His explanation is logical. But it doesn't electrify like the myth of some scaly monster skulking under waves.
The creation of monsters like Tessie, Champy, Nessie, Besse or Ogopogo can easily be explained as a bridge between what we know and what we don't.
Few people have dived deep into Tahoe, whose water temperature remains at a constant 39 at depths of 600 feet to 700 feet. The uncharted lake is a canvas for the imagination, and modern-day fishers and divers already have the indigenous stories of Ong and the water babies to build upon.
Similar tales abound in other uncharted places. Ukrainian researchers claimed that Yeti holes up in their rugged mountains, and something called the Hairy Man tromps the Alaska backcountry. Australia boasts the Tasmanian tiger, something with a wolf's head and kangaroo pouch. And even well-documented hoaxes haven't buried Bigfoot, the most illustrious cryptid who embodies another trait that explains Tessie's longevity: He is shy.
"If he walked around at high noon every day and there were hundreds of him, he wouldn't be interesting," says Robert Baker, a University of Kentucky professor emeritus who researches paranormal psychology.
When a creature is only spotted occasionally, its legend grows. Campers on a weekend smell something funky outside their tents and assume it's Bigfoot (who supposedly has a pungent body odor). Experts also attribute sightings to more selfish reasons: Some people crave attention and want folks to flood their town in search of a mountain ape or a lake snake. Others have simply heard a legend before and want to be part of it.
Curley, the literature professor, and others also reason that cryptids are a way to cope with the uncertainty of the growling, slobbering natural world — a cosmos city folk don't inhabit and may find menacing. In fiction, the monsters that tried to lure Odysseus off course — the Sirens — represent the sea's fierceness.
Sometimes, however, mythologized monsters turn out not to be creatures of fiction. Giant squid were once imagined to be either merman or myth. The sea animal was proven real only after fishermen hooked a dead one, and a reverend stowed it in a bathtub and displayed it as a freak of nature.
For sale: Tessie
At Wholesale Resort Accessories, a warehouse at the airport in Tahoe, Tessie finally appears. She's just beyond the snow shovels hawked by the broad-shouldered and hairy Bigfoot.
This Tessie is about as menacing as Barney — and just as huggable. The green-stuffed beast costs $4.99 for a 3 1/2 -inch version or $9.99 for the 10-inch model. On a neighboring shelf, a postcard shows Tessie playing poker with beer-swilling wildlife. The back reads: "She has never eaten a tourist."
The same year Goldman introduced audiences to USOs, Tessie went commercial. It's no coincidence that sightings also flourished.
"It was like 'Jaws' where people didn't want to go in the water," says Bob McCormick, a real-estate investor, tourism brochure publisher and watsu massage therapist. "I didn't want kids afraid to swim in the lake." So he created the kid-friendly Tessie and trademarked "The Original Tahoe Lake Monster" before anyone else could.
In "The Story of Tahoe Tessie," his smiley creature is crafty, fashioning tires onto a log and floating it near unsuspecting fishermen, and outwitting a big-game hunter named Whiplash McMean. She has an agenda too.
"For years she had left the men alone, as they had cut down the trees, polluted her lake, and put up buildings on many of her favorite spots. Why couldn't they leave her alone in her own home?" McCormick writes. The lake snake, who's drawn as part kewpie doll, part "Creature From the Black Lagoon," rescues Tahoe from a broken dam.
Over the years, McCormick purchased four 8-foot-tall Tessie suits, one of which lost a tail. The Tahoe tenant was plucked to light the Christmas tree in a nearby town and appeared in a cameo on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
But McCormick has shuttered his Tessie museum and the phone number some callers used as a Tessie hotline.
Still, Tessie persists. "CBS This Morning" ran a short Tessie segment in 1990, claiming that at least 50 people had glimpsed her. The phone sometimes jangled at Sand Harbor, a swath of beach with 400,000 visitors a year, with panicked mothers asking if Tessie would gobble their small children.
The calls intensified in 1992, when local paper Tahoe Bonanza printed its annual April Fool's edition. Its lead story described how a 75-foot monster, which had eaten four people, 16 dogs and a horse, crashed an aluminum boat and swallowed the pit bull on board.
"Even if I tell [callers] the sturgeon story," says Sand Harbor supervisor Rick Keller, "they want to believe in the sea monster."
Last week, two beachgoers noticed a dark shape with three to five humps floating in placid water near Tahoe Park Beach. "I thought, 'Whoa, this sucker's real,' " a man from Rocklin, Calif., told the local Tahoe World newspaper.
Is Tessie real? Maybe only Mickey Daniels knows. The angler is so intertwined with Tahoe's waters that this year's April Fool's gag was to report that he caught the beast after an eight-hour struggle and was debating whether to sell her to a hamburger joint.
Today as the Big Mack II whirs, Daniels talks about the time he was driving to Tahoe City and a strong wind kicked up. He noticed something on the lake snaking south to north. A hump. A 15-foot-long hump.
He skidded his Jeep to the road's shoulder, hopped out and pressed binoculars to his face. He lowered them, raised them again — if it was Tessie, he had better see her — and saw only this: a row of ducklings bobbing on blue.
Times staff writer Ashley Powers can be reached at email@example.com.