Tall Tales from the Big Fish

Today my Pops would have turned 75. The King of Isabelle Avenue left us far to soon. And while I am wistful on his birthday, I like to remember the man for who he really was. He was a backyard adventurer, a big spender, a mountain man, an ear piercer, and a fabricator of tales of wonder. He could tell you something completely absurd with such conviction – I always worried that the one time I called him on something would be the one time it was all true.

I'm sure your dad probably fought a goat in buckskins on any given Saturday.

Pops was a man for all seasons – even goat fighting season.

In 2003 I received a call from my brother Max. He asked me if I had seen Big Fish yet. I hadn’t even heard of it. He said I needed to see it. A couple of days passed and my nephew called and told me the same thing – I had to go see this movie. They offered no clue as to why, just that I must see it. I made the drive to Fayetteville with a friend and bought a ticket thinking this was just another movie. As I watched the movie I was stunned. At times I laughed so hard that my sides hurt. My friend was puzzled – it was funny, but not that funny. Each scene cracked me up, but I also felt deeply for the son – he lived in the shadow of his father’s larger than life personality. He had known this man his whole life and still had no idea of who he really was. He had decided that none of it was true, that it was all a giant tall tale. I knew exactly where the son was coming from.  I saw my father as a modern-day Peter Pan – telling tall tales while his audience was transfixed, all the while knowing that it was probably all a crock.

These fish tales hit a little close to home...

These fish tales hit a little close to home…

When I was 10 my teacher asked me to write a report that would explain what Watergate was. I, like many kids in class, looked to an adult to help me make sense of the daily news reports. Unfortunately, of all the adults in my life, I asked Pop. He told me a story that more closely resembled a James Bond movie that one of political corruption. I paraphrased what he had told me believing it was fact, and was rewarded with my first and only “D”. A note at the bottom of my report admonished me to “Check your facts!!” Clearly, Pops was not the best clearing house for the procurement of actual facts.

Tricky Dick or Ian Fleming?

Tricky Dick or Ian Fleming?

Sometimes his “facts” were better than the real ones and his delivery made his fabrications seem so real. It was hard to doubt him. That day in 5th grade I came to understand that it was all baloney – his remix of truth and fiction was designed solely for his own entertainment. In retrospect even Watergate makes me smile – his version actually made a lot more sense.

Here are a few of Pops’ most memorable whoppers:

The first Corvette was not fiberglass, it was made from stainless steel. The costs were too high to manufacture so they had to go with fiberglass. Serious collectors still look for those rare steel prototypes.

Looks like plastic to me...

Looks like plastic to me…

As a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps, Pops was on a transport ship where he encountered an Admiral who told him to put out his cigarette. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. Then he took the Admirals hat and threw it in the Atlantic Ocean. He was sent to the brig and got out of work for the duration of the trip.

Adrift on the high seas?

Adrift on the high seas?

There are morse code signals being sent out through the Television. You can also hear it in the background when the car radio is on. Sometimes Pop would tell you that we were hearing secret messages meant for the Nevada Test Site while watching the Rockford Files. This one may actually be true.

If you listen very closely and drink a few Buds you might here the dash-dot-dash of a secret message...

If you listen very closely and drink a few Buds you might hear the dash-dot-dash of a secret message…

He and his friends once kidnapped Elvis from a casino and made him play a concert in the parking lot of Las Vegas High School. Elvis was flattered and happy to oblige.

Sure Kid, I would love to put on a concert for you in a parking lot!

Sure Kid, I would love to put on a concert for you in a parking lot!

He was pursued by a princess while he was stationed in the Philippines. She was a beautiful woman who was rich beyond belief.

Unlike the movie, Pops was courted by just one princess who was not a Siamese twin...

Unlike the movie, Pops was courted by just one princess who was not a Siamese twin…

While stationed in Okinawa he was living in a barracks with his platoon. The guy on the bunk above him had terrible gas. One night pops and his buddies waited for the gaseous one to fall asleep and lit matches and held them close to his boxers waiting for an eruption. When he finally did pass gas it lit up like a flame thrower. The gaseous one never even woke up during the spectacle.

Pops at Home on Leave

Is this the face of a marine who would light his comrades boxers on fire? If this story were true wouldn’t barracks all over the world be blowing up just from the volume of methane?

