Sunday Classic / The Masters of Hyperbole

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Tell Us the Truth Joel Photo by Louis Cahill

“Are there just a bunch of liars among us?”

Hyperbole (hahy-pur-buh-lee) noun – An obvious or intentional exaggeration. An extravagant statement or figure of speech not meant to be taken literally, as in “to wait an eternity.”

Christmas or Thanksgiving, when I was a child, were about the only times I saw my Grandfathers together in the same room. Both events involving some turkey, green bean casserole and several desserts, after which there would be some considerable recuperation. The latter part of this recuperation period was something I always eagerly awaited. After a half hour or so of digestion the conversation would inevitably turn to hunting dogs. Why, you might ask, would a young boy be so excited about listening to two old men talk about hunting dogs? You see, this was no normal dog talk, and the dogs these two had in mind, no normal hounds. These dogs were worthy of Homer. These, my friends, were the dogs of legend.

This is how it would start.

“You know Abe, I had this dog once,” Pete, my paternal Grandfather, would lob a volley across the living room at my Mother’s Father.

“He was such a good dog that one time he was jumping a barbed wire fence and just as he crossed the top of that fence he smelled some birds.” To add an air of authenticity his voice would become excited as he continued, “damned if he didn’t stop, right there, perched on that strand of barbed wire in a perfect point!”

Abe, short for Adolphus who preferred to be called Bill, would field this with the nonchalant air of a major league ball player playing catch with a school boy.

“Yeah, that’s a pretty good dog, but I had a dog once, Mike was his name,” and the game was on.

“Mike found a covey of birds roosting in a pile of rocks. Well, he was so smart, he put his paw over the hole in the rocks and let those birds out one at a time so I could kill them all.”

There was no end to how long this could go on. The two of them would banter back and forth for hours, every story more fantastic than the last. The stories were full of vivid detail and emotion as if they had happened yesterday. They stitched a rich and beautiful quilt with detailed appliqué of dogs I’d never known and some that likely never existed at all. They were masters and it was beautiful to watch. To this day, I see a bird dog and I am filled with wonder. I think, that dog might be capable of anything.

Not long ago Rich Hohne and I went tarpon fishing with my buddy Joel Dickey. Rich grew up in Los Angeles and has spent much of his adult life in Montana. He and I became friends through fishing and he hasn’t spent a lot of time in the South. I sometimes forget what a strange and mysterious place the South can be for westerners. Rich found himself experiencing a little culture shock and Joel, who revels in his wildly eccentric southerness, wasn’t helping.

Joel, finally wrapping up one of his famous fishing stories, full of digressions, detours and pauses for reflection, punctuates the ending with a grand gesture and an expression that says, can you believe it?

“I never know how to take you southern guys,” Rich blurts out, looking back and forth between the two of us. “I never know if you’re fucking with me or if you’re serious… I mean, you guys are either the masters of hyperbole or some crazy shit goes on down here!”

“Well Rich,” I answered. “I suspect it’s a little of both.”

It got me thinking. Fisherman love to tell stories but there is something different about the storytelling in the south. Southerners have a tradition of storytelling that goes beyond the realm of conversation almost to the point of theatre. I don’t know if it stems from our exposure to the rich and wonderful culture of storytelling brought to the south from Africa, or if it evolved from historically low literacy rates in the rural south which made oral history a necessity, but it’s real. It’s more than real, it’s vital.

Storytelling is fundamentally human. It’s how we as a species have passed on our culture and our history from one generation to the next since time began. Perhaps more importantly it’s how we have passed on our beliefs and values. Stories have a moral. The greedy Midas loses his loved ones, the clever hare gets thrown into his briar patch, the lazy pigs lose their homes. So what do our fishing stories say about us? What are our beliefs and values?

