandfather Charlie Cox during the Great Depression when he packed up his family and left the farm to follow the work made possible by the building of the US Highway system. Charlie started life on a farm with horse-drawn implements – his children would be the first generation to live their whole lives in the automobile age. Cars were becoming less and less of a novelty and more of a staple of everyday life in America. Even so, the car was a point of pride to them. Rather than gather around the mantle or on the porch, the Coxes were more likely to gather around something with wheels and a motor.

Here my Grandma and her brother pose on the back of a tractor.

Here my Grandma and her brother pose on the back of a motorized tractor. The dress for this occasion was casual.

Grandma was one of 8 siblings and I have always wondered just how a family of 10 moved around the country. I recall stories about a caravan of a couple of cars and all their possessions on the open road. When the siblings were together I often heard them argue about where they lived in a particular year. Grandma told me she went to 17 schools before she called it quits in after her freshman year. It seemed that only the 3 sets of twins had a sibling born in the same town.
Grandma at about 14 sits on the bumper of the car in a summer dress.

Grandma at about 14 sits on the bumper of the car in a summer dress.

This looks to be a different car but the background still looks like the old homestead. I recall grandma talking about an old Model T, but apparently it was not beloved enough to share the spotlight in family photos. Her life seemed to be lived on the bumper of a Chevy. It makes sense – if they didn’t have a permanent home to gather around maybe the family car was a bit like a home on wheels – it was a constant in their life, like the TV was to my generation.

1930’s

Minnie on the running board - circa 1933

Minnie on the running board – circa 1933. This seems to be more of a shot of the car with Grandma as an accent or afterthought.

Yet another sedan – with Grandma in a gingham dress surrounded by palm trees – definitely a California shot. She would have been about 16 or 17 in this shot and had already quit school to go to work to help support the family. It seems as though they went through cars fairly quickly traveling back and forth across the country.

This next car must have been something special – everyone seems to want to have their photo taken with it. It seems to have been a car that the family obtained while they were all still together in Van Nuys, California.

Granny on the trunk of the family Chevy - circa 1932

Granny on the trunk of the family Chevy – circa 1932 or 1933. She often jotted down her age on snapshots.

I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask about this group of photos, so all I really have are my own impressions. This first shot looks like Grandma got dressed up to climb up on the trunk – she looks like she’s in her Sunday best.

Grandma's brother and Ernie Foltz on the back of the same Chevy

Grandma’s brother Leonard and Ernie Foltz on the back of the same Chevy.

Same road, same car – different people. These two shots almost look like they took turns taking each other’s photos on the back of that Chevrolet. On this particular day the car was the star. Was it new to the family?

Grandma and two siblings on the running board of the Chevy

Grandma and her brother Leonard and her sister Muriel on the running board of the Chevy.

Same Chevy, different time and place – but still an occasion to dress up for the photo-op. Thinking of the year – this was in the depths of the depression and I know that this was a period of time when Grandma’s family traveled as her father followed the work. The one constant in their lives were the relationships they had with their siblings. They changed schools, addresses, states, churches, jobs – but they all went through it together.

Grandma and her cousin and best friend Noni - dressed for the occasion.

Grandma and her cousin and best friend Noni – dressed more formally for this occasion. The Chevy looks pretty nice too.

If I were to tally up all the appearances of each member of the family in the old photos to see who was pictured the most, the family car beats out any single family member by a pretty wide margin.

Grandma and her Mother at the Auto Laundry with the Chevy

Grandma and her Mother at the Auto Laundry in Van Nuys, California with a slightly nicer car in 1934 – again they dressed very nice to be at the car wash.

My Grandma and her Cherokee Indian mother all decked out with the new car at the Auto Laundry.

Here Grandma checks out her makeup in the rearview mirror.

Here Grandma checks out her makeup in the rearview mirror.

Same car, different outfit – perhaps in front of their home in California. Grandma was 19 and would make only one more cross-country trip with the family before she settled in Hollywood to start a family of her own.

Grandma in her bathing suit with...a car

Grandma in her bathing suit with…a car – it looks like a 1938 model.

Grandma married Grandpa in 1938 and settled in California. She told me that her mother was a very strict Pentecostal who never permitted her to wear heels or to dance. For her, this time right after she married after the Depression was one of the freest times she had ever experienced. She never was very modest and I remember her gardening in shorts and a bathing suit top. Seeing this shot of her surprised me because of how conservative her upbringing was. She was completely comfortable in her own skin.