He once played chess with Bobby Fisher on a Lear Jet and beat him. Specifically, he said that he lasted over 21 moves – to last longer than a dozen was technically a draw. At 22 moves Bobby would tip his King over and concede.

I actually read about a real contest where Bobby Fisher played 50 people at once, I wonder if there is a grain of truth to this tall tale?

I actually read about a real contest where Bobby Fisher played 50 people at once, I wonder if there is a grain of truth to this tall tale?

He was discharged from the Marine Corps after wrecking 13 Jeeps (Something about 13 wrecks seems to be a constant in his life story) They wanted to give him a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness but he threatened to re-enlist if they didn’t give him an honorable one.

A Jeep is one tough vehicle, unless you let Pop drive it...

A Jeep is one tough vehicle, unless you let Pop drive it…

When his parents were away for a weekend he chopped, dropped, and channeled the family sedan – a 49 Chevy.

Here's that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to "customize" it while his folks were out of town.

Here’s that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to “customize” it while his folks were out of town.

He and a buddy also took a pool liner and completely lined the inside of his parents’ convertible with is so that they could fill the car with water and drive it down Fremont Street like a mobile swimming pool. I wonder if this is what they were driving when they encountered Elvis?

Cruising this in a swimming pool makes you extra cool...

Cruising this in a swimming pool makes you extra cool…

After he left the Marines he became a police officer in North Las Vegas, he didn’t serve very long. He had 13 wrecks (again with the 13?) and was fired for shooting the Chief of Police’s cat with a pellet gun.

Did he get fired for wrecking too many of these or for harassing a cat?

Did he get fired for wrecking too many of these or for harassing a cat?

I didn’t learn the traditional lessons from Pop that most kids learn from their fathers about hard work and clean living, but I did learn some very important things. I learned that every story is important and probably bigger than it looks at the time. I learned the importance of having a good mechanic. I learned how much fun gunfire can be in inappropriate places. I learned to always keep a supply of Phillips screwdrivers handy. I learned that even someone’s flaws can be endearing at times. I learned about how important it is to really let someone off the hook. I learned that love is not a straight line – it’s a delightfully crooked path. I learned all of that and more from my Pop, the King of Isabelle Avenue.

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Grandpa and a Schwinn Bicycle

On my 6th birthday I got my first bike. It was purple and had training wheels. It was a classic 20″ girls Schwinn. That bike meant freedom to me.
This is not my bike, but mine looked just like this only it had streamers and embarrassing training wheels.

This is not my bike, but mine looked just like this only it had streamers and embarrassing training wheels.

I was not allowed to cross the street to play in a neighbor’s lawn without Mom’s permission. I was not allowed to go next door to see if Susan Cunningham could play unless Mom said it was OK. I was not allowed to ride on the asphalt of Isabelle Avenue until I could ride without training wheels. Once I could ride that bike, the asphalt that lay between me and the rest of humanity, as I saw it, would disappear. Riding in the street and crossing the street would be the same thing. Riding on Isabelle Avenue would lead to riding on 21st Street, and that would lead to riding on Ogden, and then Cervantes where my pal Connie lived. In no time I would be pedaling to Stewart’s Market just down the street from her house – the whole world would be open before me, if only I could get rid of those training wheels.
This is my first grade photo, my mom loved ringlets. On school photo day I pretended to like them too. I never looked like this except on school photo day.

This is my first grade photo, my mom loved ringlets. On school photo day I pretended to like them too. I never looked like this except on school photo day. I wouldn’t cross the street looking like this…

Losing the training wheels was a bit of a “catch 22”, This sidewalk was peppered with dips for driveways about every 30 feet. Getting up to speed on the sidewalk was a challenge. I had tried raising the wheels to the next notch to get a sense of balance, but those dips did me in every time. If I asked Mom she would feign busyness – cooking, cleaning, reading, caring for 2 toddlers, eating bonbons. I was sure that she was perfectly content with me limited to the boundaries of the sidewalks, out of her hair, but unable to get into any real trouble. Pops was no help. He came home from work every night and planted himself firmly in front of the TV – he rarely moved from his Strato-Lounger until after I went to bed at night. I had been riding with training wheels for months now. I seemed destined never to leave Isabelle Avenue.
This is how I felt riding down the street with training wheels. On another note - have you ever seen a lawn so smooth as this one?