Fishermen have the reputation of being unreliable where the truth is involved. Some of that reputation is deserved. I believe that if you made a scientific survey of trout based only on the accounts of fisherman you would find that something like eighty percent of trout are twenty inches. Sure plenty of fish get stretched after release and as far as I’m concerned that’s a fine reward for releasing a fish. Some guys don’t see it that way. I know a lot of guys who get really worked up about the exaggeration that goes on in accounts of fishing glory. Usually, they are the guys who are preoccupied with keeping score. The ones who need some tangible proof that they are better than the next guy. To them these fish stretchers are liars.

So is that the truth? Are there just a bunch of liars among us, or is there something else going on? There is no doubt that the facts often take a trouncing in the telling of fish stories. Personally, when I distort the facts, I try to make it obvious. True hyperbole, over the top. That way, you can decide what you choose to hear. But while the facts of a story may be suspect, the truth of that story is something entirely different. In any situation there is generally only one set of facts, but many truths and that’s what a good storyteller does, find the truth. The facts, for any fishing story, are these; there was a fish, I tied on a fly and I either caught it or I didn’t and it was this big. Joe Friday would be pleased but where’s the truth in that?

Is the truth in the story of Midas that everything he touched turned to gold? Or is there something more. If, like way too many people do, you read your bible for the facts rather than the truth what have you gained? So what about those fishermen? Are they liars, or have they found the the truth of a story can live in the way it is told? The truth, not necessarily about the fish, but about the fisherman.

Sitting in my living room as a boy, fat and happy from Christmas dinner, listening to my Grandfathers spin tall tails, I learned almost nothing about hunting dogs. I didn’t learn how to train them or how they work a field or how a dog learns to point. What I learned a great deal about were those two men and what they believed. I learned that a man takes his responsibility seriously and no matter what he may be preoccupied with in his life, when his family needs him, he stops like a dog on a fence. I learned that a man must be thoughtful and not squander the opportunities that life presents. That he should be smart and frugal and not waste a single bird. Perhaps, most importantly, I learned that a man puts aside his petty differences and makes peace for his family’s sake and sits and tells stories about hunting dogs at Christmas with a man he has secretly disliked for over a half a century. That’s quite a story.

So grab a beer and join the masters of hyperbole, because frankly, I don’t give a damn how big your fish was. Stretch him until his tail pops off!

Just tell me some truth.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / The Masters of Hyperbole

  1. Louis, this may be the best post I have ever read…… My favorite quote has always been Frank Lloyd Wrights’ , “The truth is always more important than the facts”. I now know why I love it. I also now understand why, at this stage of my life, I have embarked on this new journey into fly fishing. It reminds me of my childhood in Ohio, when all of the hyperbole was hunkered down in a duck blind with my Dad and Uncles….. Thank you

  2. Sweet post!
    I’ve got a favorite quote that fits the bill.
    “We ask a simple question
    And that is all we wish:
    Are fishermen all liars
    Or do only liars fish.”
    ~William Sherwood Fox

    Happy New Year

  3. Thanks for this post Louis. It brought back some VERY warm memories of both of my grandfathers, both of whom have passed, but who could both tell a tall tale like no others I’ve ever known. Edge of your seat stuff. Thanks for giving the gift of reviving some old family memories, while sharing some of your own.

  4. Hey Louis, Jeff from OR here:

    Thanks for stirring up some very fond memories for me of my childhood days. I have a host of uncles from both sides of the family who are all hunters, fishermen, and outdoorsmen. Any time there was a family gathering the uncles would, at some point, end up gathered on the porch or in the workshop and the fishing and hunting yarns would start.

    The first “liar” never had a chance. From the get-go the stories would get bigger and better with each tale. It took me quite a few youthful years to realize that none of them believed each others tales, that really it was just a big long yarn spinning contest. I can still remember listening to those stories as a wee lad knowing on one hand that it was largely a fabrication, but yet I was on the edge of my seat to learn how the tale ended !!

    We are a big Irish family on both sides so having the gift of Blarney adds to the family ability for telling stories. However, my uncles were master story tellers that were a true joy to watch and listen to. They had “the gift of gab” like only an Irishman can have. AND a drop or two of Bushmills during these tale telling sessions probably enhanced the stories a bit. 🙂

    Thanks again for causing me to remember those tales spinners !!

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