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Tall Tales Blossom in Desert

Lies: An Old West prevaricator inspired an annual contest that brings storytellers from afar to fib their way to the top.

April 08, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. — When it comes to lies and liars, some are better than others.

By all accounts, one of the most accomplished prevaricators of the Old West was Thomas "Pegleg" Smith, Indian fighter (possibly), horse thief (probably), and world-class drunk (most assuredly).

A man whose made-up deeds have outlived many people's real exploits, Pegleg's legend for truth-stretching brought 250 people from around the country to this white desert hamlet this weekend. Weaving tales of burrowing rhinos with golden toenails and snowstorms on the hottest day of the year, contestants in the 27th annual Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest paid tribute to a man celebrated for the things he didn't do and the discoveries he never made.

"This brings all kinds of people together--desert rats, ecologists, geologists, historians," said Larry Scrivener, 72, a retired airline pilot who was working as a soundman for this weekend's competition, held around a campfire on a blustery Saturday night.

Asked what could keep a liars contest going for so long, Bill Jennings, 80, the master of ceremonies for the event, shrugged. "Everything is weird around here," he said.

Some contestants were from as far away as Virginia. Some came in costume, others with props, but all with mendacity in their hearts. The crowd sat on lawn chairs, bundled in blankets, cheering for their favorites and calling out "your five minutes are up" to those whose lies didn't measure up.

Adjacent to the campfire was a 6-foot-high mound of rocks. According to legend, anyone wishing to find Pegleg's gold must add a few stones to the pile.

Sponsored by a group called CACTI--Committee to Accumulate Curious Tales of Incredibility--the contest honors the best storyteller on the basis of content and delivery. Not that anyone loses. Everyone gets an award: a certificate and one of the dozens of used bowling and swimming trophies organizers scrounge up from thrift stores.

That doesn't mean contestants don't take the competition seriously. As the crowd gathered, several contestants cast semi-nervous glances at Phil Brigandi, a local historian who had won three times. He summed up his attitude toward the competition by quoting Mark Twain: "The problem with facts is they cramp a fellow's style."

One of his past winning tales concerned Pegleg's poor sense of direction. To keep from getting lost, so it was said, he started taking a penguin along on his desert travels. When he lost his bearings, he set the penguin loose, knowing it would head north. While the tale was ridiculous on almost every level, the punch line was that there are no penguins at the North Pole.

Like Brigandi, some of the tale-spinners tend to intellectual arcana and word tricks. Jeff Jones, an English teacher from Vista who had finished second to Brigandi more than once and was looking for a win, said he used to rehearse his narrative in front of his students.

Others, like Pinkie and the Yo Hos, a group of women in costume, planned to wing it.

Pegleg Smith was a real person, and he apparently had a real peg leg. How he got it is a matter of debate. Some say he was shot in the leg with an Indian's arrow and amputated the leg himself. It's pretty reliably believed that he stole horses.

"He was a horse thief and a fine one," Jennings said. "He used to steal horses from the Mormons in San Bernardino and take them up and sell them to the Mormons in Utah."

An account of the John C. Fremont expedition in 1854 contains this reference to Pegleg: "While encamped on this spot we met a party of gold explorers from Los Angeles....They were under the command of a man with one leg, known as Peg-leg Smith, a celebrated mountaineer. He is a weather-beaten old chap and tells some improbable tales."

Fremont didn't know the half of it. But the story that earned Pegleg many a shot in San Francisco bars over the years was about his discovery of gold in the Anza-Borrego Desert west of the Salton Sea. According to the story, he picked up some rocks coated black and took them to Los Angeles, thinking they were copper. They turned out to be gold, but he got drunk and couldn't find his way back to the strike. He launched at least two expeditions to find the gold, without success.

Jennings puts no stock in Pegleg's stories of gold. Pegleg's fortune was his tongue. "He spent his whole life getting grubstaked in bars."

Although the competition honors Pegleg and his wanderings, his fame is owed to a Hollywood set designer and desert newsman named Harry Oliver. It was Oliver who started the Pegleg club around 1930, and it was Oliver who helped build the Pegleg monument. Oliver called himself the "agent for Pegleg's ghost."

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