This is how I felt riding down the street with training wheels. On another note – have you ever seen a lawn so smooth as this one? It’s like Astroturf.

Most days when I got home from school I would get my bike out and ride the sidewalk the wavy 100 feet to Grandpa’s house. He worked on the railroad and was gone on Mondays on a run to Yermo, California. He worked around the clock on Monday so he came home Tuesday morning and was off until Wednesday and Thursday nights when he worked as an engineer in the switch engine downtown. Grandma worked 9 to 5, so Grandpa took care of the cooking and cleaning and was always around to spend time with. I never knocked, I walked right into his house – unless the door was locked – then I looked into the mail slot to see if he was in the living room. Working irregular hours, Grandpa was an afternoon napper. He worked on one schedule and lived on another.
About once a week Grandpa would take my bike into the back yard and check the air pressure in my tires. He had a compressor back there and he was a stickler for proper tire inflation, even if you still had training wheels. He would check my tires weekly until I left Las Vegas at the age of 25. One one afternoon he asked me when I was finally going to learn to ride that bike without training wheels. He was just home from Yermo and was still in his striped overalls and Wellington’s. I told him that no one would help me and that learning on the sidewalk was just not working. He said, “I’ll help you,” and took my bike out back and removed those stupid training wheels and threw them in the trash.
This is my grandpa in his work clothes. My grandma taught me how to iron his engineers cap. I make it a rule never to wear a hat that you need to iron.

This is my grandpa in his work clothes. Note the shiny work boots. My grandma taught me how to iron his engineers cap. I make it a rule never to wear a hat that you need to iron.

Grandpa rarely left the house in his work clothes. He was a button down kind of man who wore tailored slacks and a sport coat to eat at Denny’s. He was not ashamed of being a working man, he just chose to leave those working clothes in the hamper when he got home. He also was a quiet man, not given to public laughter or displays of emotion. I have written a lot about my Grandmother with the huge personality. If Grandma loved me fiercely, Grandpa loved me deeply.
This is my grandpa dressed for yard work. Notice the creases in his trousers. He gardened dressed like this.

This is my grandpa dressed for yard work. Notice the creases in his trousers. He gardened dressed like this.

Grandpa grew up around women – a lot of women. He was the youngest of 7 children and had 5 older sisters. His mother’s twin sister was a fixture at their house as well. He was in the constant company of women who were crazy about him. He grew up understanding how to relate to women, not in a vulgar way, but in a way that connected easily.
Grandpa on his family farm in Nebraska sporting overalls and a no-iron hat.

Grandpa on his family farm in Nebraska sporting overalls and a no-iron hat.

My Pop used to complain that when he was in high school he hated to bring a date over to the house for dinner – that she would spend the next week talking about how much she liked his father, not exactly what he was after on a hot date. In his later years I remember taking Grandpa to the grocery store. We were in the checkout line and the checker was really agitated with the customer ahead of us. She was a very large African-American woman who was loudly expressing her frustration at a customer who didn’t speak English. As we approached the front of the line my inclination was to keep my mouth shut and get out of her way. Grandpa greeted her warmly, “Hello my lovely Delores, how is your day going?” She caught her breath and they just chatted as she checked us out. As he walked ahead of me she put her hand on my shoulder and told me that my grandpa always made her feel good when he came through her line – she just loved him. He had that effect on the nurses who helped to care for him, on my brother’s wives, on the neighbors, on me. I was his only granddaughter, this first Carter girl born since his sister Olive in 1915. He doted on me and I adored just being in his presence. He was a strong and thoughtful man who had no problem putting you ahead of himself. He made me and everyone he met feel valued and important.
On this rare afternoon he took me out to the asphalt in his work clothes – overalls and t-shirt. He held onto the back of the seat of my bike and ran down the street behind me as I pedaled as hard as I could. I could hear the “stomp” of his workbooks as they hit the pavement. As I sped up I could only hear the rush of the wind in my face. I yelled back at him, “Don’t let go, I’m afraid!” He yelled back, “Too late! You’re on your own!” Upon hearing this I felt the urge to brake, but feared that I would topple over if I slowed down. He ran after me and yelled to keep pedaling, so I did. I did slow down and turn back towards him, only to see him still running towards me in his work boots. I raced back his way and he wheeled his arm in a huge circle like a first base coach telling a runner to round the base, so I pedaled on past him while he clapped and smiled.
Me and Grandpa in the kitchen. He was pretty crazy about me, and I thought he was pretty awesome too.