1940’s

Twins Eula and Beula pose with their niece Doris Jean in front of a snazzy convertible.

Twins Eula and Beula pose with their first niece Doris Jean in front of a snazzy convertible.

The car was the key to mobility for families making the trek west and it was integral to my family and their connections. Charlie literally built the roads his children would travel to stay connected throughout their lives. All but one sibling would settle in the west in either Nevada or California. This shot is one from a road trip to visit family.

The Cox siblings managed to see each other pretty often – hop in the family car and head down the highway. As their families grew they would often swap kids for the summer. None of the Coxes ever knocked on a door when they came for a visit – their home was your home and visa-versa. Just come on in and make yourself at home. Maybe their nomadic childhoods made a change of scenery almost natural for them.

Eula and Beula take a shot together with the convertible.

Eula and Beula take a shot together with the convertible.

I don’t know who’s car this was but I do know that my Great Aunt Beula loved her a fancy car. I bet it was hers – she liked to have the fanciest of the lot.

Grandma poses with my Pop in front of the family car in Las Vegas.

Grandma poses with my Pop in front of the family car in Northern California

Here Grandma and Pop pose in front of their sedan at a family gathering in California in the early 1940’s. Her family made the drive from Nevada to spend the holidays together.

Eula and her husband Bob strike a pose.

Eula and her husband Bob strike a pose.

Same car, same day – It makes me think that Grandma and her sister Eula took turns with the camera. The sign behind the car says “Missouri Mule” – wonder what that was about?

My Great Uncle Newt on base in Washington State before he shipped out to Europe.

My Great Uncle Newt and a buddy on base in Washington State before he shipped out to Europe.

My Great Uncle was a real live war hero. He landed in Normandy and drove a tank destroyer during World War II in Europe. He sent my grandmother this photo before he shipped out – a memento of a soldier, his buddy, and a car.

Here's a shot Newt had taken with his vehicle in Normandy - even in wartime it was rare to see a Cox without a vehicle of some type.

Here’s a shot Newt had taken with his vehicle in Normandy – even in wartime it was rare to see a Cox without a vehicle of some type.

After the War Newt moved into the railroad shack my grandparents rented in Las Vegas – it was about 400 square feet with a garage in back. He worked with my Grandma for a couple of years before making his way to Northern California where he settled down. He made the trip to Vegas often – he would stay at Grandma’s and take us out to the Showboat for strawberry shortcake. Well into his 70’s Newt would show up on my doorstep in Oregon as he made the drive north to Pendleton to reconnect with his army buddies. I loved driving that highway with him and hearing tales of his travels along that same highway with his siblings.

1950’s

My Pop and our cousin Randa in Las Vegas.

My Pop and our cousin Randa in Las Vegas in about 1951.

Some of the siblings came to Vegas for Easter in the early 1950’s – photos were taken to mark the occasion in the front yard – of course the cars were in the frame. Baby Randa was the 4th generation in the family to have her photo taken with the family car.

Beula, her husband Tommy, and my Pop in the  lawn on that same day.

Beula, her husband Tommy, and my Pop in the lawn on that same day.

Same car, same day, same Pop – with his aunt and uncle in the lawn in small town Las Vegas.

Grandma and Grandpa with his sister Olive in front of their beloved '49 Chevy

Grandma and Grandpa with his sister Olive in front of their beloved ’49 Chevy

In 1949 Grandma and Grandpa bought their very first brand new car. It was a Chevy. Grandpa waxed it every week, Grandma loved to drive it. They had left behind the tiny railroad shack they started their lives in Las Vegas in and soon would be living in a brand new custom home on Isabelle Avenue. The girl who moved 17 times in 9 years had resolved to settle down and put down deep roots. This child of the Depression was experiencing real prosperity.

Grandma and Grandpa take a drive in the Chevy in the desert outside of town.

Grandma and Grandpa take a drive in the Chevy in the desert outside of town.

The ’49 Chevy is the car they would drive to visit family in Missouri, Nebraska, and California. It’s the car my Pop would learn to drive in. It’s the car they would park in the driveway of that brand new house that they had both worked so hard for.

Grandma takes a break at the butcher shop and leans on her favorite Chevy.

Grandma takes a break at the butcher shop and leans on her favorite Chevy.

Here’s Grandma – on the trunk of her Chevy – a quarter century after that first trunk shot on another Chevy.

