Mom swore that Uncle Larry put too much Prid Salve on his face and it sucked a tooth right out of his head, straight through his cheek. She said he had the scar to prove it.
This is only one of dozens of tall tales that C and I have heard over the years from both sides of our family. They are amazing in their breadth and scope. They also seem to fit a pattern.
For example, many of the characters in these stories have odd nick-names, like “Old Molie”, or “Two-Guns Maguire” – no one ever has a normal name. They also have a defining trademark, like a nervous tic or favorite clothing. “Bib overalls” is one of my father-in-law E’s favorites. If the words “bib overalls” ever come out of his mouth while speaking, be on guard.
E: “Old Molie was chopping wood on his farm in Ironton when he cut his leg open with an axe. Sliced straight through his bib overalls and cut himself from knee to ankle. (Molie always wore bib overalls, see? Even to church.) So, instead of going to the doctor, Old Molie sewed up his own leg with a needle and thread, then stuck it in a milk canister full of coal oil to cut down on the infection. He’d be sitting at the kitchen table with his leg in that bucket as the coal oil would bubble the corruption out of his cut, see?…”
My father had his share of stories as well. He told one about his pal Bennie, who worked at the meatpacking plant with him. Bennie’s job was to load sides of beef on a conveyor cable that pulled the beef sides up from the basement to the freezer on the shop floor above. He hung the meat on large hooks affixed to the cable and my father, on the floor above, took them off the hooks and shouldered them to the butchers. One day, Bennie slipped on some blood, fell backwards, and was speared in the back by a hook as it pulled him upstairs.
Pop: “So, I’m taking ‘sides’ off the cable when up through the floor comes Bennie, hanging there like a side of beef. I just grabbed him and lifted him off. After that, his right shoulder was always higher than his left, y’know,” as Pop hitched up his right shoulder to his ear to demonstrate.
We really don’t know if any of these stories are true or not. Some of them are outlandish, others plausible – we’ll never know, which is another aspect of these stories: they can never be verified.
- Like a distant cousin who smoked a pipe so much the stem wore a hole in his teeth. He didn’t need to open his mouth to put it between his teeth; he just stuck it through the hole.
- Or my uncle the bus driver, who had a pair of crooked forearms. He dangled his forearms through the steering wheel and when he accidently bumped into the curb with the bus, the steering wheel spun around and snapped his forearms.
- Or a cousin named “Two-Guns Maguire”, who robbed banks for a living, like Bonnie and Clyde. He always wore a suit, a fedora, and a pair of pistols in the waistband of his pants.
- Or when my mother went to get her winter coat out of the closet for the first time one fall day, and discovered that it had been eaten by ravenous moths. The only thing left on the hanger was a collar, a pair of shoulder pads, and a pile of buttons on the floor.
- Or “Jug-head” Giovanni, who always cleaned the wax out of his ears with his car keys. The wax buildup in his ignition lock got so bad that he had to melt the wax in the lock with a heat gun in order to start his car.
At some point, it no longer matters if these stories are true or not. They become family mythology, told over and over as entertainment and shared experience, which is their real value. And they are not “b.s.”, told by a “b.s.-er”. B.s.-ers are not nice people – they tell tales to manipulate people and feed their narcissism.
We hear a lot of b.s. today, in the form of propaganda and advertising, and I hope it doesn’t completely overwhelm the wonder and joy of tall tales. People have been telling tall tales for millennia, and it is part and parcel of who we are as human beings. If you have a family tall tale, for God’s sake, share it! And smile as you tell it, so we know you’re one of the good guys-&-gals, and we can bless you for your telling and sharing.