Me and Grandpa in the kitchen. He was pretty crazy about me, and I thought he was pretty awesome too.

He gave me wings that day, and it wouldn’t be the last time. When my Pops told me that there was no need for a girl to go to college, Grandpa told me about his missed opportunity at an education and urged me to go. When Pops laughed at the idea of a Fine Art degree, Grandpa told me to do whatever I could to make a career doing something I loved. When I felt I needed a change and wanted a fresh start Grandpa assured me that it was the right choice – to move away from him. When his health declined after a stroke, I told him I wanted to move home to be with him, to care for him, he told me no. He never once put his needs ahead of mine and as I consider the magnitude of that I am humbled.
Here Grandpa gives me a vision of the world from a standing position on the couch - he always encouraged me to aim high.

Here Grandpa gives me a vision of the world from a standing position on the couch – he always encouraged me to aim high.

When I was about 7, my neighbor across the street started taking me to church with her family. She tried to explain to me how much God loves us, how he loves us no matter what we have done, that we can never do anything that will make him stop loving us. I pondered this and thought about my Grandpa and it all made sense. When I think of him today it still does.

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.

George Birthington’s Wash Day

“It’s George Birthington’s Wash Day!” I can still hear Grandma saying that on her birthday – “I’m a day older than George Washington, you know.” She would have been 98 years old today. Just looking at this quarter today makes me smile.

A quarter from the year that Minnie became Nana.

A quarter from the year that Minnie became Nana.

I’ve written a lot about how inspiring my Grandmother was to me and how empowering it was to have someone who never saw a challenge too big in my corner, but Grandma also confused me sometimes – she had a slew of Grandma-isms – some of them I understood, and some have meanings that still elude me today.

“Bring the whole fam-damily” – This meant everyone was coming to dinner. I have heard other people use this, but as a teen I thought this was her best sidestep to swearing about company she wasn’t so thrilled about entertaining. Grandma always said she didn’t have company, if you were at her house you were family so you could get your own coffee. Make yourself at home and clean up your own mess. Effortless hospitality.

Coxes Army - circa 1942. If this crew showed up for dinner...

Cox’s Army – circa 1942. If this crew showed up for dinner it took more than a bucket from the Colonel to feed them all.

“If you don’t stop that I’m gonna give you back to the Indians!” – I would hear this if I pestered her for candy in the grocery checkout or if I interrupted her on the phone.  I sometimes wonder if this had to do with her Grandpa Pyeatte. He was a Cherokee Indian. He chose to live as a white man instead of claiming head rights and land in Oklahoma. I guess being a Cherokee in the 1880s wasn’t nearly as cool and hip as it is today.

This is my Great-great Grandpa Pyeatt - So was Grandma going to give me back to this Indian?

This is my Great-great Grandpa Pyeatte – So was Grandma going to give me back to this Indian?

Other than that – I’m clueless. In my imagination she was dropping me off at those tepees on Route 66 in the middle of Arizona. I recently discovered an old hillbilly song that used the line – may be it was a song she liked. Grandma liked cowboy music. More and more I think it was the song. It’s one of those questions I never thought to ask. Maybe her grandpa said it to her and she never thought to ask. I think I should say it to my great-niece and just not explain it to her – that’s what family is about after all, passing on tradition.

Maybe these were the Indians Grandma was going to take me back to - that doesn't look so bad...

Maybe these were the Indians Grandma was going to take me back to – that doesn’t look so bad…

“Well Happy Cigar Butts to You!” I think this was Grandma’s way of calling someone an asshole in front of the grandkids. I have no solid evidence except the tone and context of the many times I heard her use it in traffic. I heard her say it to a co-worker who she talked smack to, to her sister Muriel who she had a blunt and somewhat cynical rapport with, and to a jerk who cut her off in the parking lot at the grocery store. I left her a note on her car one time using the phrase – pretending to be someone ticked off about her parking crooked – she laughed and laughed about it, I was kinda clueless. Another enduring mystery.

"I'm on a break - go cigar butt yourself!"