Here’s that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to “customize” it while his folks were out-of-town. That’s Isabelle Avenue in the mid 50’s

When Pop got his license Grandma and Grandpa bought a new Chevy and they became a 2-car family. One weekend while Grandma and Grandpa were in California visiting siblings Pops decided he wanted the ’49 to have a bit more of a “custom” look. He chopped the cab, frenched the headlights, and removed almost all the chrome and door handles. He never finished the conversion but spoke about that car like a long-lost love for the rest of his life.

1960’s

Grandma's 1963 Impala Super Sport

Grandma’s first great nieces with Max and…Grandma’s 1963 Impala Super Sport

In 1963 Grandma and Grandpa celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Grandpa bought her a stunning metallic blue Impala as an anniversary gift. When visitors came to the house they were almost always photographed in front of it. Here’s Randa and her sisters Janice and Dara, along with my brother Max in 1965. They are sitting in my little red wagon.

The drives to Nebraska ended after Grandma’s brother Clyde passed away. Grandpa’s family was from Nebraska, but they preferred to fly in for visits. All the siblings were now in the west and could be near each other with just a day’s drive.

Grandma drives a Bulldozer and poses for a photo - circa 1968

Grandma drives a Bulldozer and poses for a photo – circa 1968

This is Grandma at her most vital – working the Caterpillar Tractor at their mining claim in 1968. She was eager to learn to operate it and rarely let anyone else behind the wheel. She could drive just about anything short of a tank. Driving was something she enjoyed, even if she was driving a bulldozer.

1970’s

1976 - Grandma and Grandpa's first new car since 1963 - a lime green Ford LTD.

1976 – Grandma and Grandpa’s first new car since 1963 – a lime green Ford LTD.

By 1976 Grandma was starting to losing her mobility. Grandpa chose this land yacht because it was easy for her to get in and out of. It was their first Ford and the first car they would own that Grandma would never drive. They took this photo the day they brought it home from the dealership.

The last LTD - 1977. It had a 460 and got about 8 miles per gallon.

Eula, Grandma, and Beula during a visit in Las Vegas. The last LTD – 1977. It had a 460 and got about 8 miles per gallon.

The very next year Ford announced that they would be reducing the engine sizes in cars beginning in 1978. Grandpa decided that he had to get a car with a big block before they were gone forever. Grandma and Grandpa had a dream of retiring and getting a travel trailer. They hoped to camp and fish for weeks and months on end – but that was not to be. Grandma’s illness made it impossible for her to do the simplest things. By 1980 she would only leave the house to go to the doctor. This 1977 LTD was the last car she ever rode in. This is the last time she was photographed with a car.

Grandma’s siblings continued to make the treks up and down the highway with great frequency well into the 90’s. My Great Uncle Claude would pop up at almost any important occasion – he looked like he wasn’t steady enough to walk, but he still drove cross-country. The last time they were all together was for my Grandma’s 80th birthday in 1995. She had dementia and hadn’t recognized me in some time – but when her brothers and sisters walked into the room she beamed. She could no longer articulate what she was feeling, but her face glowed. Her sister Beula had passed away a couple of years earlier – but everyone else was there. It would be the last time I saw any of them except for Grandma. Their zeal for the open road was not shared by the generations that followed. I lived in Oregon for about a decade and my Uncle Newt made that drive more than any other family member – it was in his DNA to hit the road and go see his family.

My Pop became accustomed to family making their way to his door and I think a lot of his cousins probably shared that experience. Their vagabond parents had done enough driving to last for their lifetimes too.

I’ve rarely had my photo taken with an automobile. I suppose that the family car is more of an ordinary appliance these days. It’s basic transportation – not the vehicle that opens up the world and all its opportunities before you.

These days I live in the Ozarks less than an hour from the place where my Grandmother was born, the rest of my family remains in Las Vegas in the west. My siblings and I see each other a couple of times a year and I usually fly out to see them. I made the drive once after my Pops death and I cannot imagine making that drive without a lot of company ever again, and I think that may be the key. The Coxes made those treks together. They were not lonely drives across the desert, they were sedans filled with family and all that goes with that.

I think that we stand on the shoulders of those who endured the Depression and the War and built the roads that connected us as a nation. Even in this tough economy, things are easier for us. We stay in touch online. We share photos on Facebook. We talk and text without worrying about long distance charges.

Looking at these photos has me waxing nostalgic. Maybe I should put on my best dress and hop on the hood of my Jeep – I could post it on Instagram.