“I’m on a break – go cigar butt yourself!”

My Grandma collected things – lots of different things. Most of them fell into the category of something she called “What-nots” She collected purple glass. I remember driving though Cedar City in Utah with her and Grandpa on the way to Panguich to go fishing. We stopped for breakfast and walked into a junk store because Grandma saw glass in the windows. She could pick up a piece of old glass and check out the seams and weight and tell you with absolute certainty that it would turn purple in the sun over time. Her windows were filled with this kind of glass.

This is some of Grandma's purple glass. I have collected it my whole life as well. Her pieces are the most special though.

This is some of Grandma’s purple glass. I have collected it my whole life as well. Her pieces are the most special though.

She told me it was the iron in the glass, and that it was only used in glass production until 1905. In the desert people would buy old glass and put it on their roofs to make the purple come out more. Today there are dealers who expose these bottles to ultra violet light to increase the depth of the purple and it’s almost garish. I think it makes an actual antique look fake. Seeing the violet in old glass takes years and that’s part of the magic.

Grandma collected plates, not collector plates, just plates that belonged to people she knew. I remember her getting a package on her birthday in the mail, it was some dinner plates her cousin sent from a set of china that had belonged to their grandmother. She had them hung just below the ceiling though the kitchen and her living room. There were probably over a hundred of them. She gave them to me when I bought my first home and they survived an earthquake hanging on the wall – it sounded like I was inside a giant wind chime.

These are not my grandma's plates, but there were some of these in her vast collection.

These are not my grandma’s plates, but there were some of these in her vast collection.

This is another thing I so wish I had taken the time to ask Grandma about so that I would have some clue about where they all came from. When I graduated from High School my grandparents sent me to spend a few weeks with my other Granddad in Virginia. It was a precious gift – letting me get to know my mom’s family. Grandma sent my mother’s step-mother Pearl a crocheted afghan as a gift. Pearl asked me about what my Grandma liked and I told her about the plates. She gave me a dinner plate that had belonged to my great-grandmother’s family. My mom was surprised to see it on her mother-in-laws wall after that trip.

My grandma was a knitting fool. Sometime in her 40s she went through a time when she had a lot of nervous energy. It was about the time her hands began to shake. Her doctor suggested that she find something she could do with her hands to calm her down. She decided that she wanted to learn to knit. She didn’t start with a sweater or scarf. She dived headlong into knitting argyle socks. When she went for her next check up her doctor was stunned to see the myriad of spools of yarn – but the knitting was working – her nerves were settling.

Never one to sidestep a challenge - argyle it was!

Never one to sidestep a challenge – argyle it was!

When I was born she decided to make me a Christmas stocking – not just a red sock with a white heel and toe. A stocking that had my name and birthday knitted right into it, a stocking with a Santa with an Angora beard, a stocking with a decorated Christmas tree on one side.

I have this always up in my hallway, so I can see it when I get up every morning all year long.

I have this always up in my hallway, so I can see it when I get up every morning all year long.

When my mom became a grandma, I found the pattern – it was something she made up from a really basic stocking. All of her notes and marks made perfect sense, she should have been designing these things. Each of my brothers had one too. I wish I had learned to knit so that I could carry on the tradition for her. I love my stocking so much that it cannot be stored away eleven months of the year – I need it to be out where I can see it. It makes me smile. My grandma was a freaking genius!

Not everything she made was quite so special. My grandma crocheted all the time. She made the classic granny square and put together diagonal patterns. She like to use variegated colors in the centers. I have several of these gems around the house, mostly made of wool. They remind me of Grandma’s house so ugly or not I love them.

This is not my sweater, but my sweater was this bad. I never photographed it, hoping that it's heinousness would depart from my memory.

This is not my sweater, but my sweater was this bad. I never photographed it, hoping that it’s hideousness would depart from my memory.

To celebrate the Bicentennial she decided to crochet me a granny square sweater out of red, white, and blue yarn. It was heinous. The only place I ever wore it was to her house. I always told her I loved it. I always lied. She loved to see me in it so I pulled that thing out a couple of times a month. A part of me wondered if she was messing with me. You know, I’m pretty sure she was messing with me.

Happy George Birthington’s Wash day to you and yours, and if you don’t like  it you can kiss my Cigar Butts!

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.